There aren’t too many artists just as Christian Naujoks out there. The Hamburg/Berlin-based visual artist, composer, singer, and dj released his critically acclaimed debut album Untitled on Dial Records three years ago, merging classical composition with house and r&b elements. But with his recently released sophomore record True Life / In Flames (Dial again), the Lübeck-raised and Leipzig/Weimar-educated artist raised the bar even further, focussing strictly on the concert piano, marimba, and his gentle voice. Intimacy, warmth and distance are some of the stripped-down pieces’ emotions, and finding references towards John Cage on top of it all made this a perfect candidate for an in-depth interview.
I met up with Naujoks at Berlin’s Wirtshaus am Ufer for an interview and a bowl of lentil soup with sausages, discussing the initial album recordings, the necessity of good stereophony and his live setups. Whereas he’ll be presenting his recent works at Berlin’s .HBC on March 15th, he just played a release concert at Hamburg’s louche Golem, a mixture of artist hangout and neighbourhood bar.
Christian Naujoks: ‘Golem‘ is actually a pub. Okay, it’s more like a really great bar. There is a wall of bookshelves, and within this wall there’s a secret door which leads to a club. Alvaro Piña Otey who runs the place became a kind of luminary of Hamburg’s nightlife over the past seven years. He was working at ‘Weltbühne’ together with Tino Hanekamp, and he also was involved in ‘Uebel & Gefährlich’ as well as ‘Herr von Eden’s fashion store. Alvaro is a very nostalgic person, a bit of 1920s mafia style. That’s why there’s a jukebox at Golem, which was filled by Hamburg’s musician’s, such as Richard von der Schulenburg, Lawrence and such. There’s even a hidden cinema. I love this place!
Also, they have this old piano inside the bar, and I played the piano the one or other night in a pretty drunken state … These spontanious concerts where also the first starting point for my new album True Life / In Flames. Plunking on the keyboard together with Pete (Peter Kersten, aka Lawrence) and such.
For my recent show at Golem they got a piano maker to overhaul the instrument, my producer Tobias Levin brought really great microphones. But that night was just like NDR talkshow: Everybody was already waiting at their tables when I entered Golem, and I was thinking: “We need to wait for a little bit longer until everyone’s a bit drunk …” But it all worked very good. The place was packed, but everyone was listening stock-still …
How will this work out during your live show at .HBC then? This place is very different from Hamburg’s Golem, I think.
All of my concerts are very different. Sometimes I’m playing very adult shows with very little conversation besides introducing my marimba player Martin Krause. But then there are also nights with lots of talk, jokes, and laughter. I’m not too sure yet how it will go down at .HBC, but it will definetly be a solo piano performance.
But it’s not a home match just as the Golem show was?
True true. Especially since the Hamburg show was free of charge, because we wanted the neighbourhood to come, and not to exclude anyone of the regulars. But I’m very much looking forward to .HBC, because the acoustic of the room is so special. They have a regular concert piano over there
Are you still playing songs off your debut album, Untitled?
Well, the .HBC show will be a piano show only. But the overall musical selection will be different. Of course I’ll be focussing on my new album, but also including new and unreleased pieces. I like the idea of concerts having their own format, and not just reproducing an album. There usually are improvisational elements, but the structure of the show will be mostly taken from the new album, True Life / In Flames.
You already mentioned that you’ve written some pieces from the new album at Golem, but how does the album process work for you in general? Do you write at the desk?
Usually I start off on my computer. With the new album I pretty much composed the whole record digitally at first, using piano and marimba samples, but also recording vocals. I don’t own a classical piano, so I’m bound to my computer where I’m working with a keyboard and Logic. My writing process is very dynamic: for some pieces I use a kind of notation – not necessarily the classical one …
A language of your own?
I wouldn’t go that far. I’m using letters, barcodes and such, just as a typewriter. A more popular description than the stern classical notation. That’s also the way how I informed my marimba player Martin about the music. He’s a classical educated musician who’s working with film orchestra Babelsberg, and he’s used to be playing from a paper sheet.
