An Interview with Harald Dessl (phonux)

Soon after launching the FCU video project, I received an e-mail from Harald Dessl. While related to the project, it contained not a video idea but an inquiry for him to contribute some of his unreleased Ambient compositions for video producers to use. I immediately said yes as the inquiry had changed my original thought pattern on the project. He sent me The Sounding Eye and I was absolutely stunned by the record, especially its opening moments. A droning soundscape crafted by guitar and tinged by the amber rays of a setting Middle Eastern sun, it made for peaceful meditation.

I instantly knew I had to learn more about Harald—his background, his body of work—which he captures under the moniker phonux. And to my surprise there was much to absorb: analog synth experiments, some rock and metal bangers, and a multitude of deep, rich, enthralling soundscapes.

In this interview, we glimpse slices of Harald’s life: when he began listening to music, his influences, his writing process, what led him to become reclusive; there’s much to unpack and learn.

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Harald Dessl

Where did it all begin for you with music?

When I was 4 years old, in 1968, my parents had a record player (combined with radio). I was completely fascinated by this wooden “magic box” and the round black objects rotating inside. I had to stand on a chair to view that. My brother was 17 at that time, and he had some singles from The Beatles, The Hollies and CCR. Their Green River album made me sing along (imitate English language) and dance. I still have that record and all the other original vinyl.

When I first tried to operate the player myself at age 4, in an unobserved moment, I almost damaged the tone arm. But my parents or my brother never were angry about all the scratched records I produced at that time. Though, sometimes they had to hide them, because I was so overly enthusiastic. Ten years later I treated records like hypersensitive babies. And that has remained my habit.

99% of whatever I played I learned from listening and trying. In a few cases I used tabs if I couldn’t figure out how to fret difficult chords. Sheet music to me always was a barricade between my emotion and the instrument. Thus, music education in school was not my specialty.

Which artists/musicians have left indelible impressions on you?

After hearing Van Halen’s Eruption on the radio at age 14, I was like: Can a human play guitar like this? How? I had no rest until the whole album was in my hands. Those days finding records in shops was more of an adventure.

Another experience was Glenn Branca’s guitar orchestra, which was also on the radio in some special music program around 1983. At that time I already had my first electric guitar, a Fender Stratocaster. I didn’t want to change anything on that guitar, so I took an old, borrowed, steel string acoustic guitar and experimented with 6 strings in the same tuning and so on. I went to Linz by train, to the Ars Electronica / Brucknerhaus in 1984 to see and hear Branca’s Orchestra live. I remember that very clearly. At times they sounded like an aeroplane because of all the interferences produced by this army of strings. Branca also influenced other Rock/Metal musicians, Page Hamilton (Helmet) for example. Nowadays you can simulate guitar orchestras and do pitch effects by digital processing. I’m still very much into experiments with strange tunings and unusually low string tension though.

Other crucial impressions (in no special order) came from early Queen, Pink Floyd, Blue Öyster Cult, Strawinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, Sex Pistols’ Never Mind The Bollocks, Queensryche, Faith No More, Mr. Bungle, Frank Zappa, Thin Lizzy, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, Lou Reed and others.

What musical endeavors did you undertake before phonux?

I played in local Rock bands since the age of 16. We were Rock pioneers (second generation) in our rural area.

What propelled you to begin your passion project, phonux?

My bands have turned into cover bands. It seems to be the common fate here. Play what people know and want to hear, and you get gigs. After having learned approximately 400 songs from other people over the years, stupid lyrics here and there, I was frustrated; though, in terms of guitar techniques it has brought me a lot. Since the end of 2008 it was better for me not to drink alcohol. But without at least a couple of beers I was not really in a position to play cover songs.

Also I developed some strange stage fright and sometimes felt like a clown in the wrong film. In 2013 I finally made a point.

phonux treads a breathtaking array of genres and sounds—rock, metal, ambient, Middle Eastern blues, among others. The first record you have listed on your Bandcamp, ‘Dancetorock’, embodies many of these flavors and even harbors some pop elements. It also features you singing. You remarked this record is of a different time, one where you almost lost your mind and your life. Can you describe the story behind this album?

I played and sang these songs in two bands before. The quite different arrangements of the recorded tracks came together randomly by experimenting in my living room “studio”. It was like an unseen wink at my bandmates: If you prefer to play covers, I will make the best of my songs on my own. As I mentioned, I was driven, even a bit angry or defiant at times. That way, being defiant, I increasingly fell back into drinking in 2007-08—a flashback of the years 1982 to 1994 when I became an alcoholic—step-by-step.

Alcohol had been my cure-all during those years, for social anxiety, approaches of autism, paranoia, bipolar disorder, self-defeating perfectionism. All these had not been diagnosed by a doctor. I didn’t want to see a doctor. Instead I always hid problems and played the cool and partly introvert artist. On the other hand, I could also be very funny and entertaining. From 1993 on I had a girlfriend. In the beginning she was like: Jim Morrison is so cool. But when she had me, she noticed: Booze ain’t that cool.

