Tomas Korber

I nterview by email with Jesse Goin
December 2005



Tomas Korber is a 27 year old guitarist, composer and improviser from Zürich, Switzerland who has appeared on an impressive array of releases both solo and with playing partners including Toshimaru Nakamura, Günter Müller, Otomo Yoshihide, dieb13, eRikm, Jason Kahn, Keith Rowe, Dan Warburton and Mersault, his working trio with Christian Weber and Christian Wolfarth. I asked several of these collaborators what qualities stand out in making music with Korber. Kahn remarked on his listening acumen. Weber, the bassist for the past three years with Mersault, said he has “an uncompromising focus on the music,” and remains committed to “taking risks and the use of very different forms.” Korber’s work indeed has an impressive range and scope, characterized by both a high degree of malleability and the clear presence of recurring sonic elements, very much his own sound.

I was born in 1979 in Zurich, Switzerland. My mother is Spanish, my father Swiss. I've lived in Switzerland all my life except for three years in Spain (we came back when I was about nine). I'm an only child. Neither of my parents plays an instrument, but my dad is a passionate music listener. Mostly classical – Mozart is God – and old-school jazz. My dad listening to Mozart and Beethoven in the living room is possibly my earliest musical memory. Both parents thought it would be "important" for me to engage in some sort of musical activity as a child, so they sent me to music school when we came back from Spain. I learned some theory and played clarinet for a few years, then switched to guitar in my teens because I was listening to rock music and rock hardly ever uses clarinets. To be honest, I didn't enjoy music lessons, either clarinet or guitar, but today I realise it was cool to be confronted with music so early on. My parents were right and I'm grateful they took that decision for me when I was a child.

While I was taking guitar lessons I got an electric guitar and started a band called acid.lactiq with two friends. I played guitar and electronic devices, Michal Holy (who's now a pretty renowned drum'n'bass producer/DJ under the name Mijatoho) played bass and Don Tuggener played drums. We stayed together for more than eight years. That was probably my single most important musical experience, being confronted by the creative process of composing and playing from about the age of 14 onwards. At the beginning we played simple rock songs, but we gradually got interested in more experimental forms, and as our listening habits changed so did our music. I'd say that we were quite good, given the age we had. When we were about 17 (around 1995-1996), we won a few band contests. We sounded a little like Godspeed You Black Emperor did later (Lift Your Skinny Fists era), and we were even compared to Pink Floyd (yes, drugs were an influence!). Most of the music was composed, but there were already improvised elements. We used to incorporate extended sections of noise, sometimes as long as half an hour, into our concerts. There are lots of funny stories from that period of sound engineers turning our volume down in concerts because they thought we'd blew their speakers. We recorded a lot of free noise sessions at our rehearsal space, and I've still got tons of tapes lying around. We had a great time, but we eventually drifted away from each other, principally because of musical issues, so the band split up about five years ago. I kind of miss it, though I know it wouldn't work anymore. In any case, I'd already started recording my own music on a 4-track tape machine around 1996, parallel to working with the band.

Back then I didn't know anything about the music "scene" or what to do with that music I was making or who to send it to or how to get in touch with other people (it's easy to forget that Internet hadn't taken off yet). I'd never made music with anyone other than the guys in the band. It took another couple of years for me to put together a demo-tape and send it around to some people. It got me my first solo gig and improv session at Zürich's WIM (, where I still play more or less regularly. A key experience for me was walking up to Günter Müller after a show he played about five years ago and asking him if he'd play with me. He agreed. Meeting Günter was very important, because he introduced me to a lot of people and helped me establish my own network. A lot of the people I play with now I met indirectly through Günter. For example he introduced me to the people from Dolmen, who organize events here in Switzerland, and they invited me to take part in one of their events, where Otomo [Yoshihide] and Toshi [Nakamura] were playing. So that's how I met those two. Günter was also responsible for my first visit to the US as a performer, at the Swiss Peaks Festival in Tonic in 2003. Christian Marclay was looking for younger musicians to invite, and Günter suggested me.

What was your early solo music like, and how did it differ from what you were doing with the acid.lactiq?

It was pretty dense guitar/electronic stuff, often with a psychedelic touch. There were some good ideas, but the tracks lacked differentiation and went on too long. I often played until the tape ran out. While acid.lactiq's music was still roughly based on melodic riff structures, my own used no melodies and there was no beat either (no drummer, and I had no drum machine). It was mostly laminar/plane "noise" music. Aesthetically it involved saying goodbye to the vestiges of song-oriented structure (though I think I've been coming back to that more and more recently) and exploring less static compositional forms. It was no longer possible for me to apply compositional methods within a group, so I tended to improvise when playing with other people and compose when working by myself. The lines blurred with time, though. I say "compositional" structures, though they can also be applied to improv – I see myself as a composer anyway, even when I'm improvising.

