Friday, 19 September 2008
TD Talks To… STEFAN GOLDMANN
This week, German house/techno producer STEFAN GOLDMANN released his debut album, a double CD set comprising the dancefloor-centric ‘Transistory State’ and experimental ‘Voices Of The Dead’. While the former conatins all the comforting club-friendly goodness we’ve come to expect from the man behind ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘Lunatic Fringe’, the latter boasts something we’ve not heard much from Goldmann – edgy, unsettling, beatless experiments in the Stockhausen ‘electroacoustic’ style. We thought that warranted a bit of a chat…
So Stefan, how are you?
“Oh, I’m well. A bit busy because of the album releases coming up. It’s basically all just interviews at the moment.”
Your new album comes on two discs, one of which, ‘Voices Of The Dead’, is a series of beatless, ‘electroacoustic’ experiments. Do you think people are more open to beatless, experimental music these days?
“I wasn’t sure before I actually tried to do it, because very few people seemed to have done things without a beat for the last few years, but now the response is really good. I think people have been missing something for the last couple of years. Just from the response I’ve had, I think the time seems to be right.”
Certainly, there does seem to have been a bit of a revival of experimental, beatless electronic music of late. Throughout the 90s there seemed to be lots out there - we think of Pete Namlook and those guys - but then it seemed to disappear. Perhaps it was there but we weren’t paying attention…
“I think maybe it wasn’t really there for us because a lot of the so-called ‘chill out rooms’ at parties and festivals seemed to disappear. Also, on the techno/house labels people stopped producing and releasing material like that because it was considered a financial risk. The rooms for that kind of music didn’t exist in the house and techno scene, and that might be a reason. I really don’t know where this stuff has been performed for the last eight years.”
Occasional dedicated experimental events, we assume…
“Maybe, yes. It’s great that Berghain have decided to feature this music in their club, which is a pure techno club usually. Maybe we can get things back together again.”
What inspired you to make a beatless album?
“Well, I have been experimenting for some years with music which doesn’t have beats. I didn’t have a proposal to do that for a label, and I had to think about how I could give it a form, because usually a lot of drone/experimental stuff is just noise. I searched for myself for ways to structure it in a way that would make sense to me. What I came up with is to employ this wave producing msuic for tasks which are something out of my musical fantasy. Like how could something sound which is not actually possible to do. What I was trying here is to think which elements of music have been around for all times, ever since music began. You can’t fit that onto one CD, but you can try ato find a way to get close to the fantasy and the idea of how that would sound. This is what I was trying to do – to imagine which sound elements are universal really. It’s a bit too big to really produce that, but it is a point to try and aim your work at. This is the result I could come up with. It’s very personal.”
A lot of those who are familiar with your work will be DJs. How do you think they’ll react to ‘Voices Of The Dead’? Is this something you worry about?
“Not really. A lot of producers, labels and Djs underestimate what people will be interested in. I know a lot of people who go to the clubs complain that the music sounds all the same. I have played experimental sets in the opening few hours at Fabric and Panaramabar, and people react very positively to it. This encourages me to do something which is not 126-128 BM and have the hi hat between the kick drums. You can do stuff that people will find interesting when they encounter it in a club, it’s just that labels were scared off doing it without trying it. Now I am doing it – I just hope it works out.”
It’s certainly an interesting album to listen to. At times it can be… not quite hard work, but certainly unsettling and discordant.
“My friend called it ‘Zombie ambient’.”
That’s a good description. From reading other interviews you’ve done, you seem to be at pains to point out that it’s not ambient…
“Yes. Usually my association with ambient is harmonies and chords and pads. I really tried to avoid terminated harmony where people can say ‘this is an E Minor chord’. Ambient isn’t a word that fits this album.”
Possibly because the connotations surrounding the word/genre are very ‘new age’ and floaty. ‘Voices of the Dead’ is not like that. It’s a lot darker.
“I really like darkness”
There’s some darkness in your dancefloor material as well, but plenty of interesting elements going on. Even when it’s dark it’s not claustrophobic, which ‘Voices Of The Dead’ maybe is. Is it true that this album is the first of a trilogy?
“Yes. This will take some years to come, actually. The idea of the trilogy was to do things that go beyond what people expect from a dance music producer. It will always be like these impossible to realise tasks. I have an idea for the second one – I am more uncertain about the third one. I think it will take me some years to do that one.”
We’ll come back to you in five years then…
“I am hoping to be able to finish the second one in a couple of years, maybe the third one in five years.”
Making this sort of experimental music requires different skills and processes than if you were making music for the dancefloor, doesn’t it?
“Yes, definitely. The thing is, when you do a record for the dancefloor you have a structure in mind. So you have a beat intro for the DJs to mix it in. Then after a minute and a half you have the bassline coming in, or a melody or chord, whatever makes the tune besides the beat, then an outro. When you lose that structure, you have to come up with new structures and work out how to build a track. How to just arrange elememts. You can easily get lost in that if you have just been doing dance music before. People who decide just to produce an ambient track, they end up doing a house track without the beats – so they have the same structure, appeggioed stuff and so on. I think it’s kind of funny. When you have somebody coming from a totally different field and doing dance music, you would often think ‘this guy has no idea of how this sounds in a club or how house music is done’, but when house producers go the opposite way they often don’t think enough about it. It takes time to build up the skills to compose experimental music.”
Is it something you’ve been developing for a while, then?
How long would you say?
“I think I started like seven years ago or something.”
So, even when you were doing material for Classic and Ovum, you would be producing house records, and then making experimental music on the side?
