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?
From my first days of making music I have been collaborating. I started out playing electric guitar, and instrument that only really makes sense in a given context, and with the goal to use it in that very context: playing in a band. Jamming, improvising together with a band is the purest, most primal form of collaboration, where you develop a piece of music in real time, bouncing ideas off each other, hopefully reacting to what the other people are doing.
This is where I am coming from musically, and all the great rock bands in history were collaborating groups in that sense, where great musical minds came together, often times not without great tensions. I enjoy writing and arranging an instrumental club track all by myself, but I enjoy the song-writing process with a partner just as much. I’m no singer and no lyricist, so I certainly know my limits, and I have seen so many creative situations where the end result became so much bigger than the sum of its parts – and that is the magic that can only happen when two or more creative minds get together.
I really, really love creating at the studio together, and this surely comes from my playing in a band days, where making music inevitable meant hanging out with other people for an afternoon or even a whole night. But I can make do with an online-based file-sharing situation also. When two creative minds really match, the actual form in which the collaboration is taking shape doesn’t matter so much. I am extremely happy and grateful about the musical momentum Francesca Lombardo and I can conjure together. We did some remote work, but we also get together at the studio at times, when our schedules allow for it. In the end it doesn’t matter much, the results seem to materialise either way.
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?
As someone who tends to work a bit too much, it was a major step in life for me to separate life and work. When I moved to Berlin I had a small studio setup in my room in a shared flat, and this evolved into me living in the back of my studio after a few years. It was a fun time in some aspects, but private life, holidays, weekends off and the likes did really only exist to a certain degree.
I have physically separated working and living for well over 12 years now and I would never go back. I love my work, and music still is maybe the biggest constant in my life, but you can only do excellent work when you allow yourself to free the mind and recharge the batteries. On weekends off, when I’m not playing, you’ll most likely find me on a boat on a lake outside Berlin, and the music out there comes from the waves, the birds and the wind. I love that!
That said, on a normal weekday at work I usually aim to be at the studio around 10am, maybe 10:30, and then I am taking care of emails, mix adjustments, project preparations or whatever needs to be done. I typically do attended sessions from 12 noon to 8pm with a lunch break in between, and after that I might answer some more emails or do a little bit of office stuff to wind down the work day. Sometimes I’ll work 50-60 hours a week, but now, during Corona times, it’s a bit less.
I’d prefer life without Corona for sure, but having a daily schedule and workload that isn’t as crammed and busy isn’t the worst thing for me to discover. But, weekends off and holidays are really something I have come to value a lot, already years ago. Without plenty of time to recharge my batteries I could not do the work I am doing. I also truly enjoy the days where I am working on my own tracks. Often times I get lost in the music so much that I even forget to eat and drink for a few hours. It’s a blissful state of letting go, and when I wrap it up hours later I sometimes feel like a scuba diver coming back to the surface …
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?
I don’t have the one specific way how I would work on a piece of music. What I have learned though, is that you can’t force it. The process of song writing is a bit like Keith Richards once described it: you stick a finger up in the air and if you’re lucky something valuable will wrap around it at some point. Inspiration is a very precious thing, and the more you understand when you are being inspired, and the better you are prepared to capture what comes up then, the more and the better musical output you will generate.
Often times I would just jam with my machines, and I’d like to think that I am quite good by now detecting the moments when I’m on to something. I would then start recording immediately, and I usually record larger passages. Whenever I lay down the basic elements for a new track I work over the whole length of 7/8 minutes already from the start. I would do edits later on if need be, but I prefer to record long stretches in the places of the track where I would use them in the end. This way I feel more comfortable creating something that sounds alive and organic, and I can work really fast too. With machines like the Moog DFAM, I can record a noise hi-hat pretty much in real time, including all the fills and variations. I could never beat this working pace by way of moving building blocks on the computer screen and working fast is great, because you never overthink things and water them down too much. It all comes straight from the gut.
I already talked a bit about how the basic ideas of tracks like ‘A Million Souls’ came into my mind. But, regardless whether the initial spark occurred – literally – in a dream, or whether it was a result of some jamming with the machines, these days the most important thing to me is to bring out this initial idea, the core element of the track, with utmost clarity. This is my own idea of minimalism. Although some of my tracks are a bit more complex than they appear at first sight, I aim to leave everything out of the final arrangement that doesn’t have a very good reason to be there: “When in doubt, leave it out!”
Some sculptors work with clay, some others with marble. It’s either additive or subtractive modelling. In a modern music production environment you can do both, although, technically, you always start with an additive process. There is no block of stone in the beginning, just silence. Later on, like when you would be modelling with clay, you can always redo a part when you made a mistake. With marble there is no safety net. When David’s hand is chopped off, it’s chopped off. I aim to work with a comparable precision, even when doing additive sound sculpting – great when you have a safety net, even better to not rely on it! And all the while I try to work fast, to put as much life and spontaneity into a world and a process that has become fairly digital these days.
The second track I finished after the lockdown is based on recordings I made for my Aulart Masterclass. I recorded a Moog Modular bassline, a Moog DFAM percussion element and a lead element with the Minimoog – the latter I played entirely live with my hands, no MIDI or anything, and recorded it straight to audio. There was a huge reverb on the synth already when I played it, so there was no chance to quantize my playing afterwards, or edit it otherwise, except cutting it into several larger passages and rearranging these. When I arranged the track I was left with a choice – either re-record everything, put it down with more precision, at the risk of losing the flow, the immediacy, the momentum, or just leave it as is – and live with the imperfections. I did just that and kept the original recording. The first time in years, or maybe ever, I did not use MIDI at all when making a track.
Picasso was once asked when a painting was finished – I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something along these lines: “It’s never finished, you can always do one stroke more with the brush. It’s about your decision when to put the brush down”. I read this years ago when I finished school and prepared for art school (which in the end never happened) and it has resonated with me ever since. Ultimately it is about confidence, about trusting your gut when it says it’s alright. And it is important to understand when you are inspired. Just find a way to quickly memorize your idea, to put it down in a way that you can recover it even when you don’t have time to fully dive into it at that moment.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal state of mind is a luxury! I am making my own music pretty much on the side of my studio work for clients. Whenever I have some spare time I’d jump on it. If I always had to wait for the ideal state of mind to materialize I would never get anything done. Perhaps the routine of constantly finishing client projects has made me a lot more cold-blooded with the decision-making on my own stuff. I don’t fret about every detail anymore the way I used to. That doesn’t mean I’m sloppy, not at all, but I developed an instinct for when something is good and when I don’t need to mess with it anymore. Get it done and move on. So, I was only a part time producer of my own stuff last year, but I finished two-dozen tracks regardless. In my case the key was efficiency.
I don’t waste time noodling around in an uninspired way. If that happens, and it happens a lot, I just leave it and do something else. In these moments you can reorganize your drum sound library, fix some broken gear, check out a gear manual to look up a certain detail – stuff that doesn’t require a lot of creativity, but that makes you much more prepared for the moment when inspiration strikes indeed. And luckily I have developed a good sense for the musical ideal I come up with which are worth bringing out into full form.
The other thing is, I am now really comfortable with my studio setup – my instruments, the working routines I have created for myself over the past years. I don’t think anymore, I just do it. This is something I have definitely learned in my career: telling yourself that you’re not able to achieve a certain thing because you’re lacking a piece of equipment or the likes is a lame excuse. To the contrary, normally, what happens when you overcome an obstacle, when you do it regardless of what tools you have at hand, can be pure gold. These obstacles make you think, and this is what ultimately shapes your creative persona and might condense into this elusive personal style, or “personal handwriting”.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Playing live again has definitely reshaped or transformed the way I make music at the studio! The direct reaction of the people when you play new material for the first few times is priceless, and of course this somehow has an effect on what I do at the studio. I also have started to produce tracks for a certain part of my live set. If you see this as a rise and fall of tension on a meta level, you might want to start changing bits and pieces here and there, swap chapters in order to refine the big, overarching story of a 60 min or 90 min live set.
I come from a background where a lot of song writing happened while jamming with the whole band, and I still carry these experiences with me. That said, often times I’m more spontaneous in the studio than I am on stage. Of course my live set contains many passages where I am improvising, but I never completely break out of the given structure. I play my tracks, my “songs”, if you like, but with my current live setup I would never go into full improvisation mode, where the result could be an entirely new track. This has also something to do with the type of music that I’m making. Normally, I don’t do “DJ tools”, most of my tracks tell a story all by themselves and this can’t be broken down into a bunch of very short loop molecules that I could then freely rearrange on stage. The musical arcs in my tracks tend to be a bit longer, too long for such an approach.