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Interview: Jeff Witscher aka Rene Hell

Jeff Witscher makes electronic music. This includes ambient soundscapes, thrash, noise, layers of arpeggiated synthesizers, and much in between. Abelard Scout, Impregnable, Secret Abuse, Marble Sky, and most famously Rene Hell are a few of his monikers. His list of collaborations and groups is longer.

A few weeks ago I had the chance to hear Witscher perform as Rene Hell, the name under which he’s released two excellent albums (The Terminal Symphony, 2011; Porcelain Opera, 2010) on Type, as well as numerous cassettes on his own label Agents of Chaos. The focused, half-hour set explored variations of a few similar ideas, and lost in the play interlocking, sequenced tones, I found it over nearly as soon as it had begun.

We contacted Jeff for a Q&A, and after the delays of moving into a basement, “jamming all day & drinking all night,” and apparently scoring some Rothko paintings (interesting), he delivered his responses.


What was it like growing up in LA? How did you get into the noise / music scene? Where have you been based since?

I’ve never had much fondness for l.a., it’s never agreed with me, on a lot of levels, but I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to experimental music growing up. When I started to explore it [exp music] I was fascinated but I DID NOT understand it. From the beginning it was moving & that’s what facilitated the curiosity. It was easy from the initial dive because there’s always shows, smaller festivals, touring bands & a great community of artists. I owe a lot to the support of people older than myself who helped introduce me to it & I’ve lived a few different places since leaving l.a.: the midwest, europe for a short time. Currently I’m staying in a small, dark basement in portland.

How did the Callow God label and subsidiary Agents of Chaos get started, and how would you describe the label’s aesthetic/mission?

Starting a label was only natural. I wanted to release my music & do it quickly. At first I was influenced by other labels & friends & then started to carve out my own idea or vision for it. I’ve taken it seriously enough for quite awhile & now it’s not so important to me. The force behind it was to release music that inspired or moved me, combined with visual aesthetic parallels. Striving for a higher fidelity or quality of work, & being consistent in that quality yet versatile in the content.

Why release to audio cassette? Why does this medium continue to appeal to you and a whole scene of producers/listeners?

I’ve been asked that question quite a lot & the answer is simply that’s it’s completely practical. cassettes are very affordable to produce, the turn around time in production is extremely fast & they have enough aesthetic attractiveness to be collectible. plus you can give them away without feeling at a loss. otherwise, I used to carry a walkman around with me everywhere I went.

Explain the name “Rene Hell,” its origin, and its place/meaning among other projects/names that you assume.

It’s an alter ego although I was decided on using the moniker Abelar Scout. after some thought & a break between releases {marble sky, secret abuse} I had had my fill with ambient textural sound & wanted to explore a more surreal area. I mean, surreal is hardly the word but I released a very limited tape under the title Rene Hell & simply forgot to change the name back. Very forgetfull & now . . it’s . . stuck . . to . . me.

How seriously do you take the heteronymous aspect of your work? Does Rene Hell wear clothes that are different from Jeff Witscher’s?

That’s a private matter.

Please explain the name “Deep Jew.” We’re kind of obsessed with it over here…

haha, that stems from two bands that existed prior. Deep Face & Jewish Uprising, both thrash bands. very indifferently nihilistic. when the two bands combined hence the name.

Because of the many names, people might not realize that they already have some of your music. It’s good to hear the music without tying it to some personality, but it’s also rewarding to listen while considering what might separate and also connect the work. Do you want the music to completely stand on its own, or do you see a place of balance between these two ways of listening?

both of those ideas are interesting & important. making the connection between a person & their art can be very powerful, as can anonymity, & both almost myth-like. If you respect & are moved by an individual you will see their art as “ashes,” extensions of what they leave behind. this type of person seems “whole” & their art & their movements seem the combined.

there is also the secret & intrigue of not knowing who the creator is & developing your own personnel image. this is the basis for curiosity towards art as obscure & hence some sort of disappoinment when you meet the person. I don’t think the music ever stands on its own though. nothing is that foreign or abstract. even the most foreign sounds I tend to like more because someone has created them. so even completely automated music for me is special because someone set the wheels in motion.

image: beyond/bunker

I was at the Bunker / Wierd / No Fun show in Brooklyn the other night [now a month or so ago], where you were on the bill with Silent Servant, Peter Van Hoesen, Carlos Giffoni, and others. How did that go for you? Any thoughts on any of the other performances?

