Emperor X is the project name of American songwriter and noise pop saboteur, C. R. Matheny. In 2004, Matheny dropped his pursuit of a master’s degree in physics to self-release a string of critically-acclaimed lo-fi speed folk albums. His releases debuted twice in one year in the top ten on the CMJ New Music chart (6/2004, 3/2005) and grabbed the attention of NPR, Pitchfork, All Music Guide, Tiny Mix Tapes and many others.This Friday and Saturday he will be delivering his sets live at Donau and Keller respectively in Berlin. Therefore indieberlin decided to catch up with him beforehand and ask him a few questions.
indieberlin: What prompted your grandparents to buy you a casio SK-1?
When Casio started pushing it to retail outlets I would demand to be driven to K-Mart
Emperor X: I was obsessed with it. When Casio started pushing it to retail outlets I would demand to be driven to K-Mart, where the sales staff would cringe as I sampled my voice and played stupid 8-year-old melodies on it. They got tired of driving me there, I think.
indieberlin: What music were you listening to at the time?
Emperor X: Mainly Christian rock and science fiction movie themes, but also some early ambient stuff. Even though I grew up in the ’80s I lived in a family that looked down on so-called secular music — meaning anything with words that weren’t specifically about Jesus. So I listened to Petra, Bash ‘N’ The Code, etc., tried to find the best Christian contemporary music had to offer, and despite what you might think there are some gems in there.
But the real fun was instrumental music.Because there were no words to be about Jesus or not, I could listen to whatever I wanted, so I got into a public radio program called Music from the Hearts of Space and learned about Wendy Carlos, Brian Eno, Harold Budd, etc., from a very early age. I fell asleep listening to Karl Haas talk about Chopin nocturnes and woke up in the middle of the night hearing hour-long drone pieces. You could get away with a lot as a Christian kid on public radio in the ’80s.
indieberlin: What’s with all the burying of physical CDs?
I just wanted people to interact with the environment more and experience music
Emperor X: First and foremost, it’s a way to get people interested. I could talk for a few paragraphs about the diminishing relevance of physical media in the digital age, and I’d be saying true things, but more than anything with that project I just wanted people to interact with the environment more and experience music as a product of a particular place and time, not as something made in a factory or streamed from a void. I’ve received several semi-angry emails from people who tried and failed to locate some of my old, long-buried tape nodes, but I never feel too bad about it, because even if they fail to find the tape they wind up with a nice day outdoors, a mystery, and, in one case, someone even randomly found a $20 bill.
indieberlin: Did you ever apply Newton’s Law of Gravity to your music?
Music’s not that different from how humans experience gravity on the surface of a dense sphere
Emperor X: I have no idea how to answer this. Maybe I can make a joke about it…nah, no joke, but the funny thing is, music’s not that different from how humans experience gravity on the surface of a dense sphere insofar as “what goes up must come down” is a decent analogy for the movement from the tonic to the dominant and back again to the tonic that is a defining feature of most Western music, and maybe most music in general…the beginning at a tonal center, the movement away, the inevitable yearning attraction back to it…
indieberlin: What’s scientifically proven about your music you think?
Emperor X: Lots of things. I was reading today about computers that can compose, even one that, it is claimed by its programmers, invented its own style tabula rasa. We’ve had algorithmic composition for hundreds of years; this shouldn’t shock anyone, but I find myself reacting emotionally to this, jealously even. Anyway, to directly answer your questions, human responses to music are objective and quantifiable in many, many ways. But the larger arena of human activity we conjure when we use the word “music” is much too broad, flexible, and fruitful to apply ONLY an algorithmic, logical framework to it. There’s something else going on there, something related to uncountable (as opposed to infinite) complexity, and maybe infinite complexity too.
indieberlin: Apparently you hail from a lot of different cities according to sources online. Why choose to reside in Berlin? Is it the Currywurst?
Berlin is way, way behind the curve of gentrification
Emperor X: I’m a falafel guy, not a currywurst guy. But to answer the first part of your question, Berlin’s attraction the world over is because, for whatever reasons true or untrue, creative folks got the idea in our heads that it’s the last place where we can make a stand against the onslaught of conformity, or at least the best current place. People complain about the rising rents and the influx of ridiculous neo-yuppie aeshtete tastes, and they’re right to do so, but the fact remains that Berlin is way, way behind the curve of gentrification in comparison to New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, etc., and if there’s a city on Earth in which we stand a chance of forming a cohesive alternative to global capitalism the odds are good that it would emerge in a place like Berlin. In other words, if not here, then where? In other words, there are too many crazy people living here for it to not be fascinating! Berlin has a good shot at getting an early glimpse of the future, and I want to be here for it.
indieberlin: Is it intensive making music? Or more stress-release/yoga therapy for you?
Emperor X: I’m much more of the music-as-warfare mindset. It is decidedly not therapeutic. I think music probably harms me in some ways; I hyper-focus. All of my heroes did the same. This is not to say that music as therapy is not a valid approach, but it is not mine. Music is a substrate on which conscious life may begin to perceive itself and form precious meaning; composing, then, becomes a strategy against nihilism, in our specific age against the encroaching stagnant nihilism of late capitalism.
indieberlin: Which of the two – books or movies are a more/useful powerful tool for you?
A book demands focus. A film can assuage.
Emperor X: Books. I read a book, I write ten songs. I see a film, I write one or two and then go on to the next film. A book demands focus. A film can assuage. They are fundamentally different art forms in this way, and both indispensable weapons in the human arsenal against boredom and meaninglessness. Books inspire me to take action; films inspire me to consider it.
indieberlin: You’re a fan of physics, maths, science. So are you a fan of chess also?
Emperor X: I’m good enough to beat a bad player on a bad night. I play one or two games a month. I thoroughly enjoy losing.
indieberlin: What should people expect from your next gig? Talking much about Dostoyevsky during songs?
Emperor X: Nah, but I do have a new song called “Schopenhauer in Berlin” that I plan to play. Ummm, Friday night’s gig at Donau115 will be all acoustic and a bit of ambience, Saturday’s at Keller will be much more aggressive and bombastic in style. You never know what you’re going to get at one of my shows, and if I’m being honest I have to admit that neither do I. But one thing is certain: there will be printed handouts.
Thanks Emporer X and good luck with the shows!
Interview by Shawn James