An Interview with Miasmah's Erik K Skodvin
Miasmah Records, operated out of Berlin by composer Erik K Skodvin, is one of the most engrossing and sonically complete labels out there. Skirting the borders of modern classical, dark ambient, electronic, and numerous other categories besides these, the music released through the label immediately feels right at home — a feat won rarely by even the most respected labels on the planet.
The label's earned respect comes partly as a result of careful sound curation, and partly to the synchronous and admirable art encompassing the wax itself. For fans of the darker realms in music, their output is a must; infinitely granular sounds plunge the listener into worlds rarely tapped into by electronic purists, a sharp edge placed against the throat of two-dimensional productions.
As avid fans, and keen suppliers of their material through our online store, we wanted to shed light on Erik K Skodvin's music and Miasmah's overall output to those who are unaware. Approaching Erik regarding an interview, we were elated to be able to garner some of his limited time for an unprecedented full-length dive into his own production methods, his relationship with key Miasmah artist Marcus Fjellström, who died in 2017, and the precarity of his shop alongside Sonic Pieces in southern Berlin.
Erik Skodvin at Musikbrauerei, 2018
Hi Erik - Firstly, thank you for speaking to us about Miasmah and your music. We'd like to start by asking how you stay focussed on creating?
Creating is for me both a necessity and a job. Also, since I work on so much different aspects of creativity, it’s a good thing for me to balance this, time-wise. I have the need to create something constantly, even if it’s just a drawing in the earth with a branch while on holiday, taking photos while walking or at home working on illustrations or music.
I need to take my time and do not like to force things.Taking walks, sitting on a street corner or watching shadows fall on a wall is important breathing room that makes me want to go back inside to work and create. Otherwise it can all be too overwhelming. This can be a luxury of course, and at times, pressure can help. But, mostly I need escape to be able to create.
Do you prefer to build a concept and sound in advance, then work on it until you have releasable material, or do you have some other method of working?
I would say almost all my work comes initially from improvisation and the possibility of failure. It also varies depending on if I make music for a commissioned piece, film music, a personal album or just for fun.I guess my way of working hasn’t really changed that much since I started out with tracker-software back in the mid 90's. Sample based, tweaking and doing whatever with a sound until it sounds good.
The only difference is that I now only sample myself using a myriad of instruments that I basically do not know how to play. Not knowing how to play any instrument “properly” has pretty much been the biggest part of how I work on music. This is also how I'd approach a live music setting. Just seeing what I can get out of an instrument and where it takes me. While working in the studio, I'll then go through lots of recordings and try find the best parts. These I'll then pitch shift, and copy/paste into hundreds of layers where I'll work at a very detailed level, using mostly only reverb and delay before I come to something I like. Once I have a good basis I might play something on top of this again.
Another key factor is also to not respect the instruments based on how they are “supposed” to sound. I don’t really care how an instrument is supposed to sound, as long as the end result sounds good and makes me want to re-visit it over and over. Technically I work as basic as possible and rarely use any plugins or hardware outside of reverb & delay, but I work very detailed and feel my way through. Sometimes I will get other musicians to record things that I'll use this same process on.
How do you balance the duties of producer and label-owner? Do releases tend to land in your hands, or do you take a more curative stance, when it comes to releasing music by others?
This can be difficult, as sometimes - like right now - I’m deep in a big musical project which takes up almost all my time. This makes it hard to put as much time into the label as I'd like, though this doesn’t happen that often. I actually mostly work on label work rather than music. Making artworks and prepping new releases is about 70% of my time I'd say. Usually it’s always 3-4 releases constantly in different stages of production, so I never really have nothing to do.
Somehow I manage though, and I’m lucky to be able to cut-off my brain even if I know I have too much work. As for the releases, it also varies a lot, though I tend to be quite involved with the curative stance and projects often take years. I'm always involved visually, sometimes very much musically and it also happens I get music that is basically finished, sent as a demo, though it’s always something to discuss and figure out. I also help out with Sonic Pieces artworks, and work on newsletters, photographing releases for our shop, and other stuff also. So it can be a bit overwhelming at times.
How much music do you record but not release? I’m interested in what your relationship is between hours practicing versus visible output.
You probably wouldn't believe it, but I actually don’t work on music that often, mostly just when I play live, as I'd improvise and create something there and then. As an example: the last year and a half I basically didn't touch any of my music gear, up until February this year as I got a big project to work on.
That’s often how it goes. I don't sit down and work on music on a daily basis, as I just don’t have time for it (see: label work). I either have a commissioned job which makes me work A LOT with music over a tense period, or, I have a studio session with the idea of getting a record out of it, which then I'll also use a lot of time to go through the material to work on something. Often it can take almost a year between the times I really sit down and work on music. For about 10 years now it has become more project based than me just making music for fun. I do play the piano at home often, mostly just to clear my mind.
I have a bunch of unreleased music that I think would be worthy of release, yes, but I also want to hold back and not release too much. I can't tell you exactly how much this is though. Some of it will probably come out sooner or later, while some maybe not. I only want to release what I can really stand behind. I don't like filler material, just to get something out there.
