Ö, the artist previously known as Nömak, is examining what it means to be human in a growing technological world, through his warped electronic music meant to cause panic and unsettlement in a theoretical universe where we are stripped of the technology we now rely on. Having previously worked with artists such as Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens and A.G. Cook, Ö is rewriting hyperpop in his own utopian tone, and chats to us about his fears for the coming science-fiction future, alongside the untapped potential that technology brings, both culturally and in the world of music.
Your new single AFK (Away From Keyboard), focuses on the anxiety and isolation that technology could cause us once taken away, using its futuristic but nightmarish sound. Do you believe that technology creates advancements for our society while also harming us, and is that what you are trying to emphasise in this track?
Like so many artists of my generation, I grew up thinking that advancement in technology, science and knowledge would be linked to an elevation of human consciousness. I think that we were going to turn our back from all the toxic part of traditions and the archaic ideologies that ruled the last centuries, but needless to say, now that we’ve reached an impressive level of technological advancement – I was utterly wrong. In reality, most people fear progress because progress means that we constantly have to adapt on every level, even the strongest beliefs are now put in question.
Society gets a new face every passing year, and reality reveals itself as something far more complex than we ever imagined, so people often find shelter in simpler ideologies that were dominant in the past, even if they are mostly irrelevant now. I guess that’s what people call the ‘post-truth’ era. I can’t say if it’s just a trend or if society as we know it is on its way to become deeply divided, where a fraction of it is seeking for truth, always questioning, being open to debate, while the other side will be looking for certitudes and hold on to their positions in their echo chamber. When it comes to debate, virtuality is also one of the culprits, it’s so easy to insult somebody on Twitter, and block someone on Instagram. When face to face with someone, we’re forced to interact, to dialogue, that’s were things become interesting.
Given the eerie message to your new music, are you now actively trying to limit your personal use of technology, or have you accepted that it is fully integrated into human life?
I do try to mediate it, all the scientific literature is pointing at the same direction: sitting and staring at screens all day is a terrible idea. Well, I kind of do it anyway but I try to balance it out by moving around a lot and exercising. Technology is the medium we use to express ourselves in many ways, my laptop can be my work and my personal diary at the same time, but I don’t consider it to be a part of me, it’s a tool with no end goal. Even when working with AI, I feel like I have an opinion-less, very dumb collaborator.
People project all kind of positive or negative stuff on technology, but at the end of the day, these are just tools, just like fire is a tool, it can be used to make inedible food edible or shelter you from the cold. It can also kill you and others when it’s in the wrong hands or not handled carefully. So, yeah, use technology, it definitely has its place in our lives, then when you’re done, get a good stretch, go outside, and remember that we’re nothing more than pretentious apes.
Sticking with the idea of human integration, listening to your single AFK gave me the feeling that you were hinting that a very possible but also very cybercentric future lies ahead of us, where people would not be able to be separated from technology in a sort of hellish cyborg fantasy. Are you trying to convey a possible technological future through this single? Where do you, as a visionary, think we are going next with technology?
Those were just intuitions for me, I was very heavily influenced by Ray Kurzweil and Laurent Alexandre when I worked on the Posthuman EP in 2015. At the time, everything was a proof on concept, you know, singularity and all that. Those very abstract concepts started slowly taking form when we were making AFK, but in 2022 it’s very real. Just looking at Meta, the progress of AI, especially in the artistic domain, the anti-aging sciences or Elon Musk’s Neuralink... I’m not against transhumanism, on the contrary, even if it scares me a little, because there’s so much to explore, it’s fascinating.
After all, isn’t the very nature of humans to play with the laws of nature all the time? Culture is human’s nature, I’m attached to the idea that there’s no big plans, we’re just lucky to be here, so we must gain full control and be the designers of our own evolution. But what worries me is what we’ll end up doing after all this – make people healthier? Happier? Or are we going Gattacca/A Whole New World all the way, where human customisation becomes standard, mandatory even, and society is slowly but surely becoming even more productivity-driven than it is today? I would not want to see a world where your naughty thoughts are punished by your AI implant, where nutrients are transfused directly into your bloodstream so you don’t have to eat, and the company you work for requires that you bypass your sleeplessness to work full time until you get to 165 years old, now that would be a ‘hellish cyborg fantasy.’
Could you explain this a bit further?
I’m a big fan of the biomimetic, when tech behaves like nature does, it makes a lot of sense to me. People see the future made of pipes, steel and screens, probably it will be for a bit, but in the long run my guess is it will be more nature-like, transparent, organic and probably a lot weirder, to the point where you can’t really tell what’s natural and what’s artificial, and that’s something that really inspires me musically. I like that Good Things on the Way bells aren’t bells, but mouth noises used as an exciter source, passed through a modal filter that behaves just like a bell. I get that most people won’t really pay attention to it, but I do hear it, I like to think that our imagination is the last frontier, not tech.
With climate change around the corner, I like simple and pragmatic solutions like low techs too, I like that there’s a lot more mutualisation nowadays, some companies are going toward a more circular economy, I’m a fan of Gunter Pauli’s idea of a blue economy implemented on a large scale, we’re desperately in need of a new model, on a material, and philosophical scale, I feel like this one is really interesting.
Before your emergence as Ö, you were known as Nömak, and this is perhaps who you are best known as, having worked with artists such as Charli XCX and Christine and the Queens on well-known tracks such as Gone, Click, and Lucky. Did working with these artists inspire you, through either their music or their strong personal characters?
Absolutely. The reason why I did everything on all my previous EPs was because I felt really awkward about asking for help, I didn’t want to rely on anybody. I don’t know if that was out of fear, ego, perfectionism or a mix between all the above, but I was designing my own artworks, singing, writing, producing, mastering everything myself etc., I swear I would have pressed my own vinyls if I had the space for it.
I’m glad I went through the process of doing everything myself, because I’ve learned tons, but it’s daunting, soul sucking and it’s the most time consuming thing in the world, it caused me to have many nervous breakdowns, tons of sleepless nights, and be chronically burnt out for long periods of time.
Working with these amazing artists had a transformative experience on me, the amount of work, dedication, but also their methodology… They don’t directly do everything themselves, but they have a clear vision of what they want and find the best people to execute it.
Building a team of people you trust, people you can rely on when you’re losing your objectivity, is really crucial, it allows you to do a lot more, while still being in control. Taking a step back allows you to focus on being creative, instead of endlessly coming back to your work, tweaking it over and over.
I noticed that shortening your name from Nömak to Ö is very reminiscent of Christine (from Christine and the Queens) shortening her name to Chris for the release of her second album. I read an interview with her where she mentioned her name might eventually just drop to C, as the world is ever-changing and people are constantly evolving with it. After working with her, is this the idea you were also going for by changing your name to Ö, or is this just coincidence?
It’s pure coincidence, a Japanese artist’s name is Nomak, without the dots, so I wanted to go to the opposite direction, keeping the only differences between both of our stage names. I like it visually, it’s clean looking, minimal and it sticks to your mind.
Do you consider your music to be in the emerging sub-genre of hyperpop?
I don’t really know, I’ve always liked the experimental component in music, I like unpredictability instead of looking for that instant gratification, sticking to a specific genre tends to bore me rapidly, when I start to understand the codes, it makes me want to move on to something else.
I’ve started working with Alex 5 years ago, the word “Hyperpop” wasn’t around then, the music we were making at the time didn’t really have a name, we just had lots of fun experimenting on techniques, mixing traditional songwriting with concepts, for instance, on the song Jumper (on A. G Cook’s Apple), we’d decided to use autotune on guitar and amp distortion on voices. I remember these very awkward conversations, going back to France, with label’s A&R, with me trying to describe the type of music resulting from this…
“Well, try to picture Katy Perry, doing an Art performance at an IDM festival.”
I think I’ve got a lot of influences in common with Hyperpop artists. I listened to a bit of everything in my childhood, from western classical music to rock bands. I grew up in the Northern part of France, near Belgium, so I’ve listened to quite a lot of Gabber in my first decade, and got into IDM almost by accident, I feel like everything I grew up on is heading toward one direction, and that’s what people call Hyperpop. I didn’t picture myself as being part of a scene, I just made music that felt right to me.
You have worked with A.G. Cook previously on music for Charli XCX, but are you excited to now be working under his iconic label PC Music?
