Interview: Mental Overdrive

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Widely considered a pillar of the Norwegian Techno scene, Per Martinsen AKA Mental Overdrive has been running things up in the wild wild north for the best part of twenty years. We sat down with him for a lengthy talk about his latest outputs Cycls and Everything is connected , end of the world predictions and having to be told by Sven Väth that it’s your own tune that’s been played. A huge thank you to Mental Overdrive for all this, we hope you enjoy the read.

Hi Per so can you start off by introducing Mental Overdrive to everyone?

Mental Overdrive is the name I’ve used when putting out most of my solo-produced music over the last couple of decades. It started out in 1990 – the early rave era – but I wanted to keep on using the name even for my more mellow material, as I think it’s kinda cool and a little bit confusing to have something like an ambient track put out under such a biased name.

Your two most recent releases, Everything is connected and Cycls are quite different, the former being more straightforward Techno/Electronica and Cycls going in quite a few different directions (Garage/House with Sunstorm and Kollaps, Experimental/Breakcore with Quarks, Systems sounds very dubstepish…) How do you approach the process of making an album? Do you decide, right, this one is going to be full-on techno, do you just compose and see where it takes you?

I just keep working in the studio most of the time, trying out different things without any specific aim or direction. But I soon hear one or more potential directions in the ideas I’m working on, and the decision then lies in whether I want to follow one of these directions without too much discussion – which often results in something of a more straightforward nature based on my previous musical experience – or if I should try to rip it to pieces and challenge both the idea and myself to a greater extent – which often gives more unexpected results. If I’ve been hearing music in a club lately I tend to lean towards something that might “work” in such a setting, but other times I don’t consider this at all, and end up with something much more abstract that might destroy all but the most avant garde dancefloors if I were to play it out.

In this respect ‘CYCLS’ might be more of a “listening-album” with its collection of tracks of different moods and forms, while ‘Everything is connected’ is more a bundle of floor-friendly single and EP releases from the last couple of years or so.

What are your favorite tracks off both albums and why?

It’s a difficult question as I’m never really too comfortable listening back on my own music. It’s as if I’ve done my job when I decide to let it go and suggest it’s finished in some way, and usually the only way I pick a track up again is when I play live, and then only in the form of single elements and motifs taken out of the originals. But if I think back on the tracklist now I would say “Liverpool Street”, “Beaches” and “Systems” from ‘CYCLS’ have something going for them, and also “Quarks”, as they all contain a lot of negative space that leaves room for “hearing things that are not there”.

As for ‘Everything is connected’ I think “One Canada Square”, “Ritual” and “Monster” do their job of filling a club with the kind of vibe I personally enjoy.

Can you tell us a bit more about the choice of the album titles Cycls and Everything is connected?

‘CYCLS’ is the simplest title I could come up with to describe a concept that could work as a counterpart to the whole idea of “doomsday” and an end of our collective existence. I am extremely fascinated by ideas and dogmas commanding a kind of linearity in regard to our existence. The whole idea that all things should “begin” and “end” is a pretty limiting and a somehow primitive concept of thought.

As for ‘Everything is connected’, it’s more of a compilation as I said before, but the title actually points towards some short texts I’ve written, that, seemingly disparate, all tie into each other if you start investigating them and see them in the bigger picture. There are also a series of photographs connected to this project. I’m still working on both the text and photos, but will surely put the material up on my website or blog if/when it’s completed.

In the film The Ghost Radio hunter we get a brief look into your studio set-up which looks like a very fun field trip for any amateur of analogue machines. Equipment-wise, what do you use to produce your music and what did you specifically use for CYCLS and Everything is connected?

I use both bits of analogue and digital equipment, like I believe many producers do these days. I think the “Hardware Revolution” that has been going on for the last few years has been healthy. It’s kind of like the punk of electronic music, getting back to basics and focusing more on basic grooves and raw energy, rather than hyper-sophisticated production methods. Still I think each technology has its clear strengths and weaknesses. I’ve been in this game for a while, so when I started out we had to make our machines talk via CV/Gate and Clock signals, then it was all MIDI-powered, and finally we’ve got a fully digitized world where software can communicate via various integrated protocols. I now try to connect all these different technologies and make them work together as best I can, but I also sometimes pick up non-electronic instruments. This is especially interesting when I don’t know how to play them at all. Both ‘CYCLS’ and ‘Everything is connected’ even includes tracks where I play guitar.

Have any pieces of kit been following you since you’ve started making music? And what does your current live setup look like?

I have an old modular system and some prototyped gear that has been following me since I started out, but I’ve also invested in a new modular system as I think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in this field at the moment, especially with the “open source”-like standards of Eurorack that opens up for many different manufacturers and independent companies. The new systems are also travel-friendly, so I can bring them with me to live shows and music-making on the road.

