Noise Education

A conversation with Cevdet Erek

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Cevdet Erek is perhaps best known outside Turkey as an artist and as the author of an artist’s book, SSS: Shore Scene Soundtrack, which his publisher has described as “a very personal subjective manual for imitating the sound of the sea by rubbing a carpet.” But he also handles drums and electronics for one of Turkey’s most engaging contemporary rock bands, Nekropsi. Their most recent release, a self-titled 2007 compilation of demos, dubs, and unreleased material has the heft and angularity of a Chicago post-punk record, with intricate yet spasmodic rhythms, satisfyingly circular bass lines, Turkish instruments, and an array of found sounds and voices, in Turkish and German. (“Papa,” a disarmingly catchy song about Pope Benedict, might have been written by the B-52s.) Disbanded in 2001, Nekropsi reunited for a one-off installation at the opening of the 2007 Istanbul Biennial, and they have been performing more or less monthly ever since.

Michael Vazquez: How’d you get into music? Were you in bands before Nekropsi?

Cevdet Erek: No, we started in high school, actually, making speed, thrash.

MV: Nekropsi does seem more like a metal name.

CE: Yeah. If you look at the cover of the demo we made the year we graduated from high school, we had a different logo. And the old way of writing the name: Nekropsy. [Laughter]

MV: Did you design the cover?

CE: Yes. Actually the cover of the demo has a similar approach to the cover of SSS, come to think of it.

MV: Did the demo get any attention?

CE: Yeah, in fact. There were these lovely old record companies in the IMC building where you could go and reproduce, like, one hundred cassettes, and then there were four or five shops in Istanbul where it was for sale. But the best thing was, we put ads in a couple of magazines. People from anywhere in Turkey would put 1000 lira into an envelope, and we would send them a cassette. We sold, like nine hundred copies in three months. I just met a guy who came up to me after our last show and told me, “I have the original cassette.” Almost twenty years later!

MV: Wait, so how did you get into thrash music in the first place?

CE: For me it started like this. It would sound super-typical nowadays, but the first tape I owned was Thriller. My father took me to a big fair at the Sports and Exhibition Palace for New Year’s or something. So we were just going around, and there were all these advertisements for Thriller, and I had to have it. I was eight or nine. And then there were two friends of mine — we started making playback sessions of Thriller at home. We didn’t have any instruments or anything, so we used plastic guitars and an ironing board and stuff.

MV: That’s beautiful.

CE: I had these plastic bowling pins, and I would hit them on the ironing board. Actually that song “Erciyes ćokta” from our last CD is based on “Billie Jean,” you know?

MV: I had no idea!

CE: So, there was a magazine, Hey, for popular music. It was for youngsters, and it was the connection between global pop music and Turkish pop. But then they would have two pages of metal bands. So slowly I was getting interested in hard rock. And then, in a certain year, there was a radio program, and I recorded three songs onto a cassette. [Laughs] Two songs from Overkill. One is called “You Deny the Cross.” [MV laughs, CE sings] And another one, monumental, from a German thrash band called Destruction. The song was “Mad Butcher.”

MV: That’s a very “college radio” moment.

CE: Yeah, but we didn’t have college radio then. There was just the government-run TRT, Turkish Radio and Television. There was a news channel and then the FM, which mostly played Turkish music and jazz and blah-blah. But lots of clever guys had programs on TRT. They weren’t doing, you know, separatist communist Kurdish stuff or anything — it wasn’t dangerous, really — but there were a few guys who knew a lot about hard rock and roll music in English. So you would know that on Wednesday nights, this one guy has a show and you are guaranteed one hour of strange music. Not just metal. There were a lot of big moments like that, though.

MV: Lots of epiphanies?

CE: Yeah. Like, twenty or thirty of them, when you were a kid. Like that film Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii. Have you seen that?

MV: [Laughs] No.

CE: Write that down, it’s a good one. Pink Floyd playing live, without any audience, in the ruins of Pompeii. It’s from right after Syd Barrett left and before Dark Side of the Moon, so for me it’s the best time for Pink Floyd.

MV: Thank you!

CE: But the other thing was the cassette guys. In Istanbul there were four or five of them — one in front of the mosque just 100 meters from where we lived. You would go there and he would have some cassettes that he’d recorded, with the name written on the side, and you could order tapes that he didn’t have, too. So I just started buying stuff. Once I had the poison in the blood, I looked for anything different, anything “anti.” Mostly stuff from outside of Turkey — heavy metal, classics, speed, trash, grind, noise, punk. But also old Turkish stuff from the seventies.

