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In Extremis

In Parallel: An Interview With Atom™
Harry Murdoch , October 11th, 2016 08:11

The highly prolific veteran German producer looks back over his career with Harry Murdoch following a set at Terraforma, taking in early productions, Raster-Noton and why his goal is the "magical point" of a seven-hour set

Photograph courtesy of Michela Di Savino

Several times now I've stumbled across the work of Uwe Schmidt without realising it was him at the time. His plurality of aliases, collaborations and projects makes him a hard artist to keep track of, and there are no doubt fans of his club-focused work who have never heard of the electrolatino genre he pioneered in the '90s under his Señor Coconut alias.

Schmidt's career began in Frankfurt as techno and industrial music took hold in Europe, and from here he started to produce wide ranging electronic music. During the late '80s and early '90s, through numerous solo and collaborative records, this music found itself on the peripheries of all sorts of dance music scenes, from EBM to trance and acid house. Later on in the decade, Schmidt's move to Chile only diversified his productions, which by this point were being released at a startling, one-album-per-month rate.

Nowadays, Schmidt has made a conscious effort to slow down. We sat down with him at Terraforma festival in the north of Italy, the night after he performed both as Flanger (with Burnt Friedman) and with Tobias Freund. We discussed how his compositional techniques have changed over the years, his collaborations and found out what he's got in store for the next year.

So you've had quite a prolific career making electronic music for over 25 years now. I wondered how your process of composing has evolved over that period?

Uwe Schmidt: Well, interestingly, when I started to go back to my catalogue five years ago, starting the archive, I had to go back to all the old stuff I had done, and it was actually the first time I had ever really thought about that question. Up until that point it felt really like just this one stream of wanting to get stuff done, in a very impulsive way which I think has to do with age. I was very interested back then in just getting stuff out. I gave more importance to the impulse, of getting the idea out, and progressing with ideas. So a lot of the stuff I did for the first 15 years was done very quickly. A lot of it was very real-time based, programming stuff, jamming it. I was technically very limited, so there was only a certain degree to which I could develop music really. There was a technical limit and I had to let it [the music] go, I couldn't do it better than that. And that's the idea I had in mind, and then I'm done with it. I didn't really want to bother refining it and stuff like that, so I gave privilege to a certain type of creative energy, and this then changed over the years I think as well, with experience.

It's a very personal process in the end. You're getting older and you shift your focus as well. Right now for example, the technology I use is much more advanced that what I had to deal with 20 or 30 years ago, and I've fully started to appreciate the technology and dive more into its capacities. Alongside that came, of course, personal change, and I got a little bit bored of that first, very impulsive method of working. I felt it didn't satisfy me, and I slowly shifted to a different type of working where the method of recording is different and the method of composing is different, and the method of assembling everything is different too. So trying to put it in a nutshell, right now everything I do is more like a parallel 16:9 slow-motion thing, where in the past everything was like "boom", and I'd just get it done and not think about it, and move on to the next thing. And then right now I'm much more conscious about it and I really enjoy working very slowly on things, but working on things in a parallel manner, more than before. Also I think that because my capacity to really deal with parallel projects has increased. I really appreciate right now developing a huge array of things at the same time, and they're all running parallel and have different stages and timings, and some of them I know will be finished by a certain point which have a stricter timeline, and others are more open, and this is very different from what I've done in the past.

You're known for your sound design, especially on the album HD – does that form a core part of your production technique or does it come later on, at the mixing and mastering stage?

US: It's all one thing. In my opinion, that's one of the differences between electronic music and other types of music, that the sound design is not actually separate from the music, but it's actually the same thing. So whenever I'm developing a musical idea, the sound is coming along with it. It's not something that happens and then I have to fix it. Especially with HD, I got very interested in the physics of sound, in the scientific sense.

Watching the Flanger show last night, there was very complex music coming out of the two of you at once. I'd like to know about how you divide labour here, who's doing what?

US: Well, for the live show he has recorded a lot of new material, and the show is all based upon the recordings. But then in the process of playing it, he's basically abandoning certain material, exchanging material, making new material, and he's playing it back from a multitrack system and he's mixing it in real time and rearranging it in real time. He's not really playing the material – his approach is very static, it's a little bit like a dub set, like he's dubbing material and remixing material. I have two machines, which are, well one is a bit preprogrammed and has a fixed set of things happening, and then basically I'm programming on top of it with a drum machine. This depends a lot of course, every time it's different because he's doing different stuff and I interact with his mixing, and then he's interacting with my playing, but we're basically doing two very different things, because I'm playing it and I'm programming it, and he's mixing it and dubbing it.

As well as the Flanger show, you performed live last night with Tobias, someone you're also a long-time collaborator with. Could you tell us how that started and what you've been doing?

US: When I recorded my very first album, this was between 1988 and 1990, I had no experience with recording, and I had just made a couple of demos on a four-track tape recorder. A friend of mine found a deal basically, he found a record company and he found a studio, which allowed me to record an album in their off time. It was a commercial music studio, and they said, "You can do whatever you want in our studio, we'll give you an engineer, but we allocate time wherever we have time," so maybe night shifts or weekends, and I would always call them on a Thursday or something, saying, how about Friday? And they'd say no, maybe Saturday, and it was all very short notice, and it took a really long time to record the album. And then they would say, tomorrow, you can have a night shift, and I had to take my gear over with another friend and we went over to and record multi-track. But I had never really used a studio; I had no idea about anything. So we had this engineer from the studio, this young kid, who helped us to record it, and he was very much into that kind of music, he was very in sync with us. And then it was time to mix the album, and I didn't know anybody professional that was working as an engineer, but through a couple of friends, I got to know Tobias. He's a couple of years older than I am, so he had already worked, and he actually worked at that time in a professional recording studio as a recording and mix engineer. So he was the only professional in that whole set of people that I knew. So I said, would you mind helping me mix the album? And he was into it, so he mixed, I think, half of the album with me, and this was in his free time.

