Above: Legowelt in his studio
The irrepressible and idiosyncratic Dutchman has found time in his packed schedule of programming games, writing e-zines and collecting synths to make one of the best records of his long career. Angus Finlayson meets him at home in The Hague.
Danny Wolfers will be the first person to admit that his music doesn’t really fit anywhere. People hear different things in it at different times. Lately, through affiliation with labels like L.I.E.S., he’s been linked to the recent trend for grubby, idiosyncratic takes on house; back in the early 2000s his track “Disco Rout” was swept up in the burgeoning electro revival. The one constant, arguably, is his hometown. The Hague isn’t exactly renowned for its thriving cultural life but, since his earliest releases in the late nineties, Wolfers has maintained close ties with the city’s various crews—first the legendary Bunker Records, an outgrowth of the squat scene that was responsible for bringing techno to The Hague; and then their equally punkish successors, Creme Organization.
The latter will be releasing Wolfers’ latest album, Crystal Cult 2080. It’s not his first—far from it—but it might well be his best, a poignant retro-futuristic techno record which balances a deep knowledge of its Detroit and Chicago heritage with a melodic sense that is Wolfers’ own. The title is partly taken from an overlooked digital synth, the Roland JV2080, which Wolfers says formed the backbone of the album. It seems fitting that, in an era when everyone else is salivating over vintage analogue gear, he has developed an obsession with the digital castoffs of the nineties.
When I visit the producer at his home by the beach, on one of the first sunny days of the year, everything is just as you’d expect. We chat over morning coffee, amongst the rows of synths that fill his living room. There are leafy potted plants dotted about and garish hangings on the walls. When I go to use the bathroom there’s a copy of Retro Gamer perched precariously on the sink. It’s easy to imagine him chipping away at his various projects here—not just making music, but programming games, publishing e-zines and posting up helpful guides to his various synth acquisitions. Wolfers’ particular brand of geekery was born in a very specific time—the early nineties, when pre-internet Bulletin Boards (or BBSes) were giving a handful of enthusiasts a glimpse of the interconnected future that awaited them. Nowadays, his eagerness to share, enlighten and entertain puts most of us web natives to shame.
When did you start going out to clubs?
When I was young I didn’t go to clubs at all. I’d just make music in my room. The first time I went to a club I was 16 or something, there was µ-Ziq—Mike Paradinas—playing in Amsterdam, at the Paradiso. So I went there all by my own, because all my friends weren’t at all into electronic house or techno music. They listened to like Top 40 music, and they thought I was crazy being into this kind of music—that I was very weird.
How old were you when you encountered the Bunker guys and what they were doing in the Hague?
Uh, I guess a few years later—it was like in the middle of the 1990s. So, like, 18, 19, 20 or something. It was very fascinating for me, of course. Because I didn’t know that in The Hague there was a scene around the music I liked and was interested in, which was more the Detroit, Chicago kind of weird stuff. In Holland you [usually] had Mellow and Gabber music.
The two extremes.
Yeah, that was it. And nothing in between for, like, the biggest part of the population. But then I found those people, and they were very interesting people—they influenced me a lot.
Did they do regular parties that you could go to?
Yeah. The boss of Bunker would have weird parties, and me and my friend Brian, Orgue Electronique—who I started collaborating with musically—we would play at these parties. We met them—Guy Tavares and Inter-Ference [of Bunker]—in a party in The Hague in 1996. I’m not sure, I think I-F was DJing and Autechre was playing or something. So we would watch those kind of shows, you know? Quite often those kind of electronic bands or DJs would play in The Hague.
The Bunker guys came out of the squat scene, that was their background, right?
Some of them, yeah.
So when you played at these parties, did they have an atmosphere that you maybe didn’t get from parties in Amsterdam?
I guess in Amsterdam you had those parties too, it was just more freaky—a lot of weird stuff could happen. It wasn’t like a commercial club—there was no real laws to behave, no security. So all kinds of different people would come there, from really artistic people to plain criminals, you know—from the obscure weird people, people with a lot of psychiatric problems, and also young school kids, and sort of rich flamboyant people. It was a very weird mix. And basically people would take a lot of drugs there. So they would pretty much flip out. Sometimes it went completely wrong I guess, but I never really experienced it, I only heard those stories. It kind of still exists—there’s a place in The Hague where Guy of Bunker still does parties, called Dystopia. And you just pay one entrance fee and then everything is free the whole night, and there’s stroboscopes and a very dark atmosphere. But it’s way more jovial these days, I think.
So you encountered the Bunker guys in the mid-late nineties. How did that whole scene change as the nineties moved into the 2000s?
This whole The Hague scene started as weird techno and acid house. And that went faster and faster and it almost went into tekno—with a “k”—like Spiral Tribe style, really crazy, drugged-up stuff. Then I guess there was an explosion—too much happened with the people of Bunker Records. Not with me because I was just a schoolboy, you know—very well-behaved. I was just playing with synthesizers and drum machines and programming computers. But this whole thing kind of exploded. I guess people got psychotic or… so then it stopped for a short time. And then Bunker re-emerged, like a phoenix, as an electro label, but like real dark electro-funk. That’s when the Bunker 3000 series started. And that was like a completely new sound. Of course it was based on a very old, early eighties sound, kind of. And then you had the whole electro revival of the early 2000s, and all of this rode on that wave of success.
You had quite a bit of success around that time with the track “Disco Rout”, which was signed to Ghostly and then licensed to Cocoon. People who’ve come to your music recently might be surprised by those connections. Did you feel like crowds at that time didn’t quite know what to make of you?
