Dial Records’ techno necromancer has distilled three months in Japan into a shimmering, masterful new album, Decay.
Philip Sherburne talks to him about travel, techno and the idea of decay. Plus, an exclusive stream of the entirety of the new album.
Efdemin is laughing, which is something he does frequently. Right now, he’s laughing with relief, as he recovers from a night of acute food poisoning spent huddled on the floor of his bathroom in a hotel in Jerusalem. “I was at a friend’s house, and they made this amazing food,” he says, “but maybe something was wrong with the meat, I don’t know. It tasted really good, but somehow it nearly killed me!” He bursts out laughing again. “It feels so good to hear someone I know! But really, I’m much better now. I just had a little breakfast of tea and Zwieback, and I’m enjoying it so much right now, lying here on my back.”
Efdemin—Phillip Sollmann, originally from Kassel and based, for the past nine years, in Berlin—has come to savor these sorts of sights in the seven or eight years that he’s been traveling as a DJ. “It’s strange,” he says. “Sometimes you travel for one day, and you end up being in the other side of the world, in Berlin or L.A. or something, and it looks exactly the same. And sometimes it’s sad, I think.”
A former student of electroacoustic music in Vienna, he released his first EP on Hamburg’s Dial label, his longtime home base, in 2004, and has spent the past decade winding his way through the house/techno double helix, both as a producer and a DJ. He brings a similar aesthetic to both crafts, carving long, rippling shapes with a dull gleam. There aren’t many DJs whose sets sound more like their own records, and vice versa—no matter whose records he’s playing. In recent years, his own output has slowed; to hear him tell it, studio time has become a victim to his traveling schedule. But he reversed the trend last fall, when he and his partner, the artist Hanna Schwarz, received a grant to spend three months in Japan working on a collaborative film project. While in Kyoto, Sollmann dug into a hard drive full of sketches and jams he had made back in his studio in Berlin and came up with Decay, his third album.
His first long-player since 2010’s Chicago, Decay marks a shift away from the loping pulse of house, and back towards the elegantly corkscrewing path of techno. But aside from the different approach to the groove, a sense of continuity with the rest of his catalog prevails—the stray voices, the pneumatic heft, the all-encompassing shimmer.
Have you been to Israel before?
Many times, yeah. I have very close friends here. I came here six times, I think. I just posted a mix I did in Jerusalem the first time I came, which was quite nice listening to yesterday.
Speaking of traveling, let’s talk about Kyoto, which I understand was a big part of the making of the album.
That feels so far away right now, but yeah, sure it was.
How did you end up going there? I understand you and your partner had a grant.
Exactly. For three months, we had this artists’ residency program, and we could live there. It was a very luxurious situation. We had three months’ time to explore the country and culture. We started working on a little film, which is an ongoing for the next two years, maybe, which I cannot talk so much about now because it’s very much in the process of making. But that was really interesting for me, something quite new, working with film.
You’re working on the film itself?
Mm-hmm. We’re working together on this, and of course I’ll be taking care of the sound in the end. Music will play a big role in that—also some traditional instruments. We did a lot of research with many people, like musical instrument makers, and went to many temples and took part in these religious performances in Buddhist temples. That was really mind-blowing for me, because I don’t have any religious experiences and I was never interested in that. Buddhism is quite interesting because it’s so free. If you come from a Christian background, it feels pretty easy, everything.
It was very interesting to have so much time. Normally, when you travel somewhere, you’re there for two, three days, maximum, and here we could really go a bit deeper into things. Maybe the title Decay also derived from that, because a big part of the Buddhist concept is to include this in your life, which I think the Christian culture tries to avoid thinking of, somehow. We don’t like talking about death. It was really interesting to feel that difference. Of course, your life will have an end. I could feel it last night! I felt so close, man. [laughs]
In what ways do you see decay manifested in the culture?
I don’t want to point to any certain direction of this title, because it could lead to many different ideas. I think it’s quite a broad plateau you can project things on. But the Buddhist concept is more about seeing life as a circle, and of course decay is a big part of that. And it’s nothing bad. Your body is decaying, and your life has a distinct end. I just started to realize that there’s a big difference—maybe there’s not so much fear of death in Japan.
