In this interview taken from our Winter, 2012 print issue, magazine editor A.J. Samuels makes contact with the original Drexciyan and the missing link between Detroit techno and particle physics. Photograph by Frank Bauer in the Laboratory for Attosecond Physics at the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, Munich.
There isn’t a lot of information on Gerald Donald. And that’s how one of the most important figures in Detroit techno would like to keep it. As one half of the aquatic afro-futurist duo Drexciya (together with the late James Stinson), Donald’s paradigm shifting musical vision and fantastical liner notes on sci-fi waterworld mythology spoke for itself. More recently, under the guises of Dopplereffekt, Arpanet or Heinrich Mueller (amongst others), the mysterious producer has moved away from science fiction towards science fact, recording a series of albums inspired by cosmology and stellar evolution. A.J. Samuels emailed and spoke on the phone with Donald to find out more about his thoughts on sonic efficiency and techno as a form of upward social mobility.
Gerald, anonymity has always been an important aspect of your image, as well as for electronic musicians in general. Paradoxically, it’s also had the effect of making your person even more intriguing. Did you know from the very beginning of your career that you wanted to avoid drawing attention away from the music, or did this develop together with Drexciya’s identity?
Well, I will not directly indicate my involvement in any project. I will leave this question open to observer interpretation. The most important thing has always been the music and concept itself. I adhere to this philosophy. People spend way too much time engaging personalities rather than the music that’s accompanying that personality. Thus, a proportionally inverse relationship is established and in most cases the personality acquires the larger value.
Just out of curiosity: Do you have any special connection to a specific body of water?
Have your albums’ powerful graphic designs been a way of letting images speak for you without having to further stoke people’s obsessions with personality?
There has to be a conceptual one-to-one correspondence between the visual and sonic. The graphical component has to manifest the concept musically and thematically. This is very critical in conveying a concept comprehensively.
The ambiguous and somewhat mystifying cover of Dopplereffekt’s Gesamtkunstwerk from 1999 features a white hammer and sickle on a black background. Also, one of the few well-known pictures of Dopplereffekt feature yourself and partner To Nhan Le Thi in front of Soviet and Chinese flags. What is your relationship to communism and socialism?
Socialism is an ideal political concept in theory. However, in practice, no one followed Marx’s or Engel’s instructions and visions to the letter. Therefore it became corrupted. We’ve seen the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, which had lasted nearly a century. This political theory was designed to place all men in an egalitarian position, and hence create a utopia for the working classes. The purpose of the connection on the album cover was to pay homage to the ideal of this political idea. Music is a communicative medium to represent concepts of any kind, political or otherwise. Dopplereffekt have music data planned for publication soon with the imprint Leisure Systems which will continue in the line of conceptual representation.
How can instrumental music be political?
Mainly in the structure of the data, it’s level of aggression and so forth. Usually we associate a particular set of tones, rhythmic patterns and timbres with certain emotions, conditions, ideas or environments. For example, a very rigid pattern and rapid percussion sequence can give the aura of a totalitarian state, as can industrial music. All music structure is reflective of its surroundings.
Underground Resistance is known for preaching a gospel of technology as a savior for the black American underclass. Do you also see technology as an important rung in the ladder of upward social mobility?
Yes. Technical devices allow the rank and file to express their ideas and to move forward in the socio-economic continuum more effectively. There are many demonstrations of this, including mobile communication, social media sites, the Internet in general and especially the production and publication of one’s own musical data. These advances have allowed many common men to be free of brokers and corporate monopolies on certain industrial processes and services.
But do you think there are any negative aspects to technical advances in music technology—say, cheap digital production and MP3s? What about an over-saturated music market fuelled by the Internet?
This has connections to upward mobility. Yes, the Internet has allowed an infinite number of non-specialists without years of the needed skill development to instantaneously become film producers, music specialists, authors and so forth. But I have no condemnation of people without training, because actually many are quite gifted. My opposition is against those who want to appear profound without proving their value beforehand. Such individuals must first pass through initial steps and gain the required proficiency prior to pronouncement.
With his bailout plans, Barack Obama saved Chrysler and General Motors, but Detroit still has one of the highest crime rates in the US and extremely high unemployment. What kind of effect has electronic music had on the city’s economy and cultural landscape?
To be candid in response, the electronic music scene there in particular is a response to urban decadence and the entire spectrum of the socio-economic condition. It’s an expression of a dystopian condition. This is why music that emerged there carries a certain atmosphere and depth.
Are there other cities in the world that you feel have a special kinship with Detroit, both musically and industrially speaking? Berlin, or perhaps Rotterdam?
Berlin more so, as there are many similarities between the two metropolises. If you compare and contrast them you will discover this immediately.
Do you see yourself and your work with Drexciya as part of the lineage of American afro-futurism in America—next to artists like Sun Ra, Parliament, electric-era Miles Davis or Afrika Bambaataa?
I do not wish to specify any particular ethnicity. I would state that all variations of humanity have contributed to the evolution of electronic music. Electronic music is the only music type that is global in scope and not specific to any particular culture. Granted, if a variety stems from a particular culture, then it will apply its own idiosyncrasies to the form. But in general it’s a universal sonic medium with endless contributions. However, as an external observer, I can safely say that what we did was not the same. Our concepts took more stimulation from the world’s oceans and its marine life than any musical entity. This is the fact of the matter. The marine domain was the central axis upon which all other elements hinged. Of course all musical techniques influence one another, but in this case it was mostly nature itself.