At the time I’m travelling with a system based on a live-friendly DAW with hands-on controllers plus a small suitcase of analogue modules from many different manufacturers. I’m also thinking of making a live solution with this setup plus a live drummer, as I’ve played live with drummers before and really enjoy the energy that can build up between live electronics and the rawness of a live kit. It all depends on the setting though. Not all situations (or budgets) would fit this solution, but festivals etc. might be good arenas to do this.

The idea behind CYCLS was to release the songs as an advent calendar to the planned Mayan end of the world date and the whole project originated from you wanting to “suggest that there is no absolute deadline to this existence, no matter how much some people seem to require one”. Obviously the world didn’t implode but there are a couple more end of the world predictions planned for 2014, most notably the Norse apocalypse Ragnarok. Is any kind of Nordic solidarity coming into the equation of how solid that prediction is?

As I mentioned before this kind of linear thinking fascinates me, but I also see the value in operating with deadlines. The Mayan end-date seemed like a perfect deadline for finishing and releasing an album, and when approached with the advent-calendar angle even more so. It forced me to put one track up on my Bandcamp site every Monday for 10 weeks prior to the end date.

When it comes to Ragnarok I guess it’s as accurate as “The Apocalypse”, “The Rapture” or any other concepts useful for controlling the masses through their existential fear via various religious systems; “If you don’t do as we say, the world will come to an end!”, which is much like telling your children “If you don’t do this and that, the Boogeyman will come and get you!” ;->

Does anyone actually even talk about Ragnarok in Norway?

Not many people I’m afraid. At least not as many as there are Italian black metal fans talking about it.

If you had to make a prediction as to how and when the world is going to end what would it be?

If the world should actually end, I suspect it would involve sneezing in some way. Divine or mortal.

You grew up and now live in North Norway in Tromsø which despite its geographical isolation is the home to great artists like Royskopp, Biosphere, Bel Canto, and Tromsø is considered the Techno capital of Norway. How did the city become this cultural mainstay, and is the scene still as dynamic nowadays?

Yeah, it’s a bit of a mystery why such a small and remote place should foster so many souls involved in expressing themselves through electronic music, but I guess there are several reasons: The city is certainly an outpost, but still there’s a large community centered around Arctic research, which quite early on granted access to some quite cutting edge technology. The Northern Lights have been observed and analyzed from here for a long time, and in addition all kinds of shady things went on up here during the cold war with all the surveillance on the Soviet/NATO axis.

Also growing up here meant we could just sit and monitor all kinds of culture emerging from other places around the globe, like the UK and Germany, without really having to be a direct part of any of it. It was a bit like we were a kind of surveillance space station put up here to check out what humans were up to around the world. Pre-internet, it was all about reading music magazines and fanzines, and importing music via mail-order like aliens collecting samples of different human cultures – as if we were engaged in some kind of intergalactic anthropology project. Then we started spitting back out our own flavor; a total mash-up of all the impressions we’d been collecting, merged with our own personal edge.

I ended up living away for 20 years, and just moved back in 2008. The city is more vital now than it has been for decades, so I’m definitely looking forward to see what will be coming out of Tromsø in the future.

What are you listening to nowadays and what artists do you think are pushing music in an interesting direction?

I think the most interesting stuff going on at the moment has to do with the stretching of what I like to call “The Grid”. I think what happened around 1986-1989 was that a lot of people gradually agreed on gathering around a common musical language – a truly international one, like some kind of “musical Esperanto” :-D. The idea was that if we all just agreed on grid-based, clocked beats – a basic grammar – we could then add a lot of different ideas around this common denominator.

Available music- and communication consumer technology made this possible, and over the years the grid has gone through many changes; straight, shuffled, loose, quantized, 4/4, 2-step, half-tempo, double-tempo etc. etc. (I’m not sure Neo-Waltz can be counted in. Sorry, Adamski). Still the basic focal point has been the backbone of a whole musical journey for almost 30 years. The reason this has worked is that quite a few people submitted to this concept, and that the social aspects that came along in the shape of dance culture and other meeting points created a rapidly growing culture around it.

Lately I think a lot of people feel a desire to push and pull the grid more than before. Of course we’ve had electronic non-pulse, non-clocked music around for quite a while, but I see more and more people who seem to want to break these boundaries to a larger extent, jumping in and out of clocked time, varying tempos etc… Still, I don’t think these experiments can gain the momentum that the more “strictly gridded” dance music has gained, unless the people doing and following it reach a critical mass large enough to make it culturally significant on a larger scale.

Personally I like to keep one foot in the grid and one outside these days, so to go back to answer your question, a quick glance at the “recently played” playlist in my media player contains names like James Holden, Objekt, Akkord, Daniel Lopatin, Tim Hecker, Moodymann, Larry Gus and Axel Boman, to name a few. This morning I was out running to Machinedrum’s RA Podcast, which includes a lot of good drum’n’bass.