You were in Kyoto?
Yes, and we traveled a lot from there.
What’s it like?
Kyoto is very different compared to the rest of the Japan. Nara and Kyoto—Nara is one hour away—these are the two cities that were not completely destroyed during the war or by earthquakes, so you have thousands of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines there. It’s a bit like Mecca for Muslims, so all the Japanese people travel there as much as they can, at least once in their life, to explore original Japan. You have all these wooden houses left, and of course it has a contemporary part, but the basic experience is like 17th, 18th-century Japanese life, and even older. Some temples are a thousand years old, and you have all these Zen gardens everywhere. You can just stroll around, from temple to temple to shrine, and it’s pretty mind-blowing—like a huge, outdoor museum.
Then you can take the train to Osaka, where our friends are based—we did that quite often, just to have this contrast. After one hour you’re in this super-urban, futuristic, Japanese city with all the highways; it’s not beautiful at all. I did like that a lot, having this contrast. “Hey, let’s go to Osaka—wow, it’s so different!”
You had been to Japan before, I assume?
Yeah, I had been there seven times or something? It was always my favorite country to play. Now, the whole club culture is going down and all the good clubs are closing, because they’re not allowed to open later than one o’clock at night, which makes no sense for a techno club.
But it used to be the perfect club scene, which was basically the best-sounding clubs I ever played in—amazing, handmade systems, most of the time, and no light in the clubs. So you would have just the best sound, and that’s it. You don’t see the people, and maybe every ten minutes there’s a light flashing, that’s it. You have to use your phone to look for records! You can play vinyl, and it’s so great, because everything is in perfect condition, new needles and absorbers and whatever. Of course, because they have such passion about having the perfect setup. One reason I like being a DJ is going to Japan at least once a year, and I try to go there twice a year. Now it’s a bit different, because the club scene is kind of dying. Hopefully there are some people coming back, but it’s really hard to get a nice tour.
It used to be you could go for one week and play two weekends and travel the country, but that is not possible any more, because nobody can afford that. It’s really, really sad. Not only do they have a great knowledge of this music, which goes much deeper than most of the other crowds I’ve played to, but also have this passion of giving you the best time, offering the best food, traveling with you. It’s so, so nice, really. I hope I can go back there soon.
The thing you tend to hear about Japan is that it’s initially so bewildering, to a newcomer. What was it like to be there for an extended period?
We had a teacher twice a week. Hanna and I studied Japanese before we went there, and we were able to read two of the three alphabets, so that made it a bit easier. For example, we could read that this is a restaurant, or this is a laundry or bakery or whatever. Sometimes you don’t see what it is, because it looks so different. These two alphabets are really cool. Of course the main alphabet, the kanji, the Chinese letters, you need to learn about, I don’t know, 6000 of them to really read a newspaper, for example. It’s a very different way of thinking. We started writing a little bit with our teacher and realized that this is a very different concept of speaking: leaving many things open when you’re saying something. You’re never sure. You cannot say that this is exactly what somebody says; it could be this or it could be that. It’s very interesting. It’s a very important concept in Japanese culture, I think.
My buddy Lawrence, he’s even more into writing and reading and speaking Japanese than we are, because he’s been studying that for a while now. When he comes, he can really talk to the taxi driver and, you know, ask things. It was fun because he was there for like two weeks, and we traveled a little bit. It was so funny, we were always like, “No, no, you can’t say it this way, it would be really rude, don’t do this,”—because it’s a very complicated language system. You always have to address all the things like gender, age, hierarchy—if you don’t do this, it sounds very rude. For foreigners, it’s OK, you just say a very basic thing, like, “Give me the tea,” and that’s OK. But you would normally say, like, “Please, sir, you are older than me and you are a man, could you maybe pass me the tea, would it be possible?” or something like that. It’s really complicated.
Tell me more about making the album. I understand that you began it in Berlin and completed it in Japan.
