Mark Verbos: Playing live is a lot more interesting than DJing

Categories: Q&A

Provided by Mark Verbos
Mark Verbos

Mark Verbos has played plenty of DJ sets, but what he'll bring to Minneapolis this weekend is the kind of performance he most prefers: a live one. "I don't find it as interesting to see a performance of somebody on a laptop," he says. "I mean, it looks like they're checking their e-mail."

Verbos has been a staple of the underground techno scene since he began playing live analog sets at Midwestern raves in the early '90s. Gimme Noise had the opportunity to talk to Verbos about techno, the risk of live performance, and his newly released Verbos Electronics modular system before this Sunday's Intellephunk-sponsored party at 400 Soundbar.

Provided by Mark Verbos
A piece from the Verbos Electronics line

Gimme Noise: You started playing music at a really young age. How did you go from playing classical music with classical instruments, to discovering techno and electronic music and moving into that machine oriented creation?

Through elementary school I played the violin and the trumpet, and took piano lessons. I was interested in electronic things, like keyboards, and I would sneak off to the Casio keyboard section at Target and play with them. Around 13 years old, I got my first simple sequencer, drum machine and keyboard combination. I was recording music with a friend, making songs, and pretty quickly it became clear to me that I was more interested in making completed music than I was in learning to master playing an instrument, and more interested in writing and creating music from the ground up than I was in playing something that someone else had written. I guess that meant that I wanted to be on the technical side of making music, like engineering, producing, that kind of thing. So already as a teenager I was making techno, and started releasing techno records, performing at basement shows, then at raves around the Midwest.

What was it like to go from basement parties to huge raves?

I played a few of the smaller things they [Drop Bass Network] had, that I don't think even had names, in '93. Then in '94 they had an event called Descension that I played. They brought in Adam X, and Hyperactive and Woody McBride played. At the time, in my world, that was the place to be. The key thing for me about that as a turning point was the fact that the other people who were on that bill were like heroes to me, and I was just starting to know them as individuals. I was a kid, really, a 17-year-old kid, and they were more advanced and had been traveling to Europe and had been releasing records for a while, and so they were really supportive from the beginning, and they really kind of looked out for me. I was probably playing an opening slot at that party, but I remember Hyperactive standing by me and sort of cheering for me, and saying 'Hey, turn up the hi-hats!,' or something, really enthusiastically, kind of helping me out.

Verbos Electronics from Cora Foxx on Vimeo.

After living in Chicago and working as an engineer, you moved to Berlin. Describe your experience there.

What I saw happening while I was there was that it was starting to gentrify and commercialize; it was starting to catch on as the place that people from all around the world moved to, so in '03 it became the capital of Germany again. They moved all of the government to Berlin, and they had the biggest construction site in the world for 10 years ending in '03, opening up all the government buildings. It started to change. It got more fancy and more corporate, so it wasn't really for me anymore. The rise of the clean, minimal thing became definitively Berlin, like Minus Records and all of that. That was the ushering of the new guard there, so that was the end of Berlin for me.

There's an energy that comes with being in the thick of it, because in the U.S. we always have to fight for the existence of any kind of electronic music -- its always on the fringes, its always the bottom-feeder of the music industry, whereas in Europe, people make real careers out of it, and the media actually supports it. I think that's what Berlin offers to a lot of people -- a lot of Americans want to go there because when they get over there, for the first time they really feel like there's something happening, there's a real movement, whereas here they feel like they're in the shadows, trying to get away with it.

For a long time you have been playing live with analog hardware. Why is playing live important to you?

I have done plenty of DJing too, but to me, I think that playing live is actually a lot more interesting for me than DJing. The thing about my live act is that I'm creating a unique bit of music every time. That means that I'm actually able to evolve the direction of the music to suit the situation, and that every time, its a completely unique experience. That's just impossible playing preexisting recordings. As much as DJing actually affords you the possibility of playing more complicated or more developed, perfected music, it's not perfected for the situation it's in, it's perfected for what it is on it's own. That's important to me -- the culture of being in the moment, and unique...and the risk. There's an artistic choice that's being made -- to make something that could be good or it could be bad, at that moment.

Somebody told me once that the only reason to watch a performance is because of the danger. Like, the reason you watch somebody juggle fire is that they might hurt themselves. You hope they don't, but they might, or they might screw up... but if that performance is canned, or prerecorded, there isn't any risk, there isn't any chance that it's going to go bad. The more risk there is, the more interesting it is. It only works if the music is something that people can actually enjoy. It all has to work together. The reason that I have used analog equipment is because everything is on the front panel as controls, to evolve the programming of the sounds and the arrangement of everything, right there in the moment. Nothing has to be created ahead of time, it can all happen fluidly.

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