The Aesthetic Of Machinery: Objekt Interviewed

With his bone-shattering new 12" released this week, Berlin's TJ Hertz speaks to Rory Gibb about bending techno's rules and being punched in the face by factory machinery

Objekt’s short-but-potent back catalogue has hardly lacked for the sort of ‘what the fuck?’ moments that make being a dance music fan a worthwhile pursuit; it’s peppered with startling distortions and disruptions of techno’s structural framework which, on a dancefloor, send your mind and body spiraling into temporary disarray as they adjust to the chaos that’s unfolding around them. Still, there’s a moment on ‘Agnes’ Demise’, the lead track of the Berlin-based producer’s latest 12" release (and first for eighteen months), that rivals everything he’s done so far for gleeful violence: two-and-a-half minutes through, the track simply dissolves. Percussion, bass and melody fall away, disappearing in a sea of fizz before that brief calm interlude is shattered by a series of colossal explosions, each tearing its axis to shreds in a mass of crumpling shrieks and twisted metal groans. It’s like watching an extended slo-mo shot of a building being blown up in a slick Hollywood action flick, with every snapping girder, smashing windowpane and crumbling concrete breezeblock captured frame-by-frame in extreme, eyeball-rending high-definition. What’s more startling, though, is how he compresses everything back together again into its tough reinforced electro/techno skeleton; as if, having had his fun scrambling his unwitting subjects’ minds, he’s now ready to continue the most important task at hand: making you dance.

And make you dance he certainly will. Since his debut white label 12" cropped up near anonymously in early 2011, TJ Hertz has established an idiosyncratic yet varied signature sound: stainless steel toe-capped percussion, pinpoint-precise welts of sub-bass and fragmentary melodies that glimmer, glow and subdivide like plankton phosphoresce, all lashed to rhythms that stab, rip and clatter, compulsively. What marks all his tracks out is their attention to detail – fine-tuned painstakingly over extended periods of time, 2011’s ‘CLK Recovery’ and club cluster bomb ‘Cactus’ brim with activity around the peripheries, lending them a limpid depth far beyond the hard-nosed rhythm section that sits at their core. The former, for example, is one of the more tactile and romantic techno tracks of recent memory, passing through several shimmering curtains of melodic mist and undergoing several subtle harmonic twists across its near ten-minute length. It takes a full three and a half minutes for the track to even settle into a fully-formed groove; by the time it blasts into rocket-fuelled life sixty seconds later you’re hooked for the duration.

Having started toying with music technology, recording and composition in his mother’s home studio as a child, Hertz recalls, he became interested in dance music as a late teenager and instinctively began to start making it. He studied engineering and has spent the past few years working at Native Instruments in Berlin, the music technology company behind ubiquitous softwares like Reaktor and Traktor. His experiences there undoubtedly feed into the exacting precision of his own tracks, yet they also frequently maintain a pleasingly anarchic sensibility; last year’s ‘Cactus’ was released through London’s Hessle Audio label, and he shares with its founders and associates – the likes of Pangaea, Pearson Sound, Peverelist and Joe – a restless curiosity and interest in bending dance forms until they almost snap.

When we speak over Skype to discuss the release of his latest 12" and his career so far, Hertz has recently gone on sabbatical from his day job, with the intention of focusing more intently on music-making. Over the course of an hour he speaks to the Quietus about his ongoing compulsion to tweak his compositions, the advantages of working within club music’s limitations, and getting punched in the face by factory machinery.

Your music brims with joy at the possibilities of, loosely speaking, techno as a musical form, and fascinated by how many ways you can bend it out of shape. What first attracted you to techno as a form to work in? And what keeps you interested in staying in that world?

TJ Hertz: I got into techno at the point [in my life] where I realised that actually there’s more depth to dance music than stupid banging loud noises in clubs. It was the same thing that attracted me as would probably attract others to jungle or drum & bass, but it just so happened that [with me it was techno]. The mix that got me into it was the one Surgeon did on Warp, This Is For You Shits, which is amazing. It pushed the same button in me that Autechre had a long time before that – when I was 14, or something like that – this inherent sexiness in the machine. Part of what attracted me to techno in the first place was the aesthetic of machinery. That’s certainly not something that’s common to all techno, but as my first exposure to techno, This Is For You Shits was like a piece of factory machinery punching me in the face. I felt like that – [it was] quite a big impact.

