It's a record that comes at a time when it seems as if the ongoing reign of minimal techno has left a void for some—as if there were things missing that once mattered to the sound. The combination of the Berghain club and its label has obviously gone on a quest to fill these gaps, with Shedding The Past being a prime example of how to deliver techno in its truest sense without slavishly devoting yourself to tradition.
The Berlin producer is also part of the staff at the Hard Wax store, a place that has a similarly uncompromising stance on pushing the sound forward without denying its history. At closing time on a weekday evening, RA met up with Pawlowitz to play him some favourites, only to discover that he is not only a sincere and reflective producer, but a sincere and reflective listener, too.
This is Quartz from France. It's early synthesizer music, but within a disco context.
I was not into that at all. My calendar does not really start before 1990 or so. Even stuff like early Model 500, Cybotron…It's OK, but it's not mine. I also can't get into Kraftwerk. What has been called techno from 1990 on was what got me to listen to music consciously for the first time. I was never one to check the influences on music that I like. I know disco only from TV, Saturday Night Fever and such. I was never really interested in it.
Is that based on a basic antipathy towards the sounds of disco music?
There was a short period I found it exciting, around the time the filter and cut-up disco house arrived with DJ Sneak, all the sample stuff. But that was over pretty soon when all the records started to sound the same. So yes, it is based on principle that I don't like the sounds too much.
So you were more interested in how a track was built on samples than where they came from?
Exactly. It was fascinating to me how everything could be said in a loop that went for three minutes, if it was a cool one. Longer than that, and it could get boring. Of course you can't compare that to what happens in the original disco track, there was more happening there than in house tracks, which only used bits. It was interesting that many people used the same samples and you became aware that there must some source for it. But sample based productions are not my philosophy. I never wanted to just use bits of other people's music.
"Derek Went Mad" (Remix)
Derek Went Mad (Remix), 1991
The next one is from the primordial soup of breakbeat music.
Yes, this is beyond words. It actually did not interest me who was behind this, but it's the music. These beats put me into a sentimental mood. The UK hardcore scene, when it was still called breakbeat techno.
I picked this one because it has atmospherics and sounds that you can still find in dubstep.
It's totally brilliant. This record is minimal, comparably. A lot of the records back then exhausted the possibilities of sampling. The people were happy to use that to its full extent, and of course it was often too much. But you can still easily play tracks like this one. Of course in Germany that is absolutely not possible [laughs]. But you could really enhance your techno set with something like this, which is rather straight, not too crowded and too rave. Unfortunately nobody really gets that around here.
Then shortly after this came out, all the pianos and high pitched vocals came in.
Yes, although I found that very appealing, too. That was also my thing, even if it went by pretty quickly, and then came jungle and drum & bass. And it was over for me. I thought it was OK for driving around at night, but I was not following it. At that time I was listening to completely different music and I thought that drum & bass was pretty much based on the same patterns and rhythms and so on. There is no groove anymore at 170 beats per minute.
Shut Up And Dance were still much slower, and although they sampled left and right, often with some humour attached, it was devoid of kitsch.
Yes, although I liked kitsch, back then at least. And the high pitched vocals. Manix, DJ Mayhem, that was almost hard to bear, but I liked it. I was 16 at the time and it fit right in.
...The Second Phase..., 1991
This is an example of Detroit techno that is not from Detroit.
It's pretty housey. I didn't know this, but I generally soaked techno in back then without reflecting where it came from. For me, Detroit is difficult. People like to associate me with it, but I have to deny that because I don't really know much about it. I have never really occupied myself with it. There surely is a lot of music from Detroit that has influenced me, but at the time of the classic Detroit era I was listening to European techno, which of course was influenced by Detroit. I was not aware of the origins and connections. Later I developed some preferences and I began to think about what actually came from where. I was discovering Detroit only after my big Berlin trance phase, via Gabba and breakbeats and Chicago house, it was a bit complex.
By then it already must have been the heyday of Mills and Hood, and not so much the originators.
Exactly, I discovered Detroit over that and then went back. If you do not follow something from the beginning, things pass you by. Then later it's over and you don't look for it. Or if you do, you don't always have somebody who shows you what was essential. So a lot of it I simply don't know. People may praise certain records, but I stand there a bit silly, because I could only get into the classic phase in retrospect.
Did the classic phase catch on with you then?
Yeah, it was the hard sound which brought me to Jeff Mills and Robert Hood. But around 1996, the thing was through, apart from some Birmingham techno that fascinated me, and I went back in time. But it is not as if I would feel urged to look further and further into it. There were productions like those of Kevin Saunderson that seeped through to England on labels like Network, which were an influence on British techno coming from Detroit that you could trace in a lot of the UK productions, and I was more into that than the actual origins.
"Praise" (Mayday Mix)
This is one of the last remixes Derrick May did before he abandoned producing more or less. It is quite different to the original version.
Is it really him? [laughs] It's atypical to do such a long intro without beats, but in that aspect it is similar to his remix for "Sueño Latino." It's brilliant.
As with other of his tracks, this puts a lot of focus on percussion. Is that something that interests you as well?
By all means! I have 800 tracks at home with the exact same build up [laughs]. They start with a 909 rim shot and then rattle onwards. I did that a lot when I began to produce nine years ago. They all sounded like that, every single one. It was a time of change for me, I grew up, I moved to a new environment and away from old mates, and such melancholic moods really worked for me.
"Don't You Try It"
Don't You Try It, 1986
This sounds like early house, but it's actually from New York, from 1986. There were obviously people in both cities following similar ideas.
It indeed sounds like an old Chicago house record. It may even be a blueprint for something, but from my point of view today it's an entertaining house track first. But it's still house, and that's not really mine. I am techno! [laughs]. I liked a lot of tracks by DJ Pierre and Roy Davis Jr., but in the early '90s house was too mellow for me. I grew up with the Mayday parties, and although they represented the whole spectrum, house didn't matter. Berlin was harder, harder, harder, apart from E-Werk and a few other clubs. I found Strictly Rhythm OK, when they had their peak. But there often was too much singing in it. I could not get into garage house at all.
Do you have basic problems with vocals in electronic music?
Not really. I liked stuff with vocals on KMS and the music by Chez Damier and Ron Trent, which was house after all. And there were records that went well with those, so I had some phase of interest in that and went out spontaneously to buy house one summer. But it was just a phase. I have such phases with every kind of music. Right now I'm into breakbeats again and experimental stuff.
Everything leaves something behind. If you are an artist releasing on your own, you are forced at some point to do something that sells. And then you have take care that you don't have tons of material lying around at home that will never be released. It would interest me to produce something that would classify as house, because I think that a lot of records released now which carry the house tag are rather sad. They are neither fish nor fowl. The groove and the intrinsic power that house has at 120 BPM, you really have to nail that down. And a lot of current house records only try that half-heartedly, because they actually still stick to minimal. They attach some '80s vocal sample and think it's house.
As if the sound aesthetics of house were just grafted onto something else in the sense of exploitation?
They totally lack the feeling. It's just a product. It's not done with heart and soul. You notice that it's out because it is hip to sound like something, to do a label and so on. Many people publishing music behave like businessmen all of a sudden. Everybody can do it and it sounds accordingly. It makes me sad.
How would you approach doing a house record?
I would certainly not try to sound like this one. This would be almost pop music, if transferred directly to today. And many people do that already with success. It is basically not something I would aim for.
In some cases it might be easier or safer to rely on such old school resources than to take a risk and develop something new instead.
I would just try. And I would incorporate my own stuff into it. I would not think about commercial aspects or tradition. If I would, it would fail for sure. It would destroy the music. There are successful releases that are good as well, but mostly the best selling records are the ones with the most marketing. They just talk you into believing something is worth something. Someone who has a lot of money will get more money quicker than someone with less money to begin with, and it's the same with music. If you have the budget for sending out thousands of promos you will have success, but that does not mean quality.
I never knew that Photek produced 4/4-tracks, it totally passed me by.
It's actually from his classic drum & bass period, from 1996. The original version has breakbeats, only this version is straight. I think it sounds like dub techno.
It is dub techno in fact, like it is still produced today. Very interesting. It just sounds so good. I was very surprised that he did something like this. But usually if you are really good at some sound you can extend that to other sounds as well. If you understand how the music really works and you do it your own way, everything falls into place. This is way better than a lot of similar productions of today, really brilliant. But then I take up the position anyway that it was all better back in the day. [laughs]
Definitely. Well, actually it was probably not better back in the day, but you make your own experiences. And the groundbreaking experiences are those of your youth. There will never be something that hits you like something in your youth did, when you discovered the world, when you grew up and hormones went wild. Those are totally different influences to the ones you have now.
And the older you get, the more sentimental you get about these influences and the more important they become to you.
Exactly, but often you also overvalue them. You interpret them as something they were not.
You also often have to admit to yourself that a lot of music that really mattered to you in the past simply did not stand the test of time.
Yes, that's true. You think, "I can still play that," and then it's like "Damn, I shouldn't have tried!" [laughs]
On the one hand you think records you hear nowadays sound like something you already got years ago but on the other hand you have to realize that there are differences.
Yes, definitely. It's the personal stance you have on a particular record, which is often deceiving and overvalued. Just because you think it is great doesn't mean it must be great to others as well. You connect a certain memory to it, and others don't share that. Or others state to you in disbelief that you don't know a certain record. For them it was the defining record of 1993, and you weren't there. It sometimes makes me angry that I didn't explore further where something came from or what it stood for, or I'm annoyed that I didn't buy certain records when I had them in my hands in the first place. But then you didn't have the money and now you can still catch up if you want to. But in the past I felt I could have the raided whole stock of a shop and still missed out on a lot, and today I don't feel like that, which makes me a bit sad. Then again I have caught myself buying cheap back stock and putting great stuff into the shelf, unheard and still sealed.
Well, that is of course the capital sin.
That is, of course, unbearable. But you look for a certain record and once you have it, that's it, next one. But I don't find the time so often to listen to music at home, and I don't play out that often that I buy records just for that purpose.
But do you react to your discontent towards current releases by playing a lot of old stuff when you play out?
Yes. Recently I gathered some records for while, and when I took them home there wasn't a single techno record in it. So sometimes when I get booked to play techno it can be a bit difficult, because it also can get boring eventually to just play old records. Then again, there are people on the floor who don't know techno from back then and discover it while you play it. It's only the nerds in the club who know what you just played. The people want to dance, but they are probably not that interested with what kind of music you make them do it to.
Techno has become an entertainment thing, it doesn't necessarily matter anymore to play the hottest shit, what matters is just going out and listening to techno. It's not that deep anymore. I think it also depends on the club in question. People go there because it is a certain club, and not because certain music is played there. Of course some clubs are defined by the music they play, but generally the location has become more important than the music. And techno has become entertainment music, like disco earlier on, or hip-hop. It has ended like any other music preceding it. But that's the way it is.
You have to make the best of it.
Indeed! I still love listening to music and producing music, and I'm very glad that people are interested in what I do and that my music is bought and played.