In Conversation with…Psycho & Plastic
Psycho & Plastic are a Berlin based duo with a passion for nonconformist electronic music. They’re on a mission to reintroduce a sense of wonder and adventure to both the dance floor and the home listening experience and their fiercely independent spirit is not only embodied in their music, but also in their decision to operate their own label GiveUsYourGOLD.
Hot on the heels of their Planet Seductron single comes Psycho & Plastic’s first full length album, Kosmopop. Deliciously avant-garde and tunefully funky in equal measures, it embodies a lifetime’s musical influence all condensed into a 3-week studio session in seclusion in the East German town of Chemnitz.
Covering everything from 1960s psychedelia, science fiction writing and 1990s rave culture, the album is a wonderful sonic journey into the minds of two underrated live performers and serves as a solid marker post pointing towards their obvious talent. Born and raised in Germany and both trained musicians working freelance, Thomas Tichai & Alexandre Decoupigny took up the reigns of their successful double act in 2011. Performing live and touring Europe, they bring a unique energy to every gig skilfully combining Disco, Techno and Psychedelic Rock influences into a genre-hopping smorgasbord of funky beats and insanely catchy hooks. We sat down recently with the musical twosome to find out a little more about them, suffice as to say, the conversation took a few interesting diversions…
Hi guys, how are you both? What’s been going on for you this week?
Thomas: It’s somehow the calm before the storm right now. We’re planning and strategizing, there’s some promo activity and we’re starting to integrate bits from the album into the live set for the upcoming shows.
Alexandre: I went through a lot of video footage we recorded while making Kosmopop. I edited it into small episodes, which we release on our YouTube channel and on Facebook. We also started working on our new live set.
So we’re here to talk about the album, Kosmopop – catchy name by the way. Can we start with the choice of music? It’s what we, journalists, would consider Nu Disco.
A: You name it. We did not intend to make a Nu Disco record at all.
T: We just see it as the amalgamation of the various things that informed our creative process – musically and otherwise. If the outcome turns out to be Nu-Disco, so be it. But that particular genre was neither something we consciously worked off of nor something we aspired towards.
We love the idea of nonconformist music. Could you explain what you mean by this and maybe talk about a time where you were particularly nonconformist and how it was received?
T: It comes from several different places, really. On the one hand I am usually most fascinated by artists that somehow differ from everyone around them, whose music shows characteristics that makes it stand out or clash, even. Those could be artistic features, biographical ones, etc.
At the same time both our music making seems to have been driven by a search for unique expression and an interest in stylistic intersections and crossovers. We’d find a scene or genre we love but our natural instincts would be to approach that subject differently, instead of following all the unwritten rules that every genre and subculture has. So that plays a major role in it.
In terms of electronic music, we realized at one point that we not only seem to have a different approach to producing that music, but also a different socialization with it. We’ve never been part of a scene that slowly grew, or exploded, and drove everyone who was somehow involved to take up producing, DJing or some other activity. We always follow our whims, our instincts and our changing interests through various scenes. So we usually find ourselves at the fringes of something.
© Christoph Neumann
After a while, we started to realize that we knew other artists who somehow shared similar back stories, or also ended up in somewhat of an outsider position because they didn’t conform to all the standards of their genre. So we decided to open up our label GiveUsYourGOLD to them and make a home for the otherwise musically homeless, so to speak. Nonconformist music became the umbrella term we used to describe that. From there on, we also started attaching our own music to it, because it’s a fitting description of the creative spirit that drives us without limiting where that spirit might take us.
A: A time where we were particularly nonconformist and how it was received? Hm… We are not too proud of it and it was on our first or second tour. One of us was a little underwhelmed with the energy coming from the audience and concluded that they seemed too uptight. So he then decided that it was time to show them how to let loose, which basically resulted in that person stripping naked on stage and throwing his shoes and clothes into the small crowd. It did cause a bit of a stir and one shoe hit a person in the head but at least after that the party was on and lasted for a good while.
We understand that the whole album was written in a 3-week period in an isolated town in East Germany. Was the hustle and bustle of Berlin too much of a distraction?
A: Berlin is still a very relaxed city even though it’s filling up quite a bit. And if you need to be distracted, Berlin will happily and readily do that for you. However, it was not so much the hustle and bustle of Berlin. It was much more about getting away and opening up a space that otherwise did not exist and is limited to a certain span of time.
