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A Quietus Interview

Instability In The Machine: An Interview With Tobias
Albert Freeman , June 12th, 2014 08:32

With Tobias Freund's latest album A Series Of Shocks released earlier this year, Albert Freeman catches up with the techno veteran to discuss process, experimentation and his work with Max Loderbauer and Moritz von Oswald

Continuously sharply dressed in black and carrying a very natural air of sophistication, Tobias Freund is amazingly approachable for someone of his stature. He may be one of the techno world's most talented and distinguished producers, but it is a role he has lived his way into, rather than a burden or an image he must uphold. Few know the inner workings of the machines as well as he does, but if asked it's likely Freund would describe his role more as a technician or an engineer rather than a musician. He watched this world of electronic music assemble itself piece-by-piece in front of him and participated in the work; from his vantage point, what seems so complex to someone looking in is the result of a natural process of evolution.

If this down-to-earth air does not always come across in his music, certainly in person Freund is acutely intelligent but modest. He can easily talk about everything that happened in his long musical history, from the early days in the 80s and the Neue Deutsche Welle to the present, and back even further to musique concrete and Stockhausen. Originating from his long experience as a recording engineer in Frankfurt studios in the 80s, his approach is ultimately practical while remaining experimental. The music is rooted not in complex theories or intentionally avant garde ideas, but rather in an artistry and virtuosity with his equipment that has come as a product of living through the era he has contributed to so deeply.

Since the beginning of his career, much of Freund's work has emerged as a series of collaborations. His earliest projects in the early 1980s predated techno, but by the end of that decade he had allied with Martin Schopf, better known as Dandy Jack, for the long running duo Sieg Über die Sonne. Beginning in the early 90s with his shift to Berlin in a deliberate move to seek artistic freedom, Freund found himself aligned with such figures as Uwe Schmidt - the many-monikered German legend best known at Atom Heart - and later with longtime studio partner and fellow experimentalist Max Loderbauer, with whom he formed the famed duo NSI. All the while, he continued to produce more conventional but still searching techno, both solo and with collaborators like Ricardo Villalobos, Schopf, and Margaret Dygas. His collaborations with Loderbauer eventually segued into an involvement with Moritz von Oswald's improvisational trio, for whom he supplied his mixing and mastering expertise.

Freund possesses a natural curiosity that led him initially into his area and into contact with the luminaries he remains associated with. It is this aspect of his personality that has allowed him to remain both relevant and forward-looking without the difficult transformations some of his contemporaries have tried or failed to make over their careers. To this day, Tobias' music, much like his persona, combines this kind of approachability with an immense depth of understanding of the movements he has played a part in shaping. This is nowhere more apparent than on A Series of Shocks, his most recent album for Ostgut Ton and a formidable work of strange simplicity, directness and finesse. Combining often-skeletal arrangements with a master's touch for production design and effects, Freund manages to expand compositions into pieces of confounding depth considering their contents. It's hard to call many of the results minimal, although it takes a natural minimalist's touch to draw so much from such little raw material. We've been given a first look at director Valentina Berthelon's video for album track 'Testcard' - have a watch below:

Just after the record's release, the Quietus caught up with him on Skype to discuss the technologies and ideas behind his music, his upcoming projects, and the changes wrought in the electronic music scene over the past few years since his last significant solo work.

So you must have finished your album some time ago now?

Tobias Freund: Yes, the album was finished before the New Year started. I was doing my summer break in Chile again. My wife is from there, and we always do our summer holiday there and skip one month of winter here in Berlin. This time we spent five weeks there, and I met Uwe Schmidt and we played some gigs together.

Was it quite a long process to make it?

TF: Not really, no. I started in August or September, and Ostgut set the deadline, so I found I had a good flow with making it. I had some ideas before I started about how the record should sound, and I kept following this idea so it happened quite quickly, I have to say.

Obviously some of the tracks on the record were quite simple – I think you'd agree? There were others that were quite a bit denser though; some of the productions were quite a bit more thickly layered than what I would ordinarily associate with your sound.

TF: For me it was a challenge to make it simple; it's hard for me to not overproduce things and to just have three elements in a song that keep it interesting. It's very easy to add layer upon layer, but to keep it simple and interesting is a hard thing to do. In terms of this, I had a bunch of songs that I was working on, some of which didn't develop well, but others I recorded in a jam session with only two tracks. It wasn't split up on the board. I couldn't go back and redo it; I had to be happy with the jam after it was mastered. That's what I wanted though.