Yeah. I did most of the recordings in my studio in Berlin, but it was all unfinished loops and jams, and nothing really finished. When I arrived there, I realized it might be a good place to concentrate, being away from all the daily business, routines and DJ traveling, etc. That was in fact true, I could work there so well, just with headphones. It was quite a fast process—just selecting things from the recordings I brought there and arranging it. I think in three weeks, basic things were done. Then I played it for Lawrence [aka Dial co-founder Peter M. Kersten], and he said, “Yeah, let’s go, that’s it.” Then it was done and we could travel again. Because my partner was like, “Hey, you can’t spend the whole time we’re in Kyoto working on your album.”
I’ve been listening to Chicago and Decay back to back, and I’m struck by how much continuity there is between them. At the same time, the new album sounds more focused, somehow. Purer.
Yeah, I feel the same. I think with the situation in Kyoto, I felt much more focused. It was an easier process to finalize things. Maybe because it was like this two-step thing, where I could only work with the material I had already recorded, and I couldn’t change anything, because the gear was not around any more. I just had to live with what I had on my hard drive, because most stuff is recorded from machines or instruments. That is quite a good way for me to work, because I have the problem of going in too many directions when I have all that possibility, and I keep losing my way. This time I just had what I brought, and it was kind of like a limitation. You know? I just had to choose from what I had, what I like, and what I want to do with it.
Listening to the set from Jerusalem seven years ago, that was a techno set, but over the last two years I started focusing more on my Terrence Dixon, Jeff Mills side when I play, not playing so much house. I mean, I do this of course as well, but I had an interest in more nineties Detroit techno again, and I think you can hear this in the album as well. It’s a bit going back to the early influences somehow.
It’s very linear—these long, drawn-out shapes that don’t really have a beginning or an end.
Right. I don’t know, hopefully people like it. [laughs] I like the first track a lot. I think the first project might be a starting point for future productions—an abstract, droney loop where it’s just about shifting frequencies and some phasing, and that’s basically it. It’s the one I keep listening to in the car, because it sounds so good when you drive.
Something I really like is the glassy sound that you use. Did your time studying electroacoustic music in Vienna play a role in creating sounds for this record?
Maybe a little bit. There’s some Max/MSP sources; the sounds are from older patches that I found on an old computer. They’re all FM-based. Then there’s this synth that I love so much, it’s like a little DX7, also by Yamaha. I’ve been using this a lot. Most of these bells are from this synth. I think the first track, like I said, might open up a new path for future productions. With my other musical interests, I didn’t focus on this kind of droney experimental thing for the last six or seven years, because I was traveling and playing as a DJ so much. I want that to come back in my artistic production. I did some sound installations in the past few years, and they were all super-droney and very much based on the physical size of the venues, working with resonance and stuff, and that is what I am really interested in—besides being a DJ and playing parties for ten hours, which is also nice, but it’s not the whole story. I’m trying to bring that back into my life. I’m getting older, and you can tell the decay starts. [laughs]
I think club culture can be very conservative, not to mention very exhausting, the way its pendulum swings from hype to hype.
I was thinking about that yesterday. I’m quite happy with my—let’s call it—career. Because I don’t feel like I’ve been involved in too many hypes that would limit me to a certain music or crowd or club scene. I try to keep it as open as I can as a DJ and a producer, and I think people recognize that. When I put out my first album, I never would have thought I’d still be playing. That was not my plan, not my intention. Looking out the window now, you know, realizing that this is possible because some people like my music and invite me, it’s great.
Have you had to be careful about which gigs you take, or has finding your own way been natural?
I think I work very closely with my agent, and now, being with Ostgut for two or three years, it’s already like a filter, you know? If you work with the Berghain behind you, somehow, some people don’t maybe request you any more, and that is sometimes a good thing. [laughs]
Also, people have a very high respect for the whole machine there, and I think we get treated quite well. We take a look at every request and check out what the guys are like, what their history is, and then sometimes it’s clear after ten seconds that this is not what we’re interested in. I can say the last few years it got much better, and it’s quite nice. Most of the requests are perfect and fitting, and you end up playing in front of a very nice crowd.
How do you feel about Berlin these days, especially this discussion about gentrification and its effect on the club scene?
Mmm. Hmm. Hm. It’s a very complex question, I think, because I’m not someone who is going out very much, besides playing and traveling quite regularly. You won’t find me in clubs so many times. I can’t behave, you know, when I go out. [laughs] I try to stay away.
