THE MERCH TABLE The Merch Table: Ziemba Creates Perfumes to Accompany Her World-Building Electropop By Mariana Timony · June 14, 2019
Photos by Marcus McDonald

Music is only a small portion of what New York-based artist and musician René Kladzyk releases under the Ziemba moniker. In addition to being a musician, Kladzyk is also a perfumer who has paired her latest work—a series of sci-fi concept albums centered around an “imagined parallel world and a very real place” called ARDIS—with handmade perfume oils, scented candles, and body lotion. Buy the accompanying fragrance, get a digital download of the record (though regular, unscented tapes are available, too).

The idea is more than novelty: by offering a combination of scent and sound, Kladzyk intends to “open portals” to ARDIS for listeners via a multisensory experience. “Scent is similar to sound in lots of ways,” she says. “It’s invisible and so powerful; it’s strongly connected to mood, emotion, and energy. It can be transcendent. Sound and scent can work together and enhance one another so beautifully. They seem very natural companions to me.”

Los Angeles, California
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Los Angeles, California
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Merch for this release:
, Cassette

Kladzyk further builds out ARDIS with descriptive liner notes describing the world’s topography, air quality, and vantage points, as well as detailing about exactly how to use each fragrance while listening to her high-spirited electro pop in order to have the maximum transportive experience. Though she has just released Part Three of the series and taken her multisensory experience on the road (she answered our questions via email), Kladzyk isn’t sure she’s quite done with the ARDIS concept as a whole.

“ARDIS just kept growing as an idea. I didn’t set out to make it what it became. And I don’t really know if this is the final iteration of it either. It could be bigger yet. I’d be down to stage it as a fragrant Broadway musical one of these days,” says Kladzyk.

While we’re waiting for ARDIS: The Olfactory Musical, Kladzyk provides us with an introduction to the sensual world of Ziemba and shares tips for artists looking to connect with fans via cool merch.

Ziemba is a musical project, but looking through your Bandcamp page, it also feels like something bigger: a comprehensive art project that encompasses music, visuals, and scent to create an experience for listeners. Can you give me a quick rundown of Ziemba’s history?

You are right that I don’t necessarily approach Ziemba solely as a music project—it’s been that way pretty much from the start. I had my first Ziemba show in October 2013, the day Lou Reed died, at a little cafe in the East Village. At the time, I was very much immersed in Brooklyn’s dance, performance art, and drag/queer nightlife communities, and I drew inspiration from all of these scenes. Ziemba has always involved multimedia elements, with costume, movement, video, and then later fragrance becoming prominent elements of my shows. It grew into what it is now pretty organically. I just followed my interests and tried to do things that felt fun, exciting, and fascinating for me.

Merch for this release:
, Cassette

When did you start working with fragrance?

I started working with fragrance for the release of my first LP by making a custom incense with flowers from the yard of my childhood home. I hadn’t planned to continue doing fragrant releases afterwards, it just made sense for that one. There were so many songs about fire on that album, songs about nostalgia and loss, and I loved the idea of giving the listener another way to engage with the music—something to burn while listening. It felt symbolic and special.

I noticed that people really responded to the fragrant element of the album, and that encouraged me to continue. As I continued learning about fragrance, my sense of smell expanded exponentially. Then, there was no turning back.

Since that first album, I’ve done a number of different releases that interrogate the relationship between fragrance and sound. I composed original music for Fire Organ, where the voices of singers ignited scents within the organ—so, the scent in the room was directly triggered by and responsive to vocalizations. I’ve done shows that integrate fragrance in varied ways, as simple to passing out to the audience spray bottles filled with a scent that corresponds to a song, to building a fragrant fountain with my sister for the ARDIS show at MoMA PS1. With the ARDIS release, I’ve scaled things up even more, with the aim of building an imaginative world from the ground up that listeners can inhabit as fully as they want. Video, scent, music, costumes, live performance—all are important elements for fleshing it out. Something that I think is so powerful and special about music is its ability to transport you. I wanted to push that transportive quality to the Nth degree.

You’ve done scent/sound merch bundles before, but the ARDIS series is somewhat distinct in that you’ve also created a fantasy/sci-fi narrative to go along with it. How did you come up with the concept for the ARDIS series?

I was very heavily inspired by feminist science fiction in creating ARDIS—authors like Marge Piercy, Ursula K. Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Joan Slonczewski (I named my release “A Door Into Ocean” after one of Slonczewski’s books—this was a fragrant soundscape precursor to Ardis). I had always been into sci-fi, but I think after Trump got elected, I started considering the social impact of science fiction, and the possibility of incorporating elements of it into my music. I’d been writing songs directly commenting on political realities in America, and became brutally depressed. I think it’s important for artists to be conscious of what energies and feelings they are propagating through their work, and the way I felt was not a feeling I wanted to give anyone else. I determined that, if I was going to make political music it had to be aspirational, uplifting, and future-vision oriented. Speculative science fiction is a perfect tool.

