Swimming in deep waters of the underground electronic scene can be challenging. Both mentally and physically. Especially when one wants to paddle against the mainstream.
Electric Indigo (aka Susanne Kirchmayr) has been active on the avant-garde techno scene since the early 90s. This bona fide producer, DJ and founder of the Female:Pressure network shared with us her view on artistic values and attitudes. We also reminisced on her days back at the Berlin's legendary Hard Wax record shop.
Mariana: All these years on the scene, you must have seen lots of people becoming big as well as many of them failing. What is that common reason, you think, for an artist to give up and not to continue?
Electric Indigo: Well, usually it is reasonable thinking [laughs]. Or being afraid. Every artistic career is so unpredictable. Besides, some people just can't afford giving up their daily jobs because they have bills to pay. So I guess one needs a certain amount of luck and privilege in order to pursue an artistic career.
From what I have seen, the most significant reason for people to fail is considering themselves to be the greatest. If an artist is very young and has a certain success and popularity, it can be overwhelming. Or people can also fail because they drink too much and take too many drugs. I guess it is tempting, especially if you are a party kid and your mind is not completely stable and settled yet.
No success is permanent over a long period of time — if you want to stay on top of your game, you really have to learn how to overcome crisis.
And that is not easy. If you are an insecure personality and look for recognition, confirmation and things you can totally rely on, then artistic career is probably not a good choice for you.
Not having popularity and income leads not only to existential, but also to ego crisis and, of course, I am familiar with those. It takes quite some effort to overcome this crisis — it is like overcoming an illness — because you feel weak and you have to get better and get up again.
So there are ups and downs and if you cannot handle them, then you are in the wrong business.
We often mention term underground. What is your definition of it?
It's a feeling and attitude. Stating that underground scene is not commercial is hypocritical because we all need money to pay our daily expenses. However, making money is not a prime goal of an underground artist or promotor. It is more about avoiding a mass approach and creating a community.
Music-wise underground allows to explore what new is coming or what the potential of sound is. It also means trial-and-error experiments, when a failure is also a part of the process.
And, of course, people who consider themselves to be a part of the underground scene also look differently than ordinary weekend entertainment seekers.
However, it is quite hard to make a clear definition, because some underground acts also become popular and make huge money and attract huge masses of people.
You've been DJ-ing and doing live performances all around the world. What are the countries to watch at the moment?
I don't think I have an expert opinion, but I believe that South American countries have a lot of creative potential and artistic minds.
My experience in Peru at Arista festival last winter was really impressive as I could feel that they are building up something very special there. Also, they have a lot of women involved in the scene.
The party that I was playing at had really diverse and underground audience: a mixture of female and male nerds, gay people, party people. And at the same time, just across the street there was a 'club' club - macho boys and high-heeled girls, a perfect picture of how you would imagine a South American cliche.
You are straying far from any cliches of the genre with intelligent and abstracts techno-ideas and experimental audiovisual installations. But let's go back in time — how did this all started for you?
It was 1989 when I started to DJ in Vienna, in a small bar, playing hip-hop, funk and soul records. Couple of years later I got to know electronic dance music, and Detroit techno and house became my revelation. This music was the essence of what I liked in funk and hip-hop because I was always into rhythms, the base and the drum sounds.
Unfortunately, most of my audience in Vienna couldn't follow this change of style. And when I once came to play to that bar — there was already another DJ behind the decks. They did not even cancel me properly.
There was a small techno scene in Vienna already, but I did not have any credibility with them. Luckily, I got in touch with German techno scene in Munich; these were Disco B people and organisers of the legendary Ultraschall. With them I had my first techno DJ experience.
You name is also associated with Hard Wax, the legendary Berlin record store.
Hard Wax was extremely important for me and remains highly influential even if I don't go there that often anymore. Working at the store I made my way into the techno world. There is a certain anti-glossy and anti-glamorous mentality that comes with Hard Wax. I guess that my way to hear and categorise dance music were coined by that mentality too.
25 years ago distribution worked completely different. A year later after the release a record would arrive from Berlin to Vienna, and a really good record would probably never arrive.
Hard Wax was like a centre of the universe for me and the first time I came there in 1991 - I knew it was the place I wanted to work at. I was friends with DJ Hell at that time and he introduced me to DJ Rok, who was one of the most prominent figures at Hard Wax. As I expressed my wish to work there, DJ Rok was making fun of me saying that we only take good-looking boys. In summer 1993, Hard Wax needed somebody for a holiday replacement and I got the job. And after this summer, as I was very accurate and diligent, they decided to keep me.
To us, the generation 'digital', your stories from Hard Wax days sound fascinating.
I understand why. I understand why. I remember these guys from Finland from Sahko Recordings coming to the store with their first records — they were handmade, the holes were made with a hand drill… But as we played their music in the store, everybody was amazed. And at that time I was in the position to say that we take all their records.
I still think of Friday nights, when new records arrived, the situation would go completely crazy. For every DJ it was important to be present there and to be standing at the front in order to get a rare copy. So the first one would unpack a record, skip through tracks, and then hands would go up. There was such an extreme level of excitement and these people in the store were mostly guys.
And today, what is your main artistic ambition?
I don't have one main activity at the moment, everything I do is split up evenly between performing, working on experimental compositions, DJing and also making some club music.
Female:Pressure has been receiving a lot of attention and interest lately and I try to redirect coming projects to the platform's activists.
I am quite happy with experimental performances and music that I created in the last couple of years, but I want to take one more specific direction and combine these very free soundscapes with more brutal structure around.
Apart from that, I participating at Wien Modern and Heroines of Sound Festivals. Also, together with Trishes I am curating a part of the Popfest Wien. I find it interesting to work with the diverse genres and discover new musicians (which in this case are limited to Austrians only). There are quite some limitations in this project, though it is nice to work with limitations. It is the same when you make music: in theory you could do anything and it can be overwhelming. So to have certain limitations is not the worst thing that can happen.
Photos by Christian Koenig, Markus Gradwohl, Gerhard Heller, Ultraschall, Hard Wax