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M.E.S.H.: Aperture and Amplitude

March 4, 2020
Text by Claire Mouchemore
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Photo by Markus Windt

M.E.S.H.’s musical output resonates among the environments it perforates, inhabiting solitary spaces to become a vessel for introspection.

James Whipple finds influence in a profusion of electronic styles. Having just concluded a guest professorship at Kunsthochschule Kassel, Whipple’s unremitting ardor for sound studies has taken him from California to New York and onto Berlin, where he’s been based for the last ten years. In the German capitol, Whipple began producing under the guise of M.E.S.H., juggling a residency at Berghain-based party Janus while steadily building a discography spanning more than twelve records.

Through releases like Scythians, Piteous Gate, and Hesaitix, the PAN mainstay binds textural rhythms with looming melodies, ditching the usual conceptual approach of music-making in favor of more instinctual methods. The result? An outcome that’s far more introspective than experimental compositions and worn out club-cuts.

Although a broad statement, I’ve read that through your music, you endeavor to go »deeper into sound«. Can you expand on what exactly it is that you mean by this?

It’s so hard to articulate because you fall back into clichés when talking about how sound is so spatial. I have really distinct memories of listening to music where those sounds suggest spaces and feelings that aren’t describable. That’s what music does. But with electronic music and this kind of canvas of digital audio space, it’s so variable and infinite in terms of where you can place people as listeners. This is a path that is totally different from the club music that I make in my life as a DJ, like the split EP I released with Tzusing last year or Hart Aber Fair on Janus. When it comes to my album-length stuff, it’s different.

I get really into the technical production side of things with these very esoteric creative goals. What interests me is the subtleties of different changes of acoustic space the listener goes through when listening to certain things; listening to certain instruments pass through certain spaces and being affected by certain factors as they travel through time. It’s a side of music that’s hard to talk about because we can talk about the artist’s intentions, or we can talk about whether it’s clubby or not clubby, whether it’s relaxing or not relaxing or whether it’s happy or sad. But there’s a specificity to all these digital spaces we find in electronic music, that you can’t easily describe.

You’ve previously stated that you find it essential for the listener to interpret sounds in a very granular way. Moreover, the music that you produce is, at its core, exceptionally textural. Do you envision your musical output translating directly to visuals or evoking some distinctive imagery? Perhaps speaking more about your collaboration with multimedia artist Michael Guidetti, who generated visuals for your Hesaitix tour, could provide more insight into this.

I have a funny relationship with visuals. I want to limit this to my own practice because I don’t like talking about things so broadly. After all, every artist has different goals and approaches. For me, attaching visuals to music can be very profane; it can erode what is important but fragile in sound. It overwhelms us because we’re already such visual creatures. For example, often in the past, before I was touring with Michael, I would ask for no visuals and no lights, so people were kind of primed to listen first. It’s always important to listen first, and then the visual aspect can come after. Michael is an old friend of mine. We have a similar way of going about things, and I relate to his visual art practice a lot, coming from my own sound practice.

Growing up on the Californian coast, you didn’t have much exposure to electronic music or any club culture for that matter. What styles of music were you listening to during your younger years? And what was your relationship to live performance back then?

The first music that I actually became obsessed with was Steve Winwood, Higher Love. My dad was a salesman, and he would drive all day, every day. Sometimes he’d take me with him when I was four or five years old and play Higher Love on cassette. I remember as a little kid, the way Winwood said »baby«, I understood romance for the first time. (laughs)

When I was an adolescent, I was really into punk rock. I’d go along to these shows, and people would pick me up and put me on their shoulders because I was really small. Sometimes I’d even kick people in the head while I was up there. Another time some crusty guy picked me up and threw me 10ft in the air, and I landed on someone’s head, dislocating my jaw. My jaw still clicks to this day! That was my pit experience. That was in Santa Barbara, though, so it wasn’t anything super edgy.

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Photo by Markus Windt

When you first moved to Berlin, you started throwing parties at Times Bar in Neukölln. How did those events come about and lead to your residency with Janus?

I had this short-lived recurring night called »Legenden Sterben Nie«. I wasn’t a serious promoter, it was a friend’s bar, so sometimes I would ask friends to come play. I ran that for a year or so. I was just recently going through my old YouTube channel and found the video flyer for when I booked Lotic in 2012. We’d met on SoundCloud. From there, I met the founders of Janus, Dan DeNorch and Michael Ladner, in 2012 when they threw this big party at Mädcheninternat. The party moved around to a few different spots before finally settling at Chesters in Kreuzberg, where it stayed until the space’s closure in 2014. Lotic and I started as residents, and Kablam joined us around a year later, and Why Be was always a big part of it as well as others like DJ HVAD.

You’ve been making music on a computer for the last twenty years and DJing for ten. How do you keep the performance aspect interesting? Whether it be a live show or a DJ set.

I like to play live in environments that aren’t the usual clubs or festivals, spaces that the organizers have located and asked me to present a special live set. It puts the expectation on the sound, and there isn’t this predetermined idea of what peoples’ behavior should be. In the past I often played live in a »club context« but this seems less and less like an interesting provocation.

I draw a significant distinction between a DJ set and a live set lately. I don’t want to make the categories so concrete because some people have the ability to be really flexible within the two, but my DJ sets feel more and more fun and open. I’m always trying something different with live sets, it’s like a problem I will never solve. But I’m working on a performance with Primitive Art later this year where I’ll try something new.

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Photo by Markus Windt

In 2016, during the »Dislocation« themed edition of Polish-born festival Unsound, you performed live at Tytano, a former tobacco factory complex at Dolnych Młynów, Kraków. This particular event was a free subsidiary offering that took place in the afternoon, and for many, myself included, the highlight of the festival. That year the Unsound program attempted to demystify the relationship between center and periphery in the context of geography, politics, and identity. What sort of freedom does performing in settings of this nature provide?

In that situation, there was an interesting character to space. The stage had been set up dead center in the room, so people were gathered all around me. I felt like this feral drummer in a cage and had to get over some hang-ups about performance. I was really happy with how that performance went. There was this extra added energy created by the organizers through their choice to put me there at that time, with those people, in contrast to an anonymous festival situation at 8 or 9 PM, where you have to sit through live AV shows and what follows are the hotly-tipped DJ sets.

It all ends up coming at you from the same source, it all kind of gets flattened, so I appreciate it when organizers guide you through different artists’ practices to experience different situations that bring out the strengths of those practices. I like that approach a lot more lately, compared to disrupting the dancefloor by forcing self-consciously alienating music onto a dancefloor that’s already part of a convivial social space.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.