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To The Things Themselves: The Strange World Of… Wolfgang Voigt
Maria Perevedentseva , June 26th, 2017 08:31

Following the return of his ground-breaking ambient techno Gas project with Narkopop after a seventeen-year hiatus and a renewed live presence, Wolfgang Voigt speaks to Maria Perevedentseva about three decades of collapsing the boundaries between the minimal and the maximal, and the popular and the esoteric

To call Wolfgang Voigt prolific would be akin to calling the Donald a tosser: entirely true, but understated to the extent that it risks misrepresentation. He hails from a time when the perimeters of electronic dance music were being defined for the very first time, and from a generation of artists that sought to frenetically subvert them as soon as they had been drawn. Voigt’s Discogs page ruptures into a sublime and bewildering maze of aliases, labels and sub-labels, which can only begin to scratch the surface of his nearly three decades of hyper-fertile production. Asked whether he could identify an Ariadne’s thread running throughout this staggering corpus, he gives a characteristically wry reply: ‘It’s all Wolfgang Voigt. I am many.’

This is a mentality that, it is fair to say, is entirely at odds with contemporary society – effusive, transient, multi-faceted and impossible to condense into a 160-character bio. In short, a mentality that revels in the complexity of human character rather than reducing it to a lacklustre bouillon. It is this refusal of one-dimensionality that has enabled Voigt to create the Studio 1 series – arguably the best party records ever made – as well as the brooding, Wagnerian soundscapes of Rückverzauberung; the acid hardcore of Mike Ink as well as the beer-swung accordions of Polkatrax.

It becomes clear during our correspondence that Voigt is also part of the derrière garde for whom there is a clear and rigorously upheld distinction between the public and private spheres. He is reluctant to drop names or indulge in any lurid details of the burgeoning Cologne scene in the nineties, and his manner is curt and delightfully dry, always redirecting the focus onto the particularities of the work produced as if to say, “to the things themselves!”

We spoke via email shortly after the hotly anticipated reprise of Voigt’s beloved Gas moniker – dormant for seventeen years, and for the first time on his own Kompakt imprint – to discuss some of his foundational projects (in more or less chronological order) and the processes that led to their creation.


Wolfgang Voigt: This was one of my earliest projects, meshing also with the Mike Ink moniker. Started in 1991, it had its peak around 1996, and of course in 1997 I released the album on Profan. I was thinking very mathematically at the time, so the entire project was based on a concept to do with ratios; in German we call it “Maßstab”. It’s about experimentation with sample-based rhythmic structures, playing the original key and one tone that is five notes lower simultaneously. Toying with the speed in this way leads to a certain rhythmic structure or ratio of 1:5 which, together with a four-four beat, creates many interlocking rhythmic orbits which give the music a nice swing. Traditionally, many have thought that groove or swing is only possible with live musicians, or that it only comes from the “soul” or suchlike, but with M:I:5 it was achieved through these very controlled, rational means. I do come back to this project from time to time but, for the most part, I have said what I wanted to say with it.


WV: I started the Profan label in 1993 as an experimental platform for my many conceptual projects and ideas around, but also reaching far beyond, techno. It housed most of my projects in the nineties – from the first Gas EP in 1995, to Rückverzauberung, Mike Ink, Kafkatrax, as well as work by some of my closest colleagues. We also released the collaboration with Sub-Rosa from Belgium in 1999. The nineties were really an incredible decade – fast, inspiring, chaotic. Perfect for someone with a driven, twitchy and restless disposition like me. A lot of the music we made during this time was done in the flash of the night. We weren’t thinking about eternity, posterity, longevity – there were just ideas that we wanted to work on, resolve, release – and to repeat the whole process with something new. By now, I don’t remember all of these projects, but that doesn’t mean I have become estranged from them. I love all of them to this day.


WV: It is probably the natural way of things that after such a massively creative period things have to calm down for a while. Towards the end of the nineties my output slowed down and I thought: enough said so far. From that point, I started pouring my energy into building up our little KOMPAKT company together with my friends. We opened the shop in 1998, and then, for ten years or so, I started to push other people’s music a bit more. Then, when the time felt right, I started Protest, which has, in a way, offered since 2010 what Profan offered until the new millennium. After some interruptions and changes in my release policy, I decided to dedicate the Protest label only to my very own productions. It is for my (sometimes) weird and unheard ideas around techno and other, currently less definable, four-to-the-floor music.


