Artist Interview: Mensa Group International
Active since 2012, Mensa Group International is a group of artists who produce music inspired by the aesthetics and techniques of vaporwave and plunderphonics music. In their long tenure, the group has amassed an impressive roster of collaborations, solo-group works, and compilation appearances. These include a debut release featuring a split with luxury elite called Atlas of Fictional Countries / Customer Service, a collaboration with futurevisions/ambient vaporwave pioneer Amun Dragoon called Fjords, Vol. II, and a spot on the E95 2k16 Sampler II from Elemental 95 that was released at the beginning of 2017. With an eclectic blend of artistry, influences, and views on the music industry, it was only natural that Mensa Group International piqued our interest!
S: “Mensa Group International” is a pretty evocative name. What’s the story behind that?
M: One of us might be a Mensan.
S: You guys have been making music for quite a while in the world of vaporwave! What stories do you have from starting out almost half a decade ago?
M: It was way different back then. It’s crazy how quickly everything changes! And we’ll say this: people were more into collaborating back than they are nowadays. That’s pretty much it.
S: What collaborations had y’all been a part back in the day? What advice do you have for those who are interested in collaborating with other artists within the scene?
M: We were set to collaborate with Infinity Frequencies, Amun Dragoon, Diskette Romances & ROMCOM. Obviously only a few of those collaborations ever saw the light of day. As for advice? Really, just reach out to other artists you admire. Some may be receptive; others, not so much. But you don’t know until you ask.
S: You all have been featured on several high-profile labels through your run so far. What processes did you go through to release through them?
M: A lot of vaporwave-ians (is that a thing?) try and ride on the coattails of other artists. They attempt to emulate or replicate a particular sound because that artist made it popular. That’s cool and all, but how many MACINTOSH PLUS and luxury elite clones do we really need? We’re not very successful or ultra well-known either, within the confines of the vaporwave community, because we don’t really abide to a lot of the restrictions or “rules”. We only release albums every couple of months (or years) and don’t really produce too many tracks for compilations. We’re also not too big into promoting or creating videos. We actually do none of that. Anything you see on Youtube or anywhere else without music is not us! All we do is create tracks and reach out to labels. We keep it neat and basic. It’s something as simple as, “Hey, would you be interested in releasing our tracks?” We do spend a very long time making sure our new material caters to the particular style and brand of a label. Or rather, we make what we want to make, and then make sure that we aren’t sending music that doesn’t totally jive with the label we are interested in working with.
S: Which of these “rules” do you believe should be broken – if that’s even the right question to have?
M: It’s not like there is a book out there with the “rules” lined out. What we meant by this was more, don’t pigeon-hole yourself because you feel you have to cater to some particular type of aesthetic or sound or brand. These days, the music we are making is less and less vaporwave-ish, really, but since our roots are in vaporwave, there will always be some aspect of vaporwave in our music.
S: How was working with luxury elite on the Atlas of Fictional Islands / Customer Service split way back in 2012?
M: Mega fun! We each did our own thing, no restrictions, and we each designed our own cover as well. It was all pretty fluid and organic and we worked very quickly. Notice, this was before luxury elite was luxury elite. There was a lot more free time to get things done! We haven’t spoken to luxury elite since around that release. She’s been super busy doing big things! We’re not sure how we stumbled upon luxury elite, to be honest, but this was back when it wasn’t very easy to find other vaporwave artists either. We reached out and she was very eager to work with us. We chose Ailanthus Recordings because they seemed the most chill at the time and again, there wasn’t too much else to pick from. But we’re glad, we don’t regret it. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
S: The Fjords series has been running for several years now – are there plans to continue the series through 2017 and beyond?
M: There are plans, yes. We might be on hiatus for 2017 though, as far as releases. We’ll still be posting to our Soundcloud, regularly, but an album proper? We’ve slowed down a bit with time. We’ve become perfectionists.
S: What is the concept behind Fjords?
M: We’re super into the book Fjords Vol. I by Zachary Schomburg, and since he has yet to release any other volumes, we thought we might contribute to the saga (un)officially.
S: What of Zachary Schomburg’s books and/or ethics in particular influenced the creation of the Fjords albums?
M: Not much, really. We simply like his literature and then that’s it. Everything else about our release has very little to do with the book or Zachary Schomburg the person. We almost met him once. He was supposed to do a reading in our area, but then he never showed.
S: What compositional techniques do you consider when creating albums? Are there themes, ideas, or concepts that you are interested in exploring in particular?
M: We try and do something new and different each time we record. What’s the point of doing the same thing more than once? Sort of counter-intuitive when it comes to vaporwave, right? No one likes to do the same thing for too long tho. At the same time, we are discovering that perhaps, within the vaporwave community, being predictable usually works in the favor of the artist. We’ve realized that vaporwave, as a genre, is really made for hour-long mixes you’ll find on Soundcloud and Youtube and Mixcloud. You can play 55 tracks that are 1 minute each, and they all sound very similar. For a mix, this is great, as it’s super cohesive and translates to ultra easy listening. But when you’re an artist, you want to try and work within the limitations and see how far you can go with that, and that’s what we try and do. We focus on the sound, the visuals, and the track titles. But maybe it all goes unnoticed, we don’t know. We’re very interested in breaking the mold, being cohesive and remaining unpredictable.
S: The FJORDS album released in December 2016 on Elemental 95 is cyberpunk as all hell, reminding me of “Computer” by 骨架的 from Holograms and even some early INTERNET CLUB albums, but with that faint bit of dust that gives the album a lo-fi feeling. What all went on in the creation and composition of this album?
