It’s a question that I put to Echospace, aka Rod Modell (DeepChord) and Steve Hitchell (Soultek), in a small, smokey Kreuzberg café near the end of their month long tour. Partly I’m so surprised because DeepChord is such an intentionally subtle experience: listen to The Coldest Season closely and a micro universe opens up; it makes a big impact by magnifying tiny changes. Part of that delicacy is due to the process: The Coldest Season was put together using hardware such as the Roland Space Echo, Korg tape delay and Sequential 8 samplers—vintage equipment that the music press makes so much of, but which, incidentally, is not exclusively analogue. “Everybody says we’re ‘analogue’, but I think they should be saying ‘hardware’,” says Modell. “We’re using old synths from the ‘80s but they’re actually not analogue, they’re digital hardware.” A favourite is the Yamaha DX7—one of the most popular digital synthesisers ever produced.
Hitchell chimes in, “We use a few analogue pieces, some of the sequencers are analogue, but fundamentally everything that we record is recorded on equipment, whereas everyone else uses laptops to do all the work. Like for The Coldest Season, recording we had probably, I don’t know, 7,000 feet of reels for one song?”
The sudden departure for the live show is especially at odds with the subtle evolution of the DeepChord sound, traceable through their back catalogue from the classic early tracks on DeepChord 1-6 released in 2000 when Mike Schommer was still aboard, to the newer, deeper Modern Love stuff and the greater emotional range found on Echospace productions generally. According to Rod Modell, getting a nice groove was the most important thing when he and Schommer started DeepChord back before the turn of the 00s, but over the years, Modell started using samplers more than synthesizers, chasing ever more cosmic field recordings (forests, the sun etc) to implant deep into his dubby mixes. Put DeepChord 01-06 back-to-back with Vibrasound and the micro shifts that transformed the sound are clear.
The bigger shift was the transformation into Echospace, the Modell-Hitchell collaboration that officially began with the release of Vantage Isle in early 2007. After early success seven or eight years ago, interest in DeepChord inexplicably waned, only to reappear just as mysteriously. “I went back to the day job,” explains Modell, “and more or less gave up on the scene, but all of a sudden I started getting all these orders…” In a genre where the standard format is limited edition 12-inch vinyl, this was significant. “I blew through all the DeepChord back stock in six months, and there’d been nothing for two years.”
by Janet Leyton-Grant
The Coldest Season (Modern Love)
The Echospace debut long player released in four installments (and a CD). The upfront beats of ‘Elysian’ and the washing grooves of ‘Sunset’ make number three the most essential.
Grandbend (echospace [detroit])
Also known as dc10, Grandbend is a re-release of one of the classic DeepChord records repackaged with five new remixes. The tracks unfold with gentle momentum, each carrying the spacious original forward.
Vantage Isle (echospace [detroit])
Based on old material for and from the 2001 DEMF festival live performance, written and produced by Modell and Schommer, remastered by Modell and Hitchell. Remixes from Echospace and Convextion.
Insistent dubby beats and cavernous delay on one side, textured ambience with an incredibly subtle, slowly building beat structure on the other. Impossible to get red vinyl from 2001.
Imax – DC Trax (Octal)
Watery, windy dub by Rod Modell on blue vinyl. Limited pressing that now fetches healthy prices from diehard collectors. An even more collectible edition of 100 was repressed on yellow vinyl in 2006.
Chicago based Hitchell and Detroit based Modell go back a long way. “I think I was the first guy to ever send them a demo back in the ‘90s, and we’ve been friends ever since really,” explains Hitchell. “I was the only guy that they got a demo from that they ended up putting out!”
“True,” adds Modell. “Steve understood the sound, you know, he understood what was going on. So it was just kind of a natural thing. He suggested that we start doing some stuff together to see what happened. And it came out right.”
The Echospace project got off the ground in large part through Hitchell’s initiative, both inside and outside the studio. Their first collaboration, Vantage Isle (2007), was a re-release of old DeepChord material recorded at the DEMF festival in 2001 packaged with new remixes. The Coldest Season on Modern Love was also developed from old source material—field-recordings made by Modell years earlier—but this was a Modell/Hitchell collaborative production, a new start that culminated in the recent European tour.
Solo, they inhabit different musical worlds—compare the DeepChord and Soultek remixes of Claude von Stroke’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Detroit’ for proof—and that clearly has an impact on productions. Modell has over sixty ambient and experimental releases to his name on obscure labels all over the world, plumbing the limits of drone loops and hard-edged minimalism under a catalogue of monikers: CV, Global Systems Silently Moving, Imax and others. Hitchell on the other hand, leans heavily towards house under his Soultek moniker, while the melodics and harmonies underpinning his Fortune 8 releases prove he’s a Chicago boy at heart.
Hailed as an ambient masterpiece, The Coldest Season is a loud and powerful record with texture and emotional depth that marked a transition from early, Basic Channel influenced DeepChord standards into a fully developed, accomplished sound that stands in its own right. So, who does what on the productions?
“I think if we worked separately on tracks Steve’s would be really, really ultra musical, like a soundtrack, and mine would just probably be a track with no beginning or end. And a 909 and a couple of sound effects with delay. I think sometimes I freak Steve out a bit with my minimal static.”
“Oh, he does,” says Hitchell into his cappuccino.
“He’ll be working on a track,” Modell continues, “And he’ll have it all mixed up in the mixer and I’ll come up to the mixer and take two thirds out.”
“He deletes everything.”
“I mute about two thirds of it and he looks at me like, are you serious? ‘Yeah. Leave it like that.’”
It’s a difference in temperament which becomes increasingly apparent as we talk. Hitchell is chattier, the first to offer opinions and anecdotes, while Modell sits back to take in the ambience. It’s evident in their backgrounds, too. Hitchell has worked as an audio engineer, run a label (Souldubsounds) and worked as a promoter bringing international acts like Rhythm and Sound and Luomo to Chicago. Modell, in contrast, has always been a bedroom producer. “I’ve always just had a studio in my house and it was something I did to relax. I’d come home from work and fire everything up. You know, previously I wasn’t interested in playing live. I’ve only done a handful of live shows my whole life,” he explains.
Indeed, if it weren’t for Hitchell’s enthusiasm to play live—something endearingly obvious from his pogoing at the Berghain—the recent ‘DeepChord presents Echospace’ tour would never have happened. Modell was initially very reluctant. “DeepChord started in the late ‘90s. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to come and do this but I always said no. The only reason I said yes this time was…well I said no this time too, but Steve pulled me into it. I was sure I wouldn’t get time off from my job, so I told him that if I got the time off I would come. Then they got back to me and said ‘You’re all set! Here it is! Have fun!’ I even tried to get out of it one more time after that…”
A second distorting factor was pressure exerted by the venues, explains Hitchell. “A lot of clubs, like Berghain for example, voiced concern. Even though they love The Coldest Season, they were afraid that it would scare off the clubbers. Even going into this months ago when it was just tentative that we were going to be here, our booker said ‘a lot of people are voicing concern over this album.’”
“He was reassuring the clubs that it wasn’t gonna be sleepy, ambient stuff,” says Modell. “Our booker had said to us ‘Okay guys, this stuff is nice but you’re gonna have to step it up a bit.’ So we kind of clicked the stuff up, and pushed the percussion and bass right up to full at the front, and put everything else behind it down. Just kind of remixed it.”
“We made a lot of new stuff, too” adds Hitchell, “I’d say half of the live set we did was all unreleased.”
The show at Berghain went over well, ultimately. The shirtless regulars were not scared off as promoters had feared; indeed, they were jumping and screaming with gusto. But those expecting a live version of the lush recordings on Modern Love were sorely disappointed. In the café, as we are finishing our coffee, we get to chatting about DeepChord’s reception in the US. “DJ Godfather said to me one time ‘You know what? I love this record you gave me. It’s awesome,’" says Modell. "So I asked him to put it on. He goes through his box, pulls it out, and takes it out of the sleeve. It was a 33 record, but he puts it on at 45 and pitches it all the way up.” Modell laughs. “I was like, ‘Are you sure it’s mine? I don’t recognize it.’”