The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Escape Velocity

Perfection Is Boring: An Interview With Helena Hauff
Albert Freeman , March 12th, 2015 14:12

Before she plays Bloc this weekend, the Golden Pudel resident DJ and producer has an in-depth conversation with Albert Freeman about the approach she takes to making music, the over-accelerated exposure cycle of new material and the creeping danger of virtual life

It's not been long since Helena Hauff put out her first material on PAN and Werkdiscs in 2013, but in that time, she's risen to become an increasingly important voice in experimental dancefloor ideas and esoteric electronic music. Over the course of solo releases on Actress's label, Lux Rec and Bunker Records offshoot Panzerkreuz, the resident of Hamburg's Golden Pudel club has demonstrated an outspoken love of electro and raw electronics, as well as moving far past established genres into exploratory and occasionally messy territory that makes a good fit for the anything-goes approach of her searching DJ sets.

Beyond that, as well as a trio of EPs as Black Sites, her duo with F#x, Hauff also recently found herself invited to join a reactivated version of 1980s German live electronic improvisation group Hypnobeat, making a hugely well-received round of famous clubs around the world.

Now, with a recently-released cassette album of archival tracks, A Tape on Handmade Birds, just out, and a new Werkdiscs EP and her soon-to-emerge proper solo debut album in the pipeline, we spoke to Hauff over Skype about how her methods are reflected in her life and vice versa and the necessity of physical connection in music and art.

Recently we've seen a lot of hardware-heavy, improvised electronic music being released, and a lot of new machines being made. How does this specifically affect your process? Are you finding that your own music is changing because of limitations being lifted or more because your ideas are developing as you go?

Helena Hauff: The latter. I like limitations. I make things hard for me on purpose almost, but I live like that anyway. I do things very differently to other people. I've got a very idiosyncratic way of handling even everyday life. I don't have a credit card, for example, and everyone seems to find that quite weird, especially for me travelling that much.

Studio time used to be really expensive. You couldn't just muck around recording and doing improv jams without having to raise a huge bar concerning finances and other practicalities.

HH: Yeah and it's great that that changed. But the weird thing is it makes things almost too easy. I think the problem is people don't realise that it takes more than just the machines or a computer. You know what I mean? A lot of great producers are not necessarily good DJs and vice versa, but it's too easy being both nowadays.

When the process itself is very limiting and requires a lot of money to get involved, you tend to get quite narrow ideas.

HH: Yes, that's rubbish.

I've always preferred things like noise or jazz that can be quite chaotic, or like very raw electronic music.

HH: Me too. I hate clean over-produced music.

There was an awful lot of that from say 2000-2010 in dance music, but things are changing.

HH: Do you think people are actually into that? Maybe that's what most people are looking for. Yeah, it seems to change, but then, does it really? Or is it just me living in that little underground bubble?

I definitely understand that. But then for a time jazz was very popular music also and I think during this time the level of discourse about music went up quite a bit. I'm referring to its most popular era in the 40s to the 60s. Besides that it's just an underground thing like anything else. Perhaps this is also more of an American perspective. I mean free jazz is really radical and I like it a lot, but its impact on popular music? Not sure.

HH: That's what I meant. I love free jazz but how big was it really... compared?

It wasn't. Its influence was really only felt indirectly and much later on, maybe through Krautrock or early industrial music. That's a decade later pretty much.

HH: And we're still talking about underground-ish music. How many people were into Krautrock and industrial?

Again, a relatively small group - bigger but still small. I know Germany had a bit of a thing with free jazz, but still it wasn't massive at all. Industrial actually became quite successful for a short time, surprisingly enough. I think I'm quite interested in these brief periods when more experimental underground culture starts to rub up against popular culture. It doesn't happen very often.

HH: When I ask my mom: do you know industrial? Nope. And she never heard of Ostgut Ton, but Paul Kalkbrenner. You know? That's what it's like. Only the really clean stuff gets really big... Maybe hip-hop is an exception.

It's hard to judge what's really underground now too. I'm quite sure even a few years ago someone like yourself would have been dismissed outright for being too esoteric and not fitting into any single marketable idea very well, but after awhile people get bored and start looking for something more interesting.

HH: Yeah, true… I hope so!

But it's odd how rarely it really happens. I mean we've already mentioned a few art movements that achieved that in my estimation. Some people will always like boring stuff, but when the majority start to get to it gets really noxious. Minimal techno got to that point for me... I hated it. It turned into cheap plastic. I think I hated it more because I was listening to it quite early on when people were doing quite exciting stuff with it.

