An Interview with Karl Kliem


I jumped at the chance to interview Karl Kliem when I heard he was doing the visuals for the Mouse on Mars tour. So much of the live music experience has become multimedia and I think the visualists are often overlooked. I found Kliem is a wizard of interactivity and Max has been his weapon of choice for years.

The Mouse On Mars US Tour starts February 15th. The tour dates are listed at the end of this article.

Mouse On Mars – WOW – US Tour

I also think that visuals for a music concert should only support the music and should not take away the audiences attention by telling a story on its own.

Can you give us a little background on yourself?

I grew up on a farm in a small town north of Frankfurt am Main in Germany. Being a farmer was quite unusual in this area, since my hometown is about ten miles away from the city center of Frankfurt. So in high school I was known as the farmer’s son, while my relatives from the more rural areas of Germany kept calling me the urbanite.

In my secondary education, I switched from advanced courses in Math and Physics to Arts and English, where I got interested in design. At the time, I had built a CD-player, a receiver and loudspeakers made out of rusty I-beams.

Rusty I-beams?

Yes. The first of those objects was the receiver. I welded a rectangular frame from an I-beam, which I had from the scrap yard. Then I fit in a new ‘state-of-the-art’ amplifier. The cover was a basin with moss inside. You had to water it from time to time. But the kicker was an old rusty water valve, which served as the volume knob. You could magically turn it with the remote control as it was motorized.

Very cool!

So, with these, I applied to study product design at the Offenbach University of Art and Design and was accepted. I soon learned that the things that I had been doing so far, were really just a kind of status symbol for some rich people. As a product designer you were encouraged to build things using the least amount of material as possible in order to protect the environment.

My intermediate diploma then became a minimalist digital radio for the elderly. I still regret that I didn’t use it back in 1994, to apply for a design job at Apple Computer, as it looked very similar to old Braun or later Apple products.

Nevertheless, my ecological crisis went so far, that I actually didn’t want to build any more physical objects at all. Instead, I applied myself towards my interest in electronic music, computers and all things digital.

It was kind of an escape into the virtual.

In the end I made my diploma in 1998 with ‘brk_b.t’, a drum computer for playfully slicing, rearranging and manipulating breakbeats in real time, done with Max. My first attempt to just present the patch was rejected. I had to make a user interface for it to get a diploma on a university for design, of course.

Did you find that the skills you acquired in your Product Design studies could be applied to this new ‘virtual’ realm?

Partially, yes. First of all, I have learned to work on projects and in project groups. Furthermore, we were encouraged to think so fundamentally about problem solving, that we may not need to fabricate a product at all if we could tweak a determining factor instead. A central point of the studies was the theory of product language that has been developed and taught at this particular university. A brilliant tool for analyzing products and objects in general, but inappropriate to design them, if you ask me, because its focus on the symbolic aspects of the products regularly lead to shapes that were overdone. Parts of the curriculum, like theory of perception, are essential not only to product design but also to user interface design. Richard Fischer, a former designer at the iconic Braun company and one of our professors put it in a nutshell, what I think is the essential key for good design: “Design is: reducing complexity and assigning relevance to the remaining parts”. But for my studies and work in the area of the visualization of sound most of the stuff that I learned at the design university lies idle, unfortunately.

So Max was a revelation as I could keep everything open.

How did you discover Max?

That was about 1995 when I first saw the good old ‘non-rounded-corner’ Max version 2. Three of us built our first interactive audio installation as Involving Systems with Max. It consisted of three pressboard boxes with a synth, a sampler and a mixer inside and it had a nice user interface: Off-the-shelf nails that extended the buttons of the underlying keyboard. Visitors of the exhibition could switch between predefined drum and synth presets of attached midi gear and sample short parts of vinyl records. It was all synced and controlled with Max.

I’ve noticed that most of your work involves interactivity to experience the results – as opposed to more static installations that basically run on their own. Is interactivity an important aspect of your creative work?

It seems like, yes. This is probably because I have difficulties making decisions. By these means I can delegate the responsibility of the end result to the users!

Interactivity sort of forces a non-linear approach, which is a cornerstone of Max philosophy. Was this an important factor in your choice of Max as a platform to realize your ideas?

Before I discovered Max I tried to produce some tunes with traditional sequencers. I made some loops that would work quite well on their own. But as soon as I had to arrange it over time to make it a song it got difficult for me. I also found myself lost in tweaking sounds without being able to envision what it should sound like. There were just too many options. At the same time, I didn’t want to accept that I had to make that decision. So Max was a revelation as I could keep everything open. It is kind of strange, as this is different with my visual perception. Producing imagery I am better with making decisions.

Could you describe your current work?

The last bigger project I was involved in were the visuals for the current Mouse on Mars tour. They will tour the US in February 2013 without the drummer, so I am tweaking the performance setup for them again.

I am also doing the visuals for Bosques de mi Mente, a composer and piano player from Madrid, with whom I plan to do more concerts. At the Karlsruhe University of Art and Design I just taught Max within the communication design faculty.

Bosques de mi Mente – Ahora son solo fantasmas, parte 2.

Upcoming projects are an art installation with fluorescent tubes in Frankfurt and showing the Minus 60° surround sound installation in Athens. There is more on the horizon, but nothing definite yet.

Can we discuss your work on the latest Mouse on Mars, Parastrophics tour.

They asked me to build something that would run automatically but would be easy enough to setup without requiring me to be part of the tour, out of budget reasons. But at the same time it should be unique, sophisticated and standing out!

