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A conversation with the experimental duo Makunouchi Bento

Valentin Toma (Toma Carnagiu, formerly known as Qewza) and Felix Petrescu (Waka X) are Makunouchi Bento, an experimental electronic music duo from Timisoara with a vast perspective on music. Their music varies from IDM to dance floor oriented music, touching almost every corner of the music genre. With almost two decades of activity they have released music on labels such as Retinascan, Ogredung, One, Eerik Inpuj Sound, Miasmah Music, TMBase & Metempsychosis.

1. Makunouchi Bento is a really prolific project with a very rich discography. On Bandcamp you are listed with 31 releases, on Discogs you have 4 albums, 28 singles & EPs and more than 10 compilations. What is your philosophy regarding releasing music?

We’re not professional musicians, so we don’t need to put out music on a constant basis, to make a living. We find that very satisfying, to be able to write music only when we feel the hand of the muse fingering. And indeed, inspiration is the trigger of our aural pistol. We’re not that type of musicians who produce hours of music every year, only to release the best of it. In other words, we are not “content providers”, as Stewart Lee would say.

We don’t have targets, so what you see on Bandcamp is pretty much what we have – no tons of unreleased, less inspired material in the drawer, near winter socks. If we die (and we can assure you that we will), there won’t be any valuable posthumous albums or audio material for our holographic resurrection. Well, if we die now, there is indeed an OST waiting to be released, probably early 2018, but that’s it. All in all, 2017 has been a good year for us so far – better than 2016 in terms of creativity – and 2018 should be even better, we have plenty of ideas to cook into practice. The men with the pan. (no pun intended)

2. I am curious about your field recordings. What makes this forever fresh approach to music such an important part of your personality?

I guess it’s a tripolar approach for us: on one side of the coin there’s the fact that we are fascinated by acoustic reality (as it is), and on the other side is that it’s man vs. nature, taming the sound and domesticating it on your will. And in the pocket there’s the third side of the coin, the stolen sound that you pretend it’s yours and “you’ve got it!”, the little mouse or flower you show proudly to the others you care about, the puerile poetry of the found art. We are fighting the ephemeral most of the times, not as a witty fellow but more like a conditioned response.

3. One of your releases, Live at Art Encounters, is a joint mixture with Trompetre, Utu Pascu and Ovidiu Hrin of Synopsis. This is a very tight sonic and visual release in your catalogue, what is the story behind this project?

Let’s not forget about VJ Mistik, in charge with the visuals / building mapping. Yep, Dudu (Made in TM, AnonimTM) wanted us to play there, maybe do something special, like a unique collab. We immediately thought of Trompetre. We knew each other and made it happen. It did not turn to be a one-time project, we did it again in Bucharest in 2016, during Street Delivery Bucharest. It turned out even better, but unfortunately we don’t have that one recorded. And we’d be happy to repeat it if we get the chance to. The collaboration with Trompetre continued with us remixing one of his songs (check Remix Box San on Bandcamp), and we’re definitely having him on some of our future releases.

4. You have done some remixes for peers and friends like Siemens and Adapt, to name a few. How do you approach a remix?

It can be interesting to add our touch to someone else’s music. Sometimes we were asked by artists (friends, most of the times) to remix one of their songs, sometimes it was us who liked a song and asked for the stems, to do a remix. We don’t have one particular approach to remixing a song. It depends on what we want it to sound like. Since we’re an experimental band, we allow ourselves to do whatever we want with the remix, and transform it in any way we feel. So, having no guidelines or restrictions, it can be like starting a project with our own pre-made sounds – it’s just that they’re not ours. We like to play and we are not jealous.

5. I find it very intriguing when producers are not afraid to use their own voices for songs and I really do like the spoken word done by Felix. What does it take to approach the human voice as an instrument and not only rely on your hands?

Felix: Oh, I don’t like the timbre of my voice, but I don’t have any other. I don’t even smoke, so no hope for Bogart-like voice when I’ll be antiquated. But the voice is THE primordial instrument, the fastest way to convert any image or animation or emotion from one’s head to sound. We all play a lot with our voices in various funny ways, all our lives. If you don’t, you miss a big chunk of free fun. Nowadays, with so many digital tools, I can drive any instrument I want with my voice, or I can transform my mouth into a deep cave. The power of the lazy one, because I can’t play accurately and fast any classic instrument. Limitations are such a good impulse in experimentalism, you have no idea. And I have no shame, sound-wise.