HH: It's weird, I think so too. I think the really good things can't exist in a bigger place almost, if that makes sense. Maybe that's good… You know you want to go out, go to a concert or something and meet people that you have something in common with. The smaller the group the higher the possibility of meeting someone with similar worldviews, just in general.

Is the internet really helping with that? I sometimes think it doesn't really. I think artistic communities are still quite physical things.

HH: Nope. It's great being able to connect with people all over the world, but without meeting great people in 'real life' it'd be worth nothing.

I'm not sure what is going to happen with art attempting to restructure itself around the internet rather than clubs and galleries and records. It's trying very hard but nothing seems to be working.

HH: I always think of the internet as a great tool. But as soon as you put too much meaning into it, you get lost.

Even the more successful experimental music things I can think of that are big on the net started from quite confined physical spaces, whether it's Berghain or say, Manchester and all that Modern Love stuff. That's just two examples. In New York another obvious example would be L.I.E.S..

HH: Yes, but I think everyone knows that. I don't think there are a lot of people out there that don't go out and look for things and try to find like-minded people

No of course not, but in many ways the balance is tipping dangerously towards internet, and it conflicts with more immediate reality often… like someone getting run over crossing the street because they're on their smartphone. Or, like you said, not having a credit card or being very 'plugged in' and having this life as a touring DJ and musician. More practically in your case, the fact that selling recordings of your own music is a negligible source of income.

HH: I can see a big danger too. As you said, even in everyday life - getting run over by a truck! Yes, but people still go clubs. There is no substitute for coming together. I love just sitting in a cafe or wherever, at the airport and doing nothing. No music, no smartphone, no nothing.

I see it as the most important thing too, now more than ever because everyone spends so much time online rather than looking at things around them. Not terribly surprisingly your artistic background came from quite small and personal beginnings. The Pudel is a tiny place and you get away with things there that would never fly elsewhere because of this kind of personal engagement.

HH: It's weird - sometimes I have the feeling that a lot of people exclude themselves from what's going on by constantly trying to be informed and to know what's going on online. And as you just said, the Pudel is a good example. It was very important for me, and I don't think it's possible to evolve without having a place... It could be any kind of place but you need to be with people to learn.

As much as it provides a platform for people to express themselves, the internet is still a very limited place and most of the interactions are momentary and not especially deep. I guess most social interactions are momentary and not very deep also, but being involved in a specific place where people interact changes the rules a bit. It's much the same as the gear we were talking about earlier. There's a set of rules and you work within or around them, but they're there.

HH: And the most dangerous thing about the internet is that it gives you the feeling of having very deep connections with people, and you stop realising what's really going on. I'd terribly miss the moment ending up in a pub at five in the morning with someone you never really talked to before but realising you have a lot in common with, and I'd terribly miss the feeling of my machines taking over and making weird noises that I never thought of before.

To extend that comparison, using computer programs to produce music removes that sense of limitation into something similar to this cosmic web the internet supposedly is, but in reality it often makes results that don't have much focus. I know very well the feeling you're talking about about the machines taking over - it's a complicated relationship between the user and the device.

HH: Yep, you really have to know, way more than with machines or people in a pub, what you want to do. You constantly have to be aware of the fact that the computer is just a nice tool. It's fine to email someone and say: 'Hey, how are you? Let's meet up and talk.' It's fine to use the computer to make music with if you're a very focused person.

But the music you make and your approach in general has a lot to do with bouncing ideas off of other people and getting a response, or bouncing ideas off of a machine and seeing what it gives back to you.

HH: Yes, and that's why I need my machines and couldn't just work with the computer. There is no real interaction.

Your influences are really varied, but some artists tend to become more defined over time and they settle into a groove. Do you see this happening to you?

HH: I'm not sure. And I don't know if I really want that to happen either. It can be a good thing and mean that one found their thing and gets better at it, but I don't know if I'm that kind of person. I mean there's nothing boring about an artist doing one thing really, really well, if it was something interesting in the first place anyway. But I like so many different things I just couldn't say, 'Hey, I'm gonna specialise in Chicago house.' I'm constantly searching for something, and I like to challenge myself. I like for things to just happen.

I mean if you think about most producers who developed really distinctive personal styles in the past, it took them years to do it and often there wasn't much scrutiny or exposure during that time, which overall isn't a bad thing.

