INTERVIEW: Martin Birke of Genre Peak

24 Mar

For those of you who don’t know Martin Birke, I have to point out that he is a great guy (don’t pay any attention to the pointing gun in his video, “Hell on the Surface“) who has, thus far, spent his entire lifetime as a musician.

Initially beginning as an electronic percussionist, and later as a recoding artist, Martin released three CD albums with Casualty Park.  He has also done commissioned scores for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, The Oxygen Cable Network, and LionsGate Films (“Blood, Guts, Bullets” and “Octane and Retribution”).  He was a member and co-writer of four albums (Kurumba, Idiophone/Orcus Drawl, Nocturnalis and Urubamba) for the electro/acoustic-improv group Sandbox Trio with Daniel Panasenko and Chuck Ehlis.

In my opinion, Mr. Birke is one of the busiest musicians in Sacramento, especially since he recently released the second album of his personal music vehicle, Genre Peak.


GENRE PEAK - Martin Birke

Ok, Martin, I know I am a little late since “Preternatural” was released during 2008, however, there are a great number of questions that I would like to ask you but I have to find a way to sort them out.  With that being said, I’d like to first welcome you to the Tribe4mian blog and thank you for this interview.

01.  When did you start playing music?

MARTIN:  I started taking drum and piano lessons at the age of 6, my mother enforced these and soon I found that I had a natural ability for percussion and excelled in that.  My first teachers were jazz-fusion drummers who taught me complex beats and time signatures.  In my teens, I had won several school talent contests and was gigging with local bands by the age of 13.  With piano I became increasingly frustrated with reading music and soon just taught myself by ear, learning chord structure and composition. Music was just always a part of me, and my mom says as a baby I sang before I ever spoke.
02.  Through the years, I would guess that the English band Japan had a strong influence on you.  Could you tell us which are your influences because I would also guess that people don’t really care what I think.

MARTIN:  Well, I’d say Peter Gabriel and David Sylvian are the two biggest influences on me as a writer/composer/singer.  As a pre-teen I listened to Genesis, Yes, The Police and Rush – my prog-rock days. 🙂 Later, bands like Japan, Ultravox, Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk were some favourites in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In my late 20’s I listened to a lot of Bowie/Eno, Jon Hassell, Laurie Anderson and especially Einsturzende Neubauten as Alex Hacke & Blixa Bargeld became my idols.  Now I’m into Thomas Feiner, Massive Attack and Alan Wilder’s Recoil project as well as many other musicians virtually unknown to American music lovers.  My favourite classical composer is Erik Satie. I’m also fond of Aphex Twin/The Tuss, Bjork, Burnt Friedman, and the great Vangelis.

Genre Peak - "Preternatural"03.  Mick Karn, Japan’s bass player, appears on “Preternatural” which I guess was a pleasant surprise for your audience.  Could you tell us some of their reactions as well as how this experience was for you?

MARTINMick Karn was going to join Genre Peak as a full-time member (I’d admired Mick’s playing since I was a teen, so I was very happy that he was interested in working with me), and Daniel Panasenko, our bassist, was leaving the group.  Unfortunately, we couldn’t work out travel, lodgings, and the expenses of touring without a major label backing us since Mick lived on the other side of the world.  So Genre Peak toured regionally in ’05 and ’06 then disbanded.  I wasn’t completely happy with our first album, “Ends of the Earth”, and my former bandmates didn’t share my enthusiasm for promoting the record, so I wanted try again with different players.

I reformed the band as an international studio project along with producer/guitarist Christopher Scott Cooper, Canadian singer Tara C. Taylor and special guests Mick Karn, Gustaf Fjelstrom, Stereoskop (from Spain) and Kiss & Fly (from France), who contributed amazing performances and remixes . They where all a tremendous help.  I suspect the good sales of “Preternatural” are a result of these guests – and the well-written material.  😉

04.  On “Preternatural” a strange thing occurs:  It is the least “Japan- influenced” album of yours and I find the album moving to a different level, creating a unique sound for Genre Peak. (By the way, the album is excellent.  I have a friend who borrowed it from me three months ago and every time I ask him to return it, he plays ‘stupid’…)

MARTIN:  I had been listening to Recoil, Massive Attack and The Golden Palominos a lot.  I wanted to make an album like that.  Every song sounding different, with different vocalists and themes.  “Preternatural” was a major amount of work and I feel it’s my best electro-pop effort to date.  It’s production is wonderful, working with Christopher Scott Cooper has really changed my sound and we enjoy a wonderful, easy-working relationship.  Chris is also a vastly experienced industry man who knows many musicians, so he’s been an invaluable friend and agent for Genre Peak, as well as very tasteful guitarist.

05.  Martin, you have a lot of history behind you… I remember you toured Germany in the past.  How was this experience?

MARTIN:  I had played all over my hometown in the 80’s, my first band was a rock trio called Security (me-drums, David Netz-bass, Daniel Panasenko-guitars …we were in our teens) and then me and Daniel Panasenko formed an industrial jazz quartet called THWACK with bassist Chuck Ehlis and saxophonist Arthur Chivis. I was first nationally published in 1990 by a music magazine’s sampler release with an agro-jazz track I did with that band for a demo tape I made.  My first professional scoring gig was for The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre in NYC back in ’93.  We did some amazing music for them and they paid well, it was a wonderful experience for a 24-year-old.

