|Playing favourites: Mark Henning
In advance of his appearance at We Love... in Ibiza next month, RA's Christine Kakaire sat down with the Berlin-based producer to chat about a few of his favoured platters.
Mark Henning's steady rise through the ranks of minimal house and techno has progressed in such levelheaded and logical fashion, it could almost read like a how-to case study for aspiring producers.
After flexing his A&R talents with his net label Clever Music, and its association with then-new artists Pheek and JPLS, Henning's own skewed take on 4/4 developed through releases for Freude Am Tanzen, Trapez and Cynosure, before a meeting of minds with Soma Recordings resulted in his 2008 debut album Jupiter Jive. Now living in Berlin, his recent explorations into tech house and vocal reworks have resulted in dance floor burners like last year's Rick James-referencing "The Right Time." Mark Henning, it would appear, is at the apex of his career.
Scratch the surface, though, and this straightforward trajectory belies a complex tale of a young British producer who at one time hated electronic music. (It was only when Henning moved to Germany in the early '00s that he discovered a love for his home country's brand of drum & bass.) As RA's Christine Kakaire found out in this revealing chat about some of his favourite records, Henning came to Detroit techno via romance, and despite years of experience still has a complicated relationship with his own musical persona.
"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'"
Michael Jackson was my first memory of really being into any sort of music. I was six and we were living in Tampa, Florida, and my Dad had won tickets to go see him. I remember I wanted to buy one of the white gloves, and he wouldn't let me. I was really pissed off. After that, I was super into that album and that song in particular.
It stands out as quite an odd track in its structure, with all the kind of percussive and tribal elements and really over-the-top horns.
Yeah, just from the moment it starts. The funky shuffling groove and the bassline; it just kicks in. There's no building up to it. It's just boom, there, instant groove.
Are there any other tracks from that era that had that similar impact?
Not really, to be honest. I listened to a real mixture of things. It wasn't necessarily anything dancey, it was just general '80s stuff. Michael Jackson really is the thing that stands out. It's a bit obvious, Michael Jackson, but I think going to the concert when I was that young... I was just like, "I worship MJ."
The Afghan Whigs
I used to play classical guitar but I wasn't heavily into any bands until I was like 15. [That's when] I started a band and started going to gigs regularly. One of the first gigs I went to was The Afghan Whigs, Sterelolab and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. I don't really listen to Afghan Whigs regularly, but I still really like their stuff although not as much as I used to. I'm really into things that are raw and bit wonky as a producer, and [The Whigs are something] that's definitely not straight-up indie. The guy likes to sing a bit out of tune and everything's a bit weird.
The Afghan Whigs have pretty distinctive lyrics too. Was that something that interested you?
No, it's very strange, but lyrics have nothing to do with me liking music. For a lot of my friends lyrics are half as important as the musical content. With me, it doesn't matter at all. A lot of the time—even on my favourite tracks—I don't even know what the hell they're saying. It's just the music. I don't know whether many other people are like that.
In your more recent productions, I've been noticing more vocal snippets here and there.
I've always used them. I used them more in the past as instruments, more as just a noise to fill in the place where a sound needed to be. I'm using them a bit more, though. The Hypercolour release, The Right Time, was totally different. I associate vocals in dance music as something cheesy, and I've always hated anything cheesy. Up until three or four years ago, I don't think I'd ever played a track with a straight vocal, whereas now I'm far more inclined to play something with vocals.
What was the feedback like to The Right Time?
It went down really well, even the other track, "Breakfast Club," was big. It's probably my most successful EP to date, but I still think of it as my most cheesy EP to date, even though it's not really cheesy. I have this really weird cheese threshold factor, which kind of sucks because it means I tend to make things a little too dirty or too deep. But that's just the way I am, I guess.
Have you ever considered working under a different name, to explore working with vocals?
I'm actually starting a new project right now, which is going to let in a little more cheese. It's not going to be total cheese, but it'll be very different to what I'm doing now; more melodic, a bit of acid, a lot of melodies basically. That's to cater for the other side of me. I'm working on tracks right now, and I'm hoping to get an album done and get it released a year from now and tour it next year.
I bought a whole load of new analogue gear—a Jupiter 6 synth—and the ideas are just flowing. With "Mark Henning," it's just deeper techno stuff. [With this new project] I can really let rip with this weird stuff and not worry that it's going to be too different from my old material.
So there's a psychological separation then? You don't feel you have any preconceptions to live up to.
Exactly. I'm actually having more fun with this, and in the back of my mind I'm thinking in a year or two that I'm going to ditch Mark Henning and just do this new stuff. It's just a lot more fun, I'm not having to think "Is that too cheesy?" or "Is that too melodic?" For a month I stopped doing techno, the Mark Henning stuff and just started playing about with my synth and I thought, "This is coming to me so easily. I think I should do an album with this."
Purpose Maker, 1997
What kind of influence has Detroit techno had on you as a producer?
Pretty much zero up to now. I'm actually only really discovering Detroit. I've always known about it, but I never really completely felt it. I actually prefer some Jeff Mills stuff, but I quickly went away from the harder techno—before I had a real chance to appreciate it—to the minimal and tech house scene.
Jeff Mills' stuff has certain Detroit elements, but it wasn't over-the-top and synthy. I hated trance, and I'd listen to some Detroit and it'd be too melodic and trance-y almost, so I never got sucked in. If you compare Jeff Mills' stuff to Carl Craig for instance, it's a lot more dirty and wobbly. There are none of those really epic pads. It's funny, though, as this record has "The Bells" on the other side. I got this record from my wife, put it on and ended up liking "Kat Race" more.
Ed Rush & Nico
No U-Turn, 1997
I'm more familiar with Ed Rush's work with Optical.
Exactly, but I wanted to do these guys justice because Nico disappeared off into the scene. I don't know what he did, but then Ed Rush and Optical came along with Ram, Andy C and the big guys. It's been a while since I've been into drum & bass. I lost interest around 2001, it all went a bit too ravey.
Ed Rush and Optical's collaborations are quite dark and abrasive; it's quite ambient at points but then there are these bursts of jungle aggression. Something I noticed about your productions is that there's often a sense of unease. There'll be an odd chord or a note or an unexpected turn.
Yeah, people say that. Nowadays there's a lot less of these crazy things going off, more just a hypnotic groove. Listening back to my early tracks, I'm sometimes really surprised that I made them. What was I thinking of to have all of these crazy noises so unexpectedly coming in? Very unsettling, some of the tracks that I did. Listening to a track like this, I can really see where that was coming from.
Was it your intention thing to write music that wasn't an easy listen, or was it just coming out that way organically?
It was just what came out. I remember early on my brother used to listen to my music, and he used to say that there was too much going on! I would always finish a track and then regret having too many elements to it. As soon as it was pressed, I'd think that I should have taken about 50 samples out. Back then, I used Fruity Loops a lot and it was trial-and-error, just dragging really random crazy samples in. "Do they work or do they not?" I was just throwing stuff in, even if it was totally weird and wacky.
Moving to Berlin in 2008, and seeing some of my friends working with audio equipment and recording long bits, twiddling knobs has completely changed me. I constantly bought equipment, but I sold a lot of it because I realised it didn't fit my style or way of working. Now, that's what I'm about. Jamming, rather than just dragging and dropping with a mouse.
Do you think you're approaching writing from a different perspective since you've changed your methods?
I feel like if I'd been friends with someone who'd have had a full analogue studio when I started making music, the Mark Henning sound would have been completely different....It's weird. I wasn't DJing regularly when I was making music early on. And the music that I made at that time wasn't the sort of stuff I wanted to play in a DJ set. It just sort of came out as it was. Now I have a much better understanding about what I like, and I'm making music with far fewer elements. Often with just a drum machine and synth as the core rather than throwing 100 samples in a track.
It's a lot more fun. The tracks are a lot slower-building, they're not so crazy. I feel like I'm getting to a point where I'm comfortable with what I'm making. I've always been proud of it of course. But now I'm really comfortable in pushing it to my friends, "This is what I've done, this really reflects me," I'm a lot more in control of what I do.
Do you think that Berlin has had an influence on that?
It started with changing my studio, and that was the people I was hanging around with. My friends had studios with analogue gear in them. Being in Berlin was actually a bit detrimental at first. When I got here, I had a real crisis of how house/CDV/deep house thing was sort of infiltrating what I classed as the techno scene... I was really confused. Like "Should I stop making this techno stuff ?" I was too worried about conforming, and people liking my music. And I've completely got that out of my system, which is something I'm happy about. A good half-year ago, I wasn't sure what I wanted to make.
When I was living in Cambridge for three years, I had just been doing my thing, very minimally affected by any external influences or scenes. Being here in Berlin and going out a lot, and hearing what people are playing and how people are reacting to it, I was thinking that maybe I should be changing my style. It made me write tracks that that weren't right for myself. They were what I thought people would like. I had just quit my job, a super paid job. Money was really tight when we got here. My gigs were up and down. So I felt like I had to make some tracks that would do well. Now I feel more secure in what I like, and don't really give a shit what people are thinking.
Low-Life is a project between Ben Sims and Steve O'Sullivan, right? Do you still play this out?
I think I bought this record secondhand in London. It's basically a tech house track but fast. It's really stayed with me, though. It's one of my favourite records. I pitch it right down. I used to really like Ben Sims, but it was when I was getting a bit bored of his harder techno stuff in 2002 or 2003 that I dug that record out and slowed it down, and found out how hypnotic, tough and raw it was [when you played it like that].
It sounds very UK techno. It's kind of weightless, not as bass-heavy as some Detroit stuff. It reminded me of Circulation, early Soma...
Exactly. My friend Alex, who I started a net label with, was very into tech house, going to see Craig Richards at fabric in 2001. It fits in with that whole thing. I used to listen to Mr C's show on Kiss back then, and I was super influenced by that wonky techno stuff. The things that Dave Mothersole was playing.
Did you make it to London at that time?
I went to fabric at that time, but I basically left university and went straight into a corporate job in 2001. I was on the edge of it. I was buying records, but I wasn't totally consumed by it because my job was the main thing. And producing. I wasn't DJing regularly, I was just doing my own parties in London with the net label, Clever, at Public Life.
But, for me, producing was the way. I liked to DJ and buy records, but even back in that time I got more out of producing. It was always to become a good producer rather than a good DJ. My friend Alex, who I did Clever with, was the complete opposite.
When did you buy your first program or equipment?
I bought my first computer at Uni in 1998, then got Cubase and Fruity Loops. I didn't get on with Cubase. But it was just crap drum & bass that I was making then.
Occasionally I would show tracks to my mates, but they really were terrible. I didn't have any help, I didn't know anyone else who made music. I used to get Computer Music and Future Music and tried to teach myself the way I should be producing. It took me a long time to get to a stage where I thought I was any good.
When I first lived in Berlin, I started making hard techno, 145 BPM stuff. Really terrible stuff. I just didn't have a clue, but I kept on persisting. It was 2004 before I put my first record came out. It really took me that long to get me to show things to people, and for me to really feel comfortable that it was good enough to even be release-able.
Plus 8, 2003
This was released right when I moved to London for two years, which is when we started our nights there. This was my first introduction to Matthew Dear. I rarely play it, but it's a really cool record. You have to listen to the whole track to really get it. It's really click-y, part of me wishes it was a bit more solid, that there was another version of it that I could play. But it's really cool.
It almost sounds like a minimal remix of Akufen.
Sure. There's not much melody. The melody is just little short noises. I think that track—and Akufen—really influenced me. That's why I wasn't into the synths, and wasn't such a fan of the Detroit thing. As soon as minimal came around, I was into it hook, line and sinker, because I could make these hypnotic tracks with inferred melodies. With noises. It's the same thing with vocals. I use them as a noise, rather than as a vocal. People would come up to me and guess what the vocals are saying in my tracks, and I'd have no clue what they were talking about.
Would you say that this was the first time that a trend, so to speak, influenced your productions? And influenced what you were into socially?
Yes, definitely. The first few first records that I did were aiming specifically at this new, emerging minimal scene or clickhouse, as they used to call it. I got bored of the hard techno stuff, drum & bass was long gone, tech house was sort of still there. But when minimal came along, I was really into it. I listen back now, and it's totally not my thing right. I've totally grown out of it, but I really loved it.
When would you say you started to fall out of love with it?
I don't know, to be honest. In maybe 2006 or something like that, I started to make slightly less click-y tracks. Now, I can't stand the latter stages of this whole minimal movement. The Beatport Minimal. At the moment I'm going through this total change of what I like.
Do you think that it's fair to say that you are somebody who easily gets tired of a sound?
Yes, definitely. I'm not trying to be above the whole fads thing. Back when minimal came along, I was really influenced by it. I really loved it. But since then all of these fads have come and gone. The deep house/house revival came into the techno scene in 2008 when I moved back to Berlin. I sort of fell into that, I enjoyed it. But then I realized, "What am I really doing? Am I a house DJ? Am I a house producer?" And I was like, "No, I'm techno." Since then I've started to care a lot less about the current fad, and just do my thing.