HH: No, that's a great thing and I have great respect for those people. We're back to the internet thing. Things happen so quickly and trends change so quickly too, and everybody uploads their music just an hour after making it onto their SoundCloud pages… and that's not a good thing I think.

The faster the exposure cycle becomes - it's very fast now - the more concerned it becomes with outward appearance, rather than substance, which is something developed over time. I'm happy to have people like yourself and a good many other producers who are searching for new ideas and new forms within electronic music, even if it's hard to judge results often. It's better than the very narrow sub-genres that had been wearing themselves out… People using algorithms run by computers to select their music, clothes, etc. I find this all a bit scary sometimes.

HH: I agree, horribly scary, but it's efficient, and since we live in a capitalist society that's what people expect or are trained for.

So then are we being reactionary in a way? I mean it's pretty clear now that some aspects of computerised capitalism are out of control and society is decaying visibly. That's an opinion that's reflected in all of this very bleak industrial music too, and also in all of the quite airless, heavy atmospheres in modern techno I'd say.

HH: This is the end, beautiful friend, of everything that stands... I mean the computer isn't the problem really. People have been talking about these problems for ages, and the computer is just the last thing that happened and got used by the people in power. Well you can't even say the people... As you said, it's out of control.

I don't think these are new ideas either, but I do feel there's visible resistance and critical discussion of them, and this is quite new.

HH: You think so? I feel like it was always there. Maybe it got into fashion again. If you think about the 60s and 70s, I have the feeling people were a bit more radical, especially students, but it was easier too. The codes were easier to read and stuff like that.

More than anything the things controlling people nowadays seem so far out of reach that people become cynical and just give up or aren't even aware of them. I guess for me, and you're not alone in your approach, this idea of dumping the excess data and going back to more immediate, physical means of living and producing art represents a reaction to this and a necessary one.

HH: Yes, that's it. You have to organise yourself in smaller groups. Everything is getting bigger and bigger. The only way of getting control back is to do things yourself and be independent somehow. And everybody is so comfortable - the problem is the things controlling you just look so goddamn good.

To me this idea of reconnecting on a smaller scale is needed. I think the fact that people doing this are being noticed outside of these quite small communities is important. It brings a certain optimism to the situation. The element of improvisation makes sense too, because there are a lot of new tools in both music and communication that people are figuring out, so there should be this process of trial and error.

HH: Improvisation is great because you're really in the moment. That trial and error thing... I think perfection is pretty boring. It doesn't really exist anyway, only in death really. Death is perfect. So it's cool to just go ahead and see what happens.

So let's talk a bit about your music and specific upcoming releases. Of your recent solo records, one was a tape album on a very small label, and the other was the upcoming Werkdiscs release. Is there any particular personal angle on either of them you'd like to include as background?

HH: Well, about the album I can say that technically speaking, it's an album but I don't really see it as an album. It's more a compilation of forgotten tracks and a few sketches. The label Handmade Birds got in touch with me and asked me for a cassette release, and I said that I was sorry but I didn't have any new material and was working on another record. But then I found a tape that I've forgotten all about, and I actually really liked the songs on it and thought I needed to do something with it. And because it was on tape I thought why not to releasing it on tape.

My 'real' first album is yet to come. I've recorded everything already and it will be released soon! The Werkdiscs record is basically Actio Reactio part two. It contains two different versions of Actio Reactio plus some new stuff. That's why I thought it was cool to put it out as the second release on Werk. My newest material sounds quite a bit different.

You hadn't any new solo stuff for a few months, and even those tracks I'm sure were quite old, so it's good to get a little background on these.

HH: Some of the tracks on the tape are even older than the stuff on my debut release, and the next thing I'll release sounds different, but it's older than the Lux Rec one, for example.

I suppose this goes back to everything we talked about earlier – the delays are frustrating for an artist of course, but then if you really want to know what's happening with someone, go out and see them play.

HH: Yes and I don't really mind anyway. Some things are older but hey, does it matter? You can fiddle around for ages and don't get things done. Sometimes you have to put things out to actually understand what they are and what it is that you're doing. That doesn't mean putting things out too fast. A label really helps with that. You talk to people before, and it's great and they put it out on record, so there's enough time to reflect on things.

A Tape is out now on Handmade Birds. Helena Hauff plays Bloc this weekend; for full details and tickets, head to the festival's website