LWE Podcast 172: Svengalisghost

With the rise of the L.I.E.S. label over the last couple of years we have been exposed to a clutch of new producers. Hailing from Chicago, Marquis Cooper contributed his Mind Control EP to the label under the Svengalisghost handle in March of 2012, instantly piquing interest with his dystopian, noirish electronics. Having previously been working under the name Below Underground, Cooper changed to Svengalisghost after going through the producer’s nightmare of a hard disk failure resulting in the loss of all of his work. It also marked his transformation from a studio producer to a live performer; Cooper’s live PAs highlight his love of EBM and to this end typically feature his own vocals over the top of the brooding, grainy textures of his tracks. Little White Earbuds got on the phone with Cooper to talk about what informs his work, his many different musical projects, and why his music is designed to present you with an unflattering account of reality. He also provided us with our 172nd podcast, a thrilling and visceral live set from his recent appearance at Recyclart in Brussels for the Meakusa label night.

Download LWE Podcast 172: Svengalisghost (54:36)

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So why don’t you tell me a little bit about your musical education.

Marquis Cooper: Oh, well basically my father was a DJ. So I grew up hearing prog, the Salsoul, the Philly hustle disco, and, you know, coming up, I was also hearing these newer, like, cold wave and a lot of the synth pop that was coming from Europe. Stuff you were hearing in after-school parties, played by older kids who were going out to the Music Box and stuff like that. It was a mixture of the old funk and soul from my father and the kind of Italo disco, freestyle stuff that was being played on the radio and then later, of course, the house that was evolving, the acid house, the techno stuff that was coming from Detroit as well.

For you, at a young age, I know a lot of kids, they grow up and they think their parents are not very cool, but for you, did you realize that what your dad was doing was really cool?

Oh yeah, totally. I was always attracted to — because he would make mixes. He was kind of like a David Mancuso. He was really like a beat-matcher, but he would make mixes, and sometimes we would take road trips, and these mixes were being played, and I was always fascinated. Like, “Whoa!” It was always telling me a story. Even my friends were like, “Oh shit, your father!” Plus he was a stoner, so he had kind of cool points on that. He was a photographer too, so he was kind of a renaissance man. I looked at him like that — you know, self-taught photographer, self-taught painter. The DJing was just an extension of that for me, and he kind of got me into it. So I had my first set of decks when I was maybe 12. Yeah, I saw him as a cool cat, you know?

Yeah, yeah. So was it always in your blood, then, that you wanted to be a musician, or, you know, DJ and producer?

It’s weird because I kind of tripped into being a “musician.” I was DJing for a long time, and I had a couple friends who started buying gear. Because even as a kid, I never really questioned, “Oh man, where’s this music coming from? What machines?” It wasn’t until maybe after DJing for, like, 10 years that I started realizing, “Wow, there’s a possibility to actually kind of contribute to this music I’ve been listening to for the past 10 years.” So yeah, it was kind of an accident. I got a drum machine. I had a friend who had a 707, and then he had a DR-110 he wasn’t using, and I was just like, “Oh, let me play around with it.” When I started making music, it was just as a way for me to kind of keep from going crazy, and then also just to send to a friend because I wasn’t able to DJ as much anymore, due to my job. So it was just sending him tracks and then somebody heard something, and here we are talking now. It’s crazy. But it was never my intention to — “Oh, I’m going to make something so I can get released.”

So your one release that you’ve had out as Svengalisghost has been on L.I.E.S., but you were producing before that as well. You went under the name Below Underground.

Yeah, that was one of my first monikers. It was the same stuff like the stuff that came out on L.I.E.S. I stopped making music as Below Underground because I just — I lost all the music. I mean it’s a weird story; I lost all the music, and I got really depressed and I was like, “Well, I can’t revive all that shit that I was doing.” So I started Svengalisghost, and it was almost an allegorical theme, you know? Because I was always in the studio, and I had this idea of actually taking that security of the studio and bringing it to the live PA scene. So it was kind of like a change. I was thinking, “OK well, Below Underground was a studio-based producer and Svengalisghost is more like the performer.” So it was a slight transformation from just being a strict studio musician, doing edits where everything’s perfect in the studio, and then you can’t really reproduce it live, versus trying to make music live in one-take shots and just record it as if it was a live performance.