You jettisoned the baggage of most rock music, but it seems you did retain one element I associate with Godspeed!, the idea of starting extremely quietly, gradually building in volume and density and then returning to quiet.

Good point, but I don't know if that has anything specifically to do with Godspeed. What you're probably referring to are the big dramatic structures, and they've always been important in music, even way back – think Wagner or Beethoven. I'm definitely into big dramatic structures.

What is your basic set up, and how has it evolved over time?

I use a rather simple set up: guitar, mixing board and a few effects pedals (this can vary but most of the time I use an EQ, two different delays and a box with several different hall effects). Back when we recorded momentan def I had them connected to each other in a linear way. Nowadays I use fewer effects, but they're more interconnected via feedback loops through the mixer. Sometimes I also use a little sampler and/or mp3 player to do live sampling or feed in field recordings and other pre-recorded material. Lately I've also been using a contact mic.

You entitled your 2004 solo release Sediments Of Seclusion, which happens to be the title of a collection of poems by an obscure Australian poet of the 60s/70s, Walter Billiter.

Yes, that is a pretty weird coincidence, and something I was unaware of until you told me (though who knows, maybe I'd heard the title somewhere and it lay buried in the unconscious). It was just that at the time I was working in seclusion. I recorded that feedback session and came across it later. It was what was left of that seclusion, its sediments.

Another literary allusion, deliberate this time: you named your working trio with Christian Wolfarth and Christian Weber after the protagonist in Albert Camus's L'Etranger, Mersault. What was the significance of that?

It wasn't something we thought much about. We were looking for a name and this book came to mind. The music evoked some of the feelings I had when reading the novel, one of my favorites. It's austere and the pace is slow and yet there are feverish eruptions from time to time; the "dramatic" structures you mentioned in your question earlier are also present in Mersault.

How long and how often has Mersault been working together?

About three years. There are periods where we play quite often – maybe a couple of times a month – and others where we go without playing together for several months. I think it's also important that Christian Wolfarth and Christian Weber play together all the time in different projects, but all three of us see Mersault as a real "band", meaning not only that we work together on a regular basis but that there is a strong sense of unity, personally. We know each other very well and it shows in our playing, especially when it comes to "reading" the other's intentions and reacting accordingly. Of course, there's also the danger though of falling back on successful formulas all too often, which we try to avoid by taking unlikely decisions. That can sometimes screw everything up, but it's exciting. The most important thing is to try to keep things risky. It took a long time for that Quakebasket CD to come out, and musically we're now quite far away from where we were when it was recorded. We're hoping to make new recordings in 2006 and release them as soon as possible afterwards.

How much post-production is involved in the solo releases as opposed to group projects?

It varies a lot from project to project. With something like Effacement it makes almost no sense to talk of post-production, since it all melts together. Maybe I treated some field recording, which gave me the idea to combine it with some guitar sounds, so I returned to the "recording" stage, then back to so-called "post-production" and so on. In an improvised context the distinction is a little clearer: there's the recording and then everything afterwards. You could say I focus more on post-production than other people do in terms of editing, mixing and generally introducing more compositional ideas into the project, but I don't like making these distinctions very much. The notion of what's "original" and what's "post-production" is pretty irrelevant to me. I'm very result oriented – if I'm working on a record I want it to be as interesting as possible, and I'll do whatever is necessary to get it to a point where I'm happy with it. Sometimes it's nice to have it raw and somewhat chaotic and sometimes it's good to have it totally thought out. That also applies to different parts within a certain project. On Effacement, for example, there's "Fred Austere", whose first couple of minutes are just mono unprocessed guitar, the simplest thing in the world, and then there's "Thermo", which consisted of over 30 tracks and which was an incredible pain in the ass to put together.

Could you talk us through a few specific releases, starting with Brackwater?

Brackwater was obviously an important step for me. Recording with three great musicians – Otomo, Toshi and eRikm – for a great label – For4Ears – I knew it would gain some attention in the world of experimental music, so it was also a chance to present some of "my" work to a wider public (whatever that means – we're still talking about ridiculously small audiences). The recording took place in an old prison in the French part of Switzerland, and I think you can hear that the music was influenced by the somewhat oppressive atmosphere in the building. It was recorded direct to multitrack, which meant I had many possibilities when it came to shaping the mix. One of the most interesting things for me was being able to hear the tracks separately and study the individual playing of eRik, Otomo and Toshi and how they worked together. We each contributed to the music in very different ways, both in terms of material and compositional ideas, but it was a good fit. It's certainly one of my favorite albums.

Tell us some more about the collaborative process involved in your other releases, specifically Mistakes, Conspiracy Theory and Zirkadia. Two of those involved file sharing, long-distance hook ups. Any thoughts about that methodology, as opposed to working directly with the musician(s) in real time?

