An Exclusive Interview with
Neofolk Musician ART ABSCONS
by Oliver Sheppard
German neofolk musician Art Abscons’ Les Sentiers Éternels LP was named one of CVLT Nation’s “Top 6 Neofolk Releases” last year, and with good reason. Though the mysterious performer only appears in public behind a green monster mask, his music is the opposite of monstrous: In my review of his 2012 LP, I described Abscons’ music as a “very refined — I would even say ‘classical’ — neofolk style that explores softer, even beautiful, melodies, usually sung in French or German. Les Sentiers Ternel is a drowsy and often downright pretty LP of lilting, dreamy neofolk music — not the sort of thing you would expect a Tolkien-esque goblin mutant creature to make.” Although there are obvious influences from What Ends When the Symbols Shatter?-era Death in June, Art Abscons reaches further back in musical history for inspiration, drawing upon old European folk melodies and themes.
Recently, I was able to ask Mr. Abscons about the mask, and, more importantly, his music. The following interview was conducted in May, 2013.
Oliver: Whenever I show others videos of you, or the covers of your LPs, the first thing anyone asks is — why the green goblin mask? (Is it a green goblin mask?) What is it, and what does it represent?
ART ABSCONs: There is great magic in masks. When you hide an individual’s face behind a mask, you deprive this person of everything that makes it unique; you dissolve its identity and replace it by something universal. That was the main idea when I decided that I needed a mask in order to impersonate the being who is responsible for the songs I receive for the purpose of ART ABSCONs. The ideas that inspire a true artist do not BELONG to the particular individual who receives them, but to a realm beyond the concept of individuality. There is no such thing as intellectual property in the realm of ideas, and I abhor so-called “artists” who think in terms of copyright, etc. These people are no real artists. Sometimes their work might be pleasing or even entertaining, but there is no truth in it. The origin of artistic inspiration is otherworldly, even divine, and contradicts self-serving notions of property and ownership. True artists are not proud of their so-called “imagination”; they do not “make things up.” They look and find, they listen and hear, and will reproduce scrupulously and truthfully what they perceive both in this and in the other world, that is all. Anyone who sees art as a means to self-aggrandisement and as a way to express his or her individuality is a pitiable idiot. This is why so many good artists (who do NOT wear a mask) constantly create alter egos (e.g. Ziggy Stardust, etc.) and will, consequently, often suffer severe split personality disorders. Such artists are somehow aware that they are not personally responsible for the things they create and, hence, are not the ones who deserve the praise they receive from the audience. This is why they need an alter ego that will enter the stage for them and that will take the credit for the fruits of their inspiration. By opting for a mask, I ruled all these problems out from the very beginning. It is Grandmaster Abscon, an otherworldly being belonging to the uncreated world of ideas, who both writes the songs and will take the credit for them. And, only by sacrificing my individuality on the Altar of Art am I granted its powers and its revelations while I am able to express their truths in the selfless manner they require.
Why the particular mask I use? Sheer coincidence. I found it by accident when I needed it. At first, it was that rubber goblin mask I found down by the Rhine River on the 1st of May 2008, when I went there with the intention of finding something magical; which I did, obviously. In the meantime, I have created a new mask which is based on the traits of the original rubber mask but corresponds more to the austere spirit of Art Abscon and can be worn more easily on stage.
Oliver: About your name, “ART ABSCONs” [sic] – is that your real name? Is it an anagram? What does this mean to you, and why did you choose it?
ART ABSCONs: In the beginning, I chose the word “Abscon” because it is the name of a village in Northern France from which one half of my family originates. When I found out that “abscons,” in French, means something like “not to be understood,” “cryptic,” etc., I was even more intrigued by that word; and when I discovered that the French term was derived from Latin, “absconditus” (meaning “hidden”, “concealed”), the first thing it made me think of was “Deus Absconditus”, i.e. the “Hidden”, or, the “Unknowable God”. The village in France was named “Abscondinium” when it was occupied by the Romans because it was not easily found. In my personal cosmogony, Abscondinium has become a synonym for the uncreated world of ideas. I use “Art Abscon” to refer to Art as a person and “ART ABSCONs” if I speak of the “art project” that sometimes involves more artists than just myself. I would, for example, say that the personnel in Gnomonclast belongs to ART ABSCONs. My real name is Michael.
Oliver: How long have you been making music under the moniker “Art Abscons” and is it your first musical project? If not, what other projects have you been involved with and what sort of music did you make with those acts?
