For those of you who haven’t encountered Jonas Munk‘s work, he is a prolific guitar wizard, multi-instrumentalist, producer, arranger, record label owner, and all around great person. He (co-)owns two record labels (El Paraiso Records and Azure Vista Records), recorded under the moniker Manual, has recorded numerous collaborations including with Ulrich Schnauss and Jason Kolb (Auburn Lull), and further records in a psych/gaze band called Causa Sui. These are just a number of his accomplishments as an artist. He also records and produces many bands. His influence is far-reaching, and, for me, it was a great honor that he was willing to take the time and answer my questions on his recording projects, production, influences, and much more.
Hello Jonas. Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I guess I would like to start by asking you something general about where you are at as a musician and artist. What sort of projects are you working on currently in music and at what stages are they at?
Hello Jason! No problem. I finished a few releases during summer where I was more in a “producer” role. One is the second solo record from Copenhagen guitar player Nicklas Sørensen, who also plays in the instrumental rock band Papir. I also did quite a lot of playing, programming and arranging on this album and I could imagine it would appeal to fans of my solo stuff as well. I also finished working on a new Causa Sui EP in August, which will be out around the same time as the Nicklas Sørensen album.
I just got back from London where Ulrich Schnauss and I had our second session for our third collaborative album. I’d say the new album is about 1/3 done and feels very promising so far. I’d even go as far as to say we’ve really found our “voice” with these new pieces. I’m super psyched about the direction the material is going.
I know you work with two record labels. Can you talk about how you got involved co-owning El Paraiso Records and why you decided to start Azure Vista Records as well? Give us a bit of history on the formation and ethos of both labels.
Well, Jakob Skøtt and I started El Paraiso Records back in 2011. Initially the idea was to do a limited run of records, focusing on jam sessions, collaborations and live material – kinda like Sonic Youth’s “SYR” releases, or Hefty’s “Immediate Action” series back in the day. But it pretty quickly took off and became much more than that. We worked out a really unique graphic direction for the catalogue and soon it became apparent that this platform was exactly what we had been looking for for years. At the same time I was recording an album for Copenhagen trio Papir and they couldn’t find a home for it – and, well, it fit perfectly into the El Paraiso aesthetic that was beginning to take shape. I was also working on some more impro-based, earthy sounding solo material that didn’t fit the Manual aesthetic at all, so all these factors gradually shaped the concept of the label. We are a circle of musicians here in Denmark that have our own bands, and work on solo projects and collaborate with each other on various projects, but we also have a connection to a group of people in Southern California who are doing the same thing, based around the various activities of Brian Ellis and a bunch of others – which have resulted in releases from Psicomagia, Monarch, Brian Ellis Group so far. San Diego is blooming these days. Later on other artists were added to the El Paraiso roster, such as Landing from Connecticut and Rob Mazurek/Black Cube, originally from the Chicago post-rock/jazz scene (both Landing and Mazurek are among my all time fave artists).
I started Azure Vista last year mainly because my second collaborative album with Ulrich Schnauss, “Passage”, needed a home for the physical release and wouldn’t fit into the ethos of El Paraiso Records at all. I guess by now I’m addicted to being 100% in control of my own releases. The latest Billow Observatory album (my collaborative project with Auburn Lull’s Jason Kolb) was also being finalized around that time and was also in need of a home, so I already started forming a concept to do a series of releases with a specific aesthetic in mind – and now a year later I just released the fifth release. I don’t have any plans to be a catalog as big as the El Paraiso catalog, or anything. I wanna make sure I only release the essential stuff and the followers can trust that each release is 100% up to a certain standard, both in terms of the quality of the music and the packaging.
If El Paraiso Records is “earth” then Azure Vista Records is “sky”. There’s an aesthetic thread running through the entire El Paraiso catalog, one that emphasizes “looseness”, improvisation, fuzz, heaviness, as well as a mindset borrowing from jazz, psychedelia and vintage electronic music. It’s wild, vitalistic and organic. All the album covers have a certain roughness and a hand-made quality to them: we like to use hand-drawn illustrations, paintings or paper cuts as a central theme.
In opposition to this, all the Azure Vista sleeves have been based on photos so far, and they have more of a modern, minimal feel to them that emphasizes precision and balance. If El Paraiso can be described as loose and organic, Azure Vista is more meticulous and refined. To some people it’s weird that these two artistic operations exist side by side, but it has been central to my mental and practical flow for twenty years. Even in my teens I would fluctuate between listening to (early) Smashing Pumpkins, Kyuss, Sabbath and that sort of thing for weeks, then go into a period of listening exclusively to Steve Reich and Autechre. For many years I figured I would eventually settle for one thing or the other, but by now I’ve totally accepted these two aesthetics living side by side in me.
And considering my output for the past ten years, I think I’ve even managed to turn this fluctuation into something very artistically effective: first of all I can imagine a lot of full-time musicians (which I am in some sense) slowly going crazy from working in the same sonic area for years, whereas my way of working keeps things incredibly fresh. Secondly, what you learn working in one type of music with certain types of musicians can serve a purpose in another, with very inspiring results – and obviously it stimulates very creative musical blendings of different worlds. With the Manual project, for example, I always considered my greatest strength to be really creative compositions, with multiple twists and turns, which was something I got from indie and rock music. If you compare that to the standard of the day, say, something like the Four Tet albums that were all the hype back then, or the clicks and cuts type of minimalism, I brought something completely different to the table, which was pretty rare back then. And still is, as far as I know.
Similarly, our background in ambient, shoegaze and experimental music adds something completely unique to Causa Sui. Normally, bands working in stoner/psych/doom circles are amazingly narrow minded, and very rarely does these genres progress musically since these guys are only into Sabbath and…well…Sabbath. Whenever I work on a rock record I wanna explore the unexplored. Not surprisingly my biggest heroes are often the ones that don’t belong to any single genre – Brian Eno and Jim O’Rourke, to name a few.
So, the last Manual album was in 2012. Do you think you will do any more work under the Manual moniker?
Who knows? But not for a while. It seems like that thing got over saturated, and in the end the fans felt they owned enough Manual albums and hardly any new listeners joined the party. It was a bit of a shame cause I felt some of the last releases were my best – “Awash” for example, which only sold a few hundred copies and basically didn’t get any reviews – I think that is as close to perfection as I’ve ever gotten. Stylistically, though, I’m not far from the Manual records in the music I’m creating with Ulrich Schnauss or with Billow Observatory.
I’m a huge fan of what you and Jason Kolb do as Billow Observatory. Can you talk about your writing process, how you go about shaping your tracks together, and if there will be such a long period between albums again?
Thanks! Most often we just send each other small fragments and loops and we gradually build something from that. We did have one session in Detroit last year where we worked in the same room, which was pretty interesting. I’d love to do that again. We’re actually hoping to get an EP or mini album finished during the next six months.
Is your process with Ulrich Schnauss any different than it is with Jason Kolb? Can you talk a bit about the writing and recording of Passage? It’s just an incredibly beautiful record.
It’s different, since we’re always doing most of the work together in Ulrich’s London studio. The new stuff we’re working is written from scratch during these sessions at Ulrich’s, but most of “Passage” was actually based on sketches that I did. Usually Ulrich would either add to my ideas, or in some cases completely rearrange them or even build something completely new out of a small fragment. Once we would have a foundation for a piece we’d start adding sounds and working on an arrangement in unison. Most people seem to think our collaborations are basically Ulrich’s music with my guitars added on top, which is far from the truth. On both our albums I’ve been programming beats, playing synths and done a lot of the actual songwriting as well.
Causa Sui seems to be very active. Can you talk about this very different type of music you are involved in, how this band formed and what your place in the band is, and what is the band working on currently after the 2016 release of Return to Sky and 28-12-16 alongside the live album?
Like I said there’s a new mini LP coming out by the end of the year. Actual most people would probably call it a full-length, since it’s actually 37 minutes long! But for us, it’s an EP, since it was created with that format in mind. Just four epic tracks. It’s probably our heaviest release ever, but also one of our most experimental efforts. When someone asks me what it sounds like I’ll say “Sabbath meets Stereolab”, which of course isn’t true – but then again, it sort of is. I consider this one to be the final chapter of a certain kind of Causa Sui record. I suspect the next one will be very different.