MV: Like, old psych records?

CE: If I could find them, yeah. Stuff from before 1980, before the coup. We were interested in guys like Moćollar, Erkin Koray. And Erkin Koray was [laughs] hanging around, making solo concerts with guitar and keyboards. Everything always went together. You know, Turkey is a small country, so even if you really wanted to specialize in one kind of music, there are other things going on in the same scene, with the same people. Anyway, I would buy the tapes and go home and then design logos for them. If I could find the original logo in Metal Hammer or Kerrang! or Hey, I’d use that, but otherwise I’d make something up. The crazy thing was that somehow, I was not alone. There were hundreds of people just like me, into this thrash thing. So you would go to a concert and it would be, like, three thousand people or something. Mostly Turkish bands, because nobody would come to Turkey.

MV: So, how did you start playing?

CE: I mean, I really wanted to play guitar. But it just didn’t happen — my family didn’t support the idea. So I bought two sticks. And I started to play drums… in the air? Like air guitar. You know, you’d put in a cassette — I don’t know, anything… Napalm Death — and you start to imitate as good as possible.

MV: Ha!

CE: And it worked, I think. So that’s how I started playing. But you know, I always loved the idea of making songs, making logos, making T-shirts. The idea of publication, reproduction. And also, actually, propaganda.

MV: There’s a pretty radical break between the music on that demo and the music on your first record, Mi Kubbesi. And between the look of the two — a new logo, a new spelling of the name. All the song titles are in Turkish. And there are, you know, no lyrics. What happened?

CE: So, it all happened gradually. After high school and that demo, we played thrash for a while, and started at architecture school. And there was some turnover in the band. You know these comic magazines we have in Turkey? I think it was Hibir.

MV: The sort of R. Crumb–style underground comics magazines, with the politics?

CE: Yeah. There’s a guy you have to know — Aptullica — who had a small vertical comic strip where he would announce concerts. So I called him up and said, our guitarist is moving to America, we need to find a new one. And he put that in his strip.

MV: And that’s how you found your new guitarist?

CE: I met this guy, Tolga. One night we had a long talk, all night long, about instrumental music. About music that has never been heard before. Which could take you to somewhere else, which could be conceptual. You remember Voivod? That was the first time I’d ever talked about Voivod with anyone; we were both really into Dimension Hatröss. And Tolga was really into industrial stuff, like Godflesh, and progressive technothrash, like Mekong Delta. So we said, let’s experiment. After we started playing, I realized we were totally going somewhere else, very different from thrash metal. The first thing we did was cancel the distortion.

MV: Which is huge.

CE: That was a firm decision. And no guitar solos. One of the moments of real drastic change came after I heard Napalm Death’s From Enslavement to Obliteration. It was the next step after death metal — super-noisy and super-fast, super-dark.

MV: One thing about instrumental music is that, in a kind of psychedelic way, it’s more open —

CE: It’s for everybody.

MV: But then the — Turkification? — of the name and the song titles and stuff — how did that fit in? Was that part of the same late-night conversation?

CE: No, it was kind of a curiosity. Research. Even back in the Speed Lessons period — again, as kids — we were also playing Turkish instruments. Actually, I was playing the zarb, a Persian drum, so that was another channel. But of course the thrash-metal thing was the translation of an energy we needed at that time, you know like chgg-chgg-chgg-chgg. It seemed very natural to make it in English. German thrash bands had English lyrics, and Sepultura in Brazil, also. So we didn’t think of it as a question, we just did it. As we started to experiment, what we really ended up questioning was not language, but words. Meaning. The expression we ended up pursuing used the voice as just another sound you could produce. No narrative expression, just the title, which was a kind of code. We just started to imagine a music we could put anything into: Middle Eastern elements, noise, sound recordings, talking. But no jamming — we were totally against that. We were interested in experimentation in form.

MV: Were there other bands doing similar things at the time?

CE: Not really. We kind of exploded as a new sound. You know Taksim, right? This was the time that all these rock bars were opening in Taksim. Peyote was the first, I think. It was the big time for American indie stuff, and the rock bars would only allow you to play covers.

MV: Like, grunge stuff?

CE: Yeah, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, some glam rock. So, we made the decision not to play in bars. We were all still at university then, and we had an anti-authoritarian, anti-commercial consciousness — we would never make a video clip for Turkish television, and we would barely have a photo. But we still somehow got a very big response.

MV: This is about the time of your first full-length, right? You were at architecture school?

