INTERVIEW WITH ROSY PARLANE and DION WORKMAN
1. I know you and Dion were in Thela together - so could you talk about Thela a little bit, and your role in that group (what either of you played live and on record / what you composed) and how the music of Thela fits in to the music you are making today?
ROSY: It’s quite strange even thinking about Thela now as it’s a good five years since it ended and it seems like a lot longer. I guess the most common line-up was Dion and Dean Roberts on guitars and myself on drums although there was always quite a bit of instrument switching. i.e. me or Dean playing piano, Dion playing bass, I occasionally played guitar etc.
We started out as a vaguely interesting rock band with strange structures and timings but that morphed over time as the improvised endings became longer and longer until the ‘songs’ disappeared. This coincided with Dean getting Dion to join him on a twin guitar project for a university intermedia course that consisted of them both bowing and scraping furiously at high volume. Recordings of this were then later released as the first Thela lathe-cut records and somewhere along the way the two projects became one thing, which is what the two CD recordings were.
From that point onwards the music was almost completely improvised (from memory the last track on the first cd was an older, more structured, track), although I’ve read interviews with Dean where he’s rewritten the past so that he was the ‘producer and composer’ of the band and our roles are reduced to those of session musicians contracted to help him realise his vision. He was certainly a lot better at networking and the business side of being in a band than we ever were but a lot of the unusual guitar techniques, and what I find to be the interesting sounds on the recordings were Dion's contributions whereas Dean, in general, played a much more traditional guitar style and was much more into picking notes and sustaining chords. There’s definitely a balance between the two that occasionally worked quite well and we often discussed beforehand what direction we wanted a live performance to go in, but as a group, everything was composed in a very spontaneous and democratic manner.
I think with the Luxsound CD, and other early Parmentier material, we were aware that we were travelling down a similar sound path to thela, with a lot of drone based material and an emphasis on the relationships between isolated frequencies and tones to create new harmonics and almost melodies. The arrangements were also very loose so there was a lot of potential for the tracks to sound different every time we played them. More recently I think we’re both much more into the precise placement of sounds so everything is quite considered and deliberate and, although there’s still some similar elements, I think the connections back to Thela are getting more and more tenuous.
DION: Thela was important for the three of us in a way that isn’t immediately obvious in the music. It was the first time any of us had been involved in a band or musical project that really excited us and although we are now making quite different music from each other all of us have continued to make music in the spirit of Thela which I would define as a preference for experimentation over a particular style and being more interested in the phenomenon of sound than in musicality.
2. What are the origins of the idea for the Sigma label - did you have plans for it while you were in Thela or was it the result of the end of Thela?
DION: The idea for the label came after Thela. Starting Parmentier was more of a result of the end of Thela and then the label stemmed from Parmentier. When Thela split up Rosy and I wanted to continue working together so we started Parmentier. Once we had been working together under the new name for about a year and had released an E.P. through Crawlspace in New Zealand we started thinking about doing a full-length release. As a result of our friendship with Lucas Abela and his very inexpensive CD manufacturing deals we naively thought it might be more fun and less hassle to release a CD ourselves. Then we decided that if we were going to do that we should also do a CD release of Rosy’s 7" series from 1997 and while we’re at it we should release something by Minit and then Torben from Minit introduced us to David Haines and suddenly we had a label with its first four releases planned.
3. The first five releases were housed in elegant and unusual card sleeves/boxes. Was your intent to present music as part of a series that followed a certain concept? And if there was a concept, was it just a packaging concept or a musical one as well? Also, The recent cds came in different sleeves - why the change?
DION: The original packaging was made by an old geezer we refer to as Stumpy (a few accidents with box cutting machinery have left him digitally impaired) in a tin shed out the back of his house in suburban Melbourne. When we first went to him I think he screwed up his estimate and ended up making the packages for the first five releases at a ridiculously low price. When we went back to do the next couple of releases he obviously didn't want to do them but rather than telling us that or putting up his price for nearly three months he kept telling us that they would be ready next week. When we finally got around to threatening to take our business elsewhere we learned that he hadn't even started the new packages and was quite happy for us to bugger off and leave him to his shoeboxes. Once we started shopping around for another manufacturer we realized there was no way we could afford to keep doing such elaborate packaging so we switched to something more simple. From the beginning we had discussed the possibility of making changes to our packaging design along the way so the problems with Stumpy just caused this to happen a little sooner and in a slightly different way than we intended. The only thing I really miss is Stumpy's beautifully poor quality printing.
