Wolfgang Voigt on Creativity and Independence | Red Bull Music Academy

Wolfgang Voigt on Creativity and Independence | Red Bull Music Academy


A very warm welcome to Wolfgang Voigt! Hello, thank you. Good Evening. The track we just listened to features you on vocals, in your mother tongue, is that right? Yes, it’s one of my vocal masterpieces, as you can easily tell. You started us off with a simple, very accessible piece, which is about St. Martin, as some people from Cologne might know. It’s about the traditional St. Martin’s procession which always takes place in November. It has been dear to me since I was a young child and I thought it was about time to acknowledge it through the means of electronic music. As a native of Cologne I had to do this myself, using my own voice. I liked it. Who else should have done it? I couldn’t find anyone. There are machines you can use… I enjoyed playing it, since we can almost see the area where you grew up in Cologne, just past those trees. Yes, a little more that way, on the other side of the Rhine. Where was that exactly? Around that time in the ’80s, what kind of music influenced you? Specifically in Cologne, where did you go? Before that, in Ehrenfeld, Cologne. The first five years in Ehrenfeld and then Mühlheim. For people who don’t really know Cologne, originally it’s a Protestant area, which is rather unusual for Catholic Cologne. But then you moved to the northern part of the city? Yes, later, in the ’80s, when I was 18, I moved closer to the more civilised areas to broaden my horizons. Around that time in the ’80s, what kind of music influenced you? Specifically in Cologne, where did you go? It wasn’t necessarily connected to Cologne, in those days, I was influenced by music in general, and by the German avant-garde music of the time, I was fascinated by the Neue Deutsche Welle, coming from punk. In the early ’80s I was most impressed with Palais Schaumburg and DAF, which wasn’t specifically linked to Cologne. This style of music was very fascinating, it was a new German music phenomenon that used German language in pop music. However, it would be wrong to link it only to Cologne, it was everywhere. But, as you’ve said before, if you had come from a different place, it wouldn’t have made a difference to you. Yes, I like to point that out because the more recognition I got, the more I was reduced to my Cologne background. And suddenly I was considered to be a musical icon and guardian of the Cologne spirit. And I thought, “That’s too much.” I identify with Cologne a lot, I’m connected with the mentality, as you can hear as well from my dialect, but I’m certainly not a local patriot. I like to be here and it’s my home, but it would have been the same case with any other region. I’m simply not the type who likes to move. Back then, many people moved to all kinds of places for artistic or musical reasons. I had the feeling that it was more important to most of these people, not to move somewhere, but to be able to go out somewhere else, and that was never an option for me. I like to be here and I will stay here as long as people let me. You made some very important friends and connections in those days, in the ’80s, like Jörg Burger and Jürgen Paape, whom you already knew through your brother. Right, yes. And some of these friends had bands, like Jörg Burger’s band Les immer Essen. Was playing in a band ever an option for you, back then? Well, I also played in bands in those days because in the early ’80s, bands were simply the form of musical expression, one way or another. And in those days I got to know my long-time companion and friend Jörg Burger, who had a rehearsal room next to mine in a squat, The Stollwerk, in the southside of the city, and thus we got to know each other. We were both the masterminds of our bands and quickly started working together. I only later realised that being in a band back then was more or less an experimental process that constantly changed, and that this was how I gained experience throughout the ’80s, both theoretical as well as practical experience, which finally culminated in my true instrument, the personal computer. That’s what made it work. So, that was a way for you to find out what was possible, by collaborating with others. I mean, there are records you’ve produced on Trance Atlantic together with at least five or six others. Yes, indeed, it was a way of testing the waters, which was something I only realised later though. However, looking back on it, that’s what it feels like. That I did a lot of experimenting with all sorts of people, but that the rehearsal room as a laboratory, as an atelier, was enough for me to experiment. I was never the type who liked to practice and rehearse a lot, I wasn’t talented enough, or just lazy. Maybe I also become bored too quickly so I wanted to move on to new things all the time, instead of practicing the same crap over and over again with a band for six weeks. I guess it also had something to do with that. It was only in the late ’80s, when music machines became advanced enough and could support my kind of attitude towards music-making, that I finally found my way. These collaborations that you mentioned, which were also characteristic of later years in techno, when you produced music solely with machines, that was just a couple of guys hanging out in the rehearsal room, exchanging ideas and having fun with it, but that hasn’t really got anything to do with the conceptual work that I got into and was known for. Was it important to you to party a lot during that time? Was hedonism a motivation for your music? Absolutely. That was the driving force, without a doubt. What the football club was to others, the music club was to me, and especially the discourse. Of course you had to party and go out. In the ’80s I must have been to every punk and new wave concert that was around, not just in Cologne, but also in Bonn and Dusseldorf. Ratinger Hof was as important as the Bouchelle in Cologne, and that was the case throughout the ’80s, you went to clubs, you went to bars and maintained the exchange about music. Club hedonism was a natural part of that, with bands like ABC and so on. We got in contact with all of that and embraced that lifestyle on a full-time basis in total rejection of regular work, which was difficult to finance. which was difficult to finance. How did it work back then, when you started out and when you started to create labels, long before there was Kompakt and Delirium etc.? What kind of infrastructure existed when you started to release your records? There wasn’t any. As most people will know, in the ’80s if you were young and didn’t have any money but you were enthusiastic and you just wanted to make music, you had to work with institutions that you couldn’t afford by yourself. You had to use very expensive studios and spend a lot of time there in order to produce what you originally intended. Therefore, you had to go through record company CEOs, who had to believe in you somewhat and who then told you what to do in the studio. That was the standard, back then. It was like that everywhere. In the late ’80s with the acid and techno revolution, which basically swept away all of that sad ’80s music business overnight with the euphoria this kind of music brought with it. An important aspect of it was the so-called democratization of production tools, all of a sudden it was very easy, with simple machines and very little money, to produce your own music. Very early on, a wonderfully alternative, independent record market developed, similar to hip hop, where you were able to distribute your music, despite limited funds, under the best free, wild and anarchic conditions, without having to rely on anybody, without record company CEOs, without having a big image. Leaving you free to express yourself through music. Those were the things that kick-started it. Your first ever label was Trance Atlantic, or was it Monotone? In the ’80s, my friend Jörg Burger and I wanted to interpret pop music in our own way and in the spirit of our role models, who mostly came from British pop music. We were huge fans of bands like ABC, Scritti Politti, Prefab Sprout… High-level music discourse, inspired by British music was our thing until in ’88, acid house dropped from the sky directly from Chicago. We were converted overnight very much to the dismay of the people who had then already started to finance our lavish ’80s pop production, because we were simply not interested anymore. Then Jörg and I started our first few labels together, which had wonderfully fantastic names that seemed to fall from the sky, and we just got on with producing. After some teething problems, it quickly began to work out, we were right on track. I have to ask a very simple question, one of those that you normally don’t dare to ask as a journalist, where did the Mike Ink moniker come from, under which you first released in ’93? I have no idea, it just came to me at night. I don’t know, it was fantasy. No, there were different reasons, it’s interesting when you come from the ’80s, when there was a lot of music discourse, where background, image and style were still very important, even though acid had already freed us from that. That didn’t mean that the average Spex reader in Germany was ready to accept that great music could also come from Castrop-Rauxel and not only from Detroit or London. So it was nice to just hide yourself behind certain pseudonyms. It had the advantage of fooling these people and saying, “Ha ha, it’s not from Chicago,” it was a sort of game. And the other thing was the aspect of not being committed, you just didn’t know how long a project would last. The great thing about this kind of music was that you could do short term projects that could be over the next day. That was very liberating, it was only about the music and if you came up with stupid ideas like calling yourself Mike Ink, the idea behind it was, it’ll be forgotten in three weeks anyway, and then you just come up with something else. it wasn’t really like that but those were the aspects that lead to this. It was also liberating and a bit cheeky. Was it also stylistically liberating to say: “I’ve got different monikers and I can create contrasts and produce a record that sounds completely different from the one last week?” In the early days of the straight bass drum it was very common to produce anonymous records, in some vinyl pressing plant that you would use at night, in limited edition. These were no-name records. This came about simply because some people couldn’t afford to print the actual label, which is why it had no name. The other reason was that these no-name records had two fascinating sides to them: one was, this is the official underground “license,” if it looks like that, it has to be cool, and the other was that people only chose it because of the music. That is the most liberating thing that can happen to you as an artist. There is no prejudice, going for you or against you, dictating whether or not people are going to buy it because they don’t even know who you are. That means either the music speaks for itself or it doesn’t. What was great was that people went into the store, picked three plain records, listened to them and decided if they liked them or not. The end. It was great. But from your perspective as an artist, did you more or less create an artistic freedom, or was it more about the packaging when creating those labels? Absolutely. Like I said before, in the ’80s, everything was very long term and complicated, whereas I’m more of a fast-paced thinker and when creativity is released, it starts to shine. I’m also someone who is inspired by the fascinating, free times of the early ’90s, when there was a lot of freedom and everything seemed possible. It was a gold rush of creativity. You could do anything, from profane, crappy pop to conceptual minimalism. Someone like me was highly interested so I wanted to do all of this, and I did. That’s also why I created so many pseudonyms – to distinguish my different projects from one another. In comparison to other producers, my stuff had a very varied sound. Whereas many of them would make three records under the same name that sounded very similar, my releases were different in the sense that a lot of my ideas clearly contradicted each other but nonetheless needed to be put out there. Back then, I didn’t know that contradiction in itself or publicly displayed soul searching actually took place. I also made things for the moment and the great thing about that was that I could immediately forget about it, and would go on to produce something completely opposite the next day. Truth was negotiable in those days. What was valid last week would be overthrown the next. I found this to be very positive. But, at the same time, you remained true to a certain quality of sound? Yes, by regularly screwing it up! Later, you mastered a lot of records, including for Kompakt. Where were you at in the early ’90s? Because you say you screwed it up, yet I listen to it and I say the quality is extremely high. Of course, I said this intentionally, to be provocative. I’m not a sound nerd and, even though I worked a lot with techno, I wasn’t interested in having in-depth knowledge when it came to technology. Even back then, there were a lot of people who were more than capable and did a better job than me. What you are probably thinking of is that a lot of the things I have done, because of the sources I used and also because of intuitive research into difficult and abstract sound, have led to a very specific sound. People were excited about it but, objectively speaking, it was not music with a high-quality sound in a technical sense. That’s what I meant, there are a lot of things that are fascinating content-wise but that sound awful. Interestingly enough though, with a lot of projects, what is awful is simultaneously what’s good about it. That it is partially painful to listen to is what makes it special. This is something that I didn’t realise in the beginning, I just made music. It’s a reflection that you only get off of other people, which then helps you understand. I could imagine that one of the reasons why this still sounds up to date is because you worked with samples so much, which went on to develop in other musical directions in the following 20 or 30 years. Yes, but