Aside from the ocean and marine life being a reoccurring theme in almost all of your projects, science has also come to play a central conceptual role in your work—from theoretical physics to computer science. How do you understand the relationship between science and electronic music? Does it go beyond the utilization of new technology to also influence composition and an aesthetic sensibility?
Well, keep in mind that the apparatus used in the production process are the results of many technological breakthroughs in computer science, electronics and physics. It’s only natural that the sound created is of a technical kind. So yes, you can accurately state that the world of natural philosophy plays a role in the conceptual development of the sonic and visual aspects. For example, a certain sound or arrangement attempts to emulate nuclear fission or the Schrödinger wave function. It’s imperative that the soundscapes faithfully represent the natural phenomenon in question as much as possible. But the observer can also form his own interpretation.
Speaking of interpretation, what about interpreting the future of science in science fiction? Do you read science fiction?
Well, I like to study science in general, and there is no certain author that captures my attention more than another. If I am getting solid knowledge about various concepts, then it’s all acceptable. One has to be careful when bifurcating fact from fiction because the fiction is a projection of what may one day become fact. The only reason it is fiction is because certain technologies have not come to pass and matured. That is, critical understandings of nature remain open. Keep in mind that many technologies and discoveries that were once in the realm of fantasy, such as lasers, nuclear fusion and nanotechnology, are now commonplace in our society. We also have a new project entitled Neutrino Programme, which is a synthesis of cosmology, stellar physics and electronic music data—essentially a manifestation of this relationship in the four dimensions of space-time. We plan to further extend this concept.
Looking back, is there an earliest memory of science or technology that sparked your interest?
You could say it was the beauty of the scientific method and the wonder of discovering a new law or natural principle. When observation has a one-to-one correspondence with theory, it’s quite mind bending. The entire scientific process is fascinating indeed.
What about formative musical experiences growing up? What was your introduction into the world of electronic music?
Going back to environmental stimuli: If you are enveloped by a large diversity of sounds and ideas, this will most likely have an effect on your psychology and future course of musical actions.
Did you grow up playing an instrument? Were your parents at all an influence on your musical development?
My musical development was an evolutionary progression from a primitive state to a more advanced state, sonically. It was more or less an interest independent of environmental stimuli.
One fascinating aspect of your live performance is the way you move when you play your Korg Triton. For almost the entire Arpanet set I recently saw at ://aboutblank in Berlin, one hand was frenetically tapping the air double-time, as if you were conducting an orchestra of interweaving syncopation and arpeggios. How would you describe the relationship between your body and the rhythm when performing live?
The brain and body are synchronized by motor neurons and our multitude of senses— visual, hearing and so forth. When one controls apparatus for musical interaction, he or she must align mind and matter to ensure that all forces—intellectual and anatomical—are synched or programed for one objective: to operate efficiently in a musical context. This is the binary system and anthropomorphic system in symbiosis.
What about adapting your sound and set-up to a live environment?
A live environment is certainly more perilous than a controlled environment. There are many things that can and will experience the law of Murphy.
Holger Czukay of Can famously proclaimed that restriction is the mother of invention. Certainly there’s a minimalist aesthetic that runs through much of your music. What kinds of restrictions do you place on yourself when you compose?
I wouldn’t say “restrictions”. It’s more of a philosophy of sonic efficiency. One should include only what is musically essential—that is, that only “x” amount of elements are required to express a musical idea fully. Anything beyond is excess.
In a previous interview with Red Bull Music Academy you mentioned the importance of ergonomics in hardware and software design—ensuring that the musical set-up allows for an immediate ability to produce the sounds you want. How customized is your musical set-up for the effortless control of parameters? Do you manipulate or tailor your equipment to your musical needs?
Yes, and I think efficiency in production processes is key to successful sonic exploration and expression. If one has to do extensive, non-essential computer programming and program navigating in the midst of a creative process in sound, it will definitely retard the sonic exploration process and absorb creative energy. This is because you are doing two distinct technical procedures simultaneously: programming the machine and sculpting a sound. Software as well as hardware should have all the basic system errors fully removed or dramatically reduced before the technology is put to market. Beta and Gamma tested comprehensively. ~
Following the announcement of the upcoming release of a Quasimoto rarities record, we reproduce a conversation between the revered hip-hop producer, MC, and “man of few words”—he lets Lord Quas do the talking for him—Madlib and the Neue Deutsche Welle architect and member of The Orb Thomas Fehlmann. This feature is taken from the Winter 2012/13 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.
Los Angeles-based beatmaker and multi-instrumentalist Madlib is widely regarded as one of the most original producers in hip-hop. Born Otis Jackson Jr., the Stones Throw label vet and former Lootpack member has honed a jazz-tinged, sample-heavy sensibility that defined the genre’s underground offshoots in the late ’90s and early ’00s. An avid crate digger and a vocal proponent of sample source eclecticism, Madlib’s path has rarely strayed from the groove-related, and his most recent work with veteran krautrockers Embryo is no exception. In a rare conversation, the notoriously reticent musician opened up to Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb and Palais Schaumburg about collaborating with the late, great J Dilla and the joys of discovering German music. Main portrait of Madlib photographed in San Francisco by Mathew Scott, Thomas Fehlmann photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Madlib: Thomas, just so you know: I’m a man of few words.