What significance does the name Svengalisghost hold for you?

Yeah, the story of Svengali — he’s a character from this novel Trilby from the turn of the century. He was kind of a soothsayer. His main thing was attaching himself to rich debutantes and then controlling them and having them give him money until they basically exhausted their resources, and then he would have them jump in the Seine. And so I saw this, and at the end of the story, he winds up — the control that he had over his final victim winds up killing him because she could never love him the way he wanted her to love him. It was always just basically him putting the thoughts in her head. And so I took that as, like, the control that you have in the studio when you’re producing and you have this opportunity to make everything perfect. You can go and edit it, but you can’t reproduce that live. So I took that as a allegorical term to say that as far as what I’m doing now, you don’t have the control. Svengali doesn’t have the control anymore. His ghost has kind of been reborn. He’s been reborn as a phantasm who realizes that sometimes it’s better to not have this hold over what you’re doing. Sometimes you can actually lose control and things can go even better. So that’s where Svengalisghost comes from.

That’s really cool.

I hope that made sense because —

Yeah, totally. It’s interesting to me that you can hear in some producers’ work, some things will just be like, “OK, you’ve just sort of copied an old record or something like that.” But then you can hear in certain producers that there’s a lot of influence coming from sort of non-musical-related art.

Oh, well yeah. I’m highly inspired by cinema, you know? I’m a lighting technician, I’ve done lighting, audio/visual stuff. Sometimes it’s not about listening to music. It could be about watching a movie or looking at some theater or something else that sparks — or reading a book and it’ll be like, “Oh man — ” Some of my lyrics, they come from either a movie or reading a novel or something along those lines. Sometimes I think about an actual scene that I want to try to create musically. Or, like, this kind of color: do I want to add a red hue to this song or do I want it more amber, you know? Yeah, so it’s varied sources of inspiration that kind of spark me off. And most recently, it’s also been the cities, being able to actually tour and get to know some cities. Sometimes I’m walking around and I’m like, “Oh, I have to do something based upon a city that I’m in.” I was doing that last tour. I would perform a set — you know, say, in Glasgow — and then the next set is in Paris, and I get to Paris and I’m like, “This set really doesn’t suit the city.” So I would go an redo, maybe, my whole set. Maybe eight songs or something, maybe even just revise three or four of them, depending. But I’m a highly sensitive person so it could happen anywhere, you know?

The music that you perform in your live PAs is a lot closer to new beat or EBM than the house music that you’ve released for L.I.E.S. Is that sound more your musical background than house music?

Yeah, I guess. Like I said, it was a total mélange. Growing up in Chicago in the early — like, late 80s, early 90s, you were exposed to so many different types of music. Especially a lot of the EBM stuff that was coming in with the Italo and this industrial stuff, Front 242 and all this heavier music. That definitely, to me, was some of the earlier inspirations for some of the earlier house producers. So I kind of harken back to that, and subconsciously, I think — it’s something that resonates subconsciously. I don’t think about it. It’s not in the forefront, but it’s just something that’s just integrated into my whole musical background. If you’re born in a certain place, it’s something that’s innately part of you, you know? For the live PA it’s a little bit different than making a beat track for release because I kind of think you can engage the crowd more, especially with vocals and stuff like that. It’s kind of harder to make — do a show with house tracks and then try to do vocals. So sometimes it’s a trade. Recently I’ve been trying to merge the two. Maybe sort of start off a set with more industrial, EBM stuff and then kind of go into housier stuff later on. Just so people don’t get tired of hearing me say stuff, you know?

Are we going to get to hear some of that stuff on records?

