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Kraus

An impulse purchase of several titles from the Foxglove (R.I.P.) catalog a few years back introduced me to the music of Kraus. Known to me solely as the former drummer of The Futurians, his “Lamentations of an Ape” CD-R was indeed one of the strangest sounding of the lot. Combining tape loops, wobbly synths, oddly-timed beats, and guitar, Kraus’s primitive sci-fi sound bursts were a refreshing departure from much of the folk and drone music that was coming out at the time. Since then, Kraus has continued to develop his unique sound from his home base of Auckland, New Zealand, and has quietly put out a handful of releases, most of which he has made available for free through his website and others. Through a rather circuitous route of e-mail exchanges, Kraus kindly took the time to respond to some questions about his interest in early electronic music, home-built electronics, and free music distribution among other things.
 

You had played drums in The Futurians, The Murdering Monsters, and The Aesthetics, so when did you start recording music on your own? What did you want to do musically that perhaps you weren’t able to do within the context of a band.
I loved playing in those bands, but I wanted to see what I could do with four-track recording. And I wanted to experiment with modal music and electronics, and the Asian and medieval and Modernist music that I had been listening to when I was at University. I actually started recording solo before I was in any bands, in the late 90's. From 1998-2003, I released a couple of tapes and CDRs of drums and keyboard stuff. The best material from that period has been re-released on the album "Red, Green and Blue". But I didn't really get serious about recording until I left Dunedin and had no band and nothing to do. That's when I started to play the guitar a lot - I'm more of a guitar player than a drummer - and doing rock, starting with the album "I Could Destroy You with a Single Thought", in 2004. I was inspired by Matt Middleton and Chris Heazlewood, both great guitar players.
 

There is a bizarre sci-fi element to your recordings suggestive of the work of some of the early gurus of electronic music, something like Raymond Scott’s “Cindy Electronium” comes to mind. Are there certain electronic artists from the 1950s and beyond that have had a particular impact of your music?
I really like all the sounds of that early period of electronic music - before the mid-60's. I like Raymond Scott, but I only heard him recently. I like Stockhausen, and one of my favorite albums is the "Forbidden Planet" soundtrack by Louis and Bebe Barron. And just sci-fi and B-movie music in general. I used to watch a lot of 50s and 60s sci-fi and I love all the freaky music in them. And Delia Derbyshire of course, her song "Ziwzih Oo-Oo-Oo" is, like, the best thing I've ever heard. The equipment they had to use at that time was so limited, and everything had to be literally pieced together with tape so they were forced to be very inventive. It proves that you don't need a lot of advanced technology to make good electronic music. In fact, like anything, it's actually better if your options are limited. You can make some interesting music with only an oscillator and a tape loop.

Witcyst has done a lot of electronic music that has had a big influence on me, all that wild overdubbing and layering that he does. He's made so much music full of amazing ideas that will never be fully explored.
 

You often thank The Beatles in your liner notes and you used a picture of George Harrison for the cover of "I Could Destroy You With A Single Thought". Given some of the renewed interest in The Beatles, with their entire catalog being re-mastered, I'm wondering if you would explain how their music has impacted your work?
I like their wigs...I don't know, there's been so much rubbish written about them I don't know what I can say that won't be a cliché. I've loved them since I was 15 when my friend lent me his Dad's tape of Sgt. Pepper...see this sounds corny already!
I do love them though, despite all the crap they did. I don't think they've influenced me in a specific way, because I work with instrumental music which has it's own rules. But creating atmosphere and really paying attention to sound is important to me and I think that's due to the White Album. It has a weird sound that I can never really understand, it's not like their other albums. It has a very menacing, visceral sound and I find it quite harrowing to listen to, even though I love it. I don't know what it is but something about those songs and the way they were recorded had a huge effect on me. I'm thinking especially of “Happiness is a Warm Gun”, which is genuinely scary and always makes the hairs on my neck stand up. That song to me is the pinnacle of rock so far: it shows what's possible.
 

I’m wondering what led to your interest in home-made electronics?
When I was starting out I would have killed to have even a basic oscillator. There just isn't anything like that available cheaply, so I used to have to hook up feedback on tapedecks to get a square-wave sound, and use a radio for white noise. But then I started to look on the internet and there's so much information about electronics, I realised that it's actually quite easy to make stuff yourself. I mean, I had no experience with electronics, or even making anything with my hands, so if I can do it, anyone can.
 

