Q&A: Givan Lötz

by JamieHallaman
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on 15 December 2016 in Features

Recently, Givan Lötz of Johannesburg, South Africa, released his MAW LP on Miami’s Other Electricities label, one of the year’s most interesting and underrated independent releases. Beguiling, brittle and beautiful, MAW is a stunning album that makes bold movements through microscopic motions. It is without obvious comparison or point of reference but is wholly accessible to those willing to listen.

With Lötz a little underrepresented in the music press, rarely seen playing live and self-described below as “proudly introverted,” a Q&A seemed a good opportunity to better get to know and understand this unique artist. With an album as powerful and original as MAW being only a small part of the puzzle in regards to Lötz’s artistic output, there was quite a lot to talk about.

Firstly, in your own words, would you be able to introduce yourself to uninitiated readers?

I am an artist and musician, living and working in Johannesburg. My projects range from art-objects and installations to sound design and musical outputs. I have a desire for innovative and dislocating descriptions of life through a willingness to confront it in all its contradiction and complexity.

Music is not your only artistic outlet, you’re a painter, a sculptor and have taken part in numerous festivals and installations. Do you see much difference between Givan Lötz the musician and Givan Lötz the artist?

The relationship between the two has changed over time. Initially, the two practises operated separately, in parallel, with very little convergence. Exceptions were projects like Gaze, Gush, Gasp, Glare and occasional visuals for my live shows. Not so long ago, my visual projects had an almost didactic approach — it had very clear agendas and objectives — whereas the music has always been more open and automatic, unencumbered by an audience expectation and in this sense, at once pure but idiosyncratic, bordering on solipsistic in its opacity. Lately, the two are coming closer together, not only thematically, but also as a result of my art practise becoming more fluid and less heady and my songwriting more focused and less random.

A biographical quote from you that pops up a lot is: “I am an artist because I am uncertain” - could you explain what you mean by this? Does art bring you any certainties?

Most people abhor uncertainties, the unknown is frightening. Our human brains don’t deal very well with uncertainty — we want to know things to be unflinchingly true and neat. Unfortunately, it seems that this is a very difficult position to take philosophically. When I started out some years ago, I had a youthful naïve confidence in arriving at certainty. This has slowly been eroded over time — The adage: “The more I know, the less I understand” seems suitable here. The little meaning tucked into my artist statement is that my uncertain state actually creates my artistic approach. The artistic practise is then not a method for arriving at clean certainties. Rather, it is this doubtful nature that fuels my art outputs. To me there are endless depths to endless questions. As a human, I can’t say that uncertainty makes me comfortable but it is necessary. If I were ever to arrive at absolute certainty I would immediately cease to be an artist. The world is not OK — we need artists to remind us of this or at least imagine and present alternatives. In my view, anyone who claims to be an entirely comfortable, well-adjusted, confident member of society is delusional. They’re either not looking or don’t want to look. I’m simply willing to look.

Did you love one art form before another? Is one more significant to you now?

I’ve always felt a broad creative impulse but music comes more naturally and was cultivated early on in my childhood by a grandmother who was a piano teacher and organist. I have to work much harder at visual art to reach the goals I set out for myself. Both are rewarding in their own way but again music, to me, has always been so immediate — I can noodle on a guitar for hours with no real end-goal and it can be thrilling and transportive from the first moment till the last. Until recently, aimlessly doodling at a paper with pencil or paint wasn’t as satisfying. With visual art I used to prefer knowing where i’m headed. With practise, I’m getting better at heading into the unknown without too much trepidation.

Given the intensely unique atmosphere of your music and your work within other art forms, I was curious if influences for your music come from elsewhere? Cinema, theatre, painting, philosophy, sculpture or literature?

Yeah — broadly speaking, from a production point of view, there’s something like a cinematic approach as I try to position every bit of music I make in a particular space. I ask myself where a piece of music is occurring — is it in a cave, a forest, a room? Large or small? What is the scene or setting? I’m not fond of the super-pop production values where everything seems to be happening in a perfect abstract vacuum — the sound of the space, the noise, is as important as the music itself. Philosophically, I’m drawn to the ideas of the absurdist school — the tragically-comic beauty inherent in our constant search for meaning up against the human inability to ultimately find any. Specific names that have influenced my approach in the fields you’ve listed: Duchamp, Camus, Borges, Beckett, David Foster Wallace, Ben Marcus, Franz Wright.

Musically, there’s hints of so many sounds and styles but no definitive genre ever seems to definitively apply. How do you define your music and what were your key musical influences when approaching MAW?

