Andrew Kemp speaks to an electronic music legend ahead of his return to Wire this Friday.
Hi Roman, you’re playing Wire on Friday, taking to the decks for the entire night as part of the An Evening With… series. How have previous visits to Leeds treated you?
I always feel welcome and playing at Wire a few years back was pretty special in particular. I’m definitely looking forward to this weekend!
What struck me about your most recent album All The Right Noises is the level of emotion that seems to flow throughout it. How do you think electronic music is so able to carry such emotion despite lacking the physicality of, for instance, a human hand physically creating a vibration as it does with acoustic instruments?
To achieve a certain level of emotionality is something profound during the process of creating music in general I guess. Electronic music was defined as ‘cold’ or ‘non-emotional’ for many years but I think that has changed a lot. Aphex Twin has created some of the most beautiful instrumental ballads in my opinion. But even a heavy techno classic by Underground Resistance won’t leave you untouched. We have witnessed young kids growing up surrounded by electronic music and related equipment and even phone Apps for a few years now. That has an effect of course, since we as humans are blessed with a flexible mind that is willing and able to express feelings on any given instrument.
Much like Happiness Is Happening, the title All The Right Noises points towards a general feeling of contentedness, suggesting a sense of meaning behind the music but allowing the listener a relatively blank canvas upon which their own interpretations can develop. Do you think that the journey taken by the listener over the course of an album is one of their own or the artist’s creation?
It’s definitely the listener who goes on his very own journey while listening. For me there’s no idea about fixing a certain association of the music itself. That doesn’t mean I have my own when I’m in the studio. First of all every release has to make sense to me before I give it a ‘go’. I’m not using lyrics or vocalists to express a certain message, which also gives you a lot more freedom while listening. I guess the artist can set a certain ‘tone’ or ‘general feeling’ but that’s it basically.
I have read a fair few suggestions that All The Right Noises is aimed away from the dancefloor, although I actually think a lot of it would make sense in a club if used correctly, particularly the likes of “Dust” and “The Mighty Suns”. UK grime artist Mumdance has spoken at length about how DJs should try to incorporate more beatless (or ‘weightless’, as he terms it) tracks into sets; do you think that standard conceptions of what constitutes music for clubs are restrictive?
What makes dance music so different from many other styles is that it’s repetitive and gives you the opportunity to dive into some kind of mental state that is usually not welcomed in our society. You can literally let yourself go and have a nice little workout on the dance floor. I think that’s great and very important! But that doesn’t mean a DJ set has to be boring to function. It’s great to have a few surprises here and there and a good DJ should be able to take you to aural places you haven’t been before. Timing is very important I guess.
You’ve spoken before about exposing the ‘essence’ of your music, which occurs as a result of a journey of exploration when you’re in the studio. When sampling, arguably this essence lies in a pre-created work, but when starting from scratch with just hardware in front of you, where is it that the essence of a piece of music is to be found?
Finding the essence is the process of creating. It’s a constant exchange or feedback between what I play and what comes out of the speakers since everything I do is created in a loop modus when I start to record. That causes decisions all the time, about what to keep and throw away for example, and finally leads to what I call ‘essence’.
The idea of context and ownership in dance music is something that really interests me; do you think that sampling as a practice should be regarded as a recontextualisation of the source material? If so, given that dance music has historically been a means of empowerment for marginalised communities, is it sometimes inappropriate to remove a sample from its original context?
Difficult question but it depends on the context I guess. For me personally, sampling in general is a fantastic invention that has far more positive than negative aspects. Some forms of music would never have happened without the invention of the Sampler. Sampling itself has become an art form over the years and I think it’s great if someone is using it to create something interesting and new out of material that has already been there. It’s a bit like creating a collage in applied arts for example.
Looking at your peers, and in particular the likes of Ricardo Villalobos, David Moufang, Gerd Janson, Nick Hoppner etc., there seems to be an almost philosophical, theoretical approach to how music is understood. Was there something in particular about the German electronic music scene in the 90s that encouraged artists to look beyond the face value and find greater significance in the way that music is constructed?
I wish I’d have the right answer. It’s not that we had serious talks and discussions before playing the first records at Robert Johnson… But I guess we’re all music lovers first of all who still want to discover links between genres, styles and tracks. The arising of electronic music in the 90s had a profound impact on all of us and luckily we were given time to develop, which is still important for us today. The rest is a little bit of our stiff minded German mentality, of course.
This intellectual take on music seems to extend beyond a single format, for instance in your enjoyment of galleries when on tour. Do you find the same enchantment in arts that you do not practice yourself as you get from music, or is the appreciation different?
It’s certainly not the same. I really don’t know how to create art these days but I enjoy having a look here and there and I find some artists very inspiring. But it’s still different compared to music since I’m much more an ear-person. Working with the label DIAL has been very important, since Pete and David have a very close link into the art world with their gallery in Berlin. I’m still not more than an amateurish observer though.
During an interview with Inverted Audio in 2014 you spoke about the acid house ‘movement’ in Frankfurt influencing your formative years as a teenager. What with the apparent polarisation of people across Europe and America at the moment, do you see dance music becoming increasingly political in the next few years?
It’s hard to predict these developments. The dance music I love will always stand for the liberation of the mind, tolerance, acceptance, equal rights and nonviolence. It was also a non-conformist movement in the beginning with a high level of DIY ethos. We’re currently living in tense times where some politicians pretend to have simple answers to complex problems, which means basically fooling again those people who are already feeling fooled.
Finally, you’ve been in the game now for upwards of two decades. Are there any tracks that hit you with the same force now as they did when you first heard them as a newcomer to dance music?
Just recently I listened to the track ‘This Is 4 The Rave Bangers’ by Hieroglyphic Being, which just came out, and I definitely felt that force again.