Resist and Remain: An Interview with Mika Martini

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Mika Martini with the Rob Hordijk “Blippo Box.”

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Chile’s electronic underground was largely characterized by musical migrations to and from Europe, Mika Martini (aka Hugo Espinosa Chellew) was busy helping lay the groundwork for Santiago’s own homegrown scene. As a key figure of Chile’s experimental music community and as a pioneer of its signature netlabel movement, Mika has been a restless contributor to the progression of electronic music in Latin America.

Melding elements of Chilean ethnic music with the explorational spirit of the country’s own electro-acoustic forebears, Mika is one of many Chilean artists contemplating their heritage through futuristic ethnomusicological projects.  While his formative years were spent working at the peripheries of electronic jazz and electroacoustic music, his most recent ventures working under the alter-alias Frank Benkho and with the group C/VVV encompass music ranging from analog, audio-visual improvisations to warped, danceable live sets.

We spoke with Mika Martini at his home studio about Chile’s recent musical history, the roots of his incredibly active Pueblo Nuevo label, and his thoughts on the changes affecting Santiago’s electronic music culture. He also offered a tour of some of the dearest machines to the heart of the Frank Benkho project.

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Frank Benkho aka Mika Martini at the release event for “A Trip to the Space [Between].”

When did you start producing electronic music?

In 1996-97, I started making music on a Casio, like a toy Casio. It could record 4 tracks at a time, it was really basic. So I recorded a cassette and in 1998, I was invited to work with the group Usted No, started by Claudio Perez. I brought along the Casio—I wasn’t a great pianist, but I had some ideas and we started recording and playing live.

In 2004, I invented the alias Mika Martini to begin recording as a solo act.

What was the electronic music community like in the late 1990s and early 2000s in Chile?

There were as lot of scenes that were going on around the same time. They were all defined by their musical style, so in electronic music there were a lot of DJs who started in Chile and then left, like [Ricardo] Villalobos and [Pier] Bucci. But there were local DJs here who were throwing parties, there were drum’n’bass producers, there was also a trance scene. These were like very small, closed groups, except for playing at certain festivals in which we all came together quite well. There was one called Earth Dance, which opened the world to trance, and TechFest. There was trance, drum’n’bass, electro, hip-hop, and it was all self-managed. It was really interesting.

In Usted No we were put into this world of jazz-electronica so in some ways, we were working between the worlds of electronic and dance music as well as in the jazz scene. We were making electronica but there were also great instrumentalists too, so there was that combination in the clubs and festivals. But in general, there were lots of different environments and producers around that time.

Was there a strong foreign presence in that time?

There weren’t many foreigners, it was mainly Chileans. But in that era, everyone went abroad to Germany, they were trying to connect with guys like Villalobos and Bucci, or to be with friends, or because they had relationships abroad.

I stayed in Chile, because in that time I was working here in production, and it never occurred to me to leave. Also, I wasn’t doing music 100% of the time and neither were the guys in Usted No, so it was a bit of a double-life. We had jobs, you know?

To leave at that time was very expensive as well, it was more complicated to go abroad than it is now.

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“TR-Ogre”: a vintage Heathkit Audio Generator restored and modified by Trogotronic.

How did you create the Mika Martini moniker? 

When I was working with Usted No, we were making jazz-electronic and I wanted to create a persona that was more experimental, more electro-acoustic, and with more references to the ethnic music of Chile. I invented a new alias, and I wanted the name to sound foreign, like someone coming from outside of Chile to rescue our culture. The name “Mika” was inspired by the musician Mika Vainio, and I chose “Martini” because it wasn’t too serious, it’s a bit of a joke.

What was the impulse to create a netlabel, specifically in contrast to a traditional label? 

There were various factors. In that time, there were always unforseen events when trying to release a record. All the commercial aspects of releasing music were problematic and CDs were very expensive to make. You’d have to press 1000 copies, and how were we going to sell 1000 copies in Chile? And it was also expensive to self-fund and send CDs abroad.

At the time I was receiving emails from a group called MicroSound, and I started seeing all of these netlabels forming. It seemed like the solution—an online label that’s free, distributed at the global level without restriction, and it was all published under the Creative Commons license, so it was totally legal.

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KORG MS-10.

And at the time Daniel Jeffs and I knew lots of electronic musicians who were producing music at home. Some people would get money from the government to release CDs, but only four or five artists would receive the funding, so that wasn’t really the solution either. So we decided to start the netlabel as the most efficient solution for getting out our music. Daniel had two finished CDs and I had a couple with Usted No. I was working as a web designer at the time and Daniel already had a sense of mastering and had a studio, and it was pretty easy to get started.

