A space for art by accident with Mental Overdrive

Per Martinsen’s 7th studio album as Mental Overdrive sees the artist yet again in some beginning/end part of a cycle, a cycle that with each revolution finds a new trajectory as if Richard Feynman were trying to circumnavigate the globe. It “hints back at early releases” explains Per over the receiver in a thick Norwegian accent shaped by the amiability of his Tromsø dialect. “The technique made it sound like the early stuff”, explains Per. It was the producer/artist merely “rigging up some hardware to put down some jams” and it was a “dogmatic” approach, based on Per’s working methods. The album came about when Thomas’ (URV) requested some new music from Mental Overdrive for his PLOINK label, and when Per had no new music to give him, a two week recording session through little more than a stereo channel yielded “Hardware”, an album with a very pragmatic, minimalist approach. Little more than a synthesiser and a drum machine were recorded and edited over the course of a mere few weeks in the spirit of a jam sessions, harking back to Mental Overdrive’s earliest working methods. Tracks like “Descent” and “Dissolve” are redolent of earlier tracks from Mental Overdrive like “Tetris (The Game Of Life)” and “Please hold one”, not as some nostalgic throw-back LP, but rather a sound defined by one artist, but constantly in flux with its contemporary environment. It’s an album shaped by technology, but allowed to thrive in the uncluttered mind of an artist continuously in search of a unique experience through experimentation. Hardware is an extension of Mental Overdrive’s early development not as an evolution or a revolution, but rather an honest artistic voice. “I can experiment all I want, but it’s always gonna be my output” explains Per about what defines the Mental Overdrive sound, a sound that is informed as much by the equipment he uses as by the artist’s early years, growing up in Tromsø.

Whereas the younger generation growing up in Tromsø like Bjørn Torske, Svein Berge and Torbjørn Brundtland (the latter two as Røyksopp) started making music in the city for lack of anything else to do, Per suggests his exposure and desire to make music was born out of something quite different. The “information revolution” of the 1980’s and Tromsø’s unique standing away from the noise of an urban environment, plied Per with the necessary formative experiences for a career in electronic music. “In a big city you spend a lot of time protecting yourself from all the impulses, but in Trømso you can get that headspace you need, while still having access to any of that information.” As such Per got an extensive “overview of what’s going on in different subcultures” around the world and since the “mainstream was so not too loud” in the the isolated north of Norway, he could really immerse himself into the music, first as a drummer playing for various post punk bands, and later through experimenting with electronic instruments.

Influenced early on by “EBM, coldwave and the stuff  bleeding through from the cassette scene” and with “access to NME and melody maker, when they were still writing about all kinds of music”, Per’s formative years were spent indulging in the more “industrial” noises of synth music. He cultivated his musical tastes while working at Rocky Records in Tromsø, where he could get access to “a lot of music that people didn’t have access to”. Bypassing the the established distribution networks, Rocky Records and its owner Andrew Swatland, an Australian DJ, who like so many of his counterparts became a permanent fixture in the city through the lure of a woman, was responsible “for a lot of stuff making it to Norway’.

Encouraged by this style of music and his experience as a drummer, Per would eventually lay his hands on a drum machine, a Roland TR808 to be exact. I wonder if he still has that machine? “No I’ve been broke too many times in my life”, comes his response with a chuckle. But I digress, let’s get back to making electronic music in the eighties…  At a time where everybody “had the expectation of making songs” and “you had to have a vocalist even when you were in a synth band”, Per’s time on the drum machine then would be little more than a pastime pursuit. “I would just trigger single hits and make what I thought couldn’t be used for anything”, remembers Per. It was only when moving to London in 1987 and getting access to a studio in Brixton, that these little “loops and beats” would eventually grow into something distinguishable as music for Per, and has much to do with a new musical trend that was infiltrating London at that time. When Acid House broke on the squat scene, a scene Per naturally gravitated towards as a young music enthusiast living in its urban expanse, he realised that “there is space for the type of thing I was doing” and that “you didn’t have to make ‘songs’” in the traditional sense anymore. Giving the studio access to his Atari recording system and Emu sampler in exchange for a few evening slots, Per was free to experiment in a nurturing environment. “It was a great studio, with a lot of clients I was into at that time” says Per and during the spring of 88 when “everybody wanted House music, and anybody with a beat got a record deal” Mental Overdrive too would start making its first impressions on music, somewhat tentatively at first. “Daytime clients would hear me do something from the office and then ask, ‘what’s this?’” What started as short extemporised expressions on a sampler or drum machine, would be instantly recognised as something rather exceptional by the right people, bolstering Per’s confidence. Eventually these pieces would become tracks and fall on the ear of a label which coincided with a move to Brussels, where his first couple of records were released on a Crammed Discs imprint, SSR. From SSR he moved on to R&S, Per finding some happy coincidence in the shared vowels between the two labels, but it would be at R&S where Mental Overdrive would make some of the most significant contributions to electronic music in the early nineties. R&S meant another move, this time to Ghent, where he would begin to work closely with label through their studio. Through them and with the the help of R&S frontman Renaat Vandepapeliere’s practised ear, he would start to define and refine a Mental Overdrive sound.