I wouldn’t say that the reason why it sounds up to date is the sampling that I used, because that also has to stand the test of time. It gives the whole thing a very genuine touch, something unique. I think it is well known by now that the guitar sample that I use is my sound. A lot of people in the techno scene define themselves through their analogue machines, whereas sampling is my trademark, my connection to pop history. It gives me the opportunity to connect to what I have lived through in pop music, express myself, integrate it into my music, reflect on it and question it in any way I like. Sampling also creates a fascinating sound that you yourself cannot produce, that is how simple it is. It can also lead to legal complications if you overdo it. The most interesting thing about sampling is that it has its own dynamic. Samples have a movement within themselves, that’s how it is when you have a piece of music that moves, especially if it has rhythmic structures. To be able to combine that with your own elements leads to interesting abstractions and coincidences within the music that wouldn’t come about if you would only produce according to a master plan. That always inspired me to delve deeper into other dimensions. So coincidence played a big role? Coincidence is definitely one of my most loyal companions in music. I am, whether I want to be or not, a conceptual artist and I work like that. I can’t go in without an idea or plan, I don’t just do sessions and record them. However, the fact is that in the moment, the concept or plan you have becomes lost and that is when the magic happens. There is always a third element, which you don’t understand or can’t explain. On the basis that you know what you’re doing, then something is created. My way of working with samples has really helped with this. It has been inspirational. I would like to play a Studio 1 track now, called “Yellow.” Within those hugely conceptual works that you have created, is there any element of coincidence? Did an element of coincidence exist when you created Studio 1? At best, maybe some otherworldly inspiration. The Studio 1 project in particular was a very calculated, straightforward and transparent production, based on very clear mathematics. In that case, these elements that I just mentioned don’t have a place. This is also based on sampling but it is so microscopically small that the sample in itself is no longer important and the combination of everything simply becomes one. This creates a certain magic and concerning the choice of sound, this magic becomes negotiable. That is what happens between the lines. It is also just a moment of special inspiration that is uniquely connected to history. When this music was created in ’95, it was in the air and it touched certain people, myself included. From the feedback, you could see that you were on the right track. Simply because it was the sound of the time. This is Studio 1, “Yellow.” That’s not entirely correct now, is it? it stays like that and changes. Yes, it stays like that and changes, exactly. It’s more or less an atypical example of what we’ve talked about before. What was fascinating with this one is, considering the time it was created, when minimalism became an international standard within the techno scene, there were certain styles that you would call artsy today, but back then I wouldn’t have looked at in that way. Today, I have to accept that, I called it the art of omittance. You simply created a certain magic with minimal resources and minimal variation. And that is not easy to explain. To tell a story from nothing, over 16 minutes, but listening to it you think it’s only eight minutes, that’s what great minimalism is. Best case scenario, this almost loop-like music only tickles the human brain just enough so as to stay with it. That was the driving force behind it. And the only thing I couldn’t do without was the straight bass drum. The straight bass drum is non-negotiable, everything is else is optional. Although I have to say, listening to some of your old works I was surprised how uneven the bass drum was at times. You only perceive it that way, because everything else around it is uneven. That’s correct. It’s deceiving, but it’s an illusion. Only illusion? That’s illusion. Without illusion, nothing works. I also wanted to play Studio 1, because it’s an early example of how you’ve worked with visual design, how you dealt with the packaging. Was there any interaction with the visual arts scene in Cologne during that time? I’m not sure if I remember exactly what happened in the visual arts scene in Cologne during that time. I remember that there wasn’t much going on and they all came to our clubs, to dance until they came up with ideas again. And I mean that in a positive way. There were always mutual reactions between the different art scenes in the whole region, not just Cologne, also Düsseldorf. In a very positive way, there was connection and differentiation as well. I don’t know if anyone back then was painting Studio 1 music, I think I would have done it myself. What you are talking about is my liking for packaging. It stems from pop art, the Warhol influence, which I can’t get rid of. I was also always fascinated by conceptual work and expressing my concept through visual design or at least complementing it or even explaining it by visual means. I was always like that. I always worked in an interdisciplinary way. In the late ’70s and ’80s I was hyperactive as a visual artist as well as a musician. Even though my musical activities took over in the ’90s, visual design was always part of me. Studio 1 is a very minimalistic, calculated music that works with very repetitive structures, but still within certain laws. However, this only works if you are able to forget that, then it becomes soulful again. In the end, it’s disco. If it’s not sexy, it’s boring. It shouldn’t be purely academic. Yet it plays with a certain academic experience, in a light-hearted way. This finds its expression in visual design in various ways, which is something that I wanted to express as well. It added something more to it. We’ve just talked about the no-name records from the ’80s and ’90s and the reasons behind them. When Studio 1 came out in the mid-’90s, packaging and labelling with symbols and graphics were simply back in fashion. Once again, they were a means to explain and communicate the story and background. Especially in techno, which doesn’t explain anything and expresses itself nonverbally, there is no singer who explains the story to you and everybody in the club is equal, as long as the DJ permits it. And that’s why visual designs made a comeback. That was also the case with Studio 1. Did you also have a visual idea that you eventually fulfilled with music, as with the early Gas material? Did you take the photographs before you created the music? No, not really. It wasn’t like the one thing came first and then the other. The Gas project was created around the same time as Studio 1. At the time everything was circulating around a straight bass drum. That was the common denominator, which was non-negotiable, otherwise there were no boundaries. It became clear that