Thomas Fehlmann: The last big interview I read with you was in The Wire a few years back. My good friend and former fellow band member Moritz von Oswald was on the cover just a few months before that. Back in the day we played together in Palais Schaumburg. Have you heard the new album Fetch he did with his trio? It’s really impressive, very jazzy, electronic, and very eclectic.
M: No, I haven’t. I actually don’t know much about new music, really.
TF: Well, Palais Schaumburg is old school. And pretty experimental. Early ’80s. We started playing live again last year for our 30th anniversary. I played—and still play—live synth and trumpet through an echoplex. The lyrics are all in German and very Dada.
M: Oh, I’d love to hear it. Trumpet through an echoplex, huh?
TF: Yes, it’s pretty free, apart from an occasional riff, although our music is mostly structured around a danceable beat. It seems to me that generally speaking, European music is obsessed with rhythms in 4/4, particularly today’s dance music. Do you think this is a continental phenomena or what’s your take on straight rhythms?
M: Well, funk is 4/4. It’s so you can dance to it. Although, shit, I could dance to 5/8. It’s all music.
TF: I hear you. What have you been up to since coming to Berlin?
M: Just drinking wine, chilling with Embryo and relaxing. I’m sure you know that Embryo is a musical collective from Munich that started out in the ‘7os. They make pretty eclectic krautrock, working a lot with jazz musicians and world music and whatnot.
TF: Have you guys been rehearsing?
M: No, just listening to some of the stuff we recorded last time, around five hours of tape.
TF: But you’ll also be playing a show in Berlin later this year. I actually penned that into my calendar before I knew that I would be meeting you for this conversation.
M: Hey man, bring your trumpet to the show.
TF: How did you know about Embryo? Crate digging?
M: Actually from touring. I’d been coming out to Berlin since 2001, and I’ve been learning about different types of music. Krautrock is certainly one of my favorites.
TF: Have you checked out Can’s Lost Tapes?
M: Yup, I picked it up almost immediately when it came out. There are some absolutely brilliant tracks on there. Honestly, Can are one of my all-time favorites. I actually played with Jaki [Liebezeit] with the Brasilintime cats.
TF: He also has this brilliant project with Bernd Friedmann. It’s so cool that Jaki’s so persistent about working with all types of artists.
M: Yeah, he’s very open-minded.
TF: Have you gone record shopping in Berlin yet?
M: Actually, no. Nobody’s told me where the stores are at.
TF: Well, you should start with Hard Wax. It’s not your average shop. The people who work there and run it have very strong opinions about what they carry. There’s also a legendary cutting room there where they master the records for lots of international producers. Unfortunately, they don’t carry that much hip-hop anymore. . .
M: I never buy hip-hop records.
TF: They also have quite a selection of African music, which recently started to blow up a bit. This grew out of the whole reggae and dub wave, and it sits quite well with the broader stream of contemporary releases. I find some of it is very psychedelic.
M: I love psychedelic stuff. That’s my era.
TF: Is that what you grew up listening to with your parents?
M: My parents were incredibly open-minded. They had everything from James Brown to Kraftwerk, and I had a record player in my room, so I would always steal their stuff and listen to it on my own.
TF: You’re lucky. I had to fight with my parents to play what I liked and to get my turn at the record player. Eventually when they got a stereo, I was allowed to set up the old mono system in the basement for my use.
M: That’s how I first learned about music. Back then music was a different feeling. These days everybody follows trends. I honestly think things were far more open-minded back then. People tried harder, and there was more of a spiritual aspect involved . . .
TF: It’s maybe surprising, but I think music with a spiritual angle is the music that really endures.
M: I also like my music loose. Quantized is cool, but I also like that human feel.
TF: I think the humanness is what separates your productions from things done within the grid . . .
M: Well, I like that stuff too.
TF: I remember when I picked up the first Yesterdays New Quintet record—one of your many aliases—I was so impressed. I mean, a lot of people say they like jazz, but actually doing it is another thing. Of course, I’d been listening to you since back in the day with Lootpack.
M: It’s an honor for me to hear that. Actually, Yesterdays New Quintet was my first shot at jazz. Sometimes, I kind of feel like a musical schizophrenic, to be honest. But I think that’s probably not a bad thing.
TF: I know what you mean; trying to absorb all the magic stuff one is passionate for. The new Orb album we did with Lee Perry, The Observer In The Star House, was also a first for us in many ways. He actually spent a week with us in the countryside near Berlin. We had to be ready when he was ready to flow and that was basically always. He had a tremendous hunger for new beats. We needed to be fast, have all the machines and beats ready at any time. Lee also had a buddy with him, and he told us that usually after around two days, Lee gets bored with whatever he’s doing… but he stayed for the full week. This is the album [shows cover].
M: [turning it over] Ah, Steve Reich samples.
TF: Had to get permission for those.
M: Of course!
TF: As I mentioned before, I’ve been following you for quite some time. I decided to take a picture of all your records that I own. [showing collection pic] I’m not as prolific as you are but there are similarities, I also make lots of my music from my record collection, mostly older stuff.
M: Got to come back to stuff that people missed.
TF: I tend to treat my samples quite a bit, but it’s a similar flow in that existing music is the foundation and main source for the artistic result. That’s not to say that some of it can’t get pretty radical…
M: Even if it doesn’t sell, right? That’s some of the best stuff!
