Like many DJs, Sollmann is a record nerd—plain and simple. Someone who, in the pre-YouTube era, once gave the gift of Donald Fagen's The Nightfly to friends in different cities, just so that he could be sure he could hear it the next time he visited them. RA's Todd L. Burns recently caught up with Sollmann in Berlin to spin a few, and talk about why they mean so much.
Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)
I wouldn't immediately think of you as a hip-hop guy. Was that something that you were into growing up, one of your first loves?
Hip-hop was very important to me actually. I was listening a lot to East Coast stuff around '95—DJ Premier productions, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest. And then the Wu-Tang Clan came in, and everybody that was into hip-hop, I think, was listening to it. RZA had such a great way of dealing with sampling, making these direct references to soul music and the black music tradition. I think RZA is still one of the most gifted producers alive.
So was it the production that appealed to you for the most part?
It was all of it. The production, the style. Like the first video where they had these masks and this lo-fi video shoot. It was such a powerful wave all at once, all these new rappers.
And RZA would change his production style according to their style of rapping. You got to slowly learn about each artist more and more as their solo albums trickled out. This may seem silly, but I kind of think of Dial in the same way. When it started with the first compilation, I didn't know who was who and it was only over time that you got to hear that Lawrence was more this, Efdemin is more that, Pantha Du Prince is into bells...
We don't have RZA, that's the problem. [laughs] I wouldn't compare these two, but there's one link I think. In the early stages of Dial, it was totally sample-based. My first records were 90 percent samples, even the kick drums. Over time, we started using more synths and stuff, producing our own sounds. But now with John Roberts, it totally went back into this lo-fi sampling thing. It's funny. I felt like when I heard his music that he was more Dial than the rest of us. He's going back to where we came from—this noisy, very melancholic, sometimes dysfunctional, slow, nice music, which totally is house music but also is not because it's more, like, Satie or something at the same time.
Have you been inspired by John to go back and revisit some of those ideas?
Hm, I'm not sure. No, I don't think so. I'm into something else at the moment I think. I'm more on the functional side of things. I'm looking more for the perfect loop, while maintaining intensity. At the moment I'm trying to make some EPs that you can really play. It's a challenge for me to produce a simple 12-inch that you can play. It's something totally different than producing an album. Right now, though, the booking agencies tell you things like, "Hey, when is your next album coming out? I can't help you with gigs without an album." So everybody's thinking, "Oh, I have to produce an album." There are so many albums coming out in dance music at the moment, and I don't know if that's a good thing. Maybe it's better to have cool EPs or twelve inches...
Do you look at the EPs as mini-albums also in a way, though? They're telling just a shorter story perhaps.
Absolutely. RNDM and I are about to finish our next Dial release as Pigon and it's taken months to have the perfect versions of the two tracks together with the artwork. [It's like], "No, I'm not sure, maybe it's not the best, maybe we'll make more contrast [between the two sides]..." I remember buying a Klang EP in '98 or something from Jan Jelinek, Farben, and that was also like a mini-album. Right now you have more like a track you should play and then two more productions on the B-side.
What I'm trying to do with my label Naïf is to have one side you play and another side you listen to. Maybe it's noise on the other side or just like a drone. You don't need to have two techno tracks, because I think now the market is changing and some people will not release on vinyl anymore soon. It will be a circle of people, and a special kind of music will be on vinyl. We can go back into more experimental concepts.
The title "Automatic Writing" references doing something without really thinking about it. Is that how you work? Do you try to get to a place where you can just let things flow?
I try to. I would say that in the best moments you just keep on adding layers to a loop that you just put down and it sometimes starts to take on a life of its own. You listen to it and it's like, "Wow, I don't know how I produced this sound or this texture. I don't know what it was that produced this sound or how I even played it." If it's like that, I really like it, but then most of the time it's not a hit. [laughs] But I picked this more because of the sound.