Anyway, I decided to make a documented one year step-by-step reduction of alcohol on my own. After that, in 1995, I moved to Vienna for 1.5 years, to attend the School of Audio Engineering… and to escape, and… I became something like an episodic drinker. Big city, big temptation. Back at home I remained in that pattern: no alcohol in principle, one day trying two beers, the next day six, the next day a bottle of Jack Daniels and so on for up to two weeks. Then the cold withdrawal, back from delirium, one or two months of abstinence… and then once again. That system went on for years.

From 1997 to 1999 I was the live sound engineer for a Country Rock Band. We got around and everything was good. However, sometimes my day jobs in offices were very hard to handle due to my temporary self-destructive drinking habits. In certain situations I had to be off sick (for whatever official reason).

In 2008 I made the conscious decision to be the drinking and smoking artist, how funny that may sound. That year I ended up in the hospital twice, with a mix of alcohol, antidepressants, and painkillers. My parents and/or friends initiated that to protect me from myself. At least those days I never had the intention to drive a car under the influence. And I never missed a job in music.

Once, on withdrawal, I was in the situation that my hands were like dead and undercurrent at the same time. I could not play the simplest melody on guitar, I could hardly hold a cup. Two days later—thanks to some tranquilizers—I played Deep Purple, ZZ Top, Lenny Kravitz and such in front of an enthusiastic audience. The gig was very successful. This is just an example of my constant back and forth.

During the 80s / early 90s I could have died several times (and others with me), driving a car in highly questionable conditions: blurry vision, unable to see the street and lights in front of me. And many other stupid things. I would not be alive anymore without God’s guidance and help.

 

How do the pop, dance-like rhythms on Dancetorock reflect the state of mind you were in at the time you produced this record?

Puzzling together drum samples and working with a drum software brought different results than playing the songs with a Rock band. I just experimented and wanted a sound that covered more of my influences.

Your post-Dancetorock records leave your voice behind; the fat, delectable bass also seems to fall away. But in the absence of these components, there seems to be a deeper focus pouring from your sound. Your compositions seem more free-form; longer and meditative. What spurred this change?

I’ve had enough of non-essential lyrics. And I’ve had enough of vocal recordings. I never was a good studio singer. I had some kind of inner blockade in a vocal recording situation. It felt like my singing had to be good enough for decades. In regular rehearsals and especially in concerts I used to sing with way more power, confidence and feeling. In my best times I covered singing styles from Green Day to Sinatra.

How do you usually begin writing a record or song?

Most Rock songs were written on the basis of riffs. Or fiddling around on acoustic guitar, trying harmonies for verse, bridges, chorus. Afterwards the lyrics. I mostly tried to write ambiguous lyrics. From today’s view I see a lot of my 80s / early 90s lyrics between garbage and incomprehensible for others. I sometimes tried to write in early Morrison style. Let’s swim to the moon…

My instrumental / ambient music is not written. It comes to me and I try to implement it and bring it into shape. I turn on my equipment, sit down in front of my ever-changing, but always limited pedal board, that’s placed on a wooden children’s table. I put on my headphones.

Voluntary equipment limitations inspire me to go unconventional ways and pull anything out of the present components / pedals. When I start playing, I have no idea what will go on for the next half hour or so.

 

Do you need to be in a certain state of mind before you begin recording?

Sometimes it is a decision of seconds: I have two hours, I could record now, try out some sounds at least. Just as occupational therapy and for doing something that makes some kind of sense. After that I import the recorded stereo file into Cubase, do some cuts, exchange parts, add reverb. Sometimes only fades and level adjustments.

If you like, my state of mind is: Having no expectations, just trying, overdriving the digital recorder (and it doesn’t matter, it brings interesting results sometimes). If I play for half an hour and can use 2 minutes of the material in some context, that’s ok. Sometimes I can use the whole recording without edits. When recording I try to be the spontaneous sound painter who has no clue of audio technology. That gives me the inner freedom to improvise. When the whole thing is in my PC, I take things more professionally, from the standpoint of the sound engineer who does damage limitation.

Based on your album descriptions, many of your guitar passages are improvised. Do you generally write and record the ambient components first then play guitar over the ambience or vice versa?

100% are improvised. Even the instrumental pieces on classical guitar. I just sit down with my small digital recorder and say to myself: Now play something. That’s more challenging than with electric guitar and pedals that add background and delay loops. Nowadays I do not play guitar over something (except on my Spaceshipscrap EP, which was an analog synth experiment). I make one-take guitar-only live recordings without overdubs, feeding my Boss DD-20 Delay (that can repeat up to 23 second intervals) with volume pedal sounds, noises from regular to very unconventional guitar treatment. I let passages fade out, bring in new sounds, change delay modes, turn knobs on other pedals etc. I record L/R panned Metal guitar sounds with the Pan Mode of the DD-20, for example.

Recording to me means constantly turning knobs and playing at the same time. During that whole process, no PC or notebook is involved.

 

From where does your Middle Eastern musical root stem?

