Matmos’ Drew Daniel on Schneider TM’s Construction Sounds

Drew Daniel is best known for his work with avant-electronic duo Matmos, together with partner M. C. (Martin) Schmidt. The couple make toe-tapping, conceptual electronic pop from unusual sound sources. For their most recent release, The Ganzfeld EP (Thrill Jockey), they conducted their own version of the famed parapsychological experiment by putting test subjects (mostly friends) in a state of sensory deprivation. They then played them white noise and attepted to telepathically communicate “the concept of the new Matmos record”. The subjects’ impressions were then used as a compositional guide for both the EP and the band’s upcoming LP, The Marriage of True Minds, scheduled for early 2013.


Electronic music, especially rhythmically predictable, warm, analogue sounding electronic music, has become a way to keep everybody working. You put a record on to push back the sounds of the outside so that you’re able to focus. Whether that record is Burial, Andy Stott or Pye Corner Audio, it doesn’t actually matter; the point is that there’s a nice and predictable structure that serves to increase your workflow. In contrast, Schneider TM’s Construction Sounds effectively functions as a critique of this modern, functional and occasionally mindless way of listening. Choosing to have the sounds of manual labor, the sounds you usually try to blot out, be the noise coming out of your speakers subverts the very idea of music as buffer against the real world. It refuses to offer the listener a shortcut to feeling “contemporary” while avoiding real issues. In fact, you could argue that it makes real world issues the point of focus, and it’s a coolly critical thing for Dirk Dresselhaus to attempt. That doesn’t mean that Construction Sounds isn’t beautiful or complex. I was reminded of the record Sleeper Awakes at the Edge of the Abyss by Merzbow and Christoph Heemann, where Heemann sculpts these new age melodies underneath Merzbow’s collosal wall of noise. You have to listen through the noise to find another layer that taps into a very different emotion. Having this turbulent feeling buried deep within and somehow obfuscated by the real world is actually a Romantic trope, and by using melody as a counterpoint to the grating sounds of industry, as on “Grinder in the Sky” or “Container”, Dresselhaus takes the listener to a similar emotional plane. I see it as a strategy for producing a certain kind of longing, similar to how My Bloody Valentine would bury their drums almost beyond perception—the direct result being an almost unplaceable sense of yearning stirred up within the listener. Dresselhaus has also thought a lot about tuning because there’s something strangely harmonious about the interlock that’s hap- pening. Indeed, many machines are based on the same kind of cycle. In the US anything that’s electrical—fans, fluorescent lights, you name it—have their hum tuned to B-flat. This makes me curious as to whether engine cycles also emit the same tone. Certainly, Dresselhaus exploits the innate musicality of those sonic by-products that we refuse to categorize as musical.

Accordingly, it would be foolish to talk about Construction Sounds without mentioning musique concrète. This record both relates and breaks with Pierre Schaeffer’s conflicted theory of creating a disconnect between sound and source. Schaeffer always sought to create objet sonore that would float free of reference, whereas most other artists and musicians who made compelling musique concrète actually did the opposite. Here Dresselhaus has given clues in the titles—“Grinder”, “Container”, “Pneunisch”—in effect, stressing the relationship between material and music, as well as prompting us to think about how we perceive raw matter. But what I find most dramatic is the level of restraint he shows; if Matthew Herbert had done it, or even me and Martin [Schmidt] as Matmos, I’m sure we would have drawn upon the syntax of sampling with rhyth- mic chops and edits. Dresselhaus has gone elsewhere, tracing a path more closely resembling that of kosmische musik and the German electronic continuum, with the ambition of transcending the sampler to something more abstract. The titular track opens the album with fourteen minutes of industrial grind. It’s a risk, but it also offers an option: you can hear it as invasive back- ground sound or you can choose to carefully enter inside its world. By foregrounding the industrial harshness of that first track Dresselhaus takes a risk, and some people may not make it past those fourteen minutes. But those that do are intrigued; they want to really follow the whole journey.

