The first name that was announced for the third edition of Trouwfe(e)st was German act Art Abscons. A mysterious masked man whose music we’ve been following from the beginning. He invited us for a private concert, “Art Abscons in the Green”, at his homeplace in Duisburg last summer. It was a unique experience, after which our decision was made to let this nice man make his debut in Belgium. An offer he accepted very gratefully even though performing on stage is not his favorite part of being a musician.
DE: Art Abscons: an artist with a mask. Logical first question: why? What’s the story behind the mask?
AA: I believe that there are two kinds of artists. Firstly, there are those who do their art mainly for personal fulfilment. They are usually proud of their own accomplishments and enjoy whatever appreciation, recognition or fame – huge or small – they receive from their audience. In most cases, they enjoy what they are doing, and this is also the reason why they are doing what they are doing. They are expressing themselves through their art. They simply do what they want and, often, what they think their audience wants. A very healthy approach. Secondly, however, there are those artists who are forced to do what they are doing, no matter if they want to or not. Their urge to create art is compulsory. Art is like a spirit on its own that haunts them and that forces them to do whatever art wants – neither what the artist wants nor what they believe their audience wants. These artists do not express themselves; they express something more universal, something that is merely speaking through them. Art is like a Higher Will from a realm beyond that is forced onto these artists, and they are merely artisans who use their craft and their tools to create what this Will commands. For this reason, artists belonging to this second category do not feel personally responsible for what they are doing, and, hence, they are not proud of their works and do not feel that they, as a person, deserve the applause or recognition they receive. I have always felt that I belong to this second category. I have chosen a mask to show that the art I deliver does not belong to me. I am nothing but a tool.
DE: The mask is also quite contrary: the scary mask and the lovely music you play. Just like the picture where you're posing with the mask next to children, which I think is a very strong image.
AA: When the Grandmaster came to me for the first time some ten years ago, he communicated the following formula to me: "Good + Evil = Beauty". The world is torn into a thousand shreds by the force of contradiciton. Nothing makes sense by itself, except for beauty – because beauty resolves all contradiction. This is why we need beauty, desperately. Most people do not fathom the abysmal quality of true beauty. They confuse beauty with the nice and pleasant and do not realise how shallow this is. They are numbing their minds and their senses with cheap pleasures. However, you do not heal the pain of existence by distracting yourself from it. You have to face it, immerse yourself in it, analyse its nature and resolve it from deep inside. Beauty is the product of knowledge and understanding. The process is painful – but the more painful it is, the greater is the consolation awarded by understanding. You can see the traces of this process in the Grandmaster's countenance. He has suffered, he has seen life's universal ugliness and yet there is something triumphant in his features, a stange and knowing smile. He has mastered the universal challenge of transforming pain into beauty by means of knowledge. He has eaten the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
Children usually love the Grandmaster at first sight even though he looks ugly. I guess that is because children understand complex things more easily and intuitively than we grown-ups do. They instictively know that the Grandmaster is safe and instantly integrate him into their cosmos. I have never seen a child that was scared by him – even if parents were sometimes sceptical in the beginning, especially if they know that their child is usually afraid of masks or easily scared in general. Maybe you will remember five-year-old Vincent who was also at the small gig out in the green last year. When his parents asked him if he had not been afraid of the mask, he replied, "Why should I? Superheroes also wear masks." And I could add that superheroes usually know a lot about suffering, too.
DE: You use an alter ego you named Grandmaster Abscon. What’s the story behind this character?
AA: To me, Grandmaster Art Abscon is a personification of art itself – of the ART that haunts ME. I do not know exactly where it comes from. The orders I receive come at night, when I am sleeping. Their source is hidden to me. I call this source "Abscondinium". It is a realm I know to exist. I can see and hear it constantly weaving behind all phenomena of the physical world. I believe that many have tried to describe it. It could be the "Realm of Ideas" in Plato's Allegory of the Cave, it could be the Gnostics' "Pleroma", it could be Rudolf Steiner's "Devachan" or Philip K Dick's "Republic", or, it could be C.G. Jung's "Collective Unconscious". It is all true, I guess, and at the same time, it is not. This realm is unknowable. There are moments, however, in which our material world is drenched in it. This is when magic happens. I love it when that happens.
Art's last name is Abscon for a reason. My family has roots in the north of France, in a small town called Abscon. I always loved this word, especially when I learned that, in modern French, "abscons" means something like "difficult to understand". The word is derived from Latin, of course, "absconditus" meaning "hidden". When the Romans invaded Gaul and came to the place that today is called Abscon, it was deserted and hidden deep in the woods. They used it as a secret hide-out and called it "Abscondinium".
DE: Last year you released under your own name Tellbach a minimal synth album. Did you feel the time was right to do something else?
