Shortly before I left for Frankfurt am Main, Germany and the Frankfurt Book Fair, I had received an email from Sophia Exiner, an Australian-born indie pop artist, currently based in Berlin, Germany. Known for a sound that incorporates the use of loop pedals, beatboxing, and the kalimba, a thumb piano popularly used across the Sub Saharan region of Africa, Exiner writes and records under the moniker (and childhood nickname), Phia. The release of her breezily, ethereal track “Don’t You Ever?,” and several other tracks have had her sound compared to the likes of Bjork,tUnE yArDs, Regina Spektor and others across the blogosphere in her native Australia, and in Germany. Considering that all of those artists have reputations for work that’s uncompromising, challenging and at times, indescribably unique, the comparisons are flattering.
“Don’t You Ever?” got some of it’s first attention Stateside here, back in October. Once you hear the song, you’d understand why it received quite a bit of attention globally – the song possesses a breezily, ethereal nature, and an infectious hook, punctuated by Exiner’s coquettishly charming vocals.
After posting the track, i wrote to Exiner and asked if she’d be able to recommend any other Berlin-based artists that may be of interest for me, and the blog. Over the last few months, I’ve been increasingly interested in putting the spotlight on incredibly talented artists regardless of genre or country of origin. And the first person, Exiner suggested was her producer and boyfriend, Josh Teicher, who writes and performs under the moniker of Mez Medallion.
Released earlier this fall, Live in Berlin is a four song EP recorded during a live set in Berlin, and it captures as Teicher tells us in this Q&A, a slightly stripped down, simplified version of several songs which appear on his full-length album, Move into the Light. Although mastered and mixed a little bit, the EP manages to capture the energy and feeling of a live set, while in some way capturing a snapshot into a particular point in an artist’s life/work. in particular, Live in Berlin sonically bears a resemblance to In Ghost Colours-era Cut Copy, St. Lucia and others – we’re talking about a shimmering, synthesizer and guitar-based pop with incredibly funky bass, and earnestly sung lyrics, usually concerned with affairs of the heart. However, as Teicher told me in an email setting up this Q&A, he’s found himself in a bit of a transition artistically and sonically, especially after his work on Phia’s “Don’t You Ever?” and her forthcoming debut full-length, slated for a 2014 release. Naturally, I asked Teicher about the Live in Berlin EP but i also asked him how his sound is evolving while working on Exiner’s forthcoming debut. Additionally, Teicher talks about Berlin’s music and arts scene, and how it can (and does) influence an artist’s life and work; he talks about his writing and production process with an unpretentious honesty, which should feel like a pulling back of the curtain; and he gives some great advice for artists trying to make a name for themselves.
Based on the songwriting and production of his Live in Berlin EP and his work with Phia, I think Teicher will be someone you’ll be hearing quite a bit about across the global blogsophere in the next year. Check out the Q&A below.
WRH: How did you get into music? And when did you know that it was the only thing you wanted to do?
Josh Teicher: I got into music from hearing fragments of things on the radio that I didn’t know or my parents record collection. My earliest memories of sound are the saxophones from the first UB40 album Signing Off, the interplay between vocals and synths in “Bizarre Love Triangle” by New Order and the deep backing vocals in “Under The Boardwalk” by Bette Midler. Oh, and also the spiky woozy guitar riffs of the Police and Sting’s soaring vocals. But at the time I didn’t know how these sounds were produced or what I was really listening to, it was a big wash of sound. I guess the common thread is texture and interplay. Then several years later my parents got the complete collection of the Beatles albums and my journey into texture and interplay was heightened even further. Plus incredible visual storytelling in the songs.
With the second part of your question: I never really made a decision that music was the only thing I wanted to do, it just sort of evolved as an increasing part of my life and didn’t really take over as a “career” until my early 20s, but by that stage I’d missed out on a lot of formative years of music skills and all I could really play was Nirvana and Metallica riffs on the guitar. So, I enrolled in jazz university to get a “music education” and became a sort of noise rock/improvising minimal ambient weirdo sound maker for several years and didn’t really get booked for weddings/birthdays. I also had discovered Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter around this time.
WRH: How did you come up with the band name?