But I think, still, it’s very impressive. I think Panorama Bar and Berghain is still the best place for me to play. I’ve been playing in so many venues over the last years, but coming back there is still very, very impressive. It’s always has this certain quality and special vibe. I don’t know, even if it’s not the craziest night, it’s a difference. That’s because everyone who comes in there has very high expectations, so everyone is working up to a very special night, every time. But of course it changed a lot. Before, there were all these afterhours. You know, honestly I was never really part of that.
It’s still a very diverse place, and you have all the freedom to do whatever you want in Berlin. About Blank is a great place, but that’s basically it. I’m not the one to really ask about how the club scene changed.
When we spoke the other day you said you were living in Mitte, and you went between your apartment and Hard Wax, and that was all you saw of the city these days.
And my studio in Wedding, where I spend a lot of time, which is a great area in Berlin. It’s not so gentrified as the rest. I haven’t been to Neukölln in a while, so I don’t know what it’s like these days, but I hear horrible things from people that live there. These crowds of Canadian tourists rushing through their streets! But we should be lucky that so many people come to Berlin. It has this very special Selbstverständnis—you can speak English with mostly everyone. It’s not good English; my friend from L.A. just moved back, and he was like, “Man, my three-year stay in Berlin ruined my language!”
I don’t know how long I will stay there. At the moment it feels very good, and I have all these networks.
Did Dial open a gallery in Berlin?
Yeah. It’s called Mathew. It’s a little gallery in West Berlin, in Charlottenburg. They have between four and six exhibitions a year, with very interesting international artists, from Asia to the States to Germany. Some of them are long-term friends of ours—from Hamburg, as well—and some are quite new. Most of the times, it’s really sad, I’m away when they have an opening. Today is the opening, and I can’t be there. But it feels really great, it feels like back in the nineties in Cologne, where you have a gallery next to a little bar, and everyone’s on the street, and then they go to this little gay bar afterwards, and it feels really, really nice. I’m really glad they opened this.
Hopefully it will continue, because it’s quite hard to maintain a gallery after the first months of hype, and you really have to maintain solid work. Talking to collectors, trying to sell things—paying the rent is not that easy. It’s easier to earn money being a DJ. Sometimes they have to play a little bit more to finance the gallery, and sometimes they don’t play because they sold a big piece or something. It’s funny. But it feels exactly the same as when they started Dial: out of passion. “Let’s just do this.” I’m very impressed. Whenever they have doubts about the whole thing, because it’s not easy to maintain sometimes, I try to force them to stay in this for a while. I think it could become a solid institution with David [Lieske, aka Carsten Jost, co-founder of Dial]. Carsten Jost is quite a… he’s someone to make this.
Dial is really interesting. Like you, they’ve stayed outside the hype cycles.
Now that Roman Flügel is with us since two or three years, it’s really great. A very good guy, and they know each other for nearly 20 years, from working at record companies back in the days, distributing Klang and Ongaku and stuff, and Roman is the perfect guy for us. Now that we’re playing together more, I’m so happy about traveling with him. It’s so different—sometimes you meet other guys on the plane, and it can be so boring. But with Roman it’s always really, really special. Because there’s so much outside of the DJ thing we can talk about. That’s the thing with Dial, this is not all about techno.
You had been inactive for a while in terms of releasing new music. What took so long? Was it just because you were traveling? I know you changed studios in 2011.
It took a while to finish the construction and everything. I realized that I’m not able to produce something good when I’m in between gigs, in between weekends, with one, two, maximum three days, and somehow I don’t get into this state of mind where I can make music that I think is good enough to release. It’s pretty sad. So I try to find a way now of managing my time better, to have more, longer periods where I’m free from traveling, then have a very dense schedule for DJing. I did miss making music a lot before moving to this new studio. I nearly didn’t make anything, although I had all the possibilities, but my state of mind was not there for doing it. So hopefully in the future I can manage my time better to make more music. I miss that. It was so much fun making this album. Just getting lost in sound, and loops, it’s still the best thing to do, I think. ~
Efdemin’s Decay is out March 31st via Dial.
Published March 24, 2014. Words by Philip Sherburne.