Causa Sui is very much about creating something as a group of people – about riding that energy of four people actually playing together, and tapping the source of the moment. To me it’s a very different activity than creating electronic music. We’ve all been playing together since our teens actually. We used to be more of a post-rock thing, which eventually turned into our respective solo projects (Rasmus Rasmussens’s “Aerosol” project and Jakob’s “Syntaks”, and for me of course all my ambient activities), which gradually grew more electronic in nature. Eventually we missed the freedom and vitality of jamming together, and we just let that urge completely rip – and that became Causa Sui.
[I guess I already touched upon the other questions in my long reply earlier]
Ok, now that you answered many questions about your projects, what is a typical week like in the life of Jonas Munk?
Oh, it’s all different from time to time. That’s what I love about my work! I spent the entire last week in East London, working with Ulrich Schnauss. This week I’ve been doing stuff at my office at home: mailing out Auburn Lull preorders, taking care of El Paraiso webshop orders, paying bills and answering emails. Next week I’ll be at my studio, finalizing a record for a local band I recorded over six years ago, but never was completely finished due to a tragedy within the band (hopefully I’ll be able to announce this album soon). The following week Jakob will come over and record some drums for what will presumably turn into new Causa Sui material. And I’ll be working on some files Jason just sent me a few days ago. So, there’s a very nice variety to my work, sometimes a bit too much actually, since I do enjoy focusing on something for at least a few weeks at a time. Some periods I do a lot of mixing and mastering for others as well.
What is your current guitar set up for work on more ambient/experimental type music? How does it differ from your guitar set up for Causa Sui?
I think the main difference is that I actually don’t have a specific setup for the ambient material. I’ll often build a unique chain of effects for a certain sound, involving both guitar pedals, moogerfoogers, filters and plugins, as well the occasional rack unit, such as Quadraverbs. And that goes for both guitars and synths. For Causa Sui it changes slightly but I usually have a couple of fuzz boxes, a vibe, a wah and a delay – more of a classic/vintage rock setup.
You’ve collaborated with a number of great artists. Are there any you still would love to work with that you haven’t yet?
Sure! I can think of several musicians I would love to work with, but purely on an unrealistic fantasy level. Most of these fantasies would actually involve me as a producer, and probably less as a musician. I guess the idea of being able to guide your favourite artists in specific direction is a tempting fantasy. Like, what would the new Slowdive album have sounded like with me as the producer?
Do you have artists that you consider influential on your own music whether they be in music, visual art, or literature?
Too many to mention here. In general music and literature resonates deeper within me than film or tv. I consider philosophy very important for me too (I actually have a master’s degree in philosophy). I’m totally addicted to books. Another way of opening up my mind is travelling. It seems like my mind has an easier time letting go whenever I’m on a train, going somewhere, or having coffee in a foreign city.
Looking back over your work, what releases are you most proud of and why?
It’s hard to say. I honestly love every release I’ve done, despite their obvious faults. Some of the earlier stuff on Morr Music I find hard to listen to because of the awkward production. But it changes from time to time. For example, “Into Forever” – my collaboration with Alexander Perls/Icebreaker from 2003 – was an album I couldn’t listen to for years, but I gave it a spin recently and was actually kinda mesmerized by it and felt it was a very nice ambient album. Sometimes a tiny thing you couldn’t work out in the mix, or a compositional idea you gave up on, can be enough to dismiss the entire thing mentally – even though it might actually just be minor details in the larger picture.
If I were to recommend albums to an unfamiliar listener from very different ends of the spectrum it would be something like this: Manual: “Awash”, Manual: “Confluence”, Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk: “Passage”, Billow Observatory: s/t, Causa Sui: “Euporie Tide”, Chicago Odense Ensemble: s/t.
Thanks for answering my questions Jonas. I guess I have one last one. What’s next for you in terms of putting out music and when should fans expect to hear more of your wonderful work?
We really hope to get a lot of work done on the new Ulrich Schnauss & Jonas Munk album during the next six months. If all goes well there’ll be a release next year. We’re also planning a reissue of our first, self-titled, album from 2010, which was a digital-only release in EU and US (it only came out on CD in Japan and no vinyl was ever made at all!).