I don’t really know where it went from there… [thinks] I really liked the austerity of it, and from there I had a few years of listening to really loopy, really droney, really serious techno, which now I find a little bit boring, but at the time it really was the impenetrability that attracted me. And I think – coming back to it now – the fact that my music tends to try to subvert that is a direct result of my not being very good at making it in the first place. I kind of felt like, ‘Well, I’m no good at making loop techno, so fuck you, I’m going to turn it on its head’. At the time, when I first started making stuff like that a few years ago, I wasn’t really thinking about it in those terms. But I realise now that must have been what I was doing. Just going in the opposite direction, in response to frustration at not being able to make the kind of music I wanted to make.

"I can’t make this work, so fuck it, I’m just going to mash it to pieces and see what happens."

TH: Something like that, yeah. [laughs]

How have the reactions to your new 12" been so far?

TH: Really good. I’m always curious to know how much of a crowd’s response to a track is because they know what it is and know that they ought to be dancing to it, as opposed to simply really enjoying the piece of music for its own merits. And it’s definitely true that people have responded better since the announcement, and since the clips went up, once they realised it was my new record. [laughs] I’m not sure how I feel about that, but sure, the response has been great so far.

I’m sure you’ve read Angus Finlayson’s Resident Advisor review of your new 12". It contained a one-liner I thought was neat and quite insightful – he said you were in an "ever escalating arms race with your own discography".

TH: He’s full of amazing one-liners. If, one of these days, I make a genuinely terrible record, I like to think that Angus’ spot-on review would make it all worthwhile.

I wonder to what extent you think that’s true – to what extent do you feel compelled to push your sound away from what you’ve done before with each new piece of music you make?

TH: I think part of it is a by-product of spending so long on each track. Because when you do that, the incremental changes and improvements tend to make each track go in quite a new direction, whether intentionally or otherwise. Part of it [also] is working, so far, purely with the single format and knowing that they’re all club tracks, whereas if I were trying to sketch out more material for an album that probably wouldn’t necessarily be the case.

I guess it also ties into what I said in an interview a while back, about there being this element of pastiche to a lot of the stuff that I’d written around that time. And while the stuff I’m doing now I definitely wouldn’t call pastiche, there’s still this element of… [thinks] It feels like there’s a bit of a grey zone in the crossover between tracks that stand out for being individual and tracks that rely on a gimmick of some sort. And I’m not really sure where I fit into that!

[The arms race feel] is definitely more of a natural by-product than an initial goal. Especially considering that certain tracks I’ve made have been conscious efforts to follow on from where another track left off. I mean, to me ‘Fishbone’ for example was the distilled essence of ‘Porcupine’, but pushed even further into rigid, mechanical, compressed probot territory. I wrote one shortly after the other – ‘Fishbone’ is an old track that I finished up recently, but I started it in early 2012, which I guess would have been when I’d just finished ‘Porcupine’. Around that time I developed this fascination with really trebly kickdrums and an impact-without-bass aesthetic – a very Dopplereffekt kind of thing. That was the only track that came out of that period that was really worth keeping. In the earlier versions the [Dopplereffekt] connection is a lot clearer, and that’s what tends to happen with a lot of my stuff. I’ll start by consciously aping a track that I really like, and by the time I’ve finished it’s developed incrementally into something that’s totally different. Which again is where the length of my working process plays quite a big part.

Is that what you mean by the pastiche aspect? I remember you saying somewhere that ‘Cactus’ was intended as a Rusko pastiche.

TH: That was a much more conscious effort, though. That really was an attempt to turn a trope on its head, in a way. Most of my other tracks that wear their influences on their sleeves are more the case of homage rather than all-out pastiche. And I think where my own personality comes in, as a producer, is in the ways that I’m not imitating very well. I guess that’s true for a lot of people – you start out by trying to make something, and it’s where you fail to make it that your impulses as an artist begin to define what the end result actually sounds like. My basic impulse when something isn’t sounding right is to either tweak it or glitch it up a bit. I guess that’s one of the reasons why you end up with a lot of details, because they’re hiding things that might not quite be working. [laughs]

I remember reading you saying that the reason your tracks are so detailed is because there’s all these ghostly remnants of older versions floating around in them.

TH: That’s definitely true.

There’s a trend for straight-to-tape hardware jams being pressed up on 12" at the moment. Not to say that there isn’t a lot of good music coming out of that axis – there is – but some people will always attach a certain dogma to the idea that spontaneity or ‘the jam’ is intrinsically a purer form, which is problematic in a way. It’s interesting thinking of that in the context of all these details being left in your tracks from previous versions – imprints and memories built up over time. That sort of music can only be born of a really in-depth, long process.

TH: Absolutely. And it’s something that I’m growing to be at peace with, after a long period of just wanting to churn out very visceral, raw, rough analogue jams and not being very good at it. I think it’s in realising that [the extended process is] one of my strengths that I’ve been able to move forward a bit further. One of the reasons I didn’t really release very much for the last year and a half was because I was trying to work out what I wanted to do; and also there was no urgency because I was working. But so much of the music that I love is very rough and immediate. It’s obviously not a case of one being better than the other, but… [thinks] To put a different slant on it, there’s no way that I would ever be able to recreate this stuff with a bunch of boxes, live on stage. And I guess that’s just part of my sound so far.

So did you find it frustrating at first that your working process was quite long?

TJ: I spent a long time finding it immensely frustrating, especially then reading interviews with people that can bang out a track in a few hours. I think when you’re first starting out – especially if you tend to get into things in quite an intense and obsessive way – you’re quite happy to obsess over one track for months at a time and see where the tweaking takes you. That was certainly me for quite some time. But I did get very sick of it, and spent an awful lot of time either trying to make really rough-sounding music roughly, or somehow trying to approximate that using my own techniques, which is obviously destined for failure when you’re micro-editing sounds in Ableton trying to make them sound like they were recorded in twenty minutes on a bunch of hardware [chuckles]. But it’s only recently that I’ve started to feel like I’ve been able to consolidate the two approaches a little bit. The A-side of the new one started out as a hardware jam, but you’d never be able to tell. It started out as a Machinedrum and a 606, and sounded quite different to how it ended up. But the fact that I could get that sketched out so quickly initially was a great starting point.

You studied engineering and have worked at Native Instruments for a few years. Do you find that there’s a tension between your interest in the pure, analytical, mathematical aspects of sound design, and the desire to assemble those into a finished, composed pieces of music?

TH: [Thinks] No, not really, because I think ideally the two should complement each other. There shouldn’t need to be this binary between good sound design and good songwriting. And it is songwriting at the end of the day, even loop techno is still songwriting to some degree.

So you’ve been able to manage the temptation to go off down wormholes of endlessly working on the sound aspect, rather than the composition aspect? At the end of the day it still all comes down to songwriting for you.

TH: Ah, ok, I see what you mean. No, it’s definitely something that I have to bear in mind when I’m working. I used to have this sign on my wall, right behind my monitor, that I’d scrawled to myself in a fit of frustration, that said ‘Stop fucking around with the kickdrum and make some music’. And it’s only relatively recently that I’ve taken that sign down. Partly because I’ve moved flat, but I didn’t feel the need to put it back up again, because I feel like I’ve finally learnt how to prioritise when the song needs to be written first before spending too much time on the sound design. It’s always a learning process as well – being able to judge how far along you are with the writing that you can afford to now focus purely on ear candy to fill in the rest. It’s also not one and then the other – it’s not like a write a song first and then sound design it. It’s a constantly iterative, back and forth process.

A theme I’ve noticed crop up in a few older interviews with you has been this question around the purpose of DJing, and whether it’s important to take people out of their comfort zone on a dancefloor.

TH: It’s never been a question that I feel particularly comfortable with…

I wasn’t going to ask it, but I do want to ask a related question – when you’re writing music, rather than DJing, how important is the dancefloor? Is wanting to make bodies move something that sits at the root of your process?

