Hendrik Weber, better known as Pantha du Prince, is not simply an electronic artist, a term that has lately has become synonymous with pyrotechnics and fist pumping. Weber is a performance artist, a composer, a philosopher, an intellectual, and perhaps even a vampire (or so we’ve read on the internet). His music is intelligent and complex enough to appeal to the snobbiest of music buffs, yet approachable enough to make the most inebriated clubgoer dance until the wee hours of the morning. The latest Pantha du Prince album, Elements of Light, is the sort of album you can listen to alone in your bedroom, live in a concert hall, or after hours at a superclub in Berlin. At the album’s core is the carillon bell, a massive instrument Weber first heard on the streets of Oslo. I caught up with the eloquent German to chat about the album, his friendship with Animal Collective, and the state of electronic music in North America (apparently it’s not as bleak as we thought).
What are you up to in New York?
The last time I was here it was Sandy. I was playing the night before everything shut down. Now I’m seeing the friends I didn’t see and meeting with the people I didn’t meet, so that’s why I’m here. And also because I love this city. It’s just good to be here.
I’ve heard your sound described as “sonic house.” I Googled that and all I got was pictures of Sonic the Hedgehog. So please, tell me what sonic house means.
A friend of mine invented this sonic house thing. Basically it’s a sonic world that you enter, almost like a sonic sculpture that is also for… dancing. They put “sonic house” in the info for my album Black Noise. That’s how you can describe the Pantha du Prince concept; an experimental conceptual approach to a certain poetic construction. Then you have these layers of different musical developments. Like you have a more housy, beaty level, you have experimental sounds… It’s different layers of different genres that clash somehow.
Your music is pretty high concept. Tell me about the concept for the new album.
It’s not like the concept is something I think about before. I’d rather describe it as being a moment where “something happens” and everything leads back to that moment and I’m trying to find out what happened there. It’s not like I’m sitting at my house and thinking like a mad scientist about “the concept.” It’s a very intuitive thing where I know “something happened” and it is an adventurous game to find out what it was.
So the concept follows production?
It’s part of it. It’s a parallel development. Sometimes there are names for certain songs and I have no idea why I chose them. It’s just in that moment there’s one word and after a while it becomes what “happened” there and it all fits together. It’s nothing conscious or rational. The new album was named Elements of Light from the beginning and after a while it all came together like a puzzle. These bells, these carillon bells and the other bells are burned when they’re created so you need all the elements: water, fire, earth… this process of making the instrument is also contained in the sound of the bell. That’s one way to look at Elements of Light but there are many ways. The moment it “happened” I was in Oslo and I heard this super elaborate melody played on this carillon bell. Everyone in the city could hear it. It wasn’t just a bell playing, it was a real piece of music and it wasn’t coming from a church, it was coming from the city hall. And then you look up and you are blinded by the light and the bells are part of this. I think this is why it’s called Elements of Light. At that time I was also researching light sound modulators from the 20’s and the Bauhaus people who would try to invent new rooms with reflections of light. I was just questioning what makes us see, and it is light. Then I looked at how that sounds and how I can find a musical way of describing what light is.
I ironically listened to the album in the dark.
Sure. Well it’s not only about light; it’s about darkness as well. When there is light there is darkness.
Tell me about this carillon bell. What does it look like?
It’s four parts. Three different bell containers and the bench where the guy sits. They screw it up together and it looks like a sculpture. It’s an installation that you play. When you see people interacting with this playable sculpture, it’s a picture in itself and then you also have the music.
You’ve had some pretty memorable guests on your albums like Noah Lennox and Tyler Pope. How did these collaborations come about?
My first show ever in New York City was with Dave and Josh of Animal Collective. I got invited by a friend of Noah’s and then it became a steady contact over a long time. Noah and I were communicating through email about music and after a while I got a request to do a remix for Animal Collective. And then I went on tour with them for two weeks and then we were like, “we have to do something together, that’s obvious now.” I just saw them play here last night, so it’s a steady friendship.
You play different types of shows: club shows, festivals, concert venues. Which is your favorite?