M: This album took us over 2 years to make! There are sooooo many tracks no one will ever get to hear because they did not fit with the overall album theme. The cover photo, we took that too! We had 5 of the 6 tracks done and knew we needed one more. We were walking through Central Park one evening (around 4 or 5 PM) and it had just rained a little, so the sun was coming back out and there was still wet-ness in the air. We were busy trying to not get run over by the horse-drawn carriages & rando tourists when out of nowhere it seems like, we saw these clouds and a skyscraper and we knew, right then and there: this was going to be the album cover. It was so inspirational we created FJORDS VI the following week!
S: Have you guys thought of putting together some of those unreleased tracks in a compilation album of some sorts? Also, as someone who once lived in Manhattan, I can echo the wonder of wandering through Central Park in the rain. It’s like a city version of the Norwegian “trolsk”. [editor’s note: I have since been informed by a real-life Norwegian that “trolsk” isn’t the word to describe this, as it’s specifically referring to nature rather than human constructs. Thanks for the note, R0x4ry!
M: No. What we’ll do sometimes, is listen to the hundreds of unreleased tracks we have and then if we feel they might vibe with the current album we are working on, we will re-record them, with different instruments or in a different tempo, what-have-you. We’ll practice it a little bit and then we will record all of it in one take. We feel the track feels more organic and “real” when we record this way. You could spend the rest of your life tinkering away on one track, never to release it, or you could like one track enough to try it out a few times and then record it. Sometimes we’ll make a few mistakes during the recording but we’re alright with that. You’d think, with the way we work, we’d release 20 tracks every week. We might record that many tracks every week, but also, we’re too picky. These days though, we aren’t recording as much.
S: Am I crazy, or do I hear live instrumentation on some of your releases?
M: Yes. All of FJORDS was made using live recorded instruments. There’s a ton of Kilpatrick Audio Phenol sounds in there, along with Prophet ’08 machinations and then a few cheap keyboards and such sprinkled about. A few of our other release also, feature live instrumentation, namely MENSA GROUP INTERNATIONAL, EP, HYPE WILLIAMS & MONOLITH, and FJORDS, VOL. II (w/ AMUN DRAGOON). We’re trying to do more of that now.
S: Track titles such as “The Oregon Trail is the Oregon Trail” and “Stanley Parable” reference video games old and new – and ones that are rather known for their sardonic take on video game narratives. Do video games inspire your thoughts or methods of producing music?
M: For sure. Everything! Film, other music, books (clearly) — it all influences our music. We spend more time reading books and watching films, probably, than making music these days. But that’s okay. We’re conducting research!
S: In addition to video games, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, and Ryan Gosling all have direct shout-outs as well. What’s the concept there?
M: We’re big fans and we like to pay tribute/homage sometimes.
S: What’s the process behind choosing artwork for albums? Your self-titled album released on Crystal Magic Records stands out in particular, as does Fjords, Vol. II with Amun Dragoon.
M: Artwork is sacred to us. And we love designed and drawing as well, but we looooove to collaborate whenever we can and sometimes we’ll come across pieces that perfectly illustrate the sound of our tracks. 1/3 of our creation process, truthfully, usually involves the visual aspect of our album. We feel that what’s on the cover will heavily impact how the listener is going to experience our music.
S: What are the plans for the future?
M: We want to make more music. But also, it must be said, Mensa Group International is a side-project (and might always stay a side-project?). We are involved in several other ventures. One of us makes music pretty regularly. Another one is a writer. And don’t forget, we also really like to watch films and read, so that takes up time too. Then there’s real life that gets in the way. Ideally, we would love to collaborate with someone and release some sort of EP. (If you’re interested, send us a message via Soundcloud —
we’re usually pretty quick to respond)!
S: Within what other ventures are you all active?
M: Other than what we have already mentioned, without getting into too many specifics, within our own local community, we are involved with a committee or two and spend time with people we know. One of us is still active with the writing thing. And the other, not so much with the music thing anymore. Let’s call it a hiatus/sabbatical, for now.
S: Any albums in particular with artwork that you find to be evocative, either with regards to the music therein or standing on their own as solid works?
M: This changes all of the time, but right now, off the top of our heads, the five albums we can think of that have stellar artwork that can stand on their own:
- Nightlands – I Can Feel the Night Around Me
- Prince – Prince
- Frank Ocean – Blond
- Destroyer – Poison Season
- Porches – Pool
Also — anything by Lana Del Ray
S: Any artists or labels to whom you are listening now that you’d recommend people check out?
M: Yes! We’ve only just begun listening to the Mountain Goats (John Darnielle, who pretty much makes up the entire band just released his second book, Universal Harvester and it’s really good–that’s the only reason we know about the Mountain Goats). We also really really dig Unknown Mortal Orchestra. Prince’s music is now streamable, so we’ve been jamming to a ton of that via Apple Music. We also adore Machine Go Boom (and no one has ever heard of them — we’ve been adoring them for over a decade). We keep coming back to Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie & Lowell every two or three months. And we’ll never grow tired of Destroyer.
S: I’ll echo The Mountain Goats as well! Tallahassee is a hell of a release. I definitely appreciated Carrie & Lowell by Sufjan Stevens as well; “Death with Dignity” is like “Dream House” by Deafheaven in being one of the best album openers of recent memory. Along those lines, are there non-vaporwave or non-electronic artists that influence y’all’s style or ethic toward art?
M: Other artists we supremely admire:
- R. Kelly
- Hype Williams
- Mac DeMarco
Mensa Group International has uploaded much of their previous work to their Soundcloud channel, which may be accessed here. Below is FJORDS, out on Elemental 95, which is the newest release from the group: