Mark Verbos: Playing live is a lot more interesting than DJing

Mark Verbos has played plenty of DJ sets, but what he'll bring to Minneapolis this weekend is the kind of performance he most prefers: a live one. "I don't find it as interesting to see a performance of somebody on a laptop," he says. "I mean, it looks like they're checking their e-mail."

Verbos has been a staple of the underground techno scene since he began playing live analog sets at Midwestern raves in the early '90s. Gimme Noise had the opportunity to talk to Verbos about techno, the risk of live performance, and his newly released Verbos Electronics modular system before this Sunday's Intellephunk-sponsored party at 400 Soundbar.

Gimme Noise: You started playing music at a really young age. How did you go from playing classical music with classical instruments, to discovering techno and electronic music and moving into that machine oriented creation?

Through elementary school I played the violin and the trumpet, and took piano lessons. I was interested in electronic things, like keyboards, and I would sneak off to the Casio keyboard section at Target and play with them. Around 13 years old, I got my first simple sequencer, drum machine and keyboard combination. I was recording music with a friend, making songs, and pretty quickly it became clear to me that I was more interested in making completed music than I was in learning to master playing an instrument, and more interested in writing and creating music from the ground up than I was in playing something that someone else had written. I guess that meant that I wanted to be on the technical side of making music, like engineering, producing, that kind of thing. So already as a teenager I was making techno, and started releasing techno records, performing at basement shows, then at raves around the Midwest.

What was it like to go from basement parties to huge raves?

I played a few of the smaller things they [Drop Bass Network] had, that I don't think even had names, in '93. Then in '94 they had an event called Descension that I played. They brought in Adam X, and Hyperactive and Woody McBride played. At the time, in my world, that was the place to be. The key thing for me about that as a turning point was the fact that the other people who were on that bill were like heroes to me, and I was just starting to know them as individuals. I was a kid, really, a 17-year-old kid, and they were more advanced and had been traveling to Europe and had been releasing records for a while, and so they were really supportive from the beginning, and they really kind of looked out for me. I was probably playing an opening slot at that party, but I remember Hyperactive standing by me and sort of cheering for me, and saying 'Hey, turn up the hi-hats!,' or something, really enthusiastically, kind of helping me out.

Verbos Electronics from Cora Foxx on Vimeo.

After living in Chicago and working as an engineer, you moved to Berlin. Describe your experience there.

What I saw happening while I was there was that it was starting to gentrify and commercialize; it was starting to catch on as the place that people from all around the world moved to, so in '03 it became the capital of Germany again. They moved all of the government to Berlin, and they had the biggest construction site in the world for 10 years ending in '03, opening up all the government buildings. It started to change. It got more fancy and more corporate, so it wasn't really for me anymore. The rise of the clean, minimal thing became definitively Berlin, like Minus Records and all of that. That was the ushering of the new guard there, so that was the end of Berlin for me.

There's an energy that comes with being in the thick of it, because in the U.S. we always have to fight for the existence of any kind of electronic music -- its always on the fringes, its always the bottom-feeder of the music industry, whereas in Europe, people make real careers out of it, and the media actually supports it. I think that's what Berlin offers to a lot of people -- a lot of Americans want to go there because when they get over there, for the first time they really feel like there's something happening, there's a real movement, whereas here they feel like they're in the shadows, trying to get away with it.

For a long time you have been playing live with analog hardware. Why is playing live important to you?

I have done plenty of DJing too, but to me, I think that playing live is actually a lot more interesting for me than DJing. The thing about my live act is that I'm creating a unique bit of music every time. That means that I'm actually able to evolve the direction of the music to suit the situation, and that every time, its a completely unique experience. That's just impossible playing preexisting recordings. As much as DJing actually affords you the possibility of playing more complicated or more developed, perfected music, it's not perfected for the situation it's in, it's perfected for what it is on it's own. That's important to me -- the culture of being in the moment, and unique...and the risk. There's an artistic choice that's being made -- to make something that could be good or it could be bad, at that moment.

