After his stunning mix Wuppdeckmischmampflow, which was released last year on Kompakt, Jena-based artist Gabor Schablitzki of Whignomy Brothers fame finally brings us his second solo album Thora Vukk, released under his Robag Wruhme alias.
An intricately detailed album, the record combines a laid-back club feel with subtle melodies and mysterious field recordings. It also marks one of the first full-length releases on Pampa Records, DJ Koze’s own imprint. We sat down with Robag to speak about his recent activities, the evolution of his album and how to bring creativity to bloom.
Thora Vukk seems to be popular with critics and fans alike.
Yes, and that’s wonderful. Although since the first reviews everybody thinks that I’m living in the Spreewald (a biosphere reserve located 100 km south-east of Berlin). One journalist started to spread this false report, and since then I keep receiving calls from people, who seek recovery in nature and want to visit me. But I’m back in Jena, my hometown.
Are you involved in Freude am Tanzen and Musik Krause, the Jena-based labels?
No, not anymore. I worked for years in every department. I did promotion, bookkeeping, acted as A&R and what not. But it became too much for me. I had so much to do with DJ’ing and the production of my own tracks. So in 2006 I tried to slow down a bit, but as most of the releases went well, my radius as a DJ expanded more and more. I couldn’t shoulder all this stuff, but I tried nevertheless. And then, suddenly, the battery was empty…
…this is where you suffered a burnout.
Right. And in fact, some of the people who want to visit me in the Spreewald ask for this reason – because they stand close to a burnout, too. It’s so weird: The moment it actually happens you don’t notice anything. You have ideas, you have the energy, and all of a sudden the pressure knocks you down.
That said, Thora Vukk seems to symbolize a personal cut. It’s not a dance-floor record – it sounds more like kind of a living-room-experience.
I have to say that Thora Vukk is actually the Whignomy Brothers album that I wanted to produce a few years ago when I signed to Mute Records. It never got a release though since it fell into the time when my burnout started. That’s why I gave Mute two remix albums (Remikks Potpourri, Remikks Potpourri II) and a 12-inch, and after that I gladly got out of the contract without repaying or owing anybody money. Then I restarted releasing singles on Musik Krause and Freude am Tanzen. The album wasn’t relevant for me anymore, so I postponed it. And yet last year I though that I wouldn’t ever nail it! The fact that it is now finished is – amongst other things – because of Stefan Kozalla aka DJ Koze, with whom I exchange a lot of ideas.
He encouraged you to do a second proper album?
In a way, yes. I gave Stefan two tracks – the title track ‘Thora Vukk’ and ‘Wupp Dek’ – just to show him, to let him know what’s going on with me. And he said: "Gabor, this is a 12-inch on Pampa." And I said okay, let’s do this!
So you got back into an unhealthy work mode?
First I started to whine about all the parallel issues coming up: I agreed to do about fifteen remixes plus some records on Freude am Tanzen, Musik Krause, Circus Company and Movida. Besides that I had to deliver exclusive tracks for Kompakt and several other labels. And then a solo record on top? I said to Stefan that I need some air to breath at first. But in some strange way I felt it was time to do something different after all these dance-floor tracks. Something more calm. And that was actually the idea with the Whignomy Brothers album. So I somehow managed to find a sound about which Stefan said: "Gabor, this is you again!" I wanted to do something different than just acoustical club snapshots.
Yet with Wuppdeckmischmampfflow, your recent Mix-CD on Kompakt, one could get this feeling.
And this mix has in fact a lot to do with the calmness of the Spreewald. Yet the cover shot, which I took myself and which shows an alley of birches, originates from there. I lived on a farm – together with a pig named Edgar. The owner asked me to take care of him, because he’s really into action, and as you can imagine, there is not much action on an old farm in the Spreewald. So I took care of the pig, which means I fed him at six in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It was also great that there was neither Internet nor a telephone line. The first days I brought into affect the calmness of the place, and lastly I sat down to create the mix. Within one week it was done.
The detailed field recordings on Thora Vukk indicate a fine ear for nature and its noises. Is it important for you to sensitize yourself before you start working?
Yes totally. But that’s nothing new to me. I paid attention to the sounds surrounding me from very early on. My first tracks were spiked with samples – for example this very first 4/4-track that came out on Freude am Tanzen under the name DJ Gabor: It consisted entirely of the sound of coke cans.