I wasn’t just this genuine techno producer that everyone thought of, but that I wanted to be pioneering and push all boundaries. With the Gas project, I wanted to produce a cosmos of more classical sound. Combining certain myths and ideas, a certain depth, even an expression of romantic German soul in correspondence with art history, and the idea of abstract and redundant techno elements. In those days, records were packaged and labelled and since Gas had a very naturalistic sound, which mostly consisted of classical music elements, like strings and horns and such, it made sense to give it a warm and impressionistic visual design. So, it seemed only logical to use the photographs I had taken in the forest, to create the same intimate expression in a visual sense as well. I think we should listen to Zauberberg, our second track. Since I’m not sure which one of the records is the right one, I’ll play it from my computer. This piece is completely opposite to Studio 1, and consists of very long and quite melancholy, exhausting sounds, which are not easily explained with a few words. But it’s enough to give an impression. The audience can also research it for themselves. That was the second track from Zauberberg, if anyone wants to check it out. You said around the time of Studio 1 and Gas, packaging was back in play and you had about 20 or 50 different pseudonyms. When did you eventually start to perform on stage and come out of hiding as an artist? I’d say, when the time was right. In contrast to my friends and colleagues, I wasn’t exactly a stage person. I was never a DJ, even though I was surrounded by them. They never had to be concerned with me becoming a DJ. I was already doing a lot anyway. I am a devoted artist, music producer and conceptualist. I’m satisfied with working in the studio and producing a record that is eventually successful. That is my way of expressing myself and connecting with the world, not so much on the stage. However, the Gas project in particular, which was well received internationally even outside the electro scene, seemed to be ideal for the stage, also because of the forest imagery. But I didn’t want that. Then the idea began to grow in my mind and I started to play around with it until I thought, “Hey why not?” It started to feel right. There was nothing strategic about it. It just evolved on its own. And of course as an artist you want to get the best response possible from your audience. The goal is never to disappoint your audience. So somehow I found a way to perform, even though I’m not a stage hog or stage diver; Gas is everything but stage diving. If you reflect on the Gas project, are you able to understand why it became your main project? Was that the plan from the very beginning? Even in those crazy times when I released and worked on a number of various projects, Gas seemed to evolve and stand out from all other projects. There were two reasons for that, which I only understood looking back on it, even though they were part of it from the beginning. Gas combined essential desires and artistic ambitions of mine that were always a part of me, even before I was a part of techno, which basically poured out of me through techno. The more I played around with various techno styles, the more it evolved to become my core project. It just kind of happened. The feedback I received over the years, also from music journalists, was always very positive, but also very precise. To be praised is always nice, but it’s different when people really understand what you are doing. When they truly understand what your work is about, it is really motivating. This is still the case today. As an artist, I want to avoid being labelled, which is why I have been working at a fast pace, I am avoiding being stereotyped. I have many sides and I have found a way to avoid being put in just one box. It’s okay for me if a stereotype comes naturally and feels right. It just happened that the Gas project became timeless in a way that is beyond my influence. I have to accept that the project has become bigger than me. For me, the Gas project represents both arriving and never arriving. This is why, in that sense, I can let it happen and it is now the first time in 25 years that I am focusing on just this project as my main artistic venture, celebrating it, developing it and creating a real connection with the audience through my musical expression. In this case, I succeeded in removing the malicious laws of time and transience. Nothing is worse than being put in a box. I could never play that game and I never wanted to. At the moment, I am capable of doing that because it just feels right. When you released Zauberberg in ’98, Kompakt became independent and, at the same time, you began working with pop more. Love Inc. came out in ’97, which included the famous Roxy Music samples. You then released Wassermann, etc. which was very much in contrast to Gas. How do you manage to concentrate? I don’t even start to imagine that I can concentrate. Concentrating is very bad, that’s not how it works. You think you are brilliant but then you realize that you don’t know anything, then it works. You have to study it all before, but once you are in the studio, you have to forget all about it. Concentrating is not for me. I’ll leave that to others, the studio next door. How do I manage? It’s the zig-zagging against myself, there are many things I am interested in. My core business was the techno bass drum and permanently producing crazy combinations and ideas, even going as far as Schlager music and folk music. Because I was interested in pushing boundaries, but not for the fun of it or to be provocative, but because I was simply inspired by the euphoria, which made it possible to cross the borders of musical genres. Back then, it was clear that the Gas project was in opposition to all the other projects you have mentioned. Today, looking at it from a distance, it becomes clear that it is all part of a whole. In the end, it all comes down to one artist, Wolfgang Voigt. I need to check if I have the right side, sorry. [looks at record] Hopefully this should be Wassermann, “Fackeln im Sturm,” and hopefully on 45, we are a bit experimental here. A good example of great sound. So much for great sound! Maybe it’s because of the 12-sided building! That actually works well. Yeah, you think so? If you know what the material is made of, you can’t say it sounds great but it’s certainly original. Today, we have better versions of it that sound good. What are they made of? It’s still made from the same source. It is Juliane Werding “Am Tag als Conny Kramer starb.” I don’t know if it worked. The whole piece consists of a straight bass drum and all the other ingredients are taken from Werding’s song. Taken from a very bad Arkade record that I once found in my father’s home bar. That’s why it sounds so great. With a real production you would do it differently. If that would be Das Boot, for example. [The bad quality] didn’t interest me, I was interested in the subject. I was interested in it and also wasn’t making fun of it, which luckily back then was understood, because Schlager and folk music are a red flag for people. On