Image by Boris Eldagsen
Interviewing Russian-born, Berlin-based electronic musician, writer, photographer and artist Mary Ocher is a little different from your standard NARC. interview. Instead of discussing guitar tones or tour mishaps, you find yourself digging into barely remembered philosophy lectures and trying not to seem like a fool. Luckily, Ocher is never less than gracious and thoughtful. She returns to the region this month promoting her new album The West Against The People (released on the legendary Klangbad label), so the provocative but ambiguous title seemed a good place to kick off. Presumably her place of birth gives her a special insight into the notion of ‘the west’.
“I happen to be living in a part of the city that was indeed part of the old east,” Ocher explains, “but I suppose you had no way of knowing that. What I’ve discovered while digging up the history of the terminology ‘west / east’ is that it really isn’t a geographical concept, it’s purely ideology-based, and it seems the world is changing at such a rapid pace that these terms will soon be entirely obsolete.”
The album comes with a fascinating essay (something not much seen since the era of bands like Crass) that touches on intersectionality and power relationships. A typically bold and unusual move (and I highly recommend reading it on her website), so I asked Ocher why she’d chosen to include it.
my biggest criticism of capitalism is its dire lack of compassion – and that is what I would like to preach
“There was so much more to say of the subjects that the songs just touched upon gently. Political music can be a terrible bore (though Crass in particular had a sense of zeal for their subjects that added a certain charisma to the otherwise preachy overtones.) Political music hasn’t been particularly hot for a long time, and yet, music without any interest in the society that gave birth to it is also incredibly dull. I find songs about partying and shopping redundant. How much partying can you possibly have? I’d like to think most people would be interested in the big picture too. If anything, my biggest criticism of capitalism is its dire lack of compassion – and that is what I would like to preach, recognizing similarities in the discriminations of others and placing yourself in their shoes, it seems that in the left there is a destructive tendency for segregation that weakens us all. Our experiences are of course different, but we must not put our suffering on a pedestal and keep away from those whose suffering we consider to be of a lesser degree. that sort of rationale is counter-productive and bitter.” And the fact that some previous writing got some negative reactions? Ocher is vehement: “It made me want to scream out these ideas even louder – and what a fitting occasion this was!”
The album contains a bewildering array of styles, from soundtrack psychedelia to an almost organic Einstürzende Neubaten sound, and I wondered if that might confuse or alienate listeners. Ocher seems defiant about this. “I honestly don’t think I’ve ever made it easy for listeners, they either like what I do or they don’t, and there’s always the occasional rant, ‘why can’t you stick to X genre?’. I have no intention to commit to either genre, that I can promise. I’m an avid collector of recordings from the dawn of the recording era until today and I hope to keep learning and discovering new pieces, it’s becoming easier than ever before.”
Some songs on the album see Ocher using her voice as something to be stretched and mutated, which she says “is a whole new territory that perhaps I’ll be able to explore more in depth in the future… I’m really quite limited and allow words to take the guide. But of course, I love Meredith Monk, Yoko Ono and Diamanda Galas.” Other songs display a distinct torch song feel, with album highlight To The Light suggesting Ute Lemper singing Kurt Weill. How conscious an influence is that tradition? “I’m a big fan of Jacques Brel, Eartha Kitt, Scott Walker, Dagmar Krause and a whole bunch of vocalists and writers who have been treating their words like weapons, with very precise, very expressive pronunciations and a lot of drama. it helps having well written pieces of course.”
Despite being driven by a very singular vision, Ocher is a frequent and catholic collaborator – the current album features electronic artist Felix Kubin, the last garage trash icon King Khan – and I wondered if there was a common thread or something particular she sought out in her collaborations.
“Actually, I think that Felix and King Khan have much more in common than the average listener might think, both are very adventurous and respectful of each other’s work, even though they work in different fields and might not have many fans in common. There’s so many people I’d like to collaborate with, the one thing that those I have collaborated with so far have in common is certainly a lack of fear of what someone might say about their collaboration with me, and the very nature of such a collaboration – putting all of us in the gray zone outside of our comforts.”
Given the complexity of the album and the involvement of drum duo Your Government, it must be challenging to perform live? “I will be playing everything live – new and old – but would have to skip the tracks with the drummers and those created in the studio. One day, I hope we could bring the big show to the UK, but it’s a matter of costs.”
Mary Ocher appears at the Gateshead Old Police House on Thursday 13th April. The West Against The People is out now on Klangbad.