Bernholz – Interview – 2015

Bernholz is a solo Electronic artist, who has played with a variety of Brighton bands previously including Duke Raoul and Great Pagans. Jez Bernholz started his own solo project using a mix of casio syths, sequencers and digital samplers to mould an experimental pop sound with artistic ideas. His most recent release, How Things Are Made (September 2014), had a limited edition handmade plaster block making you the listener decide if you want to destroy the piece to find the SD card with music on the inside. Bernholz is currently on an international tour with Gazelle Twin, who he is married to as well as plays with. I spoke to Jez to find out more about Bernholz, after he had given a talk on running Brighton’s independent record label Anti-Ghost Moon Ray with Gazelle Twin.

When did you first move to Brighton?
I moved to Brighton about 14 years ago to study. Then stayed hear for an extended amount of time to the point that I never thought I would ever leave as I was involved in lots of different projects and had good relationships with people. It ended up feeling like home.

What music were you brought up on?
My parents are very much into musicals, so I grew up on a diet of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, and a lot of classic American songbook sounds. Having done projects that hint at that kind of influence, I started to move away from it in the past 7 years and got into a lot more experimental stuff. My sisters are very much in to pop music, and my first introduction to that was Madonna. My first solid musical memory is listening to ‘Lucky Star’ when I was about 4 years old. When I was studying a Fine Art course, a lot of the people I was meeting where doing sound art pieces and then I started to listen to artists like Apex Twin and more Leftfield rock music that I had never been exposed to before. My sound started to develop from there really.

What was the first instrument you played?
The first instrument I ever learnt was the trumpet at school, until the lessons weren’t free anymore. There was a little Yamaha keyboard knocking around at home, which is the same keyboard I write songs with now. In between that I picked up the bass which became my main instrument for a long time.

What got you interested electronic production?
In 2007 I first recorded in a proper studio for the first time. The people I was doing it with were very informed which helped widen my knowledge of how to record sounds, and I got even more fascinated at that point about layering up sounds. We used to do things with delay and feedback, screaming into a microphone standing in one corner of the room to the other. Stuff like that I found really exciting and enlightened me to a lot more interesting processes.

What’s the story behind the name Bernholz?
Bernholz is my family’s surname from my great-great grandparents that emigrated from Poland. When my family came to England, my grandfather shortened the surname as a way of assimilating to the English culture. When I was growing up hearing about that, I always wanted to adopt it. It became a symbol of trying to find my own identity again, this was at a point when I became a solo musician for the first time, and I eventually changed my surname to Bernholz when I got married. It became a statement of my own past history, to assert my identity and own legacy.

How would you describe the Bernholz ethos?
I have always liked the idea of knocking out any hierarchies of any particular genre or musical production styles. I see it as an amalgam of a lot of things I love, which comes from pop music’s melodies and lyrics combined with very ambient and abstracted noise elements. It is almost like an engineered marriage of the two things, a very experimental sound but also throwing in snippets of nostalgic pop.

How did art come an aspect of your music?
When I was making sculptures and installations, I was always making temporary things, so there was never any permanence to any of the work. I really like an artist call Gustav Metzger who developed these ideas of auto-destructive art, where you can create something from destroying it. I had always wanted to make an object for the album, not to just have a CD and be done with it. I thought there was a more interesting and sculptural way to release music.

How do you approach making music?
Elizabeth (Gazelle Twin) is my rock, she is the person I always share my ideas with. Chris Griffin and Alex Painter from Anti-Ghost Moon Ray – we are always sharing our music with each other, I find their opinion invaluable. Essentially, I am on my own. A lot of the time I will record stuff quite badly on my phone, a lot of field sounds as well. I spend so much time travelling, I do a lot of my thinking and writing out ideas on the train. Most of the ideas are germinating for a very long time. When I find the time to record the ideas, I improvise them as quick as I can and then I’m left with the basic embryo of the song that I can work on.

Are there any details you can give about any new releases?
I am about two thirds finished on an EP. Hopefully it will be ready for September. I saw this art exhibition where the idea was based around perspective, and I became fascinated about where that originated from. It bought me to the Renaissance period, and how simple their execution of these complicated ideas were. This EP is influenced by the idea of doing really simple minimal things, and to say as much as by using as little as possible.

How has the recent tour with Gazelle Twin been?
It has been nonstop. I have been doing solo Bernholz in support of Gazelle Twin. It has been a learning curve in how Bernholz works live – as it is hard to get across all your ideas when it is just you and synths onstage without relying too much on pre-recorded music. I want to make it more live sounding. It’s easier when you are in a band and you have others to rely on, you can feed off their energy, but when you are on your own it can hit you quite hard that feeling of isolation.

What has been a musical eye-opener?
I started reading a book called Fear Of Music by a journalist called Garry Mulholland, about his favourite albums since punk. There was a period where I assumed I had a broad idea of music but when you read a great music journalist’s work or a great art critic’s work, they introduce you to your own limitations and how to confront them. He writes in such a way that annihilates any ideas, bigotry or prejudice that you’re not even aware of, and why you chose to listen to certain music. He was the first person who introduced me to broadening my perspective, to the point that I started going back to a lot of stuff that I had completely dismissed. Since then it has constantly opened up a whole world of music to me.

What are Bernholz’s main musical influences?
Someone like William Basinski completely shifted how I looked at certain music, how it can be made and the way it is made. He makes tape loops, and did this piece in 2001 called Disintegration Loops. When transferring some old tape recordings from reel to reel onto digital they started destroying themselves, like the tape was being eaten away, and then became something entirely different. The first time I ever heard Steve Reich, I had never really heard anything as minimal but encompassed so many different ideas at one time. Kate Bush and David Bowie are my all-time favourites, the fact that they have always been able to develop their ideas and stay artistically true. Peter Gabriel is another one that has been always pushing the envelope, introducing these weird extraordinary ideas and combining them with incredible melodies that live with you.

Who would you like to work with and what would they add to your music?
Laurie Anderson, because she is such a unique musician, poet, writer who takes complex ideas and strips everything right down. She is incredibly creative with her ideas – her new piece that she is bringing to Brighton is about her dog. She has done some amazing collaborations already with William Burroughs and Peter Gabriel. I can imagine she would be the sort of person that would be quite lovely, generous and open with her time, but would have some sharp and interesting ideas, electronic ideas, and conceptual ideas.

What are your future plans?
For the next two week I will be touring with Gazelle Twin. Hopefully have a week or so off, where I can finish off the EP. I will be performing at the Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne, doing a one off performance for a late night museum opening. I will be playing the BrightonsFinest Alternative Great Escape show at Latest Music Bar. I am supporting a band called Blancmange in May as well as my own show in Belgium. Later in the year I will be doing lots of touring with Gazelle Twin and hopefully my own EP. I am going to expand Anti-Ghost Moon Ray up to the Midlands, working with art organisations, to make it something that isn’t just isolated to Brighton.