6. From creating your own artwork and animations to working with Santiago J. Franzani (Antipirina) of Antennaria Games, Ovidiu Hrin of Synopsis, Vali Chincisan, Sorina Vazelina and VJ Mistik, the whole concept of your musical “brand book” is to constantly explore. How did these affiliations come about and what future plans do you have?

We always liked to have interesting artworks for our releases. We’re not a commercial project, we don’t really get a lot of money out of it, so it doesn’t make much sense to have an artwork that costs more than the whole production. But luckily, we have a few very talented friends, who also appreciate our music, so every now and then, we have them design our artwork. Felix and Santiago are preparing an interesting graphics project together, as we speak – but more about that when it’s ready.

We “met” Santiago a few years ago, when we noticed we had a few Bandcamp visitors coming from this game producer’s website. We saw he recommended our album Swimé to his followers, but also that he was working on an amazing game, similar to those of Amanita Design (which we love). So we immediately contacted him, offering to score his games, which we did eventually. Unfortunately, the game we saw was put on hold, but we scored the highly experimental “My Little Humanity” – so experimental and complicated, in fact, that it was eventually dropped! But you can listen to the “lost” OST on our Bandcamp profile. Santiago was also very much in love with our music, so he made an amazing video for one of our songs – our first video actually.

For our next album, we’re thinking about having a proper “booklet”, and we’re sure our friends will lend a helping hand. In the meantime, check Felix’s artworks here. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wakax/

7. Some of your musical inspirations are household names with the Intelligent Dance Music genre. Producers and projects such as Aphex Twin, Squarepusher, Autechre and Plaid, mainstays of the so-called IDM scene. Only the last of these artists have performed in Romania, do you think the Romanian audience is ready to see the others perform here?

Ready? They might have been at the time, we’re not sure how relevant IDM still is nowadays. Even the almighty Warp Records is hardly about IDM anymore in 2017. The sound changed, the genres evolved. It would have been a blast to be able to see those artists in 2000, but I doubt there was such a large audience back then for that to be feasible. Don’t get us wrong, we still like IDM, we might even release a new Romanian IDM Association EP (our friend and old TMBase collaborator Adapt is still into it). And yes, we were invited by our good old friend Victor (BLN) to his IDM parties in Bucharest, to play, but unfortunately we weren’t able to attend. I hope we’ll get another chance to do that, especially if we’ll have a new IDM release.

Funny story though, in June 2001, together with Adapt, we put up an IDM party in Timişoara (part of the TMBase Fused Series), and we DJed 100% IDM music. I think that might have been the first one in Romania. We had quite an audience! I mean, we’re talking 50-60 people here, but that was something, and the bar could fit only about half of them – the others stayed outside, by the door. They even danced to “Come to Daddy” (they probably knew it from Viva or MTV), imagine that.

8. At some point you started RIDMA, Romanian IDM Association, a project collaboration with Adapt. What happened with this project?

The idea for RIDMA was to unite the Romanian IDM producers. However, back then, you could count the Romanian music-related websites on your fingers. There was no social media, or any easy way to find people you didn’t know personally. So we failed to get in touch with Brazda lui Novac and Nonel – the only 2 Romanian IDM producers we knew of at that time. We did get in touch a bit later, but somehow, we never got back to the idea of extending RIDMA. But we’re seriously thinking about doing that in 2018. For fun. Nostalgia. Old farts. But we’re down to Earth, we wouldn’t expect a miraculous resurrection of an IDM “scene” in Romania, though.

9. You have dubbed your sound as experimental, cinematic, “less repetitive” and ambiental. Why do you think people, as well as music critics, feel the need to pigeonhole and place bands, artists and producers in genres?

Have we described our music as “less repetitive”? We don’t remember that, but it sounds pretty damn accurate - we like our songs to be like a journey, an intriguing one, where you get to hear new things with each step you take. When we kicked off this project, we were mostly into IDM – check our earliest releases. As years went by, we slowly leaned towards a more electro-acoustic sound, even if it’s mostly computer-made (Native Instruments Kontakt is a true blessing for producers like us, who can’t actually play all those instruments). We then passed through an “ambient” phase – though it wasn’t that Biosphere or Brian Eno type of ambient, but a lot more weird and complex – now we got back to adding drums and perhaps more alert rhythms to our music. So you know, you can’t really label us with a specific genre. We like to use terms like “experimental” or “cinematic”, because those aren’t actual genres, but rather some attributes that we can apply to all the music we make, no matter the BPM (if any).

Why do people feel the need to apply genres to the music? Well, for the sake of conversation, to be able to easily describe music. When you buy a bottle of wine, you probably want to see the type of grapes it’s made of, and why not some extra details regarding the nose and palate – you don’t want a bottle that says “surprise: wine!”, do you? We don’t mind if people use genres to describe the music they talk about – if they can accept some music doesn’t really fit into one particular genre, and it doesn’t actually need to.

10. It is nice to see that even when you produce music outside the Makunouchi Bento project, the experiment and the love for music is still very strong and visible in your work. One such project I am referring to is Toma Carnagiu. Can you share with us the story of this project?

Valentin: The alias is a pun I came up with some years ago. I was eager to use it, somehow. I knew if I were to do some solo work again, I would change the tragically-misspelled Qewza to this. And since, in all those years (since 2008, when “Unu mai” was put on hold), I kept collecting a lot of Romanian music of all genres, at some point I decided to do something with it. This is how “Unu decembrie” was born – changing the moniker felt like changing the “Unu mai” name / release date as well. It’s a fun thing to do now and then, I’ll have a new one released very soon, by the way.

As for the first release, “Unu mai”, that wasn’t supposed to happen. We had these TMBase lounge music events every Thursday evening - the Indigo Series – and Ufo asked me to play some Romanian music once: he knew I had pretty much all the Romanian electronic music I could get my hands on. I’m not sure he expected me to add hip-hop, jazz or folklore to that mix, but I did. Mind you, this was a one-time thing, I was never a DJ, and never had much interest in being one. The playlist turned out quite interesting though, they recorded it on minidisc (hah) and wanted to release it. I was totally against it, due to my obvious lack of mixing skills – but eventually agreed to remake it in the studio. I ended up making 2 mixes, because the first one was a bit too downtempo, and I wanted to add some drum&bass, breakbeat and house as well. So I released “Unu mai şi mai unu” in May 2006. The feedback was mind blowing, and it was Adnan (the author of the artwork) who insisted I should do it again in 2007. I stopped after the third edition, because I felt I already used most my favourite tracks, and the mixes won’t be as good anymore. But over the years, the Romanian music scene really took off, so now there’s plenty of material to work with.

11. One other project that involves you is Ceau Cinema Festival. A film festival where Felix Petrescu curated the animation section. What is your relation with film?

Felix: I have 2 words about my relation with Film: “Passionate” and “Deep”. And yep, I’m sort of a film buff. I have such a big appetite for others’ good stories and especially for the art of film. I had months, or maybe years of darkness and films, films were the source of light for me. Escapism? Addiction? Cultural survival? I don’t really care. I can afford it. It keeps me going. We say that we make “music for imaginary movies” and I do think it’s true. I often see our sound as the opposite of the “silent film” concept. Life is a highly synesthetic experience from my chair. About shorts, here is a short link to my favourite shorts on Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/wakax/likes

12. You are involved in music for a long time and did a lot of collaborations and projects in the industry. One in particular I find it to be a cornerstone of the electronic music scene in Romania - TMBase festival. What was it like being part of one of the first Romanian electronic music festivals?

It was Ufo (Florin Unguraş) who started this festival, back in 1998. It was a good opportunity for local electronic music producers to come out and play their bedroom-made music. After the 2nd edition, all those producers in Timişoara, ourselves included, gathered to form the actual TMBase organization, and work together. So, to a more or less extent, we all got involved in organizing the festival as well. Those were different times, people had less access to music, not a lot of opportunities to see those artists perform (the local ones too, but especially the foreign ones), and the TMBase festival was the biggest one of its kind. Something you wouldn’t miss if you loved electronic music. There was a strong community around these events. The vibe was unique, there was a great hype around it, people used to gather from all over the country. It was amazing for us as well to witness these artists perform on our stage: Aquasky, The Freestylers, dBridge, Stamina MC, Deekline, The Ragga Twins, Navigator MC, Noisia, The Hacker, Technasia, C2C, JFB, Beardyman, Pendulum, Future Funk Squad, Wax Tailor, Dieselboy, London Elektricity, High Contrast, True Ingredients, Black Sun Empire, Addictive TV, Hudson Mohawke, DJ Vadim, Marcus Intalex, Ben Mono – only to name a few. Most of them for the first time in Romania. It was mostly a dance oriented festival, but we also had interesting live acts, and Makunouchi Bento found its place as well, on a secondary stage. Fun fact: did you know Subcarpaţi had their (well, his, it was basically just Bean MC back then) first live show ever at TM10Base?

13. When you first started producing music the only electronic music websites were MP3.com and Besonic.com. What are your memories from back in those days regarding these platforms?

Yeah, we prefered Besonic to MP3.com for some reason. It was good to have a community based platform where we could upload our music and share it with the people. When we uploaded about an hour of music, Besonic made a CD, some sort of an album / compilation we titled “Himette”, that people could buy. We never saw any copy of that, no idea if anyone bought it. We eventually released Himette as a demo CD-R ourselves, but with a slightly different tracklist. That was our first album (mostly IDM), and after a couple of years, it had a proper CD release on a German label, Retinascan. We did receive a few copies of that, along with 2 nice t-shirts – that’s all we got for that album. As for Besonic, we stopped uploading our music over there, because we managed to get various netlabels to release all our music. But netlabels / netscene was mostly for geeks and connoisseurs, the real music diggers.

14. It is very important for young artists and producers of today to better understand the necessity of music labels and netlabels. Such as the ones you have collaborated with, the likes of Retinanscan, Ogredun, One, Eerik Inpuj Sound, Les Enregistrements Variables, Camomille, Metempsychosis, Digitalbiotope, Miasmah, etc. What guides Makunouchi Bento journey through releasing on these platforms?

Back in the early 90s, computer music was very different. We’re not talking about the usage of archaic computers as sequencers by the electronic music pioneers – but the music made by the “computer geeks” back then. There was a huge scene around these software programs called trackers – closely tied to the demo scene. Before mp3 or strong internet connections that could allow streaming or downloading actual songs, there were the modules: small-sized, open source songs. And those producers gathered in “music groups”, the early form of internet labels, to release those songs for free. You can still find most of that music (starting with the c64 / Amiga / Atari era) on sites such as http://modarchive.org and http://files.scene.org/browse/music/

When more advanced software became available, and computer musicians had the means to master their tracks and sound like the “real deal”, then convert it to mp3 and upload it, the music groups became netlabels: the online equivalent of the real labels, but with a non-profit philosophy, as all the music was released for free. Around that time (early 2000s), many of these netlabels were releasing IDM music. It was the best thing for us, to be exposed to an already strong international audience. Most of these netlabels don’t exist anymore, but Miasmah still does, and it’s a proper independent label now, releasing quality ambient and neo-classical music.

…But those times are gone, there’s no meaning to “netlabel” anymore: most of the electronic music nowadays is computer-made, and computer musicians are everywhere, they sign their music to “real” labels, and they also have the means to independently release their music for free. There’s no such thing as the computer-music community anymore – we’re all in the same big bowl.

Trackers still exist, by the way – we’re still using the most modern one, Renoise, now and then!

15. Nowadays everybody speaks about the music format, digital vs. vinyl, mp3 vs. wav. Do music format count for you?

We’re really passionate about the music itself, not the format. We’re not vinyl collectors, we don’t own turntables. We do have CDs, but we’re very happy with the digital format, which allows us to gather large amounts of music in a small box, basically. The artwork also comes in digital format, so we’re not missing anything if we don’t own the physical release. And we do keep expanding our music collections all the time, there’s plenty of good (new, but also old) interesting music to discover. We make music because we love music, so before being producers, we’re consumers. We like to get but we really love to give back. Stay in soup, that’s our advice.