Nick Bertke, aka Pogo, discusses his inspiration, history and creative process in which he uses film samples to create entirely new pieces of music.
I’ve long been a fan of Pogo, Australia-based musician Nick Bertke’s stage persona, and his music. Renowned across the world for his use of subtle vocal whisper and movie soundscapes, the performer first found fame with YouTube sensation “Alice”.
The video made use of Kathryn Beaumont’s melodic voice, fracturing it, stirring it together with music to create a pleasing mosaic.
I emailed the man behind the music in early January, vainly hoping for an interview with the equally busy, equally talented musician. To my surprise and utter delight. I had the chance to do just that.
AK: I’m curious to know which artists – popular or not – really appeal to you. What do you listen to that isn’t perhaps related to your craft?
Pogo: I’m actually not a big music listener. I’m more interested in making it than listening to it. My Spotify is full of deep house, reggae and soul, but it’s mostly for background noise. Music in my life isn’t what it used to be. I spent a lot of my childhood sitting on my bed with a tape player, twisting and rocking to house and DNB with my eyes closed for hours, but today I don’t really make a point of listening to music anymore – I find that the more content I am with my life, the less I need to escape from it.
How do you know when your song has captured the tone of the pre-existing piece of media? Is that the purpose of why you make your songs?
No. With the exception of paid work, I’ve only ever wanted to make tracks for the sake of exploring and materialising my emotions. Movies have inspired me to do that all my life, so it’s exciting to use them as material. Making music using the sounds of The Terminator or Alice In Wonderland is a unique way for me to experience a movie, but I don’t think it makes the track any better or worse. It’s kind of a novelty. I think there’s a line between technically impressive and musically pleasing.
You’re commonly considered to have paved the way for this genre of music, do you think that is true? What are your thoughts on your position within this genre/style of music?
I have my own sound like anybody else but I don’t see how it’s paved the way in any sense. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I think it’s so important to find your own sound and create your own value. You’ll do that naturally if you focus on making music for your own listening pleasure. That’s how Alice happened.
You’ve previously said elsewhere that you learnt about compiling subtle sounds from Akufen, but you’ve applied the approach of hunting for sounds in pre-existing media in a way that I’ve never seen before. Did you realise that what you were doing with Alice was different in any way?
Akufen inspired me a lot, especially tracks like Heaven Can Wait and Late Night Munchies, where he made music out of sounds from his radio tuner. I wanted to do something similar with the films of my childhood. Alice was the first time I figured I was onto something. I listened to it on my iPod in bed, on my way to film school; it’s frustrating to think that such a short, repetitive and simple track is what started my career.
It’s leagues behind where I’m at now but people still compare my newer releases to it.
Besides Jeesh, who has really analysed and employed elements common to your work, I haven’t found anybody whose music really gets close to anything of a similar sound to yours. What, if anything, would you say sets your style and sound apart from others within this style of music?
I’ve enjoyed finding natural notes in a character’s voice and sequencing them to create melodies. The problem is, this has lost its value since autotune became common as grass, and spraying tiny snippets over a track I’m making doesn’t lead to coherent lyrics. I’m more interested in looking for whole sentences that I can piece together into meaningful, flowing vocals.
Are there any big projects that you’re working on now – personal or part of this studio – that are about combining different art media?
Nothing I want to speak of just yet. A strange thing occurs when I take a song I’m working on into the public: the magic disappears and the song and I get a divorce. Pogo has been wonderfully successful but I often feel like I’ve sold my passion to a crowd.
It’s almost impossible to work on music now without thought processes running wild. “I’ve done this sort of thing already.” “Too repetitive.” “Too sparse.” I miss the days when I’d work on a track and no one would ever hear it but me. There was no mixed motives or outside voices.
Do your songs intentionally aim for a theme?
My tracks are just products of what I’m feeling at the time. With the exception of work, I never ever start a track with an idea. Michael Jackson nailed it when he said “You’ve got to get out of the way of the music.” He was damn right. Plans, themes, outlines and preconceptions are like spike strips on a freeway.
Movies have inspired me all my life, so it’s exciting to use them as material. Making music using the sounds of The Terminator or Alice In Wonderland is a unique way for me to experience a movie, but I don’t think it makes the track any better or worse. It’s a novelty.
Run me through one of your regular workdays. How would you break it down?
Most of the time I’m working on tracks and videos for clients, checking e-mail inquiries and responding to comments from fans. I kind of live the life of an office worker, but at home. It’s actually quite dull, looking at it in a wide shot. It’s great working for myself, though, the freedom is fantastic. The challenge is maintaining discipline.
Since you’ve started doing live shows, have there been any big changes to how you operate your creative process?
None. It’s a whole different ballgame and I’m not a DJ as much as I’d like to be. My strengths are in the studio where I have the time, focus and serenity to really make something. At my first ever gig, I tried to do everything live – finger drumming, playing vocals, mixing sounds of every track separately. It was a nightmare, and I couldn’t justify it.
I even lugged my whole PC and two turntables to a gig once. Ridiculous. There’s simply no way in hell I could do what I do in the studio on a stage. I learned the hard way that it’s a different arena, and that simplify is the name of the game.
In 2012, SAE Institute USA uploaded a YouTube interview with you called The Dust Files: Down the Rabbit Hole w/ Pogo, in which you said that you’d be flattered and excited should someone interpret what you’ve created and make their own thing out of it. Does that necessarily apply to people using your music for art that isn’t primarily audio-based? What if people wanted to use your music for their film soundtracks, or for theatre pieces?
I get requests for permission to use my music every day: I’ve seen it used by dancers, theatre groups, athletes jumping on trampolines, families in their cars, magicians doing card tricks, people going to Disneyland – it’s amazing to feel that I’ve made an intimate connection with so many different people.
So long as I’m credited for my work and the use isn’t turning a profit, I have no problem with people sharing my music.
Listen to Pogo on YouTube
Listen to Pogo on SoundCloud