So that's how I got to know him. It was a very small scene in Frankfurt, a very small creative scene where everyone was into industrial music and techno music, and he was part of that scene. And that's how I met him, and then this album was released, and I released a second album and EPs and stuff, and he also started to release a lot of more dance-oriented EPs, and at some point, in 1991 or 1992, he had released a 12" and was asked to perform this in a techno club in Frankfurt. It wasn't even called techno at this stage, it was dance music, but no one had ever performed that type of music in a club; either there was a DJ or you were a rock band or something, it was a little bit like that. Being on stage with equipment, reproducing something you had done before was a pretty new idea, and he hadn't done it as such, and felt a little bit uncomfortable having to do it by himself on stage. So he said, I've agreed to play this show, and I know what I want to do, but I don't want to be doing it on stage by myself, so I said I can come with you, and I think it feels a bit safer if you're with another person on stage. So we brought some gear, and did a very brief rehearsal at his studio, basically just connecting the stuff and making sure it all worked. It was not really a fully rehearsed set; it was more like an outline of ideas. We played that show in 1991 in Frankfurt, and it worked really well and we were really happy playing together.

Photograph courtesy of Michela Di Savino

We have this really interesting connection, which is actually very unique, I think for him as well as for me. We feel really in sync on stage, for example we never talk on stage unless we have to, if there's a technical problem or we have to stop or something like that. So from this moment on we always performed live together, but never really worked in the studio together, as a duo producing music. I then started to play more live and so did he, and we started to play together more as well, and then we stopped for a while when I moved to Chile and he moved to Berlin. There was this one set in 2005 maybe, where we were asked to play a set again after a ten-year break, at Mutek Chile. Tobias was in Chile at the time, and I was living there, so we said yeah, but we never really thought about it. So the day came and we realised we were supposed to play and had to think about what we should do. We still had the same gear that we had used ten years before. I had it in my closet. So we basically used the same gear, and it still had the same stickers and notes on it. It still had the same sequences in it and stuff like that, so at my place we just did a technical check, and it was all running, and then we took it apart and went to play. And it was just like it was before, we didn't talk to each other, it just happened. I found it really magical to play with him. I've played a lot of other live shows with other people. For example, playing with Bernd is a different experience, and I've played with other people as well where they've started to talk to me onstage, asking what we should do next, and I'd rather people didn't talk to me.

Asking when they should bring the kick drum in?

US: Yeah yeah, "should I bring the kick in now?" They should feel it, you know? So with Tobias, after we had played normal set lengths, an hour or an hour and a half, I don't know how this started but suddenly we played two hours, then three hours, and after you've experienced performing and improvising that type of music over a period, there's like this magical point. Over three hours, it becomes something else, not just an extended set, it kind of flips into this other experience, because you are basically with a group of people on the dancefloor that are with you in that moment and in that experience. It's not people just popping up, wondering what's going on, it's more like a deal; you go into this situation with people that commit to the same experience. It becomes a very intimate thing, sharing a space for six hours with a bunch of people, trying, if you like, to feed each other. It's very important for us that there's something happening with the audience. We can't separate ourselves from the audience. So we started to play four or five-hour sets. I think the longest we played was seven hours, a year and a half ago.

I wanted to talk as well about Raster-Noton. You've been quite involved with them over the last few years. I'd like to know about how you got involved with them and if you've got any plans for the future?

US: Well they got in touch with me, maybe ten years ago. I was at Sónar in Barcelona, and they approached me and said that they would really like to have an album from me for the label. They said there's no pressure and you can do what you want, it doesn't have to be an album for us, it has to be something you want to do, and we're in sync with it, we can release it. It took me about a year. I had a couple of ideas and this one thing in my head, Liedgut, and I wasn't sure it would work for them, whether they would want to do it, but I had made the album and I thought, OK, I'll show it to them. They were really into it and they released it. I also liked them personally. Over the years having worked with a lot of labels, many of the label owners I didn't know personally, so I decided not to do this anymore, to work with people I don't like or I don't know. Very often it happened in the early days where I'd release music and then I'd get to know the person and I'd be like, fuck, this was a mistake, this guy is kind of weird and then it was too late. In that sense I made a lot of mistakes in the past. So when they approached me I really got along with them very well and I decided it was a good idea. They then released HD afterwards, and I'm working on some new stuff now, which is also... it's in one of those parallel processes.

So is that potentially a new solo album on Raster-Noton?

US: Yeah, yeah there are a couple of things that I'm putting together right now, but I don't know the timeline yet. Next year maybe.

I'm presuming you have a few other projects you're working on at the moment, too. What can we expect to hear from you in the next year or so?

US: Well there's an EP I will finish now when I'm back. It's an EP called Future Nights for Bunker Records in the US. That's a three-track EP, stuff from the last year. Then there's another EP I've been recording with a vocalist from Moscow, which is a small, very compressed and very dense EP of waltzes, in 3/4 time. And I've just started to record material with Lustmord, so we're sending stuff back and forth, and this should be finished at some point; I can't say much more at the moment.

Texturen II is out now on No.. Flanger (Atom™ and Burnt Friedman) play Concrete in Paris on October 15; for full details and tickets, head here. The Quietus is a media partner of Terraforma festival