The neo-kosmische house pulse of Blondes has made their second album Swisher one of the most talked about records in the underground recently. D. Strauss met them in Berlin before their Panorama Bar appearance. Photo, left to right: Sam Haar and Zach Steinman of Blondes, by Tania Castellvi.
Sam Haar and Zach Steinman, otherwise known as the nü-kosmische duo Blondes, graduated from the Lena Dunham-endorsed Oberlin college a decade ago and one can witness a jokey conceptual side in their naming of A and B sides (“Business” backed with “Pleasure,” “Hater” the reverse of “Lover”). Live, the oft-improvising duo privileges actual trance over the EDM version, with Swisher (RVNG), their latest full-length, embracing the early eighties German sounds of “Love on a Real Train”-era Tangerine Dream and Manuel Göttsching’s proto-techno E2-E4, fitting in nicely with the current kozmik zeitgeist of Lindstrøm and the like, though sporting a less disco-y approach.
Considering your backgrounds, how does conceptual art figure into what you do?
Zach Steinman: I think we actually do have a conceptual art approach to our process but I don’t wanna get too lofty. In college, we were in a band called Misty and it was all percussion, and it was sort of set up to…
Sam Haar: It was a drum circle [laughter]. It was sort of like a taking from Sol LeWitt. The beauty of this idea was that you could just do whatever you want with it and it would be whatever it is. It was kind of like, you just set up the rubric and then worked within it, and I think our project uses the 4/4 bass drum much the same way. “Class,” off our new record, is probably the only track that doesn’t have a straight 4/4 bass drum at some point. It is about limitations but also about the ability to set something up that can never be really, totally fucked up. Because the constraints give you the freedom to work.
As long as you have a house beat going underneath you can do anything that you want on top of it.
Would you consider your work more headphone than club music?
ZS: I don’t know how people react. It’s funny ‘cause either people will say we’re really good live and really not exciting to listen to on recording, or it’s the opposite.
SH: “Can’t see how this works in the dance club.”
ZS: Yeah! “Doesn’t work as dance music.”
SH: We definitely set out to be doing live electronic playing—you know, synths and stuff. But it always set out to be dance music, or at least to have this sort of metronomic thump.
ZS: Right. And there’s just something about the ambience surrounding dance music that’s always been attractive to us.
The idea of having an immersive experience.
ZS: Well, yeah, there’s nothing like it, really.
When I was first reading about you guys the term “lo-fi” was used a lot.
SH: But we kind of came out of that world, so yeah.
ZS: We’ve also definitely been influenced by the worlds of experimental or noise music.
SH: Yeah. Our first shows, we were playing our friend’s sort-of warehouse loft, where they would have noise shows.
A Black Dice approach?
SH: Not that, but there’s been a lot of shows in Europe with people who were just with tables full of gear, making shit happen. We were sort of coming up in that scene, I guess. But doing sort of a dance music version of it.
So you were subconsciously trying to create dance music in contrast to what was going on?
SH: It was communities of friends, basically.
And you had DFA, where they’re trying to somehow bring dance music to crowds that don’t normally dance.
ZS: Yeah. We were definitely into DFA.
SH: Gavin Russom was huge.
He was living here in Berlin for a long time. But he also seemed to have this moment where he moved from ambient sound to a more populist approach. He created a public personality that’s completely different from his mad tinkerer era. It’s as if he became a Scientologist.
SH: Yeah, I remember that’s when he was doing these whole repetitive acid lines, and he would just like open and close a filter for ten minutes, and it was a really religious experience.
ZS: It was also the same time we got into Manuel Göttsching and E2-E4, so those were two things that really influenced us. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit that we also first heard E2-E4 in this art installation at Peres Projects. Here in Berlin. In a room with, like, this neon pyramid that spun, and E2-E4 in the background.
You guys lived in Berlin for a bit.
SH: Just for a few months in 2008. I’ve been into kosmische and krautrock for a long time. Well, before we were in college and discovered, like, Neu! and stuff.
ZS: We actually didn’t make anything that was ever released while we were here.
That motorik, rhythmic thing is more Kölsch, whereas Berlin kosmische is floaty.
SH: I found the Neu! stuff to be really floaty, though. I don’t know, maybe I’m betraying my lack of understanding, but I think the metronomic, kind of pulsing, moving forwards slowly, sort of jamming out and slowly unveiling—I saw that in all those different groups, and then really got into that. And then I was into Basic Channel for a while. I was really into Pole in the early 2000s. And ˜scape Records. I was feeling Ricardo Villalobos a lot. We were living different parts of the States before then. I was living in California, he was living in New York. And we had been talking about how we wanted to start a music project.
