Fenster’s JJ Weihl Talks Songwriting, Reality and VHS Filmmaking | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Fenster’s JJ Weihl Talks Songwriting, Reality and VHS Filmmaking


Published November 21, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated November 21, 2018 at 12:06 p.m.

  • Courtesy Of Simon Menges
  • Fenster

What is real? What is imaginary? Is there any difference between the two? Well, sure, of course there is. But what we think of as real may not be as set in stone as we think it is. It's all about perception.

Heady themes such as these suffuse The Room, the latest and fourth album from Berlin-based experimental psych-pop group Fenster. The international quartet's members hail from Germany, France and the United States. In fact, its American contingent — multi-instrumentalist JJ Weihl — is a Middlebury College alumna.

The band originally formed in 2012 and released its debut LP, Bones. In the six years since, Fenster have undergone several shifts in players before solidifying into their current lineup of Elias Hock, Jonathan Jarzyna, Lucas Ufo and Weihl.

For the new album, the band redefined its approach to creating music. The four musicians sequestered themselves in a house in the Italian countryside, aiming to make a truly collaborative record. Starting from a blank slate, they came out the other side with a contemplative, spaced-out 10-track collection of synth-infused psychedelic pop. The Room follows Emocean, a two-pronged project consisting of a DIY sci-fi feature-length film and accompanying soundtrack album.

Seven Days caught up with Weihl by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: In an email to Seven Days, you mentioned that your new record is a "true exercise in creative democracy." How so?

JJ WEIHL: The Room is about trying to transcend individuality and create something really together — which can be really, really tricky when it comes to creative endeavors that are so personal and laden with a lot of complex emotions and parts of yourself. To be able to truly create something with other people is really, really challenging. But the process definitely guided what came out, which is a lot of different creative impulses finding a home in one record.

SD: How did you start the process? Did you come in with any song sketches or demos?

JW: We sort of had a manifesto for [The Room], which indicated no one could really bring fully formed song ideas, [only] what we referred to as embryos. It could be a little riff, or a vocal melody or part of song. The idea was to really try, from beginning to end, to create these songs together. I haven't encountered too many bands that have tried this process. And I understand why. It's challenging, for sure. And you end up making things that you never would or could create on your own.

Maybe for the next record we'll try a slightly different approach. I think there's a beauty in this record in that we really tried something challenging and radical for ourselves, which was to be brave enough to sit in a room together and see what happens.

SD: Do you have a favorite track on The Room?

JW: The one song that we love to play live is the last track on the record, "Two Doors." It's a special one. There's this feeling of infinity. We refer to it as a digital ocean. There's definitely something really peaceful and infinite about it.

SD: In your press materials, you said of new track "HBW," "The lyrics lend an enigmatic tint to the landscape of so-called objective reality versus perceived reality." Um, what?

JW: It's a question or topic that we all discuss a lot: mediating what it means to see the world versus what does the world offer as objective, so-called reality. What you create is actually reality, and whatever you see and perceive to be the truth is reality. There is no quintessential reality in and of itself. The world that you project from your own mind — that ties in with the album artwork. [It's] this head[-shaped] room, and it goes into a smaller room and a smaller room and a smaller room. [There's] this idea of the reality inside our own heads being projected outwards. It's sort of a loop, a great mystery that no one ever will solve or know the answer to. It's a lot to unpack.

SD: Are you aware of the Mandela Effect?

JW: No, I don't think so.

SD: It's the name of a website that explores this phenomenon of people sharing memories that are objectively false. Apparently, there's a huge population of people who vividly recall Nelson Mandela dying in prison in the '80s. There's also confusion as to the spelling of the Berenstain Bears.

JW: Oh, yes. I've heard of this. I think that there's something about emotional truth in that there's often a discrepancy between something that's a fact and something that rings true to you. In terms of this collective glitch of thinking that Mandela died [in the '80s], there's clearly some kind of emotional truth that has circumvented objective truth.

But, I think in general, art is the way you kind of mediate between those two things. Sometimes, to get to a feeling or a deeper understanding of something, you can't really talk about it literally or with words. You have to move around it with something indirect, something twisted. Or having soft eyes to see something clearly, to un-focus from what you see in front of you.

SD: Tell us a little bit about your last album, Emocean, and the accompanying, self-produced feature-length film.

JW: We made the soundtrack before we made the movie. The reason we did it is because we wanted to try to create an album that was really fun and low pressure. We thought, What if we made a soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist? Then we decided to go ahead and actually make that movie, which was a very fun and also challenging project. It took us about eight months, beginning to end, with the album recording and the making of the movie.

It started as a joke. There weren't any super high-concept sci-fi literature or movies we based it on. It was more innocent ideas from our own heads. It references pop cultural symbols, but the point of it was to make something fun and basically see if we could pull it off and finish it. I don't think it's perfect by any means.

SD: You shot primarily on VHS. Why?

JW: There are a lot of reasons we used it: the nostalgia quality of it, but also VHS files are really small [when digitized] compared to HD. So it was much easier to edit and do all of the post-production. It was a very experimental way of making a movie.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Room With a View"