Also, this was around the time archive.org came out, and you could upload anything online for free without restriction of GBs or size. We also contemplated the netlabel idea because there are so many personal problems that arise from the financial side of putting out music with your friends.

It’s also a concept more than just a label, we were thinking of a philosophy that’s somewhat anti-capitalist. The name Pueblo Nuevo, the red flag logo, it’s kind of socialist. We were thinking about playing with these of ideas of anti-capitalism, and socialism, and the manifesto is written with the goal of being integrated into the history of Latin American music.

Under the Frank Benkho alias, you’re addressing the themes of spirituality and religion through a distinct project. How did this new identity come about? 

About two years ago, I was working a lot with Pueblo Nuevo and I put out two records. I had also been working with Lluvia Acida, and it had been non-stop for nearly 6 years—I was getting tired and I wanted to work on my own music.

Mika Martini had been very much associated with Pueblo Nuevo, and was an outlet for more experimental music, noise, and improvisation. I had played at a lot of festivals that featured noisier experimental music.

In the last ten years I’d been working mainly with software, and I now had the luxury of using synthesizers and machines that were vintage and retro. Especially since the dollar was so low in Chile I started buying analog gear off of eBay from the US. So I created a new name for a project in which I was using analog machines live and improvising with them.

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Doepfer Dark Time analog sequencer.

The name I discovered from a friend who introduced me to a group called Congregacion from the end of the 60s. They were a rock group and on the credits was an engineer named Franz Benko, and I liked the name. And again I thought it sounded like a foreign name so I changed it to Frank. He had actually been involved in popular music in Chile in the 60s, he was the bassist of a twist group. He made a lot of hits in that era.

With Frank Benkho I started using a vocal synth, with chorus and echo, and I started singing with all these effects. All the machines I’m using are different from the ones I use as Mika Martini.

Internally, the inspiration came from from childhood, from things I heard from my mother when I was a kid. She played a lot of American blues music and also spiritual music. The other references, other than the blues are German electronic music and krautrock, and prog rock like Pink Floyd. Overall, the idea is that the music and visuals aren’t so high-tech.

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Analogue Solutions Telemark.

As Frank Benkho, the visuals are significant to the live performance. Are these designs interpretative and pre-designed or responsive?

I’m now using machines that generate video output for each sound, and yeah, everything functions in real time. I used to work as an audiovisual producer, and I used to work with a lot of Chilean bands on live visuals. With Frank Benkho I edit videos specifically for the theme, to show a sort of spectacle.

Frank Benkho has always been audiovisual, and the idea is to use machines and tools that aren’t so sophisticated, trying to achieve a fundamental factor using older analog synths and video recordings. It isn’t using the high technology that so many people use, like the most recent software and the most recent technology.

Also the Frank Benkho project has changed a bit, as I was playing live with a table full of the machines in real time and recording everything step-by-step, and now it’s more compact and concise, and more thought-out.

What is your outlook for the electronic music community in Chile? What changes have you seen, and what do you think of the future of electronic music there? 

Yeah I’ve been thinking about this. Since I began in the 2000s things have changed dramatically. There’s all the hardware and software and screens on the stage. You can make music on laptop, a cell phone, and iPad. There are even little cheap toys you can use…but I don’t think it’s totally reflective of the creativity in Chile.

There are a lot of people who started making electronic music at the end of the 90s and have kept going until now, and the majority have creative intentions that are quite distinct. There are a lot of people in a scene of musicians that are a bit older, like myself, and Alisu, Danieto, and of course guys like Villalobos, Bucci, and Cristian Vogel.

The music of the youth has gone through so many changes in media. And music has gone from CD, to mp3, and now YouTube and streaming, all of the media and formats. But it hasn’t contributed much to originality and finding your own sound. Before, the idea of one person was to find your own personality through music that didn’t sound like anyone else’s.

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Mika Martini shares the stage with Lars Graugaard of clang.

Now, it’s like there’s a bit more of a search for originality. You have a tendency of artists to want to fit into the trends. The older generation of artists is always being pushed out by the new artists that are emerging. And the newer generation is working in spaces that are largely supported by commercial brands, and these brands have become substitutes for record labels that support one style of music, one type of party, one type of festival.

And yeah, we’re getting older, we’ve been doing this for fifteen years now. But we listen to what’s going on and we have conversations, and sure, the situation is difficult for us because in Chile, there’s not a lot of cooperation between the generations and between the various groups, or even between the artists that make music and those that make poetry, for example. There’s very little interaction, and it’s difficult to break into groups that you don’t know and that don’t know you.

But there are always styles that pass, and right now there are younger people at the events, they’re dancing, they respond to the music, and they’re always going out and enjoying themselves. Musically some people are going to evolve and others are going to disappear, but this is always happening. If they want to make something interesting, they’ll continue working towards the future.

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