»Synthesizers? Come on! This is cheating!«

An interview with Mme Psychosis

MME PSYCHOSIS has released »BSV«, her first album on Cut Surface. As a trained pianist, beats, synths and vocals – the holy trinity for cut surfaces and the counterpart to aristocratic tragedy – offer something like an eerie factor for souls of the night already alienated from the system. »BSV« is like a trip to the Böhmische Prater after closing time. The soundtrack for a sci-fi film that was never made. A tape that celebrates the beat and sends the synthesizer a friend request. Christoph Benkeser met MME PSYCHOSIS in Augarten. In the shadow of the Flakturm, the Vienna-based researcher and musician discusses her youth playing the piano, her love-hate-relationship with synths and why an optimistic person doesn’t necessarily have to believe in humanity.

DISCLOSURE: This interview has been published in German via mica

They say you’re active only in the dark.

Mme Psychosis: Ha, yeah! So, I think I came up with that. But it was just meant that during the day, I’m a researcher which means that I don’t really have much time to make music then. So, I do it in the evening – and I sleep at night.

Oh good, thanks! I first thought we would need to avoid the sun! Your music could reflect that …

Mme Psychosis: Some people have said that do me, yeah. There was also this Falter review where it says like there are songs like a downer with some nice moments.

Gerhard Stöger pushed it into a dark space, yeah.

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, but I don’t know. I like minor scales and dissonance more but somehow, I also enjoy listening to happy music. I don’t know if there’s a logic to it why I end up with this darker sound though. I’d say that I like it when music has some uncanny feeling to it.

It’s definitely eerie music!

Mme Psychosis: Oh, that’s the word! I’m really bad at describing my own music. And the same time, I’m so happy that Cut Surface wanted to release this because now they can put some adjectives on it. Otherwise I always end up with words like tribal and synths.

You were in band projects like Euroteuro but also released music under your Mme Psychosis moniker which could be considered “tribal”.

Mme Psychosis: The first Mme Psychosis release was actually a soundtrack for Burnbjoern’s „Meanwhile“. But I’m from a very different background music wise. I attended classical music school for about twelve years.

Oh, wow, so you do have a classical background.

Mme Psychosis: From age eight to 20, I was playing piano all the time. Part of my education was not only the instrument, but also learning about classical forms, the whole development of classical music and analyzing it. In addition to that I also had ear training. So, I’m quite well equipped in those terms. And that’s great. I can hear music and write notes very quickly. Still, when I was 20, I stopped to play the piano. It’s just a different type of thing. You don’t have time for improvising. Even today, it’s difficult for me to sit at the piano and just start playing something.

Oh, is it?

Mme Psychosis:  Yeah, in front of other people I’m like, give me notes, I can play anything, but, you know, not anything anymore. Even if I used to be really good when I played it. Now I’m looking at the notes and I’m like: That would take me some time to …

To  get back into it?

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, yeah. I was playing with all these old classical notes. And for years I would never think that I would be making my own music, actually. I was kind of lucky because I ended up being surrounded by people who made me a bit more aware. I realized that there’s a lot of musician friends who are completely self-taught. They told me: Why are you not making music with all your background. So, slowly all of this came to being – and Euroteuro was a cool thing for me. I got a Casio keyboard – such a beautiful instrument! Now, it’s not really in a good shape anymore, but it was like ten euros at a flea market. And you know what? Before this, whenever I was playing the piano, I’d always be like: Keyboards, come on, this is cheating!

That sounds like a strong aversion towards synths.

Mme Psychosis: You know, I’m still terrified by synthesizers. I’m also fascinated, but really overwhelmed as well! I just don’t understand … Do you know this project called T.R.A.S.H?

Oh yeah, he’s from Vienna.

Mme Psychosis: Well, there is this compilation called Rhizome #3 that Rosa Nebel put together. On it, you can find one T.R.A.S.H track named „Caroline“, it’s so good! The person behind it is a super nerdy guy who puts a lot of effort into the actual process behind what happens with the sound. Compared to that, I don’t really try to turn too many knobs.

How come?

Mme Psychosis:  I’m quickly satisfied with the sound of the synth that I’m using. For that reason, the Euroteuro project was cool because in comparison to what I used to do, I could just play the keys. Also, it was so cool to be on stage, to have this experience with your friends. It wasn’t so challenging for me to play the parts, though. When we made songs, I would just stick to my instrument. I wasn’t even looking at the laptop until I got into learning how to record ideas of my music. That was probably two and a half years ago. Before then, I would try to record it with my phone. So, you see … I am really slow with this kind of stuff. But at some point, I went on holidays, downloaded the trial of Ableton Live …

And?

Mme Psychosis: I thought: Oh my God, this is actually quite easy. So, Mme Psychosis is like an interesting adventure, a challenge. For example, this one record called „Beats“ was just an album that was made out of beats. I could look at this and add synths and vocals and extend this a bit. I just have too much energy sometimes and I have to put it somewhere. With Mme Psychosis, I can cheat myself into doing something that relaxes me.

This is an interesting transition, starting off with classical piano and ending up with relaxing by playing synths. What made you stop playing the piano?

Mme Psychosis: Oh, that’s a longer story! As I said, the piano was a pretty defining part of my life. In essence, I had two schools – the normal school until lunch and in the afternoon to the evening, four days a week, I would go the music school. That was intense.

How did you get into that situation?

Mme Psychosis: Some friends of my parents suggested to do it. They said: Send her to the exams for the music school. And it worked out. To be fair, I have pretty good hearing, I think – at least at the time. Still, for whatever reason, when I was eight, I wanted to play the drums. But the people at the exam were like: No, no, you should go for violin because of your good hearing. I didn’t like that idea at all. The piano was a compromise, eventually.

Quiet a long compromise, wasn’t it?

Mme Psychosis: I was actually pretty good. During the first three years I was taking part in contests in Poland. But in the end, it was just too much. I didn’t like the competition either. When I get to talk with friends from this time who are adults now, I realize that everybody is kind of an overachiever and really has to learn how to chill. I remember that when I was 12, there was this guy, Staś Drzewiecki, who was piano star. He was in my peer group – and the son of two winners of the Chopin contest. I realized: OK, this is not going to be possible for me because I am not that good and it’s OK. Still, I continued.

Why?

Mme Psychosis: I liked my instrument. Then, all of my friends were there. In school, you’re all the time developing as well. I really liked that even if it was robbing me of a lot of time. Only during my second degree, I knew that I would not be going to go to the academy. Still, I wanted to finish my degree. Fortunately, I had a really good teacher for my last three years. Someone fresh from university.

How was it before?

Mme Psychosis: To be honest? Challenging! I had this teacher who was scary and on purpose giving me notes of pieces that she knew I would suffer playing them. This was not helpful. I needed something in between. I bet you understand how happy I was when I could finish my degree with another person.

I do! What happened after you finished school?

Mme Psychosis: I left my hometown and moved to Krakow where I studied English. For over a year, I didn’t even touch a piano.

You had to get a distance to it?

Mme Psychosis: Yeah. It was just standing at my parent’s home. Also, I never thought about getting myself a synth or a keyboard. I thought I needed a piano to play the piano. But that’s not so easy when you move around often. In Vienna though, I have my piano again!

Your piano from back then?

Mme Psychosis: Yes, it’s so good to have it back. Even if it took some time to get back into it. It wasn’t so easy before. I was studying in different cities. I went to a university in Denmark where I had a student radio show. That’s actually when the name Mme Psychosis was born!

As the name for the radio show?

Mme Psychosis: It was with a friend and me. We had this show and he came up with names for us. I was Madame Psychosis. And he was Sweet Daddy Champagne. It’s actually a tribute to …

David Foster Wallace?

Mme Psychosis: No, no! My friend had this book about homeless people from the 70s at the streets of San Francisco. They were profiled and given names in the book. Madame Psychosis was actually a homeless person at the West coast in the 70s. Is that what you meant with …

I totally thought of David Foster Wallace. Do you know the book „Infinite Jest“?

Mme Psychosis:I guess I haven’t read it.

It’s funny that you mention Psychosis in the context of your radio show. There is a chapter in it in which a person who hosts a show in a Boston University area, is called Mme Psychosis. That’s what made me think of …

Mme Psychosis: Oh wow!

Foster Wallace actually used the name as a pun for metempsychosis. It describes the wandering of souls through different bodies over life cycles.

Mme Psychosis: Sounds like I should definitely read it.

Yeah. It’s quite an interesting novel actually. And it would go well with your version of Mme Psychosis.

Mme Psychosis: Yes, I’m happy to revive the name, it was ready for me. Maybe it’s a bit strange, but …

No, it’s a really good name!

Mme Psychosis: I heard it pronounced in funny ways. People would say: „Hey Psychose!“ And I’m like: „Yeah that’s me!“

That’s how you get stuck in one’s head.