In terms of your current recording set-up, what types of home-made devices are you using?
Noise generator, oscillator, fuzz, ring modulator, spring reverb, percussive tremolo. But most of this will be superseded, because I'm building an early 70's Serge modular synthesizer, which will be able to do most of that stuff. New Serge synths are incredibly expensive, but originally it was known as the "People's Synthesizer Project", and it was supposed to be a cheap, DIY alternative to the Buchla. So it's really powerful but not too hard to build. I'll be putting the details of that on my website so other people can build it.
 

Rather than use Myspace, you have developed your own website for people to access your music and information about your work. You’ve also taken it a step further by including some “How To” guides for the budding DIY musicians out there. What was your motivation in creating your website as it is?
Well, CJA from the Futurians got me into web design, and I enjoy writing HTML, it's easy and fun. I can't do anything fancy but you can make things look awesome without using Flash or anything like that. I love it when I come across a cool site that has a lot of interesting stuff on it, and I wanted to make one like that. Also, I'm really grateful for all the help and support that I've got from my friends, especially Stefan Neville, so I like to have a website where I can put up any useful information that can help people. Plus I don't play live, so it's nice to have a more personal website that people can visit to get music and read.
 

You have made almost all of your music available for free, even sending out actual copies of CDRs to those interested. What led you to want to distribute your music in this manner?
Well, you keep control of all your music and can keep it in print for a long time, because you can just make CDRs as you need them. It costs almost nothing, and I find it a lot less hassle, I don't have to worry about what to charge, or how to collect the money. I feel free to just get on with making music. People seem to really appreciate being able to get music for free - I get good feedback. Everyone I know trades a lot of music with other musicians anyway, so I thought it would be good to extend that and give stuff away to anyone who wants it. I do lose a little bit of money, but I'm compensated by people sending me music and stuff that I would have never been able to buy.

I'm totally pragmatic about selling stuff though, I mean if I make a lathe-cut record or CD in the future I'm going to need to get the money back because it's a lot more expensive. And I'm happy for labels to release my stuff obviously.
 

You have also made your music available under the Creative Commons license and some of your work is now showing up on the Free Music Archive. How did this association come about and why do you prefer using a Creative Commons license?
I sent my new album to WFMU and they asked me to contribute to the FMA. Until recently I resisted making whole albums available online, because I like the personal touch of sending albums in the mail. And I wasn't sure if I was comfortable with my music being just another bunch of data. But the great thing about internet distribution is that no album need ever become unavailable. I can keep really old albums online when I don't think it's worth making CDRs of them any more. And with sites like the FMA and Archive.org, you don't even have to pay for web hosting, so it's completely free distribution.
 

You prefer to offer your music up for free, so I’m wondering what your position is then on the whole downloading/file-sharing generation? You mention that a lot of people you know just trade their music, but do you have any concerns about artists not being properly compensated for their work?
That's quite a big question, I'm just going to speak generally – sorry if what I say isn't very specific. Firstly, with downloading, I don't care about major labels complaining about people stealing from them. They don't work for the benefit of their artists or for the public, so don't even worry about them. We only need to think about small labels and independent artists, people who actually help make music better. The question is how can we encourage these people and also develop the richest musical culture possible? I think the free software movement can point the way here. I could be using a lot of pirated software right now, but fortunately I can be free of that and use better software that is developed cooperatively and offered free of charge. Music could move in the same direction. If there was a lot more good music offered cheaply I wouldn't have to download all these Rolling Stones albums. Internet distribution could be funded by donations – I think people are happy to voluntarily pay a small amount for something that's offered for free. I don't think there's been a single person who's written to me asking for music who hasn't offered to send money. Record labels could be run as collectives – there's a lot of possibilities.

I know a lot of people think proper compensation should mean being able to make a living off music, but I'm not sure about that. I don't really agree with the idea that there should be “musicians”, like professionals whose job it is to relieve other people of the need to create music. Music should be for everybody to make. I mean, it's pretty easy to do but most people feel that only certain specialists are allowed to do it.
 

