How Travelling Fuels Digitalism’s Creativity

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The Hamburg duo explain how being on the road influenced the creative process for their third studio album, 'Mirage'.

It’s been five years since Ismail Tuefekci and Jence Moelle, better known as Digitalism, released their last LP, I Love You Dude. But they haven’t spent all that time on the couch; they’ve maintained a rigorous global touring schedule. As it happens, travelling has had quite a creative impact on the duo via exposure to new music, new places and new experiences. Now, as Tuefecki and Moelle prepare to release their third LP, Mirage, we sat down with both Tuefecki and Moelle in Los Angeles for a wide-reaching discussion on the inspirational aspects of being a musician on the move.

A few weeks ago, Hamburg’s legendary Golden Pudel Club burnt down to the ground. Do you miss it?

Ismail Tuefekci: The Pudel has definitely been one of our formative places in the city. We hung out and played gigs and even once shot a photo session there. Another place that’s unfortunately lost forever for people like us is the Kehr Wieder Spitze, the western promontory of Hamburg’s warehouse district, Speicherstadt. In the ‘90s it was a wasteland where many raves and parties took place. But that’s not possible anymore. The Kehr Wieder Spitze has become the forecourt of the Elbphilarmonie, Hamburg’s megalomaniac new philharmonic hall.

Jence Moelle: Musicians in Hamburg don’t seem to bond easily. They may acknowledge one another’s work and legacies, but they don’t necessarily hang out together a lot. The Pudel became one of the few exceptions where you could’ve met another local producer or DJ by accident.

Why do you think that’s the case?

JM: In Hamburg, people work all day; in Berlin, they nurse hangovers. But on a personal level, we don’t make a lot of local friends because we’re constantly travelling. Hamburg is called “the gate to the world” for a reason: you can get away easily. Our new album, Mirage, is the result of our constant and restless travelling.

Is it an album about travelling?

JM: It’s more that it’s easier for me to be creative when I’m in motion—be it in a car, on a train, on a ferry or a plane. Even when we’re traveling the world on an almost weekly basis, the moment of arrival remains an inspiring sensation, so I could name a few examples where a song I wrote is related to a city. But I don’t think it would change the way you listen to our music.

IT: Once we arrive in a city we usually have to obey a strict itinerary. I can remember many moments—random encounters, scents, sounds—from specific gigs or cities. Living out of a suitcase leads to memorizing the world like a jigsaw puzzle; everything becomes fragmented. That’s also something I like about travelling.

The band Brandt Brauer Frick takes photos of the airport tower at every city they visit, and Blixa Bargeld serially photographs all the bathrooms of the hotels he stays in.

JM: What happens if he’s at home?

Then there’s no photo. Do you track your movements like that?

JM: I have my own blog where I post photos from time to time.

IT: I don’t need a blog to reflect the world.

JM: We were in Silver Lake in Los Angeles the other day. I sat in a café gazing at the tall palm trees and realized: the sun is shining constantly here. People chill. I might then want to write a relaxed track that’d capture the relaxed Silver Lake mood. I like to think of it as if I was a painter who takes a picture with his cell phone to freeze the moment and to later paint it.

IT: I was impressed by the beautiful cars in Los Angeles. I liked all the vintage Ford Mustangs passing by. The thing with Southern California is that it never rains, so cars survive in that climate without rusting. I can imagine myself cruising on the freeway to Pasadena. But I don’t have a driving license.

JM: Me neither.

IT: That’s when the imagination sets in, and then we start jamming in the studio. I think that travelling the world has introduced us to a new approach when it comes to making music. In the past we’d spend six weeks or more on one track, lost in perfection. Nowadays we prepare loops and whatever else we want to use and then meet in the studio to bang out what we’ve been working on, and it only takes us a few days to finish a track.

JM: We travel to the same places but we see different things. When we meet again in the studio we try to paint the picture from two different perspectives. Only then do we complete the music.

How did you write the two title tracks of your new album, “Mirage 1” and “Mirage 2”, and why did you call them “mirage”?

JM: “Mirage” is another term for Fata Morgana, and as we all know there’s also a hotel of the same name in Las Vegas—which, by the way, is a very appropriate name for a hotel in a gambling town.

