Luca D. Majer
Coffee  Music  and Other Things  

This is the transcript of an interview used (only in part) for ContraBanda, the column I write for the Italian monthly music-magazine BlowUp.

Made during the c-19 lockdown and the launch of Alva Noto's new album "Xerrox Vol. IV"




The album is available on all major streaming platforms.


LM) Your 'technik' generates feel-good things. Yet our post-2020 homes, due to "technology", are becoming "schools, doctor’s offices, gyms, and, if determined by the state, jails" (I'm quoting Naomi Klein here.) Can you promote the 'sunny side' of technique avoiding the promotion - as well - of its darker side?


CN) It's an interesting question. I have been using technology a lot, but at the same time I grew up in the DDR where access to technology was limited. I belong to the generation of the digital-pioneers, among the first ones to use fax machines, PCs, and later emails.

When I go back to my memories, I ask myself how it was even possible to communicate remotely. We tend to forget that things were and can be done in different ways despite the technological development. Some of the deepest concerns rise from the impact that technology has in shaping human behavior and its social consequences. Also, factors like identity and anonymity on the internet are more relevant now than ever, with the current media crisis and “fake news” phenomenon.


As you said: once you start using a particular technology, you can’t discern the good from the bad - you get both. Understanding what’s serving and what’s not is a learning process. Over the past years, I have significantly reduced the type of technology I rely on in the studio. I use it less intensively than before because I realized it was counter-productive. Technology is a tool, and as such it should help and support your creativity. The moment you realize that it can be incredibly limiting as well - especially in terms of creative output - then it’s time to reconsider the way you use your tools.


As a musician, I like physical releases: for me it’s important to have a physical object together with a digital release. Even if it’s clear that we are in the time of digital distribution, I still feel skeptical about it. I can’t see this is as a long-lasting situation.  As for the last three decades, the flow of information (and collective knowledge too) has been mostly stored digitally. And because the technology supporting this data-flow and storage is depending on other resources, it makes the whole structure vulnerable. Think of electricity. If you rely on a system that constantly needs electricity to be maintained, or to exist, the risk of loosing the information and data stored in the system is high. So, as much as I use digital music platforms, I see the importance of having a physical product too. It could be a CD, a vinyl, a printed artwork, or something that you can make by hand - without the help of a computer, or electricity-supported tools. I made cardboard cutouts of my drawings for the limited edition vinyl release of “A Forest”. I enjoy and tend to favor this approach also because I feel that the physicality of a release, an art piece, or just knowledge and information should be experienced by the next generations. How will the future generations access the thoughts and know about the events of our time? I mean, how is the knowledge we're generating now going to be accessible to the next generation? At a certain point, we’ll be history - and shouldn’t history remain accessible?


LM) Covid in Italy has become bad publicity for "science" and "free market": failing preventive plans, 58% of deaths in retirement homes, first-aid gears sold at cut-throat prices, etc. What was the experience of Covid in Germany?

CN) It’s hard to think from a German perspective because I see this pandemic on a global scale: my work does not depend solely on what happens here in Germany. Like many, I work internationally. When the lockdown started, and all the businesses had to shut down, we all experienced the effect of “the machine” supporting the world’s economic engine stopping. At that point, it was clear that the biggest mistake we did was to rely on a system that depends on a “machine” that needs to run constantly to function.

We live in a globalized world. I am part of it and very critical towards myself for this. I performed a lot, made a lot of exhibitions. I can recall my early days as an artist though: I was working with few friends in a very local context. Now, more than ever, I realize how much we have lost by not supporting our local communities. This sense of community is probably much less present here in Germany than in Italy - in Italy you have stronger and tighter family structures. The lockdown made clear how social communities are trivial to us. Without a local community you could easily have felt left alone. It’s great to feel that you can count on friends , or even your neighbors to overcome challenges and unexpected events in life.

My overall take from what happened in the last months, is to keep in mind the importance of taking care of our local communities, cooperate with friends, and perhaps create a structure for those communities to exist.  An example that comes to my mind is the concept of “Slow Food”. I mean, think of the production of coffee: beans are imported but its market is global (Starbucks is an example). In Berlin Mitte where I have my studio, there are coffee shops in every corner but there is not even a local shop for shoes, because shoes are manufactured mostly elsewhere than in Germany. A local community needs all the essential things to be produced and available locally. Today we experienced the importance of having a pharmacy or a food-store open. I think in Italy it was very positive when the cultural minister re-opened bookshops much quicker, stating that it was something relevant to the people. It's not just about food, isn’t it?

