Hayden Payne just released his second album under the moniker of Phase Fatale. With Scanning Backwards, the Berghain resident explores the ways in which music – and sub frequencies in particular – are used to influence thinking and synchronize emotions and behavior. The music draws on his background as both sound engineer and guitarist player. Payne, grown up in New York and living in Berlin for some years now, created a complex and dark mix of noise und heavy rhythms spiced with elements from Techno, EBM and Shoegaze. VOLT had a chat with him and dived deeply into a world in which sound dissolves in science. It’s dangerous there – so be aware!
Scanning Backwards is more massive, sinister and complex than your previous releases were – as a reason for this evolution it is given in the press sheet that you studied – as user – what works in Berghain. But is this really the only reason why you drifted into this darker, dense direction?
In this album, I wanted to explore both sub and higher band frequencies that dictate the way the body reacts or how the brain can have memories engrained into it or reprogrammed. Taking more subversive ways sound was used as a weapon, like in CIA mind control experiments under MKUltra, and turning them into more constructive forms as dance music meant to act as a soundtrack for a community of clubgoers or subcultures. To technically harness these concepts, I turned more towards digital synthesis techniques live wavetable, FM, sampling which for me I was able to control more precisely and have each instrument sit in its own frequency band. Also, the sounds are colder and more hollow which allows for much more space to layer them to create a larger atmosphere and an alternate aluminium universe.
This approach definitely lines up with the sounds of Clock DVA for example, especially from their favourite albums of mine like Buried Dreams or Digital Soundtracks, where they employed similar sonic methods. I think when approaching ideas of cybernetic mind control, we tend to employ this kind of auditory palette to convey how it may sound with a combination of the body’s organic system with completely artificial elements, liquid and metallic.
What do you think: why do so few bands master the art of weaving in this special second edge into their music, which is less to be heard but more to be felt?
Some people think it is simple enough to replicate the literal music and still come out with the same product as say a seminal band as Skinny Puppy. But what is missing is exactly this feeling and that is easily noticeable when you would listen to the music. You can feel the emotion, pain, and intelligence in Skinny Puppy’s music, and in the lyrics, there is a broader concept and picture being painted in extreme detail. It’s not about perfection but about turning yourself out onto the music. But if someone just adopts the image and sound and makes up some spooky sounding pseudolyrics that literally have zero meaning, then it becomes quite obvious how shallow the whole thing is, which is more of a common occurrence than I’d like to see.
Even in Scanning Backwards that has no lyrics, I tried to weave my emotions and thoughts deep throughout the album to create a sincere and personable product that hopefully is relatable and gets to the core of its listeners.
"Some people think it is simple enough to replicate the literal music and still come out with the same product as Skinny Puppy." Hayden Payne
The artwork of your new album is taken from a SNAX flyer, so much is clear – but the x-ray image itself does apply to the term Scanning Backwards on a metaphorical level as well, right?
Well that wasn’t my first intention with the album title itself! But sure certainly the cover conveys a sort of scanning backwards even literally. The album title really comes from a part in the 1995 anime movie of Ghost in the Shell. In one scene, they are chasing a garbageman believed to be a proxy of the antagonist, The Puppet Master. When they capture him, they find that this garbageman has no memories of his own but has been ghosthacked. As he “scans backwards” in his implanted mind, he realizes his whole life is a fake and his reality is not actually his.
This idea of scanning backwards through one’s memories or life and questioning them is central. Could they have been reprogrammed or reinterpreted or simply inserted and to what extent? The cover itself comes from a very early SNAX party flyer in the 90s actually designed by one of the owners of Berghain. It’s meant to act as a sort of reflection on another period as well with the added pink hue acting as a slight reference to some albums that were very influential to me.
Why did you release it on Ostgut and – again – not on your own label Bite?
For me Berghain is a very important place for my music development in an environment that is unique to itself. Also, the label released some music that was also influential to me finding my sound in techno. As a resident, I wanted to craft a record that fit to that space (not only there of course) and in different ways: to the acoustics but also to how the crowd is and to the many different spaces it has, not just the dancefloor. So it’s important of course that a record like this is released on the club’s label to have its fullest effect.
You studied sound engineering – and with your new album you’re exploring, among other things, the effect of frequencies found in both sonic warfare and functional dance music. Was your approach an academic one?
I definitely did a fair amount of actual research into the different ways sound was used as a militarized weapon, reading through declassified CIA documents, witness accounts, and academic sources. As I also majored in university in many different aspects of music technology, I interpreted these applications of sonic warfare to how this could be translated to a more constructive way of effective music either for the dancefloor or just for listening, both technically and more subjectively and creatively. For example, the track Proxy Contact recalls a method by the US Army during the Vietnam War called Operation Wandering Soul. In the middle of night, they would blast extremely loud ghostly voices to the North Vietnamese army predicting their death in war the following day, as if their ancestors were warning them, thus to lower their morale.
In my track, I also inserted subliminal voices getting inside the listener. As well, in a CIA experiment, they tried to use the method of de-patterning or psychic driving to reprogram unsuspecting patients’ minds. By drugging them for days or even months and playing repetitious messages over and over again, they got them to believe they were someone else or revert them back to a childlike state. Hence also the repetitive nature of the voices in the track. So those are just a couple ways sonic warfare can be applied within a track especially when amplified to high decibel levels on a nice, huge club system.