Mistakes isn't so much a collaboration as a split CD. Kazuya [Ishigami] and I made our pieces using each other's material, but the composition was done individually. It's an approach to file sharing/postal collaboration I've explored a couple of times now, and I'm not all that interested in doing it again. The reason for that is that the level of real collaboration is relatively low: what results is basically a solo piece disguised as a collaboration. I might as well do it all by myself then. What I'm really interested in, working with other people, is exchange, a clash of ideas, tension. That's when something emerges that's new to me, something that wouldn't turned out that way if I'd it done all by myself. The challenge in making long distance collaborations interesting is to find a way how to really work together.

Conspiracy Theory [with Dan Warburton] was certainly more successful in terms of finding ways of working together, or maybe I should say working against each other, since that was what Dan and I were often doing. Musically, there are sections I like more and sections I like less, but it was an experiment and it would have been inconsequential to cut parts out. It had to be released in its entirety or not at all. We had specific rules defining how to proceed when making the pieces, which I won't bother to elaborate on, the bottom line being sections were added one after another in a linear way, and once a section was done there was no way of reworking it. So we were confronted all the time with as-is situations, facts. What was intriguing for me was trying to find something to add that would make the sections already there as interesting as possible and which could, at the same time, point towards a possible future of the piece. The two pieces on Conspiracy Theory live from that tension: make something that will give the other person enough room extend into something interesting, but at the same time make the piece evolve in a direction you find worthwhile yourself. It was an exciting experiment, even if I like one track much better than the other (I'm not telling you which one!).

Zirkadia was based on an improvisation by dieb13, Jason [Kahn] and myself which was edited and mixed by Jason. This took place the day after the recording with dieb13 and eRikm on Condenser, and I love how different those two recordings are from each other! dieb13 is definitely someone I hope to work with more in the future, he's great. And Jason has his own way of doing the post production, which is very different from mine, but I love what he does. When we talk about music (which we don't do very often), I have the feeling that we're looking for different things, and yet we work together very well. You can talk as much as you want about music, but when you're actually making it, all the theorizing and polemic and blablabla becomes pretty irrelevant. Sometimes it clicks, sometimes it doesn't. With Jason, it mostly does. We're bringing out another record in trio with Christian Weber on Longbox next year, which I'm really excited about.

Any thoughts on your recent tour with David Daniell and Greg Davis and your appearances at the Erstquake festival in New York? Be honest!

The tour was fun, and I think we got better from show to show. It was good to be on the road with such nice guys on my first ever US-tour. Some of the recordings we made might surface next year, we'll see. As far as Erstquake goes, well, it was a good experience, all things considered. Music wise i think I got off to a pretty good start with the duo with Keith Rowe. What we played probably wasn't as good as the set he played with Mark Wastell, but it was certainly better than what some of the reviews of the festival would have you believe. The set with Tim Barnes was awesome: harsh and intense, my favourite of the three I played. I had no clue what he was going to do, really no idea. I'd never heard him with that set-up before. I remember thinking at one point during the set "These people are gonna lynch us!" And it did generate quite a bit of controversy; I heard everything from "best set at the festival" to "totally pointless". But the only thing that matters to me is that Tim and I were happy with it. On the other hand, the duo with Julien Ottavi was really bad. Maybe that was the worst set of the festival – not because it was loud or harsh or because we blew a speaker etc but just because it was totally predictable and therefore very boring. I accept I'm partly responsible for that, too. I should have talked to Ottavi more beforehand or maybe even refused to play with him. I've probably paid the price for my lack of experience. I already suspected this would happen after hearing Ottavi's other sets at the festival. In both of them he got himself stuck in a way of rigid conceptual music making that just doesn't work if you're supposed to improvise with people. We're talking collaboration here, not solo work, and he showed zero flexibility (unlike Tim Barnes or Mark Wastell, who were for me the most consistently exciting musicians at Erstquake). On the subject of flexibility, there are two factors that are crucial in making an improvisation interesting for me: diversity and compliance. You always have to adapt to a certain point to the "situation", which is determined by the other player(s), but also by the room, the PA, the audience, etc. On the other hand you want to create something fresh, which means that adapting is sometimes not enough. You need to create diversity, search for new ways of doing things, try out new stuff. There's always a trade-off between generating new solutions, being innovative and complying with the givens, exploiting the situation in which you find yourself thrown in. The best improvisers I've heard are able to find that good balance. It's important to understand that this has nothing to do with the aesthetics involved. You can very well generate a radical aesthetic, go into extremes, and still manage the trade-off, if the circumstances are right for such an undertaking.

I heard some great music at Erstquake, and made some new friends, but it also showed me how far removed I am from the so-called EAI scene, and how happy I am not to be a part of it. I'm still learning, and that's a good thing. I want to learn as much as possible about how music works, regardless of its genre and context.


Tour photos courtesy David Daniell and Greg Davis. For further information on Tomas Korber and full discography go to ; See interviews of related interest with Jason Kahn and Keith Rowe