JT: The name came from a dream, or a sort of half waking/half sleeping state and whatever vision I was having all I woke with was those words: Mez Medallion. As a child I also used to watch a telemovie that I had taped called Peter & Pompey, and it was about this boy who gets lost in a forest or something and has some sort of connectivity with an ancient time, a time where supposedly Romans and had come to Australia and interacted with the Indigenous population, the first people in Australia, and there was some sort of mission or something that the Romans had to complete, I can’t quite remember. It made an impact on me and something about the medallions and gold I think they were carrying and the mystical malleability of time and tradition somehow all connects. Weird answer I know.
WRH: Normally, I’d my interview subjects how they would describe their sound, but you had told me in a recent email while setting this up that you were period of artistic transformation. So with that in mind: How would you describe the sound on the Live in Berlin EP? Sonically, the material bears a resemblance to bands like Cut Copy, St. Lucia, and a few others. How much did their work influence the EP?
JT: The Live In Berlin EP has quite a few rough edges but I tried to retain all that when I gave it a mix and quick master. I think the energy is good, you know, it’s live. But with the live thing there were limitations that we wanted to do everything live with no computers, aside from triggering the drum samples with a loop pedal, which also meant I could loop my guitars and build. Not that I have any sort of purist attitude, I love computers and technology. But at the time I/we were not so interested in syncing with Ableton and all that. And what I meant by limitations is that in contrast with my first album, and other recording projects, I was able to put lots of layers and tiny arrangement ideas into the songs, with the live thing I think the songs became a bit more of a smooth landscape. But I like how the old songs changed and the new songs came out.
I haven’t really listened a lot to Cut Copy, even though they are from Australia, and I haven’t heard St. Lucia at all yet. My influences are quite broad these days but I think at the time of the Live recording which was March or April 2013 I was really getting into the minimal and static sound of Light Asylum and the synth pop of Austra and there is a lot of minimal electronica in Berlin which all came into my head, even though this EP probably doesn’t really sound directly like any of it.
WRH: How has your sound begun to change from the EP?
JT: Since doing the EP I’ve worked on the Phia single “Do You Ever?,” and I also had some composition work which consisted of writing some spooky synth music that had to be 1:20 in length for a campaign that a new email client was looking for funding for. The segment was about internet security of which none of the current mainstream email clients provide. It was very interesting writing within a specific set of parameters and also for something I did not have to worry about promoting or performing or anything egotistical or any of the usual hangups artists/writers normally have. And the Phia production and co-mixing made me realise that I actually have more skills than I give myself credit for.
Bringing that track “Do You Ever?” to recorded life was really fun. I enjoyed combining samples with the live elements and enhancing the sonic impact and arrangement. It already sounded so good when she plays it solo live with kalimba, beat boxing and looping. But there are things in music that work live that just don’t work on a recording, especially in the pop/indie-pop world. This is something that I think holds a lot of artists back, they can be a little too precious and there is an inability to see that what works live may not work on a record and vice versa. When artist is so close to the music they can sometimes not be in touch with what captivates the listener, you want them to be immersed in the journey because the track evolves in just the right way at the right time. It may be a slow buildup, it may be a little extra part, it may be putting something unusual in there that might not have been there before or just taking a whole bunch of layers out of there – the list goes on. You don’t want the listener thinking about what they’re going to have for dinner instead of humming along.
Also, I went on tour with Phia to promote the single and I joined her onstage playing guitar/keyboards during her set and also doing a solo opening show. I really stripped things back, adopting primary use of a loop pedal connected to my guitar, FX pedals, microphone and iPhone which I used for beat samples and some pad sounds. For something still reliant on technology and electricity it was very raw and spacious. I had for the first time a chance to really explore the range of my voice and the music was not really synth pop anymore. I got a lot of really great feedback and felt quite empowered.
So anyway, to properly answer your question: these experiences have given me a chance to get out of my own head and act more instinctively. So in between working on the new Phia album, I am just spending a couple hours or minutes every day finishing old songs or recent songs, not to their best state but giving them shape or form or whatever so the are listenable demos and not worrying about genre or quality or anything. I’m not questioning any of it. Only finishing. There’s techno in there, folk, hip hop, pop so we’ll see what happens next.