AA: Yes, I needed a change. I had been working on ART ABSCONs' "The Separate Republic" for five years. This work had been very exhausting. I needed something lighter and easier to recover and to distract myself for a while. I did in fact use Tellbach to narrate some personal stories and to get them off of my chest. I needed it as a kind of psychological compensation, a holiday from my serious work, so to say. But I also used it to learn new things about music production, like dabbling in analogue synthesizers and recording on all forms of magnetic tape. It was... fun. Some of the things I learned from it are coming in handy now that I have started to work on the next ART ABSCONs album, "Nach allen Regeln der Kunst". Art has started to contact me again during my sleep, and I know that the work on this new album will be very exhausting again. I am sure that I will need another Tellbach album to recover from it when it is accomplished.
DE: Alongside the Tellbach you also released the Misty Bywater album on your own Opus Abscondi label. What will be next on OA?
AA: I have the very great privilege to release the next Kinit Her album, "Fire Returns to Heaven". I have always loved their music, and this just feels right. This new album is a very good one, maybe even their best so far. I am currently waiting for the final audio master, and then the album will probably be released in April – the CD version on Opus Abscondi, and the cassette version on Brave Mysteries.
DE: I just want to show my respect for this. Nowadays you have to be an idealist to release music and me as a music lover are very grateful for people like you. As a musician, what’s your opinion about the future?
AA: Thank you. There are many reasons why I stick to releasing physical albums on vinyl, CDs and cassettes even though there are only very few people left who are still listening to physical sound carriers and even though you spend more money than you earn if you release music on physical mediums. Not only do I believe that the latter sound better and that the poor audio quality of music streams is damaging to our physical and mental health, I also know from first hand experience that music streams are virtually killing music and artists. It is not only the financial aspect, but money is an important factor, of course, that can either make art possible or impossible. Recording a good album properly takes a lot of time and energy, but it also requires expensive equipment and other resources. If you only have the sparetime that your day job leaves you to work on your art, you cannot accomplish that much, and if you earn nothing with your art, it will be very difficult to finance all the things that are required to produce it with the money your day job provides you. Music streams have made it impossible to earn any money with music. Either your music is on YouTube or bandcamp, where people are listening to it for free, or they pay for an account in a digital music store. While the latter is very noble, the artists they are listening to will actually only get a ridiculously tiny fraction of the money. ART ABSCONs, for example, is available in various digital music stores, and I can see that my music has ten thousands of streams per month, and yet I only earn about three or four US Dollars per month. I can buy two bottles of beer from a kiosk for this – for albums that have cost thousands of euros in production. All this leaves me very little time and resources for my art. I am not complaining because I know that every aspiring musician today is facing the same problem. The good thing about the internet is that it makes your music available to many people and that it can have great exposure. However, people will have to understand that, if they are no longer willing to properly pay for music, new music will gradually get worse, and good music will become less and less and eventually disappear, simply because gifted artists neither have the time nor the money to create beautiful things – and those who will struggle on anyway will be sacrificing their entire lives and energies for this until they collapse. It is only the big music industry that profits from music streams while minor artists are being eliminated. The conditions for producing and promoting good underground music are getting worse and worse. Everyone who is still investing their energies in it deserves praise and is a hero – and I am not taking about myself – I am talking about people who organise underground concerts, write reviews about obscure artists or host alternative radio stations, I am talking about DJs, but also about those people who will still buy a vinyl record or a CD from an independent artist. I am talking about people like you, in short. Thank you for existing.
DE: Am I the first to say this or did you heard this before: your voice reminds me a lot of Alexander Velljanov. Deine Lakaien is very successful, also because of this specific voice. I would feel very frustrated in this case. How difficult is it to promote your music, because I know you've started your own label because you weren't happy with the labels you worked with in the past?
AA: To be honest, you are indeed the first to compare my voice to Alexander Velljanov's! I must admit that I was never really interested in Deine Lakaien, even if I think that they are quite good and that I would probably like their music if I gave it a proper listen, so at least I can claim that I am not trying to imitate Alexander Velljanov. But, why should it be frustrating to me that they are successful? They were lucky enough to get a proper record contract at a time when there was no internet and when the music industry was still functioning and took the fact into consideration that artists also need money to be able to produce art. Musicians who had some success back then will even nowadays enjoy a better status and better conditions than those who have started out to try their luck in the days of the internet, but I know that things have also gotten a lot harder for the older heroes. So, no, I do not envy them at all. I suppose that all times have their own particular challenges, and I am ready to face the challenges of today. I enjoy the fact of being truly independent now with my own label, Opus Abscondi. I can make all decisions for myself – and even if I am not super-famous, my music has a few very dedicated listeners. I am generally more interested in quality than in quantity, also when it comes to the nature of my listeners.
DE: You’ve worked with Osewoudt on a track for their first album. Willem Witte, at that time still in Osewoudt, will also perform at Trouwfest with his EBM project Pantser Fabriek. Are you familiar with this project?
AA: You know what? I think it has been eight years since I last saw Willem. I look very much forward seeing him again. It was always a very great pleasure to meet him. Of course, I have been aware of Pantser Fabriek. I love it.