CE: Yeah, when we made Mi Kubbesi, in 1995, it was my third year. We made that record during summer break. I was actually there for seven years, and I was working in an architectural office for the last two. Nekropsi was never a full-time band. We all went on studying and working at the same time.

MV: Were you guys very political? The mid-1990s was a pretty intense time in Turkey, right?

CE: It was a strange time, a very dark time for all of us. It was depressing for young people, especially in universities — lots of confused people in a dark city. We didn’t have so many yellow and salmon-colored buildings like now. [Laughs] So we had lots of… dark people, confused, wearing dark stuff. Dark, hairy faces, long hair. Protest culture. The band had a really anti-authoritarian stance, so we were mostly sharing ideas with anarchists at university. And that came out in the performances for a while. We would play the concert and then comment on something that was going on. I was the one trying to push us to get more involved, actually. But the other guys — one of them was really anti-social, and the other guy was super-soft, a very patient guy, and together they were like, “Hey man, take it easy.” After that we really became a much more musical band. In 1998 we recorded a demo for a French music festival, and actually started recording a proper album in France; the first song from Nekropsi, our second album, is from that session. We had really great experimentation then, a great sound also. But most of that material did not come out at the time. We were in France when the earthquake happened in 1999, and we rushed back to Turkey. And that was the beginning of the end for us, too; it just became impossible to go on with the band. We broke up and everybody started doing their own thing. I got really into beats and electronics and field recordings, noise stuff. And then I went back to school again, at this new sound program they were starting at Istanbul Technical University, the Center for Advanced Studies in Music, which is how I became a sound engineer.

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MV: Wait, so how did you become an artist? I mean — you know what I mean.

CE: It happened at about the same time. [Laughs] I was a sound engineer for Turkey’s Eurovision entries at the same time that I was doing my first installation as a contemporary artist.

MV: Was it something you did self-consciously?

CE: No. I mean, I’d always had this strange thing going on, where you have a gig one night, and then you’re back in the office the next day. There were two timelines going on at the same time. At one point, I was in the architectural office — I was the second responsible architect on this big urban site in Eskićehir — and I received a phone call, and they were like, “Hey man, you’re the drummer of Nekropsi, right? Can you guys open for Page and Plant?” And I said, “Who?” And he was like, “Page and Plant. From Led Zeppelin.” They had been given, like, forty cassettes to listen to, and they chose us. It was great, but it was super-confusing.

MV: Didn’t you open for Ruins, too? The Japanese noise band?

CE: Yeah. We were always able to get respect from all kinds of people — and also able to make all kinds of people say, “What?” Even now — just last month we opened for your countrymen, Faith No More.

MV: Sorry, so how did your first installation come about?

CE: Well, as I was saying, I got really into making recordings. I was always going around the university, which is a very old, very interesting building — it was an arsenal in the Ottoman days — making an archive of images and sounds. And then something big happened again. I met Fulya Erdemci, one of the critical personalities in art here in Turkey. She was working on a project called ‘Pedestrian Exhibitions.’ Someone at my school called me and said, “We’re going to bring you to this curator, we told her she needs to talk to you.” And I got a commission. I got together with a friend, a really good video-maker, younger than me, and we spent all summer in a very strange courtyard at the school, recording.

MV: Was there music, or was it the ambient sound of the courtyard itself?

CE: No music. No effects on the sounds, except collage. And video collages made by combining frames from different times. Then we made the installation in an old chemistry laboratory that had been locked up for fifteen years, just off the courtyard. And I was thrilled. It was far beyond what I had imagined possible.

MV: You mean how happy you were with it, or how excited other people were?

CE: I was shocked. I was even frightened because of the effect of it, the strength. It was not what I wanted exactly — it was more than that. And then I started getting phone calls from all kinds of curators, who were like, “Who are you? Did you study abroad and come back to Turkey? What else do you have?” And so suddenly I was in the art world.

MV: And then Nekropsi came back, too?

CE: Yeah. At first, just as a project to release a record. We never released anything official after 1995, and there was so much unreleased material. So we got together for a week in 2005 and did the overdubs, and then we went to work on editing it all together with really great equipment at the university. That came out in 2007, finally, which is the same year we did a performance for the Istanbul Biennial. It was at Platform Garanti — each of the four of us was playing on a different floor of the building, so if you were on the top floor, with me, all you heard was these very electronic-seeming drums. And on the next floor there was a very melodic guitar line. And so on. But if you were outside, on the patio, you heard all four channels, so it formed a song. It went really well, again, and after that… we just started doing gigs again.