Mona Mur talks about the making of “Snake Island”

Photo by Petrov Ahner

Snake Island, the new album from Mona Mur, sees the Berlin-based artist building upon her dark electronic sound with a newfound interest in playing guitar. Collaborating with Ralf Goldkind, Mur balances abrasive elements with moodier atmospherics.  Creative production and sound design throughout gives Snake Island an absolutely unique sound.

Since emerging in the early 80s, Mur has released albums under her own name and been part of collaborations with such artists as En Esch and FM Einheit. She has also composed soundtracks for films and TV, done music and sound design for video games and been involved with other creative works. In the following interview, Mur discusses the making of Snake Island.

You’ve done a lot of different projects, but prior to Delinquent, it has been a while since you released a Mona Mur album. What made you decide to do solo albums again?

Mona Mur: You know, to be honest, it’s never really solo. I always prefer to play with people and ‘solo’ doesn’t mean that much to me. The albums before Delinquent were Mona Mur and En Esch albums. So this was a different thing because it was the work of two people, two producers, two writers, and two singers. I always love to have collaborators. I need them and I need to have this kind of communication. With this, as on Delinquent, I have collaborated with [Ralf] Goldkind again. We’ve known each other for a pretty long time, because Goldkind was one of the first punks in Hamburg in the 80s, so this acquaintance goes way back. I’ve always respected him very much. He had a couple of bands in the underground like Flucht Nach Vorn, then he met the great producer Conny Plank.

He all of a sudden came up with a huge mainstream hit here in Germany [“Mädchen” with Lucilectric]. In the 90s, it really meant something to have a huge chart hit. Then, I lost track of him and we met back in 2016. He immediately agreed to do an album with me, which became Delinquent. It was pretty much in German because I kind of hung out in Germany and I don’t know… it was not a theoretical decision. I’m very intuitive when it comes to music-making. And so, in the last two years, the whole world changed drastically. The whole life feeling changed drastically, and so my music changed drastically. There was quite a pile of interesting tracks Goldkind came up with again, and he was sending it to me…

This is how we work, actually. Goldkind sending me basic tracks; it can be bass, it can be drums, because I’m not the greatest drummer. I’m not the greatest beat programmer. So it’s always great if people come up with it, and Goldkind has this very special style and quality. I think it’s unique. Nobody else has it. And Goldkind also has these abysmal regions inside himself, so that’s where we met this time. This is much more dark and much more drastic. I feel kind of disappointed in mankind at the moment. And the second thing is that I engaged very much in playing electric guitar for the last three years. There was a lot of time to do it. I had a lot of time during the pandemic and so I got back to guitar playing and into electric guitar playing in particular, and this matched very well. The results you can hear on Snake Island.

Could you talk a bit more about how getting into the guitar may have affected maybe your songwriting process? How do you feel it kind of shaped the way the material turned out?

Mona Mur: Oh, I would say drastically, because it’s the first time I really came out as a guitar player in that way. I mean, I’ve played guitar for a very long time, but I was always surrounded by great guitarists. Many of them, I really like guitarists. I love electric guitar. And so, I didn’t think about doing this myself, but you always need new kicks, don’t you?

So I got really addicted to that and I listened to a lot of hard guitar stuff. I’m a really great Ministry fan. I love to listen to really hard, hard guitar. And I have my guitar buddies, they really supported me, like En Esch, like Gary Schmalzl, Goldkind; they really encouraged me. And of course, it took a bit of practice to have this ready for a recording. But I love the result. It’s my inner feelings you can hear in this drastic detail.

Speaking of the state of the world at the time, did the pandemic influence you into actually making a new album at this point? Had you been planning on doing this album? Or was it the result of maybe other things not happening?

Mona Mur: No, not quite. In my case, it’s a little different because I’m a producer and I’m a composer for films and games as well. So in part, my daily work didn’t change so much. I have some friends who really lost their entire existence because they lived on touring. One good friend of mine, she’s an opera singer. She’s an interpreter of already written music, which she’s playing in full houses. And suddenly, a bomb crashed into her life. In my case, I have my own sound studio here. This is where I’m sitting right now, also talking to you. This is where I basically live and sit every day. And I produce a lot of stuff for other people too, so it didn’t hit me too hard, actually. It sounds tough, but it’s the reality. So no, it didn’t really change my plans, but obviously yes, I wasn’t going out, but this also correlated with me, anyway. Not wanting to go out so much anymore after some decades of going out, having this rock and roll lifestyle. I tired of these aspects of, you may imagine what I mean by rock lifestyle. And so, I changed this pretty much. Of course, I miss my friends. I miss touring very much. I miss playing live in decent surroundings. I hope this comes back because at the moment, the situation is also very weird, at least over here in Germany.

Now I’m signed to Give/Take, who are based in Minneapolis and LA, and who are obviously a US based industrial label. So my whole desire came back. I hope I can come back to the US next year. I love playing live. I will also play the guitar live the next time. I am quite eager, but it has to be reasonable somehow. The situation is very bizarre because all the very huge concerts happen like Rammstein, but the middle and smaller stuff, they all get canceled again. Because people just don’t go out anymore.

What made you cover “Ace of Spades”?

Mona Mur: I love it so much. I’m a great Motorhead fan. I’m a great Lemmy and Fast Eddie and Philthy Animal fan. but also the other guys. I love it very much. I love the lyrics, and I think they are so universal. I always wanted to do that. I actually started out programming these cover versions. That was me in this case, starting the first programming, not Goldkind. I did something like a very electronic approach on “Ace of Spades” first. Similar to The Normal, like T.V.O.D. or something like this.

So I have a minimal electronic version of “Ace of Spades”. It works actually, but then I couldn’t resist really practicing the basic guitar. I could not resist, and we could not resist adding the guitar in on that. It changed it, and then Goldkind changed the whole thing. He transformed it and mutated it. He’s really good at that. For the solo, I invited my man Gary Schalk, who is a one of the greatest guitarists I know. He has a long track record. He worked with Thurston Moore and more people like this, along with some great bands over here. So I asked my friend Gary to play this crazy solo, which is how we ended up with “Ace of Spades.”

“The pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say.” I love these very simple but deep lyrics. I can 110% sing these lyrics.

So you mentioned wanting to play live in America next year. Have you worked on this material live at all at this point?

Mona Mur: Not at all. It’s all totally new and fresh. I’m starting actually to develop some backing tracks for it, so that I can sing and play guitar, and we choose which tracks would be fit. For a live and realistic show, I think for this kind of music you really need a kind of bigger production, because otherwise it’s ridiculous.

So, there would have to be a band of at least two guitar players and a cool technical equipment side. It has to fit; you can’t play this on your acoustic guitar in the corner shop. I will have to be on the lookout for some festivals. This is just my desire at the moment, but who knows where desire takes you?

Photo by Lucie Jansch

Could you talk about the album title and the meaning behind that?

Mona Mur: Oh, the snake island thing. I heard a wild story about this island off the shores of Brazil where these 20,000 deadly Vipers live, like a very special population of snakes. A crazy monoculture of these snakes, and who kind of hibernate and wait for the birds who pass by once a year. Then the snakes will eat the birds and return to hibernating, and they are so deadly on this island so nobody lives there. Actually, I have no idea whether or not this all is true, but I found it so metaphorically interesting. I heard that the population is imploding all of a sudden. So this reminds me a lot of our situation here on this planet obviously, very obviously.

Did you dedicate a block of time just to focus on this album? Or were you working on other projects at the same time?

Mona Mur: Actually, I always work on three things and I do a lot of heavy multitasking. My projects, they kind of influence each other, and they get creatively stimulated by each other. For each incoming profit, I would buy another piece and build up the studio. Obviously, after some decades now, I am in a kind of state that is really pleasing to me. I have an amorous relationship with my recording gear and my instruments. I get up in the morning, I have a little breakfast, and then I go to my studio and I look at my amps and my guitars, and then I think, “Okay, you didn’t do everything wrong in your life”.

Do you feel that any of your other work, in particular, influenced what you did with “Snake Island”?

Mona Mur: As I said, there is not a big difference, but obviously this album is much more… I have no limitations here from my personal taste. I just fucking do what I love to do. Goldkind was the trigger because he understands me as a partner, and he knows what he to send me to trigger more actions. His electronic beat stuff is not only beats, it’s like electronic textures. Textures is an appropriate term for what he’s sending me. And, sometimes, these textures contain really heavy drumming, heavy, heavy drums, or he’s playing a tough bass, live. He sends it to me, and then I take it and I implement it into my workstation here.

I do nasty things with this. I re-edit it and I add guitars on it or the vocals. Sometimes I immediately sing on it and I don’t even write down the lyrics. I just sing. The lyrics are already there, which is crazy. But I think this results from 40 years of writing and recording music. People who want music from me, they like my intensity. They like my approach. Much of my music lands in films because film directors love it since it evokes images, obviously. So I don’t have a special approach. I take it as it comes.

But this easiness, I’ve had it only since, I don’t know, since the last decade, maybe. Before, it was much more of a fight. But now I enjoy maybe the fruits of the experience and being secure in what I’m doing.

You mentioned that you’ve been building up your studio over the years. Since studio and electronic musical technology have evolved so much over the years, have those changes influenced your creative and working process?

Mona Mur: Absolutely. It’s like with everybody. If you look, for instance, at Throbbing Gristle, people who are really admired, their sound is not possible without the involvement of their machines. Obviously, techno music would not be possible without these drum machines, where you could isolate the bass drum and have your four on the floor. So, of course, I’m influenced by the tools I buy. I had a lot of external MIDI synthesizers, like, like the Korg Trinity I really loved. I had the Electronic Dream Plant Wasp, which was really shaping my sound very much. But then, in the end, I sampled all this. I was a great fan of the Ensoniq ASR sampler. I had three of them because I was afraid one would die, so I piled them up because I was so happy with how they sounded. And so I sampled my own sound library. And as of recently, I got rid of all these external modules because I could transform my own sounds into the modern digital world.

So I have them in a software sampler, and they are now ready at my fingertips to save so much life energy that I got rid of many of my external instruments. Because I think they are like living beings. If you don’t touch them, if you don’t switch them on, then give them, pass them on to somebody else who enjoys them … like an instrument you are not playing or like an animal you are not loving and petting every day. This is not possible. You have to give love to all these tools or pass them on to somebody else. And so, I have a very powerful computer, and I concentrate now on having my signal chain really, really clean and nice. I’m able to have a wonderful and pristine vocal sound and also the guitar sound and other instruments. I like to combine electronic stuff with real … what we call real, everything is real. A machine is real. Voice is real. It is all like sound waves.

Photo by En Esch

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Mona Mur: I would like to say thank you to Give/Take, who gave me a great surprise by doing this wonderful cover and a golden CD, which really touched me very much. I mean, I chose the photo that is on the front, but the rest of the artwork they did is so wonderful. That really touched me, and I hope people will enjoy it. It’s a wonderfully packaged thing with a kind of a dark lump of some menacing, crazy stuff inside.

Snake Island can be purchased at