Standort: / Meldung: "Tyrolian Hang player Manu Delago returns to Austria"

Johnny Bliss

Disorderly artist, journalist, and late night moderator, with a fetish for microphone-based hooliganism.

26. 1. 2012 - 17:05

Tyrolian Hang player Manu Delago returns to Austria

From a basement in Innsbruck, to internet fame and then live shows with Björk, bewildered Manu Delago is bewildered.

Manu Delago is playing tonight (the 26th) with his new project Living Room in London, at Innsbruck's Treibhaus. For more dates this month, go here.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

It's been three months since I saw Björk in Reykjavik, playing improvised high-tech and rare instruments she pioneered for her Biophilia album tour.

In the astonishingly fast world of pop music, one assumes naturally that said tour is old news already. The accompanying album certainly has received less attention this month than it did in the last two of 2009.

But you know what they say about assumptions.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

The latest word online is that Björk's Biophilia tour carries on; despite a brief pause right now, at the beginning of February, the tour will hit the road again, doing a series of live dates predominantly in the area of New York City, and over the course of the year until June, they will be going to places like Brazil, Chile, and eventually Spain (Barcelona).

How do I know all of this? Not by going to Björk's own abstract and extremely unhelpful personal website. Fortunately, she travels with an entourage (or should I say, on-tour-age? Ha ha ha.. sorry) of musicians who actually have helpful and informative websites.

Part of the entourage is the Icelandic women's choir, Graduale Nobili. They're 24 strong, and based in Reykjavik, and they also are online, with, er, normal web information available on both Facebook and Myspace.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

* - Apparently he is also a musical genius, having personally designed several iPhone apps that double as live digital instruments, which Björk uses on at least three songs from Biophilia.

Another part of the entourage is the person in charge of electronics, nineteen-year-old Max Weisel, who, despite his name, is not some German or Austrian but, in fact, an American from Tucson, AZ.*

Unfortunately, I lied about him having a helpful and informative website; I was unable to find any reference to tour dates on his page. If it wasn't for (thank goodness) the other member of the entourage's wonderfully clear web site, this story might simply have not made any reference to him.

Which brings us finally to Manu Delago, the Hang player and drummer from Austrian Tyrol, who first managed stumbled upon internet fame with a YouTube video of him playing the Hang in a basement (more below).

It must be said: without Mr. Delago's participation in the project, I probably wouldn't be bothering with this follow-up story three months later. As interesting of a project as Biophilia in fact is, I'm not in the habit of writing web stories about experiences which are no longer directly relevant, unless those experiences involve orangutans, activists, or penguins.

* - Check the dates here.

But hey, there is a point. If this web story does manage to sell you on Manu Delago's musical skills (to pay the bills), he is on a tour of his own right now*, traveling mainly through Austria but also to Germany, doing continental shows every day until the 1st of February.

Before we get to his solo projects, and personal story, we'll begin with the Biophilia show, which was my first live exposure to Manu and his Hang; and the musical tesla coil, which almost stole the show.

Somewhere in the Top Five

To provide some context, I should mention that I spent nearly two years relentlessly covering concerts and music festivals for FM4; I'd guess that I have seen literally hundreds of bands in concert now.

So to say that a concert made it to my "top five" is high praise indeed, but it is so. Björk's Biophilia show rocked my socks off, mainly due to its innovative use of rare and unusual instrumentation, to make unique compositions which were as fascinating to watch, as to hear.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

As I have just mentioned, the musical tesla coil was simply amazing.

Each time lightning shot through it, different tones would blare out with a sound reminiscent of certain kick-ass synthesizers. Meanwhile, the whole room was thick with electricity; you could feel the hairs on the back of your arms standing up. During the songs which incorporated this instrument, one literally had to remind oneself not to drool.

Of course, the fact that this was in Iceland changed the way Björk addressed her audience; in-between songs she would speak to us in Icelandic, which naturally meant that I understood nothing. But that only made the whole show seem more intimate, and somehow private.

Then there was the aforementioned Icelandic girl's choir, all 24 of them. Part of what is so enjoyable about seeing Graduale Nobili live with Björk is that it is so out of context. You don't see women's choirs performing with pop divas, Hang players, and tesla coils; you usually see them singing some dusty song about Christmas in a church or something. Suddenly, one could imagine that a choir could be something modern and cool.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

There were other improvised instruments, and they were intriguing, but only to a point. Conceptually, watching Björk play an iPad IS interesting, but it doesn't really make for very good theatre.

