Tuesday, 22 May 2018

When Smells and Sounds Collide: Meeting Geza Schoen in a surprise intersection of the Perfumer and Monochrome Sets

Source: Digital Bauhaus Summit 2017
I have long been an admirer of Geza Schoen and his work. He is one of those spendidly maverick perfumers, whose daring launch of the Molecule range based around a single aromachemical was a groundbreaking departure from the classic conventions of perfume construction. I am also a big fan of Ormonde Jayne, for whom it only latterly emerged that Geza Schoen was in fact the nose working alongside Linda Pilkington. Ormonde Jayne is the house with which I probably enjoy the highest 'strike rate' of any brand, as explained in this (rather preamble-y) post on the range's potential as a capsule scent wardrobe. Or I certainly did with the relatively compact offering prevailing then. I have rather lost track now of all the sub-collections they do, some with exotic back stories.

And then there is the fact that Geza Schoen famously 'scented' my home town of Belfast, after spending a couple of days wandering around inhaling the city's smells, an intriguing project I reported on here. And finally he lives in Berlin, a stone's throw (more or less) from the venue where The Monochrome Set often play when they come to the city, a venue in which Geza himself has given a perfume talk! I even wrote about that coincidence some four years ago in my account of the band's 2014 German tour, when the idea of meeting the man himself was not even a twinkle in my imagination, never mind my eye. It makes me smile to re-read that post, and see that I called the section in question: "Channelling Geza Schoen". This was because I had chosen Ta'if as my SOTE to wear to the gig, before I discovered the perfumer's links to the area and Monarch itself.

Monarch (upstairs) - in Geza's 'hood!!

"Wow, if I had known that Geza Schoen - to whom I feel a particular bond because he once scented my home city of Belfast - was a local, I would have spent longer hanging out in the falafel parlours on Skalitzer Strasse.  I did have a couscous in a tagine restaurant on Lausitzer Platz, and a mushroom pancake in a cafe on Oranienstrasse, but there was no sign of his distinctive rangy form in either eaterie."

Fast forward to 2018, and there has been a further twist in the tale, namely that I have made a little bit of progress in my quest to make the band adopt perfume on even a very occasional basis. For the singer has taken to wearing Ormonde Man as a stage scent every now and then, the nearest thing to having a perfume 'in rotation', as we fumeheads would say, though I don't wish to overplay it. ;) He was cheerfully unaware though of the increasingly organic connections between scent, venue and perfumer, but when I brought him up to speed, jokingly threw down the gauntlet to me with the challenge: 'Get him down the gig!'

Well, I know it was just a flip comment, but it wormed away in my mind for a while, until eventually a head of steam built up and I psyched myself up to message Geza (who, like so many people in the perfume industry whom I don't know in real life(!) is a friend on Facebook), explain all the connections that have curiously arisen between me/him/band/Kreuzberg/Belfast, and suggest meeting up before the gig for a drink and a chat about perfume. I added that he would be most welcome as a guest at the concert itself, only I had no idea what his taste in music was, such that a refusal would absolutely not offend!

And Geza wrote back in the affirmative - to meeting up for a drink initially - before later confirming that he would also like to attend the gig, and could he bring an English musician friend too?! Why, of course he could, and it further transpired that his friend knew of the band, liked their music, had one of their albums, and had commended them to Geza. All of this was starting to feel pleasantly surreal. I had been amazed in the past that fellow perfumistas had been fans of the music and/or up for coming along to gigs, but never would have imagined this particular intersection between my perfume and music worlds.

As he painstakingly wrote down the names of the guests on a piece of paper, Bid paused on Geza Schoen, remarking: 'That has to be an alias, surely?' Not at all, haha...

Source: Stadt Berlin ~ we sat on the lower terrace

So it was that at 8pm on the sunny Saturday in question, we met at a bar by the river just a hop and a skip away from Monarch, installing ourselves at a table on a terrace by the river. I drank beer and Geza had shandy, the German word for which I learnt was Alster, which is also the name of a lake in Hamburg, where the band had played the previous night. The venue's address was even 'Alstertor'. This was getting every so slightly weirder by the hour, though I am probably overly sensitive to Twilight Zone-y things. ;) After about 20 minutes or so were joined by Geza's friend, Paul - check out his own brand of electronic music here - and the conversation rightly shifted to more general topics.

Perfumewise, in the course of the evening we touched on Geza's training at Haarmann & Reiner - he was a contemporary there of Frank Voelkl, who went on to work with Firmenich. I had visited H & R myself on a study to do with fragrance ingredients (it was sadly just another chemicals job in those days!). I also explained my work connection to Kassel, Geza's home town (valves for the city's gas pipe network, since you ask ;) ), and inquired whether he wears perfume day-to-day much himself, or whether it is a bit like working in a chocolate factory. (Turns out it is!, although he is enjoying wearing a current mod featuring a ginger note.)

