“Germans are probably funny people”: An interview with Uwe Schmidt
At this year’s CTM 13 festival in Berlin, Electronic Beats’ editor-in-chief Max Dax publicly interviewed the German musician living in Chile Uwe Schmidt—aka Atom Heart, Atom™, Señor Coconut, and more—uncovering archiving, cultural imperialism, Axl Rose, and what Kraftwerk really think about Señor Coconut.
In Santiago, you met with Axl Rose from Guns N’ Roses. How did this come about?
After I arrived Chile, at some point I decided to sell some old machines that I had brought with me and didn’t want anymore. This guy Chris from Los Angeles wrote to me and wanted to buy them. He was a fan of mine and did actually buy them, so I packed them all up and sent them to Los Angeles. We got into an exchange of emails, and he said he worked as a technician in Axl Rose’s studio. He said that sometimes he would play my music in the studio. One time Axl came in and asked what it was. After a while, Axl remembered my music when he heard it in the studio and would say, “Oh yeah, that’s that guy.” I thought it was just a funny anecdote.
A year later my phone rang on a late afternoon and it was Chris, who said that Axl Rose was in Santiago as part of a tour around South America. They were in a restaurant around the corner, and that I should come by. I thought, “Okay, I’ll go.” I got there and they’d cleared out the restaurant; it was just Axl sitting there with this massive bodyguard, a Brazilian manager, this woman from Argentina, and my friend Chris. I sat at the other end of the table from him and didn’t understand what he was saying. He was talking about Slash the whole time and I didn’t know anything about Slash, so I couldn’t add anything. After an hour he said to me, “You’re Chris’ friend, what do you do? You’re a musician, right?”. So, I said “Yeah I’m a musician. I live here. I just wanted to come down and see Chris.” We went to his hotel and had some drinks and so on, and I only exchanged about three sentences with him. It was a really surreal situation. They had cleared out the whole floor of the hotel for him and there were all these fans standing around waiting for autographs.
Speaking of your celebrity encounters, is it true that a Señor Coconut tape exists with four Kraftwerk covers on it that Florian Schneider received without knowing that you had made it? Legend goes, he believed that his songs had actually been interpreted by a Latin American artist.
Yes, that’s a true story. When I had started the Señor Coconut plays Kraftwerk project, I had sent perhaps five demo CDs worldwide—one to Germany, one the Japan, one to the States, etc. Someone must have made a copy of one of these and sent it to Florian, who didn’t realize that this Latin-sounding band and myself were the same artist. Anyway, a mutual friend visited Florian and listened to Señor Coconut at his home—and that’s where he realized what had happened and that the music was all from me. A couple of weeks later I received an email saying, “Kraftwerk would like to speak with you.”
Did you get it from their lawyers?
No, it came through our mutual friend. The album El Baile Alemán by Señor Coconut was just about to be released in Japan, and to be honest I didn’t have any interest in involving Kraftwerk in any way in the release process, because I was worried that something would go wrong.
That’s funny. Did you really think that it was possible to release something and keep from the other people, to release it clandestinely?
Why not? I tend to think that people are just too busy to care about things like that.
But when the album came out in Europe, your version of “Radioactivity” was missing.
It was only on the Japanese release because it was too late to stop it. Kraftwerk didn’t like the light-hearted mood of my version, so I agreed to not put it on any of the following releases.
Why wouldn’t they like the light-heartedness of the tune?
I don’t know. With Señor Coconut I was always asking myself how a Latin American band would perform any given Western music. The very first idea was to find a band in Chile, to play them the original and then get them to make a cumbia version of it.
I asked Florian how he would have reacted if a real band from Columbia had actually recorded their own cumbia version of “Radioactivity” in this way. Are they not allowed to do that? Isn’t that a certain kind of censorship? Aren’t Latinos allowed to cover serious German pop songs? Honestly, I think it bothered his colleagues from Kraftwerk more than it bothered him. They were probably thinking about their own history and the whole historical context of the song in the 1970s and ’80s, and they wanted to be politically correct rather than change the context.
You’ve lived in Santiago since 1997, so about 16 years. In Germany, we tend to think of Kraftwerk as a positive kind of folk music, but at the same time they have references to Latin American cumbia or cha cha cha rhythms. It’s kind of cultural imperialism or an export, from Dusseldorf to Brazil or Chile. Do you take influence in your work as Señor Coconut from these same themes?
When my Chilean wife saw the Man Machine album cover for the first time, she had to laugh out loud. And I guess it is actually funny. I mean, the Germans are probably funny people. But being a German myself, I didn’t find the cover to be strange at all. I didn’t understand what was ironic or funny about it until much later. That only works if you think about it in terms of existing cultural stereotypes. I mean, as a South American you have a particular idea about Germany, just like Germans have an idea about South America or any other place. When you think about a place, immediately something comes into your head.
My favorite story relating to imperialism comes from the first time that I was in San Francisco, maybe 15 or 16 years ago. It was a sunny day and I was standing there on top of a hill looking at the trams going past. I had this crazy feeling like I had been there before. I spent ages trying to think about why I had this feeling until I realized that as a child, I had spent so much time watching the TV series The Streets of San Francisco starring Karl Malden and Michael Douglas. As a child, I was exposed to many more images from America than Eastern Germany. As a comparison, when I was in Moscow for the first time, I actually had no idea how the city looked.
To what extent archives are a basic mode of your work? When you performed at HAU2 [during this year’s CTM] as Alpha Txt, you basically revisited your own archives—and you reassembled them live.