You use a lot of alternative names for your music. Why is this?
It's confusing I know. Especially Svarte Greiner vs Erik K Skodvin is getting more and more confusing, as they're both me, and often intertwining [musically]. Svarte Greiner started as my own solo project after Deaf Center ended up including Otto, back in the day. Then when I moved to Berlin and met Monique, she wanted me to make a record for her label (Sonic Pieces).
Since I was releasing music on Type records at the time as Svarte Greiner, I decided to do it under my own name and try experiment with different directions. Basically, Svarte Greiner is still a project which is deeply rooted in nature, darkness and surrealism, and I want to keep it close to that even if I explore other realms of this.
My own name will probably take over more and more as I've started making film music and other commissioned pieces, which I just thought it’s easier to use my own name instead of again confusing it up. This new film score I’m doing is pretty much 100% Svarte Greiner material, though it will be as EKS, since it’s a score. So yeah, more confusion. All other projects are collaborations which either have own names or just work as duo/trios etc. The problem with all this is that I probably have split up my listener base, even if they might enjoy all of it.
How do you assign music to your various project names? Do you set out intentionally to make music under that name, or build a project then classify it under a title?
Depends on the project, feel and intention. Like mentioned earlier, it’s confusing me a lot. I need to figure this out… Or possibly figure myself, out I guess.
What is your approach to composition? What are your favourite instruments, and how has your use of them changed as you’ve developed as an artist?
I already touched on how I approach composition further up, but in general it’s all a big try and fail process for me. I feel my way through sound and music to create a world I just want to be in. For example, if I record cello, I'll record a longer improvisation and pick out pieces I can work with. I often then use some of the same pieces, duplicated into tons of layers, where I'll pitch shift them into a composition.
This is because I don’t initially know exactly what I want, or at least don’t know how to directly play it. I couldn’t tell a real cellist what to do, except perhaps a feeling. So, I often just end up trying and failing, until I get to what I want. I built up my own way of finding this out through all the years.
My favourite instrument is probably the cello, as it’s a great instrument to get all your rage or emotions out on, even if you don’t play it traditionally. I love creating overtones and playing it in a reverberous space. My use of instruments in general has only developed in the way that I might be more comfortable with failure than I was earlier on. Otherwise the guitar run through my effects and Benjolin (Miasmachine) is probably the source I can get most varied sounds out of.
What instrument in your ensemble has stood with you the longest?
I guess my electric guitar, although it’s a new one, as my old favourite guitar got stolen on a train some years ago. The new one is bought from the same second hand shop here in Berlin, and both are/were great for people like me who just want sounds out of them instead of playing normally.
Otherwise I don’t really have many instruments outside of some really run-down ones. I just recently got a cello for the first time though, that I am now “borrowing” from Hildur, as I think it’s too broken for her. I'm not sure if she will need it back. I used to either borrow or get something second hand, that broke down again. I'm not too good at handling instruments with the respect they deserve, unfortunately, so I shouldn't own anything expensive. I would never call my collection an “ensemble”, but it sounds good!
We are a space primarily focussing on modular community - do you use these instruments much yourself, or do you approach your sound from a different aspect?
I don’t do the full Modular system thing, as I just feel it’s too endless. But! my favourite piece of equipment is this custom made Benjolin that Derek Holzer (Macumbista) made for me while he was living here in Berlin. He saw me play and approached me about building something that could work in my effect pedal setup.
It’s basically an adapted Benjolin with knobs, rather than plugs, that I can either run through my effect pedal setup or use as a standalone. This thing is a wonder, and has been the star on many of my records the last 6 years. I also constantly find out new ways to use it, and it's amazing for live performances.
I'm a hands-on, old-school kind of guy, and feel going fully modular is kind of scary, and prefer to keep it as analogue as much as I can, though who knows what the future brings. I'll never rule something completely out.
More info on the Miasmachine here: https://macumbista.net/?p=4282
What is it about “ambient” which draws you back? Do you even feel this is a term that represents your music?
Terms are rather meaningless to me, as I prefer to make music I feel like, not thinking about any boundaries. I think people find it hard to define my music so it often falls under “ambient” or “dark ambient”, which I personally do not feel. They're rather unexciting terms which limit things too much.
I hope my music isn’t boring, and I prefer to be free to explore all kinds of musical directions and mash them into something that falls inbetween every chair (story of my life). This is probably also a reason why I'll never become a famous artist within a genre; I'm too restless to stay put in one place, although I do love "ambient" when done right.
Can you talk about your relationship with Marcus Fjellström? We're deeply fond of the records you have put out by him through Miasmah, and were sad to learn of his untimely passing.
Marcus was pretty much the first person I met after moving to Berlin in 2009. We had emailed a bit back and forth because I was a fan of his Lampse releases, and he seemed to be a fan of Miasmah. It also happened to be that he was brewing a new record around then, which ended up being 2011's 'Schattenspieler'.