We talked a bit about the old synthetics vs naturals chestnut, and Geza was clear in his view that perfumes almost always benefit from a combination of the two. I asked him for his views on the 'skin chemistry' conundrum and he confirmed that it categorically is 'a thing'. He has a young daughter, and I was not surprised to learn that Geza is getting her to smell all manner of things from an early age, and confidently predict that she will go far in the business one day if she wants to! Then I surprised both Geza and his friend by saying that I had once blogged about the notion of being forced to wear the perfumes of only one house for ever, and whether that could actually put you off scent altogether. At the time - and it was many years ago, so possibly due for revisiting! - Jean-Paul Gaultier was the house that might have tipped me over the edge in that way. I was thinking of two feminine fragrances in particular: Classique and the plastic mac/bubble gum monstrosity that is Ma Dame. (Sorry, FK, whose work I normally enjoy, notably APOM pour Femme, but this was not for me.) Maybe there are more congenial scents in the line by now, but those two I found quite alarming.

Source: Escentric.com

I also brought up the topic of a project Geza had worked on with Wolfgang Georgsdorf, involving a fabulously off the wall olfactory organ called The Smeller. If you only check out one link in this post, may it be this one, as The Smeller is as hilarious as it is ingenious. Here is a taster...

'The Smeller is an electronic olfactory organ. It looks like an alien from behind, huge, with 64 writhing metal tubes. Each tube leads to a source-chamber with a single smell in it. You could put anything that has a smell in the source-chambers: an aroma-chemical, a flower, a dead fish. Wolfgang ‘plays’ these smells like someone playing the piano.'

Yet another music and scent crossover right there...!

Stage edge to drum kit is a perilous matter of inches!

And soon it was time to head to the gig, which was jam packed - or 'gerammelt voll', as they say over there. I explained that it is my wont (on account of 'tall German man at gigs' syndrome) to stand near the front if they didn't mind, and accordingly wiggled my way through the press of people to a vantage point near the stage. It was quite good that I did in fact, as the night was fraught with technical problems, and I ended up catching a light that fell on the floor and rolled under a speaker cab. The drum kit they had borrowed from the support band occupied a good two thirds of the stage area, which already seemed smaller than we remembered from last time. ;) The other band members were in constant danger of either falling off the edge of the stage themselves, or knocking off any movable items such as bass drum, mike or music stands. The mixing wasn't great in the opening few numbers either, and between all the technical mishaps, the heat, and the delayed start to the set, I was worried that Geza and Paul were not seeing the band at their best to put it mildly, and frankly wouldn't have been at all surprised not to find them still there at the end. But amazingly they were! And said that though the sound was iffy to start with, it had got better as the set went on, and they had enjoyed themselves despite these minor glitches that had seemed all too major to me.

Post-gig scene with perfume samples

Before he left, Geza kindly handed over a box of perfume samples from his Molecule and Escentric Molecule ranges and the Beautiful Mind Series - 'for the boys to sniff through'. The unorthodox method of their conveyance back to Britain will be covered in a companion post on the travel aspects of the trip, and a week later I divvied the samples up and formally distributed them to the band in little organza bags, with the following results...

So...Bid, one of the relatively more receptive members of the band, olfactorily speaking, accepted a set, ditto Jon, who if you recall had asked me to help him find a new perfume after the Edinburgh gig that fellow fumehead Crikey attended. Thanks to the collective suggestions from Bonkers readers, that project is ongoing, and now Jon has even more things to try! In an amusing turn up for the books, no sooner had I given him his haul when he was accosted in the smokers' garden of the pub where they were playing by a girl who said she worked at McDonald's, and could he give her something to mask the smell of frying oil?!! Then Andy the bass player asked if he could take them for his wife, who is Japanese, and wears scent, while he does not. And Mike the drummer said no thanks, he never wore the stuff, and neither did his girlfriend particularly, which means I have a set for reference, hurrah!

But even though he claimed not to be interested in perfume, Mike burst into the venue after the sound check, running around holding Molecule 03 aloft, the most singular of the whole selection, though it was doubtless pure chance he had picked that one out. He must have nicked it from Jon's stash...And thought it extremely odd too, saying it reminded him of fish and chips. Eh?? He sprayed it on the sound girl, who didn't know what to make of 03 either, but clearly did not mind the random aspect of being spritzed by a band member, and seemed happy to keep the sample as a souvenir - for the box at the very least, as I said to her. It is funny how Geza's perfumes are finding their way into the world in unexpected ways...