So, you conceived the act before you created the music.
SH: Yeah, we were, like, we wanna make music together again. And then we just had to figure out what that was going to be.
ZS: Then we were all, “Yeah, let’s meet. Let’s go to Berlin, and—I don’t know, work on something there.”
SH: “It’s cheap.”
There’s a strain of minimalism that runs through your influences. Were you also interested in the originators of the genre, such as La Monte Young?
SH: Yeah, I’ve always been into that, but more conceptually. La Monte Young was really into the physicality of it, really into the phenomenon of it.
He’d play for 24 hours and some people would stay for it all. While Blondes is almost a rejoinder to the pummeling ideology of dance music as a whole.
ZS: I’m not sure exactly which pummeling you’re talking about: whether it’s like the EDM pummeling or the techno pummeling. Are you saying it’s not durational music?
The communal experience of Blondes is separate from the dancing. Of course, I don’t know if you hear that in what you’re doing.
SH: I don’t know. To do something that’s just a “dancing experience” says to me that it’s just like handing something in, like a form or a language that people are preconditioned to understand as a dancing thing. We are just taking the individual forms and manipulating what we have, so it’s much more about the actual process of that transformation and building something out of that. But we still do the big builds, and tension release, and pound out some stuff. It doesn’t mean you can’t dance to it.
ZS: I mean, you can, but what makes it cerebral is that you’re listening to every little thing as we do it. All these things happen at once and then it’s changed—it’s like a slowly evolving sort of structure to a lot of tracks, whereas I feel like most dance music is a little dictatorial.
Where is the line drawn between composition and sound design?
SH: When we play live right now, we’re mixing every element there on the board, or two small boards. You can’t really hear what’s going on, stuff can kind of get away from you.
ZS: Yeah, we kind of need the immersive environment ourselves. We’ve been toying with the idea of playing in the front of house.
SH: Where the guy sits that normally mixes the band, because they have the best sound, they’re sitting in the sweet spot of the whole sound system, and why are you up on the stage?
Maybe the audience should be there.
SH: [laughs] Yeah, and you’ll see it—it’s like a tradition of electronic-acoustic music. The composer will sit at the back and he’ll dim the lights so he can mix properly for the sound system. In some ways, yeah, we’re toying with the idea because we don’t really feel like a stage act, we feel more like a sound system act, you know?
ZS: The performance is not as important. It could actually be interesting to have no one on stage and just lights going, and us in the booth. Like sensory, sensual formalism.
Do you see yourselves perhaps disappearing? Daft Punk manages to put on a show somehow and yet anonymize at the same time.
ZS: There is a history of that with Orbital or…
SH: Kraftwerk too. Behind the screen, with the robots around it.
But Kraftwerk is essentially a comedy act.
SH: What’s interesting to me more is Berghain. You go there and you don’t see the DJ. He’s not on a big stage with lights on him, you know? He’s just kind of in a DJ hole off to the side. You’re not staring at the DJ—you’re experiencing the sort of sonic environment and the music and you’re dancing and that’s kind of what comes out to you, too. Some people might like seeing us turning the knobs and seeing how and what we’re creating, you know? But I don’t think it’s necessary. I think the main reason I want to do it is to have the best spot of monitoring the sound system, because what we’re doing, we’re spending all this time turning knobs, adjusting sound and we’re not even in the best spot to hear it.
Watching electronic music live can be an alienating experience: it’s like watching a movie. Or filming a movie. I get the sense that you’re trying to create a sense of group connection when you play live.
ZS: Yeah, for sure. I think there is definitely some sort of psychic feel to it. You can kind of sense it—we’re not really even looking up a lot of times, but we can kind of just feel between hearing what you’re playing and then how that’s feeling and then seeing the audience—how the general reaction is.
SH: Especially when you’re like building with loops or developing grooves, and it’s really transforming them and developing them and taking them places and discovering new places. We were talking about this before; everyone’s kind of on a journey together. Like, we’re on a journey, and we’re trying to figure out what we’re doing up there too. [laughs]
So you’re as confused as they are.
SH: [laughs] In some ways, yeah. They’re gonna be, like, “Oh we’ve found something!” and we’ll be, like, “Oh, let’s work with this and twist this into something,” and when we’re all in that together it, can be this really creative spirit.