ART ABSCONs: Oh yes, I have been involved in other bands and music projects since the age of thirteen or so; many things of minor interest and others which you might even have heard of over the years. But I would never give a single name away since I wish Art Abscon’s special status to remain intact.
Oliver: Do you feel comfortable being labeled a neofolk act? Is that the scene you think you feel most at home in? How would you describe your music to someone who’d never heard it before?
ART ABSCONs: Comfortable with that neofolk stigma? Yes and no. I am 38 now and was listening to Death in June, Current 93 and Sol Invictus at the age of sixteen, i.e. more than twenty years ago, at a time when records and concerts of these artists were really hard to find and when most of the people who refer to themselves as neofolkers today didn’t even know of their existence. It was rather peculiar to me to observe that the emergence of ART ABSCONs coincided with the recent growing interest in the neofolk phenomenon. However, if you were to ask me if I would label the music of ART ABSCONs as “neofolk” I would be quite at a loss. Yes, I use acoustic guitars and other folky instruments along with hundreds of samples; yes, my main attitude is “against the modern world”; yes, I have done some research on runes, the power of symbols, magic, paganism, the Third Reich, the Occult Roots of Nazism, the Apocalypse, Gnosticism, and what have you, but I do not think that either my message nor my music could be reduced to such a vague formula as “neofolk”. To be honest, I don’t even know what neofolk actually is–and neither does anyone else who uses that word; but I can say with certainty that quite a handful of artists whom I truly admire are labelled with this term.
If I would have to describe my music to someone who had never heard it before, I would say: “It sounds like a cross-section of time”.
Oliver: As opposed to some of the more militant-sounding acts in the neofolk and martial scenes, your music has a much more serene, even quite beautiful, almost “classical” sound to it. Is this just the way you write music, or did you want your music to strike an especially kind of peaceful note? WHat is it that you hope your music achieves as far as the impact it has on the listener?
ART ABSCONs: I do not need to hope for my music to have any desired effect. It is what it is, and, as such, it works as a mirror. Anything you might see in it is nothing but a reflection of the depths of your own inner self, of all the things you know, remember and anticipate and of which you don’t even know that you know them. Art Abscon’s music is taken out of a pool of universal, collective memories. Think of your consciousness as a tiny hole in time through which you perceive the present, a small spot moving along a linear stretch of time. That is all you are. I mean, who are you? Right now, at this precise moment, you are nothing but a tiny spot of consciousness trying to comprehend this sentence I am speaking. That is all. Not much, huh? But on a different level of your consciousness that lies before and after and all around this tiny hole travelling through time, you have your own personal memories and anticipations of experiences that make you unique. On a deeper level still, you have a cultural memory and destiny, the one you share, for example, with your fellow Americans or with fellow humans in general: cultural archetypes, etc. But there is a deeper memory level still. You may think of it as the realm which Plato calls “The World of Ideas”. This realm is the foundation and the origin of all that is, that was and that will ever be; a world that precedes creation; uncreated, and yet it is the source of all creation. This realm is completely detached from the concept of time and space as we know it, detached from any concept of individuality or cultural identity. Here, all is one. This is where Art Abscon’s songs come from. This is the realm of the “Hidden One”, the Kingdom of the “Unknowable”. Abscondinium.
Music is a highly efficient means to condense thousands of years and the deepest memories of millions of people into one single song that takes maybe three or four minutes. This song can be perceived by that tiny hole travelling through time, and while perceiving it, this tiny hole becomes aware of all its different levels of consciousness while time is being transcended. This is, basically, the reason why we all love music. And this is what I meant when I referred to my music as a “cross-section of time”. I don’t know why my music is more serene than other music that is less serene. I play and record it the way I find it.
Oliver: I’ve noticed you sing in German, French, and English – at least. How many languages do you know and how many different LPs or EPs do you have in these languages?
ART ABSCONs: Oh, come on, I hate that question! I do not know by heart which LPs or EPs I have made when and where. Not that they were so many, but I don’t really care. Once a label has received my master tracks for a release, I am already concerned with something completely different and have already forgotten what I did the day before. I am fascinated with languages, and there is quite a diversity spread over all ART ABSCONs releases: Spanish, Czech, Swedish are the first ones that come to my mind (all poems written and spoken by their authors: Patricia Fernández, Joseph Spinali and Carl Söderlund, for example). As for myself, apart from German, French is my second mother tongue, and I speak a little English. I usually sing in German because that is the language I speak in my dreams, but I think it was only on that “October 31st EP” that I sang in English for a change. Everywhere else, the English lyrics on my albums were written and performed by members of Gnomonclast.
