Name: Fritz von Runte
Occupation: Studio Artist
Current Release: The Last Album at www.TheLastAlbum.com
Recommendations: (record) Yann Tomita, Music For Living Sound from 1998 and (film) Koyaanisqatsi, from 1982
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
Very late in life I think, I was 18 when I started making music. I grew up with an inexplicable notion that making music and playing an instrument were different things. My father was a record collector and he gave me my first record player when I was only 5. It was a portable one, for kids, with a mono speaker. I was always interested in recorded music but the people that were around me playing instruments would only do covers. And they were very dull. I didn’t quite put 2 and 2 together, as they didn’t sound anything like the music I was listening to. My mum could play the piano, but she’s never written anything. She was not a creative person. I was listening to Kraftwerk and kids around me would learn to play "Hey Jude" on the acoustic guitar. It was black and white. Playing an instrument for me was synonymous with an exercise in memorisation of tunes by other people and I wasn’t interested in that at all.
What I was interested in was curation of music, the creation of new sounds, audio manipulation, sequencing tunes, and making mixtapes. I had no reference, no role model, as I didn’t even know what a DJ was. I didn’t know there were people who did what I was doing. I would spend HOURS synchronising the end of a song with the start of another on a tape. These are the best memories I have of my childhood, trying to understand cassette heads and making mixtapes.
At 12 I was already the one changing records at kids’ parties in the neighbourhood and by 14 I had my first paid DJ gig. At 18 I went on an actual tour, got some money and bought myself a Dr Rhythm drum machine + 3 extra midi channels with embedded instruments. Then I made some tunes and somehow got a job in a studio, where I learnt a lot.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Sure. I was always intrigued by New Order’s Substance 2nd disc. The 1st one had the hits, and lyrics, but the 2nd had the dub versions. Echo’s, synthesizers and drum breaks were the most exciting thing in the world for me. I was also into Beastie Boys, Kraftwerk, 808 State and very disposable anonymous underground techno. White labels with no name, no act, that would somehow make their way to me, mainly Belgian and German.
I’m not sure I ever saw or planned my tracks as a direct copy of another track, it wasn’t something I’d conscientiously do back then. I was, though, absorbing some phrases and patterns that were directly related to acts I was into. For example, the syncopated bass synth rhythm of 808 State’s "Cubik", New Order’s long intro melodies or Kraftwerk’s snare arrangements.
Oh, all that and 12-inch mixes introducing one element of the track every 4 bars. All my first demos had those elements. Once a friend said to me “I like your tracks, but why do they take so long to start?” Still makes me laugh a bit.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
They haven’t changed. It’s still the same. My main challenge is that I like instrumental music with maybe a vocal here or there. And instrumental music is harder because the instruments and sounds need to be more exciting as there’s no lyrics for people to pay attention to. In songs with lyrics, especially in pop music, the instrumental bit is just an excuse for the lyrics. They’re an accessory.
At the beginning I was working 3x harder than other guys in the studio to make my tracks dynamic and interesting without lyrics. Now, 25 years later, I still am.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio really was the studio I worked in 1995/1996, At home I had a 4 track Dr Rhythm, a super hardcore Equaliser and a computer running trackers. In the studio I was using bars n pipes, this amiga sequencer, connected to a synth, a midi keyboard and my drum machine. There was a decent SSL mixing desk and a ¼ inch tape recorder, but I’d rather record digitally with DAT.
My setup has changed a lot over the years, but I was never married to a particular piece of hardware. For the past few years, I’ve been absolutely obsessed with my Seaboard Block. It’s how I managed to make my playing so organic on my new album.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
I think tools are less important than creativity. Any basic setup with a creative person is a million times better than a dull soul with the latest hardware and software, and all the latest libraries. Of course, without a sequencer I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, as I refused to spend 10 years fingering a piano or a guitar just to be able to play "Stairway to Heaven". But the main concept of sequencers I use are 40 years old so I wouldn’t call it the most recent technology in the world. Humans excel at creativity and making things relatable, and machines just help us to get a result faster.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
It depends. I am not sure it contributes to the compositional process. I usually start with a very bland sound to write melodies, chords etc … And I play around on my keyboard until I’m ready to press record. It needs to be an interesting musical idea before being an interesting sound idea. Software has little to do with that, apart from the sequencer recording my notes and (semi) quantising my playing. Production is about how that will sound later. Then I’ll use all sorts of software available. That’s how "The Last Album" was made. I had 50 ideas and I chose to “produce” 15 of them.