ZS: Usually, if we’re happy, people will be. It’ll be good. ~
Blondes’ Swisher is out now on RVNG Intl.
In this interview taken from the Spring 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, the krautrock legend and the electronic avant-gardist discuss their influences, work and the necessity—or not—of iPhones.
In 1967, Hans-Joachim Roedelius helped co-found the Zodiac Free Arts Lab in West Berlin—an open performance space for sonic experimentation and against “bourgeois” musical conventions. Despite its brief existence, the Lab served as a catalyst for one of the most influential and decidedly European musical movements of the twentieth century, namely krautrock and kosmische Musik. Since then, Roedelius has evolved into one of the genre’s most prolific figures, his exploratory electronics with Cluster and Harmonia becoming a source of inspiration for aesthetic cherry pickers David Bowie and Brian Eno—not to mention those keeping the flame of the Zodiac spirit alight, like German electronic avant-gardist Asmus Tietchens. Roedelius and Tietchens recently met up in Hamburg to discuss the relative merits of Germany’s musical exports for the Spring issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Furthermore, ElectronicBeats.net is hosting an exclusive album stream of Tiden, the second album from Roedelius’ collaborative project with Stefan Schneider—mentioned in the interview below—here. Main photo by Margret Links.
Asmus Tietchens: Welcome, Joachim, to my world. This is Okko Bekker’s studio. Here I’ve worked, secluded from the world, for more than two decades now. And I should mention that Kluster with Conrad Schnitzler was encouraging for people like me. That goes for the recordings and live shows.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: You must have released at least a hundred records since then.
AT: I’ve stopped counting. I release music regularly, but I don’t see the point in it anymore. I mean, I love to produce music day and night. But to release it? I am fully aware of the fact that I do music for a really small minority of listeners. If one day nobody is interested anymore in my music, I won’t care less. At least I will still listen to it.
HJR: The funny thing is that the experimental music Cluster has done in the past is now seen as being somehow mainstream. I’d say more people than ever are listening to our music and consider it a kind of pop.
AT: Indeed, I wouldn’t call my music experimental anymore. When I make music, I know beforehand how it will sound in the end. That’s not really experimental. On the other hand, when I listen to certain minimal techno or dubstep releases, I’m sometimes completely stunned by the radical approach these young musicians show. It’s my students who continue to confront me with musicians work by Ricardo Villalobos, Alva Noto, Wolfgang Voigt or Richie Hawtin. In this kind of music everything is about details. If you start to listen carefully, you can become addicted to their skills and how they breathe life into minimalist concepts. I am talking about complex tracks that are very carefully composed. But I admit that I’d never found out about them myself. It’s always my students who confront me with advanced contemporary music.
HJR: Do you dance to music?
AT: No, I don’t. I can’t and I don’t want to. I prefer to listen to music. Carefully. Focused. A friend of mine recently sold his Roland TR-808 on eBay for 2,800 euros. It was an original from 1981. I was quite impressed by the winning bid and I understood that these people who work in the minimalist electronic field really know what they are doing—and that they are willing to pay the price.
HJR: When I turn on the machinery, I never know in advance what will happen musically. On the other hand, I work hermetically, within my own world. I don’t listen to contemporary music. Sometimes I do at festivals, when I am part of the booking. But otherwise…
AT: But you continue to work with young people, don’t you?
HJR: I’m just coming from a session with Stefan Schneider of To Rococo Rot. With him I never know where the music will lead us. Whenever we work together there is creative tension in the room.
Above: Tietchens’ most recent release is a 2012 collaboration with former Cluster and Harmonia member Dieter Moebius, aptly titled Moebius and Tietchens. The pair last recorded together in 1976 for Moebius’ project Lilienthal featuring (amongst others) the legendary Conny Plank on vocals, guitar and synthesizer.
AT: In Hamburg recently a new club opened. It is called Golem, and you’ll find it near the fish market. I had an appointment there with someone and we were having a cup of coffee. During the whole time of our stay, we listened to music by Harmonia. I asked my friend if he’d like to guess when the music was originally recorded. He answered, “Two, maybe three years ago?”
HJR: That’s interesting. Michael Rother and I started Harmonia in 1971. And the album we did together with Brian Eno was recorded in 1976.
