This Is Techno: Rødhåd Talks To Porter Ricks’ Thomas Köner
For Rødhåd, 2015 has heralded a virtually nonstop string of gigs that call upon his reputation for distilling the most powerful hallmarks of Berlin techno, but he could just as easily soundtrack a mass chill-out with his knowledge of ambient music or an art installation. His penchant for atmospheric sound design crosses over with multimedia artist, composer and sound researcher Thomas Köner, who approaches similar projects from a somewhat more conceptual, rather than club-oriented, perspective. He’s probably best known for the dub-inflected techno he produced with Andy Mellwig as Porter Ricks, a duo that released on seminal experimental German techno labels like Chain Reaction, Mille Plateaux and Force Inc in the 1990s, but his solo projects in sound research and multimedia art continue today. Although the pair has been inactive for years, they’ve had a significant influence on Rødhåd, who linked up with Köner a few weeks ago for a meeting of the minds between two generations of visionary German techno.
Rødhåd: Yesterday I re-listened to the Porter Ricks album [Biokinetics] that was recently re-released by Type. I had the impression that not all of it had come from electronic sound sources and that you worked a lot with samples. Or am I mistaken?
Thomas Köner: We also worked with synthesizers, and then all of the material was processed in a very complicated way. Some of it came from stuff we had already recorded in the late ’80s. Back then, the means of production was still contingent on having capital, so it took a long time to sculpt things in a way that we liked. When I moved house recently, I found a receipt for 1MB of RAM for a sampler that cost over 1200 Deutschmarks, and 1MB didn’t get you very far. That must have been around 1990/1991. Today you get RAM thrown at you, but in exchange you have other problems.
R: I’m currently working with a friend who’s shooting a documentary that I’m contributing music to, and last year I produced music for the Israeli artist Alona Rodeh for an installation in Berlin. That way of working is very interesting and completely new to me. My first release wasn’t so long ago; it was in 2012. Most of my stuff is dance floor-oriented, of course. A lot of what I do in the studio is experimental and drone-y, but it stays unreleased—at least so far. For me, the atmosphere is in the foreground of a track, and my aim is to create a certain mood, so sometimes it’s tempting to leave the beats out entirely. I thought it was interesting that your Discogs page says that your “first impulse consisted in avoiding rhythm and melody and focusing instead on the phenomenon of sound color,” because that’s similar to my approach to music.
TK: In addition to rhythmic three-dimensionality, which is like a grid, [sound] colors open new horizons and densities. It’s definitely an extension of space. But how does your audience respond to something like that, those nuanced atmospheric things? Are they receptive?
R: Yes, they resonate, but it really depends on the point at which you play something like that. It’s a question of timing. If you’re playing a warm-up set, then it works very well. But these days I’m booked more for short sets, and that comes with a different set of demands. It’s very much about keeping the people on course, but I always try to weave that spaciousness into my sets. I work differently when I can play a long set in a club where I know the crowd and the PA and have more freedom time-wise. I take a more minimalistic approach and play tracks that have more depth. Then people float across the dance floor with their eyes closed.
TK: Back when we started with Porter Ricks, Andy and I assumed that the experience of techno was missing something, like that nuance or color that enables a different perception of space. Detail, density and horizon are parameters that appear in any good composition—but didn’t find that in the techno that was being released and getting played everywhere at the time. So we decided that we had to take that approach. It was also such a pity not to make use of the possibilities of an amazing sound system in which so much know-how and money has been invested. A lot has been done since then. Techno has become much more nuanced. The scale has blossomed amazingly. But we still have that criticism—although it’s not really a criticism, just an observation. That’s why we started working on new Porter Ricks material again. We’re just very slow these days. I would have liked to have brought a few examples for you to listen to, but we have only three pieces, so maybe that doesn’t make much sense.
R: Do you two go into the studio with the idea that the tracks should be meant for the dance floor?
TK: I do. Andy is somewhat more open in his attitude. But it ultimately comes down to the dancers and the DJs to decide that. What we want, which was not possible 20 years ago, is to weave the sonic material into a fabric that’s not based on an electronic standard. For example, when I listen to your new record—which I think is really great, by the way—and I close my eyes, I imagine myself hovering around the room, almost like a rhythmic jellyfish. Then someone comes along and places an edgy Korg synthesizer into my hands, which of course I don’t have as a jellyfish. If I had produced it, I would have tried to find a musical language that related to that jellyfish-like quality. That’s not meant as a criticism—as I said, I think the record is great. With Porter Ricks, the idea is to transcend classic sounds.
R: So does that mean that you use a lot of field recordings?
TK: Not necessarily. We synthesize all our sounds ourselves, but it takes an insanely long time. Sometimes Andy sits there for months working on a sonic palette for a track, and my feedback is, “Yes, but it’s only halfway there. Something’s still missing!” I haven’t heard from him for a few weeks now…maybe he’s mad, hah. But that’s the beauty of having been away for so long: you don’t have the pressure to deliver. We can allow ourselves years. It’s a situation that I never thought would be possible, that the work grows up alongside you, like a child.
R: For me, it’s all an issue of time. I don’t know how your life is usually organized, but currently I’m always on the move, and that means that sometimes I don’t get into the studio for weeks because I don’t have time. For me, music always comes from a sense of spontaneity. I sit in the studio and turn on a synthesizer and begin to jam and to modulate my sounds and sequences and knead them until I have a result that appeals to me. I don’t have the time to step aside and watch as something slowly develops.
TK: But that’s also very nice. A very slow way of working can soon become torturous if you can’t perceive any growth. Then it’s like the basil that I planted recently; it just isn’t getting anywhere.