You’re currently working on a new film called Monster, can you tell us a bit more about the project?

Monster is simply put an “Ode to The Outsider” – in every shape and form. In the film we follow our yet unnamed friend (as portrayed by Eno Ishtar) through a day in the life, where he touches in on music, love, social life and other topics close to his heart. The film is shot in Tromsø and London, and includes quite a few (unknowing) cameos by some players on the London nightlife and underground music circuit. The film was premiered at the Tromsø International Film Festival in January, and might show up at a film festival near you later in the year. In the meantime you can watch the trailer.

In your previous film The Ghost Radio Hunter you ended up shooting on Svalbard, a desolate archipelago half-way between Northern Norway and the North Pole. The whole thing is awesome but very random to say the least, so what would you say have been the three most random/interesting highlights of your career so far?

Well, I guess a few random things are bound to happen when you hang around in the world of electronic music and party situations for quite a while, like I’ve done, and even though I can’t really rate them into a top 3, 10 or even 50, I can give you 3 stories – 1 from each of the last 3 decades:

In 1990, me, Renaat from R&S and a friend decided to drive down to Frankfurt from the R&S HQ in Belgium to check out a club Renaat had been talking about. It was called “The Omen”, and was hosted by DJ Sven Väth. Upon arrival I was totally blown away by the sound system and crazy vibe of the club, and towards the peak hours this insane tune came on, and the whole place exploded. I was standing in front of the sound system thinking “What the fuck is this shit? The people making this must be totally out of their minds!”. Suddenly Sven jumped out of the booth, and he and Renaat came over and started jumping around in front of me. I leaned over and asked Mr Väth “What the hell is this tune?”, whereupon he looked at me like I was a total freak and said: “It’s your track, man. From the Mental Overdrive white label I got sent from Renaat last month…” After all I had never heard any of my tunes on a system like this before. The entire first EP I did for R&S was mixed on headphones next to Renaat and Sabine having dinner – as their flat worked as both living quarters, offices and studio combined.

In 2005 we invited Richard James and Russell Haswell to come and play at this tiny festival situated on a small island outside of Tromsø. Their slot was in between a Swedish protest singer and a 70’s rock cover band, and all in all it was a very strange experience, but one that everyone involved seemed to enjoy (maybe except for some of the locals). As if this wasn’t random enough, when we returned to Tromsø by boat the day after the gig, we were invited to the local motorcycle club for an after party, where they asked our guests to spin some records. Russell ended up getting behind the decks, and happily shared what he thought to be the finest flavor of party music available at the time, something that gradually turned into some pretty noisy business. This got to the point where people started shouting at him, and I was kindly informed by the hosts that should he not stop hurting people’s ears they might find it necessary to end his life here and now (!) As we were not talking the classic “I’m gonna kill you if you don’t stop playing” death-treath, but the “We’re a bunch of 6 ft tall Northern Norwegian bikers, and we’re gonna kill you if you don’t stop playing”-type of death-treath, a change in selection was thought of as a good option. This incident reminded me that however much I enjoy hearing music being presented out of its comfort zone, not everyone might agree to this. But it also reminded me of the fantastic ability music has to talk directly to people’s emotions.

The last random story I have on offer took place in connection to the release of the Frost album Radiomagnetic in 2012. The entire album is based around the same theme as the film Ghost Radio Hunter, and is heavily inspired by pop music heard on a tape that is believed to have its origins in the now abandoned Russian mining town of Pyramiden on Svalbard. Both my own and my wife and musical partner Aggie’s families are very connected to the Svalbard islands; my ancestors were Arctic hunters and my great grandfather took part in several expeditions to try and reach the North Pole by airship in the late 1800’s, while Aggie’s grandmother was a photographer who took a lot of pictures in Svalbard in the sixties (her mom is born there), so we’ve been doing a lot of projects with this part of our background in mind. As we were about to launch the album that we’d been working on for a couple of years, and had set everything up, we had an email from our UK press agent, who told us that another band was releasing an album inspired by the town of Pyramiden exactly one week after our album release date. How’s that for synchronicity? The band in question was Danish band Efterklang, and none of us had any idea about each other’s work prior to this incident. I’m sure there must be some kind of magical magnetism pulling people up there at the moment.

What’s on the cards for you in 2014? Are we going to be able to catch you playing in Berlin?

It seems we’ll be relocating to London for the summer season, as we’ve been doing every year after moving back up to Tromsø. I think I need the contrast of this Arctic existence and a bigger city in order to get balanced, and it’s also easier to travel to gigs in Europe this way. I’m about to look into live bookings as we speak, and have always loved playing in Berlin, so hopefully there will be something on soon.