Of course, historically machine sounds are also closely linked to industrial music, and what intrigues me is the strenu- ous effort put into fighting the genre’s father figures. The press one-sheet requests reviewers not to compare Construction Sounds to Throbbing Gristle or Einstürzende Neubauten—a defensive, almost Oedipal gesture hinted at in the title: this is an album which, at least in one sense, is about building, not destroying. And it’s a partial rejection of industrial-sounding pop music for a much more conceptual schema. Listening to the record I thought I detected a political narrative, and Dresselhaus openly describes that he was responding to sounds of gentrification and real estate speculation in Berlin. That’s a salient topic in a city with so much empty property. What can justify building something new in 2012 when there are so many buildings ripe for repurposing? Construction as a sound is an index of prosperity. This is certainly the case in Baltimore, where Matmos is based. It’s a poor city filled with abandoned buildings, and I’m astonished every time I see a construction site. Why build when it’s already there? I heard this record as reinforcing this viewpoint by pulling what’s outside into the interior domestic space and forcing you to confront what’s happening beyond your window. My partner Martin [Schmidt] hears the record in a much gentler register, where it’s about transforming rawness into something beautiful simply by staring into it and carefully work- ing with it until it becomes thera- peutic, improved, and ennobled. Or maybe Construction Sounds is just a sonic Rorschach blot. ~

This article is taken from Electronic Beats Magazine Winter 2012.

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Schneider TM comes to terms with <i>Construction Sounds</i>

Schneider TM is the electronic solo music project of Bielefeld-born Dirk Dresselhaus. Since 1997 Dresselhaus has released music as Schneider TM through a vast variety of imprints, with his most known track is being “The Light 3000” from his Binokular EP, released back in 2000 – a track voted by the Wire as one of the best cover versions of all time. Today his latest album Construction Sounds will see the light of the day. Released through the notable german Bureau B label. We shared some thoughts with Dirk about it, along with Berlin’s never ending under-construction status and his new role curating the Wednesday nights at Berhain’s Kantine alongside Jochen Arbeit from Einstürzende Neubauten.

You’re originally from Bielefeld, but you’re considered part of the Berlin scene. You haven’t been here for that long have you?

I’ve actually been here for 14 years. In the 90s I spent a lot of time in Berlin because the booking agent for my old band Locust Fudge was here. I have a lot of friends in Berlin too, so we were always hanging out. I moved here at the end of 1998.

Did your moving here have something to do with City Slang?

That was part of it. My first record came out in 1998, which I recorded in Bielefeld. I suppose that in a way it’s an “essential” record in my total back catalogue. My life at that time was characterized by construction sites. Before I moved to Berlin I lived with a couple of friends in an old house in the countryside that a friend of ours had bought. The plan was to renovate it and build a studio there. We did that for almost two years, seven of us sleeping in the one room. We were really living in a construction site. The whole project unfortunately imploded due to financial and interpersonal issues then, because I had been working for City Slang and the concert agency Power Line anyway, it made sense to just get out of the village and go to Berlin. Dörentrup wasn’t exactly the funkiest place to live.

When you talk about construction sites, would you also use that metaphor to describe your understanding of yourself?

Yes I think so. The things that a person experiences are always connected to the inner self. I think that my whole life, since I moved out of my parents house at 18, I’ve been trying to find some place where I felt at home and at peace but that still hasn’t really happened yet. I suppose that construction sites have always somehow gotten in the way. I lived in several apartments that were renovated, first in Bielefeld, then in the country where we ourselves were the renovators. Then I lived in Leipzigerstrasse and that house turned into a construction site soon after. It went on like that for a long time, houses constantly being renovated, with plastic sheets and drill machines everywhere.

Did you deliberately move into these kinds of environments so that you could use the noises and manipulate them to develop your own sound?