The idea for the continuity in the packaging was not an attempt to highlight any continuity in approach between the various releases but rather an attempt to move away from representing the music through the visual aesthetic of its packaging. The rationale was that by standardizing the packaging it would come to seem increasingly meaningless in regards to what was actually on the disc. Although anti-design is a paradoxical term we did want to achieve something like that in the sense that we didn't want to use design in the traditional marketing way of creating a visual identity for a non-visual product. (Of course we were still creating a visual identity for the label as a whole but that didn’t bother us because we weren’t intending to create a label sound so, in theory, the package would immediately reveal that it was a sigma release but that wouldn’t be any indication of what it would sound like). Simply, we are dealing with music and that is all we really want to present but a CD or vinyl needs a package so we want that package to be as neutral as possible. We have failed in this though. With our first five releases we inadvertently did create something of a label sound and at about the same time we started the label other labels releasing relatively similar music started using relatively similar packaging so that our packaging style has now become synonymous with "minimal" electronic music. Although this very general category can be applied to everything we have released so far its certainly not one we would use to define the labels tendencies and it may take a while to shake off the assumption that everything we release will be of that style.
4. From what I understand, both you and Dion are from New Zealand - I've heard Sigma referred to as an 'Australian label', and a while back I noticed your address was in the Netherlands. Does the label have a physical presence - or does it depend of where you are? Where are either of you right now and could you explain the moves over the years?
ROSY: Basically we run the label from wherever we’re living at the time but with both of us being quite restless and nomadic creatures it’s a constant source of frustration and confusion for the distributors and other people we have to deal with. Yes we are both from NZ and Parmentier existed there for a while but we didn’t start sigma editions until 1998 when we were both living in Melbourne. This is where the "Australian label" tag comes from that we still get landed with although we haven’t actually been based there for two and a half years. Since then, we’ve both moved several times and for a year or so Dion was running the label by himself from Rotterdam until he went back to Australia for a while. I’ve been keeping things afloat from London but now that he’s in New York we’ve been working out ways of dividing the workload between the two places. We’ve also finally realised it’s pointless us including a postal address on any future releases.
5. You and Dion are co-owners of the label - Do your musical tastes complement each other well? Is it obvious to both of you what direction the label should head in or do each of you have separate visions of what sigma is? Do either of you have plans of creating your own single-owned labels?
ROSY: Obviously, as two people who’ve been creating music together for eight or nine years, we do have a lot of similarities in our tastes, but particularly when we’re living in different cities, or countries, we do tend to wander down different paths. I think because of his previous visual arts work, Dion has more of an interest in the ideas and concepts behind music whereas I operate on much more of a base level and go towards things I find musically challenging, inventive or interesting.
DION: I’m not sure how much difference there really is in our approach to music. It could just be that when we talk about music we tend to express our ideas slightly differently. It is true that the less ‘musical’ something is the more interested I tend to be but it is still an intuitive response to sound. The ideas behind a work are useful as a framework for the person constructing it but for the listener the only ideas of any interest are the ones the work inspires in them. If something sounds terrible knowing why it is the way it is won’t make it sound any better. Exponents of conceptual art would claim that the ideas conveyed by a work are of primary interest but music is such a poor conductor of ideas that it always comes back to how interesting it actually sounds. Any argument for a ‘conceptual’ music would imply elevating the intellectual over the physical, which would be to deny music of one of its most fascinating aspects: as a space where intuition is a type of intelligence precisely because the physical is not separated from the intellectual.
ROSY: I think I can probably speak for both of us in saying that, although we’ve released largely electronic music, I couldn’t give a fuck what kind of software people are running. I find the technology side of things very boring and hate it when people train spot about max/pd patches etc then dismiss a piece of music because it’s made with some program that’s been used before or isn’t new. It’s like slamming Coltrane because he didn’t build his own saxophone.