DE: Which act at Trouwfest you don’t want to miss?
AA: First of all, let me thank you sincerely for inviting me to play there.
As for the other acts, since I will be there, I will want to miss none of them, and I am sure I will enjoy all concerts a lot – provided that I will not be too nervous about my own performance. I must admit that, apart from Pantser Fabriek, I did not know any of the other acts until I looked them up. I am not a great scenester and usually so busy with my own music that I am hardly aware of what is happing around me. It is not out of arrogance or ignorance, though. It is especially during my creative episodes that I can hardly listen to anyone else's music because any foreign input will distract me from what I hear inside. But I have looked into all the projects that will perform at Trouwfest, and can say that I look forward to all of them.
DE: Last summer you invited 20 friends for a private concert in the green in Duisburg, the place where you rehearse. Thanks again for sharing this magical moment. Is it harder to do a concert like this, or just the oppossite?
AA: The worst thing that can happen to me is to get on a stage and sing into a microphone. Technology hates me. It usually all goes wrong. When I wear that mask, I am virtually blind because I cannot wear my glasses under it. I do not see where things are. Damn, it is so dark. I am night-blind on top of it all. I stumble over cables. I might even tip over and fall from the stage. I cannot see which foot pedal I need to hit or what the tiny red lamps on it say. I am drenched in sweat. It is too hot under this mask. Those stage lights are killing me. My left cheek is itching and I cannot scratch it. It drives me insane. Oh no, the microphone stand just collapsed. I hope it did not hit anyone down there and that no one got injured. There is a humming noise from a broken cable. Damn, why does it have to happen now? The battery for the active pickup of my guitar is suddenly empty, too. Damn, it was brand-new. I need to replace it before the next song. That will not look very grandmasterly. Why am I doing this? This is hell. Why the hell did I agree to play on a stage again? I must have been out of my mind when I said yes. I have no idea how many people are out there in the audience. I cannot see a damn thing. Are they all filming this to later expose my misery on YouTube? I think I actually prefer unplugged concerts. Yes, I do. Small, unplugged concerts. Without technology. By daylight. Without cables on the ground. Without a microphone stand before me. You have no idea what you have done to me.
DE: Art Abscons is always placed in the neofolk corner, but your style goes further than that. You’ve already worked together with some big names of the neofolk genre (Luftwaffe, Gnomonclast). Do you feel comfortable with this neofolk label?
AA: I don't know. I always did what I did and never really cared how to call it or what the genre was. It was mainly others who have put me into this corner. I am both grateful and annoyed by it. I am grateful because neofolk has been a genre that permits many artistic liberties, offers a very interesting framework and because it is a highly intellectual scene that has been very faithful and loyal to its values and to its artists. Without it, I would most probably be nothing. Or at least, hardly anyone would care for what I am doing. However, at the same time, I am sometimes annoyed by the artistic restrictions and the very narrow expectations that such a categorisation can impose on you. Some people will hear strummed acoustic guitars and windchimes in my music and see runes all over my artworks even if there are none while others will comdemn my music especially if there are no strummed acoustic guitars and windchimes or runes all over my artworks. Yes, my music is different from what is generally referred to as neofolk. As I have said earlier, I do not do what I believe a specific audience expects. I do what I have to do. If this mainly appeals to neofolkers, I am okay with it.
DE: When I published the flyer for Trouwfest you’ve said it looked very ‘German’, of course because it’s in the style of our headliner Wappenbund. Do you feel you have to compete with the prejudices that are related with the neofolk genre?
AA: What is traditionally referred to as neofolk often purposefully polarises by treating a specific part of German history in a highly artistic and ambivalent manner. This approach is often highly intelligent, and I find it very intriguing and thought-provoking if it has great artistic quality and does not follow a one-sided political scheme. All of it just does not happen to be my topic. Everything that characterises ART ABSCONs lies beyond everything else: beyond space and time, and most certainly beyond politics, or, history. ART ABSCONs is all about magic and the quest for knowledge.
The impression that most people outside of the scene have is that neofolk is nothing but a glorification of fascist ideals – which is, of course, even true to a certain degree. There have been several people thoughout the years who have personally accused me of being a right-wing extremist, just because they have googled my music project, stumbled across a term called "neofolk" and let their fancy guide them. I am not interested in strengthening this connotation with my music since it is not a part of it.
DE: I remember on Facebook you’ve participated in some kind of ‘book-challenge’. As holidays are coming closer, which book do you recommend to put in our luggage?
AA: All of them. I am currently reading a book by Maria Renold that is called "Intervals, Scales, Tones and the Concert Pitch C = 128 Hz". I can recommend it if you want to be totally confused and then wish turn the world upside down by means of music.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Credits pictures: picture 1: Pantalaimon Fotografie , foto 4: Sebastian Pichard
Trouwfest #3: with Art Abscons, Riotmiloo, Ashtoreth, For Greater Good, Panster Fabriek and Wappenbund: June 15th at JH Wommel (Wommelgem).