Mme Psychosis: It’s eerie. Maybe the name is making you read this music a bit though, so I like it … I actually was super stressed with this conversation because I thought I should have a story to tell. But then I somehow never end up doing this, so …

We probably weave the story right now in this conversation. Also, the missing story was what made this record so alluring to me. In a way, it reminded me of a sci-fi movie of the eighties that was never made. Compared to your earlier output on Bandcamp, it’s very melodic too.

Mme Psychosis: You know, I have been releasing protest songs with a flash on the cover. During autumn, there was a lot of shit going on in Poland at the same time. Finally, the Catholic bullshit was about to get kicked out. I have been totally supporting the protests, all the time following what was going on, seeing people with live streams on Facebook and stuff. Then I realized that because I used to be also really into hip hop, wearing baggy pants and …

Sorry to interrupt you, but given that you played the classical piano, that’s a very strange combination!

Mme Psychosis: It was also the vibe of Hip Hop. I still love it. Sometimes I hop onto a nostalgic trip by listening to the old stuff. Back in the times, I was living in Katowice which, at that point, was one of the headquarters of super cool crews in the second half of 90s to the early 2000s. When I was about 14 or 15, there were so many Hip Hop shows. Those crews are legendary nowadays, but back then, they were just there. I loved it. Probably that’s also the reason why I’ve always liked good beats.

That’s the basic foundation, isn’t it?

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, exactly. But I’m also into melodic beats, you know, a good loop with the beat itself being melodic. But that doesn’t work for everyone and that’s OK too! I don’t have to go full Mme Psychosis all the time. Anyway … what was I talking about before?

Good question!

Mme Psychosis: Ah, about my protest songs! I mentioned them because what’s really difficult for me is lyrics. Eventually, I used some tracks from the album and freestyle-rapped over them. I was super surprised because it worked so well! Just singing in my own language … but there’s also an Euroteuro track where I used my Polish vocal alter ego Czeski Film.

Oh, I was wondering about that name!

Mme Psychosis: It’s super confusing, isn’t it? In Poland we say „Czeski Film nikt nic nie wie“. It means that in a Czech movie, nobody knows what’s going on. So, in a chaotic situation you just say „Czeski Film nikt nic nie wie“ … and people know that maybe it makes sense, but in a very absurd way to get to this sense. Mme Psychosis and Czeski Film – that made sense to me.

It fits so well to the beats. And those early memories on hip hop, they’re just resurfacing …

Mme Psychosis: in beautiful melodies, right? In music school, I never was good with technics, but I smashed this melancholic and nostalgic Chopin-like stuff.

I think the nostalgic feeling kind of fits my feeling for your record. It sounds futuristic but from a moment in the past.

Mme Psychosis: That’s really cool! The thing is: I’m making a lot of tracks. As soon as everything is recorded, I just don’t like to spend too much time on them. That’s really difficult … but yeah, one thing that I would love to do is make sound tracks and some of the new ones would be perfect for some kind of movie you described earlier.

Oh wow!

Mme Psychosis: I don’t have a plan with this. Sometimes I’m also happy when I make some tracks just listening to them myself because it can be hard to get feedback. I have a couple of friends who I check ideas with. But sometimes they’re saying: „The beat is kind of all over. Why don’t you add a hi-hat?“ And I’m like: „Why don’t you fucking feel the rhythm?“ So, I’m often happy with the first idea, not spending on different effects … that’s just not my process. I think it’s important for me to say, though, that it’s is a hobby for me.

I hear you.

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, people who make music in a more professional way would not respect this. So, I should probably keep quiet on this because otherwise I sound like an ignorant …

Not at all! It’s quite honest if you say it like this. Sure, some people tweak on their tracks for days, weeks or months …

Mme Psychosis: And if they like it, that’s great, but don’t impose on others. Some people pretend that if you don’t put enough effort in then you cannot talk about quality of music. I think that’s wrong. Get a guy with a gong and somebody with a beautiful voice, give them some time and you don’t need anything else.

Absolutely!

Mme Psychosis: Also, here in Vienna, there are so many interesting musicians. For example, Mala Herba and Fauna, whom you interviewed in the past. In singing, I like the dissonance, a Slavic folklore harmony. Mala Herba combines that perfectly. And „Demonologia“ is a great album.

It’s even more staggering when you compare it to the early versions. That made me realize how much you can get out of demos.