Oliver: One of my favorite releases of yours is the limited edition “October 31st” EP, which has a very deathrock influence to it. The first track, “Samhain,” sounds like something Christian Death could have done, and the last track on the EP is a cover of a song by The Damned. Was deathrock a style of music you feel has influenced you, or goth in general? Have you been in bands like that before? Please explain the type of influence that style of music has had on you.
ART ABSCONs: I think this was the only release on which I had the opportunity to embrace my own personal taste in music; all other releases were written and recorded according to Abscon’s wishes (which do not always correspond with my own taste). If I may speak for myself (Michael), yes, apart from bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, SPK, Throbbing Gristle, Coil, etc. I grew up with The Damned, Rozz William’s Christian Death, Virgin Prunes, Bauhaus, Alien Sex Fiend, The Misfits, Andy Sex Gang, etc. And whenever I was not listening to Extreme Noise Terror, Napalm Death or Sore Throat, I was dreaming away to Françoise Hardy’s fragile ditties or indulging in Lee Hazlewood’s or Serge Gainsbourg’s psychedelic sort of Easy Listening. And, as you will already have guessed, I am very much into classical music. Well, I guess there is not much coherence in my musical taste, and, to make a long story short, I do not believe that any particular style of music has had any significant impact on the music of ART ABSCONs. I have played in all sorts of bands ranging from grindcore, industrial, psychedelia, new wave, folk, gothic to electro pop while I was member of a church choir.
Oliver: You mentioned recently that you live in the old Bauhaus school of design building! How did this come about, and what is it like to live there? Are the buildings apartments now? This seems pretty incredible — and cool – to me. Do you make your music there as well?
ART ABSCONs: It seems I made that remark while I was drunk! Usually, I avoid making references concerning the place where I live. Since Art Abscon, properly speaking, has little to do with this world, and while I assume that it is of little importance and interest where Michael is lodged or what dayjob he has, I usually maintain silence about such things as dwelling places, etc. Nevertheless, I could talk for hours about how it feels to be actually living inside a work of art! My apartment is part of a residential area concept that was designed and built in 1927/28 on the basis of Bauhaus principles. What I love about Bauhaus architecture is that its minimalistic and neutral compositions leave infinite space for the mind to unfold. It is utterly stunning to observe how much variety resides in simple geometric forms as the perspective changes; or the light. And then, it is as if you could still feel the spirit of the Bauhaus movement breathing through these buildings, the spirit between the two great wars. They are utterly timeless. And yes, I record there. I will show you some photographs, if you like. Sometimes, the view from my living room windows reminds me of a de Chirico painting and, at other times, I feel as if I was observing a set from a Tati movie, especially late in the evening.
Oliver: Is there a certain worldview or philosophy that motivates your songwriting? For example, pre-Christian paganism, or Romanticism, or something else? If there is an overarching philosophy to the music of Art Abscons, what would it be?
ART ABSCONs: I would refer to myself as a “universal mystic”. Surely, I am fascinated with pagan myths and have indeed been an ardent student of romantic literature and philosophy, but I am also aware that each mystical, philosophical or religious system is “a priori” erroneous and incomplete as it approaches the final truths. The only truth I will be able to fathom resides hidden in my own spirit and cannot be taught through any prefabricated system. It is for this reason that I have come to accept the term “Gnosis” as umbrella term for my worldview and various interests.
Oliver: There are some videos on Youtube of you performing in Austria with a very ritualistic looking stage act. What rites are going on in your stage act, and/or what is the ritualistic aspect of your stage act meant to symbolize?