I was very ill from so much drinking the previous night{s}. I only caught carlos, xeno & oaklander & a little bit of laurel halo which is a shame as I was really looking forward to a night of music. I thought they were all great but was mostly avoiding the main rooms because of the crowds. I had a nice time overall & was grateful the sound was so full.

A lot of people come to that Kosmische-related, synth-heavy sound from the world of electronic dance music, but then others, like you, seem to come to it from more of a noise/ambient-related background. I’m wondering what your experience of / connection with electronic dance music is / has been?

My attraction to techno is mostly technological. I love it for a number of reasons, at any given time. I’m obsessed with sound design created purely from synthesizer & electronic equipment. what appeals to me about techno is how fucking tight the arrangments can become & of course when dealing with minimal sound design your main focus is the detail of each moment or voice to be as beautiful as possible. so I’m highly attracted to that aspect of techno, the total attention to detail & subtlety. also the aesthetics are right up my alley. I don’t have much interest in creating music to dance to. that’s an entirely different position or dimension & my work is not there, though it’s just as important. unfortunately I don’t have the mind to make techno though I try once in awhile.

Your Rene Hell releases cover more ground than your show the other night in Brooklyn, which seemed more clearly focused around a specific method of composition/development for a shorter duration. I’m wondering if you can explain your concept for that performance and describe what you did on stage Thursday night. Also what gear do you use live?

I’ve been using the ms2000 & a modular system, frac format. I’m definitely thinking a lot about duration with the more recent live arrangements & presenting a specific environment, designing with sound. For live arrangements I prefer to focus on a singular image as opposed to presenting a whole array of images and sounds. Sticking to one idea throughout the performance makes for a clearer picture. I want to operate as effectively as I can when playing alone. part of the fascination with live music, within this current frame of mind, is knowing what to do as intuitively as possible. so with encouraging myself to progress through a piece more quickly I encourage some part of me to jump & decide where to go next without much time to consider. other times I want to get fucked up & rip a set as loudly as possible, so it’s very… unpredictable. I want to explore the idea of sound, especially when rich with texture, requiring longer windows of time to sink in & define itself {again, duration}. once it’s removed or transitioning you feel its power & how it was controlling you. But the pieces I’m playing with now are very simple. I write the melody on the piano & then process it through the system & use the digital synth for digging around FM territory. I’m interested in making contemporary music, as I see it. I have a deep love for piano music, in all it’s forms & I’m trying to incorporate that with all the other ideas I have for sound design, ambient texture, more abrasive electronic music, etc. however every night it’s different depending on the room, crowd, etc.

What are you working on now?

I’m doing a short west coast tour in late august & then relocating back in l.a. for a short period of time. there are plans for a UK/EU trip in oct & then I want to dedicate a large section of time towards recording a new LP. travel throughout summer & hoping to live in montreal next spring.

Selected Media:

Rene Hell – The Terminal Symphony by _type

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6 Responses to “Interview: Jeff Witscher aka Rene Hell”

  • april218 says:

    where can i find this guy’s work

  • Kami says:

    bored at work so I decided to check your site…..cool interview

  • Lorezno says:

    Great goods from you, man. Love your interviews.

  • Hiya, I loved reading your post. Thanks for the great info. Hoped that we will lengthen our friendship through a mutual hyperlink trade? Let me know, and respectable to see you here!

  • Anonymous says:

    good , very well written. I like it in deed.

  • Sac Hermes says:

    glad i found this

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