Interview with ToiToiToi

ToiToiToi is a german solo project lead by Sebastian Counts, which is the nickname of the contemporary artist Sebastian Gräfe.

In his second LP for Ghost Box, Sebastian Counts leads us a merry dance; a tipsy pilgrimage through a unique sound world of lost European landscapes, odd folk customs, faux medievalism, sample detritus and electronic melody.

You invented your fictional village, Ethernbach, for your first album Im Hag. Did you limit that particular creation to that album, or are you still developing Ethernbach, writing about its population, history, architecture and so on? Or maybe, developing the idea for visual works ?

Ethernbach was indeed mostly created for the first album. It is a kind of continental European counterpart to its twintown Belbury. For me, it is the prototype of a German town from an imaginary past in which many things went differently than they actually did – with all the consequences for the (potential) present. The first album is set around this place. In the second album, we leave town and go on a journey, we wander around. But the imagined parallel world is still the same, so Ethernbach still plays a role, but more as a hometown and a placeholder for a bigger idea.

"An imaginary past in which many things went differently than they actually did" : what, for example ? No WW1 and no Third Reich ?

Nobody can ever imagine how the world would look like when none of those wars would have ever taken place! Germany would be a totally different place for sure, I would love to see how some places look like without having been destroyed during WWII. But talking of an imaginary past, I wouldn't go that far back in time. It's more about that time shown in the aesthetics of a label like Ghost Box itself, the 70s mostly. There were alot of interesting ideas around, free education and access to art and culture for everyone, multiculturalism, innovative social ideas everywhere... modernism in it's best sense. Probably way too progessive for most parts as we always tend to the known and secure. So, some of these chances have never been taken. That's why we can talk of a lost future, somehow.

There is a wide range of sounds in your tracks. What musical material and software do you use?

In the beginning I mainly started with a lot of sampling from all kinds of sources, music for children, folklore and ethnological records from all over the world, library music, all kinds of sound archives, old documentations, you name it... even youtube clips. I also use an old version of ableton and a bunch of free vst plugins. This sometimes gets combined with what I would call my non-computer setup, I have a box with all sorts of toy instruments, a little (digital) 4 track tascam, a Yahama qy70 sequenzer and a classic little Roland sp-404 sampler, which I really love to use in the same way all these lo-fi beatmakers do, but then creating a whole different sound with it. like this track, which is entirely produced with the sp-404.

People tend to think that I am deeply into vintage synths, analogue modules and stuff and that I have a lot of equipment, but to be honest, I'm just emulating, I simply don't have the money for that. And in the end, it's these limitations that make you more creative and lead you to new and unique solutions.

In France we have the INA (National Institute for Audiovisual). Since the early days of television, it has preserved everything broadcast as programs and reports, and much of its archive is broadcast on Youtube and their own website. Is there anything similar in Germany?

Wow, that's amazing! We don't have such a centralized institution but our public broadcasting stations and a couple of museums have huge amounts of material in their archives that can be accessed online as well. But don't ask me for any links, because I still prefer to go to the library where you can find plenty of old and amazing stuff as well!

You said :  "I love this idea of being able to open up a parallel space with my music, where it’s not a problem if a Shaman starts singing over a middle-European folklore melody underlaid with an 8-bit computer arcade sound. Why shouldn’t a guy in the Alps playing a mouth drum also have an old Commodore 64 next to him, and use that to make folk music?" – beyond that aesthetic statement, did old computers and their particular graphics, particular sounds, and maybe the old video games, play a role in your life and your own artistic evolution ?

Absolutley! As a teenager, I was heavily influenced by the Intro-/Demo-Scene, we even had our own little crew. A friend of mine was a fabulous coder and musician on the commodore c64 while i mainly did grafix on my Amiga 500. I was in love with all the Lucasfilm Games like Maniac Mansion and Zack MacKracken, but especially the aesthetics of Secret of Monkey Island left their marks. I also had an early modem and messed around with lots of BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) and pre-Internet computer networks. Funny enough, it was through one of those networks that I came in touch with topics like shamanism, megalith culture and all types of crazy things like astral traveling and magic, too... stuff that can get a kid pretty excited.

It would be a very interesting thing to reissue these old demos of yours (and your friends'). There is a huge scene for chiptune, retro gaming and retro computing. Hybridating modern music and art with these old techs that were given up for dead. Could it be a direction you could take in the future ?

We just were kids messing around, our stuff was never not good enough to be released. At least, a bit later, there was one demo by another group that had my grafix in it, but they programmed it for a newer hardware chipset, so unfortunately, I never saw the the finished demo myself in the end... I think, chiptunes and retrocomputing will always be a part of my aesthetic cosmos that already found it's way into my music, I don't tend further in this direction specifically. I always find it more interesting to see what happens when you start mixing the elements and combine things that don't seem to belong to eachother.

There has been a revival of psychogeography in recent years, with things like A Year in the Country or the magazine Weird Walk, connected to a kind of neo-ruralism, often in relationship too with neopagan circles (all things that Guy Debord and the situationists probably didn't foresee). How do you relate to this, if you do?

In my humble opinion, this revival is a result of the urge to reconnect to our surroundings and the stories behind it, to nature in general. In times of rapid change and uncertainty, we long for things from 'the good old times', when the world was perhaps not really all right either, but perhaps at least a little better intact. For my part, I spend most of my time in the countryside, one of my passions is hiking, I love craft beers, I just recently got into working with clay... so I guess, I'm pretty close to the Zeitgeist as well. I love Weird Walk, too, they do a beautyful job. As I mentioned before, I was fascinated by pagan culture, stone circles etc. from early on, so I really can relate to what they do. It's even more exciting when you find out that we got prehistoric sites even here around the corner, in the middle of germany, that are connected to the same culture as in the UK and France.