In the 90’s I was in 2 bands signed to The Frank-Mark-Arts label in Germany. Sandbox Trio was a very Neubauten-ish trio doing experimental soundscapes, electro-beats, and atmospheres.  We did four albums, a couple indie-film scores, commercials, and also toured with my pop band Casualty Park all over Germany.  Frank-Mark-Arts was a wonderful indie label that paid us very well and made touring an adventure…we only wish we could have made the label more money.
06.  Is there a difference between the American and European audiences?

MARTIN:  I think there is.  My experience has shown that Europeans are more accepting of new and experimental groups, although we did open for a few major bands here in Sacramento and were treated well, despite our obvious European pop sound. I may be biased as all of the bands and artists I like are unknown in the USA for the most part.

GENRE PEAK - "Hell on the Surface" Video Shoot (June 2008)

07.  I see you have strong connections with musicians from almost all around the world, including Canadian, Spanish, French musicians.  Is it difficult to cooperate when all this distance is involved?

MARTIN:  Well, yes.  Paying for travel expenses and coordinating sessions can be difficult as I run my own tiny label for Genre Peak and Microsphere.  I have to pay for everything and that makes me miss the old days when the label would do those things for me.

But with technology as it is, we can exchange multi-track sessions thru the internet or post service.  Aside from flying Tara C. Taylor down from Vancouver to our SF studio for vocal tracks, we worked with the other artists through the internet, which worked out well enough…but I still prefer having everyone in the studio in person if at all possible.

08.  You have also written music for theatrical plays and movies.  How was this experience?

MARTIN:  I’ve done several independent films, one major film, and several commercials over the decades. I must say I really enjoy scoring films and wish I might have another opportunity to do this again someday.  I’m a big film-buff and have studied film-making for 25 years.  I’d say Tyler Bates, Jerry Goldsmith, Vangelis and Clint Mansell are among my favourite composers.  I’d love to have their job!

09.  How would you describe Genre Peak’s music?

MARTIN:  I guess I would call Genre Peak electronic-trance music, with pop undertones?  It’s lush, dark and warm.  And different enough from most bands, I hope.

10.  Your lyrics have a ‘darkness’ to them.  Could you please enlighten us a little as to why you gravitate to the dark side?

MARTIN:  Well, I’m not really a happy person for the most part (LOL).  Many major disappointments and loss in my time have left me feeling mistreated by fate.  I write about the absurdities, stressors, and paradoxes of modern life but I try to keep an ambiguity to my words.  I like lyrics that are abstract.  Too many artists are way too literal and happy in their writing, which to me, comes across as silly and amateurish.  Look at any emo-American band these days, i.e. Fallout Boy, Death Cab for Cutie…What childlike trip these bands write…how did they get off American Idol???

11.  People in Europe believe that the States is like “Heaven” for musicians.  Is it so?

MARTIN:  Well it can be if you have connections and write mediocre, easy-listening music or hip-hop. (Hip-hop has become the essence of “corporate music” over here…quite sad.)  But if you want to do something original and edgy, don’t come here unless you’re already famous.

Genre Peak - "Ends of the Earth"12.  With Casualty Park you had two albums released through a German label and one through a Greek label.  Do you prefer European labels?

MARTIN:  I’ve had nothing but good experiences with European labels.  They all cared about the music and were not afraid to spend money promoting it.  My thanks to Frank-Mark-Arts and Cyberdelia Records… good people!

13.  What is your involvement with the Sandbox Trio?

MARTIN:  I played electronic and acoustic percussion and synths with Sandbox Trio from 1992 to 2002.  (Chuck Ehlis, our instrument builder and slide guitarist, died suddenly in 2000.)  We did four immaculate albums that are still available at most online stores.  Out of the 16 records I’ve been a part of over the years, SB3 is the only music of mine that I still listen back on occasionally.

14.  What does the future hold for Genre Peak?

MARTIN:  I’m working with Christopher on a CD-single called “Candy for the Meatman”, a new track, and some remixes from the previous album.  We’re involving a cello player, which I’m excited about.  It will probably be released in late ’09 or early 2010.

15.  Where can people find Genre Peak releases?

MARTIN:  CDs and MP3s are available at most online stores worldwide… Amazon, iTunes, etc.

I recommend folks buy Genre Peak CDs.  We have wonderful digi-pak designs, and MP3s, I feel, quash the dynamics of recordings these days.  I have an iPod but never use it, except on planes.  I love the compact disc and stand by it.  I don’t like the idea of music albums becoming intangible in the future.

I hope people around the world will realise that radio only plays 2% of all the music that’s released and seek out lesser-known and more experimental acts.  It’s a far more rewarding experience.

16. Is there anything you’d like to add for the viewers, Martin?

MARTIN:  Yes, be an artist.  Be a creative element on Earth.  Don’t be afraid to live minimally for your art and don’t fear judgement or rejection.  Art is not about making money or impressing friends or being popular, it’s about contributing to the fabric of your culture, internal, and spiritual growth, gaining insight and knowledge.  Nothing is more conducive to life than creating.  And do something or try to do something nobody has done yet.  History only remembers art and war, and war is for those who fear.  Life is so short, let’s make something that will be here after we’re gone.  How glorious is that?

I’d like to take this opportunity now to thank you, Martin.  It was a sincere pleasure to sit with you and I do hope you keep us informed as to where you are headed.  🙂  I wish you the greatest of success in “Preternatural”, as well as all your endeavors.

Martin Birke – programming-synths-percussion-samples-vocals
Christopher Scott Cooper – guitars-samples .
Tara C. Taylor – vocals
and featuring:
Mick Karn – bass
Gustaf Fjelstrom – bass
Stephen Sullivan – guitar synths


Official MySpace

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Posted by on March 24, 2009 in Interviews, Music


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