“I was bringing this industrial thing to it, because of my history from that eighties synth sound”, recalls Per, but “Renaat was really good at giving you feedback” and that “was very helpful in shaping the sound” of Mental Overdrive through those first EPs. From 12000AD to the Love EP we hear a development from the tougher industrial sound of the eighties to a nineties Techno sound, retaining that raw energy of previous releases in the rhythm tracks while synths offer a melodic counterpoint, much closer to the sound of Detroit. The progression is less stochastic and combining all those things we start hearing a more concise, complete sound of Mental Overdrive. In Per’s methods we find that nineties approach of endless possibilities and everything goes, an unceasing experiment with machines and music, through a singular artistic voice. “You didn’t have a template” emphasises Per, “we were just fumbling in the dark and that’s how the music evolved.” After a few successful EPs on R&S, Per, favouring a reserved output with sincere bold recorded statements, turned to the album format in 1995 for his critically acclaimed Plugged album, which also inaugurated his Love OD label.

What started out as Per “and mates discussing what would make a good album” turned into one of the most significant Techno albums of that age and beyond, as it enjoyed a 20th anniversary re-issue last year for Prins Thomas’ Rett i Fletta imprint.   Plugged showed in Per an uncanny ability for the album format, an ability that surpasses many House and Techno artists still today. “You are forced into a zone”, says Per about working within this format, but his affinity for the long player is also something that extends beyond working. ”I grew up with that format” says Per who still prefers the listening experience of an album to accompany daily habits, like running. “If I go out running, that’s how I usually listen to stuff and one album is usually a good length for a good run.” I ask for a peek into his current running playlist and Arca, Lawrence English and Monolake are amongst the artists cropping up in there. His current listening suggests Per is very aware of his musical surroundings, something that perhaps ties back to Tromsø again, where he’s been residing these past nine years, having always preferred the open spaces of the arctic city over the noise of an urban sprawl.

I naturally think to Biosphere when I hear Tromsø and music and in Biosphere’s music there’s a definite sense of the environment informing the music, something Per suggests sounds like “the sky is very high”. Is it something we can ascribe to all Norwegian music, that sense of an infinite sky in defining what we know as a Norwegian sound? Per’s just been asked the very same question by Radio Nova in Paris recently for the premiere of Ben Davis and Paper Recordings’ Northern Disco Lights documentary and although Per won’t hazard an exact definition of a Norwegian sound, he believes “space is consistent in a lot of Norwegian electronic music”.  It’s something he believes even informs his own music, albeit at some subconscious level. “There’s always something in your DNA that if you are true to yourself will shine through.” It’s more than just a simplified idea of a Norwegian sound that defines Mental Overdrive however and whether he is working in the industrialised stylised Techno, or endeavoring an interpretation of House, it’s the insistence of constant experimentation that is consistent in the creative processes of the artist throughout his extensive discography. It’s that idea of “stumbling in the dark” that has defined Per’s music through 7 albums and countless EPs and harks back to that most fertile of ages for electronic music, the early 1990’s. In the present age, where we’ve neatly cordoned off all these defined musical genres and templates, featuring elements like “the right drop and the right duration of a hi-hat”, Per’s getting “really bored with designed music” and prefers the “stuff that just evolves”. It’s also the reason he’s returned to “live gigs being totally improvised and not this planned execution”, preferring the performance aspects of a live show, even in the studio, as we can deduce from the working methods behind his latest album, Hardware. “I’ve put out more twenty second snippets through my Instagram than tracks over the past two years,” he says “and they are just these snaps of what I’m into at the moment”. It’s Per “going back to playing” and Per’s instrument of choice today? The modular synthesiser.

He’s been using “modular gear since the early nineties”, but with the explosion of eurorack modules recently, and the endless possibilities they’ve introduced in a digital age, even an experienced musician like Per, can still stumble across the odd surprise. He refers to it as “art by accident” an idea that “you can’t design your music”, says Per. “If you can audiolise music, then it’s based on your experience and it will never be something new. I think anything a human can imagine will never be surprising. The ‘what if’ is crucial in discovering something.” It’s a creative pursuit that isn’t resigned to any one method, and in the past has made use of digital, analogue and software tools, but it’s the modular synthesiser today that has captured the imagination with Per proclaiming today; “the most creative scene is the modular scene”. And even though Hardware has some allusions to earlier work through its methods it’s never about recreating a sound of a previous era or record for Per – he’s “been there done that” after all. “Why would I buy a TB303 in 2017” he asks not waiting for an answer, and suggests that it’s exactly “this mimicking of an old sound that’s making music claustrophobic today.”

Once again we fall into this idea of space in music; the space for outside influences to thrive, the space for music to find a voice through experimentation, and even just that idea of a physical space in music. Everything Mental Overdrive ties into these various ideas of space and it’s something that will invariably inform his upcoming set at Jæger too. While he suggests it might “sound deeper” than recent sets, it’s still very off the cuff and can change depending on what equipment he packs for the trip, leaving him enough room to experiment even at the preparation stages of the performance. Per likes being “more dynamic” in his live sets today, approaching it very much like a DJ, with things like the venue and sound system affecting his performances, and that’s why he prefers it “improvised and open-ended”, leaving him enough room to “respond to these things”. It further propounds the complicated and complex entity that is Mental Overdrive, and we’ve not even delved into his soundtrack work, the music he’s “been working on in between all this rhythmical output”, including a new ambient album. All I know for the moment is that it will be released in June on a new label called waveform, and I suspect this is another story in itself, much like his collaborative work as Frost with Aggie Peterson. That’s yet another trajectory that informs another aspect of the Mental Overdrive’s sum over histories, a thing that takes place in yet another dimension in the immense artistic entity with its own story to tell. We forego this path on this occasion, having taken up a fair chunk of the producer’s studio time. I imagine I hear the hum of a synthesiser waiting to burst free from its forced hibernation in the background as I say goodbye.

* Mental Overdrive is playing live during next week’s PLOINK showcase