“Yes. I just couldn’t find a label willing to release the stuff back in the day. I had one track, ‘Turret’, which Richie Hawtin used on his ‘DE9 Transitions’ album in about 2001, but that’s it. So this album has taken seven or eight years to produce.”
It sounds like this is something that’s really important to you.
“Yes. But I don’t separate things too much. Often I do some research and at some point see which sounds will fit into a house track and which would make a wonderful experimental track. In the initial process of doing sound research it is not a different thing for me, but when it comes to building the track or arranging it, then it becomes an issue.”
You’vce described this style of music and methhodology as ‘electroacoustic’. It’s not our specialty, so what does this entail?
“Actually, this is probably the word that will replace ‘ambient’. Normally if a track has no beat they say ‘ambient’. Basically Mika Vainio of Panasonic is one of the people who calls his music ‘electroacoustic’, but actually the term is a lot older – 1940s. It’s related to, though wouldn’t link myself to, these academic electroacoustic producers like Stockhausen. I have been aware of these all my life. Also, I studied here in Berlin at the Institute of Technology, where they have a huge ‘electroacoustic studio’ which is designed specifically to make that music. It means it’s just made for speakers. There are no microphone inputs. It cost several million euros to build. The only sound sources they have are synthesized. They just don’t use microphones and produce music for speakers. Within that tradition, production techniques involved making music in a studio without microphone input.”
So there’s a lot of making your own sounds…
“I never use presets, even in a dance music context.”
We came across someone recently – it may have been Jacopo Carreras – who was very into using mathematical equations to make his own sounds. I guess that comes with the territory…
“There are a lot of compositional techniques which come from that background, including using statistics and mathematics formulas to get really weird sounds out of synthesizers, basically. You can go into any direction with your research, but what’s more important is how it sound. People often tell you they have programmed their own algorhythms to get a sound, but at the end of the day how does it sound? How will it relate to people’s perceptions somehow?”
This ‘electroacoustic’ music is something you’re obviously passionate about. Are you still passionate about making dancefloor music?
“Oh yes, sure. The really important thing about dancefloor music to me is that there is a social space where it happens – this amazing club scene all around the world. This is something that no other music had 40 or 50 years ago. For a relatively small style of music you have DJs booked from here to Japan. All around the world you have this club structure. I even played in Botswana recently. This is something so unique. I really love that you have places where people enjoy this music and so relate to it. It’s such an important part of people’s live. This is something that really has value, and I really enjoy aiming my music at that. It’s not a commercial move to say ‘if I do house music I have a market to sell to’ – it is something I really enjoy.”
What do you think of where techno and house are headed right now?
“This is a hard one. Maybe I think that ‘tool’ approach to records is dying. Of course, you still have hundreds of records a month which sound all the same, which is just a looped beat out of Ableton, but these records sell less and less every week. At some point these sales will drop so far that it won’t make sense to even press it to a limited edition of 300 copies or something. People will just get tired of going to a club and listening to one loop all night. This is not saying minimal is dead or whatever, because you have this structure in any sub-genre of house and techno – you have loopy deep house records with the same chord going for five minutes. Music that is done by a strict formula has no future. A lot of producers are starting again to push the boundaries and find their individual sound, because it’s the only thing that has a future – tracks that have a personality and something indivdual about them. This is the only way to stand out from the inflation of anonymous records which are released every week.”
This is a problem which has been compounded by the fact that almost anyone can release their own records on Beatport or wherever…
“The thing is, millions of people play football, but how many can you see on television in the Champions League? What’s happened with dance music is that everyone is playing Champions League. Access to the market was just too easy. People have the feeling now that they didn’t need to do much to get a record out and be stacked next to Carl Craig in the record shop. This doesn’t work. It wouldn’t be a problem if everyone could have their success and have their tracks out digitally, but Beatport are trying to cut down. People want to make music and spread it somehow. Nobody should have the right to say that you can’t share your music with people, but if that is just done over the internet, sending tracks to mates, that is cool. But you have to raise awareness with people that putting out vinyl is something altogether different. After putting out three or four records that sell 150 units each, people usually get the message that losing £1000 per release has no future. But there are so many people trying.”
It’s interesting what you say about identikit music. There is an argument that says that it’s down to Djs who play in clubs not to play those bog standard, functional records. Really, they are the problem…
“That’s also a problem. DJs are also producers at some point. How do you start out as a DJ these days? Of course you can play at a friend’s party, but at some point everyone who DJs will start a label just to promote his DJ name. That’s why there are so many labels who release a record every two weeks. It’s not because they have some great records, but because they are a DJ and they need the label to get their name out. This is one of the reasons why there are so many low quality records about. Maybe if promoters thought more about what music was on the labels – yes, this DJ has a label, but is it what we want to hear in our club? There are just so many people DJing, what criteria do we book them into the club. Nobody has the masterplan, this is the problem.”
We’re interested in what you’re doing with your label Macro and the ‘Prototype’ series. We were really into the Pepe Bradock version of the Pete Namlook track. So, what’s the idea of the series?
“There is this big group of people who dig cosmic disco or Italo, and they always go for some style from 1982 or something. I thought it would be interesting to search for the records that stand out on their own and don’t lose their quality at all. There are such records. This Namlook track is from 1994 – it sounds like it could have been released now, and it doesn’t sound like any other track I know. I’m basically just searching for tracks that stand out in individually and quality, and coupling them with remixes by the most interesting producers of the moment. Ricardo Villalobos has done the remix for the second one.”