AT: I honestly like what I see as a new openness when it comes to listening habits. Twenty years ago, in Hamburg you had to explicitly go to the Atonal Bar to hear avant-garde stuff. Suffice to say, the Atonal Bar only opened on certain days and it only attracted a certain kind of people. I couldn’t recall exactly when it started, but I have the impression that the world has become so much more open.
HJR: I think in that regard the ’80s were important. That was a challenging decade when it came to experimental music. And the next big breakthrough, of course, was the internet with its file sharing possibilities, which has enabled millions of people to listen to new and avant-garde music.
AT: Well, since every single recording of mine is downloadable for free via the internet now, I couldn’t live from my music alone. In that regard, the internet wasn’t a blessing for me. My gigs and my lectureship in sound design at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg bring in all the money.
HJR: How many students do you have?
AT: This year it’s 24. They are all between age 22 and 28. I always like the afternoons I spend with them at the academy. We basically talk. It’s not me telling them stuff; it’s us talking together. I basically moderate the conversations of my students when they talk about their own music. Joseph Beuys worked that way, too.
HJR: I never had any teachers. But ancestors of mine were church musicians. It’s likely that I have it in my blood. But my path went from noise to sonority. At the present moment, I prefer to play the piano than to experiment with noisy electronics.
AT: That’s interesting. I think one of the reasons why Cluster started making noise and having an audience was also due to Joseph Beuys and John Cage. They both preached the so-called “expanded concept of art”. Cage expanded the concept of music ad infinitum. Funny enough, I only learned that I owed everything to Cage after I already practiced his teachings for a couple of years, not knowing that he had paved the road for people like me.
HJR: How did you find out?
AT: German night radio. That’s when I started to listen to these obscure shows. Because I was starting to attend German secondary school, I thought I had to listen to strange music that I couldn’t understand. I imagined it was an integral part of growing up and that I had to endure this to become an adult. But pretty soon I started to embrace and love the music I heard. I would hide under the blanket, pressing the radio to my ear because my parents weren’t supposed to find out. In total darkness I heard Stockhausen or tape music by Pierre Schaeffer or Eliane Radigue, things played backwards or at double speed. I heard it on the radio, so it had to be music. Of course, this then allowed me to play my own tapes backwards at any speed I liked and to experiment with my tape machine.
HJR: You owned a valuable tape machine as a teenager? How come? How old were you?
AT: I started listening to radio at night when I was maybe 12. Then I begged my parents to buy me a tape machine. And I finally got one for my 15th birthday. But I didn’t realize that I actually owed Beuys, Cage, Sala and Schaeffer respect.
HJR: I was always focused on myself. I had so much to do that I simply didn’t have any time to study. I always did everything the way I thought it should be done. I never doubted my decisions. I would stay up all night, working on new tracks, when the rest of the band members were already sleeping. It was that way with Cluster and it was the same with Harmonia.
Asmus Tietchens photographed by Margret Links
AT: What’s your relationship to Karlheinz Stockhausen?
HJR: I once attended a lecture of his in Cologne. This must have been around 1969. He entered the auditorium and then locked the door. The students were forced to stay until he’d finished his lecture. I was shocked. I actually hated him for that attitude. But I regret that I didn’t dig deeper into his music for that very reason. I’d listen to his music, but it wouldn’t touch me. I might be walking on thin ice, but I felt that his music was too thought through. And I know that Conny Plank and Holger Czukay had a much better opinion of him.
AT: I never met Stockhausen personally, but of course I know that he mainly wrote serial music and only a tiny bit of his oeuvre consisted of electronic compositions. I started to listen to Stockhausen when I was twelve years old. His “Gesang der Jünglinge” [“Song of the Youths”] was probably my favorite composition back then because it combined singing voices and electronic soundscapes—back in 1955! I was especially blown away by the fact that he had composed his music with audio tape. Stockhausen was absolutely important for the cultural development of post-war Germany. He is famous for claiming that after twelve years of fascism, after Hiroshima and the death camps, music shouldn’t be allowed to be emotional anymore. He wanted a new, objective music that could not be misused by whatever dictatorship. In a way, he said the same thing Adorno did when he claimed that poetry wasn’t possible anymore after Auschwitz.
HJR: Well, I still don’t like him. But I can of course see that his thoughts on serial music opened doors for an entire new generation of electronic musicians. I mean, all the legions of contemporary electronic musicians reference Stockhausen and Schaeffer whether they know it or not.