DION: I think this is a really unfortunate tendency in electronic music because it encourages an elitist virtuosity, which, with very few exceptions, is far more accessible to the privileged classes and particularly when technology is involved. The ego shrinks in the face of openness so the ego attaches itself to something concrete and quantitive, be it career success or historical knowledge or technical ability. The latter two may be useful tools but they are all banal as ends in themselves. Too often the very distinct terms of creativity and technical ability are used in an interchangeable way. In listening it is something like creativity and historical knowledge or even ownership that is confused. Listening is a creative act just like looking or reading because you have to make sense (or, it might be more appropriate to say you have to make non-sense) of what you are taking in. Obsessive cataloguing of music ultimately gets in the way of really understanding what you’ve got. We all know people with ridiculously large record collections that are only vaguely familiar with half of what they own and place the most value on their first editions and their rarest specimens. It is the same thing with people that are only interested in the novelty of the absolutely ‘new’ or ‘original’. Modernism and capitalism have elevated novelty to a position of unjustified importance.
ROSY: The only stipulation we tend to put on what we release is that both of us have to think it’s great. Unless it’s our own stuff of course, then we dither around, hate it for a while, and then put it out anyway. I think, particularly with the ‘k’ CD and the forthcoming Joyce Hinterding release, we’re moving away from what a lot of people would identify as being our ‘label sound’, which has caused a few surprises but then I’m sure that once we’re a few more releases down the line it’ll make a lot more overall sense as a label that’s growing and changing in line with our tastes.
DION: Although we do have idiosyncratic quirks in our listening there has always been some kind of shared essential factor as to why certain things interest us more than others and this has resulted in our being in complete agreement about what we should release. The only times that ideas have been rejected have been when the one suggesting the idea was really unsure about it in the first place and was looking to the other for affirmation that it wasn’t a very good idea.
As time goes by I think we’re becoming a bit bolder with some of our decisions. We have found ourselves in the paradoxical situation of wanting to release great music and challenging music but if we immediately think its great then it can’t be very challenging to us personally. It’s a tough problem to negotiate. One of the ways we have been dealing with it is to place less emphasis on individual releases by an artist and to be more considerate of what we perceive to be their broader artistic vision. We would prefer to have long working relationships with our artists so when we’re looking for people to work with there has to be a certain amount of confidence that over time their project is going to remain interesting to us. And hopefully they’ll assault our sensibilities along the way.
In answer to the last part of your question I think that a really important aspect of the label is that Rosy and I are close friends and we are good friends with everybody on the label. Leaving to do something else would most probably mean stopping working with these people we really like and whom we love hanging out with when we go touring. The only way for us to do business is to mix it with pleasure otherwise we’d never find the motivation to get anything done. Sigma is open ended enough for me not to feel any desire to start another label. There are plenty of labels about so I don’t see the need to go and start colonizing areas of music that we are not currently releasing. We’ve had plans for Sigma that we haven’t yet carried out so there is plenty to keep us occupied for the time being.
ROSY: As Dion said, something we were very much aware of when we started the label was establishing a continued relationship with the people whose music we release so as to create our own cottage industry in a way, where everyone involved has a role to play in different aspects of running the label. Ultimately this hasn’t worked as well as we originally hoped, mainly because of us all now living in different countries and the logistics involved so things have reverted largely back to the two of us although David does a lot of the internet side of things.
6. Have you been satisfied with what the label has accomplished since you began? Do you think the music you've released has been given the exposure you intended when you decided to start the label?
DION: In strict accordance with our New Zealand-ness we started the label with very low expectations and we have been pleasantly surprised by the way things have worked out so far. We began with rather humble runs of 500 and were quite concerned that we wouldn't be able to sell such amounts but we quickly had to double and in some cases triple the print runs. The numbers may still be relatively small but it is endlessly surprising to us that there is so much interest in what we're releasing and in so many diverse places. Of course we think that our artists should be international household names but we think this of lots of artists that we don't work with as well.
7. What is the status of the label right now? What are some planned releases for the future? Will there be any more vinyl releases I hope?