Throughout my life I was interested in religious and spiritual literature, the Bhagavad-Gita being a long time favourite. After another fruitless attempt with the bible as a whole, I was looking for something new in 2009. I thought I’d try the Quran, with the back-of-head-thought that I won’t like it. After initial mixed feelings, the opposite happened. I learned so many things from this book on several levels, in terms of psychology, behaviour, understanding signs, etc. And I learned about the effect of repetition, slightly varied and from slightly different points of view. Repetition: that may repulse the superficial reader.

I couldn’t do my current “job” without that spiritual background (more on that later). I would never say that I’m a Muslim, but… this is my guiding book. I have four translations with lots of comments from very different people. Reading the Arabic original would be better though. I can’t, but I sometimes ask myself which book those people read, those who are mixing up the whole world with terror, bringing just shame on religion. I cannot find any justification for their behaviour in the Quran as a whole. If you take small parts out of the context, you can of course interpret some things to your liking, especially in Arabic, which can be an ambiguous language, in a good sense, as far as I know.

Sorry for that short political excursion. Back to your question: I started listening to Arabic music, from completely original to westernized. The main differences, as I hear and see it, are in certain pitch intervals. I tried to find my own version of an Arabic scale, or even combine it with a Blues scale, that also has blue (= variable) notes. In that version of an (imaginary) scale I feel at home.

 

What fascinates or inspires you outside the realms of music?

When I was around 20 years old, I was very much into literature. I was mostly interested in the topics of drugs and mental diseases. William Burroughs, Thomas Bernhard, books on psychiatry or philosophy for example. I can say I know about mental diseases. Some of that comes from myself. And in my wider circle of friends and acquaintances there have been all the old-school drugs… and somehow I tried all of them, LSD being the most exciting and memorable one. However, smoking cannabis without alcohol made me paranoid until almost circulatory collapse.

Nowadays I’m inspired by people, nature, art… and I do some fitness training / work out, mostly at home. Basic exercises without any expensive gym equipment. I’ve also been into cross-country running. I usually push myself to the limit, otherwise I’m not satisfied. Endorphins… also a kind of addiction. And when the pain fades away… that can be inspiring, too (smile).

You’ve remarked that you’re living like a hermit nowadays. What led you to become reclusive?

After attending a commercial school (which turned out to be not really my cup of tea, but I finished what I started) and a few unproductive years at the university, I had some office jobs. Bookkeeping, purchasing department, sales, etc. I was unhappy with the whole situation, my mental issues gave me the rest. So I started working with a friend in the wholesale of musical equipment and instruments, on a self-employed basis. He was the owner of the company. After 3 years our ways parted; it was not really something for the future. However, I have pieces of rare equipment from that time that I always come back to.

To your question: Since around 2012 I have had to care for my parents at home. My father died in February this year, shortly before his 87th birthday. Our relationship was the best during these last years. He was a very generous man in any regard, a universally talented handy craftsman, electrician, carpenter, plumber and more. Very diligent and accurate. Physically not being able anymore to work broke his heart. Without my parents, I could not have bought my first electric guitar and amp. And before this they bought me my classical guitar, although it was clear that I would “only” be a self-taught guitar player, if any, fleeing from sheet music.

So, now I’m here with my mother. She is 85, and she gives me part of her not so bad widow pension instead of going to a retirement home that would be way more expensive. This is the best solution for us at the moment. There’s always something to do for me in and around the house. I have little in common with friends and acquaintances of former days. Some are dead, others have wives and children. I managed to blow any chance I had for that kind of normal life, getting married and such. Looking back now, I think it was my subconscious intention.

You contributed two songs to Graham Williams’ (<1, et al.) Fencepost Reclamation Project—an open-ended remix project of early Fencepost material written by Graham. How did you learn of this project?

Graham contacted me in a very polite and nice way. Searching on the net brought me some info about Fencepost and Graham himself.

 

You noted that Graham motivated you after launching your phonux Bandcamp page this July. Were you hesitant to turn your work loose to the world until just a couple months ago?

I had already launched my site, with 3 or 4 albums, when I was contacted by Graham. I thought: Wow, I’m instantly found and somehow respected, even by other musicians. That way he motivated me—certainly without knowing.

It took me a long time to gather up to this Bandcamp thing. Indecision, some subtle form of depression and imaginary internet barricades were the reasons.

With all the time and effort you have poured into phonux, what has your project taught you about life?

Being oneself is better than feeding the expectations of some imaginary audience. Since I was a kid I was fascinated by the idea of finding some kind of music that has a direct, maybe healing influence on the mind. For me, Ambient music comes closest to this. It’s not as spectacular as Prog Rock, but it can be deeper and more focused. And I learned about the effects of repetition and minimalism.

Have you any plans to release new phonux material in the near future?

I still have material for about 15 albums in my archive. But I don’t want to overload the ears of listeners. And I’m always a bit unsure which direction I should tend toward.

Thank you so much for your interest. Please consider that English is not my native language. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words. And in English it’s almost impossible for me to include some of the subtle, special kind of humor that people consider me to have.

******

Thank you immensely Harald for all the time you spent writing these thoughtful replies. And thank you readers for the time you spent perusing Harald’s stories and snippets of his life.

You can listen to a bunch of Harald’s work over at his Bandcamp page.

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