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Escape Velocity

Threshold People: An Interview With Elektro Guzzi
Tristan Bath , December 11th, 2014 14:16

Following this year's Observatory LP, Tristan Bath caught with the Vienna trio at Austria's Elevate festival to discuss their kinetic, pounding techno, shaped out of guitar, bass and drums

The evolution of dance music has often developed like a lengthy game of Chinese whispers. Simulacra of simulacra emerge as generation after generation of musicians take pre-existing approaches to danceable rhythms and add a dash of their own time, place and gear. The most monumental shift arguably occurred back when disco, soul and some of that synth-poppy end of the Kraut spectrum morphed into something executed solely in the synthetic virtual realm with the advent of house and techno. Progress has taken an odd turn of late though, as a new generation of instrumentalists under the influence of techno, house and dance music have emerged, taking things back in the other direction and playing real musical instruments like they're programming dance music. For example, New York's incredible Dawn Of MIDI take the jazz trio format, and do their utmost to replicate pounding minimalist techno with insane precision, while Canadian band Holy Fuck prismatically skew analogue keyboards into colourful madness atop stomping drum patterns, and Tokyo's Nisennenmondai translate instrumental power trio pulsations into darkly danceable minimal futurism.

Hailing from Vienna, Austrian trio Elektro Guzzi comprise a bassist, guitarist and drummer, but take their cues from the club music birthed in Detroit, Chicago and Berlin. They construct intensely rhythmic party minimalism - all without the help of loopers. Via incredibly close ensemble playing, along with some incredible sleight of hand, the trio blend the hypnotic precision of robotic electronic dance music with the powerful energy of a live band - and it's something truly awesome to witness live.

They've put out four albums to date on Berlin's Macro label (run by producer Stefan Goldmann), as well as a belter of a tape on the ever-brilliant Tapeworm label, and an EP on Vienna's own Pomelo. Each release has seen the trio's sound expand further beyond the apparent timbral confines of the power trio, and bassist Jakob Schneidewind, guitarist Bernie Hammer and drummer Bernhard Breuer have slowly added deftly chosen effects pedals to their set-up, granting each player a growing wealth of tones at their fingertips. Just check out the very appropriately-titled 'Trojan Robot' from their latest album Observatory, released earlier this year - layers and layers of effects-laden tracks and tightly woven delay all coalesce, hanging by a thread, interlocking with perfect, almost inhuman, timing. They've deservedly gained a reputation as a truly incredible live act, having conquered much of Europe with a heavy touring schedule, with the exception of the England, which they've only had the chance to visit two times in their ten-year history.

In October I ventured to Austria's second city of Graz in the country's south-eastern corner towards the Hungarian and Slovenian borders to attend the city's excellent Elevate festival, where Elektro Guzzi headlined the opening night. The trio's seamless two-hour set was an unbeatable monster that sent yours truly spiralling through the crowd of Austrian teens in my best (and sweatiest) approximation of dancing. Luckily before the party'd made a fool of me, I'd had the chance to sit down with Elektro Guzzi for what still remains a few-and-far-between chat with a British publication.

How did you start off with Elektro Guzzi? Were you all playing different sorts of music before?

Jakob Schneidewind: When we met we were all really into electronic music, and also experimental music a little bit, and this is where we decided to try to play techno music with our instruments that we'd learnt before.

Bernie Hammer: When I started playing guitar I was 14/15 and I played in a punk band, and kind of rock music and when I started to study I studied jazz music and was into jazz music for some time. Then it was electronic music and I got addicted to that - so it was that kind of development.

What's your set-up like? How many effects get used? Some of the sounds on the record are really tough to put down as being guitar, bass or drums…

JS: We have a bunch of effect pedals. At first we are using a lot of devices to manipulate the sound and texture, and time-wise we use delay pedals, but we don't really use loopers. We started using sequencers a little bit that trigger some of our effect pedals, but generally there's no pre-recorded material. The source of the audio is always from the instruments.

But sometimes it really sounds like you're using a keyboard or, something…

JS: We've been experimenting with this for a long time, trying to give each of us the possibility to create many layers of sound. Me for example, I have the main bass function, but I can also add a layer of reverb or something else which is separate in the mix, and could sound like a keyboard.

BH: In the beginning this was always the challenge. To have three instrument sources to create different layers of sounds, so like everybody was working on this... to find ways to create more layers. 'Cause you need that for the music. It's not possible to just have three layers and play interesting techno music. So it was always a challenge, for example, to find layers in the higher frequencies which connect.

So which electronic musicians were you particularly into? Were there any that had a huge impact on you, and you felt you wanted to replicate?

JS: Yeah there were a lot of Detroit techno artists like Jeff Mills and Underground Resistance, Robert Hood, also Christian Vogel, and some of the Berlin people, like Basic Channel - some more 'dub techno', that sort of thing.

What was it about that that really interested you? That made you want to make music like that? It's got a very different place in society that sort of music - different to your usual guitar music for example. Were you guys going clubbing?

JS: Mm-hm [nods] - for me it was when a friend of mine introduced me to electronic music. He was a DJ and kept playing me records at home, and at the beginning I wasn't into it at all, but then we started going to clubs together, and there's a club in Vienna called Flex where we ended up going every week, and there I really understood what this music was about. I was completely sucked into it - this was where it started for me.