So this was a very unusual way for him to record?
As a soloist he has a very broad repertory at his disposal, reaching from Johann Sebastian Bach to John Cage and Iannis Xenakis. And when dealing with John Cage or contemporary composition by people such as Cornelius Cardew and Tony Conrad, you’ll of course come across terms such as indeterminacy in composition, meaning that an instrumentalist isn’t strictly bound to the notation of a composition, but discovering his own spaces within the piece. It’s more like notes being a blueprint and not the finished opus. I like to think of it as communication between the original musical idea and its interpretation, a musical conversation.
And regarding your ‘Moments’ pieces on the album we’re talking about this kind musical conversation? You used and varied two pieces by John Cage and E. E. Cummings on True Life / In Flames, how come that these ended up on the record?
I think that time changed our reception of music. It’s 2012 now and we don’t live in the 1950s anymore, so I was very well aware of the fact that people will come across this reference very soon, as well as they’d be receiving it just as the way we just discussed. And as soon as people start dealing with my pieces, it eases the next step towards diving into classical composition in general. I know that by typing ‘It is at moments after I have dreamed’ into Google one will find this YouTube video for “‘Experiences N°2’ Robert Wyatt / Brian Eno” right at the top. It’s a very transparent approach. And regarding Cage I’d like to refer to this very interesting collection of interviews For the Birds, which developed at a very late point of his life and career. He’s describing a very free principle of authorship in there.
And why excactly did you choose these ‘Moments’ rather than other pieces?
Because I came across the poet E. E. Cummings pretty early, actually while writing my first Untitled album. I think his lyrics are just gorgeous, and I later remembered this Cage piece with Robert Wyatt. I was working on an instrumental piece at that time, namely on the piano pattern that later became ‘Moments I’. And after I had recorded this at home and was listening to the finished sketch, I started humming Cummings’ words alongside the piece, thinking: “This totally fits“. Okay, the pitch is a little bit different, and I originally used the piece simply to train my voice. And while humming around in a different pitch I realized that it made perfectly sense, although I got the lyrics a little bit wrong while improvising. And I did just that during the recordings at Hamburg’s Laeiszhalle, using the improvised fragments that I still remembered. I like the idea to think of it as an echo, as something floating through the collective unconscious, of the internet, the record store, Discogs, or my very own memory.
Although Discogs is a very strict platform which is all about fact knowledge such as duration, composers, tracklisting …
I wanted to encourage another mode of perception. A part of John Cage’s aesthetics is plurality rather than single entities. His very own compositions are made of very different references. Just as he said, “for the birds“, there’s something in the air. I don’t like the idea of strict references, like a catalogue listing all coordinates of a body of work. I’d like to keep things free. And this is also my artistic position: I can’t tell if I’m a performer, a composer or just a regular consumer. There are certain different cultural techniques involved, and I can’t always tell, what my artistic role excactly is at a certain moment …
How did Pete as one of Dial Record’s label heads react to your idea working on a musically more severe record?
He very much encouraged me in doing so. Pete is a good expert when it comes to classical and piano music. I gave him a number of my computer sketches for him to listen to and he was very interested right from the start, he liked it a lot. But after listening to this one additional recording I did on Tobias Levin’s studio piano, he was all like: “Sorry Christian, until just some moments ago I thought the album would be finished. But listening to this another time I’ve got to say that you need to record on a real piano, re-record the whole thing!”
So this was the starting point for your recordings at Laeiszhalle, a kind of coincidence? How did these go down by the way? I guess you can’t just lodge in at Hamburg’s concert hall for a month or so …
The initial idea was to record on a piano under the best possible circumstances. But Tobias Levin’s concert piano is pretty old, some pieces didn’t work too well on this. So that’s when we started to search for alternatives with a great acoustic and a contemporary concert piano. That’s how we landed at Laeiszhalle – through detours, nooks, acquaintances, and networks. And we were able to use this room for a very short time. There were never any recordings done at all at this place before we went in, it was a complete exception!