R: One idea at Dystopian, the label I release on, is that all the records have dystopian titles or titles that are at least based on those kinds of motifs. On my new EP, that concept is really in harmony with the music because the tracks have a very dark and spacey character, especially “Venusianische Hölle,” which goes a bit in the direction of what you’re doing musically. I’m also inspired by what you’ve done with Porter Ricks, that kind of layered dub techno with loads of width.
TK: You might have been pulled in by a gravitational wave from us. There’s definitely a lot of space in the tracks on your new EP. If you see the music a bit like a frequency or a pitch, then it’s always a question of where the door is for the listener. Does he access it through the bassline, or does he end up on the roof and go spiraling through the track? With dub techno it’s very clear that it comes from below, so you don’t need so much scaffolding and framework on top of it, just a bass field that you have to define.
R: I have to say that techno, with all its subgenres and spin-offs, is still the most modern music for me. In that sense, “techno” stands for “technology,” for electronically generated music. That’s still the most recent major innovation, even though the genre has been around for so long now. The original idea and technical approach to production continues to evolve dynamically. For example, when I hear music by the likes of Robert Henke or Shackleton, for me those are completely their own independent concepts and styles of music…
TK: …which condense, almost like a crystal formation on a large pane of glass, with individual branches.
R: Exactly. For me, techno is still an attempt to look into the future. However, I feel like I don’t think about it all quite as much as you do. For me, spontaneity plays a very important role, and things emerge out of the moment. That’s also an important factor in DJing: to always act in the moment, and sometimes even to make a supposedly wrong decision.
TK: Has the spontaneity ever come back to bite you?
R: No, but every now and then there are moments where people’s reaction to a record is clearly completely different from what I had expected or hoped.
TK: I think the great thing about DJing is that the whole thing is a psychoanalytical machine. You sit at the lever that operates the machine and activates the various stages of childhood, ecstasy and so on.
R: Yes, it’s a special feeling, to steer the people on the dance floor to a certain extent, or to guide them through very different intensities, atmospheres and phases. Have you ever DJed?
TK: No, that was always too complicated for me. If you want to do it well, then it’s a real challenge.
R: Ultimately, it’s about playing the right track at supposedly the right time.
TK: I’m indecisive, and the moments of being in a dialogue with the audience to make precisely those kinds of decisions would completely overwhelm me. You can plan 10 or 20 tracks ahead of time, like a chess player, but a club night is a much more dynamic situation than a chess game. Being flexible and capable of making decisions is exactly the special talent that is required there, and you can’t teach that to anyone.
R: So how do you do it in your live sets? Do you have everything completely prepared and never divert from that?
TK: Ideally, if I’m well rested, I improvise my set entirely, based on 100-150 modules that I can access. For me, the difference between a live set and a DJ set is that my own sounds and tracks are like parts of my body. I know that I have my toes and fingers under control and how they will behave. I admire that DJs are able to select from material that is essentially exogenous, yet can still retain that intimacy. Another problem is that once I establish that intimacy, I want to hold onto it. I really have difficulty separating myself from the tracks.
R: For me, that always shifts and changes over a period of about two months, during which time I primarily choose from a specific pool of tracks. At the same time, I’m in the fortunate position in which I get sent a lot of stuff by fellow producers, promo agencies and labels—around 30 tracks a week. This results in a smooth transition, a steady development. Of course, you want to have some variety. It’s nice to surprise myself and play a track I don’t know so well. That’s when things happen that I’m not prepared for, so I don’t get into a paralyzing routine. Of course, the place where I’m playing is also an important factor. I reach for other records in front of 6,000 people at a festival than I would in a club in front of 300. The energy level is so different.
TK: Do you have a preference regarding tempo?
R: I mostly move between 128-130 bpm. When I’m playing at a big festival, it can get a little faster now and then, but nothing over 132 bpm ever happens. Back when I started DJing, my maximum speed was closer to 145 bpm. I can hardly relate to that these days.
TK: Everything under 130 bpm sounds wrong to me. Recently Andy did a track at 90 bpm, and I thought he should rev it up, so I pitched it up myself and then it felt right. I find it interesting that for you, techno still symbolizes or represents the new because I’m working on a composition for the Donaueschingen Music Days in 2016, and for decades this avant-garde festival was a symbol of the “new” in sound and music. It was a place where Stockhausen and Lachenmann presented their works. Of course, the whole thing is very academic. The thing is, our nerves and processing systems work additively. Every experience you have, every track you’ve heard, and every mix that you finish remains as a reminder, and more always comes on top of it. Maybe minimalism has endured for so long in techno because there’s no longer enough room in people’s listening capacity. There’s already so much in there that only a few hi-hat sparkles can still fit. Anyway, I have a question about your DJ activity. How do you work in the club? What tools do you use?
R: I’ve been working completely digitally for a while now, with three CDJs or USB players. I still bring vinyl with me to a few clubs, mostly in Berlin. Then something like layering comes much more to the fore. That’s the most fun for me: taking individual elements from tracks that I play, like a ride from one piece and a kick drum from another, to create something new. In addition, I also always bring along an arsenal of atmospheric stuff and drones that I’ve made in the studio, which I work with. I use the loop function quite a lot, and that way I can spontaneously build completely new pieces live. And these days I always have a reverb and a delay with me. That way I can also use my way of working in the studio, where I usually condense and relax individual sequences during long jams and transfer it to the club. I’d like to play a live set someday, but I have no idea how I could accomplish that with only two hands.
Published July 23, 2015.