Aukai Interview: “It Gave Me Freedom To Do What Feels Right”

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aukai interview

Self Titled Debut Album Out Now.

Do you know what a ronroco is? Its is an Andean bass lute. I think. I had absolutely no idea until I came across the melancholic and beautiful acoustic ambience of Aukai. It is a wonderfully large sounding instrument. Like a nylon stringed guitar but with added weight and depth. Aukai, which is Hawaiian for traveller, is the pseudonym of multi instrumentalist Markus Sieber, a musician with quite the checkered CV. Not everyone can boast to have played in rock bands in East Germany, before travelling through Mexico and Colorado and then settling in Berlin to record a debut album with players who have worked with Nils Frahm, Agnes Obel, Brian Eno, Bjork, and Max Richter.

Just before the recent release of his debut album, Markus talked us through the project delving into travelling, family, and the importance of creating immersive and imperfect music.

Buy Aukai’s debut album via Bandcamp.

Overblown: Aukai is Hawaiian for ‘seafarer’ or ‘traveller’. Where did you come across the word and what is the significance of the name to the project?

Markus Sieber: I came across the word years ago, friends who live in Hawaii had brought it up; I don’t remember the exact context, but the sound and meaning kind of stuck in my head. During recording the album and looking for a name of the project the word bounced back and I thought it’s a good fit for a variety of reasons. Aukai meaning seafarer/traveller is also referred to people with an introspective, mystic nature, and I felt that this music definitely had something to offer in this direction; going inward on an imaginative journey.

Further, I have been a traveller myself since forever, originally from Germany, I have lived in Mexico for many years, with extensive travels all over the world, and now I am based in Colorado. Movement and change has been always a key element in my life and this is where I get a lot of inspiration from to write music. Lastly, growing up in locked up East Germany, it has been a childhood dream to become a sailor, and be able to get out of the country and see the world.

O: So you are German born, lived in Mexico and are now based in Colorado. How did these places influence your music?

MS: I still feel strong ties to Germany even though I hadn’t lived there for a long time. I love the appreciation and sense for quality in art and culture, it’s something I always miss when I am away. It felt great to go back to Berlin to record the album at Lichte Studio and touch base with the roots. Mexico is a country which can bring a lot of transformation; it’s just so challenging at times, and strips you off from any sense of norm or having control, you have to be ready to improvise at any moment.

At the same time you can find the most beautiful people, it’s such a heart-centred country, and living there just cracked myself open in a way, and helped me to let go of a lot of prejudice, imprinted social behaviour and conditioning through society. As a musician it gave me the complete freedom to do whatever feels right and being open to try new things out constantly. In Colorado I am in awe of the stunning nature just every single day, and it’s like a nest here where I can find time and space to get things done.

O: The album grew from your love of the Ronroco which you first heard in the soundtrack work of Gustavo Santaolalla. What attracts you to the instrument and how does it affect your music?

MS: I love its engaging otherworldly sound, which makes it extremely cinematic. It sounds pristine, dreamy, yet penetrating and demanding. The way the strings are placed and tuned offers a great harmonic sophistication. And speaking of traveling, it’s a small light instrument which you can take everywhere.

O: Your wife and brother play on the album. Does having family on the album alter the recording process in any way?

MS: Oh, yes, big time. Growing up with my brother we listened to a lot of the same kind of music. We even recorded our own stuff or cover versions of songs we liked on tape machine when we were kids. Then we each went our own ways, he became a contemporary dancer, later he studied music design in Berlin, I was getting into acting in film and theatre, and later headed off to Mexico, where I got more connected to music again. For many years we only had the usual family kind of contact.

When I started with this album I wanted to experiment in some pieces with the combination of the ultra-natural sound of Ronroco together with electronical textures and beats. Alex, with his experience as sound designer for contemporary dance seemed to be exactly the right fit, and it was fun finally “playing” music together. There has been a lot of unspoken mutual understanding.

My wife Angelika, is a wonderful harp and piano player, we have worked for many years together in a world fusion project called Mirabai Ceiba, and I think there is nobody who feels and understands the music so much in the same way as she does. A big part of our connection we find through music, we are just so much on the same page here and it’s always a great treat to work together for both of us.

O: The music is quite mournful, tranquil and reflective. Was that intentional?

Yes, and no. I did not plan in the first place to make an album that is such and such, it rather developed in that way along the route. I think mostly because the pieces were written in quiet reflective moments and on acoustic instruments. And, yes, I am personally more drawn to music that can offer some kind of space and tranquillity in a pretty stressful, fast pace world.

O: In places, the music reminds me of Helios. Are you a fan of Keith Keniff’s work?

MS: When I introduced the album to my PR agent in the US, he had mentioned that as well. Before I had only briefly stepped over his name particular as Goldmund, I found it interesting, because as a teenager I was huge into that book by Hermann Hesse “Narcissus and Goldmund”. Anyway, since he had pointed out to some similarity in the music I had a closer listen to his works and yes, I really dig it. I think he’s an extremely versatile and creative artist, who likes to try out new things.

O: You worked closely with Jamshied Sharifi on the album. What influence and impact did he have on the album?

MS: I think it’s safe to say that without Jamshied this album might not have happened, at least not in that way and maybe not at this point in my life. He is a very good friend, and he has been producing a variety of projects over the last years for me and my wife. He is a fantastic musician, composer and arranger with tons of experience, and as this has been my first self-produced album, he really coached me through this process with constantly good feedback and advice. I sent him material at very early stages, even if it was just a draft recorded on an iPhone, and his positive feedback gave me a lots of courage to make this record happen.

O: You have described the sound of the album as ‘unfinished’ and stated that it is important the listener has a chance to ‘go inside the music’. Do you feel this immersiveness is an element missing from a lot of modern musical recordings?

MS: Technology gives us now stunning possibilities to produce music in such a perfect way, every little mistake and failure we can adjust with great tools. On this record it was one of my priorities to aim for a sound that is tangible, accessible, that picks up the listener because it’s human in all the sense of natural imperfection. I wanted the listener to be able to fill in with his own imagination and being part of the process of the musicians rather than getting served a perfect sounding piece of result. With Martyn Heyne as sound engineer and musician with a similar vision and analogue gear equipped studio I had found absolutely the right partner.

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