Oh yeah. In April there was a new three-track EP — the Vicious Circle EP, and that’s a mixture of kind of what Ron [Morelli] is calling “anti-beat.” Basically these are tracks that aren’t really easy for DJs to blend. As a DJ myself I kind of appreciate some kind of a challenge, you know? And listening to the current fare, a lot of it is just so [beatboxes a house beat]. It’s too easy, and it’s too — the formulaic trend of kick, hi-hat, snare. So basically it’s a mixture of this kind of weird track called “High Heel Sleaze,” then a vocal track called “Judged By Machine,” which is more along those EBM, industrial lines, and then it’s also a track that’s kind of more housier. I guess I’m doing an LP format as well, so it’s kind of a way to kind of showcase the three different styles, supposedly. I’m still wondering, that’s the one thing — a lot of tracks now, you don’t really have people kind of doing this more industrial-style vocal delivery. It’s either kind of flowery, housey or a little bit more repetitive as far as just a sample. So that’s the curious experiment — it’s where I wanted to step in and say, “Well, let’s see if we can do kind of a — ” like I said, harken back to this early period of dance music. But at the same time, bring it to current context. So I’m excited to see how it goes.

So any sort of direction yet with the album? Is that you wanting to explore all the different facets of what you do, or is it going to be more along one line?

Yeah, totally. It’s also a way for me to use the machines that I have in a different way. I have a couple tracks where it’s just more ambience, and I’m also working on maybe two other projects with some friends. I have another project where I’m just mainly making the beats and a friend of mine is doing the vocal and playing some synth stuff. It’s called Shadowlust; I think it may come out on L.I.E.S. But yeah, that’s with my friend Lily [Schulder]. And she’s been making music for about eight, 10 years — 10-plus years — under her moniker 51717. I mean that’s also another avenue because I don’t want to get pigeonholed and, like — oh, I can only do Svengalisghost or I can only do this kind of music, and that’s why I really appreciate a label like L.I.E.S., because you have free rein. It’s really no limits in what you can give Ron. If it’s good, if it’s something progressive, he’s ready with open ears, ready to have it, you know?

So can you see yourself releasing your own projects under different names as well, or will everything be as — ?

Oh yeah. I still have the Crowd Control moniker and the Mystery School alias, as well. If I find another label that’s conducive to these other aliases, then yeah. I’ve had a couple offers, and I’m still trying to weigh it out, but I’m really patient because, like I said, this was something that really wasn’t sought after. So for me, it’s still a matter of just taking my time and really enjoying it in the present. Not really thinking about, “OK, a year later….” Just kind of taking it a step at a time, an EP here, another EP, and maybe towards the end of the year, an LP. And we’ll see about the other monikers. Who knows, I could just become a total L.I.E.S. groupie. But maybe I’ll spread out and put them on a couple other labels that I really like.

Speaking of L.I.E.S., although there’s an edginess to a lot of the stuff released on L.I.E.S., the material you perform live is plainly aggressive and lyrically violent. Where does that desire to transmit aggression through your music come from?

Well, because I don’t want to give people a chance to be bored, you know? So it’s like by actually having these kind of suggestive lyrics or a little bit based in a slasher vibe, it kind of keeps people on the edge. For a long time I was just watching a lot of grindhouse movies. Last year I just found a site, and it just had all the movies that I had read about from the sleaze factory of 42nd Street. Back in the days, these were movies that like, “Whoa!” They were titillating; it was something about them that made you want to watch. Even though it may have been more of a lurid story, there was something that drew you in. Even watching a [Alejandro] Jodorowsky movie, watching, like, “Holy Mountain” and the scene with him and the alchemists, I was able to pull lyrics out of that scene. And that’s my impetus to really to confront the crowd. I feel like a lot of people who do live PAs, it’s kind of a real docile. They’re looking down at their machines, they’re very timid, it’s not really a lot of crowd — you know, they tend not to look at the crowd. “Let me just keep my eyes on the machines.”

I want to be the antithesis of that. I want to make something that’s — “Damn, this is — ” these lyrics, it’s not politically correct, maybe, but it harkens back to kind of this darker era, I think, when things were a little bit more risque; they were a little bit more dangerous. At the same time, a little bit more experimental. You could assume this persona through the lyrics. It’s not like I’m a real violent person, but sometimes it’s good to wear the mask. And I think that’s one thing that being a performer gives you the ability to step into this myriad of characters. I think that’s what I do when I perform — I just become this character, like the Night Walker, or talking about market democracy. How we’ve all been made into these little small machines; like Marshall McLuhan said, we’re just pieces of software now. Something programmed. So some of them have a context of a lurid edge, but then some of them have this more dystopic edge. I think that’s pretty much the main focus, is a certain feeling that we do live in a failed utopian society. We tend to fantasize that it’s a utopia, but in all realities, it’s as dystopic as we can ever imagine it.

I was just thinking, like, a lot of music you hear these days doesn’t really reflect that so much; it tries to cover it up instead and pretend that we are living in some sort of utopia.

Yeah, it’s good to have the dream, but let’s embrace the reality, you know? And we look around, and this world we live in has it’s benefits, but the underlying current is there’s a very ominous undercurrent that’s going on underneath the society we live in. So it’s just trying to tap into that and trying to get people to really enjoy that.

In another interview you’ve expressed the desire to reach the future of Chicago house. What’s your vision of where you can take it?

Well, when people say Chicago house is the jack — you know, some of the earlier producers were really pushing it, as far as the experimental, “What could music become?” And I always use this reference, it’s like today what would be our acid of today? We forget that [DJ] Pierre and Spanky and these guys had their minds opened up and were able to listen to this weird sound and say, “This could actually be something musical.” So for me, it’s like I’m looking for — I’m trying not to use the same machines as they were using in the past, but I’m looking for the next — what’s the next acid? Because when I make music, if it sounds weird to me, then I know I’m on the right path. If it sounds alien to me, I know I’m on the right path.

So I want to see people move beyond what’s the classic jack formula. Retain the historical elements, but future sounds — everything that’s acid doesn’t have to be Chicago. You don’t have to have a 303 to be Chicago jack. It doesn’t have to use the 707. And that’s the whole thing — some people say, “Oh yeah, it’s not really jack. You’re using more 808 and stuff like that,” which historically wasn’t a big thing in Chicago, that’s more identified with Detroit. For me, I would like to see more Hieroglyphic Beings, more Melvin Oliphants, you know? And I want to see this kind of fetishizing of classic Chicago music be kind of obliterated. I would like to see it become something new, create a new voice. I try to continually push the levels of, like, what could be the next acid.

Wanting to do that — to push forward — do you also consider the crowd and taking them there — you know, giving them something that’s going to freak them out a little bit, but doing it in a familiar way? To not push them too far out of their comfort zone.

Well, yeah. I mean it should also be about seduction at the same time, you know? It’s a way to seduce a crowd. As a DJ, I think that’s where I get that understanding of, you have to be the Pied Piper and kind of be that Svengali of being able to lure people in. And once they’re lured in, then you can push the boundaries a little bit more. But first it’s about seduction. Like, I think having an EP that maybe, it’s a slightly familiar track, and then a little something a little further from the knowledge base, and then finally something that’s completely filthy. Once they’ve been totally immersed and had their senses recalibrated, then you can introduce this new language. And through seduction, you can recalibrate their understanding of what it is — melody or arrangement. You can recalibrate their understanding and then you can introduce this whole other dynamic.

So yeah, I think that’s a very good point — if you’re too abrasive, then you scare people. And I mean a little fear is good, but it needs to be slowly introduced. I’ve been looking at current trends, and you see how slowly people are starting to open up to this kind of more leftfield version of house. I played a Steve Summers release on Confused House, which is — it’s a non-linear track. The arrangement is a three-kick drum beat with a kind of stutter clap. So it’s really confusing to the crowd — they don’t know what to do, but if you play it later in the night after you’ve kind of seduced them, then it’s kind of like, “Oh, wow.” So it’s about placement of the tracks, too. So as a producer, I think about that, too. “When would someone want to play this? Could it played at the beginning of their set, or is something you slide in after you’ve just pummeled their senses,” you know? It’s all these different ways of thinking about it, but first and foremost as a producer, even if the track evolves in a way that seduces the listener. Like maybe the first couple measures are familiar and leads them into more of a darker state, and when it’s finally over, they’re just completely dumbfounded.

Kind of lure them in and then just pummel them.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s the whole Svengali aspect: the seducer. This guy will get you to give him all his money and tell you to go jump in a river, you know?

Brilliant. I know you’ve kind of mentioned a couple of things that you’ve got coming up, but what can we expect from you over the next year?

Hopefully a Shadowlust EP on L.I.E.S. I’m definitely trying to get my profile as a DJ back up, so hopefully more DJ gigs. Another — well, two EPs coming out on L.I.E.S., possibly an LP towards the ending of the year, beginning of next year. Another tour after this one ends, possibly doing some videos for my songs. I’m trying to become a little bit more diversified with what I do, as far as the music — maybe try to extend that into some more multimedia thing. Maybe, hopefully, scoring a movie. I would love to do that. Doing some short videos, or short films.

Hakim  on August 12, 2013 at 5:06 AM

Yeah Marquis!

bill ambrose  on August 12, 2013 at 6:55 AM

Broken link on the download ?
Is there a track listing anywhere ?

Doug Brennan  on August 12, 2013 at 8:31 AM

Totally on point with his approach to his work. Great interview, great piece!

jamie cansdale  on August 12, 2013 at 9:08 AM

404 error when I try to play or download the mix :(

littlewhiteearbuds  on August 12, 2013 at 9:14 AM

The download link has been corrected. There will not be a tracklist posted since this was a live PA.

Amir Alexander  on August 12, 2013 at 9:21 AM

What an interesting read. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Marquis in Paris at Concrete and I was struck by his energy and enthusiasm. It always brings a smile to my face when I encounter a true artist realizing their vision as this brilliant brother is most definitely doing. Respect to you!
Keep up the ultra interesting and inspiring work my Friend….
See you 4 weeks from now in Paris at Concrete (again).
This time the drinks are on me ;).

Alex  on August 12, 2013 at 11:09 AM

This podcast was a breath of fresh air.

pablo/beaner  on August 12, 2013 at 11:57 AM

hell yeah, marquis! great fucking interview.

D Smith  on August 12, 2013 at 12:28 PM

Keep it crazy!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

B Wizzle  on August 13, 2013 at 1:50 PM

“I want to see people move beyond what’s the classic jack formula. Retain the historical elements, but future sounds — everything that’s acid doesn’t have to be Chicago. You don’t have to have a 303 to be Chicago jack. It doesn’t have to use the 707…I would like to see more Hieroglyphic Beings, more Melvin Oliphants, you know? And I want to see this kind of fetishizing of classic Chicago music be kind of obliterated. I would like to see it become something new, create a new voice.”

Great statement, all this throwback sh*t is tired, some good but a lot of it is way overdone, ie Simoncino

B Wizzle  on August 13, 2013 at 2:00 PM

FYI: I have some Simoncino

specter  on August 14, 2013 at 12:45 PM

Excellent read, ill never forget when i gave him a ride home from a gig once. We were both lit and just driving around “yo where we at? marquis “i dont know, but lets bump this track and ride” haahaahha!

Ae  on August 14, 2013 at 1:03 PM

I haven’t seen Marquis in person in years! Anybody got an email address? Would love to holler at an old friend! Thx

littlewhiteearbuds  on August 14, 2013 at 1:08 PM

Andrew, can I recommend hitting him up on FB instead? https://www.facebook.com/svengalisghost.lives

kuri  on August 14, 2013 at 4:17 PM

Marquis tears it up, love his energy and very cool dude.

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Svengalisghost – LWE Podcast 172 | The Hipodrome Of Music  on August 13, 2013 at 4:17 AM

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