Brothers Wolfgang and Reinhard Voigt have spent the last twenty years building and running Cologne’s Kompakt empire, producing an innumerable amount of records under various guises. Whereas Reinhard took to producing techno for the dancefloor, Wolfgang has explored the mythology of the German forest in his GAS project, worked with Jörg Burger in Mohn, and has recently taken to the piano. Except when he’s producing art, of course.
2013 promises to be another busy year for the two. Not only will Kompakt be celebrating their twentieth anniversary by releasing a compilation CD and going on tour in selected record stores and art galleries, the two brothers have also just released their first full album Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderenunder the moniker Voigt & Voigt. Christian Werthschulte sat down with the two in their Bavarian-themed lounge at the fabulously camp 1950s Kompakt HQ.
I came across a clip on YouTube from one of the early Cosmic Orgasm parties here in Cologne. In this clip, Wolfgang can be seen talking to one of the DJs. The video must be roughly 20 years old by now, so it’s from around the time you opened your first record shop, which later turned into Kompakt. What did those parties feel like?
Wolfgang: They felt like the beginning of something new, there was an overall spirit of optimism. There were always two DJs at the Cosmic Orgasm parties. Triple R [aka Riley Reinhold of Trapez Records] usually played a set of straight techno only. Sascha Kösch, who went by the moniker Bleed and who’s now an editor at De:Bug, played early jungle and breakbeat. What I found interesting with these underground parties in clubs and run-down factory buildings was that—just like it was the case with acid a few years before—the subversive form of underground culture was a dance culture, and not any longer only four guys with guitars on the everlasting rock stage. Suddenly, the discotheque was the new underground.
Reinhard: There were a lot of parties at the time in Cologne, you could submit yourself to the onslaught of techno music on the dancefloor even during the week.
W: And that was something that was new for Cologne, which had been dominated by the Spex-like discursive indie rock, which happened in bars or concerts before. And it help liberate the body of us 1980s-type old farts.
R: Although this had already happened in 1988 when we went to acid parties.
W: Yes, but one was a little bit more inhibited back then. When techno broke in 1990/1991 and after three or four beers, one did join the crowd on the dancefloor. An unforgettable experience.
If you look back on those days—did you maybe also harbor some illusions?
W: I’m not sure whether one should call that ‘illusions’. We wanted free and independent parties, even financially independent. We wanted to go to parties where you don’t have problems getting past the bouncers—not parties for people who went ‘on a night out’ or parties for capital. We wanted to play free, new music.
R: Obviously, all of this is well established after twenty years. But techno is still the most relevant form of dance music there is. Every weekend, the good old straight bass drum still unites the people on the dancefloor.
W: Obviously, techno has reached its peak a long time ago, but even today one can come up with new styles by combining existing ones or by being inspired by historical ones, without simply reviving them. After techno music there will always be techno music.
R: Everything shows a little wear after a while, but remembering this energy, these parties, this euphoria—that was really a unique experience.
W: It has become a way of life and just as rock ’n’ roll did before. It has also become part of the history of popular music. We’ve spent years in circles, where people would discuss the straight bass drum from the early morning until late in the evening. But you can also grow old and become a responsible adult while still enjoying techno music. Or—to quote the Pet Shop Boys—“Too much of everything/Is never enough.”
R: It’s not as if people have stopped producing techno. The young people just use Ableton instead of synths. Me, I spend my days doing administrative work and accounting here at Kompakt. But in the evenings I devote most of my time to listening to new records without distractions or to spend some time in the studio.
W: That’s where the two of us differ. I’ve handed over most of my part in doing A&R for the Kompakt labels to Michael Mayer. Ever since I’ve devoted myself again to my creative side in music and art, I’ve needed to put some distance between me and the running of the everyday music business.
There are two parallel releases from Voigt & Voigt: Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderen, your debut album, and the Erdingertrax, a compilation of more straightforward techno tracks. How much do these two represent two sides of the same coin?