Mme Psychosis: That’s really interesting because it’s hard to talk about it objectively. I can enjoy my music on my own and I have a couple of friends who also enjoy it. Every time when somebody is listening to it, that makes me happy. The thing is: I don’t have a requirement with the quantity of the ears I have to please.

That’s the good thing about a hobby!

Mme Psychosis: Right now, it’s just a very good way for me to relax. Plus, the fact that you can sit in front of a computer making beats and assigning an instrument to a keyboard over a laptop still excites me. On the other hand, I can just experiment with vocal layers. Sometimes, if I come home after work, I don’t want to read or stare at a screen again. Then I just go to my room and sing a bit. This is so nice.

It’s nice to have an opportunity to do something after work that has nothing to do with work, isn’t it?

Mme Psychosis: At the same time, I have a lot of respect for everybody who make music as their full-time job. I think it’s tricky and, in a sense, I wonder if it destroys the fun process of it.

It definitely changes the approach.

Mme Psychosis: For sure, to some extent at least, I suppose. But let me tell you this: I’ve been studying and I’ve always been good in exploring topics. At one point, I went for an internship at a university and I thought: „I’m going to be here for four months researching a specific topic and they’re going to pay me! This sounds like a great job!“ I mean, it’s a super precarious type of work as well, it’s stressful and also very competitive. So, I’m happy that, after my PhD, I could create myself a better environment. I’m really progressing so much more than in previous times when there was just too much stress to it. Now, a colleague from my work even happens to be on the album.

That’s lovely.

Mme Psychosis: My team is so nice. They’ve been to Mme Psychosis shows last summer. Sometimes they would make a joke: “If it doesn’t work out for you in academia you can still go fully into music.” Probably I’d go teaching music in kindergarten, though, because there will always be kids and there will always be kindergartens. Otherwise, it’s just a situation like from one precarious set up to another.

Mme Psychosis comes to entertain your children! That would make a great story!

Mme Psychosis: You know what? I have Instagram for Psychosis, but I also don’t care which doesn’t mean that I don’t check my stories. I do, but I realize that it’s just a marketing machine. A machine that is divided in a very problematic way … if you can buy likes and listens of your videos, I mean …

It starts to be a virtual game with very real consequences. Still, you can just take yourself out of it. Especially as someone who needs to promote a record.

Mme Psychosis: How do you do it?

I’m not an artist but I decided not to play the attention game. That comes with a lot of disadvantages in my field, but it still outweighs the cons. And the greatest thing is: I don’t need to pretend that I’m happy wasting 50 hours a week working in a bullshit job — which I’m not, but still.

Mme Psychosis: Right now, I’m working 20 hours a week and also do some teaching. Before I finished my PhD, I was exactly in that race you described. Sure, we are sitting here in a super luxury position. In relation to the majority of livelihoods of people around the world we have good lives. If I would be sitting in Poland, it would be much different. I don’t know anybody in Poland who works part time. None of my friends work part time because life gets unaffordable. The fact that I can work 20 hours not missing anything and still use the other time for my hobby or just outside work is phenomenal. So, in this lucky position in the world where we are sitting here now, why work full time?” To have the promise of a pension that probably never comes into effect because of the systemic problems? I won’t be a little hamster until I’m sixty something. I rather prefer to have lower pension. In the meantime, climate change is going crazy anyway, so how, why or should we even think about pension? Maybe that’s also underlining my music.

The dystopian approach?

Mme Psychosis: I’m a positive person, but generally, I think we are pretty screwed. For the massive problems we face as a society, I think it’s a bit too late. We should turn towards degrowth. Looking at how humans are reacting in this current situation is not giving me too much hope for our own species.

It’s good that you bring that up. A year ago, people would say: „Oh, the crisis is going to be such a game changer.“ Of course, the economy doesn’t give a shit about that. Capitalism has eaten its way through this crisis as always. And people are craving to get back into the hamsterrad, queuing in front of shops to buy a T-shirt that costs like three euros and was made by child-labor.

Mme Psychosis: The balance is not on the right side, yeah. Elon Musk can shoot himself to Mars, but … you know … that’s ridiculous. Maybe I should write a song called Elon.

You should! And as you said before, we are still complaining on a high level, though.

Mme Psychosis: It’s also not to create an impression that we cannot have problems. Somehow, I’m really happy about where I am. I’m trying to do something useful with my time, with my work. I hope that it’s helpful for somebody. The worst thing for me would be to put me in an office from nine to five where I would have to do nonsense stuff. I did that for a bit and after one year and a half I really felt burned out. It is making me sad that that’s the reality for the majority of people. In that sense, I’m always feeling very … I don’t want to say grateful because that would assume that I’m grateful to somebody even though I think it’s a big coincidence.

