Yellofier: An interview with Boris Blank and Håkan Lidbo
Yello’s Boris Blank has always been the low-profile counterpart of glamorous Fluxus entrepreneur Dieter Meier. But recently all eyes—or to be more precise: all ears—are on Blank and his playful new music-making app. For the Yellofier app, Blank teamed up with Swedish producer Håkan Lidbo to allow users to make music from the sounds of everyday life. Left to right: Håkan Lidbo and Boris Blank, photo by Mathias Hielscher.
As Blank points out in his convesation with Håkan Lidbo and Max Dax, the Yellofier app is less a compositional tool than a blank canvas that invites the user to hear the world with different ears. By “yellofying” field recordings and thus turning them into treatable sounds, you can create your own or edit other people’s songs. To prove that, Lidbo and Blank invite the public to submit either your own song or to twist and tweak preset tracks by acclaimed artists such as Booka Shade, Carl Craig, Henrik Schwarz, Matt Johnson, Orbital, The Orb, Trentemøller, and more. The submissions compete for a flight to Zurich to spend a day with Boris Blank yellofying the rogue state’s capital. The song will also be released on the next Electronic Beats compilation. Go to Yellofier.com for details and to enter.
The Yellofier app seems to be basically a musique concrète app that allows the user to record and tweak sounds from the street—field recordings.
Boris Blank: That’s the first time I’ve heard musique concrète used in connection with this app, but I think it’s a very good description. You’re right, you can create musique concrète with this app. This style is really back now with the new technology that is around these days. It’s not like the original stuff with Pierre Schaeffer and those guys, but the idea is still there, but within a new concept and utilizing new technology. It’s still the same fun. That’s the basic thing with this app. We were talking recently about how there are some apps that are very academic and built to impress people, you can add synthesizers that 30 years ago cost €10,000 or whatever. Of course, it’s nice if you have a pocket synthesizer, but this one has a different meaning and a different kind of architecture, which means that sometimes you are really surprised at what comes out. With just a very basic sound, a piece of background noise or something, you can make a whole song by looping it and adding effects. That’s the difference I think. Usually I get bored very fast with apps because either they’re too complicated and after an hour my eyes get tired, or they’re just obviously a synthesizer or whatever and I don’t need something like that in a small application. They can be a bit cheesy too.
What do you think of the Kling Klang app by Kraftwerk?
BB: How should I put it? I like Kraftwerk as an act and they invented this idea of electronic music as being a slave to the electronics by getting up on stage looking and acting like robots. Regarding the Kling Klang app, now they’ve done an upgrade so you can move around a bit and do a bit more, but otherwise it’s basically just listening to different styles of Kraftwerk sounds. You can’t build a new song out of it, it’s all based on the significant Kraftwerk sounds. But I’ve only had a brief look at it, so I probably shouldn’t say anything more. I guess this is why I never wanted to be in a jury deciding what is good or things like that. I don’t really want the Yellofier app to be compared specifically to Kraftwerk because I don’t know enough about it.
The reason I mentioned this is because there seems to be a proliferation of electronic musicians who have gone one step further than being just a musician or a producer to also sharing part of their musical architecture with other people, and having their sounds become part of the DNA of other peoples’ music.
BB: It’s funny because people are always telling us that we get compared to Kraftwerk and when you go onto iTunes it says that people who bought a Yello album also bought Kraftwerk albums. Only the way we worked was similar, in terms of using synthesizers, but Kraftwerk used them much more than Yello. I always wanted to have the opposite to Kraftwerk, I wanted to give a soul to the machines, whereas Kraftwerk wanted to be played by the machines because they are slaves and they love this aesthetic. I love their concept and how they developed their ideas. It was and still is a monument, both in Germany and around the world. Yello was always different. We tried to give even those cold machines a soul, to get a human touch out of them.
Humor as well?
BB: Yes, humor as well. That’s why I like Håkan so much. We have a similar humor. He has a very dry humor and we both laugh a lot when we’re together. Same with Dieter [Meier]. Together we’re just children sometimes, talking bullshit and having fun. I like Kraftwerk a lot, but it’s not the same. We work with samples more. Yello also has this sense of irony and humor, it’s not stiff like Kraftwerk.
I went to six of their concerts during their MoMA retrospective, and it was interesting to see the differences, because I was always asking myself how much improvisation there is. There is actually a lot.
BB: So it’s not just one set of machinery where they press play?
No, it’s actually quite the opposite. Sometimes they change the percussion in different parts, they play the songs faster or slower on different occasions. It’s all within a certain framework, but they definitely leave space to improvise, particularly on their most famous songs. Coming back to the app, is it a career move, to extend your radius as an artist?
BB: Totally not. It’s far away from this. In terms of technical development, Dieter and I were doing an interview in Zurich with Håkan Lidbo, who had a weekly radio program called Ström in Sweden specializing in electronic music, and we were talking about how great it would be to have a 16-step sequencer where you could put different effects on each step and really change the way that effects were applied to the individual components. So he said, “Hey I have a friend in Stockholm who is a really great programmer. We should try and make this happen.” We did some drawings about what it could look like, and we got very enthusiastic about it. A few days later we put our heads together over the phone and planned the concept of how we could arrange this within an app. So, that’s how it started. It wasn’t about an idea for a Yello app or anything to promote Yello concerts or something like that, which I know some bands do. It’s an independent entity. The name is very important and it came from Håkan. The idea is that you have a sound and then you “yellofy” it.
Håkan Lidbo: It’s what life is all about. To take a sound and make music out of it is like making magic. Our relationship for the first 25 years was just through the records, since I bought the first Yello record when it came out. As a producer growing up in a small town where everyone was a punk and super left-wing and it was all about protest and very negative, Yello was an inspiration. At the time, I was in a punk environment, but then I discovered Yello and they were from Zurich and their music was elegant and humorous. It was liberating to hear that you could use synthesizers in a funny and life-affirming way. I think that’s the core of the app—that sounds can be fun. And that’s what life is about.
More and more musicians are using apps on stage. Kreidler for example are doing this. They played a concert with four iPhones, where one used a bass app, one used a drum app, and so on and they synchronized them together. It was really quite brilliant.
BB: It’s funny you mention this. You remember Claude Nobs, the founder of the Montreux Jazz Festival who died recently? He was a very charming man. When I was in Montreux, I showed him this app and he said in his French accent, “Boris, we should do a concert this year. We’ll invite some DJs, we’ll do some rap, you know hip-hop, and we’ll do this on stage with this app.” He was very fascinated by it. He wanted to film while I was showing him how the app worked. That was an idea and I think it would work as long as you can synch with your partner’s app at the same tempo.
HL: I saw a concert by the Stockholm Saxophone Quartet where it was just them and the Yellofier. They were given iPhones and told to play bass sounds, which they then used to build an improvised concert. Just two-minute improvised pieces using the Yellofier app. It was very fun.
BB: When I make recordings, using the Yellofier, it’s like something I’ve just stumbled across or found. I create sounds that I think are really great and then I can use them as part of songs or easily adapt them to use with other music programs.
The social aspect, sharing files and so on, is a major part of this app culture. If I were recording sounds in Berlin and I wanted to share these with people in Johannesburg, I can do this and we can make music together. This seems to be where the real potential lies.
BB: Yes, the social aspect is very important. In a very short space of time, I can send anyone an email with the file and she can listen to what sounds I am creating and then send something back. It’s like modern musical chess playing. I make a move, then she makes a move, and that way you can build patterns and songs.~
Published April 01, 2013. Words by Max Dax.