It just so happened … This room was originally intended and constructed for quartets, and its architecture grants a high sound volume upon few tone generators or musicians. And through its architecture, the sound is fanned directly into the audience room. It’s an amplifier, an instrument of its own. I thought that it would be great to get the record done in full over there, completely with the marimba and all. Although we needed to do some overdubs, since there are pieces for two pianos and two marimbas, for example in ‘On to the Next’.
Was it important to you to see this special place pictured on your record’s artwork?
It was more a kind of steady progress, we did the shoot together with my good friend Dirk Stewen. When I started the first pieces of the album I didn’t know the room at all, but after visiting the place I realized that it is a real sound device – and that it needed to be shown on the cover …
‘True Life / In Flames’ by Christian Naujoks is out on Dial Records. Catch up with him live on March 15th at .HBC Berlin.
Photo: © Daiga Grantina / Dial Records
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Writers have a notoriously hard time describing Roman Flügel’s style. Incredibly multi-faceted, a non-conformist and one of the stalwarts on the German electronic scene, Flügel recently released his very first album under his own name. Fatty Folders has drawn rave reviews for its diverse content (who could expect anything different, considering Flügel’s body of work?) and we were privileged to catch up with the artist to discuss Germany’s importance on the electronic music scene, producing solo albums and eighties acid house.
You became interested in electronic music after you listened to your brother’s Chicago house music. Which particular artists inspired you back then?
Actually, it was because my brother handed me a compilation of House Trax from the DM Street Sounds series as a Christmas present back in `87. It’s still the most influential compilation of my life because it introduced me to acid house and early techno containing tracks like Phuture’s ‘Phuture Jacks’, ‘The Dance’ by Rhythm is Rhythm or ‘Like This’ by Two Of A Kind. My brother didn’t know anything about house music, he only knew that I was into electronic dance music already.
Good choice, anyway.?? As a child you played the piano and the drums – what aspects of electronic music did you find particularly attractive over any other type of music?
I guess it’s the combination of simple rhythms and unusual sounds. I started to like dance grooves when I first listened to Lipps Inc. Funky Town in my parent’s car on the radio. That must have been around 1980. They were complaining about the ‘primitive’ structures in the music but I totally enjoyed it!
?How do you find the house scene these days? Are there any upcoming artists you’re excited about?
I still find it very vital and inspiring! Take an artist like the 23 year old Ben Thomas as an example. His output as BNJMN is just great.??
You’ve worked extensively with Jörn Elling Wuttke as Alter Ego, do you have any forthcoming collaboration plans with other artists?
Not at the moment. For the first time in years I’m a bit more focused on my own stuff and it feels good.??
Fatty Folders is the first album released under your own name – is it a more personal album than others? ?
Not more personal than my other two solo albums as Eight Miles High and Soylent Green. It’s just that I’ve used my given name for the first time on an album format.
?Why has it taken so long to release an album under your own name?
I don’t know really. It just felt like it was about time not to hide behind aliases anymore.??
What’s the thinking behind the name Fatty Folders?
I always find it a bit difficult to find the right name for an album. Fatty Folders sounded good and I had a picture of ‘fatty folders’ on the desktop of my computer in my mind that had to be cleaned out. Don’t know if that help.
It contains a diverse selection of sounds – which is fitting, considering your varied career. Was this diversity something conscious?
It seems that this phenomenon is a part of my musical output and it does not happen on purpose. I wish to do at least one album that is totally self-contained in the future.??
You are renowned for this diversity and have stated that it stems from curiosity – do you simply experiment with a sound, or a sampler? Or how does it work?
