ITW : KIM BJØRN [PATCH & TWEAK, PEDAL CRUSH]

Kim Bjorn is an author, speaker, electronic musician, and designer, with a profound interest in the interactions between people, and between people and machines. PEDAL CRUSH is his ninth book following the now industry-standard PATCH & TWEAK and PUSH TURN MOVE.

Kim lectures, write and give regular talks and workshops on the topics of musical interface design and electronic music instruments. He has released six ambient albums with his electronic music and occasionally performs live at venues and festivals. Based in Copenhagen, he now runs his boutique publishing company Bjooks while traveling all over the world, as he loves to meet artists, makers, and readers and experience the diverse musical creative cultures.

What is your history before becoming an author? Have you always had a bond with music? 

My history is that when I was around 18 years or so, I had to choose between music and design, because I was also good at doing design. I chose the design way but I have always been playing music. I started writing books very early – I was 24 when I published my first book – and it was part of my job when I got hired to work as a professor at the design institution from which I was educated. Basically, I have always been writing books – for the past 25 years. At the beginning it was in Danish. It was about graphic design, not music at that time.

One of the core things to me is to create. If I create a book or an album, I want to create joy for people. Creating is kind of a thing. I found that, when you bring images and texts together you actually also create something that people can learn from. For me music is like an experience. You can get into a certain mood, a state of mind. It can remind you of something, you get certain feelings. If you read a book, you actually also get wiser. You can step up upon that book, put another book and step up upon etc. I like this about books. I’ve always loved books. I’ve always got lost in bookstores and music stores. That was my thing. [laughing]

You want to create and add the text and the image to the music.

The first music I listened to was in that time where Jean-Michel Jarre was doing his soundscapes, and when the first Star Wars movies were out. I listened to the soundtracks and I remember my older brother explaining to me what was happening in the movie while I was listening to the vinyl record. I was imagining what was going on. The fact that music can create images in your head is really interesting I think. The visual and “audible” things have always been connected to me.

Your first book (Bjooks series) is about electronic music instruments, the second is about modular synthesizers, and the last one, which will be out soon, is about effects pedals. How do you choose these themes?

That’s a really good question. If I start from the beginning, the first one, Push Turn Move, was based on my interest in electronic instruments. Why did they look the way they did, or still do? The visual analytic framework I came up with and the tools so many people use to create this great music… often it’s great music [laughing]. I worked with interface design and with the Internet since the nineties. For me, Push Turn Move was a natural outcome of my interest. It was the music and the design passions fused together. Actually, I was looking for a book like this but there was none. Then I thought; I should maybe just do it, because it formed so much in my mind. So, at a certain point I started doing some layouts, some sketching – how you do a creative work. Then, at a certain point, it manifested.

With Patch & Tweak it is a bit the same. If you want to learn modular today, or one or two years back, you had to watch seventy YouTube videos. However, when you want to learn modular you probably want to get away from the computer. Otherwise you could also read some of the old stuff – where you have all these old books from the seventies or eighties in black and white – but they just don’t work today. Well, of course they work but today it is different, technology is different. Plus, I wanted to create something I wanted to read myself. I wish I had this book when I got into modular. For me, as most people who create something, it was also a way of getting the thing you have in your head into something more tangible, more concrete; being able to grasp it for other people.

When I started teaching, at 23, one of my old teachers, who was a painter, told me that he had never learned as much as when he started teaching. You learn so much from teaching other people. For me it has always been a natural thing to teach. When you get to know something, why not just pass it on to someone else? You get wiser, everybody gets wiser, and everything gets better.

In a way, you wrote these books also for you.

Definitely. I think this is also what you often hear from artists. They do the music for themselves actually.  They have an artistic vision. My vision was to have this book myself also.

It is the same with Pedal Crush, the new one. I have always had a crush on pedals. I really love these small magical boxes with which you can have all these crazy effects and they get crazier and crazier every year. And they look awesome as well, you have the visual aspect, the design of these things. For me it was a natural progression to go from modular to pedals, also because it is a kind of modular. You can combine pedals in a lot of ways. You see more and more keyboard players, modular and all kind of artists using pedals in their production workflow and performances.

So, you also had a “filling-the-gap” approach to the books’ making.

Definitely also. If you look at books out there, most of them do not really look inspiring. It is the same if you look at an instrument, at a synthesizer; you want it to inspire you by just looking at it.

That’s why the visual aspect and the design, to add something, to improve the journey through the book and have people want to delve into it.

Yes, it is also like, some people have said it, “gear porn” because you have so much gear in the books, as well as colours and colour photos. For me it is also like having a personal collection of all the greatest gear I have seen out there.

Your books contain a huge collection of technical information, which requires a lot of preparation. In your opinion, what are the key steps to make a book as yours, both technical and richly illustrated?

One of the key steps is to get hold of the right people to help you. I did Push Turn Move all by myself but I had some great editors helping me out. In Patch & Tweak I had Chris, who has been doing modular synthesis for 40 years or so. He was the technical, really knowledgeable guy. So getting hold of the right people, the people that have inspired you, that can explain something to you in a clear way.

The second thing is, of course, to do a lot of research. I have maybe watched more YouTube video than any living musician [laughing], I don’t know. I have been buying all the old books, etc. You have to dig deep into the stuff to know when you are either just replicating or building upon the old stuff.