TF: When I see your work, I can look at it as if the idea of using your record collection to make music is a kind of conceptual art: the cultural output of society as the source material, put through the filter of your mind and your sampler. What about the other cultures that you explore in your music—non-Western conceptions of pop?
M: It’s all music that was done through records I bought—not visits to India or the Middle East or whatever. But I did manage to pick up the records from all over the world. The internet for me has been a help in finding material, but it’s actually something I just started using. I’m not constantly listening to streams or anything like that. We used to have tons of record stores where I live, but they’re disappearing one by one.
TF: Tell me about it! How important is the artwork for your records?
M: Well, it has to fit. A lot of the artwork just comes from pictures in my room or whatever. Like the Quasimoto album with the Frank Zappa bubble… This is stuff I look at all the time and surrounds me. I was living with Jeff Jank who does all the artwork, and we just listened to tons of Zappa.
TF: When I was a teenager I used to go to Zappa concerts when he was playing with Ruth Underwood and George Duke.
M: You got to love Zappa and Beefheart, The GTOs, Wild Man Fischer and George Duke… Zappa made me study all that stuff even more.
TF: Don’t forget Varèse! That’s the direction Zappa pointed me in.
M: You got to pay your dues.
TF: I think in Europe, there’s been resurgence in vinyl, amongst DJs, of course, but also people who love the object and its special sound quality. I see the whole numbering and signing thing as a part of that, which I know you’ve done. Is there a vinyl resurgence in the US?
M: Not that I know of. I mean, it’s still around and some people buy it, but not enough.
TF: You did it with the Medicine Show, too. Labels are becoming more like art galleries, encouraging their artists to put out stuff that’s really personal and unique, visually and sonically.
M: I think the art is as important as the music, to be honest. I don’t just download things. I want to know who played on a record, who produced it, where it was made… This stuff is important to me and always has been.
TF: So you don’t listen to contemporary music at all?
M: I do, but I don’t buy it. I’ll hear it when I’m in a club or whatever, but I don’t search it out.
TF: But there are musicians these days doing great things you just can’t hear in a club. It’s stuff that’s spiritual too but too experimental for the dancefloor, like Jan Jelinek or Daedelus, for example.
M: I like Daedelus, that’s my boy. But I have so much old stuff to discover I don’t know when I’ll have time to get to the new stuff.
TF: I remember reading in your interview in The Wire that you have all sorts of “future music” that’s unreleased. When are we going to hear that?
M: I don’t know. I don’t even know if I’m ready to hear it. There’s a lot of music I’ve done that’s gone unreleased: dubstep, synthesizer records, all types of different things, Cluster-like and beyond. I would say I’ve released around thirty percent of the music I’ve created.
TF: One thing I’m really curious about from a musician’s point of view is how you find the time to be in the studio and make so much music and still take care of, like, domestic stuff?
M: It’s not balanced. I’m mostly working in the studio. I mean, I have one at my house, but I’m usually in my bigger studio. I do what I need to do to feed my family, so they understand. It’s not really a balance yet, but I don’t see it as work. It’s music. Doing construction is work. What about you?
TF: I have to be able to let go to make good work. Forget about what’s going on in music, forget about my to-do lists. My mind and my environment have to be relatively in shape before I go into the studio.
M: Yeah, it’s easy to ignore everything, when your head is in the music. Even your health. It was the same thing with Dilla.
TF: Tell me about that. He’s regarded as one of the most important producers . . .
M: When he was alive, so many people seemed inspired by what he was doing. I heard Dilla everywhere, in so many different kinds of music. His influence was immense. He could do any type of music. I heard all sorts of stuff he didn’t release—electronic, Kraftwerk stuff… He was deep. I was lucky enough to kick it with him here in L.A. I guess he had to die for everybody to, you know, find their own way. It’s a weird way to put it, but that’s how it is. The music is so warm, precise and soulful. That’s how he lived. He’s like Bird and Coltrane, like Doom and… Doom.
TF: You’re one of the few people who’ve gotten access to the Blue Note archives, which you waded through to make Shades of Blue back in 2003. I always wanted to know what that was like.
M: It was fun. They have way too much stuff they should have released. The best records are still in the vaults.
TF: There are so many new things coming out of Los Angeles. I really like your brother’s work too, Oh No.
M: We actually just finished an album together.
TF: Really? That’s great news. I can’t wait to hear it. I’ve seen Oh No live a bunch of times. I actually just picked up his new record, Dr. No’s Kali Tornado Funk.
M: He’s a little beast. Both of us like looking all over the place for sounds. Really, you can find good things in every kind of music. I mean every kind, you know? You just have to look hard enough and have an open mind.
TF: In Germany we have a very broken relationship towards our cultural identity. Classical stuff here is more bourgeois. Then there’s the real folk music with accordions and all that. Some of it is impressive.
M: Everybody is one, we just live in different places. I’m ready to sample some Martian music, aliens and what not. I’ll perform for all Martians, you know what I mean? ~
See this article as it appears in our print magazine via Issuu.com below:
In our cover story from the Winter 2012 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor talks Scritti Politti, Hildegard Knef and post-production with German producer, Kompakt-signed Justus Köhncke.
Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor and German producer Justus Köhncke have developed an on- and offstage kinship that’s given rise to numerous mutual remixes, 12-inch collaborations and “sing-jaying” live performances—most recently under the moniker Fainting by Numbers. But beneath the dancey surface of the occasional duo’s vocal-heavy tech-disco is a core song structure that works just as well outside the discotheque. Theirs is a sound born from a balance between experimentation and strict arrangement, and starved of the unnecessary flab that weighs down boring dance music. “I actually hate improvisation,” Köhncke tells Taylor here in a spirit of friendly provocation. At least the two can find common ground in Scritti Politti and creative approaches to the post-production editing process.
Alexis Taylor: Justus, we’ve known each other for quite a few years, since Felix and Al asked you to remix “Over and Over”. I remember meeting you for the first time at Watergate in Berlin where we were playing a show.
Justus Köhncke: That I unfortunately don’t remember. But I know that Stephen Bass from the label Moshi Moshi was who put you on to me. I think he even has my first ever single—a pink vinyl I sold by hand and in a few choice record stores in Cologne. All three hundred copies. It’s covers of “Let ’Em In” by Paul McCartney and “Wie viele Menschen waren glücklich, daß du gelebt” by Hildegard Knef. Yeah, when he was still in the music business, Stephen was giving me remixes to pay my rent!
AT: He’s still in the music business. But I remember we met again in Cologne after a show we played.
JK: I remember. That was at the Sixpack in Aachener Straße.
AT: I got a bottle of beer and then dropped it by accident. So I got another one and I did the same thing. The bar staff was very angry with me. I protested that I wasn’t even drunk. I recall we spoke about you coming to tour the U.S. with us, but that didn’t work out. Then you asked me to remix a track, but I just ended up putting my vocal on it.
JK: If I remember correctly, that’s why the track is called “Sorry”—sorry for you not delivering a proper Hot Chip remix for my track “Parage”.
AT: But it was also about the tour not working out . . .
JK: Yeah. As much as we’re friends, I couldn’t have done it under those conditions. That would have been, like, hard labor. I’m too old for that.
AT: But I quite enjoy the DJ gigs we’ve done together, integrating your music into it and me singing on the top. Pretty loose, really.
JK: I’m glad we finalized our first single yesterday, finally. Hot Chip is bursting with side projects that the band can’t oversee anyhow. But Fainting by Numbers is a keeper, if you ask me.
AT: I also like that it’s a mix of things, with the John Lennon song on the A-side, “Watching the Wheels”, and a song of mine on the B-side that you produced . . .
JK: I thought it was ours, actually. I like the fact that Fainting by Numbers so far is both electronic and ballad-oriented. It’s definitely a sound I always had, I would say. I’m afraid I’m known more for uplifting disco stuff, like “Timecode” . . . which you are too, Alexis. But my favorite stuff by you is still Hot Chip. To me, it’s the perfect pop band. Even after having lost the sheen of being the hippest thing in town. As we all know, in the next six months it’s some band from Brooklyn that’ll be the next biggest thing. That is, if they haven’t drowned. But as I was saying: I have to praise Hot Chip because you all still do your thing even though some people think you might not be “exclusive” enough anymore. Just for being a perfect pop band that tours the world and makes people happy! I remember when you were on the cover of Spex four years ago, the title was “The Band of the Future”, in reference to your loose composition style . . . and the ability for the band to morph, stylistically. I think that’s what allows Hot Chip side projects to flourish. Also, your anti-rock stance is something I’ve always appreciated. There’s no machismo bullshit. I know people always ask themselves which one of you is gay, which is hilarious because none of you are! You have kids! And houses! And wives! It sometimes reminds me a bit of the band Freiwillige Selbstkontrolle from Munich—FSK for short. I really enjoy your set-up with the MPC and toys and percussion stuff. And originally without drums right in the front of the stage.
AT: The no drums thing was because our drummer left and we never replaced him. But setting up all across the front of the stage in a line came from always being the support band for someone else and having to set up our gear in front of theirs. I remember once in Berlin To Rococo Rot were very taken with the lack of the drummer as well. Of course, things are different now that we do have a drummer and we all play three or four different instruments live. Also, I used to watch old videos of Devo and I remember being impressed with how they played at the very edge of stage and had this almost choreographic thing happening.
JK: I’ve also noticed how you not only change instruments often, but also improvise quite a bit. The shows are really different from city to city.
AT: Bob Dylan is a great reference point, because he’s always changing the words and the melodies to songs. He’s interested in the depth of a song and is a proponent of the idea that if a song is strong enough, it can be reconfigured. People like Will Oldham and Dylan as performers are incredible for exactly that: their ability to reinvent. I always wanted Hot Chip to be flexible, to get rid of rigidity. I think we’ve achieved that somewhat. Take “Boy From School”—I don’t even recognize that song anymore because we’ve been playing it so differently for so long.
JK: I don’t want to connect gender theory to what you do, but I always loved bands that didn’t attach specific roles to each member. There is no “front man”, or “drummer” or “bass player”. The band is liberated. And everybody sings, although I suppose you and Joe do that the most.
AT: Yeah, it was really Joe and I who started Hot Chip together and then expanded it into the group. But initially, we never really thought about our live presentation. We just thought about what sounds we wanted to make. And then we realized how to do it while we went along. You come to understand during your career, if you have one, that people expect certain roles. We don’t do it so much anymore, but when we made The Warning and Made in the Dark, we talked a lot about Can, who everybody loves. We talked about creating something new from endless playing together in a room.