There are influences on MAW but they are largely subconscious and hidden from me. I try to divorce myself from too much listening and comparing while i’m working on an album — I’m very rarely trying to emulate something specific although, at the same time, I’m not too concerned with creating something entirely new. To me the music on MAW is actually quite traditional when compared to the full spectrum of what is available sonically (e.g. music-concrete, field recording, drone). So, I personally don’t think it’s a weird album but I can see how a middle-of-the-road radio listener may find it unfamiliar… and that’s good. If there is an aim to good Art, Music or Fiction it would be “to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” (David Foster Wallace). I want to make it clear that I’m not consciously trying to alienate anyone, I just don’t think the music needs to be constantly externally validated for it to be important to me. The only thing I can rely on is the automatic thing that happens when I get to sit down with a guitar or organ and try my best to sing something that follows my internal logic at the time. Someone recently described it as a collection of “Burial Hymns” which is apt but possibly more an indication of content than of form. I personally think of MAW as a Folk album — Dark Ambient Folk maybe. Music I admire ranges from artists like Talk Talk, Slint, Low, Mount Eerie, Grouper, Xiu Xiu, Vincent Gallo to Ben Frost, Tim Hecker, Wolfgang Voigt and Boards of Canada. They are all different but what binds them is that they are/were all pioneers — they didn’t work in predefined genres, they followed their own internal logic and in the process, spearheaded new genres.

How does the album differ in your mind from Snarling?

Snarling is a collection of songs written over about five years. In fact, it is a redux of a larger set of about 40 songs independently released as a 4-disc set in 2013. I find it difficult to finish or settle on versions of songs, which makes the recording process kind-of frustrating which in turn makes me reluctant to document anything. So, the 40 songs reaped from an even larger batch of 80 demos written since Easy Now, happened over a very long stretch of time — it’s a result of me continually delaying the recording process, favouring the writing process. As such, there’s no overriding theme or idea holding the songs to each other. They are each a little isolated abstract world onto themselves. MAW is different because there’s a deliberate, more focused attempt to link the songs. I cut the fat and edited myself so that I don’t end up with too much material. The songs on MAW are sparser, slower and shorter in form but denser in content than those on Snarling. There are pieces that I normally would have isolated that on MAW are integrated, used as glue between songs. There are lyrics and musical motifs that cross-pollinate across the 10 songs. I love albums that I can listen to from start to finish, that take me on a specific passage. I realise fully that in our current world of fragmented playlist listening that this is pretty uncool but hey, by now you probably understand that I’m not too concerned with trend.

You have a strange set-up, being an artist from Johannesburg with a record label in Miami. How did your work with Other Electricities come about?

João Orecchia whose band, Motel Mari, are on Other Electricities, has been a friend of mine for some time now. We have a mutual respect for each other’s work. He enjoyed the new music I was sharing with him at the time of the Snarl series and decided to send it to Emile from OE. She liked it and after some discussion, we decided to release the redux version of Snarl as Snarling. That was the start — we’re on album two now, heading for album three.

There’s constant changes in the music industry and with these I find that the ambitions of artists and labels have begun to alter too, each with their own sense of priority. I was wondering if you hold specific ambitions or goals for your music and if they’re different now from when Easy Now came out in 2010?

My approach has always been the same — to keep doing what I’m doing with as much integrity as possible. To make things as good as I can with the tools and time available to me and then to trust that something good might come from it eventually. Importantly, the music comes first — the personal therapeutic action of the music-making process is very rewarding in and of itself. Making a full-time career out of this is definitely hard but not impossible. In my case, it’s also not entirely necessary. Both globally and locally, Visual Art currently has a better distribution model than music — one that places value on the art-object. An Art career supports some of the shortfall of my music projects. In this way the music remains untainted, for the most part, by second guessing, external pressures and current trends. To my mind, it’s pointless trying to please everyone. All I want is to be able to sustain making releases in the way I want to. It’s a brazenly insolent approach but I’ve yet to hear a good reason to conform.

You said once that live performance is “the least important part” of what you do. Do you still feel that way?

Yes, I still do and I doubt that it will change. In addition to the fact that I am proudly introverted, a live performance is a sacrifice for me because my music-making process is quite a private affair. A live performance is me reluctantly letting a bunch of strangers into that personal space. As such, I expect an audience to be accommodating and respectful in my space. It can be taxing — I’m constantly having to prepare the audience’s assumptions because they’re not going to get ‘entertainment’ or fire-side cover-songs or good-times-background music out of me. And again, I just don’t need that external approval to continue doing what I do. So, the priorities are music-making and writing first with recording and documenting second and live performance last. There’s music and scenes I’ve created that I feel so precious about that it might never be recorded or performed publicly. Again, I’m aware of how off-trend and silly this sounds since the only way musicians currently make real money is through live performances — it’s the one thing consumers can’t steal.

Musical or otherwise, what plans do you have for the future?

Early next year, I’ll find myself in Finland as part of a month-long artist residency program. The project I have in mind relies on places of emotional resonance — I’ll be “listening” to the contours of a landscape and transposing them into song and object, a distillation of place through music and artifact. I hope to display these findings as a gallery show on returning to South Africa. In addition, a new album called YAW is due for release next year. YAW is a set of 24 short instrumental vignettes written on a uniquely prepared, tempered classical guitar. As a complementary collection, it attempts to do instrumentally what MAW describes with voice and words. I’m also, in between all this, trying to record a demo with a new band I’m part of called Zoo Lake — we have a loud no-wave psychedelic post-punk sound. And I’m constantly writing and experimenting with new sounds and songs for my solo project.

MAW is out now on Other Electricities, and you can enjoy the video for ‘Speak’ below:


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