Andi [Toma] suggested the use of projection mapping, so the stage design ended up being six separate projection surfaces that are all covered with one projector. The new jit.cornerpin object came in handy for this.

I started preparing different visuals for each song, but soon it became clear that there was not enough time. The record sleeve design featured graphics from a north American religious group, so I chose to use just those elements for all of the visuals. I think it’s a good branding and it connects to the album as well. I also think that visuals for a music concert should only support the music and should not take away the audiences attention by telling a story on its own.


Photo: Susann Jehnichen

Were there any particular challenges you can discuss?

Well, first off, performance tests with the latest MacBook Pro Model from the beginning of 2012, showed that the frame rate of my visuals patch dropped to 20 fps while my desktop computer rendered it smoothly with 60 fps. The compromise between luggage size, weight and graphics performance was a Hackintosh that I built. It has a Mini-ITX form factor and a decent graphics card.

The next challenge was the vast amount of different kinds of projectors that the venues have. Different signals like VGA, DVI, RGB, different resolutions and different aspect ratios. The patch needs to be able to adjust to all of these.

The projector sizes can be controlled with the jit.displays object, but as our graphics card only supports one VGA out, but two DVI out, sometimes the projector and the control screen have to be swapped. An Apple Script that puts all windows to the screen of the control monitor was the solution for this particular problem.

But later, it turned out that from time to time the attached control screen would not be recognized. Usually with DVI signals the screen tells the graphics card via the EDID protocol which resolutions it can display. Sometimes this doesn’t work and thus the control screen stays black, because the graphics card sends a signal that the screen can’t display. We used another Apple Script to change the resolutions, but it’s probably more reliable to use a hardware box that forces the resolution to a specific setting.

Are the visuals being controlled by the audio from stage?

They are. The visuals are being controlled by some audio analysis objects. For the first concerts the audio-out of the band was sent to the visuals computer, which did the analysis. One problem was that the volumes and therefore the results of the analysis changed during the concert. Another problem, especially at festivals, where there is not much time for setup, sound check and testing, there had to be two long cables, an audio cable and a network cable running from the stage to the visuals computer, which usually is located at ‘front of house’, next to the mixing desk.

To simplify this, I installed a Max4Live Instrument that eliminates the volume changes and analyses the sound right there on the computer running Ableton’s Live software on stage. Now we only have one network cable that sends track and song position data as well as the audio analysis data over the one Ethernet cable.


Photo: Susann Jehnichen

Simplicity is the key when doing live work!

Absolutely. This allowed for quicker set-up and sound/visuals check. It also gave us a more reliable result.

Do you have any particular ‘favorite’ objects that you use often, or in a special way?

One thing that comes to my mind is that I tend to make sub-patches with just an inlet and an outlet, that are connected, so that I don’t have to re-connect all the patch cords if I want to swap the connected object later. I know that you can copy-replace nowadays, but that’s a habit from older versions.

I use bline a lot, to have smooth animations in sync with the frame rate in Jitter. I also dig jit.mgraphics, but still have to understand how to rotate a graphic!

With the latest Max Version 6, the ji.gl.node object makes rendering of an OpenGL scene to a matrix much easier than it used to be.

Unfortunately I didn’t find the time to get into the new Gen objects yet, but I’m very curious.

One weird thing I haven’t really figured out: even though I change the default font to ‘Verdana’ at the start of each project, every time I make a new sub-patch, for reasons that are beyond my comprehension, the font switches back to ‘Arial’. I then have to regularly ‘select all’, ‘CMD-T Verdana-Regular-10pt’. It’s a meditation, or maybe a procrastination thing I guess, but it uses up quite some of my patching time! [Laughs]

Mouse On Mars will start their US Tour with an improved duo live setup in San Diego today. They will perform a mixture of material from “Parastrophics” and “WOW”, the new album they just released nine month after “Parastrophics”.

We updated and simplified the setup. Ableton Live as well as the visuals-patch will all run from one computer now. The Hackintosh is not necessary anymore, as the graphics cards of the new MacBook Pro got a huge performance boost. Each song has its own images folder and the corners of the projection mapping can be adjusted with an iPhone.


Watch Ableton’s interview with Mouse On Mars including live performance footage, and read more about them at Ableton.com.


Tour Dates:

  • Fri. Feb. 15 San Diego, CA @ The Soda Bar
  • Sat. Feb. 16 Los Angeles, CA @ The El Rey Theater
  • Sun. Feb. 17 San Francisco, CA @ The Independent
  • Tue. Feb. 19 Portland, OR @ Doug Fir Lounge w/ Matmos
  • Wed. Feb. 20 Seattle, WA @ Neumos w/ Matmos
  • Fri. Feb. 22 Salt Lake City, UT @ The Urban Lounge
  • Sat. Feb. 23 Denver, CO @ Summit Music Hall
  • Mon. Feb. 25 Minneapolis, MN @ 7th Street Entry
  • Tue. Feb. 26 Chicago, IL @ The Mayne Stage
  • Wed. Feb. 27 Detroit, MI @ The Pike Room
  • Fri. Mar. 1 Montreal, QC @ Il Motore
  • Sat. Mar. 2 Boston, MA @ Great Scott
  • Sun. Mar. 3 New York, NY @ Santos Party House
  • Mon. Mar. 4 Philadelphia, PA@ Johnny Brenda’s
  • Tue. Mar. 5 Washington, DC @ U Street Music Hall

Karl’s Website

Mouse On Mars


Text interview by Marsha Vdovin and Ron MacLeod for Cycling ’74.