TH: So far yes, everything I’ve written so far has been written to a large degree with the dancefloor in mind. It’s not necessarily something that I want to continue indefinitely. But one thing I realised over the last couple of years, when I releasing less and experimenting more, was that when you don’t have the restriction of the music you’re producing needing to bang really hard in a club, it gives you so much freedom that you don’t really know what to do with it. I find [writing for the dancefloor] a useful framework, actually, in terms of inspiration, because it lays down a few rules that you can then bend, rather than just giving you a total blank canvas. It’s a tug of war that I’ve found myself playing with myself on an almost daily basis – how can I make this sound how I want it to, while also working over a sound system? I think it’s a question I’ve become quite good at answering, and it’s become my comfort zone, which means I should probably start thinking about stepping out of it at some point in the future. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. [laughs]

On the subject of taking a framework and bending it, ‘Agnes’ Demise’ from your new EP is pretty startling – it just rips itself to shreds in the middle. It’s probably the most violent thing you’ve made so far. You mentioned not feeling that comfortable about that question of pushing people to the limit on a dancefloor, yet a track like that almost seems purpose built to really scramble people.

TH: I was quite self conscious about playing it the first couple of times I played it out. I was like ‘What am I doing? This is just really silly’. Actually, I felt the same way about writing it in the first place. That breakdown initially wasn’t there, it was just a continuation of the first half, but more distorted. It did descend into noise, but it was still quite propulsive. At one point I just decided that section of the track wasn’t working and started playing around with it, and I ended up turning it into something else without really considering how it would work in the context of the track. I was listening to these pulses and squeals and thinking ‘Ah cool, I like how this sounds’, forgetting that it would somehow need to fit in with what came before and after it. In the end I didn’t really want to throw it away, so it was like, ok, one way or another this is going to have to work. The first time I played it there were only around ten or fifteen people in the room, it was over the summer in Corsica Studios. I think people got into it but didn’t know how they were meant to respond to it. There were a lot of raised eyebrows and cautious smiles.

Jazz hands.

TH: [Laughs] The system in there is pretty brutal, and it looked like a load of people were like [grimaces]. Which is probably the only response you can really expect. No one’s going to start fucking pogoing or whatever.

In the last two years you’ve become as known for being an interesting and adventurous DJ as for your music. What has that process of feeling your way into DJing been like, and how has your perception of DJing shifted in the time you’ve been doing it?

TH: It was never really something that I intended to do professionally. I always made music because I liked making music; the fact that hand-in-hand with becoming recognised as a producer come lots of bookings to do an activity that’s more or less unrelated, is kind of by the by, I guess. I do really enjoy DJing, but I’ve never really felt like a record collector. In that sense I sometimes feel like I have more of an obligation to be much more of a geek about knowing everything about what I’m playing than comes naturally to me.

So it’s been a little bit uneasy at times, purely because there’s this expectation that as a DJ you’re in it for certain reasons or you approach things in a certain way. Whereas, as formerly a drummer, it’s something that came quite easily to me, and I quite enjoyed doing it, and I do like music, I buy records and stuff and I play them – but I don’t feel like it’s my mission to share certain things with the world, or narrate some fictional story with some fucking lofty metaphors or whatever that come out of my DJ bag.

You say you’re not necessarily keeping an eye on everything that’s going on, but at the same time there is a strong identity to your DJing. In some ways it maybe mirrors the playfulness of your music, which is why I asked the question. But it’s interesting that you perhaps don’t have that much of an overarching perspective on it.

TH: I have perspectives on the practice itself. I suppose I approach it a bit like being a producer. Maybe that’s what people find interesting about it – it being more about the mixing but also the technical selection, rather than necessarily about an encyclopedic knowledge of lots of different genres or whatever. I do dig, and I play lots of stuff that not everyone else is playing, simply because I’m not so into the whole promo culture. But equally I would feel like a bit of a phony claiming to be a real DJ’s DJ, who had like 10,000 records and a truly encyclopedic knowledge of any genre he or she played.

There is an importance to that approach too – something that doesn’t aspire to be encyclopedic but is idiosyncratic or playful.

TJ: Yeah, well that’s comforting to hear [laughs]. I always feel like a bit of a fake if I play one industrial track, off an album I don’t know, by a band that I wasn’t listening to when I was 16.

‘Agnes Demise’/’Fishbone’ is out this week via Objekt, on white label 12" and digital download.

Objekt plays at the Fabric Hessle Audio full club takeover on Friday 6th December, alongside Ben UFO, Pangaea, Pearson Sound, Frak, Anthony ‘Shake’ Shakir, Blawan and more. For more info and tickets click here.

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