So I think it is research, the right people and also, obviously, one of the key steps is to structure it. You have to make a structure when you teach in a book, for people to follow along. You do not teach something here and something there; it has to be in a structured and clear overview for people. I think this is very important. On of the key ingredients in these ones has also been to visualise a lot of the stuff – visualising patches in Patch & Tweak and, in Push Turn Move, the different ways some of these instruments work or how they look. Seeing it. Having this connection between the written and the visual worlds is important. So many books are written with too much text and not enough images. It is not integrated. My book is maybe more like a magazine.

One of the steps also is to pay attention to the reader in what you do. They should be able to follow along and to find it inspiring along the journey.

To put yourself in his place and anticipate.

Yes definitely.

It comes back to the idea of doing something also for yourself, in order to improve and go further.

Yes, I think to be the writer you have to be the reader. To be the musician you have to be the listener.

One key ingredient is doing it. Being stubborn and working day and night if this is what it takes and do the freaking work. That is so important. That is the key.

“Just do it.”

Yes, that is actually my favourite quote. [Laughing]

Without thinking of where it comes from

Yeah, we don’t talk about that. [Laughing]

You have already begun to answer it but how did you manage the work with Chris Meyer? How did you divide the work and how was he involved?

Chris was very much involved in the production and working of the book. I basically had the idea of the book. I had an idea of how to structure it and how to work it out. Then I saw Chris’ videos. At some point I have been watching a lot of his videos online. I thought “here is a guy who can actually explain things so that I can understand it, in a clear and structured way.” Then, I got hold of him. Basically, I just emailed him. Then we had some meeting. It took off from there. Chris has been doing, with his knowledge, all the core chapters on the VCOs VCAs, all that stuff. I did all the interviews and the medium stuff, with the sequencers, the interfaces, etc. Chris was doing a lot of the core writing of those chapters in the book.

In each books readers come across a tremendous amount of interviews of artists and brands that are very influential in the music world. How do you the make the selection?

Again, I think it is about doing your research. Getting a grasp of who is influential out there. Who do people respond to. Who is popping up here and there. Some of the artists are maybe not that known but some are or are becoming known. I basically selected from the artists that inspire me and that can inspire others and that have a diverse approach. I wanted to be inclusive. In Patch & Tweak there are a lot of female composers and musicians. I wanted to have a specifically big diversity in the books.

Sometimes, you also hear “have you heard this guy, this girl over here.” Then I take a listen and see. I also wanted some artists to be in the book but who couldn’t make the time or didn’t want to put the effort into it, few of them. Otherwise I got what I wanted. I find it important that the artists and companies represented in the books are not chosen from a commercial perspective. No one is getting any compensation or paying anything for being in the book. It is purely editorial choice. It is what I feel to be good, basically.

Chris also gave me some tips. Actually, that is something I didn’t mention before… but that we mention in the foreword. Chris wrote these chapters and I wrote the interviews but during the process, we had a lot of feedback on each other’s work. We suggested stuff to one another. It got interweaved during the process. None of us could have made this book on our own. It became even better than what you could do alone.

The best way to build something: with exchanges of ideas.

Yes, building up on each other’s ideas.

It all started with a crowd funding, with your first book. Then you used the same method and each time the results were unexpected. To what do you attribute this success?

I think it is equal part cleverness from our side and also genuine interest from people to support this kind of work. We have been announcing on Facebook and social medias that the books are coming, with the first one e.g., so that people could sign up and get an email when we went on Kickstarter. And I had made my calculations. If we were to make just two hundred books I would do it, even if I just got money enough for one for myself. I was already very much into the book at that point. I was far in the work. I wanted to finish it, no matter what.

I think it is also when people see that they… maybe it has been on their mind. What I have experienced with the music community is that they have been amazingly supportive and inclusive. It is really nice to be part of this family. I feel really overwhelmed sometimes about people’s thankfulness.

Do you think it has been possible because it is in this sphere?

Yes, I think because it is in this nerd sphere, we are all interested in this. It is passion as well. Hopefully, my passion has inspired people and had them support it.

It is always difficult to say, I am just happy it works that way. It has been a really good way, also, to get people to be part of the book, to suggest what should be part of the book.

A participatory process

Yes, co-creation.

Do you have any news for the coming weeks or months you would like to share?

More generally, hopefully this book adventure is not over. Hopefully there will be more books. I have many more ideas. As long as we get the feedback we do I think I will keep on doing this. I have a lot of book ideas in store that I want to make, also because I want them myself. There is more coming.

PEDAL CRUSH, the last book of Kim Bjorn is out now. PEDAL CRUSH is a trip into the expansive, eclectic, and mesmerizing world of effects pedals. It examines the stompbox phenomenon as a means of creative expression and personal sound shaping. Bursting with color photos and illustrations, it systematically covers over 800 pedals – from vintage to cutting edge, from the essential to the exotic, from popular classics to boutique wizardry. PEDAL CRUSH also dives deep into techniques, tips and tricks, pedalboards, software, and more. [More info ? Click Here]

Interview by Cédric Dhooghe and Raphaël Rozenberg. 
Recording : Cédric Dhooghe 
Written version : Raphaël Rozenberg
Picture (N°3) at Listen Festival : Raphaël Rozenberg
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