An interview with Eric Oehler and Eric Goedken of Null Device
By Ilker Yucel
Since 1997, Null Device have been introducing listeners to a new type of international music. Taking influences from a variety of world music, the band is doing well to stand out among the trends of the modern electro scene. Finally playing their first live shows in 2003, the duo of Eric Oehler and Eric Goedken, the band's latest release, A Million Different Moments, transcends the standards of the genre, breathing new life into a waning scene. ReGen speaks with Eric Oehler about the history of Null Device, where they've been and where they are going. Bon voyage!
Being Turkish, I was especially pleased to hear “Sevgilim” and “Travelogue (Versiyon Türk).” You even learned the duduk for these songs. What inspired you to do these songs?
Oehler: Firstly, I must apologize for my terrible abuse of the Turkish language on the album. I tried?I really did?but my primary resources were Teach Yourself Turkish and a linguist friend of mine who had specialized in Chinese. The whole duduk thing has been building in me for a long time. I've always been really interested in world music, especially in world musical traditions that are more removed from Western pop music. I've taken to impulse-buying musical instruments that I can't play, and one of my first purchases was a $20 mass-produced duduk. When I discovered that I could make it sound like something other than a tortured duck, I invested in a better, handmade instrument. I'm still fairly unskilled with the instrument, but I can knock out a tune or two when I need to. The same is true with all of the other instruments that I keep acquiring. When I get interested in something musical, I get a little obsessive with it, and suddenly I find myself playing dumbek, cümbüs and ektara on our albums. I can't explain it.
As for the songs themselves?well, they just kind of came together. “Sevgilim” was originally an instrumental intro to “Someone Else” that worked so well that I made it into a separate song with the same themes, which I think helped tie the album together. I wanted something sort of grandiose and dark, and that's pretty much what I got. “Travelogue (Versiyon Turk)” was something I did on a lark just to see how hard it would be to adapt the song to an acoustic version. It came out so well that Eric suggested we make it an album track.
Taking influence from international music as you do, which international artists you would like to collaborate with, if any?
Oehler: The ones that interest me the most are the ones that are doing interesting fusion stuff – people like Talvin Singh, Uwe Schmidt in his “Senor Coconut” persona, Tarkan, PanjabiMC, Natacha Atlas, the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the like. I don't know how I could collaborate with them, since they themselves have carved out such individual niches. If Canadians count as international, then Bogart Shwadchuck from Epsilon Minus is on the list. Again.
Your previous release was the Footfalls EP, released as MP3s on the Internet. As Internet-only releases are becoming more and more popular, what was Null Device's reason for doing one?
Oehler: Publicity. It was cheaper to release a free Internet single than to try and create and market a full one. Also, a remix single from us might be a tricky thing to actually sell. So I figured “We've got these remixes, we've got some demo tracks, why not see if it works as shareware?” So I threw it up on the 'net, promoted it a little, and more people snagged that single than probably bought Sublimation. Granted, only about 10 people actually donated for it, but considering that the setup cost was negligible and nobody really had to pay, I do appreciate it. It was a test. I think it was successful, and we're
hoping to do another one in the near future.
What are the chances of Dan Clark (guitarist both in the studio and in the live line-up) and Chuck McKenzie (bassist on the current live line-up) becoming full-time members of Null Device?
Oehler: These days I hardly differentiate between the live and studio bands. The only reason that the studio version of Null Device is so small is because Eric Goedken and I are pretty compartmentalized in our roles, so we never have to worry about getting in each others' way. That being said, I love working with Dan and Chuck – they're both excellent musicians, and I defer to their experience when I'm writing tracks now because they'll probably end up playing them live. Dan especially has some serious compositional horsepower; sometimes I worry that bringing him into Null Device full-time would bore him to tears.
How does A Million Different Moments compare to your last full-length album, Sublimation? What's changed since then?
Goedken: Most of the Sublimation tracks were written over a longer period of time, before we had the confidence-building experience of having a record label wanting to release our music. The songs for A Million Different Moments all came together after Nilaihah Records signed us. We really wanted to move ahead to try more things and paint with a bigger canvas, so to speak.
Oehler: It's a much more ambitious album, that's for sure. It was an evolution, and there are snippets of what would happen on Sublimation. I think mostly both Eric and I became a lot more confident after Sublimation came out and did well, and we were willing to try more things. We also had pretty much decided that there was no point in repeating what we'd done already, so we weren't going to make another straight-up synthpop album either. Some of my favorite tracks on the album just kind of came out of nowhere and didn't really sound like anything we'd done before- “Easier” and “Travelogue” come to mind immediately.
Eric Goedken, you're a highly published biochemist. How do you find time for your contributions to Null Device?
Oehler: I have no idea how he does it. He does have the advantage that, being a lyricist, he can pretty much work anywhere. When something inspires him he can write it on the back of an envelope, and he doesn't need lots of computing power and a MIDI controller to do it.
Goedken: Eric Oehler has a full-time job, too. The real question is how does he find the time? He puts in more hours for the band than I do.