Somebody told me once that the only reason to watch a performance is because of the danger. Like, the reason you watch somebody juggle fire is that they might hurt themselves. You hope they don't, but they might, or they might screw up... but if that performance is canned, or prerecorded, there isn't any risk, there isn't any chance that it's going to go bad. The more risk there is, the more interesting it is. It only works if the music is something that people can actually enjoy. It all has to work together. The reason that I have used analog equipment is because everything is on the front panel as controls, to evolve the programming of the sounds and the arrangement of everything, right there in the moment. Nothing has to be created ahead of time, it can all happen fluidly.


You have put a lot of work into repairing, cloning and recreating vintage Bucla synths. How did that begin?

All of the old machines that were huge and much more complicated to use started to just disappear, and get thrown away or sold at garage sales, until techno started. Around the end of the '80s, early '90s, there was a feeding frenzy where all of these people who were starting to make electronic music in our generation were buying up all of these leftover, old synthesizers, for nothing -- pennies on the dollar. That was around the time when I was starting to make this music; it was around the time when I was starting to work on repairing those old instruments, and also collecting them, then building my own instruments.

The Buchla stuff was very, very rare, so there weren't a lot of people who had even seen it, let alone worked on any of it. The guy who at the time was pretty much the only guy who was repairing the old Buchla systems was someone who I just happened to come in contact with when I was 18 or 19. He became a kind of mentor to me, so I got to use the Buchla machines that he had, and I also got to see him doing repairs on other peoples', and learn about it. His name is Grant Richter. As time went on, he started to get out of doing repairs on the old Buchla systems, and kind of passed the torch to me.

What was it about other synthesizers that you didn't like, or that wasn't working for you, that motivated you to create Verbos Electronics?

The real synthesizing nerds in the audience will know that there are certain features, or certain philosophical ways of doing things that were in the Buchla synthesizer, which, they call it 'West Coast Philosophy' versus 'East Coast Philosophy.' The West Coast Philosophy was that the oscillators, or sound sources create really simple waves, really clean signals, and then you use some sort of mixing or processing to create more complicated textures from basic sounds. In the East Coast Philosophy, it would be a harmonically rich signal to start, like a sawtooth wave or a square wave, and then a filter that would get rid of some of the frequencies in order to create textures that change. There are other things, like ways of dealing with control signals.

So, really what makes my approach unique is that I bring some of this forgotten, lost art stuff that was in the Buchla system, and I bring some of the philosophy of the techno artist, and I bring those into this Eurorack format, which is a really common format for people buying new synthesizers. I'm bringing a different approach to getting sound in a different way, that I think works well for me to use for making music, but also a different approach that gives possibilities to other people, too.

How was the reception of your product?

I made a deal with Analogue Haven, which is, at the moment, the sole distributor of my product. The deal that we made was that we would have this distribution deal, but we wouldn't tell anybody that we were working on it. For a year, I was working on the product line and not telling anyone that I was doing it, with the intention of announcing it when we were shipping. It took a while; it dragged on until really just a week before the trade show [NAMM], and so we we announced that we were ready to ship, and the reception was totally overwhelming. We had 33,000 hits on our website the first day. It was way beyond my expectation. Then at the trade show I was approached by dealers and distributors from all around the world, and it was just really the most successful launch that I could possibly have asked for.

What can we expect for your performance here this Sunday?

I have a lot of experience with Minneapolis, but I haven't been up there in a couple of years so I'm pretty excited to be back. I know that its a place that is pretty similar to where I grew up, its part of my original scene. Its good for me because I feel like I can really just go for it -- really do what I want.

This will be great, because its an opportunity for me, for the first time, to come there and perform using my new instrument, and I've been asked if I'd like to use the new Roland drum machine, which isn't even released yet. Roland is letting me borrow one of these machines to use on this gig, and its a digital modeling machine that emulates some of the sounds from the 808 and 909, the old original Roland drum machines, but kind of puts a new twist on how its presented. We'll see how that goes! I'm pretty sure that its going to be a cool thing. Its kind of a big thing, and its really exciting.

Mark Verbos will be performing this Sunday, Feb. 16 at 400 Soundbar with Naughty Wood, Durbin, slntpl, Ryan C., and Centrific. $10 before 9PM, $15 after. 21+