That reminds of Matthew Herbert’s approach.
Yes, although I have to admit that for me personally Herbert’s stuff is too far out, too arty. It’s almost a bit too weird and crazy for me. I can’t connect to it in terms of…
Well, yes, in a way. I love to have the straight connection. That’s, by the way, the reason I prefer to play in small clubs. Furthermore I don’t want it to become too abstract, because I don’t do the music just for myself. For me there’s nothing more beautiful than seeing, hearing or reading that somebody lets my music slip into his everyday life and that people start to interpret the stories behind the track.
What’s your story behind the tracks?
I have my stories, but they’re private. I give those tracks away like a colouring book, and I also deliver the pencils. What happens next is up to the listener. My own stories are nothing special, and besides that I could only tell them in the moment of their emergence. When I’m totally into it, when I’m isolated from the rest of the world.
How long do you isolate to create an album or a mix. Weeks? Months?
It depends. As we all know creativity isn’t downloadable. Some days I realize after ten minutes that I can’t find any access and that my ideas stagnate. There has to be a flow, but once I have this flow, I can work for days and nights without even thinking about something else. It was by the way Koze who felt that I’m about to fall into such a flow. And this flow persisted until the very last track on Thora Vukk called ‘Ende’. There is a choir of friends and colleagues on that track which was pretty hard to finish.
Was it of personal importance for you to have them all on the record?
Of very big importance. I had like forty voice samples that everybody had recorded in different rooms and at different speeds. As I tried to combine them it sounded just awful. A second try in November led to the same result. But time was running and I had to finish it at the very latest on December 24th. This might sound like some pr-joke but, believe it or not, I finished the choir, the track, and thus the record on Christmas Eve.
You work better under pressure?
Not necessarily. But pressure is indeed a great way to bring my creativity to bloom.
When it comes to dancing like there’s no tomorrow, Alan Abrahams (the man behind Portable and Bodycode) is top of our list. Abrahams’ live performances and music have that rare ability to engage our bodies into dance resembling a state of trance; this is a dancing experience primal and cerebral at once. During his sets you often find yourself pulling unexpected moves, moves you didn’t even know you had. Eager to unveil the key behind such powerful ascendancy on our senses, we met with Alan Abrahams to talk about dancing, rhythm and the relationship of artist and audience.
In motion his whole life, his music seems to have evolved accordingly. Abrahams grew up in Cape Town, in a post-apartheid Africa, subsequently relocated to London, then decamped to sunny Lisbon and is currently settling in Berlin. One of the few African faces on the electronic scene it may seem he’s just hitting his stride, but truth is he has been producing and releasing amazing stuff for almost ten years. Today he can enjoy the near global acclaim his releases have garnered all these years and has growing demands for live gigs and remixes. His second album for Spectral as Bodycode, Immune, was another big success and his new EP as Portable, released recently on Perlon, This Life of Illusions, is already on top of every techno chart. Süd Electronic, the label he runs together with Lakuti (a dear friend of South-African origins like himself ), is a long-time fixture on the party circuit of London’s underground techno scene. Perlon is just the last addition in an impressive list of top-quality labels that have wooed Abrahams into releasing music for them: Context, Background, Karat, ?scape, Musik Krause, Spectral, Yore, Circus Company are others. His sound is so remarkable and personal that not few artists have craved for a Portable/Bodycode treatment of their tracks. Ellen Allien, Damian Lazarus and The Knife are next in the pipeline. For too long it seems his talent slipped under the radar of many music lovers, another case of great things being ahead of their time, perhaps. But after a long and slow seduction, he’s got a horde of admirers, well, by the balls one might say.
Back in 2002, when we were fascinated with Sutekh or Akufen’s micro-sampling, Abrahams, under his first pseudonym Portable, was using that same technique, daring to venture the micro-house genre into the territories of an enchanting fusion between the syncopated rhythm and traditional sounds of his Africa and the 4/4 pulsations of a warm Chicagoan house. Andy Vaz, boss of the German label Background, was one of the first to believe in this splendid and utterly original hybrid of African rhythms, techno/house beats and rich electronic textures: “With all this click-house and laptop music, we tend to forget that this music started in Detroit and was made by African-Americans first – people who know about rhythm!”. With intentions to push sound with his label that could be a modern synthesis between Detroit classicism and futurism, tradition and avant- garde, Vaz couldn’t have hoped for better than having Portable’s futuristic Afroism up his sleeve.