JK: I know from talking with Irmin Schmidt that Can always travelled with their own sound system. There was no PA. The monitor was the PA. The back of the stage was a wall mounted with specially designed speakers, which were then assigned to each band member, but were hidden. There was no mix for the front of the house and that’s what must have made it an amazing live experience. It all came from the stage, kind of like the Velvet Underground. Even though I was born and raised with the Velvets, I only learned a few years ago how sound obsessed, or “sound-istic” as I like to say, they are. I read in a Lou Reed interview a little while ago that he hates the first VU record. It’s clear that being “sound-istic” means sometimes missing the point, if you ask me.
AT: When I met Charles Hayward from This Heat, we talked a lot about Can. When he and Gareth Williams and Charles Bullen formed the band, they had been obsessed with Can. I think they had actually visited the Can studio and had wanted to set up something similar. It’s interesting that so many people and so many bands feel drawn to them. I know you do film production work with Irmin Schmidt, right Justus?
JK: Yes. My original connection with him was through Whirlpool Productions. We wanted to record a track from the album Brian De Palma, but we didn’t have any way of recording the vocals, so we ended up getting René Tinner’s number through Hans Nieswandt’s wife’s brother. We went to Weilerswist, which, by that time, was a commercial studio. René Tinner then put me in touch with Irmin and now the three of us do film scores together: Irmin writing, René mixing and myself producing. I’ve learned a lot from Irmin Schmidt. I never went to university. Or rather, I did but to no avail. I don’t have a driver’s license. My last diploma is from high school, my Abitur. But Irmin Schmidt taught me. Would you say there’s somebody you learned from, Alexis?
AT: Certainly from Joe [Goddard] over the years. That may be obvious, but it should be said. We work in very different ways and have different methods of composing music, but playing with him has always been challenging and inspiring. We’ve been friends since we were eleven years old. Beyond that, I think Pat Thomas, John Coxon and Charles Hayward from About Group have taught me loads. Charles especially. He has such a different approach to music, and not just the actual sound he gets out of the drum kit. Although I think he gets the best sound I’ve ever heard. He’s just a very bright person and does nothing conventionally. You can tell he really listens to music. And live, he won’t play until he’s taken in what’s going on around him. A lot of the sessions we’ve been involved in, he’ll wait until he has something to say, musically speaking. He’ll never hit the drum unless it’s deliberate. But he’s also comfortable being the foundation for everybody else.
JK: Do you think you can still learn from the importance of thinking and acting spontaneously even if you don’t play jazz or avant-garde music?
AT: Charles once told me at a festival, “Sometimes I look at the shape of the crowd and play that as if it’s the music score.” It’s a very different approach. Another person who I have that relationship with is Green Gartside from Scritti Politti. You see, Prince was my main obsession growing up. I only had one Scritti Politti twelve-inch to begin with, which was “Oh Patti”, featuring Miles Davis. And I thought, “Wow! This sounds like Prince!” But later I discovered the first album from 1982, Songs to Remember, and I thought, “Wow! This sounds like Prince!” To me it was a lot like Sign o’ the Times, only five years before. I couldn’t believe it. It’s interesting to hear how “A Slow Soul” predates “Slow Love”.
JK: Songs to Remember is an absolutely classic record. Timeless. It survived the eighties big time. I remember I bought it on recommendation from Sounds magazine.
AT: It was just so ahead of its time.
JK: Not “ahead”—it’s not in any time. It doesn’t age, good or bad. It’s goddamn timeless. The next album less so, but it’s also brilliant. Cupid & Psyche 85 is high-gloss, sci-fi superbly programmed and totally fierce music. Something I’ve tried to emulate a bit on my own recordings.
AT: My wife was obsessed with Gartside when she was a teenager, and then one day we saw him in a pub in Dalston. We were all excited but never did anything about it. We didn’t recognize him at first because he looks way different now. He wears a lot of Carhartt, kind of looks like a skateboarder. But he ended up recognizing me and then came up and we got to talking about playing together, which we did. When we started out it was strange, because he works like nobody I’ve ever collaborated with. He would force me to get a song as strong as it could possibly be on guitar before we could do anything else with it. I imagine The Beatles would work out songs like that, with John and Paul battling it out and throwing ideas back and forth. In Hot Chip, with Joe and me it was never about stepping back from the computer. The songs were recorded from the moment we wrote them. With Gartside, he’d translate everything we did into MIDI and get rid of the original guitar thing. But it would become something new. I’m so used to having tactile instruments all around, playing and touching them. But after the music is “translated” into the computer, everything else is done there with a MIDI controller. It’s bare, like your studio yesterday.
JK: I consider it a compliment when people tell me how minimal my studio is. I find it interesting that in England people would always ask about gear, what synths I have and all that crap. I always just tell them that: it’s software. It’s plug-ins. It’s presets. You just have to find the right ones and then you’re good. I don’t give a fuck about instruments. For producing I prefer a total recall system. I can find layouts, blueprints, and ideas from years ago in the music software. It’s all there! My good friend and collaborator Eric D. Clark is the opposite. He believes a lot in improvisation and inspiration. And that’s the strange thing when it comes to thinking about these great bands like Can and Charles Hayward and all them: I actually hate improvisation. Even if it’s on the highest level, I have a hard time being in it. Because to this day, I can’t play a single instrument. Especially with great musicians I find it almost impossible. I play two notes and that’s it. I don’t solo. If it’s jam time, I leave the room. I always thought it was hippie shit. Maybe that’s why I hate THC. But I guess Charles Hayward or Can had the amazing idea of taking massive improvisations and condensing it into the best few minutes.