ART ABSCONs: Basically, each ART ABSCONs show is supposed to be a ritual through which the extra-temporal spirit of Art Abscon will be housed in flesh and bone for a brief span of time, i.e. inside my body. For this purpose, we have, for example, adopted elements from the Eucharist like spreading altar bread and wine containing stimulating ingredients among the stage crew and even the audience. These elements of the ritual are performed in mocking rejection of the established churches and, at the same time, in sincere celebration of the Knosstic Church of Deus Absconditus. For these reasons, most of the ART ABSCONs shows in the past took place secretly among a small circle of initiates while, till now, there were only three shows that were open to the public. The few snippets on Youtube give a very bad impression of what an ART ABSCONs show is like. People would only think of using their camcorders or mobile phones when we were performing like an ordinary band. The rest of the time, it seems, they were so entranced by what was happening on stage that they would never have thought of using a camera or the like. For example, none of my various stage deaths were ever filmed nor photographed. Likewise, the stage collaborations with Gnomonclast, of which I am particularly proud, were never filmed nor properly photographed. But I like the thought that the best moments were never recorded and will, therefore, never be found on the internet. They will remain the exclusive memory of the few who were really there.
For the time being, I am developing an entirely new stage concept.
Oliver: A few times I have called you “the Mortiis of neofolk” because early on he wore the troll mask and sang about old Scandinavian folklore-type themes. Are you familiar with him (especially his early stuff) and do you see this connection? Is there anything to this similarity, thematically or otherwise? Your thoughts!
ART ABSCONs: To be honest, I had never heard of that artist before. When you mentioned it for the first time, I checked up on him and was surprised how interesting that old chap is! That being said, it is possible that I am behind that project as well, isn’t it?
Oliver: Okay, a favorite question of mine to ask bands: If you were stranded on a desert island with a working CD or record player, what 5 LPs would you take with you and why? These would be 5 LPs, and the only 5, that you would have to listen to for the rest of your life.
ART ABSCONs: Oh, what a wicked question! Maybe I wouldn’t take any music at all with me because it would depress me to have such a limited record collection at my disposal. But well, just in case, let’s see… First of all, I would take Gnomonclast’s “Gather Together” and see if I could somehow smuggle in the CD of “Tempus Null” by hiding it somewhere inside the sleeve of the other album. If the Island Guards would find it, I would tell them that it wasn’t on purpose and hope they would forgive me. Secondly… hm… I think an album I never get tired of is “Rose Clouds of Holocaust”. But then again I might trade if off against Nature & Organisation’s “Beauty Reaps the Blood of Solitude”. Yes, I think I would opt for the latter. Then, I would need something for my more frivolous moods, something like Plastic Bertrand’s “AN1”. I never get tired of that as well. And then, something classical. If pianos were forbidden on that island as well, I would take a compilation of Eric Satie’s piano pieces with me. If there was a piano on which I could play them myself, I would take something else. Schubert or Beethoven probably. Then I would need something psychedelic from the sixties. Perhaps “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. Do I really have to go there? I don’t want to!
Oliver: What are some of your favorite newer neofolk (or any) bands out there nowadays that you think are noteworthy, and why? I’m a fan of Osewoudt, Solblot, Of the Wand and the Moon, and of course the older bands like Death in June and Sol Invictus. What about you?
ART ABSCONs:Oh yes, indeed, I like Osewoudt very much as well. Apart from that, I recently discovered Kinit Her and their side-project Wreathes which left me utterly awestruck. I also recommend Mani Deum from Greece and L’Horrible Passion from Spain and I’m also a great Cult of Youth fan. But the greatest revelation in neofolk to me was, is and will always be Gnomonclast. And, of course, I was very much into Luftwaffe until they recently disbanded.
Oliver: Do you play out at shows very much? Have you ever been asked to play any of the larger festivals over there, like Runes and Men? Is there a reason you play out only rarely…?