When PC music started, it was a very interesting experience ’cause before “independent” music was what’s between let’s say “garage noise” and “top 10 mainstream” in the 2000’s, indie music was right in between both worlds, a good compromise, warm, musical sounding and comfortable to listen to, with a taste for experimentation, but nothing too extreme.
Then PC came along and flipped the polarity, taking the intensity and exuberant catchy-ness of the mainstream, coupling it with the most avant-garde edgy sounds, and created something completely different than what indie music offered.
I remember when we worked on Jonsi’s Shivers Album in Berlin, I was playing my demos for Alex and he asked me if I could picture myself releasing them on PC: It really intrigued me, ’cause my music was a lot less pop than what was being released on the label at the time, it was computer based, quite experimental and DIY too, but much more intimate. “PC music can be that too” he said, and that’s how I got signed.
I have to ask about the cover artwork for your singles AFK and Good Things on the Way – is there any significance to the interconnectedness of the looping o’s in this design which relates to the message of your music being about the echo of technology around the world?
No, I wish I was that smart
What other artists, or even films or literature, would you say have inspired you the most during your production of this single?
I’m usually not consuming a lot of music when I get to work, what I’m usually looking for is concepts that can inspire musical forms. I was watching Hypernormalisation a BBC documentary by Adam Curtis during the production of the whole EP, I really clicked with the idea of a constructed reality, and that drove the whole process of making the music.
I love sci-fi and science YouTube channels as well, even though I often don’t understand everything, what grabs my intention is often immediately put to use, I think I got addicted to being mind-blown, I get jacked up and it makes me want to open Ableton.
You mention the forced isolation of the Covid crisis when elaborating on your new single. Do you consider this track to be a product of the pandemic, or just an examination of technology in general?
The singles were already there before the Covid era, I’ve just really spent a lot of time trying to figure out which visual support would be ideal for them. I’ve been working with people remotely for years, with people all over the world, it’s more and more so the case for a lot of people, we’ve built entire economies and industries around internet, to me AFK is much more in relation to that aspect of the tech, when we’re alone together.
We’re inter-connected, probably 70% of everything I know comes from the internet. It’s crazy now, you can have access to hours of conferences from the best in their fields, online MOOCs and podcasts from Harvard PhD tutorials… we have now the power inside our laptops, to create almost any sound that you could think of, you can now download VCV, Vital, Pure data today free of charge and make sounds unheard of, same with visuals, you can download Blender and have access to a technology 10x more advanced, than what they used on the set of Jurassic Park, this is nuts.
I get that some artists are really drawn to nostalgia and vintage tech… and I’m like “by the way, my whole studio fits in my backpack”.
I can only imagine how this track, and future releases by you, would translate live. Do you have a vision of playing these songs live in a super sci-fi or cyberpunk setting?
I’m definitely working on the subject but it’s tricky. Lives are always tricky for electronic artists, when you don’t play instruments much, and all of your sound sources are virtual, it’s not like a rock band, where each sound is coming from an instrument,and everybody’s playing their part, no question asked.
With electronic music it’s a lot more abstract, all of my elements recently are vocal based, sang live or reprocessed, resynthetized, mangled, and reshaped into drums, leads, pads and so on, so I’d like to find a setup where I can manipulate all these sounds live, and create something interesting and interactive. I’m looking for interactive and fun performances, not the ones that sound just like the studio version.
What are your plans for the future?
My manager and visual collaborator Jordan and I started building a work for and around Hypernormality, we’re already discussing on expanding it. I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do, and I’m really excited to see what we could possibly do in the future. I’m also looking forward to write new music and to collaborate more in the near future.
I’ve always been passionate about humanity’s future, and now that I’m 33, it’s time for me to walk my talk: I’ve decided to stop aging, or at least to slow down the process of senescence as much as I can, with the knowledge I got back when Posthuman EP got released. I was already very passionate about anti-aging science but it was in its infancy. There’s been so many amazing breakthroughs in recent years, it’s almost impossible to be up to date. We understand the roots of aging at a cellular level now, some scientists are claiming that we’ll soon be able to reverse it, the lab studies across the world are really promising. This isn’t sci-fi anymore, people like David A. Sinclair or Dr Guilhem Velvé Casquillas and many others are already pushing these concepts out in the mainstream, I’ve started changing my lifestyle a little, and am already noticing changes, curious to see how it will affect me in the future.
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