I never had any problems with Cocoon as a label, because I did a release with Cocoon quite recently again. They’re very nice people to work with, and Sven Väth is a very good DJ, and plays interesting stuff. But of course there was—I had no clue what this thing was about. When the “Disco Rout” thing was going on, we were booked to play at these big German techno raves for quite a lot of money, but I had no clue what to play there. I would bring the Bunker crew with me, and Guy Tavares would play acid tracks, and then Orgue Electronique, he couldn’t really DJ at all—nor could I—we’d play Italo disco, for example. And of course it was a bit weird at those parties. We might have only played those parties five times, and the word got around that we were kind of a strange bunch. But my music overlaps a lot of different scenes, I think. You cannot pigeonhole it into one scene. Sometimes I get to know or play at weird parties. I even played at a reggae festival one time—I have no clue why. Or, like, an industrial goth festival. That doesn’t happen that much but in the early 2000s it was very common that we would play at a goth festival. I even played in support for a band called Alphaville. All kinds of strange worlds everywhere.
I wanted to talk about the new album. It has this really dreamy sound, there’s a foggy, misty quality to it that’s really nice. Is that down to this synth, the JV2080?
Well, the JV2080 was the de facto pop production synth of the 1990s, so it can also sound really poppy and clear. I think the fogginess comes mainly because there’s bucketloads of delay, old analogue fuzzy effects over it—either real ones or simulated in the computer.
What’s the appeal of that synth? Why did you find yourself working with it so much?
Well, because nowadays everybody is into analogue stuff. And all these brands are making analogue stuff—like Korg. For me that stuff is very boring, because in the nineties I had that stuff—we had that stuff because it was cheap. We wanted to have samplers, and we wanted to have a Kurzweil K2000 or a Roland W-30 workstation. But we didn’t have the money. So we got this cheap analogue stuff, that’s very expensive now. So recently, two years ago, I bought that JV2080 synthesizer. And it’s just a very nice-sounding thing, and you can do so much with it, there’s so many different worlds you can explore with it. For these times, such a synthesizer’s very different from what other people are using. It sounds, I guess, more exotic. For me it’s more fun to work with such a machine, than to have a [Korg] MS-20 with only like a [mouths rudimentary synth sound], you know?
Are these things cheap now, as well? Digital synths?
Yeah, the digital synthesizers are the cheapest synths you can get. You can get cool ones for 50 euros—that cost a lot of money in the nineties.
I enjoyed reading your zine, Order of the Shadow Wolf, the other week. Why did you decide to do that?
I don’t really remember anymore. Uh, I think I wrote most of the whole thing under the influence, on drugs, one afternoon.
Did you read these .txt zines in the nineties?
Yeah, yeah, BBSes and stuff. I thought when I released [the zine] nobody would have a clue what it was, because for somebody that’s been on computers after—when did the internet kick in—1996, say… and even before then, people that were on BBSes were only a handful. So I thought, “Nobody is going to understand this,” but it was received quite well, to my surprise. There might be a second edition soon—I hope this month, else April.
So the BBS thing. This was way before my time. How did it work?
Well if you had a computer, you bought a dial-up modem and you connected that to your telephone outlet, and then you typed in the number on the computer and it would call somebody’s house, who had a computer with the BBS on it. And there were kind of forums on those BBSes, like proto-forums. Because this is a pretty cyberpunk style, these BBSes, futuristic people were on there. So of course there were a lot of people who listened to electronic music. So there were specialized BBSes about electronic music. You know, people had their hobby and made a BBS about it. Normal magazines didn’t really say much about, for example, Underground Resistance, but there were BBSes that had information about it, like a whole discography of Underground Resistance in .txt format. And it was very fascinating as an adolescent to look at that. And you had people you could talk to about it.
And was this all people in the Netherlands you were talking to, or was it worldwide?
Well, mostly in the Netherlands, because it was still pretty localized. Because you had to call—even calling outside the city was very expensive, so you would try to have a local call. Or maybe call Amsterdam, which was more worldly, so you might find a more interesting BBS there. Back then, I met people on there—the guy from Delsin Records, for example. And we used to trade tapes with our own music, or music we’d bought in the record store, we’d record the vinyl. Then I’d call these people I’d never seen before—we’d call and talk about music. At school here I didn’t know anybody who was into the same music. So it was very exciting for me to be able to communicate with these people.
What’s your view on the relationship between electronic music and the internet these days? Plenty of people will say that it’s damaging to electronic music now—perhaps because people can pirate music, or because online spaces are being prioritized over physical club spaces.
Well I think it’s great—it’s one of the key, how do you call it, pillars of electronic music. Especially in its cyberpunk ethos, you know? They go hand in hand, on so many levels. But the whole world is on the internet now, so it’s useless talk to think that it’s damaging. Maybe it’s damaging certain parts, but the positive sides are so immense. So I guess I never think about it like that. I’m quite active on the internet, like a lot of people. I have my own homepage and e-zine, all those little things always.
These projects besides your music seem like a big part of your activities—aside from the e-zine you’ve programmed games, you make sample packs, you write about your synths on the site. As a professional musician, you must have in the back of your mind that the way you earn your money is to make music and perform. So how do you find the time to do this other stuff? How do you strike a balance between these two things?
Well I think it’s also important to do that other stuff. As an artist, I think these things are a little bit extra you can give the audience. And they seem to appreciate it. And it’s just fun to do. It’s also – if you’re making music all day you get crazy, so it’s nice to some days just fiddle about with the synthesizer, record some useless loops as a demonstration and make some pictures of the synthesizer and write something about it. Because it’s part of my culture, you know? I present not only music, but also the whole world behind it. When I was a boy or an adolescent and I would see these things that are on my site now, I would be very excited. It’s like the BBS thing—like little news clippings and weird stuff everywhere. So I do that because I think people will be excited about it. ~
Legowelt’s Crystal Cult 2080 is out March 31st via Creme Organization.