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Funkstörung's 'Cut-Up' Theory

German post-Autechre-esque abstract-electro duo Funkstörung became famous when, as an unknown underground act with nary a record to their name, they remixed Björk in 1998. As well as foreshadowing Björk's full-time move into abstract electronics, their radical "remix" of "All Is Full of Love" (which constructed a completely new tune bearing scant resemblance to the original) essentially introduced Funkstörung to the world. Soon after, the pair — Michael Fakesh and Chris de Luca — authored a "Reunited" remake for the Wu-Tang Clan, and, well, since then, let's just say they've hardly been out of work. Whilst this could've just been a handy introduction to their career, for Funkstörung these early remixes have had a great influence on them, one that continues to be felt on their new, second album, Disconnected.

"Doing those remixes is the thing we learnt the most from," explains Fakesh during a phone interview. "At the beginning, we never thought that vocals could sound that great on our music, but then we had the chance to do the Björk remix and her vocals sounded fantastic with our music. Then, when we got the chance to do the Wu-Tang remix, we found that raps can sound fantastic on our music. And that same process has just gone on and on, with each remix teaching us about how we can incorporate other sounds into our music."

The duo's growth has culminated in Disconnected, which finds vocals on almost every song. Softening the gymnastic snap/crunch breaks of earlier Funkstörung action, the disc refines their "programmation, mathematics style" into smooth pop-tunes, with a whole slew of new sounds — double-bass, acoustic guitars, analog keyboards — all an important part of the album's aesthetic. The finished record is the product of another 2,000 hours of editing time, a carefully composed labor-of-love assembled by two dudes who're confessedly studio dorks. It took such a long time — a year and a half of solid work — that they missed the original final deadline for finishing the album, December 2002, by a whole year. "At that time of the deadline, all we had were basic ideas on our computers, and they all sounded like our old stuff, and that was really a problem for us, because we didn't want to do the same Funkstörung thing again," Fakesh explains.

"We easily could have done another album like (our debut) Appetite for Disctruction, because that's a part we can play easily," he offers. "It's only about rhythm programming, and that's our genre, that's what we can do. It was much more challenging to write songs, to use acoustic instruments. We don't want to bore ourselves, it has to stay interesting for us."

He continues: "As a musician, you always want to do something new. We could have gone the other way, doing more programming, weirder electronic sounds, but that didn't feel right for us. It felt like so many others were going in that direction, so we wanted to do something completely different. We've always loved pop music as much as we've loved electronic music or hip-hop, so we felt it was time to get that influence in our music."

So, drawing inspiration from records like Radiohead's Kid A and Amnesiac, and Anti-Pop Consortium's The Tragic Epilogue and Arrhythmia, Funkstörung set about creating their own fusion between electronic and pop elements. Having "gotten bored with pure electronic sounds, and pure instrumental electronic music," the duo "wanted to go away from 'track-writing' and go more into 'songwriting'."

As Fakesh says: "We had that idea in our heads, and even if it wasn't that exact, it was a starting point, from which we could work and work and work." But, whilst the notion of approaching things with a songwriter's perspective may not sound too abstract, keep in mind that, prior to this, the two members of Funkstörung had no straight "musical" experience. Never playing in a band, never learning instruments, never studying musical theory. As Fakesh puts it: "Other musicians always started off by playing the guitar; we started off by playing the drum computer."

However, this lack of dictated "learning" ended up being nothing but a blessing. "We didn't know what we were 'supposed' to do with instruments," offers Fakesh, "so we just worked with them in ways that we thought might be right. Of course, it wasn't right, what we were doing, but it turned out to be good. That's the funny thing. If you have no musical schooling, you're not limited by rules, and restricted by structure. You just do what you want to do, and do anything as long as it sounds good."

For the proliferation of cut-up acoustic guitar on Disconnected, the process worked like this: Funkstörung brought in session guitarists, gave them a basic beat or some harmonies to play to, then recorded them playing for, literally, hours on end. These musicians, Fakesh reckons, were completely fine with having almost all of their improvisations disposed of. The only problem was finding these musicians. "Most session musicians are so afraid of us — 'Oh, Funkstörung, they're gonna chop us to pieces completely!' — so we had to search long and hard to find these really cool musicians, ones who said they like the way we work."

When you hear Fakesh start detailing how he and de Luca went about cutting up these sessions, you start to figure out how it took them so long to make this disc. It wasn't that they were being "too perfectionist," it's just that they were working in a totally time-intensive manner; each of the record's 14 songs runs through a process that takes a long time just to describe. To wit: "First of all we did a basic beat and harmonies, then we let the musicians play, then we cut out the best parts of it, then we did a real beat, then we did a rough arrangement of the song, then we sent this rough instrumental to a vocalist, then we let the vocalist try out some ideas, and then we cut that as well, then we let other musicians play some other stuff over this arrangement, then we started the whole production again at the end of this, where we did the real beat, then we did the real finished arrangement, then we let the vocalist re-record a final version, so it was a whole huge production, a real intense process, it was... hardcore." — Anthony Carew [Tuesday, March 30, 2004]

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