Had you wanted to try out a bigger concept project like ARDIS, or did it happen organically?

Working with [the vocal workshop] Xoir fed the ideas and execution of ARDIS. Xoir is an approach to group singing that was started by Colin Self in 2013, which I began to lead in Brooklyn after Colin moved to Berlin. Being in a creative community of singers encouraged me to think about the broader performative possibilities for ARDIS, and was a significant part of how I ended up incorporating choirs into many of the ARDIS performances. ARDIS has always been a very collaborative project, and I think at this point there have probably been almost 100 total collaborators in ARDIS-related performances, videos, costumes, and sounds. It is not something I hold myself solely responsible for, by any means, and I am so proud of all the special people who have been brought together through ARDIS.

Merch for this release:
, Cassette

How important is aesthetic presentation to you with the merch? Do you design the labels and style the photos that are uploaded to Bandcamp?

Aesthetics matter a lot to me. I’m very interested in what sort of references, associations, and symbols I call up with the way I visually present my music. I think that being mindful of aesthetics is incredibly useful for creating objects associated with your music, because you can’t opt out. We live in a world where everything is deeply coded with meanings and history, and it can be both stressful and fun to play with and interrogate those codes.

I do design the labels and style the photos for my merch on Bandcamp, though I also pull heavily from album art. ARDIS has art for all three parts, created by one of my favorite living artists, Malicia Dominguez. I try to have fun with merch and label design, though I have a lot to learn. One of the things I’d love to get better at is typography, fonts are so fascinating to me and influence the way I perceive text so profoundly. I’d love to be able to design fonts, it’s up high on my to-do list.

Do you hand make the merch yourself? Do you work with partners?

I’ve made all the scents myself, except for the first incense for Hope is Never, which I made in collaboration with Pretty Hole Collective, an esoteric perfumer based in Austin, TX. I’ve had help from Malicia Dominguez in poster and T-shirt design, and worked with Charlotte Doherty on my most recent tour poster, which was riso printed thanks to the generosity and help of the Pioneer Works print lab.

How long does it typically take to make a full run of candles/fragrances for an album?

It varies! There is always a process of troubleshooting and testing out ideas, and I pretty much always make a huge mess. I also work in small batches, so I’ll make an initial batch, typically of between 20 and 50, and see how it does. If it seems like demand is there, then I’ll make more. Some of the scents are intended to be a limited numbered edition and then gone, like the Hope is Never incense. Those incenses were too specific to the time—the lily of the valley will bloom again in Forestville, but it wouldn’t be the same.

Merch for this release:
, Cassette

Do you use your own products?

I do! Actually the scent for ARDIS: Part Three is a fragrance I created as a birthday gift for myself last year. I hadn’t initially intended to release it to the public, but then I liked it so much that I felt like it ought to be out in the world. I think it’s a pretty good maxim to not release a product that you wouldn’t use yourself, and I feel empowered making my own fragrance products and then getting to reap the rewards of showering myself in them.

Is it important to you to provide something that’s also useful in a day-to-day way outside of being linked with your music?

In a sense I suppose. I think fragrance is useful in the same way that music is. As humans, we need food, water, and shelter to survive. We need music, art, and fragrance to thrive. Music and fragrance are both fundamental human expressions—you find them in every pocket of the world, and they reveal the cultural pulse of the people who make them. They are a semi-material window into the soul. Music and fragrance are also both deeply personal, though in different ways. I like the idea of a music-related product having a use value, and I also like the idea of it having a symbolic value. I think that scent can achieve this in a way that few things can.

Merch for this release:
, Cassette

We took notice of your merch via social media, and were intrigued by your unique visual style, and the whole concept of selling music and fragrance together. Do you have any advice for fellow Bandcamp artists trying to come up with interesting merch ideas without relying on gimmickry?

My main advice would be to follow your interests. Working with scents and making it as a companion to music makes sense for me, because it grew out of a natural curiosity. I think that if you’re having fun and approaching whatever you’re making with a playful and open attitude, that will translate. Gimmicks feel gimmicky because you can sense the guise and see the underlying intention. If you allow yourself to just be fully you, making those decisions gets easier and more intuitive. I played a show with Priests recently, and they had custom mouse pads as merch. It was great, people were going nuts for them. Merch can just be fun.

Are you already working on your next product? Can you give us any hints as to what it is?

I’m still in ARDIS-land! I have to make additional batches of all the fragrances for new orders. But I do have an idea for a series of soundscapes that I’d like to make connected to fragrances. I’d like them of each to be associated with a different time of day, and to mitigate common problems that connect to that time of day. Like, I’ll make a fragrant soundscape to combat insomnia for twilight, one to help meditate at dawn, and one to offset anxiety for afternoon. We shall see.

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