Austrian energetic duo Mermaid & Seafruit about music and performance as an outlet to release stress and fear and how words can lead to an altered state of mind.
Mermaid & Seafruit is the collaborative project of Magdalena Chowaniec and Markus Steinkellner. Together they take us on a ferocious trip through various musical styles. The straight forward vocals reflect on our society, body and gender politics and the emotional abyss of the contemporary subject. The tracks of the Polish-Austrian duo inhale the deep, corporeal bass of Grime, the snottiness of Hip Hop, the frenzy of Hardstyle, the confrontational dynamics of Noise as well as the patient elegance of R’n’B and theatrical spoken word passages. The result is a hybrid, an intriguing and dystopian amalgam of contemporary club genres, shimmering in different emotional shades. Magdalena, who is mostly known for her work as a performance artist and Markus, who is active in the Viennese music scene since over a decade now, just seem to be the perfect match. As Mermaid & Seafruit they practice sensual activism, both edgy and kinky.
You knew each other already before the project started. Magdalena, you’re busy as a performance artist and Markus, you are busy with various musical projects and work for theatre. Still this project seems like a completely new approach in both of your artistic work. How did it kick off?
Magdalena: We started jamming for fun in early 2015, the sessions turned out to be really good, we immediately had some track material coming up that was worth to be held on to, so we formed a band.
Do you have a clear work-sharing or how does a song usually develop?
Markus: We usually start playing together with synths, drum machine and vocals. Then, after we got the beat that we like, we put more focus on the vocals and arrangement. Most of the lyrics come from Magdalena.
Magdalena, you are mainly known for your dance pieces and performance art. When did you get interested in doing music?
Magdalena: As a kid I sung in a church during my first communion. I always liked singing but I don’t think the others liked when I sung - it was far from being “in tune”. In 2007 me and a choreographer friend created a sort of a DIY punk screaming duet, after that I created a show for brut theatre with other 3 semi professional musicians. It was a show about a decay of a punk band where we wrote our first songs. After that we decided to become a real band and we did so for the next 6 years. It was a punk band, The Mob Fixing Freedom and that’s how I learned almost everything about music - by simply doing it. In 2014 TMFF fell apart and I couldn’t imagine not making music. It became a huge part of my life and I enjoyed myself mostly much more doing music than actually dance. By the end of 2014 I have met Markus and soon we started to jam to see where we could musically meet.
Was it still important for you to integrate performative elements in your musical project?
Magdalena: I love the immediate response of the audience during a music show, it’s very different than in a dance or performance where the public focuses more on the overall structure and dramaturgy. I do not force myself to integrate performative elements, I simply perform and live it directly on stage. Performativity had a definite influence on the way I make music, on the highly improvisational aspect of the voice, body and the sound. I need to feel that the voice I’m producing is part of my body.
Mermaid & Seafruit’s live performances are very fierce and intense. You have a strong stage-presence. Which part does that take for you? Do you understand your project as intermedia?
Markus: Playing live is the best way to use the energy emerging from our music. It’s definitely an important part of this project. It can be seen as intermedia, as it’s always possible that we interweave our concert with performative elements.
Magdalena, you say that you’ve played in a punk band, so you’re used to mosh pits and stuff like that. The audience would respond in a different way than with this project. Are you sometimes missing this kind of energy? Is this one reason why you feel like a strong performance is needed to kick the crowd out of their comfort zone?
Magdalena: I believe there is some truth in what you’re saying. Yes, with the punk band we had mostly people jumping, sweating and being physically very involved. At the beginning it was a bit weird to me that people in Vienna mostly are not really letting the music overtake them. That also happened at times during our punk concerts. Almost everywhere else - be it punk or this project, people seem much more embodying the music and responding more physically to it. Yes, I think it is very important to question our comfort zone with the lyrics, with music, with performance. Every time we perform, I feel I need to find new ways to liberate myself in front of the audience which includes a lot of physical and mental exercise like deep breathing, turning back on them, going down on the floor, finding physical release of stress and fear. Every time, I learn how to detach myself from the audience and their response and keep up a good show any time.
