In which we ask… just who is this guy, anyway?

So, thanks for sitting down with us today.
You bet!

I understand this will be your debut EP. How does it feel being so new to techno?
To be fair, I’m not exactly new to techno. This has been in my blood since 1979, when my brother had just picked up a new album by –

Kraftwerk, right?
Uh, no. Ultravox.

Doesn’t every techno band have to credit Kraftwerk as their formative influence?
My United Techno Artists union membership is still pending, so I’m not yet bound by that rule.

Oh, okay. Just checking. You were saying?
Well, my older brother picked me up from grade school one day. He was a college DJ at the time and was just at the record store picking up a new album, Vienna by Ultravox. It was an import – this was South Dakota in the seventies, so imported vinyl from England was a big deal – and he was really excited. And then he did something; I forget exactly what. I mean, he’s my older brother, so he committed some fraternal slight that I’ve long since forgotten, and I got really pissed off at him. We’re in, like, a Mercury Monarch or something, sitting in the front seat, he’s really excited about this record, and I’m in the passenger seat, eleven years old, fuming and crafting a lifelong grudge. I swore that whatever stupid record he was all excited about, I would just simply hate it for the rest of my life.

This was my unwitting goal: to hate techno.

And this is how you discovered Kraftwerk?
I – no. This isn’t about Kraftwerk. Does the techno media have some contractual obligation to ask about Kraftwerk or something?

Oh. Okay, well, no. As soon as my brother left the house, I sneaked into his room and put the record on, prepared to hear the music I would dislike forever. Obviously this didn’t work out so well. It was amazing, completely different, and I was probably in his room just playing the A side of that record for an hour straight.

It was like nothing you’d heard before.
Exactly! This led me back to that same record store, and I have to say, I got some strange looks from the punked out owners, being an eleven-year-old kid digging through the vinyl and searching out the old John Foxx Ultravox stuff, Visage, Gary Numan, Brian Eno, Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk –

Aha! I knew it.
The connection was Conny Plank. I had kind of figured out what “producer” meant by reading enough liner notes, and Plank was the fundamental connecting point between all these bleeps and chirps – Eno, Kraftwerk, Ultravox. And then there was Vangelis, Jarre, The Art Of Noise.

When I was working in the studios at Missouri –

Whoa. How do you get from european proto-techno to Missouri?
When I –

Come to think of it, South Dakota and Missouri are places seldom associated with techno greatness.
If I had grown up in London or Berlin or Cologne I probably couldn’t have missed this stuff. But no, I had to scratch and claw and fight to find it. And there wasn’t an Internet where you could type “techno” and come back with a million results. So you don’t end up coming out of South Dakota with a thorough knowledge of the fundamentals of techno unless you really want it.

And with a little dumb luck along the way.
That never hurts. Like when I was sixteen I had the dumb luck to meet Jonas Schoen, a German jazz prodigy. He was the one who taught me to deconstruct music, put it back together again, create, compose. I knew even then that this is what I wanted to do for a career. But there weren’t many schools in those days who took synthesis seriously.

So I did some research and came across Thomas McKenney. He had worked with Robert Moog back in upstate New York, and was known for his work the Fairlight, a monstrously complex sampling platform. He was also a respected composer of art music in his own right. Plus, he had an awesome studio.

So he had you working with a Fairlight?
Holy cats, no. What the Fairlight lacked in ease of use it made up for by being insanely expensive. Like, you could have bought a Fairlight – or sponsored a moon landing program. Nobody could afford those things except music labels and drug cartels.

Did the drug cartels have much use for sampling synthesizers?
Have you ever seen an 80’s music label and a drug cartel in the same room at the same time? Right?

So, I wasn’t working with unnecessarily expensive equipment. McKenney had me making tape loops, creating music from sound sources like bursts of noise, and soldering patch bays, and building filters. There was no such thing as saving a patch. You had to draw a physical diagram of the patch cords and note the approximate position of the knobs, then hope that the next time you got studio time you could reconstruct that particular sound again.

This was back when “flanging” meant literally licking your thumb and pressing on the flange of the tape reel.

Those were the days, huh?
Yeah. We had to modulate frequencies uphill both ways, I tell you.

And I was listening to Subotnick and Reich, the really early masters. Reich, in particular, had a strong influence on what I was doing. I mean, when you listen to Reich and Mobius & Plank, you realize that Richie Hawtin was just plain inevitable. So when I got to Germany –

This is, what, 1989?
1990, just after the Wall fell. I went over for an exchange year and basically just stayed. Techno wasn’t yet a regular word stateside, but in Germany there were clubs filled with deep, dense fog and thudding beats and squelchy, distorted sawtooth and square waves. This is where Hardfloor and Mouse On Mars were just starting out.

So what went wrong?
Well, I accidentally became an interaction designer.

Is that something that happens to you a lot? You accidentally become things?
I try to keep it to a minimum. It can be startling to bystanders.

I started out doing graphic design in Frankfurt to pay for my school, but then in 1994 I stumbled into interaction design which proved to be, well, interesting, complex and difficult, and full of abstract systems and ineffable outcomes. Basically, it hit a lot of the same switches that techno did for me, but also featured a paycheck. Food on the table was a compelling argument.

I mean, I had to think about it, but I decided to put music aside entirely and focus solely on interaction design.

So you swore you’d never touch music again.
Right, the second time I made myself that kind of outrageous promise and –

And you blew it.


Totally blew it.
Yeah, pretty much. I –

Screwed that musical pooch.
Okay, so you don’t have to rub it in, and besides, what is with that visual?

It’s just a –
Never mind. Yes, I didn’t manage to stay out of music, not for long, anyway. I spent the 90’s listening to Hawtin, Underworld, Speedy J, Download, and Röyksopp.

In the early 2000s, those clever Swedish bastards at Propellerheads came up with Reason, a fully-integrated software synthesis suite. You could flip the panel over and presto! Patch cords. It was an electronic music studio right on my laptop. How could I resist?

So you blame the Swedes.
Don’t you? I mean, come on!

Casual toying with sawtooth waves and resonant filters led to building patches, which led to sequencing, which led to full-on tracks, which led to a whole bunch of sketches. And then the Germans, those crafty Germans, showed up again.

So you blame the Germans.
Always with the Germans. You’d think they could leave well enough alone but no! I came across Kompakt: Gui Boratto –

He’s not German.
Yes, I know, but I can’t have you saying that now I blame the Brazilians on top of the Swedes and Germans, and besides which, the point is that Kompakt really picked up the whole Cologne sound. So: Gui Boratto, The Field, Kaito, MFA, Frank Martiniq – none of whom are German, come to think of it – and just a whole library of beautiful techno. And that was just a short jump to Ghostly International with Lusine, Tycho, The Sight Below.

So this is what brought you back in?
Yeah. A life of listening and then making and then listening and then making. So I’ve tried not making music and that doesn’t work out so well. It’s something that kind of compels me. I must do it.

And that brings us back to…

I understand this will be your debut EP. How does it feel being so new to techno?

It will. And it feels great.

bq Mackintosh
28 June 2010