And some of those made it onto the album just like that? When I listened to the album I noticed, particularly in the first half, that there were a few tracks that only had two or three instrumental voices in them, but elsewhere there was quite a bit of a denser bed of effects and production.

TF: I had to prepare for a live concert without any computer, on only analogue equipment, for the Dekmantel festival in Amsterdam. So for this, I hooked up all of my gear in the studio; usually I have just one element connected at a time in the studio, and if I'm done with it I put it back. I'd rather concentrate on one thing usually. But for this event, I hooked up a bunch of equipment to try to rehearse for the live gig, and while I was working on this I did some songs. As I was doing this, I liked it so much that I decided to record some of it just to keep it, and they turned out so well I put them on the record. 'Testcard' and 'The Scheme Of Things' were the tracks from the jam.

Especially in 'The Scheme Of Things' is quite striking because of the contrast between the relatively simple composition and your use of effects, which gets really complex as the track moves along. On your part, was it a self-conscious decision to make more of a straight-ahead techno record?

TF: It was not an accident, and was influenced by the gigs I had been playing. If you put out a record, you also always want to present it live. My experience was that the simplest tracks I did were the most effective in a club. The album before this [Leaning Over Backwards] was more oriented towards being a home listening album with a few tracks geared towards the dancefloor, but this one was definitely intended more for the club. It also depends on what kind of mood you are in and the state of your personal life. For the album before, I was taking a break from some things, and you can maybe hear this in the record. It's not balanced; it's more like collage art. For the new album, I really feel it is all one thing.

Aside from the stuff you did with Margaret Dygas, you haven't really been doing as much purely experimental stuff as you had been before right? You've been concentrating more on techno for a few years now.

TF: Well, it's also a matter of being with Ostgut, so I have to get gigs and earn money, but this is also an idea I want to explore because it is fun. So for a time, the experimental stuff I was doing with Max Loderbauer and Margaret got pushed back, but now with the album done I'm a bit more free to do some remixes and other investigations in sound.

That's good. What was your involvement in Loderbauer's album from last year?

TF: I helped choose the tracks. He's always there in the studio doing something interesting, but I'm always the one who tells him to start recording what he is doing at any one time. Sometimes he gets so lost in his patches and what he is doing that he forgets to capture what he has. So in the old sense, I produced the album by helping him to take the best parts of what he had. I compiled it and did some edits. He gave me more than forty tracks – he calls them moods – most of which were around thirty minutes long, and I had to find the best parts. It was a challenge, and he was very happy to have someone taking care of his work. We both thought the result was very nice.

Max has been pretty busy doing other collaborations in the past few years, mostly with Ricardo Villalobos. Did you have any involvement in these projects?

TF: No, that stuff was all done when I was busy and didn't have time to work with him, so he was working with other friends. I am involved in the Moritz von Oswald Trio though; I did the mixing for these albums.

For those albums, were you actually recording the instruments live in the studio, or were they bringing you pre-recorded material that you finished afterwards?

TF: I was recording sessions. When Sasu Ripatti was there doing percussion and Max was doing the synthesisers and Moritz was playing more in a session style, I was recording, and then we did a few versions of each recording and decided which were the best and which we needed to keep working on. From the beginning until the end of the process we worked together.

Over the past few years there has been a big swing back towards analogue and outboard gear for electronic music in live performance. It's not limited to the Korg Volcas; many people I know have gone to modular synthesisers, since there are a lot of new models being made and the prices are fair. As a longtime hardware devotee, what is your analysis of this?

TF: Maybe people thought that just using the computer was not enough - if you're just doing things on the track pad it doesn't look so nice. If you have a few devices and you do something with it, it adds a visual element to the performance. The result, what is coming out, is the most important thing though. I use Ableton when I play live solo gigs. When I play with Uwe [Schmidt] live, I only use gear; it is possible to do this when you play with someone else. I need someone who gives me some input though, so when I play solo this becomes the computer. I need some basis for what is going on; I can't do everything myself in real time.

When you're doing live sets, what exactly are you doing with Ableton?

TF: The drums are always programmed live. It's easy to program a four on the floor kick drum, and the rest I leave open depending on the gig. If there are vocal samples or things I did with a software synthesiser, I transfer it to a clip in Ableton and run it from there. I save MIDI sequences in Ableton and send them to the synthesiser, but actually this is new because I just had my MC-202 modified to do this. Before, you had only one sequence and had no chance to modify it. Now I can control everything via MIDI, so all of the drums and sequences are done live.

