Transcending language: a conversation with Pantha du Prince

'We're surrounded by a certain biology that feeds us. We have to stay in tune with it.'

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When I call Hendrik Weber to talk about The Triad, his first solo album as Pantha du Prince since 2010’s Black Noise, he’s walking from home from his Hamburg studio with his bandmate Bendik Kjeldsberg. Chirping birds and ambient street noise fill the gaps in our conversation, and when the connection drops out every so often, I try to imagine the scene around him: the sun starting to set, the wind rustling through the trees, trams gliding on rails and ringing their bells in the background. It sounds like a lovely scene, but the palpable sense of distance between us ended up reinforcing the message that underpins The Triad: sometimes it’s just better to be face-to-face.

Weber is still the chief creative force behind Pantha du Prince, but The Triad is warm and collaborative where his other full-lengths were icy and insular. Working with Kjeldsberg, Scott Mou, and a handful of other musicians, Weber worked on the album around the world — Los Angeles, Berlin, southwestern Germany — in groups of three. (He put up Kjeldsberg, Mou, and engineer Kassian von Troyer up in an LA apartment while completing a residency — a first for a musician — at Villa Aurora, a hub for German artists and writers.) He encouraged people to step outside of their comfort zones by working with strange instruments in serene, natural settings, and he did the same by pushing his own voice to the forefront of his music for the first time.

The band communicated without speaking

In the process, he cultivated an atmosphere in which he and his bandmates could communicate and create without speaking. Have you ever watched a band tuck into an extended jam on stage, one in which they communicate their musical intentions to each other with little more than glances or grins? That’s the kind of next-level experience Weber was trying to generate while making The Triad.

The product of all that tinkering is a beguiling collection of electronic music, one that pulls from classic German science fiction and the mythology of alternative communities in equal measure. Tracks like "You What? Euphoria!" and centerpiece "Chasing Vapour Trails" rattle to life like ancient machines, threatening to fall apart and combust at a moment’s notice. When Weber and his bandmates finally stumble into celestial grooves — and they manage to do so at least once a song — they feel like spaces you could live inside: rich, roomy, full of detail. If you believe Weber, they’re the product of a connection that’s just beyond our understanding.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jamieson Cox: It’s interesting that this record’s being described as the first solo Pantha record in six years — it seems like more of a collaborative experience.

Hendrik Weber: I always work with people, but not from a starting point. For this one, I just opened the doors up a little earlier. Take "Islands in the Sky": Bendik and I wrote it together, and Scott and I wrote the last track together. The other tracks are written by me and then played with the other guys. You can still say it’s a solo record, but there are different musicians appearing on the album. That didn’t happen on This Bliss, and it didn’t happen on Black Noise. It’s still a Pantha record, but the instruments are being interpreted by electronic musicians. Everyone’s input is much more personal, but the basic musical structures are still up to me. And I’m also editing afterwards, doing the arrangements and mixing — people chip in when they have time, but not everyone is part of the process.

While you were working in California, you explored a few "alternative communities." Where did you go? How did those places impact the album?

They were really interesting, but I don’t want to give people a pathway or map it out — it’s all personal experience. There was a big exhibition in Germany half a year before I went to Los Angeles called California and the Disappearance of the Outside. It compiled these ‘60s and ‘70s movements in California and their connections to counterculture: cybernetics, Black Mountain College, the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, all that stuff. So I went on a quest to get to the places that were shown in the exhibition. They still exist.

There’s a really interesting book about it that I ended up leaving in San Francisco, and I had to get it again for a massive amount of money because it was out of print. Someone in San Francisco has a really interesting art catalog in German, and now I have it in English.

I’m interested in what you said just now about "personal experience" — letting the listener make their own impressions. How important is ambiguity in the experience of listening to your music? If you could have everyone go into this album knowing nothing about it, would you?