No it was the other way around. It really came from the outside. I lived in an area where all the houses were being renovated and for the last five years I was living there they renovated the house I was living in. It was really a long, loud and dirty process. They had to get the people who were living there out. Then the idea came for me to turn things around and use this experience for me – because it has been such a psychological form of terror that I had gone through. For a variety of reasons I then had to live there for a few years because I was busy trying to set up a studio and didn’t have time to run away. I just had to deal with it. Then I got the idea to record some of the sounds because some were extremely interesting and I really experienced them as music, out of necessity. That’s how this record came to be.

Your musical style as Schneider TM has developed a lot over the years. How would you explain this development into the “noise” genre?

On the one hand I had been making a lot of sound music before with Ilpo Väisänen from Pan Sonic. We were using instruments and field recordings so I had been intensively involved with this type of music for quite a while.  The idea for the record came from being constantly around these construction sites. At first you think “oh it will just be over soon”, but then the sounds really penetrate you and you realise that you have to come to terms with it. As I mentioned, I started to hear the sounds as music and recognized patterns that were very interesting. After a while I guess these sounds just entered into my subconscious and I started copying them in my electronic improvisations. When I listened back over the things I had made I realized that I had essentially been imitating a construction site, or at least that it was heavily influenced by those sounds in terms of structure and sound. Then it just occurred to me to put these together with all the field recordings I had made “on the fly” from my window at my home. It wasn’t as though I made a conscious decision or that this direction was a “career move”, rather it all came through my subconscious. A friend of mine pointed out that there are similarities between that record and the very first Schneider TM recording which begins with recorded noises. Although it was made with different tools, I can certainly see the structural and harmonic parallels.

Would you describe this move as a step towards authenticity? An attempt to absorb what’s around you into your work?

I don’t know whether construction sites are “authentic”. What I found fascinating was that the creation of the construction noises were not motivated by the acoustic concerns of the workers, but rather by the requirements of the technical building process. I thought that the workers must nevertheless somehow unconsciously be aware of how the different sounds relate to each other, whether it be the sounds of stone, metal or whatever else. To me the sounds were like a conversation, but at a deeper level than one can have with words.

Does getting attention for your music and selling records still play a role when it comes to your releases these days?

No. It doesn’t really interest me to think about whether something will have success before I make it. In my experience it’s better to focus on things where I am most motivated and where I get the most energy back in return. This translates over to the music and gives it power. I think you can hear it when musicians have thought too much about what they can do to have success; it’s usually less interesting music!

I suppose I’m interested in whether you think about how an album fits in with your last? Do you try and create something that “completes the circle” of your music and flows together with previous recordings?

I guess that the circle automatically closes, or rather that the circle continues to expand. I don’t think I’ve come “full circle” yet with my music. For example there’s a hidden track at the end of the last record on City Slang. I can’t remember exactly what it is, but it’s a two or three minute field recording of street noises from that phase, and somehow it fits in there perfectly. I think that when you think about flow there are elements that run like a thread through my work, but I didn’t make the record knowing that it would be released. I wasn’t sure if it would interest anybody and no one was waiting for it, so it was a purely musical decision to do it. It was also a kind of cathartic moment because now hopefully the construction site curse is over.

How do you conceive of performing this live?

I use parts of the field recordings and the arrangements that are on the record, then I re-sample and perform the electronic parts live. I would say that I play “versions” of the songs that are on the record. I can’t use every element that is on the record, but I don’t think I need to. I can remodel the songs and make something new.

It’s just you on stage?

Musically, it’s just me, but I sometimes play with Lillevan, who makes live videos to go with the music, occasionally also out of construction sites and house structures. In the last two years I’ve also performed occasionally with Tomoko Nakasato, a Japanese dancer. In October I’m playing a release concert that will be the beginning of a monthly concert series that I’m curating  together with Jochen Arbeit in the Berghain Kantine. It’s called Aufladetechnische Konferenz (ATK) and will take place every third Wednesday of the month. On 17 October I’m playing with Tomoko Nakasato and the Polish video artist Pani K, who will use light and an infrared camera to perform interactively with the dancer. It will be a special concert for me with these three elements. I’m interested in collaboration and I could imagine improvising with other musicians and using those elements live too.