the contrary, I think it’s a great piece. It doesn’t hold great meaning for me, it’s also not an homage to Werding, but I liked it, even as a child, I thought it was impressive. My approach was more of an academic one, can I transfer this into another serious context, by converting it, by integrating it into danceable techno, so that you could take it seriously? In the sense that, it has worked if nobody’s laughing anymore. That’s how you have to imagine my process. It worked extremely well with that piece, simply because the production quality was already so bad. That alone stopped the laughter. It’s simply an attempt to experiment with a contaminated music field, which always interested me. I am fascinated by Schlager music because of how it uses the German language. At the same time, I know what is problematic about it, and that it has no place in pop subculture. I was interested in publicly questioning that. Or, at least to make a suggestion of how it could work. This was always on my mind, since the days of the Neue Deutsch Welle. Another way to work with the German language in pop culture. This embodies an example of that. The same goes for brass music. Polka, for example. Shall we just listen to polka now, just for fun? I have to play it from a record though. Polka is always good. Maybe we should mention that the polka tracks that you released in 2013 or ’14, differ from the ones you released in the ’90s on Warp. Exactly, I released a record on the British label Warp, whereas at the time I was doing a lot of work with two-quarter beats, but that’s completely different. What I made in 2015 still carries the title polka, and it actually sounds like polka. Undeniably. Yet again in this case, just like before when I was interested in two-quarter beats, which was also true for reggae and dub or ska, brass always moved me. At the same time, I’m aware of the difficulties of selling it to my people. That is why I’m trying to reduce it to its very essence, to its unique crunch-point, reduce it to an essential loop, trying to get rid of what is potentially difficult, or where it becomes ironic. It’s an academic approach, it’s a science, it’s a proposal and an attempt to see if it works. With this record though, it’s impossible to get rid of the smile on people’s faces. Didn’t work. There are other examples too. I’m very interested in what you just said. This attempt to produce something you can take seriously that is usually considered to be silly, or that is generally blunt entertainment. It is quite simple. There is a ton of awful stuff out there, where the bass drum is being mixed with Schlager music, everybody knows that. So far, so funny, but that never interested me. I was always interested in the pure rhythmic structure. That was more a scientific interest, combined with a feeling of ease. I’m even touched by music from Roy Black or Die Egerländer, at the same time I’m aware of how difficult it is to communicate that, because it’s highly contaminated. It’s the wrong kind of music, it’s grandfather’s music, as people would say, and it’s true. What always fascinated me was, how much can I convert these things, confront people and ask new questions, and produce serious subculture pop music, without anyone laughing, without any irony? It has nothing to do with irony. I’m serious about it, although of course I accept it when people don’t understand that. This stuff is already established as what it is within the context of music and of course you can’t just get this out of your head. I’m also interested to see if it’s possible to reverse that and reduce it to its very essence and look at it without prejudice. To produce a kind of music from it that you actually would like to listen to. Not because you think it’s funny, or it’s interesting, but because you really enjoy it. For all other aspects of your work, not just the music, but the labels and packaging or your well known Kompakt or Speicher logo with the eagle, would you allow irony? These things carry a certain irony, which is unavoidable. And naturally you can recognise my humorous nature in it. You can’t make a cover [incomprehensible] without anyone laughing. That would be absurd. But my intention is to ask questions and challenge the perception. I’m experimenting and fantasising a lot, to eventually see if it could work, even though I know it could fail. That’s what I’m interested in. And in many cases it was very successful. There are examples of hits that were played successfully and seriously in clubs, not just as silly gags. What I found to be interesting was that techno DJs included some of these tracks in their sets and had great success with them, without anybody laughing. I am not Schlagermove [music festival], that is not my business. I don’t have anything against that, I also like to laugh, but my intentions are different. Concerning the packaging. If you use the old coat-of-arms of Cologne as your label logo, of course people are going to laugh. Especially when you have a bit of city battle going on within the German techno scene, to encourage a little competition. The scene in Berlin can’t laugh about it, but the scene in Cologne can, which is part of the fun. But I wouldn’t put it down as silly irony. I think the eagle is beautiful and it’s also part of our identity. But I also always said that the eagle and the way we use him on our labels, in a series of various colours, pays homage to Warhol’s Marilyn. It’s packaging, but also pop art. It’s a mixture of all these things, but it’s certainly not meant as a silly joke, that alone doesn’t make ends meet. When you mention serial productions, one of your most famous one was Kreisel in ’99. That wasn’t a serial production, that was a suicide attempt! The 52 7”s. That was almost the answer to my question already, you took a bit of a hiatus, was that because of Kreisel? Kreisel was a deliberate attempt to go too far, so to speak. Serial production had played a big role in my works, but was also internationally established in the techno scene. I was hardly the inventor of serial production. I took it further than anyone else in Cologne, that much is true, but all these labels out there were based on serial production. You only expressed yourself through serial numbers in the nineties. You didn’t say, “Do you have the new track from so-and-so?” You said, “Do you have xyz 32”, and after that came number 33. That was taken to extremes, until you couldn’t go any further. For me personally, Kreisel in ’99 was an excessive showdown, by producing a kind of best of, every week, which was a suicide mission. It still worked out really well, and to this day is a worthy collection for enthusiasts. It was also a countdown for the year 2000, created in a bit of a hysterical atmosphere, and I was just tempted to push my limits. In the ten years that followed, when you hardly made any releases, what role did Kompakt play in keeping you busy? Kompakt played the exact same role that music had played all these years before. I called it the art of company making. I had overwhelmed the scene in the ’90s with a flood of releases and I thought it was time to take a break. I had said everything I wanted to say.