The uncertainty of the situation was certainly causing distress. It was also interesting to see how information flowed on the internet, how people started communicating and sharing their experiences with videos, text, on-line course, events and performance: this need to exchange  shows that we need culture. And good food is culture too, because what you eat, and the manufacturer you're choosing do have an impact. It’s probably a good time to think of bringing locally some of the manufacturing of goods instead of depending solely from the production happening oversea.


LM) I’ve read that Covid destroyed globalization, but I think it never made any sense in the first place. A kid could understand that Italy should not import kiwis from NZ. But destroying our manufacturing base (like 'it happened' here in Italy) was good business... it's like the destruction of Dresden: you break and then build it back... it's like a war.

CN) In the last months I have been thinking intensively of how we could be more independent, and get a certain kind of freedom back, because on too many levels we’ re dependent from others.

LM) Most of Germany is made by small villages. Which is good for local distribution... but urbanization and specialization helped in shaping the modern supply-chains. In the US, during the Covid 'lock-down', farmers threw eggs away, while supermarkets had empty egg shelves, because the distribution channels are specialized... retail and food-service have different contacts and contracts...

CN) Yes, that's why I'm talking a lot with friends about cooperatives.

L M)… which you had in the DDR

CN) But they were different because every cooperative of a certain scale had to be state-owned. I experienced them, and they were terrible: there was a lack of proper distribution, people started manufacturing stuff they didn't have a clue about how to produce them. At the moment, I think more in terms of micro-economic ideas, and how to keep them “healthy” and sustainable in a small-scale. Currently cooperatives grow out of scale and face the same problems we are now witnessing with large corporations. This also applies to music. I speak a lot with other musicians and stress the important of taking their copyrights back and stop giving them away (almost for free).  It looks like the music system is designed to confuse artists, and make them believe that they need other people to develop a career. Music relies on one of the most complex systems in the world of copyrights: there are so many parties involved in the artist's production. I feel this is something we have to question, and rethink about it one more time... 

LM) Angela Merkel used Covid to stress the importance of keeping the media clear from "fake news." Yet, even W.H.O. some time said one thing, and then its opposite. I don't know really if news were ever "true" but, today, instruments like 'shadow-banning' are the Western way to censorships, similar to the way you were used to in the DDR


CN) When Europe discovered that the American government was spying on us and gathering all sort of information, my shock came from noticing how people - even in Germany - thought that these things were impossible! They always did it, and they will always do. The Internet has developed in a way that it’s hard not to see its negative implications on privacy. When someone tells me "ah, well, ok - then I do not want to use that app, software, tor technology if it collects data about me”,  my reply often is: well, then stop using your mobile phone”.

I’m surprised to realize that most people ignore the fact that governments, or secret services, try to get sensitive data from us. Perhaps my stance is mostly due to the fact that I was brought up in the DDR. At the time we knew what self-censorship was - and that was the biggest achievement of the government policy. When you start worrying about how to formulate a phrase is the worst thing…because it's you censoring yourself. Part of the 89’ revolution came because at that point nobody feared the “Eastern Block”- the fear factor didn't work anymore.

Today's fake news and conspiracy theories are a very human reaction: because people, when confronted with a critical situation, want to understand what’s happening. There is always a need to find the right answer to why (for instance) a pandemic is happening.

We don't know where COVID-19 comes from, and are uncertain of how it spreads. I also feel that it is not so “practical” to ask this question, because if you look at the history of mankind there have been pandemics all the time, and compared to the Spanish flu - or worse, the medieval diseases - we are facing a relatively mild virus.

I read that in Germany, some Universities are over-flooded by applications and this seems mostly due to the fact that most of the decisions and policy for handling the pandemic are mainly supported by scientists - and there is a strong opinion that scientists should take more decisions than politicians in this situation. If you look at the last 10 to 15 years, most of the academics conducting researches and publishing studies have been criticized; many of them would get to the point of not being believed or recognized; people would consider their statements as “fake” or inaccurate. The scholars literature has suffered from not being trusted a while I really think that scientific research is trivial. If we stop believing in science we face complete chaos - which is what seems to be happening with Trump. It reminds me of someone who creates a world of complete ignorance and shapes information accordingly to what you need [to let people believe]. Most people take it for real, and this is dangerous.