So would you describe the ATK concert series as your playground? You’re inviting other guests to play too, right?

It’s both. I’m playing the first show, “Construction Sounds”, with Tomoko and Pani K and Jochen is playing solo but also with a video artist, then we’ll be playing a short set together later on. [Jochen rings] We’ve performed together quite a lot recently, mostly in smaller venues that don’t have great sound, then we got the offer from Andre from Ostgut to put on shows at Berghain Kantine. We’re inviting people to perform as part of the series but we’re always involved in some way together with other people. The idea is to create things that spontaneously exist for one evening through improvisation. It will be experimental, but it should also  be a party and not too academic. We’ll see how it all develops.

The concept of “recycling” seems to be important in your work, though samples and using recordings that you’ve made.

I agree, “recycling” is part of it. It makes me think of this scene in the Sun Ra documentary A Joyful Noise where you can see how he composes. He keeps a field recorder on top of his organ or piano and then “jams” with himself and when he finds himself playing something interesting he records it. At the end he has a long sequence of recordings, just of moments that he found trippy himself, which he can then try out with a massive orchestra. To me that’s genius because that way you can learn from yourself and discover new things. I mean, if I’d continued repeating the same things with Schneider TM that I was doing a few years ago, things which helped me reach a wider audience, then I’d probably be rich or something. But that’s not interesting.

I suppose for established musicians and bands there is pressure to keep doing what your fans like. Is it necessary to keep doing new things as the world changes in order to stay honest in your music?

Everyone is free to decide why they listen to music. Some people always listen to the same music because, to them, it offers them a feeling of home in this evil world. I’m like that in some ways, I mean I still listen to Neil Young and I don’t find it boring, even after 25 years. I also like to listen to new music that can surprise me. I don’t think constantly struggling to find something new is necessarily good.

Did you ever have a moment where you decided that you were going to try and make a living from music rather than get a job on the side so that you could maintain your freedom as a musician?

I’ve been living off my music for a while now. I never went to uni and I needed to earn my own money because I didn’t get anything from my family. That was shit at the time, but now I look back on it as a blessing. I’m very thankful that I can live from my music but I don’t just live from Schneider TM. I also write music for films and for me those are also “jobs”, even though they’re fun. It’s good to be able to let off steam with other projects. I don’t know how it all turned out this way but I guess at some stage I decided to live off music, and for some illogical reason it somehow worked. I think that making that decision can liberate you to invest more energy in the music and it gives you greater endurance, but spending too much time thinking about how to make money from music and how to get well known can lead to you wasting so much energy because you’re under pressure. When I started with Schneider TM it was a time when people who were making techno but also had previously been in guitar bands were kind of looked down on. I got a bit of that, people asking how could I make electronic music when I’m actually a singer and guitarist which I found so absurd that I then did that cover of that Smiths song to provoke them! Now it’s totally normal, people play guitar and make techno or electronic music or whatever. Everything is mixed up these days. It’s good like that, there are enough borders in the world so why should there be borders in music?

Although they are similar in many ways, there is a bridge that separates indie rock from electronic music. Was the transition a simple process for you?

I’m not really interested in trying to connect two independent systems with each other like some bands do. What we found interesting about “indie rock” back then was doing things with guitars that people didn’t usually do, such as working with loops and impulse noises. That was really an “electronic” approach to music and actually not that far away from the first Schneider TM record. I actually came to doing Schneider TM because I was playing around with putting my drum machine through guitar effects like delays and filters. It was all relatively fluid and for me that was the “bridge”. I also had an interest in electronic music because rock music became kind of boring to me. It’s just like when you always eat the same food, eventually you just want to try something different. For me the transition was very organic. I enjoy manipulating sounds and using instruments for things that they weren’t really meant for, and this led me to the music that I make. I mean, construction sites aren’t meant to be musical either. ~

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