BH: Also I think from the point of the minimalistic approach, we did different music before we started this; we were all into minimalistic music, and rhythmic music, and kind of 'trance' music - this was very interesting to us from the beginning, and to especially to find that minimalistic approach in techno music. I'd been looking for it in other forms of music, but it wasn't so satisfying, but in this music it was so strong, and it was so obvious to me that the topic of this music was minimalistic. This was also a starting point for us - to do minimalistic music, to not have a soloist, to not have somebody who's more important than the others, and to create a sound altogether where everybody's really important.

It's interesting, because the generally accepted wisdom is that a lot of that electronic music that came into being in the 80s and 90s was in many cases influenced by German musicians (Kraftwerk, NEU!, etc.), and now with Elektro Guzzi it's gone full circle…

JS: We often get this comparison, but we never listened to this.

BH: This "Kraut" stuff - yeah, I know it, but it was not my first choice.

JS: I don't think it was an influence [...] the rhythmic aspect that you mention was interesting for us in the beginning, but then the sound exploration became the focus. So we put the focus on the sound and the essence of the sound.

It's a good approach - you don't all sit around thinking, "Right, now we need a chorus", you just focus on the sound instead. What about the music scene in Austria, in general? The cliché for us is still generally Europop and DJ Ötzi style schlager pop. What do you guys think of it?

BH: In Vienna there is quite a small scene, but a very interesting scene with lots of stuff happening now. There is this corner with acts like Dorian Concept and Cid Rim and these kind of guys, and there's people from the 90s still working like Patrick Pulsinger, Peter Kruder, Fennesz - it's small, but interesting.

What about the general 'experience' of music in Austria? You turn on the radio to FM4 [Austria's equivalent to BBC 6 Music, but with more electronic music] and they're speaking English and French in addition to German, and playing music from all over. It's almost as if Austria can't produce as much worthwhile music as it has the potential to…

BH: It's a small country, you know. For popular music there is only this FM4 which plays Austrian music from the independent scene. It's quite small, but well connected. We had a funny interview with a guy a few weeks ago who's writing a book about the Austrian music scene, and he's choosing different cities, and while in Vienna he was interviewing us and asking a similar question. We told him that the city's very small, and so it feels like there's no competition. We're all working together.

That's a very good point… when you compare it to London, for example.

BH: And we all have this common enemy, which is stuff like Ö3 [the Austrian equivalent to BBC Radio 1 and 2], which pulls us all together. With other Austrian bands, it's always like meeting some friends. Cosy!

Sounds like a much better way of doing things! So what about Elevate festival. Have you played here before? Anything you're excited about this year?

JS: We played here three years ago, and it was one of the first really big shows for us. Really amazing, especially as one of our heroes I previously mentioned - Robert Hood - was playing right after us, and he was standing right at the side of the stage with these overalls for the whole of the concert…

BH: ...and we gave him a record afterwards! [giggles] But we have to leave straight after our show to the next gig, so we'll miss the rest of the festival. We played with Kode9 recently in Sicily though, great guy.

So you tour all over these days? Have you played any UK venues like Fabric?

JS: Yeah, but that was already four years ago. We don't play so much in England.

BH: We've been almost everywhere in Europe, and also North America, Canada, Japan; stuff like that, but we've only been to England two times. The last time was three years ago.

Maybe people don't want to see this style of music played with instruments?

BH: Naww, it's too overfed, the scene. Every band from outside plays there, so it's hard to get into the English market. They don't need someone from Austria.

Well if you just re-brand and say you're from Berlin…

JS: Yeah, maybe that could work! [laughs] We also don't play much in Berlin, although our label is there, but more often than England.

You did a tape on The Tapeworm, which is how I first heard you in fact. How did that end up happening?

BH: Stefan Goldmann, he's the founder of Macro - the label we're on - and he's good friends with "The Wyrm" [The Tapeworm founder]. We met him one of the times we played in London, and then he sent us a request for a tape, but it ended up taking two years for us as we wanted to do something really special.

JS: We're actually going to do a reissue of it next year on Macro, as we all think it's a pity it was so limited. All the copies of any Tapeworm tape get sold out almost immediately now anyway.

On that tape there's much longer compositions, the longest ones you've done, right? Why did that take so much longer to complete?

JS: We wanted to really use the medium and make something you'd listen to all on one side in one go, and which is really slow building and has a flowing story throughout. We tried a few things, and then we were moving studio at the time, so it took a while, but in the end we're really satisfied.

So what've you got coming up?

JS: Very excitingly, we're going to be playing soon with Mats Gustafsson, who lives in Vienna now. We requested him for a release concert we had a few months ago, but he couldn't turn up, but now we've got the chance to play with him at a concert in Wels, at the Unlimited festival.

He's going to play with you?

JS: Yeah, we're not going to play our usual material, we're going to change it a little bit, and play more slowly and make it more of a ritual [...] Then also we'll be playing at a festival in Krems in Austria next year, for which we've been commissioned to write something which includes a brass ensemble.

Observatory is out now on Macro. Elektro Guzzi play four more dates before the year's out - PMK in Innsbruck, Austria on December 19, OKH in Vöcklabruck, Austria, 27, Urban Urtyp in Bochum, Germany, 28, and Interzona in Verona, Italy, 31; head to their website for full details