I think both ways are right and correct. I do think it’s important to give a certain frame, one that’s transmitted verbally. It can help you feel more at home. And I think it’s nice to talk about the music — that’s why I’m giving interviews, so I can tell people something about the music. People can more easily understand concrete information that’s verbalized. At the same time, I think you have to accept that the music wants its own place. It guides you through something, and it’s not your own decision. The music decides. It says to me, "Don’t be too concrete with these spaces that we come from."

I think there should be external information about how the music has been made, what the references are. That’s something people listen to, and the information’s going to get blurry if you don’t talk about it. But I also think there’s a certain aura that should remain intact.

You’ve said you wanted to "cut through the digital dust that surrounds us" when making the album, and it came together in a very analog way — through these intimate, in-person experiences with your collaborators. Do you find yourself more skeptical of all of our digital interaction now?

I feel it myself: it can be really draining, spending too much time on these devices. You can get carried away by it. And then you realize that you’re not really connected to your own desires and wishes and goals, and you get lost in what they’re offering you — in the social interaction. Sometimes it’s entertaining, of course, but it’s important to keep up direct interaction with people. You need arguments, you need face-to-face communication. We’re biological beings, and it’s important to have a certain biological, physical exchange — a transfer of information. There’s information in physical actions, and in the body, that we can’t translate with digital media. That’s something that’s really, really important to me — to understand we’re surrounded by a certain biology that feeds us. We have to reconnect to it and stay in tune with it.

Music has also been affected by this "digital dust." We can hear almost everything ever recorded at the click of a button through digital stores and streaming services. Do you find yourself more aligned with the record store experience, or seeing live music?

It’s a deep part of myself: the records I bought that were tips from people in the know, records that weren’t suggested by a machine. I’m a fan of people who work in record stores, of record stores, of having a record at home with a picture and a story. You don’t need to have every record, but you should buy the ones you really connect to. And it’s an important part of the music "inhalation system," let’s say: the visual side, the interaction. Of course, there are digital communities, and I’m not too critical of them.

I’m just saying I come from another history. I’m probably the last generation that’s had both sides, you know? It’s a generation that can say, "Yeah, I had to go to a record store to find these rare records. There was no fucking internet, so I had to find all of these things that influenced, interested, and inspired me, things that gave me an identity. I had to know the people who knew stuff, and they’d recommend things to me." That’s just another way of passing information, you know? It’s a human interaction.

But in the end, if you find what you need on streaming, that’s also fine. It’s important, and it makes it easier to access music — it’s democratic, it’s not elitist. I think it’s interesting, but I think you should exchange experiences as much as possible.

Right — some people may not have those opportunities.

I think music should trigger that, too — verbalizing your experience. What it really is, where it takes you, what happens to you when you listen to it. Find a language, you know? Sometimes you don’t need to talk at all, and I realized we didn’t talk much while we were making the album. There’s an atmosphere that comes with the physical presence of another person — something happens. There’s a certain vibe, there are subtle interactions that make music — or music-making — so interesting. You can communicate in a higher-resolution language. That makes it so rewarding: you’re entering a place that’s holistic, full, rich, and not stripped down to pure speech. That interests me a lot: how can we get back to this force that drives us? Sometimes I think civilization is just asking a lot from us, and we don’t really know how to reconnect with this force. People are just following something, and they’re not aware of what it really is. Music can create this zone where you come back to yourself, and you get in touch with these forces at their full potential.

You use your voice more prominently on this album. How did you think about your voice as an instrument?

I wanted to experiment with the human embodiment, of course. It was a natural step for me — my family is full of singers, but I’d never really sang, and I never had any training. I just thought it was a very pleasurable thing. And you hear my voice on every Pantha record, but it’s usually in something like a layered choir — it’s not at the forefront. It worked its way into the atmosphere after using other instruments instead of telling you a story, Bob Dylan-style.

But it’s a nice way to interact with your creations, and it challenged me to convince all of my music nerd friends that using your voice is actually a good thing. The response wasn’t like, "Wow, you’re such a great singer" — it was, "You can do it." I didn’t want [the former] anyway. I just wanted to use it in an appropriate way in an electronic environment.

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