T: We really love to go somewhere else whenever we want to concentrate on our creativity for prolonged periods of time. We obviously took a lot of inspiration from Berlin with us, but to a place where we didn’t have any routines, distractions or private obligations to keep us from being productive.
As live performers who find enjoyment in the spontaneous experience, how did you find the reality of making an album? Were you a little shackled by having to repeat sections or whole songs time after time?
A: No, not really. We are also very playful in the studio. Consequently, our work in there also involves a lot of live performing and is actually quite spontaneous. We didn’t do many takes. If the vibe was right we recorded it. If it wasn’t we just didn’t.
Of course, there were moments during which we were extremely clueless. This was mostly Wednesdays.
T: The first thing we did after setting up our studio in Chemnitz was to scrap all the ideas and musical sketches we had brought along in favour of starting fresh and following whatever path presented itself to us. So most tracks did actually start out as live performances and prolonged sessions in which we experimented. Once we had a basic idea that we liked, we did some more passes and improvisations, adding different instruments and such.
I personally love playing live and being spontaneous on stage. But being in a creative flow in the studio, fully immersed in that process that is equal parts composition and production is at least as magical and fulfilling to me. Especially over several weeks. I was in my happy place there.
How much of that fevered 3-week session made it onto the album? Were there days when it just didn’t happen? What did you do instead?
T: Most of the basic tracks, all the hooks and melodies, vocals and guitars came from that session. Back in Berlin we refined the programming, tweaked the arrangements, added some overdubs and some recordings for spatialization. But we carried the main skeleton of the whole album through from Chemnitz. Or even a bit more than that. And then we spent a lot of time on post-production, mixing and all these things afterwards.
Of course, there were moments when we didn’t manage to translate an idea into music the way we had imagined. Or when we had to realize that a particular idea might not have been such a great one, to begin with. It’s part of the process. And it usually happened on Wednesdays.
Once we had reached that level of understanding, or rather frustration, once we’d ended up in some sort of dead end, we’d go for a massive and delicious Syrian meal around the corner. And then we either worked on something else afterwards or looked for new inputs by watching a movie or reading one of the books we had brought along.
A: We are mindful people so we actually don’t produce any waste. That is not true. One piece, Zvezdolet Lokomov, fell off the Kosmopop wagon though, so we just decided to already release it last year as the B-Side of our Spacebus single.
© Christoph Neumann
Of course, Berlin is synonymous with clubbing and I believe you have a great story about going to Berghain…
T: That all goes back to a question our friend Paul Hanford, a DJ and radio presenter from London, had asked us. He wanted to know if techno had become for Berlin what weed is for Amsterdam. So we went to Berghain, which for many people is synonymous with Berlin techno, to check it out on a Friday night. The queue itself was more like a little festival, several hundred meters of people waiting in line in front of the club. There were sound systems, vendors selling burgers and other stuff. Even a live radio broadcast I think… So we had a big laugh, filmed the queue and went on to have a lovely time at Kater Blau instead, where a friend of ours was playing a live set.
Oh, and we concluded that techno is for Berlin what weed and the red light district combined are for Amsterdam.
A: Yeah! We need something more nonconformist. Consequently, our clubbing experiences in Berlin happen somewhere else and we will not share all of this information with you for obvious reasons. Obviously there are a lot more places in Berlin than Berghain and Kater Blau.
Do you feel the experience of clubbing has changed over time for you personally? What I mean is do you go clubbing now for the same reasons you did as a teenager?
A: Yes and no. Mostly no. I still love to dance just as much though.
T: I must admit that I didn’t go clubbing as a teenager. So my experience now is a completely different one. I grew up in the Bavarian Forest, the most rural hinterland you can imagine. I had some early teenage exposure to rave à la The KLF or The Prodigy via the radio and MTV, but nothing more. My later teenage years were spent playing the guitar in my room or with bands and going to gigs… I only knew of the glory days of clubbing second or third hand. And it didn’t become any part of my life until I was in my twenties. Even then I didn’t usually find the joy and the community there that I had hoped for from what I had heard earlier… Moving to Berlin later allowed me to experience that and to discover that it’s all still there if you know where to look for it. I think Berlin is particularly great in allowing you to go clubbing like a teenager, no matter how old you are.
Science-fiction and counter-culture play a very important role in the album. Were there conscious decisions made in the writing process or was their involvement completely organic?
T: Those strong interests have been with us for many years, also individually from long before we even knew each other. But whenever that went into our music, we made efforts to cleverly obscure the references. We were so good at it that nobody could spot them afterwards. Not that great of a strategy when you think of contextualizing your music.