That particular synthesiser is notoriously hard to program.

TF: I remember the first gig I did with Uwe Schmidt in 1991. We had two MC-202s, and one had one sequence programmed in, and the other had a different one, but you could not change them past a few tweaks to the filter and the envelope. Once the sequence was in, it was in, and you had to do the whole concert with it. Now it's like a new world: I can play every song I have with this synth. For the release party [for the new album] I tried it for the first time in Berghain, and it was amazing. I've used these machines all of my musical life, and I don't get bored of them. They've been with me in every situation I've been in, in different countries and clubs, and it's nice to have this history with them. I also have a MIDI input and output built into the 808, and if you record it into the computer you really see the shifting that its sequencer does to the groove. Not every step is in the same. It depends on the temperature of the room and other things I don't understand. I discovered this when I had the MIDI modification done. This instability, though, it is the best thing about the machine.

What do you have as far as projects that are coming out in the next months or year?

TF: There was a 7" that was included on the limited version of the album, and it is very different from the material on the album. It was limited to 100 pieces. The idea is something I wanted to develop though, and it was something I did with only hardware connected together and recorded in a jam. On one song a friend from London, Cormac, was singing; he does parties in Fabric called Wet Yourself. He came over to Berlin to produce his music here, and I had the idea to include him for one of my tracks. It worked out really well, so I want to include him on more of my own music.

The other thing I really want to do is develop this project with my wife, Recent Arts, with a computer-based controller. We have been planning to work together to do some audiovisual material for my techno set, but a Recent Arts release would be experimental. I have five or six atmospheres that are ready for this project, and I intend to present them to generate interest. For this she does all of the visual material, and I do the music. If someone is interested in releasing this, we will certainly do more work on this project.

I saw some videos that were done for some of the tracks off of your new album. Who was responsible for this?

TF: For the song 'Entire', the images were material that I had filmed a long time ago on a Hi-8 camera. It's just images from the TV with some effects from the Hi-8 camera, and she chose, edited and arranged the images to the song. For the second video, we were filming some screens in the studio, then she edited and arranged the video. Whenever I'm in the studio, I'm always looking at the screens from the computer or the sampler or other gear, and I always wanted to do something that involved this. We bought a nice macro lens, and we did this composition. So sometimes you see dirt on the screen, or sometimes it is not in focus, and all of these things are part of the idea. Some people have said that the audiovisual projects are an effort to become more important and to get more gigs, but for me it really isn't the case at all; I like to share the experiences I have at gigs with my wife, and it goes so well together. I really enjoy seeing a good live performance with good visuals on top of it.

I think this audiovisual direction you're taking suits the music quite well. It's interesting to hear you speak about images in similar language to what you use for sound.

TF: Sometimes people have referred to me as a perfectionist or a sound guru, and while I do take very good care of the sounds in a production, I don't like clean sounds. I don't like to have a polished thing; I like to have some life in there. Even if something has feeling but is recorded badly, I would rather take the recording that has feeling than polish all of the feeling out of it. I really like things that happen in the moment.

I think this comes across quite effectively on the new album - the production values are excellent, but it doesn't sound overworked. It's quite immediate.

TF: The stuff I did with Cormac was recorded in his bedroom, and the cleaning lady next door was screaming. You can hear it slightly in the recording, and he wanted to take it out, but it was so intimate and showed so exactly the moment that it was recorded that we had to keep it in. Max [Loderbauer] and I are also working on new music for NSI. Max is involved in a lot of things now. Sometimes there's a tour for the Moritz von Oswald Trio or with Ricardo, and often he is doing remix work with Ricardo, but it's time now for us to do something.

That's exciting; it's been quite a while since you released anything as a duo. I think it's a good time for this to come back, considering there has been a general drift towards experimental sounds in dance music recently.

TF: I remember seeing Outer Space at Labyrinth last year, and this really blew me away. There was no kickdrum, and they were so in love with their synthesisers and sequences. It sounded so amazing! I was standing on the dancefloor there and it started to rain, and the umbrella acted like a giant, three-dimensional headphone. They were doing experimental pads and groovy sequences, and I couldn't believe the sound that they were making. It really made me want to do more experimental stuff now.

Tobias' A Series Of Shocks is out now through Ostgut Ton