Goedken: Obviously, it's not required. The music is, or at least should be, the main thing at any concert. I think visuals give an added dimension to the live experience, and many of the concerts from other bands that I have enjoyed the most have used video to augment the feel of the show.
Oehler: It's something that we really like to have at live shows, since it adds a little extra visual flair and imagery to our performances. Unfortunately, so few clubs that we've played have working or viable video systems for a live band. The video always gets good reviews when we can actually have it – it's just hard to get. In the future, if Dr. Goedken is amenable and, well, local, I'd love to get him involved in the live show directly, doing live video mixing. Then we could bring our own gear and it'd be a moot point.
Where did the name Null Device come from?
Oehler: It's a device file on the Unix file system. No, seriously. I am a nerd.
Your lyrics seem to be inspired by anything from films, to attempts to emulate other forms of music. Given the tumultuous climate in the world today, how much do politics and world events play into your lyrics?
Oehler: Well, Dr. Goedken can speak more directly to the lyrics, but I can say that musically, there's been an influence as well. A fascination with Middle Eastern music was partially informed by a desire to understand the political and cultural issues of that part of the world. Not 100 percent, of course?I didn't say, “I need to write a song in Turkish to protest the devaluation of Lira” or anything, but there was an influence.
Goedken: A large portion of my lyrics have always been influenced by politics, current events and history. World events affect my thinking on a daily basis. I think the world feels much smaller now than it did in the 20th Century. If there's a labor strike in South America or an explosion in the Southeast, these things seem to really matter to Americans now. Before Sept. 11, 2001, we'd just kind of shrug and get back to whatever we were doing. Now, I think we all need to be more concerned with what conditions in other countries are like, because they affect all of us, regardless of whichever country we happen to be from.
Null Device has been in its current formation since 1997. As the band has evolved, what changes have you seen in the electronic music scene since that time?
Oehler: It's been up and down. I try to follow electronic music as much as possible, but so many genres and subgenres and styles have shot off in radically different directions that it's hard to really pin them down. Since 1997, we've really seen an integration of a lot of the more specialized electronic genres into pop music – who would've expected to hear IDM influences in a pop song in 1995? I love that stuff. Drum'n'bass shows up in mainstream acts, and synthesizers that don't have to sound like acoustic instruments are cool again. I think that electronics are such a part of the musical landscape these days and there's so much stylistic cross-pollination that it's almost impossible to pinpoint any particular trend. It's fascinating to me.
You list several side projects on your Web site, yet all of them seem to be either loosely defined or simply a joke (i.e. “dumb techno with a cartoon theme”). What is the reason for this?
Oehler: Mostly because I haven't had enough time or material to fully define them. The last one sounds like a joke, and in a way it is, but I've actually written a few tracks for it – a gabber version of the theme to the “Powerpuff Girls”, for example. Other projects, like Ensku, are bins for the tracks I write that, for one reason or another, don't really fit with Null Device. One Ensku track actually featured Eric Goedken's sister doing vocals, and it's out on a compilation. Another one was a house version of a folk singer friend of mine, singing, of all things, a Sheryl Crow song. Nothing that would fit with Null Device, but something interesting to do that I may or may not ever release.
The blogs on your Web site contain a great deal of information, not the least of which being the kind of gear and equipment you use. As this is becoming popular among electronic artists, what are your thoughts on the current gearhead trend among fans?
Oehler: I often wonder how many of the fans are really gearheads, or if my expansive databank of band info is only interesting to me. I think in music, there've always been some gearheads and gear elitists – I bet Bach took some flak from a fan for not buying the right kind of harpsichord or something. I think some people are getting more interested in it because it's a lot more accessible now. You can look up what a band was using, buy the same piece of software for $100 or whatever, and do the same thing yourself. Of course, the gear doesn't make the band, but it can be an interesting pursuit. I think it might be more prevalent among fans of electronic music, just because these people are generally a tech-savvy audience to start out with and are naturally drawn to discussions like that. Additionally, there's been this sort of rise of blog culture, where everyone either wants to know (or thinks everyone else wants to know) opinions and minutiae of everyone else. I think that's contributed to the musical-trainspotter phenomena.
The band only played their first live shows in 2003, but has already garnered some attention by touring with Assemblage 23 and Iris. What are your plans for both your next album and your next tour?
Oehler: Well, strictly speaking, we didn't tour with Assemblage 23 or Iris – we just opened for them. We've come closest to touring with Stromkern, since we've played with them a number of times and have been packed into a van with them for a few days. But even then, it wasn't a full tour. At this point, nothing is set in stone for the future. I've got a few tracks that are going into the studio towards the new album, and while it's not a radical departure from A Million Different Moments, it's another step. We've been playing more live shows outside of our home fan base area, and while it's nerve-wracking to play to an audience that may or may not have any idea who you are, it's been pretty rewarding so far and we hope to do it more. We had a few setbacks last year that have put us behind schedule – a flood destroyed a lot of our live gear and there've been some technical problems of the sort that always crop up. We've all got day jobs and personal lives too, and that eats into the time any of us can spend writing music or lyrics, or traveling the country with a carload of gear. That being said, I don't foresee us stopping anytime soon – it's too much fun.