You mentioned that when you recorded “I Could Destroy You with a Single Thought" that you began to view yourself more as a guitar player than a drummer. How would you characterize your working process nowadays?
Obviously I like to have a lot of live drums in my songs, so having that drumming background is really useful, but I'm a pretty retarded drummer. I picked up the basics of it quickly and just fell into it because drummers are always needed in bands. I've been playing guitar for longer and I'm better on that.

Most of my songs are made the same way. Every couple of months I feel the urge to play the drums so I set them up, play them and record onto 1/4-inch tape with this crappy old Autocrat machine that Witcyst gave me. This tape gets dumped to either computer or four-track, and then I have a lot of beats to choose from and I can sit down with the guitar and start writing and recording. I usually have a couple of song ideas that are floating around from my guitar practice, but most ideas come from playing along to a rhythm. I found out early that it's easier to invent new material if I already have a good rhythm to work with. Sometimes I hit record and improvise a bit, then go back and try to figure out what I did – that can be the basis of a song.
 

You have done some recording with Stefan Neville (Pumice) as Olympus. Compared to each of your work as solo artists, how would you describe the music you have made together?
I think a lot of it is more like pop music than anything we do solo. We did an album called "Bold Mould", which we recorded through the mail over two years. It's got a medieval organ pop jam, a piano and fuzz-guitar power ballad, and some kind of Buddy Holly outtake with a shrieking jet-plane guitar solo. That's the first three tracks. So it's stylistically pretty varied. Working through the mail you have ideas that you would never think of if you were playing together at the same time. It's all overdubbing, which I like because you are writing and recording concurrently, and have time to think and come up with a lot of sounds and melodies, so each song sounds unique. I think it's a strong album and it's fun to listen to.
 

You have also done a lot of collaborations with other artists in New Zealand, including Witcyst, CJA, and Gfrenzy. Are there any particular artists on an international level that you would love to collaborate with?
I like Kemialliset Ystavat, I'm trying to convince Jan Anderzen to do something with me, but if you've heard his music you can imagine he must be pretty busy. There might be a Buffle collaboration happening. I'd love to work with Blue Shift and U.S. Girls too, I love their album “Introducing...”. Oh and Fricara Pacchu!
 

Are there any other projects or bands that you are currently involved in?
I have two other bands, The Maltese Falcons, with Beth from the Futurians, and Pouffe, with Matt Plunkett from Poison Arrow. I feel pretty lucky to work with these guys because they are both very talented singers and musicians. Beth was in the Murdering Monsters, so we've known each other for over ten years. Beth and Matt both live in other towns, so we record through the mail or when they are in Auckland at Xmas.
 

You mentioned that you don’t play live. Is that something you would like to do at some point in the future?
I can't see it happening soon, I don't know, I might play at a party or something. I'm very shy. I don't know how I managed to get on a stage when I was in bands, I suppose I drank a lot of alcohol then.
 

You released “Golden Treasury” earlier this year. Do you have any other releases in the works?
I'm recording a new album that might be called "Faster Than the Speed of Time". It's about half finished. I want to release it as a lathe-cut LP, but that depends on whether my savings run out before it's ready. This album is like “Golden Treasury” in that it's pretty guitar-heavy, not much electronic stuff. There's some nice steamy jungle drums and fuzz guitar and a good solo guitar piece. I've gone back to recording on cassette four-track after five years of using my computer, and I'm finding it really fun and inspiring and a lot more relaxing. You can play with the tape speed and make it go “woo-oow-ooo-wooow-oow”.
 
-- David Perron (28 October, 2009)

reviews related to Kraus....
Meg Baird, Helena Espvall, Sharron Kraus "Leaves From Off the Tree" Finally reissued!.. review :: by Jordan Anderson (26 May, 2010)
Kraus "Golden Treasury" I love Kraus... review :: by P. Somniferum (11 November, 2009)
Sharron Kraus "The Fox's Wedding" Absolutely divine... review :: by Jan-Arne Sohns (30 July, 2008)
"Sharron Kraus" Kraus' take on traditional English folk is full of hits & misses... review :: by Jon Pitt (22 August, 2007)
Meg Baird, Helena Espvall, Sharron Kraus "Leaves From Off the Tree" An intensely beautiful record on Bo'Weavil..... review :: by Charles Franklin (6 February, 2007)
Kraus "I Could Destroy You With a Single Thought" .. review :: by James Blackshaw (25 May, 2005)
 

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