Do you know other people in Germany who have a similar intellectual and artistic orientation as you ?

Unfortunately, not really. Of course, I know a couple of really good musicians whose music I love. There also are sorts of different approaches to certain topics that I find interesting. But by the end of the day, I stand alone with my approach. So, if there's anybody out there who would consider him/herself as a soulmate, please feel free to contact me!

Vaganten, despite its humorous side, is about wandering monks. And you seem to be interested in other spiritual figures, like shamans. Do you consider yourself a religious (in the widest meaning) person ?

In the original sense, 'Vaganten' were wandering monks, indeed. Later on, it stood for wandering poets and vagabond dreamers, that's more how I see it. Apart from that, I wouldn't call myself religious. Thinking of all the conflicts and this incredible amount of people that died for religious reasons makes me furious. But I probably do have a certain kind of spirituality: The thing I can relate to is the nature that surrounds us and that provides us with most of what we need, mainly thanks to the sun. These mathematically logical days like solstices and equinoxes (at least quietly) are good occasions to show a little humility and gratitude towards our earth. So in the widest meaning you might consider me some sort of a pagan. I also like the aspects of Natural Philospohy that are to be found in Rastafarianism. Besides that, I would say that in general, there are three types of systems to describe and explain the world we live in: There's (mostly empirical) science that explains the world in a rational way. That's for those who need to know. Then there's spirituality and religion with all types of different stories and tales to believe in. And then there's this other kind of language to describe the world. It starts where regular language ends, we call it poetry. That's where I stick to.

You say about folk music and Germany: "I was looking for the psychedelic or the wonky side of it! In my opinion, really dirty, super-heavy, archaic old folk music always has a psychedelic aspect. It’s rotten, it’s heavy, and the deeper you go the weirder it gets. So I was looking for that, and it’s nowhere to be found in Germany. Everything is mostly Alpine or Bavarian influenced – oompah, oompah, it’s tourist music. Super-clean and super-cliched. You find a little bit of shanty in the north, the sailor’s music… but I was wondering, where is everything inbetween? It’s a huge country, and we have lots of mountainous areas with little villages that must have had their own tradition… but it’s gone. It’s just vanished..." – To what extent do you fantasize (or seriously work) about contributing to the revival of a strange, funky, dirty kind of folk music, which is a modern continuation of something absolutely authentic and ancestral and which is not "light music for tourists" ?

It would be fantastic if my music could give an impulse for something like that to come back. But since for most people "real folk music" has to be handmade music with "real instruments" in order to be considered authentic, I don't really have much hope for a chance. But hey, who knows, times are changing...

Speaking of impulsing – to impulse something, you already need to be visible and known to the public. Without going into the details of sales, how well known is ToiToiToi on the world scene, and perhaps more specifically in Germany? Have you had any feedback from people who aren't necessarily hauntology specialists? And yourself, in your approach, are you trying to reach out to the general population? To help them discover something other than mass-market Anglo-Saxon music?

First of all, I need to say that I can't be happier being on Ghost Box. Jim Jupp is doing a wonderful job and although it's small and kind of insider label, it has a good reach. So my music is being played in all corners of the world, mostly by small stations and student radio and I am totally happy with that. I mean, come on, let's be realistic, this music is a bit weird, so I don't expect anything big. I mean, I had a couple of good reviews in music magazines and I am really grateful to see that there is a certain resonance to my music. So I just keep doing what I am doing without forcing anything. Working in the field of visual art professionally as well, I've already experienced enough pressure and expectations there, so when it comes to music, I don't need more of that and I want to keep a certain independence, freedom and liberty.

As a German, do you have examples in your family or have you personally heard first hand anecdotes about the time of the Wandervogeln and the Jugendbewegung? Before or after the nazis take over.

Unfortunately not.

Do you know the English neofolk scene like Death in June, Current 93, or the post-industrial scene in general (who largely mixed the most avant-gardist electronic musics with the most ancient, traditional and spiritual traditions) and what do you think of them ? Did that scene play a role in your musical influences ?

No, sorry, not at all. I often find this music way too dark and depressing. That also applies to most of what is called Hauntology nowadays.

That's an interesting comment. In fact, for the past forty years or more, all music that has explored the European cultural heritage (paganism, the Middle Ages, ancient architecture, esotericism, forgotten ideologies, etc.) is, like the goth or industrial milieu, rather sinister. What's more, they're often "snobbish" and cut off from the mainstream public, whom they despise. There's a clear desire on your part to be light, joyful and optimistic.

The world  seems to be full of bad news and depressing things, but I've never managed to express that by producing dark or sinister sound. I think, it's because my art has always been a refuge to me, a place where i go to to feel good. I love life and I am embracing it with all it's weird aspects, so that might be the reason why my music is more on the light side but with alot of strange and quirky things happening as well.

To conclude this interview: is there already a next ToiToiToi album in the pipeline? And if so, can you give us a rough idea of its theme and musical direction?

Lately I've been distracted by the urge to do more visual stuff and work with my hands, so I'm working more with objects and ceramics at the moment. I've already started thinking about a new album, but it's way too early to talk about a direction... but I reckon it will be a very muddy and sludgy affair. I mean mud as a result of decay, but also as a source of new life, that's what I'm very interested in at the moment. But please don't ask me how that might translate soundwise!