In Abrahams’ musical world the mathematical, clinical precision of digital media and technology goes together with the polyrhythm and improvisational nature of African traditional music. In Abrahams’ words: “I feel that house music, especially in the beginning, and traditional African music are really one and the same, the starting point is the same. Music traditionally is made to get to your soul via rhythm. When I use a sample I always kind of recreate it so that it still sounds African but nobody could really be playing that way. My goal is to reinterpret those sounds for the here-and-now, not just sample and reuse them in a cheap way. My ideal is that my music might be regarded as a document of contemporary Afro-European music and culture ”.
Cycling and Futuristic Experiments #5, his first two albums for Background as Portable, presented richly layered and compositionally detailed music able to transcend the stereotypes that delimiting terms like ‘micro-house’ might suggest. “Within micro-house structures you just have enough space to allow contamination with other sounds or tempos,” Abrahams observes. “The music you find in clubs is sometimes one- dimensional, it’s like the space is not used. Of course it’s different tracks, but when the tempo is 4/4 all the time, the variety gets lost, doesn’t go up and down, which I think is what people react to. I think a good DJ or a live act has to include that. Back in Cape Town, when I was a young kid and went to clubs, I was very much inspired by the DJs there, and what I loved was that they could split the dancefloor into different levels. And that’s what I do with my music, I am us- ing the rhythms in between the beats. All African music does that!”
In other words, the African element is integrated in the music, not only in the form of percussive arrangements and deeply syncopated rhythms, but also in the reprocessing and digitalization of samples. The sounds are often organic, coming from traditional instruments like different types of drums, harps, flutes, or even animals or objects like rattling anklets or tinderbox containers (traditionally used for music), and, last but not least, the stuttering voice snippets, mainly samples of voices which seem to be taken from ritual or religious chants, that in the early stage of his sound were endlessly dissected and chopped. Enhancing the hypnotic quality of his groove – if we might wax poetic – there are the subtle gorgeous melodies, sometimes dark and spooky in a suspenseful, sci-fi way, sometimes menacing or melancholic, though never desperate, just so powerfully evocative. The four-on-the-floor tempo was not that straightforward in the beginning, resolving in a softer and more introspective, atmospheric techno. Portable’s sound clearly originated in a much more experimental than dancefloor-driven approach, which might account, along with the strong personality of his sound, for his being sort of an outsider back then.
But the seed for a more danceable dimension was there. It was just a matter of time before Abrahams started to move his sound toward a more sensual and up-tempo synthesis, a bliss of the senses which every dancer must try once on the dancefloor. When the A&R of Spectral (Ghostly’s dance department) asked him to create another alias for a project to release on their label, Abrahams was already working on more danceable versions of Portable’s material (Version, ?scape, already hinted a change of pace and attitude) and that’s how Bodycode came into play. “With my music it doesn’t have to be any particular kind of dance,” explains Abrahams. “It’s more a body moving aesthetic, a warmer nurturing approach which we all desperately need now. Music as a tool to unlock the psyche via the body.” A natural evolution in Abrahams’ aesthetic brought on by his observation and experience of the club environment.”
A club is a much more engaging space because there you have to relate to an audience. When I play live I can play stuff I am still working on and see what kind of reaction I get from the people, that helps me decide which elements to keep and what not and which new direction to give to my music. A lot about dancing is sexual, so I started to feel the need to include more sexual elements because getting closer to your audience is also a process of seduction.” In that vein Abrahams has also increasingly been using his own voice or that of Lerato, a more than welcome novelty in his music and live sets; “…’cause a microphone makes it easier to make contact with people. For me it’s important that it’s not a man-and-machine situation with my music”.
Could it be, then, that a pop album is the next metamorphosis of Abrahams’ music? The teasing is met with laughter, but vocals and singing are definitely something we’ll hear more of on his album for Perlon, due out in 2011: “It’s still too early to say much, but the new album for Perlon is the most ‘pop’ I would want to go. I think it’s nice to have pop elements in the music because a lot of people in this scene, they’re so serious, sometimes impersonal and therefore forgettable. So my next album is going to be even more personal without being too poppy. It’s mostly vocal tracks and will feature collaborations with Efdemin, Lerato, and Jus Ed”.