R: We produced both at the same time. And the more we could pursue our vision of techno on Erdingertrax, the more we could use Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderen to explore musical genres that were completely new for us: indie-electronica, the aesthetics of krautrock, and references to film soundtracks.
W: It all depends on the choice of beer.
R: Yes, if we have some Erdinger, the music is supposed to be loud.
W: The people expect us to produce some kind of techno music that you can play in a club. And so they should! This is why we did the Erdingertrax. In turn, producing those has given us even more freedom to reach far beyond the bass drum on our album.
Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderen almost seems like an ambient record to me. Not in the sense of being part of ambient, the genre, but rather in the sense of Brian Eno’s meditation about the sounds of a surrounding. In that sense, it almost seems like a continuation of Wolfgang’s project GAS, but one which I would describe as typical for West Germany, maybe even for the Rhineland.
W: If you think of krautrock when you say “West German”, I’d partially agree. There are certain references to that, but we wanted the record to sound like indie-electronic, for instance. But first of all we want to cut loose a little, and in the studio we frequently connected to the good old ghosts and friends of our common musical history. And in this particular case, these were the English pop music heroes of the 1980s: George Michael, Robert Palmer, ABC, Prefab Sprout, and Scritti Politti. This is where Reinhard and I overlap.
R: While we were producing that record we always enriched and stimulated ourselves with this kind of energy. It’s become so incredibly simple to connect to that today. It only takes the click of a mouse button.
W: It was bit like an evening with your mates in the basement of your parents’ house. You will listen to your favorite records, have a couple of beers and a jolly good time. This kind of spirit hovered over us when we were producing this record. This is also where the title comes from. Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderen—“the enchanting world of the others”. Those “others” are some of our favorite music, some of our favorite films from the 1980s. But our record doesn’t sound like them, we haven’t sampled or quoted any of those, we’ve simply connected to this kind of energy, this kind of spirit.
Did you go and see Scritti Politti play when they were in Cologne a few months ago?
R: That was absolutely amazing. Wolfgang even met Green Gartside.
W: Yes. Imagine being a devout Catholic and having the opportunity to shake Jesus’ Hand. That’s how it felt. He’s like a saint to us. Throughout the 1980s, we’ve spent more time discussing Scritti Politti’s Cupid & Psyche than we later spent debating all the techno records. And we talked about those a lot.
Even though you admire Scritti Politti so strongly, there seems to be big difference in the way you treat your quotations and references.
R: Yes, but Scritti Politti employ language more than we do, they possess this ability to express their intellectuality through language.
True. But I was thinking in musical terms. Scritti Politti quote musical styles directly, for example the way they incorporate lovers rock into their songs. Your way of appropriation seems different to me.
W: Scritti refer brilliantly to soul and reggae. No one can do that like they do. Green Gartside takes the theories of Deleuze and Foucault or even structuralism and applies them to the medium of the pop song. Our approach is completely different. We connect to a certain aesthetic via an abstract form of sampling. We want to obliterate the traces of sampling. We don’t want to use sampling the way that Larry Heard did it on “Can You Feel It”—that’s something you could twenty years ago, but not today. We drift towards the abstract. It’s a bit like making a good soup. You can detect the carrots and onions, but you’re not supposed to understand the whole recipe. But the soup is delicious. Why that is so is of no importance.
How would you describe the relation between sample sources and the tools you use? I sometimes have the impression that abstract forms of sampling shift emphasis to the specific sound of the software that was used.
W: You shouldn’t let that bother you. We’re not into the technological side too much, it’s just a tool for us. Of course, there are certain buttons that you shouldn’t press and we hope that we’ve never done so yet.
R: You transform sounds until they’ve become something else instead of just feeding them into a track.
W: We don’t want adorn ourselves with borrowed plumes. There’s a point at which you realise that explicit sampling might divert attention from the result. And that result is what counts, not the ‘quote’.