AT: In terms of the editing process, I think This Heat were mostly inspired by Can and Teo Macero’s productions with Miles Davis.
JK: Being in love with your own improvisation and releasing all of it on record is a seriously bad habit which, for certain musicians, will never die. And then they label it art! That’s what separates Amon Düül from Can, in my opinion. Amon Düül recorded everything and called it a political statement, instead of creating a precise and concise piece of music.
AT: There aren’t that many albums of purely improvised music that I enjoy listening to, but Pat Thomas from About Group is one of those musicians who pretty much always plays something brilliant everytime, be it on acoustic piano, synth or a radio plugged in to a stylophone. The same goes for Han Bennink, too. I think a lot of these people aren’t interested in recordings, you know? They don’t need documentation. I like meeting people who have a different musical approach.
JK: Very good, Alexis.
AT: I like a lot of the bands that aren’t only involved in the electronic music circuit, so to speak. The bands that we get asked questions about in interviews are never bands we really listen to. Interviewers always ask us about some contemporary of ours who makes indie dance music and I just think, “Well, I don’t listen to them.”
JK: Are you crazy? Ever since “Over and Over” that’s what you’ve been making! Don’t you think? Don’t you like that music?
AT: I can understand the connection, but I don’t like it. Maybe it is what we do. Although we do have noisy guitars sometimes . . .
JK: So it’s indie dance! Oh my God! So what? Back in the day when I first started singing in German, Wolfgang Voigt said, “You’re making Techno-Schlager!” Schlager is a kind of contemporary German folk music, which I don’t mind. But I don’t consider my music “Schlager”. The label follows me to this day.
AT: I suppose no one ever likes labels.
JK: But there are people who are considered Schlager who have absolutely nothing to do with it. For example, with Whirlpool Productions we recently released a series of Hildegard Knef remixes. I consider her to be the best German lyricist ever, next to Ingeborg Bachmann. As Cole Porter said, “She’s the best singer without a voice the world has ever seen.” Every homosexual has a diva and she’s mine. The vocal remixes we did came about through Hans Nieswandt who’s been working closely with the label Bureau B in Hamburg. They got hold of the rights of a whole bunch of late seventies stuff and we made a kind of monument to her. The only problem is that with up-tempo disco music, you can’t expect people to listen to the lyrics. The track I remixed, “Und wenn ich wage, dich zu lieben”, I chose deliberately because of the lyrics. It’s about being madly in love with somebody, but it starts out with a description of how much she hates the world; about how depressing it is and people are. Only after that comes the love. Then in the chorus it goes from darkwave to hippie disco, and Knef throws in the most important lyric of all. It’s a question: “If I dare to love you, would you become like them?” It’s a fear we can all relate to, I suppose. ~
Main picture: Alexis Taylor, photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Picture 2: Justus Köhncke photographed in Berlin by Luci Lux.
Depeche Mode have built up one of the most musically influential and obsessive fan bases in the world, particularly in Berlin and the former East Germany. Daniel Miller has a special connection to Berlin, having recorded and produced various Mute acts here throughout the ’80s and ’90s. An early champion of krautrock, NDW, and the electronic avant-garde, Miller sees the German capital as a second home. This is the concluding installment in a six-part series of conversations with the fans. Click here for more.
Daniel Miller – Music producer and founder of Mute Records
Depeche Mode was incredibly excited to explore their popularity behind the Iron Curtain, because they knew about the hunger for songs and facts and information about them. I didn’t go with them to East Berlin, but I went to the Hungary and Czechoslovakia shows. The reaction was unbelievable, completely different than in the UK. Of course, there were very few Western groups who actually made the journey into the East, so the rarity value of the band added immense enthusiasm. The level of Eastern European obsession is hard to describe really. In Hungary, there was almost a Depeche Mode gang culture. These were real cults. The Hungarians were one of the first to have parties based entirely around the band, with Dave and Martin and Fletch impersonators doing their thing.
Most bands thought it simply wasn’t worth doing promotion behind the Iron Curtain, because in the East they essentially had no consumer culture and practically no albums in the market. For us, it was always just a short trip away because between 1983 and 1986, we spent a lot of time in West Berlin making albums. Martin was also dating a German girl at the time and they had moved in together. The city’s atmosphere was very different to England and the whole Berlin lifestyle had an influence on the music. In England, there was nothing to do after 11 pm. You couldn’t go out. Things were dead. In Berlin you could do whatever you wanted at whatever time you wanted. I had a number of artist friends in Berlin—the Neubauten, Nick Cave, Thomas Fehlmann, Gudrun [Gut]—so I always enjoyed hanging out. But my time in the city was more work-oriented, to be honest. I was co-producing the band in the studio. We did get into sampling very early with Construction Time Again in 1983—of course, not from records but rather found sounds and various Indian or African instruments or other stuff they’d collected. We’d end up pitching them up or down and fucking around with them quite a bit. It was part of a constant search for new sounds. There’s the myth that the band had used a sample from the Einstürzende Neubauten because there was supposedly two or three seconds of Neubauten samples that had been left in Gareth Jones’ sampler, but that’s total nonsense. Of course, you can’t deny the Neubauten’s influence at the time.