This has become a personal matter for me. Four years ago, I began to consolidate my archive. I realized that I had kind of lost control and didn’t really know what existed anymore, where things were, or what they were called. As a result, I started to aggregate it all together in a spreadsheet, put together a timeline, then to find the master versions, so that I could listen to them again, add details, and to re-master them. In this process I also stumbled across things that I had completely forgotten, things that I had remembered differently, as well as things that I used to think weren’t any good but that I now suddenly found excellent. It was almost like I hadn’t made them but rather someone else had. And at times I found them completely enthralling, and I couldn’t understand how I could have made them—from a technical perspective and also in terms of the idea. It was sometimes totally mysterious to me. I even learned to embrace a couple of ambient pieces—which was a style of music that I didn’t really care about for a long time. It was like I had filed them away and had no reason to care about them anymore.
So you did other kinds of music?
Other things had caught my interest—such as rhythm, complexity, construction, sequential processes, layering—completely different musical designs. But when I came across these ambient sounds again, I suddenly found them to be really natural and I realized that all formats could be used, including these historical components. And I began to view my musical creation as a form of self-expansion. From today’s point of view, I’d say that I want to absorb all of these things and have them available as a means for me to express in my compositions. That’s what I find so interesting about archives—that all of these recordings are a part of me that I can call upon when I need them.
Like a kind of buried vocabulary?
Exactly. Like a language that one has learned and can recall when needed.
One of the most beautiful words in the German language to me is ‘Verzauberung’, or ‘enchantment’. Legendary producer and founder of Kompakt, Wolfgang Voigt, seems to see it the same and talks about “re-enchantment”. How could we describe this process of looking at oneself in the mirror acoustically and rediscovering something that had been buried, like in a psychoanalytical sense when you have to go to therapy to find it?
You could say that the process has something therapeutic about it. I don’t keep a diary or anything like that, but I imagine browsing through old audio material as being similar to finding a bunch of old diaries in a box and having to go through and read them all for some reason. I remember going through my father’s belongings after he passed away and there were three boxes full of family photos from a period of over 150 years, from his grandparents through to me as a child. That was really hard—I went through the whole emotional spectrum. In comparison, going through music that one has made over two decades isn’t so intense, but still, suddenly memories from, say, Frankfurt 1991 were reappearing to me—and I was trying to remember how and why I made certain pieces. It can become quite analytical. Back then, I used to produce music very quickly. It was a lot of fun to experience things at a fast pace, but now in Santiago things are different. I tried to understand who I was back then and how I was able to do such things and have fun doing them. It’s still a bit difficult for me to understand, it’s almost as if another person had done it all.
Karl Bartos had exhibitions in Hamburg and London where he had made his acoustic diaries from his time with Kraftwerk accessible to the public. It is interesting to see how one can trace his history through these old recordings. Also, I am having a continuing dialogue with Hans Ulrich Obrist [co-director of London’s Serpentine Gallery] in the editorials of Electronic Beats Magazine where we discuss how we remember, how we can label our memories, and how we can archive what we do. Obrist says that we need research assistants for this process because you can’t go through every question, every topic, every interview alone as archiving means—that you have to label and to tag them so that you can browse through them and create a new meta-text out of it all.
Honestly, I must say that I had my archive very well organized. At some point, I realized that the music that I made back then had many pragmatic and practical elements to it—I heard something and wanted to record it—and I learnt very quickly that if I didn’t have easy access to it and know where it was, what it was called, what versions there are, then the music wouldn’t lead me anywhere. You lose a lot of time looking for your own things with a badly organized archive. I only had one catastrophic year in this regard—my first year. From then on I began to make sure that everything was well organized with dates and other information so that it was clear, easy to use, and there wasn’t much junk just lying around in there. It’s more of a problem for archiving digital art—or the internet. Is it possible to depict everything that goes on there? Can it be reproduced or archived? If it can be reproduced, can you create a coherent context for it? I find this to be a very exciting vision. Archiving for me is a very practical thing. I don’t put much value on the historical context, in the sense that this or that piece will be part of an Atom™ museum or something like that. You can’t tell history out of the present moment. I find that to be an ‘enchanting’ vision.
Listening to you, I get the impression that you named your new Raster-Noton album HD very consciously. The hard disk is a device for archiving, of saving work. To what extent is this a reference to this whole process of archiving? Especially as you constantly bang out slogans such as, “mp3 killed MTV,” or, “internet killed the video star.”
The album initially was titled Hard Disk Rock and was a completely different one. It had a lot to do with my interest back then in hard drives. For ten years I didn’t have a studio, just a computer and speakers, and all my music at that time was created and saved on a hard drive. Everything was on it—music, films, my archive, all my writings. Eventually, I wanted to learn how to domesticate it, as on the hard drive everything is on hand and able to be archived. My own archive was on the hard drive and could be integrated into anything whenever I want.
It’s interesting when I talk with people about how they bring together information from the past and the present. Like my daughter, she is 15 years old. On her playlist there is Frank Sinatra, Blondie, Black Eyed Peas, and Die Antwoord all there at the same time. She doesn’t put much stock on where it comes from; she doesn’t perceive a historical frame around it perhaps as people from my generation would do, for instance in terms of fetishizing the historical period in which the music was made. When I think of the example of Blondie, I immediately recall New York in the 1980s—and this allows me to dive in and create this whole universe in my mind. I see today’s generation and how it uses the internet and YouTube as an omnipresent medium for everything. Today’s perception is not about the historical context anymore, it’s about feeling the moments. For them a Top 10 Disney Channel track that’s on rotation is exactly as relevant and important as a tune by Frank Sinatra. In principle, I could publish my whole archive again and no one would notice. I could start again tomorrow from the very beginning and publish my work from the last 20 years and hardly any critics would notice. David Bowie could do the same thing. Start again from 1966, or whenever he began.~
Atom™’s HD is out now via Raster-Noton.
Published April 10, 2013. Words by Max Dax.