IT: And don’t forget: The French built the infamous Mirage military jet.

JM: When we had finished approximately 80 percent of the album we found ourselves discussing the term “mirage” as a possible album title. We both liked its connotations. And regarding the way we produce music, the two twin tracks “Mirage 1” and “2” are a prime example. We sometimes try to incorporate new song sketches into our DJ sets to see how these tracks will work in a live situation. When we found out that the original version of “Mirage” had its moments but didn’t yet work as a proper track, we separated the elements and collaged two new tracks that each featured loops or harmonic scales from the original sketches.

Is Mirage linked to a specific city?

JM: It is, actually. It’s the dystopian side of Los Angeles—its dark Blade Runner flip side. In a way you could say that our new album is a bit like going to Disneyland; you can visit a variety of theme parks, from Star Wars to Cinderella, and each song on our new album is like a theme park.

Did any other cities leave their mark on Mirage?

IT: Tokyo is another very good example. To me it’s like a Playmobil City—and I mean that in a totally positive sense. Jence and I feel like little Playmobil toy figures in the midst of Tokyo’s neon billboards. Between gigs we were invited to dinners in traditional restaurants that only ever serve only one dish. They specialize in regularly preparing that one taste, and in their specific field of expertise they’re supposed to be the best. I’d say that this food experience has trickled into our process of making music. I’ve started to focus more on the details.

JM: Our track “Destination Breakdown” has a soft spot for New York disco. And “Open Waters” is linked to Brazil. Do you know the video game Street Fighter II? When you play it you can choose from a variety of exotic backdrops. Our music could have the same function to the listener as these virtual video game backdrops.

Do you play a lot of video games?

JM: I grew up playing video games. I was also trying to hack my home computer. But all that basically stopped around 1992, and I haven’t played that much since then. The simplest games left the deepest impression on me, like early MS-DOS games with 8-bit music. It doesn’t get more minimal than that. I try to incorporate such experiences into the music we make as Digitalism. Music has to leave an open space for meandering thoughts. One should be able to drift away while listening to our music.

IT: Jence and I watch a lot of films, and I always listen carefully to their scores and soundtracks. That got me into Middle Eastern soundtracks to Turkish and Iranian films.

Would a trip to Tehran to buy Iranian soundtracks on vinyl appeal to you?

IT: It probably would, especially because I’m particularly interested in Oriental soundtracks from the 1950s and ‘60s. I’m originally from Turkey and I regularly travel to Istanbul. You can’t believe what treasures the vinyl shops are selling there! You’d probably need some friendly advice to locate them, but they sell mindblowing records.

Do you play those records to Jence?

IT: Always. And while we were once talking about soundtracks we found out that we both loved the music of the Bud Spencer and Terence Hill movies by Guido and Maurizio de Angelis.

Where and when would you play such music to each other?

IT: We always meet at the bunker—that is, our studio in Hamburg. We have an office space in the studio and we put our two desks facing each other.

JM: We can always see ourselves. In a way this constellation reminds me of us working together in that record store in Hamburg back in the day. We had our tables arranged in the same way and we’d always play new music to each other.

IT: When I was still a customer at the store where Jence worked, he’d always suggest specific records he had picked for me, and he was almost always right anticipating my musical taste. Somehow we’re continuing this little tradition when I play him Oriental soundtracks from the times when Arabian movies were still black-and-white.

JM: It’s so much more inspiring to be confronted with music that someone else suggests than to try and dig it out all by yourself.

Your last album, I Love You Dude, was released in 2011. How come it took so long to produce the follow-up? And how do you know—regarding the long production process—that a new album is ready for release?

IT: We actually only worked hard for six months to finish the album. Before that we’ve released a couple of singles and an entire DJ-Kicks record. And we did a lot of concerts and tours. It’s not that we haven’t been active during the last five years.

JM: Last year, when we were on tour in the US, we realized that it’d be nice to have some genuinely new tracks in our setlists. This was really the kick-off moment when we started to think about a possible new album. But it’s not that easy to find a starting point when everything around you seems to be constantly in flux. And worse than that, nobody puts any pressure on us. There was no deadline for Mirage. So I’m fascinated that we finally nailed it and got 15 new tracks that we think are worth releasing.

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