ROSY: at the time of writing we’ve just released sigma 010; which is my new cd ‘getxo’. We’re planning to follow this with two more releases over the next month or three. Sigma 011 is ‘the levitation grounds’ by joyce hinterding. She’s an Australian artist who works with dynamic systems in acoustic and electrical phenomena within the environment. ‘The levitation grounds’ is a sound piece that originally accompanied a visual exhibition that her and david haines created whilst living in the isolated cape bruny lighthouse station in Tasmania for three months in 1999. It mainly consists of antenna recordings of solar flares and satellites passing overhead which joyce has sculpted into a one hour sound piece. We thought it worked fantastically as a stand alone work without needing the visuals so we’re quite lucky she agreed to let us release it as it is. Sigma 012 is ‘nervure magnetique’ by French artist/composer Julien Ottavi. He’s done a lot of group improvisation work on percussion and/or computer (formanex, [N:Q], Ocephale etc.) and also works on his own compositions that tend to be more of a concrete nature. ‘nervure magnetique’ is a new studio based piece which he’s been working on over the past year or so. For the time being, we’re going to stick with cd’s only. Vinyl is a lot more expensive to produce and the returns from it are much less so being able to sustain a label as small as ours becomes very difficult, particularly as our releases tend to sell gradually over a period of time. It becomes very problematical to a) cover our costs, and b), generate enough income to produce subsequent releases. Personally, I’d love to release more vinyl but on a purely practical level, it’s not really financially possible for us at the moment.
8. In some of the promo material I received with the earliest Sigma releases, there was mention of the desire to branch out into other media beyond music - will you be doing that in the future? (or have you done that already?)
DION: Since starting the label we have been planning to publish texts as well. I guess in the beginning we were a little more confident about taking other things on but we’ve been kept so busy with releasing music and organising events that our publishing plans are always being postponed. There is also the problem of our unsettledness - because books, like vinyl, are a lot bigger and heavier than CD's they're a lot harder to cart around with us every time we move. Very tentatively we’ll say that our first publication should be out by late next year.
The initial idea came from the desire to use the label as a vehicle for our non-musical interests as well as our purely musical ones. And by non-musical I simply mean things that are literally not music like discussion/criticism of music. Ideally we would like to cover all of our interests in contemporary culture such as radical politics, philosophy, football (soccer, for the American readers), art etc., although at this point we will begin more practically by having the content ostensibly about music. It is pretty hard to write about music in an in-depth way without drawing on the fields above (admittedly weaving The Arsenal into the mix could pose some problems) so it will allow for a relatively broad scope of discussion. Our interest in doing this at all has a lot to do with seeing this broad scope not as a possibility but as a necessity: insularity leads to self-serving wayward thinking and inbreeding to intellectual retardation. Unfortunately there aren't many publications that deal with music on a critically interesting level and particularly when it comes to the kind of music that our peers and we are producing. It often seems that discussions of new non-academic electronic music are pervaded by a reactionary anti-intellectualism. While we're not interested in the essentialism of musical academicism we would like to see discussion go beyond the historicism-posing-as-criticism occurring in the larger publications that do deal with this kind of music.
9. Vlad Delay is the only non-Australia/non-NZ artist you've released (correct?) How did you come to release his music?
DION: In 1997 or 98 Torben Tilly stumbled across Vlad’s ‘The Kind of Blue E.P.’ (Huume, 1997) in a Sydney record store and was really into it so he called the phone number on the cover and chatted to Vlad. Then he played it to us and we liked it a lot too so we called Vlad and arranged to do a release by him. It seemed sort of appropriate to be releasing something from another out of the way place and at the opposite end of the earth. After spending some time in Finland it seemed even more appropriate as there were a lot of similarities between it and New Zealand (and not only the very high incidence of alcoholism and suicides).
10. What are you working on right now (as far as your own music)? Solo or in partnership (or in collaboration with others)?
ROSY: As Parmentier, we’ve had a lot of trouble working as we’re almost constantly living in different countries so it’s very hard to get together and work on new material. We do have half a CD worth of tracks from when we were both in Rotterdam, but that’s well over a year ago now so when we do get together to finish it we’ll probably give it a thorough overhaul, if not start from scratch. By myself, I’ve just finished the Getxo cd, and have also done a 20 minute sound piece for kunstradio in Austria which is constructed entirely from transistor radio recordings. I also have a CD called mendietan released soon on w.m.o/r which is a project I did with a Basque artist called Mattin. We took our computers into the mountains in the basque country and did a series of duo improvisations using only the natural environmental sounds as source material.
DION: I’m just in the process of finishing off material for a new CD. After that’s done I’ll be working on a project with Okkyung Lee, a cellist based in New York.