I had overwhelmed the scene in the ’90s with a flood of releases and I thought it was time to take a break. I had said everything I wanted to say. In the meantime, we renamed in ’98 Kompakt and developed fantastic self-marketing structure, and finally became a professional, serious company. On top of that, we received wonderful demo tapes from all around the world, and a lot of them fitted right in with us. So, for many years I was basically very busy working as an A&R manager and establishing the company, together with my long-standing partner Michael Mayer. This was the basis of our artistic freedom. It was also perfect timing to basically retire, after I had finished Kreisel and then hardly produced anything. In the following eight years I had as many releases as I had in just the eight weeks before. Those were artistic intervals that I had to follow. I can’t just produce music for the sake of it, there has to be some inspiration and a reason. I was just at a point where I needed to do something else. I was able to channel my creativity into establishing the company, what I had called the art of company making. To me, this was also some kind of art. It involved the same creative energy that had driven me before. I didn’t become a business man overnight. I was never a business man and will never be one. You live in very close proximity to your company, basically in the same building, where other business partners and employees are living as well. I had asked you before about distraction. When you started to produce music again, how was it possible for you to concentrate on your work, being in such close proximity to the company? Simply by avoiding the distractions. For about eight years I worked in the company, mostly in cooperation with Michael Mayer but also others, and we had over 300 releases in that time. Michael with his experience as a DJ and me with my experience as a producer, we’ve accomplished a lot together. Sometime around 2008, my inspiration to produce music came back and I just had to follow my instinct and start making music again. And I had to address creative questions that had accumulated over the years. That led to me leaving my job and handing it over to others, because when I work creatively I need to have my own space and time to focus entirely on my work. I’m not the type who is involved in the day-to-day business of the company, at the same time as producing music. That is counterproductive. I consider myself lucky to have such great colleagues who can do the job and have my back and who would be annoyed if I would stick my nose in on top of things. So, it works out quite perfectly, in the sense that I can be in the background and have my freedom, which is made possible by the company and which is why we set it up like that. Are the records you made after 2008, I wanted to play some tracks from Kafka for example, less contradictory than the ones in the ’90s? They are closer together, forming an overall picture. That’s simply because the ’90s were different from the ’00s. Times had changed. After an eight-year hiatus, I couldn’t just go back to where I had left things off. Things had changed massively and also other, more mature aspects of my creativity had made their way to the surface. Before I knew what was happening, I was going in a more artistic direction, which you could have called ambient in the ’90s with Gas, but what was now more in the direction of Ligeti and Stockhausen. My conceptual minimalist music, which you’ve already mentioned with Kafka, became even more conceptually stringent. This obliged me even more to club music and the straight bass drum, and forced me to confront myself through purely artistic and literary aspects, which were more closely connected to high-culture. What was interesting to me was that through this process I could set my innermost creativity free. In my releases from earlier years, for example on my label Protest, what I managed in the company, where all of my controversial and bold ideas had found a home, I felt that all the promises that I had made in the ’90s had just come true now. Of course, the audience perceives it differently, that’s my subjective view. Ultimately it is based on even greater artistic freedom. Let’s listen to “Kafkatrax 1.1.” There is this consistent delay throughout the Kafkatrax. That is all conceptual. Besides the straight bass drum, it all consists of vocals taken from a [Franz] Kafka audiobook. That creates a kind of claustrophobic atmosphere with abstract voices. We haven’t heard the most representative part of it, where it starts to climax into an abstract babel of voices, where you think you might or might not recognize words. The concept was to create the whole thing out of that and only a bass drum. That has something to do with, what I like to call, artificial scarcity, by only using very few parts to create something whole. It creates a very dense aesthetic, which opens up certain space but is closed within itself. What happens here is twofold: the concept of only using human voices and, if you delve deeper into it, this feeling of a certain claustrophobic atmosphere, which some would call Kafka-esque. This is how you would generally describe this ambiance. Interestingly enough, this effect has nothing to do with the fact that I used a Kafka audiobook. It could have been any other audiobook. It could also have been Hansel and Gretel and you would have had the same effect. I find this very interesting, it’s conceptual music but it takes on a life of its own and ideally you forget about it and enjoy it as a techno track. In the meantime, how important is it to you, to be able to play instruments? Has that changed over the years? Because your attitude was more punk. It’s not important to me, because I can’t play any instruments. No, of course I have gained some knowledge. I just don’t want to define myself through technical or musical knowhow. That would be a false claim on my behalf, even though I have a good, intuitive skill. I know what A minor is and I know how machines work, but it’s just a means to an end. I wouldn’t want to make that a subject. The result is what is important. Of course it’s all part of it, but over the years, I’ve always