Interview: Freeka Tet

Interview: Freeka Tet

Multidisciplinary artist Freeka Tet on taking a hacker’s approach to create playful, subversive works of music and visual art.

Freeka Tet can’t decide whether he’s a hacker, a magician or a sell-out. This might be because he spends most of his time inhabiting all of three of these roles. During his conversation with Fact he emphasises the importance of one of his many self-administered tattoos, the seemingly nonsensical phrase ‘ou ou et ou ou et et’, which curls across his chest in spidery cursive. “If you translate it into English it means: ‘or or and or or and and’, he explains. “Are you an ‘or’ person or are you an ‘and’ person, are you like ‘this or this’, or like ‘this and this’? Are you everything or do you need to decide?”

It’s an enduring sentiment that dates back to his formative years playing in various underground noise scenes in Bordeaux and Paris, a creative outlet he juggled alongside studying advertising and graphic design. “I was really confused by the fact that I was doing my studies in advertising at the same time as being in the noise scene, playing in punk squats and doing tattoos for people. I got really lost in it”, he says. “I needed to make a decision, was I going to have a career in advertising, was I going to be an experimental musician, or was I going to be a tattoo artist? I felt like I couldn’t be all of them.” 

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.

Fast-forward to the present day and Freeka Tet has proved his younger self spectacularly wrong. The multidisciplinary artist, designer, programmer and performer has one foot in the commercial mainstream, working with Google, Childish Gambino and Margiela, with the other planted firmly in the mulch of the experimental electronic underground, conducting deranged noise performances using only his face, making music without instruments or music software and designing eerie animatronics for avant-pop provocateurs Amnesia Scanner.

Using emergent technology, creative coding and a hacker’s approach to artistic production, he creates playful works that interrogate and subvert contemporary attitudes towards cultural consumption. His practice promotes, in his own words, “doing without knowing”, taking on deeply technical projects based on processes of learning and investigation while remaining untethered from any specific discipline or methodology. Rarely pausing for breath, he bounces around the new media landscape with an omnivorous appetite for original forms, new models and truly authentic modes of self-expression, all of which stem from a potent strain of creative indecisiveness. Boiled down into a deeply personal mantra, this potency is now immortalised in ink. As he explains: “I did this tattoo to be like: ‘It’s ok, man. You don’t need to decide’”.

You can trace Freeka Tet’s restlessness all the way back to his first musical projects, a diverse and ambitious body of work defined only by a stubborn reluctance to stick within the narrow confines of a single genre. This is evidenced by the artist’s long list of musical aliases, which includes Surrr Grrr, Sgure, Sgur£, Maxi Bacon, a collaboration with Scott Sinclair, aka Australian noisecore artist Company Fuck, and Gazormass, a collaboration with Orion Bouvier, one half of French electroclash duo Kap Bambino. Growing up listening to Jamiroquai, Marilyn Manson and Korn, his taste was dictated by his crowd: “I was in the South of France, I was in Bordeaux. So it was like: dreadlocks, skating, Korn, whatever.”

However, his passive listening habits were soon disrupted by the discovery of Mr. Bungle and Fantômas, the alt-metal fusion projects of Faith No More’s Mike Patton. The dizzying rage of Patton’s sonic vocabulary, both literally in terms of his voice, which spans no fewer than six octaves, and in terms of genre, was the spark that would inspire him to make his own music. A love of Japanese vocalist Yamatsuka Eye and Houston hip-hop architect DJ Screw cemented his love for the loud, noisy and twisted, all of which are qualities that inform his early sound.

An ongoing fascination with computer music developed into several experimental electronic projects, but it was with his early recordings as Sgure that Tet found serious recognition. One early fan of the project was Stevo Pearce, the founder of Some Bizzare Records, who included the Sgure track ‘Booyaka Vs Jalla’ on the obscure compilation Some Bizzare Double Album, a 2008 update to the 1981 cult classic Some Bizzare Album that first introduced audiences to Depeche Mode and The The. Another was James Kirby, who would go on to release Sgure’s 2007 album Anulus Pexie on the V/Vm Test Records sub-label Vukzid.