AT: What I didn’t know at that time though was the fact that Stockhausen was an arch Catholic until around the time he wrote “Sirius”. But you have to really listen to the lyrics to grasp the fact that the boys in his “Gesang der Jünglinge” are praising the Lord. I once read Texte zur Musik [“Texts on Music”], a very interesting book that he had written in 1952 about his aesthetics, his aims and his concepts in the light of his “worldview”. I became a loyal follower of his music, but it ended abruptly with the release of “Sirius”. I couldn’t understand him anymore. To make a long story short: this music was played on the radio, and I think it was a great thing… when it still existed.
HJR: I never understood how they could tolerate the radio going so down hill. Nowadays everything has become so commercial. A listening “career” like yours that was based on radio wouldn’t be possible anymore. In Austrian national radio they probably play exactly one song a year from me. I can see this from the royalty statements.
AT: I don’t listen to radio anymore. At home, I enjoy the silence. And in the studio it’s the same. There are no windows facing the street. I work in total isolation from the outside world. I love tranquility. I love to walk in the woods surrounding Hamburg. I enjoy the fresh air and, to a slightly lesser extent, the experience of nature. I wouldn’t call it inspiring or whatsoever. I also don’t take drugs for instance or use iPhones to enhance or photograph such moments.
HJR: You never took any drugs?
AT: No, never. I smoke cigarettes and I drink coffee. I’m probably not curious enough.
HJR: A Swiss magazine recently asked me which objects I am always carrying with me. I answered: my wedding ring and my iPhone. I lost my wedding ring in the Tyrrenian Sea in the meantime, during my holidays in Corsica.
AT: I own an old Nokia phone from the mid nineties. Students of mine have offered me respectable amounts of money to buy it from me and impress the others with a vintage phone. But I like it because it is still functioning. I once got it from my brother when our mother was on her deathbed. He wanted me to be reachable. Our mother died, but I kept the phone. I only turn it on occasionally. There exist only six people in the world who have my number.
HJR: I am constantly reachable and I couldn’t imagine it otherwise.
AT: I hate it when you are in conversation with someone and then the cellphone rings. Instead of turning the incoming call down most people would answer the phone.
Above: Roedelius, Conrad Schnitzler and Dieter Moebius put out their first album as Kluster in 1970, the recently reissued Klopfzeichen (Bureau B). Shortly thereafter, Schnitzler would leave to pursue a solo career while Moebius and Roedelius changed the band name to the more anglicized Cluster. As a duo, the two would make some of the most beautiful minimal electronic albums of the seventies, including the classic Zuckerzeit and Cluster 2. Since 2010, Roedelius has continued the project as Qluster with sound artist Onnen Bock, putting out a whopping four LPs, including 2013’s Lauschen.
HJR: Do you still buy records?
AT: Every now and then. I live in a very small flat, so I have to carefully pick my purchases. I recently bought Francisco López’ Untitled album. I also bought a record by Norbert Möslang, who uses self-made instruments—toy sounds, closed circuits, stuff like that. And I bought a CD by Carsten Nicolai to complete my Aleph collection. You actually should pay a visit to Freiheit & Roosen on Große Freiheit and Paul-Roosen-Straße here in Hamburg. This is a great record store that is specialized in German experimental music, amongst other things.
HJR: They sell all the original vinyl?
AT: Exactly. The owner is a maniac, but in the positive meaning of the word. He sells all the original records from the ’60s and ’70s. But he also knows what they are worth…
HJR: Maybe I’ll go there next time. Did I ever tell you that someone stole my only vinyl copy of the first Cluster album? I have to check the store; maybe they’ll have it.
AT: Bowie loved Cluster—maybe he should check the store out too.
HJR: I will never forget Bowie’s appearance on the German TV show Wetten, dass..? He famously asked the audience: “Do any of you know Harmonia?” Of course then there was this uncomfortable moment of total silence, as nobody knew Harmonia.
AT: Did you ever see your influence in his work?
HJR: All I know is that Brian Eno played our music occasionally to him and to other people he hung out or worked with, such as Bryan Ferry or U2. But since I almost never listened to U2, I couldn’t tell if they’d been inspired by us.
HJR: I once saw them in a stadium by invitation. But I left the place after a couple of songs as it was simply too loud for me. I then wrote a letter to The Edge, complaining about the volume, but he never answered. Honestly, I don’t understand why concerts nowadays have to be so loud.
AT: Apropos loud, I once hung out for an afternoon with Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda.