Now, not everything I do is done this way. There’s a lot of music I did that wasn't composed that way, but instead, designed, or even thrown together intuitively. Or that the notes were an afterthought and I was concerned about the sound first, the energy. Recently I’ve released a concept record in Japan as Bearnoises (www.bearnoises.com) with music made in a very different way than "The Last Album". That record was all done in one-takes and there’s a lot of lo-fi sound design involved. No DAWs, only audio mixed and layered. So, I suppose that audio processing and VST plugins had a big part in that one.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Well for "The Last Album" I had a premise; What record would I make if this was my last ever record? Immediately I thought about some collaborations, like Gary Asquith, whom I have known for like 15 years but never truly worked together, apart from my remix of "Biting My Nails". I love Gary’s vocals but also his lyrics, because they’re very uncommon. I reached out to some of my other musical heroes. Some didn’t work, some did. For example, I’ve had this 12” called "Get Up Disco" in my DJ case since 2011. I reached out to the singer and we ended up writing a song together, that became this record’s first single, "Dance Party in the Living Room". She gave me some references of songs she liked, and I sent her demos within that realm. She gelled with it, wrote the lyrics and we evolved the song together. It was all about being agile and sending stems back and forth when both are available as I am in Manchester and she’s in LA - 7 hours apart!
Leslie Winer likes working in the morning, and we’re in the same time zone, as she lives in France. I would work till late on new ideas, she’d pick them up in the morning, and send them back early afternoon. It was the most profound long-distance collaboration, as the emails we exchanged came with lots of parallel information about the things that were happening in her life and mine.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I treat music like a regular job, because despite all the glamour it really is a regular job. So if I’m working on this Monday, then 9:00 AM I’m turning on my gear and doing music. 4 or 5 pm I’m slowing down, responding to emails, thinking about dinner plans and what-not. I don’t stop during the day to run an errand. I book myself for work using calendars. For example, I have a music project booked for March/April for a summer 2021 release. I’m good with discipline.
I find it very hard to deal with life’s burdens and work with creativity at the same time. I can’t switch the mindset so easily. When I need to go to the doctor, to find a decorator, to replace the washing machine, to do taxes or to fight a parking ticket, I do it in a day that I won’t work with music. I shield myself from these things as they don’t help me or my work in the slightest.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
"The Last Album" is certainly the dearest one to me. I rarely start a music project without a concept. The concept of this record is that an album is an outdated concept and I may not ever do another one. What musical ideas I wanted to do that I haven’t done yet? What would I do if this was my last ever album?
So I started going through some sketches of tracks I’ve done in the recent past, when there was no direction, no briefing. Ideas you have in the studio, that don’t fit whatever you’re working on at that moment but that could work well later. Sometimes I save these ideas as a description, like “percussive piano” or “7/12 beat over walking bass”. There was then a triage process where ideas that seemed innovative to me were further developed. Things I’ve done before, like ambient house, electronic dub or abstract noise were overlooked.
There’s a lot in this record that’s been playing in my head for years but I’ve never recorded, like the 3 or 4 jazz drum tracks or certain bass riffs like the main theme on "The concept of this record is that an album is an outdated concept and I may not ever do another one."The Truth Will Set You Fritz" or the melody in "After Tomorrow." I wasn’t interested in playing with ideas too similar to ones I’ve done before. In some tracks, I worked with some slightly different scales to put me off as I was too comfortable using major/minor keys with an occasional pentatonic in the bass line.
One thing that works really well for me is to think about the person I’m going to collaborate with. What would suit that artist? The tracks I’ve written for Leslie Winer were written specifically for her. I thought of her style and voice when I did them, and it shows. I’d like to think that it would be a bit crazy for someone else, that all the instruments, choices and musical phrases on "Pioneer B" and "Dance Party in the Living Room" were written and performed by the same person in the same period of time. Production, style, motif, timbres ... everything is very very different from one another.