I start to play around with different ideas in the studio and record them in Logic. Later I decide what to keep and what to throw away and the actual track starts to shape up. It could be a rhythm, a sample, melody or sound. Decisions depend on so many occasions and subconscious incidents that I can’t really explain.??
What are you currently excited about?
At the moment I’m still excited about promoting my new album and the fact that after spending more than 15 years with Playhouse and Klang, the label Dial seems the right platform to work with. It’s always important to have good people around you.
?Do you think your German origins have played an important role in your career in electronic music?
Through the years I’ve learned much more about about the history of German popular music –‘Krautrock’ for instance and I can feel a certain Germanic originality behind bands like Neu!, Cluster or Can. But to be honest when I first listened to electronic music – besides Kraftwerk – it was more music from England or America that interested me. Like Grand Master Flash’s Scorpio, for example. Later, when techno and house music started to become established I was happy that Germany was building such a strong independent scene that helped me to build a reputation.
Roman Flügel – Krautus
Roman Flügel – The Improviser
Roman Flügel – Deo
26.10.2011 / DE / Berlin / Stattbad Wedding / Boiler Room
28.10.2011 / DE / Cologne / Studio 672
29.10.2011 / FI / Helsinki / Basement@YK
30.10.2011 / DE / Leipzig / Conne Island / Nachtdigital loves DIAL
04.11.2011 / DE / München / Harry Klein
05.11.2011 / DE / Rostock / Zwischenbau / Interclub
18.11.2011 / IT / Milan / Privat
19.11.2011 / NL / Amsterdam / Trouw / Nachtdigital loves DIAL
26.11.2011 / DE / Mannheim / Zimmer / Feel!
10.12.2011 / DK / Copenhagen / Dunkel
25.12.2011 / DE / Darmstadt / 603qm
29.12.2011 / DE / Jena / Kassablanca
It was a sunny afternoon in June 2011 when I met with Henning Besser, the thirtytwo-year-old Hanseatic behind the alias DJ Phono. Underneath the Heinrich Heine monument in Berlin Mitte’s Weinbergspark the artist and producer talks about his lost recordings, the connection between music and a good wine, the music culture of Hamburg, his involvement in Deichkind and Daft Punk nr. 2 as well as – of course – his latest album Welcome to Wherever You’re Not, which was just being released on Solomun’s label Diynamic. “My previous and first album came out that long ago, that this one really feels like my debut album”, says Besser when we step into the conversation. “I was 20 years old when I wrote that, it was a whole different idea of music than the one I carry around in my head these days …”
When did you listen to that for the last time?
I think that was five years ago? At that time after not listening to it for maybe four more years. I think I still like listening to it. I was young and impetuous, and I carried the idea of making music and living from it around in my head – becoming a pop star. Although I didn’t have the picture of a pop star in mind that one might think of when hearing the word. But still there was this naive idea, a dream.
But you didn’t arrange your songs like classical pop songs back then?
I’ve been working with Erobique a lot during that time, mostly on electronic music. My background was HipHop, therefore my music was influenced more by broken beats than by a techno bassdrum. I think I didn’t get the point about techno at that time, I drew a lot of influences from funk and soul, transformed into 120 to 130 BpM. That was certainly dance music. But since then I took my time. I’ve been focussing on my work as a producer for Erobique, Die Goldenen Zitronen and Egoexpress. And I’ve been working on an album with one of my best friends, Jan-Peter Heusemann, for nearly seven years now. We haven’t published this yet since it still isn’t finished …
Is it classified material?
It probably won’t be published at all. But the more quiet pieces on my new album might be a continuation of what started out together with Jan-Peter. It’s somehow based on the idea of a Magnum opus: always questioning oneself, making calm, long and free improvised music, taking in dynamics, club elements and an idea of pop music. But for the biggest part, this was an idea that had to do a lot with time.