On the other hand, the fact that the concert took place smack in the middle of a room, so you could literally walk around to see the concert from any angle at any time, was good theatre, and added a whole element to the show that you regularly never would get to experience.

And while we're speaking of good theatre, I'll finally get to the point: the performance of Manu Delago, live on electronic drums, plus the marimba, acoustic drums, and of course, the Hang.

What got my attention? He used the electronic drum kit to play a live amen break, during the song 'Crystalline'. For a couple of minutes, he played live breakcore! This time, I think I actually did drool. For a fan of hard electronica, that alone was worth the price of entry.

Klemens Weisleitner, 2011

Klemens Weisleitner, 2011

Having already heard that he was an Austrian, I resolved at this moment to take the opportunity, and interview him. This, as it turned out, was completely impossible to do after a Björk concert.

Fortunately, he was also performing the next evening in a smaller venue, with one of his smaller projects.

Manu Delago Handmade

is a collaboration between him, a woman named Isa Kurz on vocals, violin and piano, and another dude named Philipp Moll, who was playing acoustic bass and electronics. I was initially disappointed at the absence of any tesla coil or entire Icelandic women's choir, but I got over it.

In fact, the project wouldn't have really worked on a larger scale; as I came to understand, the whole point was reducing the sonic noise so that each individual instrument came through more powerfully. In a way, this was my first real exposure to Manu's famed Hang, in a sonic environment where it was possible to disassociate each sound from all of the other ones. In so doing, I discovered a very musical (and not very drum-like) instrument, that somehow reminded me of a stringed harp or so.

Johnny Bliss, 2011

Meanwhile, his drumming techniques varied drastically from song to song.

Sometimes, he would be playing to a quite conservative standard tempo, for minutes at a time, and then suddenly, in the middle of the song, would take the percussion and veer away off of the 4/4 rhythm.

At another moment, he'd managed to create a sound as if he were somehow playing one of his drums backwards, by simply putting a hand over the still-trembling cymbals to kill the remaining echo.

Johnny Bliss, 2011

The show was unique, and engaging, and I was looking forward to our interview the following afternoon.

Ominous beginning

* - Where we met was the giant concert hall Harpa, right on the harbour at Reykjavik; newly built, it was host to many of the biggest concerts of the Iceland Airwaves festival, including Björk and Yoko Ono and others.

The next day started a bit strange. I arrived* fifteen minutes late, owing to having been literally just hit by a car on the way over- very lightly, I should say, but it nevertheless had left me a bit shaken up.

Fortunately, I found Manu to be a very relaxed and chillig person, which helped to bring me back down. Soon we were ready to begin the interview.

How exactly did this come to pass? I mean, not very many people get to drum with Björk.

Björk saw my Youtube video, a piece called Mono Desire, and she apparently liked it, and then she contacted me [to ask] if I wanted to be part of her new album. And yeah, I didn't turn down that offer!

And how did she contact you? Did she call you on the phone, did she contact you through some agency?

First I got an email from her assistant, and then the next thing was a Skype call. So we made a Skype appointment basically, and then we had a half hour call. That was cool.

Was it kinda surreal, a bit weird? "Oh, I'm on Skype, with BJÖRK."

Yeah it was a little bit surreal. You know, we said one o'clock on that day, and I had to make sure that I was on the right time zone, because I was in London, and she was... I don't know where she was, probably in Iceland. [Anyway], so I went on Skype, just a minute before, and my Skype crashed for some reason. So it was a bit stressful and I had to restart the computer, and I was a bit late, and then I got a call from the assistant where I am on Skype, and so on... but it was all fine, and it was great talking to her. She's a great lady, and very nice.

Johnny Bliss, 2011

Could you tell me a little bit about this YouTube video? It got four million hits or something, isn't it?

Yeah, that was... quite unexpected. I mean, I uploaded that video on YouTube in 2007 [because] I wanted to promote my album at the time, and I'd recorded it in a basement in Innsbruck. Unexpectedly a Japanese guy downloaded the video, and re-uploaded it on his account, under a slightly different name called Hang Drum Solo. And I had no control of that video, and I was a little bit annoyed actually about it, because you know, it was my video, he [just] called it a different name! But luckily he put my website link underneath it. And suddenly this video got more and more hits and turned out to become [one of the] top 30 music videos on YouTube, and it is now the most popular Hang video in the world. Luckily many people have seen it, [including] many artists and promoters, who asked me to collaborate with them.