LM) This is the post-truth world...

CN) Yes. But it has never been so clear as it is now.


LM) There have been lots of musical pieces created during the lockdowns. Are these an opportunity?

CN) I contributed with a live session together with Ryuichi Sakamoto to his “Isolation” series. At the beginning of the lockdown I was happy to isolate - finally I could go back to that that book that I never had the time to read, or that paper that I was never able finish. I could finally do things I couldn’t do before. In a second moment, I started experiencing a different flow of emotions - I couldn’t freely be creative. Inside I was nervous. Friends and musicians would ask me if I was going to plan some time in the studio. My will was there but I simply couldn’t work on music - I didn't feel free. During the lockdown I found myself being more interested in cooking and connecting with family and friends than making music. At the end, even though I was thinking I had more time, it went by fast. Mentally, I was reflecting a lot on the pandemic situation, its consequences and how we could improve things for the future. This is something important to think about now, and most of my concern is that once the fear factor will fade away we will forget the lesson and fall back making the same mistakes.





LM) It’s happening here in Italy, already.

CN) It’s probably going to happen everywhere. Everybody might go back buying cheap flights, forgetting about the impact on the environment. I really believe we should focus more on strengthening our local communities -  to quote Buckminster Fuller, “Think global but act local”.

LM) About C-19, as an  Italian I saw compassion and sharing of the pain (in e.g. nurses, doctor etc.) but also anger, psychological troubles, snitching and a self-existential drive. Was Germany any different?

CN) Germany has a strong economy and can support aid programs that will help in managing the crisis, but I don't think the consequences of this crisis will impact the country differently from other countries. I found striking to see how people reacted with discipline when Angela Merkel announced the necessity to be in lockdown. I was surprised. People really understood the urgency of the situation. Now there are a lot of demonstrations against that measure - mostly because people felt that their freedom was taken away.

I believe this period made clear that people can act and live with a sense of community, and not just being selfish. In my building, people started taking care of each other. We made a list to help the elderly: we would knock at their door, and check if they needed someone to make groceries for them. We all experienced a sense of solidarity. I find this overwhelming. In Italy people started singing from their balconies, in Germany people started clapping hands for all the workers who were still carrying on with their duties - it was an emotional moment. I think this is something capitalism always tried to hide: that we're all on the same boat. If only the communities could understand the power they have, it would be very difficult to control them.

It's like in WWI and they had parties , 'cause French and German soldiers did not want to kill each other... But, now talking about the future of musicians, what's your take about music after Covid in general?

My wish might be more than reality, but I think that people will ask for less machinery around them, in order to live. I mean, in Germany we are paying up to 50% of our income for rent… it’s very high.

LM) It should be 20%...

CN) It used to be 20% but that is no longer the case. I signed a petition for everybody to get a basic income and this can create a certain kind of stability. We need the rent prices to be controlled and minimize the impact of what happens when you loose your job. If the machine stops, we still have to be able to live. This means more economic independency on one hand. But then there should be a sense of community to help handling critical situations. We need to re-think... it's like when we talk about credit cards and cash. Of course credit cards are controlled by a few large companies, and they will be used in the future, but a lot of people are starting to question this: what is value? In this moment governments are printing money but where the money is coming from? It's a printing machine…

LM) And people ask themselves: what is it going to happen to our money? Will it be a new Weimar?

CN) It could be easily a new Weimar but capitalism won’t allow this to happen because it means that it will loose its power.

LM)… hopefully...

CN) Capitalism is a hungry animal. The big corporations push for reactivating the “machine” and run their business as before but the situation is complex. It’s not going to be back to as it was before the pandemic.

LM) About the future (post-Covid or notwithstanding Covid) musicians like Moby note that the disruption of the traditional publishing channels will add on to he fact that musicians need shows, concerts to make ends meet. What is your suggestion?