I think it's one of the most impressive records sound-wise because you have this noise floor above everything, and it's like a curtain and behind that curtain you have these freaky people like Robert Ashley or this woman talking and you try to understand what they're saying, but you can't. You never get the meaning of this paranoid speech, if they're even saying anything at all. It's like a dream inside your head. And then, in the background, you have this other layer with the organ...
It's really eerie, the organ. It's almost like church music.
Absolutely, I played it to my girlfriend recently. She was lying there on the couch and I was like, "Isn't this amazing? Look how it sounds—you don't know where it comes from, you don't even know that's it from the speaker—it could be anywhere!" and she was like, "I don't like it, it reminds me of our neighbors playing music." And she was right. It's so well done that it sounds like the music is coming from next door. That is something, sound-wise, technically, that I would love to do one day—to have this spatial mixing knowledge.
Have you tried to do it before with anything?
Yeah, the "Night Train" track on Chicago. There's a new version I did for an upcoming EP which I did live when we were mixing it and it totally reminds me of "Automatic Writing" because it has this noise floor and the music is coming in, but not really taking off and not really becoming the main element. When we were mastering it, Rashad [Becker] was like, "Wow it's like 'Automatic Writing', I put the noise floor up, you know—that's great, that's so great! I love it. Where did you sample it from? Moritz von Oswald? C'mon, tell me you sampled it from Moritz!" I was like, "It's my own noise!"
Koze, who has just done a remix of one of your tracks, also seems like the type of guy who likes doing that. You can definitely hear the different floors.
Exactly. And Jens Zimmerman as well. I have all the records he's released in the last few years. I don't play them too much at the moment, but I totally remember when his new productions came into my world. I was blown away because it was exactly what I was looking for. It's very functional music, but there's something else...
This has the perfect cover artwork. The whole album is Donald Fagen singing as though he's in the '50s, but it was made in the '80s. So it's really interesting, this relationship between the two decades. There was this dream of the super-modern world where we could do everything, when the Concorde was quite new and he's singing about "we do London to New York in four hours or something and what a beautiful world this will be." But then we know that all this pollution is killing us, and it's kind of like a waking up at the same time.
I totally remember the '80s, where everything was still, especially in Germany. Maybe it's where I grew up in the countryside next to the woods with my parents but even though there was the Eastern Bloc, everything felt secure and fine. The country was so wealthy. It's not the same country anymore, not the same continent. Listening to this record I'm like, "Oh yeah, everything is good!"
The thing that I really like about this record—and all of Steely Dan's stuff—is despite how clever it all is, it's still really catchy.
Yeah, they took jazz and black music and transformed it into this jam rock, super cool LA music, I don't know. It is really interesting. It's totally clean, production-wise, almost antiseptic, but also it has a lot of soul at the same time.
When did you first hear Prefab Sprout?
I knew them through being interested in Rough Trade. I remember listening to them and thinking, "Ooh, what is this? It's so different." When I was working at a kitchen for years, this album was always playing once or twice a day. It's totally in my body. The Nightfly, Andromeda Heights and maybe R. Kelly's TP-2.com are probably the albums I've listened to the most.
Was the indie/Rough Trade thing a big thing growing up for you?
Totally. Pantha du Prince and I used to have a band together, this post-rock band, and I was always trying to bring some soul influences into it because I was singing and playing the guitar and he was the bass player and we had a drummer from another band. It was quite big in Hamburg. You know, Die Sterne? We were totally into this, we were with these guys drinking all the time and making music.
We were younger than the rest, and we didn't become famous or anything because we were also totally interested in electronic music, especially in drum & bass for a while. Henrik [Pantha Du Prince] and I were buying all this Photek stuff and going out, but then we realized there were only boys around, it was so boring. [laughs] And then I came across Moodyman and it was like, "Wow, this connects the R&B and soul that I really love and transfers it into another world." Moodyman totally got me to this music. So I started going out and listening to things like Richie Hawtin and listening to five minutes of a hi-hat and I was like, "This is kind of cool, I like this guy." But I was late. I started listening to dance music only at the end of school. There was a very famous and intense club called Aufschwung Ost in Kassel where we grew up and Roman Flügel and everybody played there all the time. But we were afraid of that, we never went in there because it was like, "Oh everybody is taking drugs and there are flashing lights and it's so loud and this crazy music, it's really fast, I can't go in there."
My stereotype of Hamburg is informed by Dial artwork I suppose. I think of it as this rainy town full of Smiths fanatics.
It's very British kind of, Hamburg. It has a strong tradition of rock music. It had the Beatles, of course. It looks a bit British too with the stone houses, the harbor.
I listened to this earlier today again for the first time in a long time, and I was reminded how strange the production was.
The production and sound and all the musicians—they're so on-point and so freaky and free. Everything feels like they are really playing it live in the moment. That there is no rehearsal, that they're not playing it in the studio over and over again. The engineer must have been totally into this psychosis stuff—you hear him switch the left and right channels all the time. Even the production sounds like it's done live. I love it.
Is that something that you're trying to get with your own tracks? To have it feel live? Obviously you're working within a grid structure, so-to-speak, but within that you're trying to make it feel loose?
Yeah, that's what I'm trying all the time to do, but I'm alone and I don't have a band. Sometimes if it's really, really good, it sounds like people are playing together and listening to each other. I think that's what a band is—you're listening to what others are playing and reacting.
When you were in a band, were you a good band mate?
I was the leader, they hated me. [laughs] I don't know. I miss being in a band, but they were always saying, "Hey, you're a dictator!"
I had no idea what this is when you sent it to me as part of the list of the records you wanted to talk about. What is Pyrolator all about?
It's Kurt Dahlke who is this Düsseldorf guy who's still active in his studio. He released some really cool albums around the late 70's and early or mid-80's, all using analog sequencers and Korg and Moog synthesizers. He has this Ata Tak label, which this appeared on, which is this interesting intersection between avant-garde and pop. I've always liked the approach. It's something that today somebody like Tobias Freund and Max Loderbauer remind me of. It doesn't want to be too far away from the people, but it's still abstract. This is a good example of what Neue Deutsche Welle could have been, but it was taken over by the wrong people I think.
Where did you get this originally?
You have to go to the countryside to small towns like Lübeck, Kassel, Ulm or something. You will find amazing records for four euros or something. Whenever I can I also go to Göttingen. I'm from Kassel and twice a year I visit my parents and say, "Hey I have to catch a train," and my mom calls me like three hours later, I'm like, "Hey Mom," and she's like, "I know you're in that record shop!" And she's right! [laughs] There's this cool guy that is like the only guy in Kassel left who has vinyl. Everybody sells their stuff to him, so you find like a Robert Wyatt record for maybe five euros because he's very anti-internet. I fixed his computer once, and so now I can get records for cheap.
So that's the secret for record collectors? Go out to the German countryside?
Absolutely, yeah. [laughs]
I was working at Ladomat at the time that this came out as the guy in the warehouse who sent out the records, painting the staircase and cleaning the toilets. [laughs] But I always got the new promos and I remember taking this album home and I listened to it for a few weeks. I think it was very, very special moment in the history of electronic music.
How did you come to work at Ladomat?
I was just helping out, because I knew the people. We were boozing at the same places and so I was like, "Hey I'm broke." And they were willing to give me a shit job. I was always broke.
So you were already listening to some electronic music at that point?
Yeah. I was totally interested in it. We were the guys that were listening to electronic music and the others didn't get it. To some people in Hamburg the Silver Apples was as far as it could go. Nobody would let us play house music or techno or whatever, so we started going to Berlin every weekend, like around '97 or something. I would say we went two or three weekends a month to Berlin, hitchhiking.
To go to clubs?
Going to clubs, seeing friends, going to galleries, going to parties like Friseur and Tresor and WMF. But we weren't like rave guys or clubbers, we were just like, "OK, there's this guy Dixon is playing somewhere." What I liked about Berlin was that it was all mixed up. Everybody would go everywhere because it wasn't about, "No, I'm listening to rock music," or, "No, I'm listening to hip-hop." It was like, "OK, there's a party tonight with these cool art guys and there's a DJ."
So that was the big difference for you between Berlin and Hamburg?
Oh yeah, Berlin was totally open-minded and you had all these spaces and you could just do whatever you wanted. Hamburg was very limited at that time already. There were some places where you could go, but the club scene in Hamburg wasn't really what I was looking for.
You talked earlier about striving for the perfect loop. This seems like a perfect example.
Yeah, absolutely. I remember two years ago I was coming to Hamburg to play somewhere at a party. Like always, I would go to the record shop, Smallville, to meet the guys and Peter [Kersten, Lawrence] was like, "Hey, we got these STL tracks," and I was like, "Wow, STL, can I listen to it?" He put it on and after 20 seconds I was like, "Wow, it's amazing!" I've tried to make cover versions of this track sometimes. This is one of the tracks that I really try sometimes to be like. There's nothing happening in it. There's the very simple hi-hat playing, and then there's all these grooves between, but you don't hear a dumb hook line or anything, and people totally get it.
Do you find yourself taking things out of tracks often? As though you're overstuffing them with ideas?
Absolutely. I have two problems usually. I have too many tracks in the song and I have problems arranging it. I hate arranging tracks. Most of the time I realize it's not perfect because I can't arrange it. If it's a perfect loop, though, you don't have to arrange anything, you just let it go for a long time, maybe a kick on/off or something else. It's funny. A lot of the guys I know work in this loop-mode with Ableton, and I can't do that. I'm still in this timeline with Logic. I'm always working with a timeline, it's more like a song.
How long did it take you to write the tracks on Chicago usually?
Some tracks I did in two hours and some others, maybe like "Night Train," I was working on for a long, long time. My friends like that one the most, but I don't know... The first track was done in 20 minutes, which I really liked. I was playing with the organ and just recorded everything live and it was like, "OK, it's there, perfect. Next one." I would love to make things sound more alive, to include mistakes.
Where can we hear a "mistake" in Chicago?
"Cowbell" probably. The organ was just played and recorded, it's not super tight at all. You could cut it and make it perfect, but I didn't want to do that. Also, the sound doesn't work too well at the club. But, I mean, producing and DJing are two different things. The best example is Ricardo Villalobos. The stuff he plays and the stuff he releases is sometimes so far away from each other, you know? You wouldn't make the connection sometimes, but it totally makes sense. It's very interesting to follow how some people develop, how they change over the years.
How did you change as a DJ over the years?
Me as a DJ? Hm. Did I change? [laughs] I just keep trying to get through the night, I don't know, without being too drunk or something. I've gotten more professional. I mean I've been playing records for a long time, but never for money and not in professional clubs. I've played for years at the [Golden] Pudel and here and there, and at parties, but that was so free and you could do whatever you want.
When did you start doing it more professionally?
Around 2004 and 2005. And then when I played in Panorama Bar for the first time, it was like, "OK, you just played Panorama Bar, cool. I like it. I want to do this, why not?" It wasn't the plan before. I was always afraid of the night and of all the things involved. I didn't take any drugs and stuff. I come from the music side of things and not from the party side of things.
That was the main intention—the main interest in techno for me was the sound. That's why I picked the Sensorama record and that's why I love Tobias or Portable as well, because they're always searching for new sounds and also being very experimental at times. Like the Studio 1 records from Thomas Brinkmann, the Max Ernst stuff. It was so demanding.
I remember parties in Hamburg when people played only this kind of music—the Profan, Studio 1 stuff the whole night and people were dancing all night. Can you imagine a party like this today? People wouldn't even move, they would complain about the sound. "There's no short, one bar vocal loop, no Nina Simone rip-off white German guy sampling some a-hundred-times-abused song again." It's so sad sometimes what is happening today.