come back to what has always been my method and instrument, one man and one sampler and a certain way of using clusters on a piano. My instrument is the piano. I express myself by using the piano in an abstract way, without being able to actually master it. It’s my means of expression. I can use a brush and canvas and express myself, without knowing how to paint. In that way, I’m an autodidact. But it would be wrong to say I have no training in these matters. Obviously. You definitely have the background knowledge, but I find it interesting in comparison to other electronic musicians, who seem to start doubting themselves at some point and need to collaborate with an orchestra to legitimize themselves. I don’t know if that stems from doubt. Basically I think as an artist you are destined to be in doubt, especially doubting yourself. All my work is based on doubt, questioning and contradictions. Everything we have listened to is orientation, controversy and questions. Usually you go in with your profound musical knowledge and ideally at the end you have to realize it’s all wrong. There is no absolute truth. Therefore doubt plays a very important part in finding yourself as an artist. I wouldn’t want to prescribe it, but some people out there could use a bit of doubt here and there. I would like to play something you’ve made, Wendy Gondeln aka Albert Oehlen, “Fracking with Wolfgang.” It’s a project that really pushes the boundaries. It is definitely art. And it also stands for a certain freedom. What is this? It’s a collaboration with the painter Albert Oehlen, we share a mutual fascination for each other, and Albert also takes a liking to music and expresses himself through the violin. He’s looking for a musical, artistic exchange, which we have cultivated between us, by placing his violin sounds over my straight bass drum. This creates very unique and free moments that open up all kinds of new spaces, which not everyone is keen on entering The record was released on Magazine, another Cologne label. With many of your most famous records, you’ve basically given them away to other labels to release. I think that symbolizes a certain generosity with your work, when you say, “OK, I can produce elsewhere”. Art has to be generous. It’s nice of you to mention that. You asked about being in a band, about connections and producing techno music together. A very established form of producing music in the techno scene, is the so-called remix, the exchange of music, and part of that is to produce pieces on other labels that you like and support, and that was the case with Magazine. It’s a great Cologne label, I like them and it was fun. I wouldn’t call it a gift, it’s done out of respect for each other. That’s kind of a tradition in techno, because how do you think band spirit works in techno? Definitely not with eight guys standing around one sampler, it doesn’t work. It’s a different way of exchanging ideas. I’ve made a lot of music with friends, for example with my friend Jörg Burger, who basically sits next door to me. We exchange data and elements of music, as in I make something, he adds something to it, and so on. These are all well-established ways of co-operation. Of course you also sit together in the studio with your best friends and work on stuff, but that’s a social element that you usually don’t have in techno. In all fairness, it’s more of a one-man show. That’s how it is with techno. How does it work with visual arts? There are more and more records where you’ve created the labels. Is there an exchange or communication going on with other visual artists? I don’t draw or paint. I did it once, but a very long time ago. I was always fascinated with visual arts, which comes through in how I wrap up my music. That’s what I meant, the cover design. If you take the bananas that Warhol put on the Velvet Underground records. I put those on there myself. Whether I like it or not, I am an interdisciplinary conceptual artist. What I had discovered later, when I had dug even deeper into certain ideas, was that the visual design helped me to get out even more from certain concepts. All of a sudden, when I was working with loops or abstract modulations of sound sculptures, concerning myself with the visual aspect of it helped me to advance and find better solutions. I’m not interested in distinguishing between the arts and music, and I don’t respect these boundaries. But I’m not with Beuys when he says, “Everybody is an artist”. I don’t believe in that. I also don’t think everyone should pursue being an artist or is capable of that. That’s how I see it. I understand the complexity of interdisciplinary art and I also know of examples where people achieve great results by combining the arts and music. I would put myself in that group. Although, I’m certainly not just reducing myself to visual design now. And I’m not a painter. As with Zukunft ohne Menschen for example. I would like to play another piece, from Rückverzauberung to demonstrate another approach to what I believe Gas had already been preoccupied with, another way of working with classical samples. I would also like to start the Q&A, so if you have any questions, keep them in mind. In short, Rückverzauberung is a project that I was working on over the last 10 years, before I started working on Gas again. It was a time when I realised that I delved into other, deeper musical spheres. I was more concerned with aspects of 12-tone music and abstract music, more in the direction of Ligeti, Schönberg and Stockhausen and others, which was very well received by the audience. It was also released by Magazine, who had the courage to publish it. It was definitely a risk, because you never know if the audience will accept it. Looking back on my whole career, I’m really thankful and can consider myself lucky, that my audience was loyal and kept an open mind. To follow me in directions where you could easily say, “I don’t get it. It has nothing to do with Studio 1 anymore”, or, where you could think, “He’s going places where he doesn’t belong”. Fortunately, even the guardians of classical music have understood that opening borders between genres can be mutually beneficial and create new worlds. It’s a subject I’ve been working on and which can be tricky and you also need the courage to do that. I’m happy that it’s been working for me all these years, and that I get a pass. Maybe as a last question, before we start the Q&A, concerning Rückverzauberung 6, could you elaborate on what you just mentioned about Ligeti and atonality, and how that interacts with your work? First of all, it has something to do with how I perceive music. I like to perceive music a bit lopsided. It’s opening new worlds to me. I’m very interested in music clusters, because they challenge certain harmonic laws and it goes in a different direction than what I’ve been exposed to before. Nothing against harmonic music or melody, but I think it’s fascinating to try to retrieve a melody by putting it through very deep and scrutinising sound channels. Atonality, cluster music, 12-tone music, is unbearable for most people. For me that’s where it starts to get interesting. It was always like that, even when I was listening to Roy Black. I was interested in these things at the same time. And eventually I’m confronted by these things again and again, the longer my career goes on, and they make a comeback. I’m very intuitive in that way and I like to delve deep. I then just have to be bold enough to go so far as to release it. Before we start the Q&A, I would like to thank you very much, Wolfgang. Thank you, Wolfgang. I have a question about Narkopop, your last album. You already have experience with sound design. Did you already have the complete sound in your head or was it more experimental? I always know precisely what I want to do before I go in the studio, but it only works when I forget all of that. The one you’re asking about, Gas, is one of the soundest projects of mine, where everything is set out and all the ingredients are known. The challenge is to forget all that in order to be able to free the sound once again, to not strictly stay within the concept, but not to get off track. Gas is a big commitment that I don’t want to jeopardise. I come in with certain ideas to find what I’m looking for, but the crucial moment arises when you eventually close your eyes and ears, and step into a magical realm. Without it, it’s simply not possible. It’s hard to explain. What is essential with great art is what you can’t explain. That’s intuitive. And if that doesn’t happen, it’s not going to work. Ok, thanks. I have a second question. I’ve seen you perform live in Bonn, but one couldn’t really tell what you were doing exactly. How do you perform or prepare for performances? Do you also use the computer live or do you simply arrange it? First of all, when I perform, I’m standing in front of my computer in an artificial forest with people surrounding me sitting in the dark. That’s how I would describe it. I’ve said that my method is the piano and modulating sound clusters. All that is based on a set concept, to use as few resources possible, to modulate and sculpt the sound very carefully in order to try and reach the audience. The Gas concert is so fragile that it is paramount to keep things together, to open up new spheres very carefully and to be able to communicate. That’s what’s complex about it. Ok, thanks. You’re welcome. I wanted to ask you what it means to you when you say, “A track is working.” What does it mean, if the track works or how it works? How a track works in a club, as you’ve mentioned earlier, when you said, “I realised that it worked.” I want to know how you define whether a track works or not? It has to move me and catch me. Ideally, the track surprises me or at least confirms something that I already knew existed. The question is, if you mean my music or stuff from other artists? In particular, your tracks. My own, well… As in, when you mentioned the feedback from the audience, that it works for you and you can say, “That’s feedback I can live with and use to refine my work.” For the part of my music that has established itself in clubs, because it is dance music, which is communicated to the audience by DJs, it simply comes down to whether or not sparks are flying. This type of music consists of aspects, like pure danceability and funkiness and subtle bass, and you can see if it has an effect on the dancefloor or not. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It has to work in specific contexts. I get my validation when I think the audience has understood what I wanted to achieve. I can’t explain it differently. Thanks. You’re welcome. We have to be out of here by 10, so I think this is the last question, over here. Thank you for an interesting talk. It was fascinating to listen to you. I especially remember three words: Schlager, folk music and contamination. It reminded me of a statement by Ralf Hütter, when he said his intention with Kraftwerk was to create a new German folk music because most of what was considered German music was contaminated and burned, and that he wanted to try and start from scratch. I think what you are trying to do with Kompakt is basically on the same level. Is that the case? I know the quote by Ralf Hütter and I understand it and I like the idea. There is indeed a correlation to what we do. I just explained that I like to intertwine all these musical genres in a very scientific way but also in a very soulful way. I want to reintegrate all that and create something new. We’ve mostly spoken about my music tonight, although this is not what we are releasing with Kompakt, but mostly music from other artists. What we are trying to create with Kompakt is definitely part of that idea and what we are experiencing with all these young artists. So, in the end we have made an impact and had success, even internationally, especially since we integrated various music genres into a techno label, in opposition to other techno labels that went in a different direction politically. Our credo was always 51% has to have a straight bass drum, the rest is negotiable. That was a bold step but it was recognised across the board that it developed the music further and opened up our genre. Looking back, I think it has been a great success. I would have to agree. Great. Many thanks. Let’s have a beer.

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