ART ABSCONs: Well, as I said earlier, hitherto, ART ABSCONs shows were of a rather exclusive, even secret character, and for good reason; with the exception of the New Year’s Eve festival “Rauhnacht” in Leipzig, along with such illustrious acts as Dernière Volonté, and a brief guest appearance at the WGT; both of which I regretted somehow. For the time being, I am rather undecided if ART ABSCONs was really meant for the big stage. Moreover, I am quite put off by today’s conventions of concert organisation. Whereas most concert organisers and labels do their job to earn themselves a living or at least to earn themselves some extra money, they assume that artists do it merely for fun and are therefore even willing to pay for the pleasure of appearing on stage because while there is no pay at all, in most cases, not even travel costs will be covered by the organisers. Honestly, I am far from being in it for the money, but it takes much time, effort and even a lot of money to organise a good stage performance, and I do not understand why the artist should pay more for the show than the people in the audience while concert organisers are filling their pockets and expect you to kiss their feet because they gave you the opportunity to perform on their stage. I remember a time when completely unknown amateur bands would get travel costs, accommodation AND a share of the admission or at least free beer; that wasn’t much, but the money could at least be used to buy new guitar strings or the like. Today, it seems, that art has no value at all; except for the one that ends up in the pockets of those who sell it. And that is hardly ever the artist. Just imagine, for the CD version of “Der verborgene Gott”, for example, I got 30 free copies I gave away as gifts and EUR 12,95 in royalties (I forget the exact amount, it might also have been EUR 12,96)–for an album that took one and a half years in the making, that includes collaborations with my American friends and for which I had paid the entire music production costs. It is quite expensive to be a performing artist nowadays. Of course I would love to perform at larger festivals as well (who would not?), but only if the pleasure of being half an hour on stage would not ruin me for the rest of my life because the organiser thinks that collecting stage admission from the artists was a great idea as well, and that isn’t unlikely. Now, considering my impertinence, I am sure no-one will ask me anyway. But, as a wise man once told me: “Nobody pays you to be a gentleman”. And as long as things are the way they are, ART ABSCONs will keep playing shows in the dark to a small circle of initiates only.
From everything I said, I would like to exclude the people who organised our show in Prague. These people were so excessively generous that I will be grateful for the rest of my life for the fantastic time they showed us. Also Kirill from Russian Label Fronte Nordico is quite a gentleman.
Oliver: What are the biggest influences on your songwriting? These can be poets, philosophers, writers, and/or other musicians, classical or in the modern era? Who are they, and why?
ART ABSCONs: There are quite a few artists and philosophers whose works inspire me. They are not many and yet too many to be named without giving you the impression I was boasting with my erudition. The greatest influence on my work was and is my correspondence and my collaboration with N2 ItinitI. He is the poet, philosopher, writer and musician who inspires me most.
Oliver: I noticed you did some vocals on a track with Ousewoudt — or, at least on Youtube, the track is labeled as featuring vocals from “Mr. and Mrs. Abscons.” Was working with Osewoudt fulfilling, and have you worked with any other neofolk acts? Who?
ART ABSCONs: Oh yes indeed! Osewoudt are fantastic people and great musicians! Our collaboration was the result of a merry meeting in early 2011. It was one of the happiest moments in all my life.
Oliver: About the “Mrs. Abscons” mentioned on the Osewoudt track – how long have you been married? Is your wife a partner in your artistic exploits otherwise? What is your history of collaborating with her in their or other projects, and what has that work been like?
ART ABSCONs: Nay, I am not married! Nor will I ever be! She is a friend I love dearly, and it was the only time she spoke on a recording.
Oliver: Ever thought about playing America? As I mentioned to Thomas Bojden of Die Weisse Rose, we don’t have Runes and Men, but we have Stella Natura, which for some reason feels like it would be a good fit for you, to me. Any desire to play in the USA?
ART ABSCONs: Well, as I already said, at the moment I am developing a new stage concept I would like to test on innocent people. Why not on Americans?! Of course I would love to! If concert promoters in the States are like they are over here, I will already start putting money aside and maybe rob a bank or two! That was an attempt at humour. Har har har.
Oliver: Is there an official Art Abscons webpage? Where should folks go if they want to find out more info or buy your records, etc.?
Oliver: Is there anything you’d like to add that you feel like I didn’t touch upon, that is worth mentioning? Any new releases soon? Anything you’d like to say about the current state of neofolk/martial scenes…?
ART ABSCONs: The CD versions of “Les Sentiers Éternels” and “Am Himmel mit Feuer” just being released, there are still a couple of things ahead. First of all, a nice little curiosity titled “Vita Abscondi” will soon be released by Brave Mysteries. I am very glad and honoured that Nathaniel Ritter has offered me this opportunity since over the last one and a half years, his project Kinit Her has been the only contemporary music to really make an impression on me. I am glad to live in a time in which such records as theirs are released. Then, I have resumed my collaboration with Gnomonclast. We are working on a joint GNONOMCLAST/ART ABSCONs album while the Americans will also contribute to my next album “The Separate Republic” and a shorter vinyl release that will be titled “Takaram Attava. Five Ways of Invoking the Hidden One” that will also involve Carl Söderlund and someone from England who sent me a broken pot.
Oliver: Thanks so much for your time and I apologize that it’s taken me this long to get to you re: an interview. Thanks!
ART ABSCONs: Oh please don’t apologise! It was a great pleasure and an even greater honour for me!