So this time we made a very conscious decision to really focus on these topics and to let people know about it as well. We’ve had some really great conversations with a friend about counter-culture, subcultures in general and about following the thread of a certain continuum that unites people across decades and styles.
With that in mind, we packed a small reference library to take along to Chemnitz and made sure to use it. For example, we treated the whole journey from Berlin and back as a psychedelic experience and read Timothy Leary’s “Psychedelic Prayers” along the way. Actually several times a day to get in the mood or to use them as some sort of creative strategy. And we magically ended up reading the last ones about re-entering everyday life when we traveled back to Berlin after three intense weeks of recording.
In spirit, Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters seemed much closer to us with their day-glow shenanigans and general sense of adventure. Or at least that’s what we got from reading random bits of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and watching the “Magic Trip” documentary about them.
A: Yes. All of that. Just like that.
We talked before about pushing boundaries and you mentioned a 36-hour live performance you did. I was intrigued by your comment “…when you’re insanely tired, 105 bpm can sound super fast and dancey!”. Do you find today’s music is too regimented by bpm? Was that one of the considerations when writing the album?
T: I believe that music per se is absolutely limitless because it feeds off of human imagination and ingenuity. But more often than not, the people who make music and work with music seem to limit themselves. Like almost without exception, people seem to accept these days that you need to view music as a business and be an entrepreneur in the first place. And that can be quite limiting, as it leads many folks to follow tried and trusted methods rather than take creative risks. That’s linked to many aspects, from bpm, selection and production choices to A&R work, label policy, booking and so on.
I have a politically charged background in DIY culture, where at a certain time the whole art vs commerce discussion was very present, along with a strong belief in the value of art and music as an art form. Which also means that artistic choices can both be highly valuable but also highly unpopular… To my liking, that subject doesn’t come up enough anymore. But I believe that the tides will eventually turn again.
A: It is for a good reason that GiveUsYourGOLD is a home for nonconformist electronic music.
© Christoph Neumann
Let’s touch on a few topics away from the album. I wanted to find out more about the label itself. What was the vision for GiveUsYourGOLD and where did you get the name from?
A: When I lived in Liverpool the city sure lived up to its own clichés and these 12-13 year old kids tried to mug me in broad daylight. They were sort of launching at me uttering the words “Give us your gold, mate!” with their broad Liverpudlian accents. Years later this sentence just became something Thomas and I used to say a lot while on tour. We get quite silly, you know. So when we decided to start a label, Thomas remembered it and it felt instantly right. There was not a shadow of a doubt about it being the right name. We love the city and Liverpool is a defining moment for both Thomas’ and my life.
T: Come on you Reds!
The modern music world has changed so much, even in the last 5 years. However, business models haven’t kept up quite so well. I recently read about a Techno producer who is streaming his new label’s releases instead of releasing downloads or opting for physical copies. He cited changing ideas of ownership as his reasons for doing it. With everyone and their nan starting a label these days, is there some merit in this guy’s approach?
A: It does not make sense to me and I don’t understand why someone would write about that. I mean good on this person for getting the attention for it but everyone and their nan are putting up their releases for streaming. The Big Deal is rather – is this person streaming exclusively? How does that change the idea of ownership? I’m sure there is a very sound reason or motivation behind what that person is doing but honestly, I just don’t get it. Isn’t streaming still just exchanging rights of usage based on a paid license to do so rightfully? I don’t know for sure but I would guess that sooner or later, this label will put out physical products, even if it’s just T-Shirts.
T: The only fact I feel comfortable stating about this ever-changing business is that there isn’t one working model for everyone anymore. If you want to get involved, you have to find a way that works for you. So that guy you mentioned is hopefully doing the right thing in his situation… When we started the label, it was already clear that getting into that business end of music was quite a risky enterprise, economically speaking. And we met so many label heads, even from small indies and underground labels, who were pining for the good old days or complaining about streaming, etc. We always wanted to look forward into the future and see what we could do. For now, this means that we work closely with our artists to see what’s feasible. Based on that, we sometimes release physical products, sometimes only digital versions. And we don’t see the label as a means to an end or to make a living. It’s more of an additional activity that integrates with everything else, like the live performances, productions and stuff.
© Christoph Neumann
The older dance fans have many happy memories of searching record stores on the hunt for new vinyls. As musicians, was this something you’ve experienced and if so, is it fair to say the curation experience for millennials now lacks a certain passion and reverence?
