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European - Interview

  by John Clarkson

published: 27 / 8 / 2009

European - Interview


The European is the solo project of London-based musician and electronic artist, Simon Break. With his debut album out soon, John Clarkson talks to him about why he prefers to program his own computer software and design his own instrumentation rather than follow more traditional methods

The European is the solo project of London-based musician and electronic artist, Simon Break. Break was previously in Icebreaker, later Icebreaker International, which he formed in the late 1990s with American musician, Alexander Perls. Icebreaker/Icebreaker International recorded three albums on three different labels before disbanding in 2004, 'Distant Early Warning'(Aesthetics, 1999),'Trein Maersk' (iT Records,2000) and'Into Forever' (Sound of a Handshake, 2003). The latter was a joint offering with Danish producer and musician with Manual, while the first two albums Break has always claimed were commissioned by NATO. Since Icebreaker International folded, Break has fronted The European, which has both its debut single, 'The Settler' and its first album out shortly. The European will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands' Night at the Brixton Windmill in London on the 14th November. The European's music is at one level simplistic and melancholic, but at another Break's unusual use of instrumentation and software give it a lingering and mesmerising edge. In an interview with Pennyblackmusic, he talked about his DIY approach to music, and why he prefers to program his own computer materials and design his own instrumentation rather than follow more traditional or conventional paths for creating and making music. PB: You first came to public attention with Icebreaker and Icebreaker International. Your first album, 'Distant Early Warning', was about NATO’s now largely abandoned Distant Early Warning system in Alaska, and the second, 'Trein Marsk' was alleged to have been recorded on route between Japan and Canada on the container ship Trein Marsk. Both were apparently commissioned by NATO. Was this really true or was all a rather good publicity statement? SB: I can tell you that NATOARTS was absolutely a real organisation. More than that I am not at liberty to say; when the Bush administration took power the program was mothballed for "long term strategic reasons" and everybody involved had to sign a fairly draconian NDA. PB: The other main member of Icebreaker was the then New York-based musician Alexander Perls. How did you first get together and how easy was it for you make music together when you spent a lot of time living not just in different cities but different continents? SB: We met at a conference in Antwerp in 1998. As I recall it focused on artistic responses to then recent changes in EU economic policy. Our distaste for the (we felt) excessively ideological focus of the presentations we saw there brought us together, as we both agreed that this kind of work should focus on an unquestioning acceptance of market realities rather than any sort of utopian activism. Our view was that the modern world is a utopia and it was our job simply to draw people's attention to that reality. As to the practicalities of making our work, that was never an issue. Whatever we needed, we got. PB: Simon, you were already well into your 20s when you formed Icebreaker. Did you do anything musically before then? SB: I've always been interested in electronics and computers and really my interest in music grew out of that. I'm not a musician of any kind - most of my projects before Icebreaker International were more in the realm of sound art and software design. I was involved in some art performances and wrote the score for a contemporary dance piece too. PB: Your principal instrument in The European is apparently a Q Chord. It has been described as a digital songcard guitar. What is that? You also apparently have written your own musical software for The European. Why did you decide to do that rather than using existing ones? SB: Actually, I have deprecated the Q-Chord in favour of a general purpose input device with visual feedback that I'm constructing myself. Designing my own hybrid hardware and software system for live performance was really a necessity as I have no musical ability to speak of, but also no interest in presenting a karaoke-style performance with a backing track. Essentially the music is played by a computer under my direction with the addition of some chords played on a touch-sensitive strumplate. I couldn't find any software that did precisely what I wanted so I wrote it myself, something far more natural and pleasurable to me than the physical drudgery of learning an instrument. PB: The European’s music seems to take into account a whole range of influences from the Pet Shop Boys to Abba to Supertramp, and I can even detect an element of Simon and Garfunkel in the musical break on your foerthcoming single, ‘The Settler’. What do you see as your predominant influences? Enya is very heavily highlighted on your MySpace page. What is the appeal to you of her? SB: I like all the artists you mention plus a wide swathe of electronic, contemporary classical and dance music. I've never been someone who feels uncomfortable about people being able to discern my influences - I think electronic music can suffer from a really tedious and self-important focus on formal originality, as if the fact you made some farty noise that's slightly different from all the other farty noises ever made somehow implies intellectual and artistic rigour. The ideas are the important thing, or at least the way the ideas "feel". Enya interests me because of the unique position she occupies in the marketplace - her music is this queasy, reverb-drenched ambient pop with songs in invented languages and so on, yet it's become the daily soundtrack for millions of anxious baby boomers. It's genuinely weird, far weirder than most music that likes to think of itself as weird. PB: The bulk of The European’s songs seem to chronicle a quiet melancholy and desperation, whether of suffering problems recording music on ‘Calm Calm Calm’ or the suburban angst of ‘Wet Dream’. Would you agree? What is ‘The Settler’ about? SB: That's one way of looking at it, but to be honest it's not really about individuals and their suffering - The European doesn't have any kind of compassionate stance towards these characters. I'm more trying to examine cultural conditions and the way they manifest themselves "on the ground". I don't have a moral program and I don't impose hierarchies of significance. I'm really interested in everything, the texture of everything. As to 'The Settler', I'd really rather not go into specifics except to say that - like many of my songs - it takes multiple perspectives on a subject and tries to combine them into a sort of holographic view. PB: You’re currently in negotiations with a label. Are you working on an album? What will be on that? There is an album which was finished some time ago. It's called 'In A Very Real Sense Now'. The forthcomming single, 'The Settler, will be among the nine nine songs on it, most of which will be familiar to people who've been to The European's shows. It's the first part of a loosely-themed trilogy which is more or less completely written. As is the way in the music "industry" nowadays, supply is rather exceeding demand here. PB: You’re going to play the next Pennyblackmusic Bands Night. The European involves a lot of electronic equipment and software. How will you transpose this onto stage? What can we expect? SB: Not a lot of equipment at all! One laptop, one small custom controller - I think of myself as a sort of very high-tech busker. You should expect extremely simple pop music heavily compromised by an acute awareness of its own limitations. And whooshy noises. PB: Thank you. The European will be playing the Pennyblackmusic Bands Night at the Brixton Windmill on November 14th.

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In a Very Real Sense Now (2010)
Offbeat and extraordinary debut album from The European, the new electro project of former Piano Magic and Icebreaker International member, Simon Break

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