I don’t even know if the next thing will be Mez Medallion or something else. I’m trying not to place any restrictions on it.
WRH: How did you meet the guys in your backing band?
JT: I met Phia & Ed in Australia. I knew Ed from the Melbourne music scene somehow and we used to jam in a few improv/jazz groups. I met Sophia at jazz school, we were put into an ensemble together by the coordinators and a version of the band continued outside of school and we made an album, and of course, I should mention that she is my girlfriend, and we moved to Berlin together. Ed came here completely separate to us but after working on his own solo album here for a year and touring with us playing synths in Mez Medallion he has moved back to Melbourne.
WRH: How does your songwriting process work? Do you have a finished song by the time you hit the studio?
JT: For me there is no real border between the studio and the rest of the world. Computers are such big part of making music for me now especially with regards to sounds, performance, production, mixing etc. With my album Move Towards The Light, the whole thing, for better or worse, was written more or less at the computer. I’d come up with an idea at the guitar, maybe record it in as a demo, add some keys, some drum samples, vocals and build from there. Some of those sounds ended up making the final stage. Something I’ve learnt from the Phia process is how powerful things can be if you have a song that already is really pumping before you hit the studio. The whole core of it just works and moves people and then I can come in and just enhance and shape of it and make sure the really key parts and emotions and vibe shines through. It’s not the only way to make music because I am a big electronic music fan and there’s so much music that is all inside the box. I think that is going to influence my next stage.
WRH: Who are your influences?
JT: Hmm. so much, very hard to really list, I’ll stick to music influences or the list will go beyond this interview. I don’t know anymore whether I’m influenced by what I heard as a child, adolescence or now… The Beatles, the Knife, Fever Ray, Grizzly Bear, Thomas Dolby, David Bowie, Ryuichi Sakamoto and Yellow Magic Orchestra, Twin Shadow, Active Child, Radiohead, Talking Heads, CANT, Tune-Yards, LCD Soundsystem, Antony & the Johnsons, a lot of 90s stuff like the pop of the day, R&B like Mark Morrison, grunge/alternative like [the Smashing] Pumpkins or Nirvana and hip hop like Busta Rhymes and Wu-Tang. My jazz/improv phase has influenced me too even though I don’t listen to it so much these days, I always found Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter philosophical players and I think their outlook has stuck with me, if not directly their music.
WRH: Who are you listening to?
JT: At the moment I am fairly bored with a lot of music which comes up on the indie radar for me, not because I think I could do better or anything, it’s just not floating my boat for some reason. It could just be that I’m busy. I was really buzzing years ago when I heard things like Fever Ray, Twin Shadows first album Forget, Grizzly Bear but lately I don’t know, I feel out of sync, but I’m listening all the time. I’m doing a lot of exploring and listening for almost just research of what people listen to today. I’m listening to random classical, old African stuff a lot of highlife and exploring Soundcloud for experimental stuff a lot. I really like Mykki Blanco and the stuff from producer Cashmere Cat. The latest Austra album and PlanningToRock’s recent stuff, especially the track “Misogyny Drop Dead” – I love it. I’ve also been listening to solo piano stuff from Chilly Gonzales the guy who produced some of Feist’s records. Kanye West’s Yeezus is cool, I like the minimalism and I’m a big fan of Rick Rubin’s approach to production and songs. When I’m doing the dishes or cleaning the house I usually pump up Notorious BIG or Snoop or the latest album by the Knife or Hercules & Love Affair. I’ve also recently discovered Gillian Welch, I’ve only heard one song though, it’s called “Everything is Free” – it’s an amazing song and performance and recording, I heard it in my yoga class, it’s really powerful and I was struck how heavy and pumping acoustic music can be when done right. I’m about to go listen to Philip Glass.
WRH: As you may know, I’ve written about a fellow Berlin-based artist, Phia. And as it turns out, not only did you produce her single “Do You Ever?” you’re also her boyfriend. How did you two meet? How is it like to collaborate with your girlfriend? And how did the creative process work?