HJR: Carsten Nicolai can be insanely loud, indeed. It’s this digital noise that, when played at very high volume, can make you deaf.
AT: I accompanied them to their soundcheck. I asked Carsten if they could play for me the first part of the concert as I couldn’t attend their show in the evening. And I asked him if he could give me a sign, like, ten seconds before it will get really loud—so that I could leave the venue in time. Which he did. I left and could only imagine how they basically shattered the building with their high frequency sound and their peaked impulses. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong: He does beautiful, poetic music. But it’s just too loud for me.
AT: The iconic German noise music pioneer Uli Rehberg recently said: “We have to torture the people with silence.” He’s probably right.
HJR: That’s interesting. I played a very quiet concert in David Lynch’s Silencio club in Paris with Charlie Chaplin’s son Christopher recently.
AT: Do you know Richard Chartier? He works in the area of reductionist microsound electronic music—specifically on extreme texture in very quiet, very sparse musical set-ups. I like him a lot. Funny enough, even the typography on his cover art has become micro, almost unreadable! It’s only four point or even less. You could probably say that Richard Chartier and the other reductionists are making music for the very young: those who can still see and hear.
HJR: How are your live performances nowadays?
AT: Not loud, for sure. And I don’t do anything on stage. I monitor the correct playback of the sound files. Actually, I always offer to just send the sound files, to instruct someone how to set them up and to stay at home. But they never draw this option. They always want me present as a living statue.
HJR: That’s how Conrad Schnitzler used to give concerts.
AT: Yeah. As the stuffed dummy I guess I’m supposed to add authority or authenticity to the fact that my listening concerts are nothing more than me pressing the play button. It’s as if the bookers are afraid…
HJR: It could also be that they are just happy to have you there. It could be a sign of respect too. Conrad Schnitzler used to send Wolfgang Seidel, his main confidant, to perform on his behalf with a suitcase filled with cassettes.
AT: Well, I don’t like to travel. I prefer to work in my studio. Though I was in Iceland recently. The emptiness really impressed me.
HJR: Were you in Reykjavik?
AT: No, actually I found myself hundreds of kilometers northeast in Seyðisfjörður, a modern city with maybe 600 inhabitants, surrounded by tall snowy mountains and emptiness. It was nice, but honestly, I don’t see the need to travel at all. If you live in a big city like Hamburg, good things will happen there anyways. I will never forget the day when they announced a live performance of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” at the Musikhalle with Stockhausen as a conductor. I immediately bought a ticket. A couple of days before the concert, Stockhausen had held his infamous speech about the terror attacks on September 11. He basically claimed the attacks to be the biggest work of art in the history of mankind. You remember the shitstorm he kicked off with that press conference? Undoubtedly, it was a very emotional time. As a result he then cancelled the concert, as the audience probably would have lynched him. And when they rescheduled the concert, I wasn’t there—I was traveling! ~
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:
The latest edition of Slices is now available and here is a little reminder of what’s in store. Firstly we travel to London to get the low down with post-bass darlings Mount Kimbie – missing the London riots by a matter of days! We then travel to Austria to meet probably one of the best live techno bands – Elektro Guzzi and then it’s off to visit Uncanny Valley in their home town of Dresden to see what makes this massive house crew tick. Back in Berlin we throw light on the mystery that is Anstam– the new hero on Modeselektor’s 50 Weapons outfit.
Elsewhere we have even more features with Clara Moto who takes us wakeboarding, Junior Boys who we catch in Heidelberg and a tech talk with Christoph Grote-Beverburg from Berlin’s famous Dubplates & Mastering who shares his views on the current obsession with loudness and compression. And not forgetting features with everybody’s favourite electronica producer – Gold Panda and the ‘Krautrock’ trio Stabil Elite from Düsseldorf.
Slices issue 3-11 will be available from Sept 15th.
We are rather partial to a bit of K-X-P at Electronic Beats. Throbbing riffs and motorik beats are squeezed out of a guitar, a bass, drums and not a lot else, and yet they make a sound that is exactly like something you can lose your shit to in a club. Championed by Glasgow’s Optimo, and with at least one member of the band being involved in some sugary pop productions, their latest 12″ the ‘Easy’ EP comes out on Melodic in November. Ahead of the release you can stream the title track below. Panpipes, chugging guitars and primal howls come together to sound like Hawkwind doing MDMA with Turbonegro. We love it.