A: Sure. I was searching record stores on the hunt for new vinyls but I don’t think that the curation experience for millennials now lacks a certain passion and reverence. I think that’s being nostalgic and that is ok only once a month, though. Otherwise, you will get sick!
T: It’s a different experience. Comparing and ranking passion or other emotions is a tricky and possibly unfair business. I wouldn’t want to be on either end of that. My theory is that in general, the cultural significance of music for young people and especially of music on physical format has changed dramatically. Compared to the long queue and buzz you witness when certain new computer games or mobile phones are released, any sort of excitement about new record releases seems to be a real niche affair.
Giving back is also a theme seasoned artists do in different ways and we understand you’ve spent some time as music teachers putting on workshops around Berlin. Valuable investment in time, no doubt; but should this be something that formal education introduces? Schools seem to view all forms of art and music as niche and yet, the entertainment industries are multi-billion Euro businesses…
T: I think you’re touching on related but also somehow separate subjects there. The work we do in cultural education and at schools is definitely aimed at introducing children and young people to music, the arts, creative thinking and maybe even the possibility of a life outside the trajectory in which school inevitably leads to: a traditional job and career. And in some cases it’s also about offering them guidance and assistance along a path they might have already chosen.
I wholeheartedly agree that formal education doesn’t do enough to support that view and the fact that arts and music should be as equally valuable parts of life and education as subjects like sciences or languages.
The industry aspect is a bit trickier because most of those many billions of Euros aren’t necessarily distributed amongst artists and musicians, but amongst the various kinds of industry people. So financially speaking, if you’re aiming at a position on the receiving end of the entertainment industry, you should probably try to become an entertainment lawyer, some tech guy, accountant or whatever other jobs there are. And that’s a structural problem that runs even deeper than the role of arts & music education in schools. Because even if education in these fields is far from satisfactory, I don’t think we have a shortage of passionate, talented and well-trained musicians and artists who would love a piece of that multi-billion Euro pie. It’s just that they have to split between them whatever fraction of that pie is left after the industry and the few superstars had their shares.
A: I cannot see how economical value of any field constitutes educational value as such. I mean killing animals or selling weapons is a multi-billion Euro business and I don’t see the need to teach classes for that in schools. However I do agree that art and music are treated as a niche quite often. One more reason to do what we do and make sure we tell teachers and school kids how much art and music actually matter.
© Christoph Neumann
Ok, things have gotten super serious, let’s lighten the mood! Tell us your best tour story. I bet dark horses like you have a string of smashed up hotel rooms, hookers and blow all over Europe!
T: Some years ago, we played at this art happening in Munich actually titled “Nutten & Koks”, which translates as “hookers & blow”. It was in the summer, with temperatures well above 30 degrees, and took place in a decommissioned space age gas station. It featured installations built from sex toys, a troupe of exotic dancers from Eastern Europe, a DIY pool and things like that. Most people actually mistook the crutches I needed due to an ankle injury I got while dancing the weekend before as part of our show.
There was some sort of sponsorship arrangement in place, so the only drinks available were free beer and free Red Bull. Our host, who had invited us to sleep at his place, stuck to the beer like most locals and passed out in his car quite early on while we stuck to the energy drinks. Thanks to that we didn’t even mind ending up without a bed to sleep in as we couldn’t sleep at all after having had several liters of Red Bull. The party ended well after sun was up with the last few drunken Bavarians, all well in their 20s or 30s and unsuccessfully making clumsy drunk sexual advances and ending up calling their parents at 6am to come pick them up. Very bizarre.
When we thought things couldn’t get any weirder, a playboy photographer who had a big nude in the show, arrived for breakfast with his family. His 5 year old daughter was overjoyed when she discovered a room with a sheer endless supply of water balloons she could throw around and pop. Little did she know she was dismantling an art installation built from hundreds of water filled travel pussies.
A: Two stories are enough. For more ask us after our next show.
Finally, when is the album out and what’s your tour diary like for the rest of the year?
A: There are a few shows before our release party in October. Other than that, it is being booked as we speak. We recently joined a booking agency, Uliversum Booking, and they are working on it. Hit up our agency if you want us to come to you. We once drove 18 hours on a bus and then back again just to play one show for a friend in London, you know?!
Psycho & Plastic – Kosmopop is released on October 20, 2017 (12” & digital)
Watch the video trailer:
Watch the making of the album: