The main music-project of the prolific Austrian Herwig Holzmann, Photophob navigates between ambient, broken beats, electronica and idm, incorporating influences and inspiration from classic science fiction literature into his musical compositions. His is not music to dance to or to be pretentiously clever, it is music to take listeners away on narrative oneiric journeys bound only by the frontiers of imagination.
Highly prolific, Holzmann has kept a consistent output of releases in the past few years, most of which via netlabels and only two (“Your Majesty Machine” and “Still Warm”) in CD form. In 2007 he released a new full length, “Circadian Rhythms”, as a limited CD-R edition in the Austrian netlabel Laridae.
1 – What can you tell us about the origins of Photophob and your earlier musical activities? If I recall correctly, before Photophob you released music under the moniker Macon Tights as well.
Yes, “Macon Tights” was my first pseudonym, the name I used when I started to post single tracks in different mp3-communities. It’s actually an unintentional misspelling of “Macon Heights”, from a short story by Philip K. Dick. I switched to “Photophob” later on, when my sound had moved away from the dirty, sample-based trip-hop/d’n’b of my early works to a more electronic/idm sort of thing.
I produced two albums and two EPs as Macon Tights, which were released some years later on the netlabels Enough Records and Cold Room.
2 – What is behind the name “Photophob”?
Not that much. “Photophob” is the adjective for “photophobia”, meaning the ‘aversion to sunlight’. I’ve always been in favour of cloudy, rainy weather, never really liked sunny days, maybe because I’ve been suffering from hay fever every summer when i was a child.
But I guess the main reason for me to take ‘photophob’ as artist-name was that it looks quite nice when written down, in a typographical way.
3 – It would seem that all of your releases, including the melancholic “Still Warm”, are rather upbeat (and “Your Majesty Machine” is a prime example). Would you agree with this? Do you consider yourself as an optimist?
Well no, I wouldn’t really call me an optimist. But yes, my music is quite good tempered most of the time. I think there’s enough ‘angry’ music out there (and I like a lot of it), but for my part, I’ve always had the feeling that I had to point out some good and beautiful things of life with my music. When taking a closer look at the track-titles, one may also find quite a lot of well-hidden jokes and references. Many musicians take their music way too seriously, which can be quite pathetic from time to time, if you ask me.
Besides that, I think that music that is just iteratively giving you the affirmation that the world is oh-so-bad may be quite comfortable from time to time (especially when you feel down), but it can also keep you down, keep you depressed. And that’s not a good basis for changing things for the better. I think we should at least try to make the world a better place. I try that with music.
4 – You recently released a new album, “Circadian Rhythms”, which was described as a sort of ‘back to basics’. What prompted this approach to the new album? Were there any particular inspirational elements (C64 computer games come to mind)?
“Circadian Rhythms” is meant to work on two different levels. First, there is the ‘sound-level’, where I tried to go back in time and give the whole thing a little bit of an old-school-flavour. And then there’s the ‘content-level’, where I tried to go back in time to my childhood days and to evoke the power of childish imagination. There are a lot of ambiguous and allusive wordplays in the track-titles and voice samples I used, many of them hinting at aspects of both levels. Well, there’s quite a lot going on between form and content on this album.
The track “Just To Make It 17” for example features a voice sample about how hard it is for young boys to grow old and to become a ‘man’. But in fact this is a real filler track I just produced to increase the number of tracks on the album to 17, my favourite number. Or “Old School Daemon Comes At Night”, starting with a quite ‘old school’ sounding synth-line from a cheap 303-emulation, but in terms of content broaching the issue of being afraid of school.
5 – Listening to your albums (and checking their titles) it becomes quite obvious that you are a science-fiction aficionado. What are the authors and works – books and cinema – that particularly impressed you? How did they influence or inspire the development of Photophob as a musical entity?
Well, of course Vangelis’ soundtrack for “Blade Runner” had an enormous influence on my music (no surprise here, I guess…), as had the movie as a whole. Then there’s Stanislaw Lem (R.I.P.), who completely changed my view on Science Fiction with his gorgeous books. I am quite fond of the more philosophical science-fiction of the former Eastern Block (for example the works of Arkadi and Boris Strugatzki), all these galaxy-saving space operas don’t really arouse my interest.
But in terms of their influence on my music, classic sci-fi serials/comics of the early 20th century like Flash Gordon and movies/pulp-novels of the psychedelic 70s play a bigger role. I especially fell in love with these cheesy cover artworks of pulp-novels like Perry Rhodan, etc. They emanate this soppy sort of space nostalgia, I also want to create with my music.
6 – While some artists may be seem as having obvious influence in your music (Aphex Twin comes to mind) some may not be so. Were there any musicians would you say were inspirational in the developing your music?
Yes, of course. AFX obviously had an enormous influence, as you just mentioned. I also really adore everything Arovane released and µ-Ziq’s “Royal Astronomy” was quite inspirational for my sci-fi-minded releases. But I guess also non-electronic bands like The Smashing Pumpkins influenced my sound, for example in terms of these frequent changes between fast/loud parts and calmed down interludes. NIN also played an important role, as they actually introduced me to electronica with their remixes. And a lot of these trip-hop-acts of the late 90s… and, and, and… well, looking at the list, I’d say I am a real ‘child of the 90s’.
7 – Somewhat related, what have you been listening to lately?
I just bought the new albums by the Smashing Pumpkins and Björk. But I haven’t decided yet, what I think of them… I haven’t been listening to a lot during the last few weeks, besides some demos we received for Laridae, and self-produced stuff for test-listening.
8 – What is your musical background, did you have any sort of formal music training?
I played the flute in elementary school ;-) Then I tried to play guitar for two years and failed in every respect. Well, I never learned to read notes or anything. I’ve always been in favour of self-education, experimentation and intuitive working.
9 – A technical question: soft-synths or hardware? With what kind of material do you work primarily and why?
Soft-synths. I make nearly everything with Reason (what a coming-out…), because I can work really intuitively with it. This way I can concentrate on the content, the feeling and atmosphere I want to establish and don’t become a slave of the equipment. Hopping from one ‘newest plug-in’ to the next is not the way I like it, I need tools I’m familiar with.
I don’t know if my music has this typical ‘Reason-sound’ that so many people are criticizing when they argument against software. In fact, I don’t really care about this sound discussion, for me it’s all about content. I think you can produce gorgeous music with the shittiest equipment.
10 – More recently, you started another musical project, the breakcore-styled “Das Gritli Moser”, which seems to reflect a darker and more violent facet of your music. Can you tell us more about it?
‘Das Gritli Moser’ is dark, brutal and actually quite funny, delivering what I call ‘breakcore inspired abstract noise-funk straight out of hell’. I use a lot of voice samples from old horror/mystery radio plays, interviews with priests and stuff like that for my little Gritli, to give the whole thing a classic horror touch.
At the moment I am looking for a label to release the first album…
11 – Looking at your discography, both physical and netlabel releases, one can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the quantity of material you released as Photophob since 2003. Prolific as you are, don’t you sometimes get a feeling that releasing such quantity may have an adverse effect on the quality?
Hmm, good question. But no, I don’t think it has a negative effect on the quality, as I just release material I am really confident in – if I don’t like a track, I either leave it, or change it until I am satisfied. I try to give each album an individual character (well ok, my sci-fi releases are kinda similar), but all in all I think I can provide a quite wide range of different moods and styles with my releases.
All in all I guess the main reason for my high quantity of music is that I am simply spending VERY much time producing it…
12 – Somewhat related, I’m supposing that in addition to your musical activity you also have a ‘real life’. How do you conciliate both?
By showing no interest in going out to parties and clubs and by living in a relationship with a very tolerating girlfriend. I am a real stay-at-home, not involved in any scene, spending way too much time in front of my computer (well, I am involved in the netlabel-scene of course, but this is happening along the way somehow…). But in fact, most of the material I produced so far was done in the last few years while studying, and now that I have to make a living from a normal day-job, I guess I won’t be able to hold up this high quantity of releases.
13 – Photophob is a peculiar case in the musical panorama in that – aside from a couple of albums on Hive Records and now the “Circadian Rhythms” CDR – the majority of your musical output has been released on netlabels.
Being present in ‘both sides of the coin’, what are your views on netlabels and their capability of raising awareness about an artist?
As you said, netlabels are a good way to raise the awareness about new artists. But they are a double-edged sword, as they are also contributing to the popular opinion that music is a completely free good and that artists don’t deserve a salary for their output. So, by avoiding the problem of financial risk, you’re actually contributing to the problem yourself. I have no idea which way is the ‘best’, it’s a very complicated situation at the moment. But with the crisis of music industry (great labels like Sublight closing their doors), releasing on a netlabel is the only realistic way for many artists to release their stuff anyway.
14 – And related to that, how do you view the phenomenon of file-sharing which, currently affects both major and small independent labels? Do you feel that, thanks to the free availability of music there is a decrease of appreciation and respect for an artist’s work?
Yes and no. On the one hand, it has definitely become harder, if not impossible (especially for smaller artists) to get in some money for their releases, on the other hand, we all know (and hopefully support) a lot of great artists we wouldn’t have heard of without file-sharing. And another point you have to consider is that the number of artists, fighting for the attention of the same little scene, is growing bigger and bigger because of these easy means of promotion and communication.
As said above, that’s really a quite complicated situation. I hope there will be more surveys and statistics on this topic in future, so we can maybe estimate the ratio between the positive and negative effects.
15 – Out of curiosity, what do you think the future has in store for us? And what does Photophob have in store for the future?
I think there are tough times coming for independent labels as it is getting harder and harder to find customers who are willing to pay for music. I guess in some years there won’t be much left beside major commercial labels (they’ll always have enough money, no matter how much they moan, because they control 95% of the market) and independent uncommercial netlabels, releasing music for free. I think especially within the electronic-scene, album-releases will have to be seen as ‘advertising expenditure’ for live-gigs, if you plan to get some money in at all.
What’s in the photophobian future-store? A lot, as I’ve actually got a kind of tailback in releasing my stuff. I have several finished albums waiting to be released within the next months and years, including another sci-fi influenced idm-album by ‘Photophob’, the breakcore-mashup by ‘Das Gritli Moser’ and two ambient/drone albums under my real name ‘Herwig Holzmann’. And I am working on a follow up to “About The Living Things” at the moment…
16 – I guess this it, the end of the interview. Do you have any final comments or requests?
Maybe a request to all the listeners out there: if you like a free mp3-album, please spend five minutes to let the artist know. For people involved in the netlabel-scene, feedback is all they will ever get. Please show your appreciation for their work and for giving it to you for free.
— interview by Miguel de Sousa (July 2007)