JT: As I mentioned before we met at university and I think the only downside to working with your partner is that there isn’t much downtime. It’s hard to not be talking about music/work/emails/tours/ideas etc because it’s often on your mind. Sometimes it would be great, like normal couples, to be able to go to work and come back and talk about your day. I know that sounds like a prosaic sort of wish but what I mean is some separation between work life and the rest of your life.
However, the fact that we work together, have really similar desires for making music, moving to a different country where we didn’t speak the same language etc etc is exactly what makes the relationship so strong and why we work so well together – everything is connected. I’m actually really happy about that. I like going on tour together, I like that we’re making a life out of this.
WRH: A great deal of my blog’s readers are based in the States and are likely unfamiliar with Berlin’s music and arts scene. Many will know that Berlin is an important world city; some will know that Iggy Pop and David Bowie spent time in East Berlin trying to kick heroin – at a time when East Berlin was the heroin capital of the world; a few others will know of Berlin’s techno scene. How would you describe Berlin’s music scene?
JT: I find Berlin music scene quite interesting. Being a cultural hub of Germany, and arguably Europe, there is a whole lot of different music happening here, techno, experimental, jazz, hip hop, indie stuff etc etc as well as just a buzz of creativity in other sectors. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in the main clubs here and getting to hear really great techno and electronic music but I’m also connected to a really great network of folk and acoustic pop musicians through a festival I have performed at a few times in Iceland and France called Melodica and friends I have made.
There is a really great music scene here that intersects with the queer scene which I have hung out a lot in. The stuff is often fairly electronic, thumping, pop influenced, theatrical, a little bit punky and the barriers of self-expression are completely destroyed, unlike a lot of mainstream culture. I’m not sure, but I’m guessing that being alive with a non-mainstream attitude towards gender identity and other social norms would have to quite profoundly affect your artistic work.
WRH: I’ve talked to quite a few artists from the States and Australia, and they talk of similar struggles – namely, how difficult it is to get by doing what they love. Many of them also tell me how difficult it is to get attention for their work. Do German artists face the same issues?
JT: In one sentence: yeah, it’s a lot of hard work.
It is definitely the case that it is hard to get by doing what you love, I would say that is probably the case for everyone in the world. But if you’re prepared to take the risk and you believe in what you’re doing then it is worth trying. I mean there is also the question of how you value yourself and how you value time on this earth. We aren’t here for ever. And what you’re doing now might feel like reality and stable but it will all change and move on whether you want it to or not. It might last a week, it might last a year but time will roll on and you don’t know what is around the corner. So there is an element of grabbing hold of this opportunity now in the way I view this kind of questioning. It doesn’t have to be forever and I don’t want to look back in the future saying “I wish I had…”.
Germany on the other hand has been a very positive experience for us. Especially the last 12 months or so. We’ve been doing a lot fun touring in Europe with Mez Medallion & Phia, we have our base in Berlin which is one of our favourite cities in the world, we have our rehearsal/recording studio a 5 minute bike ride from our place, and so on. And most recently the Phia project received a scholarship from the Berlin Musicboard, based on the song I produced and co-mixed, to help fund the making of her new album, which is fantastic for the project.
WRH: Where do you see yourself in the next 5 years or so?
JT: That is hard to say actually. Where I will be geographically I do not know, hopefully somewhere I want to be. Mentally and philosophically & physically I hope to be in really good shape. I’ve just started yoga about three times a week and very slowly it’s prying my mind and body wide open, I want to be strong enough to just do it every day – it’s hard work! Professionally, I hope the Phia project is still going and we’re making great albums and doing great tours. I hope that my own music is working in it’s own way whether it’s Mez Medallion or something else altogether. And above all I hope to be producing, co-writing & mixing with a bunch of great artists whose music I get a buzz from bringing to life – making records and playing is fun.
WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves?
JT: Try things out. The path that you expected to be travelling on may turn out to be not as clearly marked or leading to the right place. Maybe you need to jump off the path and just walk on the grass, or head into the forest and take a swim in the lake there. Keep an open mind and don’t let the ego in too much or else you will miss what is actually happening, what you’re good at and what can lead to happiness. Don’t do what you think you should do. Make the music really good, ask a lot of questions to people in the positions that you aspire to be in, learn, evolve, then let the empire follow, don’t put a lid on it until it’s done.