Sounds like the basic premiss of making music – motivated by the process, not the product …
We’ve been sitting in the studio for nearly seven years. I do remember us once recording an organ, and while Jan-Peter was playing the instrument for around 10 minutes I nearly dozed off because I was hearing this one tone for a five straight minutes. But that was a great experience since this music and these moments changed something inside me. My understanding of music grew out of this and became the foundation of my new album.
So these ‘more quiet pieces’ of your new album Welcome to Wherever You’re Not are the ones that work without the use of a bass drum?
Right, mostly the first four tracks.
The basic feeling of the album to me is a very quiet one in general, maybe even melancholic though the record breaks out into club mode from the middle part. It lacks the usual euphoria you expect from club music …
There are some exceptions concerning euphoria, but melancholy is pretty ever-present with the album. I’m indeed thinking of this album as a concept album, but the basic idea isn’t melancholy. It was very important to me to capture very specific emotions within the music – all those moods that surrounded me during the two year long production period with Bernd Siebels aka A Different Jimi. Sometimes we’ve been working on just one piece for half a year. In the end the album is like a good wine: it consists of various flavours and sentiments – and melancholy is for sure the one aroma to be found in every track. On the other hand, Welcome to … isn’t a sad or desolate album …
It’s not a red-wine-drinker-being-in-the-doldrums album. More a Merlot of club records …
Music is of course always triggering on someone. If you’re in a melancholic mood yourself, music can pick you up there and lead you somewhere else. Or you can let yourself go, dive into this melancholy. This is very important to me: feeling the touch of music. That was my biggest wish for this album.
Welcome to Wherever You’re Not – the title seems to be like a farewell …
Oh! In fact, the album to me carries the exact opposite. Last year had a very loose work schedule for me. I had the chance to let myself go, let my thoughts wander and let things just go the way they were meant to go. I was reflecting my professional and artistic career and determining my next steps, pushing everything further into direction. And here we are again, music as places: the introduction to something, that wasn’t there before.
Where were you when you were working on ‘knarhcslhüK mi ttinhcsfuA hcon ebah hcI’? Song title of the year, by the way! (Editorial note: German for ‘I’ve got some cold cut inside the Fridge’, spelled backwards)
Every piece on the album has a very personal meaning, and all of them can be tracked down to my queen of hearts. Despite the melancholic moments there were that many great situations …
How much influence had the mammoth project Deichkind on your album? With Deichkind many things went way further than just music. I’m thinking of the stage show and the superelevation of the whole phenomenon.
Everytime when Deichkind was active, the project demanded very much time. Then came a big break in february 2010 which I then used to focus on myself and my album. But since I’ve been working on Welcome to … before that time, I then always had the impression of a balance act between Deichkind and DJ Phono production time. For us as a group, the huge success of Deichkind wasn’t foreseeable, which is why I was surprised, that at a stroke my whole year was being scheduled. On the other hand I can now forsee how my next three years will look like.
Is it soothing to have a tight schedule as an artist?
I’m feeling very ambivalent about this. You’re quitting on the choice to live your life more spontaniously. Of course one starts building a network around oneself, and it’s great receiving help from the people that surround you.
Time to time, the boundaries are blurring between Phono and Deichkind – You sampled and covered Daft Punk’s ‘Alive’ live show and worked – just as you did with Deichkind – with lavish stage décor.
This is an art project of mine, appropriation art. Besides my work as DJ Phono or with Deichkind I’m also working in the fields of visual arts. With this Daft Punk appropriation project I’m also drawing parallels to Deichkind: the main topics are performance and staging. I’m thrilled by the issue, to which part one can appropriate a live concept by others. Can I copy something anyway? Is it important, who’s performing right now? Especially with Daft Punk the question arised again and again, if that is Thomas Bangaltar and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo themselves that are wearing the costumes. The idea of a forgery literally imposed itself. I’ll be repeating my original performance from 2009 during this year’s ‘Bread & Butter’ in Berlin. Of course, the production costs and the expense in general is very high.
How did the audience react to the premiere in Hamburg?