I think it’s also the luxury to reflect on all that. Most people can’t – because they are made hamsters of the system.

Mme Psychosis: When you can choose what to do with your time, that’s pretty much the best thing you can have, yes!

So, Mme Psychosis is the savior from bullshit jobs!

Mme Psychosis: Actually, I’d love to start a cult which nobody understands – the cult of the Seventh Reduced. Maybe I should feed this with some content. It would underline the music because this type of beats can really suck you in – even for a short moment.

That’s the magic about it, I guess. My love for early Detroit techno stems from that.

Mme Psychosis: Ha! I was just listening to … you know because I was a bit scared about this interview and most of the time musicians get asked about their influences …

Oh, now that you say it.

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, so I was listening to „Homework“ from Daft Punk lately.

What a decent record!

Mme Psychosis: After „Homework“ I lost them completely. But this album is the essence of cool beats, very loopy, very trippy!

And still very melodic!

Mme Psychosis: Totally!

Those were the days! Now they’re split.

Mme Psychosis: Oh my god, but whatever, right?

Yeah, well. „Homework“ is probably their best. It has aged so well.

(Two sausage dogs run in the park.)

Mme Psychosis: Do you see those two dogs? Our first dog was a sausage dog!

Oh, wow. My grandparents used to have sausage dogs as well! They got quite old, like 18 years or so …

Mme Psychosis: Ours died when he was nine. But he had like a sudden issue. His heart grew and exploded – in this tiny body!

Poor little thing! The one my mother has now had spine surgery recently. Now he …

Mme Psychosis: Has to be careful with stairs, right?

Yeah, exactly.

Mme Psychosis: That’s such a bad design human design for a dog, actually.

How did we get here again? 

Mme Psychosis: I brought up Daft Punk. Probably because I like Pathos in music. I don’t normally listen to classical music at home, but there are certain things that I love which are full of power. Everything that happened before Beethoven doesn’t make sense to me because he was the first person who really understood that you need more power in certain sections of the orchestra. Also, in classical music you have forms – something that replicates in modern music all the time. But if you look at classical music, you realize how much meaning conventions had, how much power each interval had, you have rules about which chord is allowed to come after which chord. For centuries, people were doing this. Actually, the ones we hear about more nowadays are not necessarily the ones that were challenging those conventions. Everybody loves Mozart because he just mastered those rules in an exquisite way. Rules that we all follow in music. Even I can’t get myself out of a major-minor system.

A jazz player from the US, Gary Bartz, once said to me there was no new major invention in music since Bach.

Mme Psychosis: Oh, provocative!

Yeah, he said there were only twelve notes which got me thinking that the situated knowledge of the zeitgeist brings them to life in new forms all the time.

Mme Psychosis: That was the interesting thing for me to observe with Euroteuro – coming up with those simple lines. You do the most predictable thing, but it really fits well because we have been hearing this certain form for so long that our brains think that it is right.

That’s what pop music is. And what it probably should be, right?

Mme Psychosis: Yeah, and a good pop track needs it! Last week I listened to this song called „Gypsy Woman“ by Crystal Waters. It was released in 1991 and still is such an amazing song.

So nice! If you have ever listened to it, you can’t get it out of your head. It sticks to you. That sounds easy in theory, but it’s not, I guess.

Mme Psychosis: Maybe that’s why I always rebelled against this … There was this question that doesn’t pop up often anymore, but people used to ask each other what kind of genre they liked. Or the more general question: „What kind of music are you listening to?“ I was always like: „I don’t know.“

Nobody should be required to answer this question!

Mme Psychosis: Well, in that sense I really like challenges of different forms. For example, the last project I did with the Euroteuro crew was writing music for a theater piece in Munich about the Oktoberfest. I got on YouTube and checked out some videos to get into the vibe – listening to Schlager and stuff. That was funny because when I was a teenager in music school, we always had this saying that when nobody’s careers ever work out, we’re just going to make one good disco polo track.

Good to have a backup plan!

Mme Psychosis: One good disco polo track and you’re fixed for life! You could even put on a mask so you don’t have to identify with this.

Or pay somebody to perform!

Mme Psychosis: Exactly, that’s even better!

Links:

Mme Psychosis (Bandcamp)

Mme Psychosis (Cut Surface)

Cut Surface (Homepage)

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