What I like is the variety. If I would only play in clubs it would bore me, and if I only played in concert halls it would bore me. If I would only play festivals and big venues it would also bore me. It’s really about the chemistry of it, so when you go on tour you’re not working like a machine. You embrace the situation and the room and the possibilities you have. I can play Monday night in Germany at 9 o’clock and it’s more like a concert situation. I start with very ambient noise and then the beat comes in and people come along with me. Then there’s the situation where you’re in a big festival and there’s 7000 people and it’s very different than on a Monday night at 9 o’clock. People really come to listen to the music and not just to have a party, that’s really nice. Musically it’s different every time because I react with the room and the people. It’s like a dialogue. I started with club music and it transformed into more of a concert or performance. I’m not like a DJ who puts the music into the running system. There is a whole visual aspect now. There are so many levels that were not there when I started.
Speaking of the live aspect, what will the live show look like for this album?
It’s six people on stage. We have the carillon bell player, a great percussionist from the Oslo philharmonic, and we have a freak percussionist who is not classically trained but he’s an unbelievable experimental musician. Then we have another guy who’s the head of the percussion department at the Oslo music school There are several people involved. It’s just fucking insane musicians. We are on stage building this organism connected through digital devices. But then it’s also a very classical pure instrumental sound. It’s really alive and full of texture. It’s really intense live.
Awesome, I must see this.
It’s really different from a normal concert. It’s a listening experience, but people normally can’t stay in their seats. They get up and start moving their feet. When you play with six musicians it’s different because you can’t control everything. I still play solo concerts because it’s essential for me to experience this direct connection with the people and the sound. When you have so many instruments its really a big organism.
I’m a control freak.
I try not to control things. It was a really nice experience making this album. You give a musician one little piece of information and it just spreads throughout the ensemble. Rather than giving the musicians music notes, I’d just say something like “you walk up a mountain with a parachute on your back and you get to the top and you jump.” I’d give them images to follow. When I make music I don’t step into the detail. It’s more of getting into an atmosphere and then expressing that atmosphere. It’s sometimes easier to get to the point when you look at the bigger picture. Then it was just figuring out how to put it on stage.
Tell me in your eloquent way how you think the genre of electronic music is progressing, specifically in North America.
For me it’s very interesting to play here. The people are very receptive. It’s probably more open than in Europe because there you have these big traditions with all these subgenres and people who know about the subgenres and these “policemen of taste.” In Europe you have people who are very strict with what they do with techno and house music, and it’s very contained. In the US there’s the same knowledge, but there’s not this club system where in every city there are just two or three clubs with a musical history. Here there are clubs, but they’re always changing and the audiences are much more appreciative. In Europe, people see so many electronic acts but there you can get an intensity that you can’t get anywhere else. So you can’t really say that one is better or worse than the other, it’s just different. But I really enjoy playing here. There’s a lot of change happening. A few years ago electronic music felt like a police state.
I got that sense the first time I was in Berlin. Going to clubs is very organized.
It was like that when I was growing up. You would be part of a posse that would go to one club. I had several posses. It is very organized. You have dinner at 7 o’clock and then you dress up and you go to the club. It’s a system of entertainment and either you’re in the machine or you’re out.
Where do you find inspiration?
I read a lot, I see movies, I go to exhibitions. It’s the pleasure of culture and science. I go through phases. I’ll be looking for a certain theme so I’ll look in the art world and in movies and in film and literature and philosophy and then I try to put my knowledge together. This is what inspires me; to link things up and make connections. Sometimes it’s really immaterial and irrational. Like you are reading a very complex philosophy book and you see a blockbuster movie and there’s one scene in Batman that you can link up with the philosophy book. This is where a lot of my “going for it” comes from; this crossing over of visual and acoustic and this world you create. A piece of music is not only a piece of music. It’s a matrix that you use to say something. At some point I’ll probably just be making films or installations.
So if you weren’t making music is that what you would be doing?
I made some installations. I do site specific sound and visual installations.
In the TV tower in Berlin there was this room that friends of mine were curating. The room was pre-renovation so everything was taken out. There were three tubes across the ceiling with their shells removed, they were like skeletons in the roof. So I installed water dripping into car coil glass bowls. And I put six speakers in the room. It created it’s own architecture that was based on the architecture of the room. It’s kind of like what I’m doing with Pantha du Prince. You have this moment where you come in, you try to understand what’s going on and suddenly the whole story falls out, you just have to catch it. Each show has its own vibe, you just have to catch it.
Elements of Light will be released in North America by Rough Trade Records on January 15th.