For me, Depeche Mode is unique, as are their fans, which some people know from Jeremy Deller and Nick Abrahams’ film The Posters Came From The Walls. Personally, I really liked the film, but I know the band weren’t too sure. I don’t think they liked being confronted with the reality they had created. But I think the film shows how much power the band had in the East especially. Depeche Mode gave people an outlet away from people’s daily routine. They’ve always been an outsider band. There were lots of outsiders and kids who were bullied that got strength from Depeche Mode. And that’s a really moving thing. The band is extremely down to earth and they appreciate normalcy, even if they don’t always have it.
I remember an interview in the very beginning when a journalist asked them, “If you could be any other band, which would you be?” And one of them, I don’t remember which, said: “Pink Floyd! They’re incredibly famous, but nobody knows what they look like. They can just walk around and have normal lives!” These days, the group tries to lead normal lives, even if it’s not always possible. In Berlin, things were pretty relaxed, even if fans did wait outside the studio and rename the street “Depeche Mode Straße” when we were in town. ~
Depeche Mode have built up one of the most musically influential and obsessive fan bases in the world, particularly in Berlin and the former East Germany. This is the fifth in a six-part series of conversations with the fans. Click here for more.
Sunday 6:15 pm, Basedow: Dennis Burmeister – Graphic designer and Depeche Mode archivist
There are hardly any sounds that you hear today that you’ve never heard before. With synthesis and all of the innovative and explorative electronics that have become a part of pop music today, it’s rare to listen to the radio and wonder, “What the hell is that?” With Depeche Mode, it’s an entirely different story. When I heard them in the beginning, I honestly thought the radio was broken. This sounded like nothing we’d ever heard. For me, it was a world of science fiction. Something that very, very few people know about me is that my first memory of electronic music goes back to the East German stop motion puppet show Sandmänn-chen. It was a children’s show about a little boy who traveled around and had these fantastic adventures. He actually had a little goatee, which supposedly made him look like the first president of the GDR, Walter Ulbricht. The show also prominently featured East German technology and the success of Soviet cosmonauts. In one episode, the main character took off in a rocket to space, and the whole thing was accompanied by these incredibly cosmic sounds—bleeps and blips and rocket ships. It blew me away. And when I heard it again in Depeche Mode, I knew I found something special.
I grew up as a Depeche Mode fan, but I’ve always listened to other music—The Beatles, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Deep Purple, The Cure, Slayer, Einstürzende Neubauten, Dead Can Dance, you name it. I am not the type of obsessive fan that lets the band completely take over my personality, let it dictate what I wear, or how I see the world. Honestly, I don’t really understand people who only listen to Depeche Mode, and believe me, I know dozens of them. It doesn’t make any sense for the band either. I mean we’re talking about a group that was covered by Johnny Cash and The Cure. It’s insane. There are plenty of Depeche Mode parties—pretty much every week in Germany. But the whole thing is pure reenactment. I couldn’t give less of a shit about dressing up like Dave or Martin or Andrew. I care about their place in music history and about the historical documentation of what they’ve achieved as musicians. The parties today aren’t the same as the Depeche Mode parties we had in the GDR. We went to these parties to dance because you couldn’t do that anywhere else. And you also went to somehow find all of the information that wasn’t accessible. Even at “normal” discos, I had a friend who would always go to the DJ and request Depeche, even though he knew damn well that he would get his face smashed afterwards. He always said , “Fuck it!” and danced. He did it again and again and again, and got his face pummeled by the heavy metal crowd, because there were simply more of them than there were of us. But he has absolutely no regrets. Today, things like “Dave dancing” contests—people who actually compete to see who can do the more convincing Dave-twirl or Dave-kick—gives me goose bumps. The band and the music are trivialized and made to look “cute”. It’s a kind of fetishization I can’t stand.
DM had their big breakthrough in Germany with “People Are People”, and Martin Gore once said that the reason it caught in Germany so much is that people could understand the lyrics. For me though, it was never about the texts. It was about the sounds. In Germany, we had all sorts of electronic pioneers—Klaus Schulze and Kraftwerk—but introducing sampling in pop music, that was Depeche Mode. And long before the Wall came down, they had a very special place in East German music history. All of the things people put blood, sweat and tears into making themselves—that’s the stuff that fans from the East will never give up. And I think it at least partially explains how I became such an obsessive collector. And I have most likely the biggest and most complete collection in the world. Multiples of all albums and singles; releases from every country; AMIGA label dub plates of the only Depeche Mode album released in East Germany; the band’s very first demo tape, which has Vince Clarke’s handwriting on it. I’ve always been an information junkie. I suppose the GDR did that to a lot of us, but for me it’s a flame that still burns.
You’d think this more historical aspect would be interesting for, say, documentarians. But Nick Abrahams, co-director with Jeremy Deller of the DM fan film The Posters Came From the Walls, came to my house to interview me, checked out my records and my collection of memorabilia and told me how cool he thought it was. But in the end never used my interview. In hindsight, I can only say thank God, because Posters focused almost exclusively on weirdos and disturbed obsessives—not the type of people that made me proud to be a fan. In a sense, those aren’t even proper fans. Deller and Abrahams simply went looking for the most fucked up people—and they found them. Look: I’m a Depeche Mode fan. I’m a bit heavier than Dave Gahan, but this is my band too.