You shirtfront the audience to a certain extent. Why is it important for you to involve the crowd?
Magdalena: I guess we’re used to playing on the floor without a stage from our punk rock days, were you feel more like a part of the crowd, where you also feel the energy more directly. Starting playing live with this band, we again ended up walking into the crowd, dancing, asking them questions, inviting them to jump off the stage.
Markus: We really don’t mind a quiet crowd as well, since we had some of those experiences already, including a seated audience at the HoertHoert Festival, which worked fine as we could feel the attention and active presence of the crowd throughout the whole set. But going crazy together with all the people in the room will always be something special and beautiful.
Markus, you are active in other musical projects. You started your solo-project Idklang 9 years ago, played in different formations, like Jakuzi’s Attempt, a progressive hardcore band, but you also work for theatre, do sound design and often collaborate with other musicians. What is special about this project?
Markus: Well on one hand it sure is the challenge of trying to do something new, like i never tried to rap before. On the other hand it’s the easiness how things got together, little musical stories that almost wrote themselves, that’s something you just experience if a project/band is working really well.
What is it about your name?
Magdalena: It has a def sexual touch but of course also we didn’t want to call ourselves too seriously and sombre. We want our music to evoke a huge range of emotions but in general we stand on the bright side. Hm, our band name has a somewhat erotic and sexual connotation - guess who is who?
You also put an emphasis on videos, which became quite rare. How many people are involved in the production process? Who comes up with the concept of these clips?
Markus: It’s just the two of us, brainstorming and catching ideas, it’s half concept, half improvised.
Magdalena: We are extremely DIY if it comes to basically everything. It is mostly connected with lack of money and lack of time. I like to put performative elements in the videos, it’s a space where I can apply my choreographic skills. Our last two videos are connected to one of my dance performances called Sanctuary. The video for “Bitch u earning” is cut from footage of the performance taken in Sofia last year in May. In this show our music is featured in the part which is meant to be a concert slash purifying experience. The video to “Empty Body I” combines some footage we shot in Vienna with some other footage from Sanctuary.
Mascerade seems to play in this project too. You like wearing wigs and dressing up.
Magdalena: I guess we oscillate between a total made up character which is our alter ego or being pretty ourselves but myself, I am a performer and I see making music and playing it as a performance.
On your latest record XXXXXXX you are freefloating through various club genres, being able to cover a broad emotional spectrum. Why is this fusion of styles so important to you or not to be pinned down to just one language? Did it happen naturally?
Magdalena: Maybe it sounds pretentious, but it came out pretty naturally! It’s like cooking a big vegetable stew - you take all you love and put into one pot.
Markus: I’ve always been interested in different scenes and genres and their development. Breaking certain codes sometimes is necessary in order to get to something different, new and exciting.
Magdalena: I guess we simply mingled together what we both like the most - hard style, rave, rap, spoken word. After playing in a punk band, I had to find my own way of transposing a big energy and necessity to speak out into something I could identify with. I don’t care so much about the form and I happily mix together elements which do not belong with each other at the first sight.
Finally, let’s talk about your lyrics: they are very political and blunt, but also affective and personal. How important are socio-political questions to you, how do they correlate with your art? Do you try to communicate a certain message?
Markus: Words can and shall have the power to move, provoke or to create new coherences. Whether it’s directly political talk or dadaist wordplay doesn’t really matter. Both can lead to altered states of mind.
Magdalena: To me it plays a central role. Since I remember I would put all my reflections, thoughts and feelings into the poems I wrote. When I started playing music, the poems became songs. In XXXXXXX some of the lyrics talk about my disappointment towards the art market and the market value of art, some of them even directly address or quote politicians, some deal with the sensation of stagnation and apathy which I often feel surrounds us and dominates our society as well as the world of artistic production, some point out heavy topics like violence against women.