Now in due course I will try to elicit feedback on what the band made of their windfall, as I will on the complete bunch of samples I gave Jon. If anyone can 'scent' The Monochrome Set, as in encouraging them to wear more perfume, it would surely be a true original like Geza Schoen. Both he and band leader Bid (the initials of whose 'official' name are also GS, just saying ;) ) have a decidedly individualist and independent streak. They are free spirits who plough their own furrow and have turned their back on the mainstream. What's not to like about a man who, in an interview with Fragrantica, famously stated that if he hadn't been a perfumer he'd have been a 'really trendy lamp post' instead? And now - though I am still not sure that that really happened! - their paths have actually crossed...

I say, here is a pre-bagging collage of the band's samples - 10 scents x 4, except that one of the Escentric Molecules is missing (04).

I would rather like to think that was a deliberate omission on Geza's part, for I do like a curved ball...


Tara said...

Vanessa, this was the epitome of a Bonkers post! Just loved it. Always suspected GS was a diamond geezer and so he is! How funny that Mike was even caught up by one of the samples. I do agree that GS and TMS are great match.

Vanessa said...

Hi Tara,

Love the expression 'diamond geezer', which is near enough punningly perfect. Yes, I was surprised to see Mike, a non-user, entering into the spirit of things with Jon's stash. I think it is a great fit too, and haven't done proper justice in this post to The Beautiful Mind Series, which I think is excellent, from the concept of celebrating great women's minds, to the perfumes themselves, to the packaging with its evocation of neural pathways.

Undina said...

Since I’m in the camp of those who finds parallels, connections and strange coincidences in everyday life and is amused by those, to say that I loved this post is to say nothing!

I still love Molecule 01, and the only real contender on the single brand perfume wardrobe for me besides OJ is Amouage (and then probably OJ would win because it’s more versatile), so GS is one of my favorite perfumers, and I loved reading about your meeting.
I look forward to the results of your experiment with the band and to your impressions from your control group samples :)

lady jane grey said...

OJ was one of my favourites. I notoriously have the problem to use up full bottles of parfum, but I managed to do that even with two bottles of Taif. Currently I still use Tolu and N. of Oudh (which I had to spritz generously right now !). And you just made me want another bottle of Taif...
Then again I have to admit that I didn‘t like the Escentric Molecules...
Hm, so they call shandy „Alster“ - it must be a Berlin thing, I think ��

It‘s nice to know that Geza Schoen is nice (pun intended !).
Thanks for the lovely read, V. !

Vanessa said...

Hi Undina,

You are indeed a kindred spirit for spotting - and savouring - patterns and strange coincidences, so I am glad you enjoyed the post.

Molecule 01 is very wearable, I agree. I also like Escentric Molecules 01, which is a little more manly, but only slightly.

I am not surprised that Amouage is a single brand perfume wardrobe for you, but some of its scents are big occasion perfumes / big hitters, whereas OJ is more versatile as you say.

The band experiment could be a long time in the making, hehe, due to the fact that there are very few gigs left this year, but I will keep inquiring periodically. ;) And can carry on being playing 'the control', as you say, and recording my own impressions of the sample set.

Vanessa said...

Hi lady jane grey,

Lovely to hear from you, as I know commenting on Blogger is a real pain. I have half a bottle of Ta'if, courtesy of Tara, and treasure it. It is wonderful stuff. I used to have a bottle of Tiare and a split of Champaca. I am more drawn to the original range, maybe because I was still full of the wonder of discovering perfume at all back then, and the sampling of the OJ line - and doing the Perfume Portrait thing - is very nostalgic for me.

There are other words for shandy, I have since discovered. I identified 'Alster' as a Northern term, certainly, if not unique to Berlin.

Geza Schoen is nice! I used to work with a chap called Mike Pretty, which would be another equivalent.

crikey said...

Another fabulous weaving together of these worlds!

(Molecule 04 made me realise that I can't smell Javanol at all--though I wear both 01s, but, hmm, not for ages!)

Vanessa said...

Hi crikey,

Wasn't it just? How interesting about your experience of Javanol. It isn't even a musk as such to which people are commonly anosmic.

AustralianPerfumeJunkies said...

Every post is a like a murder mystery or adventure saga. The space in the universe that is BONKERS is so beautifully captured by you Vanessa and if it were a book I would devour it in a night.
Portia xx

Vanessa said...

Portia, that may be the most heartwarming and encouraging comment anyone has ever made about my blog! It will inspire me to keep doing what I do, even when I think I may be seriously nuts.:)