That's hilarious. You weren't one of these YouTube people who are like, "ooh, I'm going to tag it like this, and I'm going do all these comments, and I'm going to find a way to make this popular", you just uploaded the video and then it became popular.

Yeah! Not at all. I didn't think about any manipulation. It was totally out of my control once the Japanese guy uploaded it anyway, so I couldn't even edit the information. But so many people have also done remixes. On the internet you find that it has been used for TV adverts, and it's just doing its own thing. I can't really control it, but it's definitely helping me.

You're involved in several different projects. Could you tell me a little bit about what the difference is between them?

I've got two projects: a duo called Living Room, and a trio called Manu Delago Handmade, and these projects have both been playing since 2006, so these are my oldest projects. We've released several albums and I still play with both projects a lot. And at the moment, we're just working on a new project called Living Room In London, which is an extension of Living Room- so it's the original duo [of Christoph Pepe and I], plus a string trio, with musicians from the London Symphony Orchestra. And then there are also lots of Björk dates going on over the next year, which I'm looking forward to as well.

Johnny Bliss, 2011

How is it working with Björk on a regular basis?

Well, it's not the conventional touring thing with her. [For example,] in July we played in Manchester for one month, and we always did two shows a week. Now we're doing it in Iceland, nine shows in total, and then we'll move on to other cities. But that's sort of the plan, we move from city to city, and stay there for a month, which is really great because you get to hang out in a city and also leave your set-up, you know, just set it up once and then it doesn't get touched. [It] is just really nice, not flying around every day, so I really enjoy the way of touring and working with her.

I remember you played an Amen Break on the song Crystalline, just really Breakcore-esque, which you don't normally actually see somebody doing live on drums...

Well, on Crystalline, there's quite a cool drum ending, a drum n' bass thing where the first time I heard it, I just couldn't believe that it really happened. So I sat together with a programmer for a week, and we chopped up all the drum samples, and spread them out on the electronic drum kit, and I just tried to make it playable. Because we're playing in a round stage [with] the audience [surrounding us], the subwoofers are right behind me! It's fun.

Was that the most difficult part for you, from the Biophilia project? And if not, then what?

In general, it's quite a challenging repertoire to play, especially the new album is very challenging, but I just love playing challenging music where you don't sit there and just play a backbeat and switch off and watch the girls in the audience, it's like literally challenging music where you have to totally be focused all the time. It's also not easy to switch between all the instruments. One challenge is just keeping in mind what the sounds are, in which pads, because it changes in every song, and sometimes even within the song, my set-up changes. I have to memorize quite a lot of samples...

Do you find that you're slowly becoming friends with Björk? Aside from being creative collaborators, do you sometimes go out for a drink on the town or something?

Yeah. I mean, she's got a family here, so she's very focused on resting. But sometimes she comes for a drink with us, or we're hanging out backstage, which is always a dead time before the actual show starts.

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Carsten Windhorst, 2011

Do you get into some interesting deeper conversations about philosophy or Icelandic politics or... deeper conversations?

I haven't really tried it yet to be honest. More often, it's related to what we do, so we talk about music; we talk about art in a way. She's got so many great inspirations, and she often just will tell me, check out this band or check out that band... it's a lot of crazy stuff she would listen to.

Can we just do a quick rundown of the instruments that you're actually playing and how you play them?

Well, with Björk I've got quite a big set-up, which is obviously the Hangs, the Swiss instrument I'm playing. Then there's an electronic drum kit, and a small acoustic set-up, like drums with a snare drum and a tom-tom and some cymbals, and I've also got the xylo-synth, which is sort of a medium marimba, where you can trigger a lot of samples as well.

But in my own band Handmade, I'm playing drums, glockenspiel, and Hang. And in the duo Living Room, Christoph Pepe and myself are both using lots of toy instruments. [Whether] it sounds beautiful, funny, or awful, it doesn't matter; if I find it interesting, I play it on-stage.

Johnny Bliss, 2011

Can you tell me a bit about your fascination with toy instruments?

I don't know what it is. It might just be that when you fly a lot to gigs, then you just can't bring a lot of big instruments, so maybe that's why I adapted to toy instruments, because you can put them in your hand luggage, and they're also very cheap. Especially if it's not even an instrument: if you just turn it into an instrument, which we do in Living Room. It's fun for us at least, and I think the audience is having a good time with it as well.

Manu Delago is performing in Austria and Germany all week with his project, Living Room in London. For more, check out his website.