WV: 1996 was probably the peak for me creatively, in this already crazy productive decade where inspiration was unceasing, coming from every corner. My output, however, was mostly techno and bass-drum music. At the same time, and since I was very young, I have been fascinated by this rustic, pastoral German mythology. This imagery has found its way into the works of Goethe, Nietzsche, Mahler – and while I in no way model my work on theirs, or even aspire to it, these ideas have proved to have a sort of timeless resonance. So, behind the curtain of discourse around the so-called “minimal techno boom”, I had been working on this different, more abstract, ambient and classical music-based material which led to the first Gas releases on Profan and Mille Plateaux. If most of the Profan projects do represent the more profane and urban side of my work, then Gas reflects the escape from there into a very personal, dark forest of my inner soul.


WV: Before Freiland, I had the Studio 1 project which, in some ways, bears many resemblances to it. It was also aimed totally at the dancefloor and had a similar visual aesthetic, and turned out to become very successful. However, after ten vinyl releases, I decided to finish with it. The new idea with Freiland was to push further forward and establish a more radical idea of minimalism, expanding on the “art of omitting and leaving out” than I had worked on previously. Moreover, I decided to go against my usual practice and make it utterly free of samples. It uses just a bass [kick] drum and a single hardware sound module. Also, Freiland to me seems colder, more punchy and metallic than my previous work, so it marked a break in my sound aesthetics in some ways.


WV: This is a still very much beloved project of mine which actually started out under the alias “Grungerman” on Profan in 1994; I only renamed it to Wasserman in 1999. It is probably the least minimal of all my work, if thinking in terms of spectrum density. There is plenty of noise and distortion as well, which perhaps people wouldn’t associate with my work more generally, but it sits alongside some more “pop” elements: rich harmonies and suchlike. Really though, Wasserman is just the playground for this unbroken, incessant foible of mine to combine techno forms with any kind of German language and vocals.


WV: Making and breaking new rule systems, concocting new projects – these are things I am looking for all the time. I can’t seem to help myself. And Sog is like some kind of medicine, a remedy for all this – it re-sets the musical hard-disc in my head, purifies things, and cleanses my palette. From time to time, I just have to have this Sog feeling. The last EP was released in 2014, but it is not a closed project by any means. I have always thought of it more as sound art rather than techno: it is my most static, stoic, minimal work, but also has these colliding grooves which are somewhat reminiscent of the M:I:5 stuff from so many years ago.


WV: Initially, Kafkatrax was meant to be limited to only three 12” releases in 2011. You say that the buoyancy of the basslines makes you think of Studio 1-type Cologne sound? Well, I don’t know. Cologne of course has a great history, and a long list of great names in modern art and music, and I love to live here. There was a wonderful crossover between the art and techno scenes in the nineties which was creatively very exciting. Nevertheless, I think I would always be myself no matter where I was, so I can’t say whether there is a Cologne sound, and I certainly do not produce music with that in mind. I don’t think politics or geography have any influence over me or my subconscious. My main (and personal) intention with the Kafkatrax project was to create some deep, sexy minimal music using just kick drums and splattered quotations from Kafka’s novels.


WV: Rückverzauberung was conceived as more or less a kind of follow-up to GAS, of course before we released Narkopop earlier this year. It is always completely beatless, abstract music. For me, it seemed like a logical, radical and necessary step into a more atonal and experimental sound cosmos; something which in German we call “E-Musik” [ernste Musik], meaning serious music. It felt like the right time for this transition – I don’t know whether I am making music for a different world than the one before it but, as David Bowie said: “Time may change me, but I can’t trace time."


WV: This might not be what you expected to hear, but, even though the project featured at the Doofe Musik festival, Polkatrax is definitely no joke and one hundred per cent non-ironic. I say this even while I am absolutely aware that you cannot listen to it without a certain smile appearing on your lips. I accept that some people won’t understand this project, but, for me, it represents a very important scientific (or research) topic because, ever since I started listening to music, I’ve been in love with any kind of duple time music. I love reggae and ska, as well as folk brass, Schlager and Polka musics – the stuff with this kind of “oompah oompah” beat. So with Polkatrax, I wanted to combine the basic beat of this kind of music with the four-four techno kick drum, in the best possible and least ironic way. I will always be the first to admit that it’s a very special approach that won’t make sense to everyone, but I like to reflect on these – some might say “kitsch” – cultural elements from a more distant, “pop art” perspective, and, for me, it works very well.