Incredibly great! Nobody knew about it in the first place and secondly it was being presented within a setting, that one would love to see the real Daft Punk playing: in front of just 1.000 people inside a kind of club surrounding. We’ve been working on this for six weeks with around 20 people. And although the whole thing was being held together by duct tape and toilet paper, it looked and felt very professional inside the dark club.
That sounds like the three characteristics of Hamburg: A network, improvisation and humour. Inevitably I tend to think of Golden Pudel Club in Hamburg’s Hafenstraße.
Golden Pudel still is my second living room. These three, maybe four dj sets I do a year at Pudel are very important to me, it is always something very special. There’s no other place such as the Pudel.
How long will Golden Pudel be around? For the first time in its history, a new company controlled by a foreign power is opening up on the club’s first floor. A restaurant.
I think that Pudel will be around for a very long time. Of course, the club – just as many other places in Hamburg – is subject of a certain development that is very annoying for everyone involved. But I think that Pudel won’t be affected on the long run.
What do you think of these developments in Hamburg in general?
I’ve got the feeling that Hamburg developed very much in terms of music over the last years, think of labels such as Smallville and Dial/Laid Records or Diynamic Music, which is now publishing my album. They worked very hard and received a great standing and artistic repertoire in return. I believe that much more will grow on this strong ground.
Was your choice to publish Welcome to Wherever You’re Not on Diynamic Music the most reasonable decision?
I thought about releasing the album by myself for a long time, via the label It’s – which was run by Richard von der Schulenburg, A Different Jimi and myself. But my alter ego was looking for a record label with its own structures. Diynamic was therefore pretty reasonable, especially since I personally know and valuate Solomun for a very long time now. I also appreciated his high interest in the record, that was very bold of him – especially, since the music on Welcome to … is not what one might expect to be found on his release schedule.
On the other hand, your album is not the kind of music one might expect as an outsider – given your Deichkind background.
Right, this is truly annoying! I really don’t have anything to do with the musical production in Deichkind and though I’m always being associated with it. From an artistic point of view, my work with Deichkind is working as a visual artist with non-artists. Which is very appealing to me although it is very exhausting at the same time. And this leads to confusion and misunderstanding, because many people or bookers are unable to separate the two projects. So as DJ Phono I always have to work against these expectations, to build up an own identity for this project. My new album is something very personal, virtually a Henning Besser album.
As Henning Besser you’re working as a visual artist, your album artwork then was created by other artists.
The idea for the artwork was being developed by two of my best friends as well as myself: Björn Beneditz, one of the founders of Hamburg’s WCW Gallery, where I’m exhibiting my own works. And secondly Carola Wagenplast, who is better know for her room installationswith Künstlergruppe Jochen Schmith. These two have always been my closest confidents, I cherish their artistic positions and arguments very much. Although I’m working within installation art, I’m pretty much ungifted when it comes to graphic design. This means that it was very important to strengthen myself technically anyway. Additionally, an artistic collaboration always works like a mirror image of yourself. I always loved to learn from other people.
How was the artwork created?
We produced 1.000 CDs, 300 vinyls and two singles each 500 copies, all of them with an individual artwork for every single release. We drew the lines with a refillable copic pen, which emtied during the painting until the colours faded. The photo image and the colours differ on the album and the singles. The music video for ‘knarhcslhüK mi ttinhcsfuA hcon ebah hcI’ was being shot with a fast motion animation. I took pictures of the front and the back side of each artwork and animated them afterwards to a moving collage.
What does the pictured sausage inside the glass tell us?
This belongs to the kind of things that I really can’t explain. This has nothing to do with theory, but with a feeling …
Humour from Hamburg …?
I like these moments in which I’m thinking: This is how it’s supposed to be. These moments when there’s nothing to explain anymore.
DJ Phono’s new album Welcome to Wherever You’re Not is out on Diynamic Music. Listen to his latest Electronic Beats radio session over here.