R: That’s why we often discard samples even if we like them, if you can’t disconnect them from their source. You feel a little sad in those moments, but this is not something that lasts long, because you discover new and different things while recording. That’s one the best moments during the recording—this moment of total surprise. I love that moment.
W: I’m worse than Reinhard in that regard, he will often rap my knuckles if I press the wrong buttons. When you work alone, you often start to believe in your own omniscience, but after we had finished this record, we both said that neither of us could have made this record on his own. You’re in this together because you’re looking for a kind of symbiosis. We don’t feel the need anymore to meet the expectations of our listeners, which is of course related to the overall situation of the music market. If you only deal with a fraction of the former sales, then you start to loosen up and it doesn’t matter if you produce a record for DJs with the appropriate speed and so on.
Do you know if people play tracks from the record in clubs?
W:I’ve recently heard “Triptychon Nummer 7” from the record in a big club and it sounded amazing. Of course, club music has to work on the dancefloor, and for that you need a certain sound. But many progressive DJs have started to incorporate sound experiments and real ideas to freshen up the uniformity of their minimal techno sets. We welcome that, sure.
So, dancing is still imperative with you – no surprises there. But it seems as if you wanted to transport a certain kind of harmony that existed between the two of you when you recorded that album. What was so special about that?
W: Of course, it’s quite usual to have a hard time while recording and this was sometimes the case with us as well. In the ’90s you would have bitten through such periods of time by spending hours searching for the right bass drum. But this time we’ve relaxed and rather watched old videos on YouTube instead.
R: That was really something. For the first time, I watched video clips of songs from my youth which I absolutely adored. And this was a completely new experience to me. From previous projects, I can remember nights in the studio that were incredibly viscious. This time it wasn’t like that at all.
W: We definitely wanted to keep all the ruptures, all the shifts in style, all the changing ideas in our tracks. Sometimes we’ve interrupted a rhythm for minutes because we wanted to overhaul a track right at half its length. But we don’t debate as much as we used to. We let our feelings go if something feels new and exciting. If early techno has liberated the bodies and asses of us discursive pop types, then we’ve liberated our producer mindset with this record.
Speaking of YouTube. One of the main ideas in Simon Reynolds’ Retromania is that the omnipresence of pop music’s history prevents the reinvention of pop music. But since your experience with using YouTube seems to be quite contrary to that, I’m curious as to what you think of Reynolds’ idea?
W: We share that concern. We run a record store and a label and of course we’re concerned that the constant availability of everything, the arbitrariness of it all, devalues one’s own piece of art. The individual art piece suffers from its 5000 duplicates. But we don’t want to become to ideologic about this. Music means doing it anyhow.
But still, I feel that there’s a streak of nostalgia in Voigt & Voigt.
W: Yes, Die zauberhafte Welt der Anderen is a completely nostalgic record, but it’s not retro.
R: To me nostalgia is something positive, it has a certain emotional depth because it connects you to positive moments and memories. It’s not sentimental or even melancholic.
W: As we’ve said before, we wanted to connect to a certain spirit, in the sense of personal memories. Of course this can be nostalgic. When we went to the studio, we wanted it to be like an evening with the family where you play cards. We wanted to say, “This evening is just for making music.” And 80% of the time we laughed. We know that we have an obligation , even towards ourselves. But we feel more free now. The thing that we didn’t want to do was to produce a record where the first thing you hear if you put the needle on it was the good old, “boom-tschi, boom-tschi, boom-tschi.”
R: Breaking with the expectations by not making a techno record—we took a risk with that.
W: Techno’s always inside us anyhow. Even with this record, we’re always in the proximity of ourselves, I mean, we did not record an opera or something like that. It’s more about letting go while still being in control. We wanted chance, unexpected things, twists and turns. But all of this rests on a double bottom, a foundation on which you stand firmly. And that foundation is Kompakt.~