CN) I’m afraid that we won't return to normality anytime soon. I mean, today musicians are facing financial issues - if you don't some savings on the side you’re struggling. It’s clear that we have to find other solutions on how to support and make the career of a musician financially sustainable and independently from the live business. Living solely off the music streaming income is not enough, especially for independent artists. We have to think creatively about how to reinvent the system. Which brings me back to your first question about whether musicians have a possibility to survive with their music. In the 80's it was possible to live-off record sales. We now need to question the business model from scratch. Here’s an example: when I sell a CD, you buy it for 15€; but 1€ goes to the artist, and 14€ is spread across the industry infrastructure and the people who are not directly involved with the creative output.

LM)… they are the distribution, the platforms...

CN) I think we really have to put pressure as artists for the creative outcome to regain its value. It has to be paid fairly. And we have to understand that the free product and streaming culture is not serving us in this respect.

LM) AI for content creation is the new trend. And a part of this AI is now dealing with music. Some say that a top 20 hit will be available in 15 yrs from now... maybe it's Bs... do you think is it gonna happen?

CN) It’s already happening: Warner signed an AI Artist which creates hits through algorithms. I read it was signed to generate music on demand.

LM) So they don't have to pay for royalties, 'cause it’s a robot.

CN) Exactly. I don't believe in this kind of anonymity. I mean, we also want personality behind a creative output. Most of the music I listen is also connected to the personality of the artist, her/his existence and life experience. I think this aspect will remain relevant with the time.

LM) Monkees didn't write music, they just acted like playing. And when they started playing for real... they vanished. So maybe we'll have hologranms, I think they announced a ABBA tour of holograms...

CN) Yes, this idea of having robots perfuming at a concerts came from Kraftwerk. What I find interesting - because in a way it describes what’s happening- is that you can make a concert wherever you want and anytime: you can pre-record a performance, send over the “content”,  have it streamed on a real stage / screen to a real or virtual audience. The question is: is this the type of live music experience we want?  I hardly believe so.

Who knows, maybe one day we will see something like “Top-20 AI Hits” available on some streaming platforms - music generated by an AI composer machine…

It could be a logic step for streaming platforms if you think that there are listeners that prefer to hear something they are told they want to hear. An AI machine could generate contents on demand. It’s a product but music is essentially an art form and has a different value than what you can cash in with it - regardless if you succeed in selling your music or not. The understanding of this difference is the main gap we have in capitalism: capitalism can only assess  the value of things on a monetary level. Think of when you fall in love: love has no value for capitalism because it cannot be translated into money.

LM) I’d say it has a negative value, because you stop buying, as you don't need to compensate: you're in love!

CN) You stop eating.

LM) Maybe you buy more champagne.... About Bob Dylan... during the lock-downs he's free-released a song on the JFK killing in Dallas, 1963. the song has been considered to be a gift for  It has had a tremendous impact for a selected section of a sensitive age-bracket of "lock-downers." Did you hear it?

CN) I haven’t listened to the song but people like him are fascinating. They speak freely, and this attitude makes of Dylan one of the true grands, a role-model, a legend, and good example of popular artist who needs no compromise.  I think that what we all admire in Dylan is his ability to speak up and be independent from the industry dynamics.

LM) In a world of bad environment, post-truth media, extreme partisanship, emergency-state, how do your perfect "Xerrox Vol. 4"-sounds comment to such reality?

CN) I finished recording the album one week before the global pandemic was announced. When this happened I started questing whether it made sense to release this record in summer. To me the album is much closer to winter, as I recorded and worked on it intensively from December 2019 to February 2020. The initial doubt dissipated when I released A Forest in spring. I really wanted the song to be available on the day of its anniversary - 40 years after the original track’s release in the UK, on April 8th. A Forest has the same ambience of Xerrox Vol. 4 since the album and the cover were recorded during the same period. Initially I wanted to include the cover in the album, but I realized that a cover version would open a different kind of interpretation of the record. Xerrox is an introspective and intimate work. You can listen to this record alone - this type of introspective solitude is beauty to me. As I'm getting older, I became more interested in crafting sounds from scratch. I have clear idea of how I want my music to sound. I focus a lot on mixing and details. I’m not over meticulous because I want to make it sound good.. I do it because I love the process, and enjoy sculpting something which is really how I envision it my mind. The recording process of the album was smooth. I was happy whenever I could sit in the studio searching for and working on sounds. It always brings me joy. I’m surprised to notice that some people can catch some frequencies and the level details of the work.