“I remember him telling me about the idea for The Caretaker in 2007”, says Freeka Tet. “Because I was doing all this Max/MSP stuff, I remember thinking that it was quite lazy! At that moment I couldn’t understand his point.” At this early stage of his career the most effusive supporter of the project was Mary Anne Hobbs, who in 2007 described the experience of listening to his tracks on her BBC Radio 1 show as, “like you’ve been pushed from the top of the Empire State Building”.

An unwavering proclivity for complexity fuelled the artist’s continued experiments with Max/MSP, a visual programming language that has become an essential tool for a generation of experimental musicians. “Sound for me at first was literally sound, it was not music”, he explains. “It was something that needed to be physical. There was already some kind of terrorism, or vandalism, in the sound. When I started using Max/MSP I became more interested in visuals. So when I started doing visuals that became the vandalism”.

It was also around this time that the artist started to get more seriously into hacking, something he partly attributes to his love of the software. “With Max, you need to be a hacker, or at least it feels like you’re hacking something. You need to go into something and touch cables together and kind of hack it. Most of the time it doesn’t work.” This anarchic and haphazard attitude towards music production began to influence the way Freeka Tet approached the industry he somewhat reluctantly found himself a part of.

Hacking was a major part of his strategy to introduce the world to Erson Rybod, an enigmatic and resolutely anonymous producer with whom he still works closely. This included some online booking agency trickery that ensured Rybod’s first shows were remarkably well-attended for a complete unknown, as well as a planned publicity stunt that rides the thin line between the ingenious and the nefarious.

“Rybod came up at around the same time that Syro from Aphex Twin was released, 10 years after he had disappeared and was coming back”, explains Tet. “So obviously Warp had a massive marketing budget. I used cSploit, which is a hacking tool, to look at how easy it would be to hack the label’s website and the plan was to put Rybod’s track and picture up on the day of the album’s launch.” Ultimately he decided against the stunt for fear of legal repercussions, although he still stands by the idea: “pranking Aphex Twin can only be a good thing.”

By his own admission, Freeka Tet is less interested in the mechanics of hacking than he is in the mentality behind it. “I’m a hacker, but I’m not really devoted to the cause. Doing hacking is one thing but doing hacking without getting caught is another thing entirely.” He cites proto-meme formats such as YouTube Poop, a hyperactive video editing practice in which YouTube videos are ripped from the site and vandalised with shitpost audio-visual collage and deranged media manipulation, as a crucial influence on his current digital art practice.

This is evident in 7h3 p1c7u23 0f f4c371m3, a satirical take on the concept of a live-streamed performance that sees Freeka Tet hijacking FaceTime conversations with his friends using a face-mapping program and real-time generative sound design software to conduct a frenetic noise performance using only his face. Obscured by dead pixels and motion blur, he smashes together scorched-earth edits of Giant Claw and EPROM with a frenzied sequence of twitches and yawns. At one point he pulls away from the screen, revealing a 3D-rendered model of himself sitting cross-legged with his face thrust through the laptop, emoting wildly from an infinitely recurring virtual void. Finally, he merges with an animatronic pink robot mouth for a climactic session of cybernetic karaoke.

For Freeka Tet, magic, hacking and art are fundamentally aligned, subsumed into a broader mission to develop his creative practice into something complex enough to meet the impossible demands of the new media attention economy. He references another famous magician to illustrate this: “David Blaine is like a hacker, in a way. He’s hacking his body. You could be a magician, a hacker, a visual artist or an artist working with technology, it all comes via the same path, which is about understanding something and cracking the code.”

Someone else Freeka Tet attributes as having cracked this code is artist Justice Yeldham. Infamous for his extraordinarily bloody performances, in which he creates ear-shredding cacophony by licking, smashing and biting a pane of cut glass attached to several contact mics, Yeldham brings a similarly subversive energy to stage spectacle. “To do something really different, you have to go somewhere where not a lot of people can follow you. And there are very few people that are good enough to do that. Either it’s because they’re a really good performer, or it’s because they’re insane.” Whatever the medium, it is through technical mastery that Freeka Tet is able to continually pull the rug from under his audience during his performances, a form of creative control he understands as fundamental to the practice of hacking.

WORDS: Henry Bruce-Jones

This feature was originally published in Fact’s F/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.

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