Marcus was just a purely good man who I have nothing negative to say about. An incredible composer - a term I don’t use often, as most artists I release are not “composers” but rather musicians. Marcus was a full blown composer, who made scores not only for music but for visuals also. The way he mixed in electronics, surrealism and humour with avant-garde classical music is second to none, and I think he has a truly singular sound. A complex sound which is not for everyone, but if you really put your time and attention too it... some of the most amazing music there is.
Erik Skodvin with Marcus Fjellström, 2011, by Monique Recknagel
I'm so glad to have been a part of this, and to have been able to release his music and work with him. He’d be so open minded and easy to work with when it came to the releases we did together. I remember when 'Schattenspieler' (the first LP edition) came back from press, the cover (by Anton Grandert) was barely visible and rather grey. I was so bummed and scared to show Marcus, that he would be mad and demand a re-press. Amazingly, he was so understanding to it and did not demand anything.
In retrospect I should have probably re-pressed it, but it would have made me broke at the time. Luckily, the record sounded top notch, and we never got any complaints about it. For the 2018 re-press of 'Schattenspieler' I made sure it’s fully visible and in the original quality, so hopefully that cancels out any bad omens.
For about 5 years, up until his death, he lived only 5 minutes walk from me, in the Prenzlauer Berg area in Berlin. We would meet occasionally, but not too often. He was a total workaholic who would also get up super early and work through the whole day and often night. In general he didn’t sleep too much. I used to do the Rrose Sélavy monthly evenings in a bar in between us, so I´d often see him there, and we’d sometimes meet to talk if there was something troubling him.
One thing about Marcus, though, there was a sadness to him which was almost impossible for him to shake, even when he smiled. A troubled person, much like many artists I know, though for Marcus it seemed to be too overwhelming, and perhaps his workload on The Terror (his last project) got too much for him. Who knows what incredible music and visual works he still had in him. We'll never know. I miss him.
What is it about his music which drew your attention so much? Are there any more posthumous recordings we can look forward to?
When I heard 'Excercises in Estrangement' for the first time I was completely blown away and kind of jealous that this was coming out on Lampse and not Miasmah. I was friends with John (Type) and Monica (Lampse) at the time, and Marcus had contacted John about a Type release initially, before John then gave it to Monica. I felt so connected to his works, and felt it had strong Miasmah feelings. Perhaps later on, when Lampse stopped, Marcus felt the same, which is why he approached me. I guess in general the darkness, humour and surrealism is something I look for in music. And a lot of Miasmah artists has exactly that. Marcus fit in like a glove.
As for posthumous work, this is a tricky one. I went through two rounds with the producers and creators of “The Terror” over the last years since Marcus's passing, and although the last round somehow came close and it seemed something could be done, it fell through and I never heard anything back. At this point I’ve kind of given up on doing something with this, although it could of course be great. I won’t close any chapters for good as you never know, but I don’t know if I have the strength to go through that again.
Otherwise, there’s nothing in production. I already went through a lot of work to issue vinyl editions of 'Exercises in Estrangement', 'Gebrauchsmusik' and new 'Schattenspieler' some years ago. Unfortunately they didn't do very well, and there was barely any notice of them. It’s kind of heartbreaking really, as those records are so good, but that’s the world these days. So for now there’re no new plans for new Fjellstrom releases. Perhaps sometime in the future. Marcus remains an obscure cult producer, although one that does deserve much more praise.
After just releasing our 50th release (since 2006) with the new James Welburn album 'Sleeper in the Void', there is a new Matt Christensen LP called 'Constant Green' coming mid-June. A vinyl re-issue of Deaf Center's 'Neon City' is also under production and will come out in late summer or early fall together with a small re-press of 'Pale Ravine'. Other than that, there’s a quite amazing record I’m very much looking forward to releasing later in the year, which is from a new artist for the label. More, I can’t say on that just yet.
I should also mention for the ones who don’t know: it’s kind of sad really, but together with Sonic Pieces we used almost a year of hard work to move our operations to a new space, building it up from scratch in order to open a small record shop / listening room / gallery in southern Berlin. Unfortunately, as we opened in August 2020, we all know the story that came out of that. Meanwhile it’s been mostly dusting down and we do not know the future of it. This was to be a big step for our labels to connect more on a personal level, to try to move ourselves more and more away from the digital realms. I still believe this was the right thing to do, only the world seems to think differently.
More info on that here : http://www.mi-so-store.com/
Can you list some music which you’ve found inspirational over the last few months?
The new Tomaga record 'Intimate Immensity' recently out on Hands in the Dark is a truly stunning and inspirational listen. Also the brilliant 'Fold Unfold' LP by Katrine Grarup Elbo on Sonic Pieces. Otherwise I haven’t really had the time to listen too much other new music the last months as I’ve been so busy with a film score. When I have free time I mostly listen to demos, masters, pre-masters, or go back to some classics. A newly re-issued record that I think is great is Muslimgauze´s album 'Narcotic' on Staalplaat.
The Mi-So store in Berlin, stocking Miasmah and Sonic Pieces Records, is now open on Fridays.
All photos provided and used by permission of Erik Skodvin.