LM) Every single song is based on some sort of sample?

CN) Not exactly. For this fourth volume I moved away from using samples. Since the recording of Xerrox Vol. 3, I started writing melodies myself because I was running out of good samples..


In the new one [Xerrox Vol. 4] I did two levels of recording. First I composed the melodies. Then I placed them into a folder which I used as a source material and started the “Xerrox” process: I started degrading and manipulating the audio files. This record is important to me since I made all the source material myself - I basically created my own samples.

LM) I am feeling a strong divide between the Western way of looking at things and the Eastern one. Without idealizing the latter, it seems to me that Europeans are busy with mumbling over what we have been (or looking East, as Germany did), Americans are busy with... avoiding becoming Europeans (in that sense), while Eastern people are busy in looking forward. Did you feel this with Ryuichi Sakamoto?

CN) I try to answer from my experience with Ryuichi. He's Japanese but his approach to music is inspired by European music like Debussy or Satie. Once we joked about it: "You are more Asian than I am”, he told me. And I said the same about him in respect to his European influences in music. We can collaborate smoothly because we admire each other's culture. I admire my culture much less than Japanese culture - the reason why I pursed my university studies was due to my admiration for Japanese gardens. I grew up in Eastern Germany wishing to to see a Japanese garden someday, and understand the design and philosophy behind it.

A main difference I notice between the Eastern and Western culture is that in the West there is a predominant approach in achieving things with with willpower, keeping busy and disciplined.

In Eastern culture, there is a more holistic approach. Maybe you have heard of this book on how to shoot a bow … well, the book suggests that you succeed in shooting the bow if you become one with it. So to reach your goal, the idea of achieving it and taking the steps to do it is not enough. You and your goal need to become one. This approach is close to the Buddhist philosophy. I visited Japan a lot and animism is very present. If in Europe we had experienced this line of thought before Christianity existed, we would probably have integrated this vision of the world too. It’s something I believe in: we are part of the Universe, we belong together. It's like Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophical ideas - his line of thoughts is very much inspired by Buddhism and describes humans as being part of something bigger (and not just as the top living species on planet Earth). It’s a vision of the world which I feel Western culture should integrate. Not seeing yourself as a part of something seems almost illogic - I mean, our body, and the physical structures around us are made of particles. I am not sure it’s possible to achieve anything if you don’t consider your surrounding.

LM) Animism, brings us to A Forest, the Cure re-make. First time you heard it you lived in the DDR. Which reminds me Milos Forman - who said that r'n'r was more important for breaking the wall than missiles...

CN) We could listen to music and radio from the West. But this was not the main source of listening. Back then I was a teenager, depressed by the kind of society I was living in. I did not enjoy this kind of negative energy - when you're a teenager you always tend develop  a "positive-nihilist" idea of the world around you. The Cure’s music was for that. The Cure’s sound at the very beginning of the band’s career wasn’t as dark as it became after. It was more an electronic band, not so far away from  Depeche Mode. At the beginning their music was closer to pop. For the people of my generation during the DDR, music had an incredible value - it was difficult to have access to it.  I would be listening to whatever record even if at first I didn't like it. I would keep on listening to the same records, and try to find what was special about the music. During the DDR we had more time than we have nowadays - you could really take the time to listen to music. I can’t remember the exact moment A Forest came back to my memory before I made the cover - perhaps when I was on tour with Depeche Mode, five years ago for the the "Diamond Version Tour”. Martin Gore invited us.

LM) That is a strange support band for Depeche Mode


CN) Martin is very much into German techno music and he supported us. With this tour I realized that everybody who worked behind the scenes, even the body guard of Martin, worked as well with The Cure. The whole tour's staff. The bodyguard was the same bodyguard of Robert Smith, the guitar tuner was the same person who worked with Robert and so on.

I think one of the first CD compilation, or CD I bought was from The Cure, and I re-bought all The Cure’s albums again, because they used to be difficult and expensive to get. Of course I have my favorite albums. They really are one of my favorite bands although I don't necessarily like the super-heavy phase of them. And about A Forest I always loved the intro. There are versions of the song where the intro is missing (I assume because shorter versions are designated to radio plays). But for me the intro is the most important part of the song. I always thought it could  be interesting to create a song which I wished the Cure had made - just the intro as a whole song. On the other hand, when you make a cover version there are some rules in place, otherwise it might be hard to get the permission from the authors.