"I definitely did a fair amount of actual research into the different ways sound was used as a militarized weapon." Hayden Payne
Skinny Puppy’s music was used as instrument of torture in Guantanamo by the US government, which became public in 2014. How do you feel about that in general, when such a beautiful thing as music is abused as weapon?
I think I would be, as Skinny Puppy, shocked how music like that can be twisted into such a sinister manner. In the end, they even tried to sue them and ban its use actually. While music like ours is unsettling and harsh, it is designed this way to point out, illustrate and reveal horrific events in the world exactly like that. It is anything but intended for use as an actual torture device. So in a way it is even ironic that they use this music in Guantanamo, when in fact the music is criticizing that procedure and the whole complex.
You celebrated the release of Scanning Backwards at Berghain – the field test in the natural habitat the songs were designed for, so to say ...
For the release party, I played the opening slot which was the perfect time to introduce some tracks from the album since it exists mostly in a slower bpm range. So I was able to start from absolute Zero and by the end transforming it into a proper techno set while weaving those tracks in between. The tracks worked extremely effectively as I had intended. Also because I had done the final mixing process with Martin Maischein of Goner, Teste, and many other projects who among other things was the Berghain sound engineer for some years. Together we carved out the sounds and tailored them to work best on that sound system and any other.
I only had the chance to test the final masters when I DJed during SNAX last November but never had the chance to try the tracks out anytime before then in that space. But I think with so much experience DJing or just being in the club for many years, I’ve developed an ear to what will translate well from the studio to the club.
How does composing/producing an album differ from a live set in a club?
When I’m writing music, I don’t necessarily have the peaktime dancefloor in mind, but maybe I’m more interested in working on a slower electro track, something more industrial or ambient, or even something incorporating more guitars. While I usually have the club in mind, I’m thinking of different moments whether its an opening set, a hybrid industrial/drone set or just something effective for example. When preparing a live set, that is mostly geared towards the club active in the deep of the night. So things are generally at a certain tempo and rhythm geared towards dancing. I prefer actually finding special settings for a live set instead like a well curated festival or something in a concert environment. Then I can really explore the different dynamics and styles I can create.
"The low costs and huge spaces and energy of Berlin brought musicians here where they can finally focus on their art." Hayden Payne
There are many artists stemming from the US who are living, making music and partying in Berlin these days, be it you, Adam X or Joey of Blush Response, there’s a long list. What do you think, what is it that attracts people to Berlin and its Techno scene? Once there was quite a huge renowned Techno scene overseas as well ... what happened?
One thing that attracted me here is the strong music history of Berlin. Everything from Bowie and Iggy Pop, Nick Cave and Einstürzende Neubauten to Malaria then to the fall of the wall and the rise of techno. Even in these times, the low costs and huge spaces and energy of the city brought musicians here where they can finally focus on their art. When I left New York over 5 years ago, there wasn’t so much brewing in underground electronic music there especially after the end of the Wierd parties for me. Having to struggle with the extremely high rents of the city, I had no time to focus on music, and it only made sense to move to Berlin and to be surrounded and influenced by likeminded people. From there, we really started to build a community around our common love for this kind of music.
While Europe and especially Berlin tend to value electronic music as part of their cultural heritage, in the states, they want to squash out any form of expression or deviance that doesn’t fit to their ideals combined with draconian alcohol and drug policies and commercialization of music like EDM tended to break down techno culture in America in the past. But now there is a growing scene again.
When it comes to Techno, the cities which usually come to mind are Berlin, London and Amsterdam. But there is, for example, KHIDI in Tbilisi and Kably’s in Vilnius – cities which, at first glance, are not necessarily destinations where you would expect some of the Techno hotspots of our time, which might come as surprise for people who are not that deep into the scene. What do you think why did the Techno scene and these clubs have been evolving there? And what is it like?
In cities like Tbilisi, this kind of music is fresher to them and creating a huge wave of talented producers and djs. Because for them it is not just entertainment but also a focal point of expression against a more conservative and traditional society, and generally this darker and more industrial style of music resonates well with this outpouring. The clubs serve also as safe spaces for people to be who they really are and connect with one another. I can see how much it has evolved in only a few years let alone how strong it will be in just a few more.
In the end, I’d say it isn’t much different than Berghain or De School. All these places have much in common acting like microcosms for people to come together outside the usual societal norms in an almost anarchistic way around cool music in dark concrete caverns and of course with world class sound systems.
Since you’re a resident at Berghain and KHIDI and on the road quite a lot – are you still pursuing your other field(s) of action as promoter of the Fleisch parties and/or DJing at Post-Punk parties such as Ceremonies?
Even though I greatly love touring and playing techno almost every weekend, I also still have the need to play just post-punk / cold wave sets at Ceremonies, where I even used to be a resident when I first moved to Berlin. Its very therapeutic for me to play and hear back some of my favourite songs that have a resonating value within me. You can just focus on the music rather than worrying about who’s judging your mixing or something. Even as the music goes more and more into history, it still has such a strong timelessness in which you can keep discovering something new.
Foto: Sven Marquardt