Robert Smith approved the cover and gave the okay to release it. It was a difficult process and probably I could have never released it just using the intro. The original idea was to stretch the intro into a long song. The initial recording of the cover was 4' longer than the actual release. It took me some efforts to keep the song’s length below 10’.  I had to do it mostly because any track over 10' is treated by iTunes as album, and the price would have been different.  I wanted A Forest to be easily accessible digitally, and I shortened it to 9'59". But there is a longer version too…

LM) I think you should release it.

CN) Yeah, maybe. I asked Robert if it was ok to press 300 vinyl copies. I thought we could keep the vinyl as a collector's item. It was sold-out quicker than expected and lots of fans asked to repress it. I might send the extended version to Robert - maybe he likes it and would be up to have it repressed…

LM) I went back to the original and from what I could gather it seems to me that the harmonic structure has been pretty well copied and then it seems to me that you have added some little... I would say a note in a chord...

CN) Yeah

LM)… something that slightly derives from it

CN) The cover song has the intro of the original, and it is repeated three times. The original intro has a different tempo than the rest of the song but for the cover I slowed down everything, extended the time and uses the same tempo for the whole song progression. The original speed was something like 110 bpm. At the start I took it down to  90 bpm. Then I happened to listen to the song at night - it was really late - and I felt like slowing it down further until 72bpm. That’s very slow. I realized there was a lot of space between notes and decided to take out some of the notes from Robert's guitar solo, and then I added three notes (a sample I had and which I enjoyed listening at that particular point of the song). I stripped down and stretched the original song to the point that there was a lot of space between the notes. I wanted some movement, and added a synth (something that doesn't exist in the original version of the song). It’s a strange sound. You can’t really tell if it’s in tune or out of tune.

It was interesting to analyze the part of Robert's solo guitar - at the very last part, which gets quite dissonant, it goes completely out of the chords - it's great to hear it. It took me long time to analyze what he was playing with his guitar because he slides up to the neck, and then goes deep down and up again.

I started working on this cover version half a year ago. When I was closer to finish it I stopped, and said to myself: well, maybe this is not such a good idea. After I finished Xerrox Vol. 4  I had los of good energy. I felt happy that I had finished the album and thought: ok nowise the time to sit down and finish the cover too. It was the last song I recorded after Xerrox.


LM) You did the right thing! Did you use "grains" from the original(s)?

CN) Not really.

LM) And talking about granular synthesis... as it catches something I'd define "the spirit of the sound", do you think it's like reviving Lazarus from the dead, or more like making a pact with the devil?

CN) I see it as a positive thing as long as you understand that granularity is a modern technology, one of the most striking sound synthesis you can use, because what you do is a little bit like playing with DNA, ja? There is a certain DNA in sound but you have many possibilities to work with its combinations.

Before you asked if I had sampled something. I went to web-forum of The Cure, where fans wrote about about which instruments the band  used used for each song. I looked for rotor synths which was the one The Cure were using and I listened to its sound. You know when the feeling of a sound is the one you want. Because - as you know - it's not only about melodies, but sound plays a big role in shaping the final output…

 LM) harmonics…

CN) Also, but not only the harmonics. Sometimes is a reverb, a lake, a phaser. I really wanted to reach creating the feeling of the song, particularly of the intro.


LM) In fact your intro takes me back to 40 years ago (it's like "the Proustian memories" for olfactory memory), but with a spin... with the spin of the Twenties... I really liked it...

CN) I'm happy you like it.

 LM) And last thing: how do you think your music is best described? A term for it?

CN) This is difficult because describing something is not really my cup of tea. You know when I'm working on sounds there is a moment when I'm having... I don't know...  the song is not yet there... and then there comes a moment - and it's all of the sudden that it’s there. That moment when I feel the sound is there and it's me. I can identify with it. It’s not just a song, it becomes a part of me. I don't know if there is a term for this - perhaps “a ghost in the machine”.


(This interview was recorded over the Web between Italy and Germany on the 19th of May, 2020)