The results are well known: As Sieg Über Die Sonne with Dandy Jack, Freund provided the cooler hand to Martin Schopf's Latin percussion; as Pink Elln he grew electronic dreamplants on his own. Freund has found his greatest success, however, ever since he left the comfortable environs of a day job in 2003, producing house music with a twist under the name tobias. and experimental work with Max Loderbauer under the name nsi. (Non Standard Institut). The former has yielded clubland hits like "Street Knowledge" and "I Can't Fight the Feeling" and has vaulted him to an elite circle of producers that eloquently bridge the gap between head music and body music.
In the run-up to his two performances at Mutek this year, we caught up with Freund by phone to talk about his beginnings, the slow beat project between him and his wife Cassy and why his 808 doesn't sound all that great on Ricardo Villalobos' home speaker system.
I was born near Frankfurt in a little city, but I grew up in Frankfurt.
Were your parents putting instruments in your hands as a kid or was that something that you took to on your own?
I took to it on my own. My parents were not musicians. They listened to Bavarian folk music, which I wasn't so into. [laughs] But through school and, of course, through music—I grew up in the '80s you know, when there was a lot of development from punk music to electronic music—I was always into music. I first bought a synthesizer—a Korg MS-20—in 1980.
What was the scene like in the '80s in Frankfurt as far as electronic music was concerned?
I was working for myself with a friend of mine—a school friend of mine—so we weren't involved in a big scene of musicians. We were quite separated. We had a group called Vo Ese, which you probably wouldn't have heard of as we never released anything. (But we did have a lot of material printed on cassette which was nice.) Right now I'm actually listening to all of the old tapes again and I'm thinking about releasing it—30 years later. It's amazing—the analog sound. We were really into sounds, you know. We didn't want to become a group or stars, we just wanted to experiment with sound.
Was there a particular reason you went back and started listening to this stuff just recently?
Max [Loderbauer], my partner in nsi gave me his tape recorder, so I brought all the stuff here while I was renovated the studio. I hooked it up and listened to the tapes while I painted the walls.
So when did you decide to start recording more dance stuff under the Phobia and Metazone names in the late '80s and early '90s?
Well, the first release we had was a 7-inch with my group Sieg Über Die Sonne and we did that as a surprise for Martin [Schopf, AKA Dandy Jack] who was going back to Chile. This was in '89 and it was a recording of three songs with three friends of mine. We did the song because I was working in a studio by this time, and I could press it and master it. We had a pressing / cutting machine there, so I did it all by myself.
We just did 300 hundred pieces of that and brought it to him as a surprise. We never released it because we were separated in several cities: One of us was living in Barcelona, one in Chile and I was in Frankfurt and was involved in my job as a sound engineer, so we were never disciplined enough to release it. We just wanted to keep on experimenting and playing with drum machines and whatever.
How did you meet Martin for the first time?
In Frankfurt—it all happened in Frankfurt. I met Uwe Schmidt there too.
I saw in your bio that you played a concert in '89 down in Santiago. So that was through Martin?
Yes, this was all through Martin at this time. And in Chile, of course, we met Luciano at this time; he was there already, like a small kid, like 14 years old. And of course we met Ricardo as well.
Milli Vanilli....I still really
enjoy the music and the songs."
How long did you end up working at the studio in Frankfurt?
I worked there until 2003.
What were you doing there exactly? You were an engineer, right?
Yeah. I can't play any instrument, I can't play keyboard, I don't know any harmonics, so in the studio I would do drum programming for example. As an engineer, I would also experiment with FX units and stuff like that.
Did you use the studio when you had a chance to work on your own stuff?
Sure. I did a lot of recordings in the studio when I had spare time. For example my boss would leave the studio and give me something to do, whatever: cut something there and there, and I would finish this quite quickly so I could use all of this equipment for my own stuff. I brought in my 808 and connected it and ran it through all these units; I would be there the whole night. We had a really nice studio with a Neve desk and all of the best gear.
I'm surprised that you don't try to downplay some of that musical history where you worked with Meatloaf and Milli Vanilli. A lot of people would try to hide that.
Well I'm proud that I worked with Milli Vanilli. It was a nice time and I still really enjoy the music and the songs. Somehow I was still in this punk mode where I didn't want to be involved in any kind of big success, though. And I also met a lot of people in the music business that seemed so fake: All these A+R bosses that discovered new stars and made money off of them—they didn't have anything to do with music that I liked, so I never wanted to be involved in that part of it. I wanted to do my work and—on the side—do my stuff.
You say you didn't want to be involved in it, but you worked there almost two decades: What made you finally decide to leave? Did you finally have the courage to try to make this side stuff be your full-time job?
I always thought to make this switch at some point, but in 2003 there were so many different things that came together. Frank Farian, my boss and the Boney M. guy, said that he wanted to move the studio to Miami. So he asked me to come with him or look for another job, and of course I said "I won't come with you." I didn't want to be Frank Farian's engineer my entire life. So, in 2003 I stopped working there, and then I split with my girlfriend and had kind of a mid-life crisis. So I went with Dandy Jack to Berlin.
[Ricardo] was because I wanted to
listen to my 808 on his soundsystem."
You only started recording as Tobias a few years after that, why did you decide to use that name with the period?
I thought it looked good. [laughs]
So there's no hidden meaning or anything behind that?
Well, there are strangely a lot of Tobias' in the music market right now, and I wanted to differentiate myself a bit.
Speaking of names: Non Standard Institute. I understand the Non Standard part, but why do you call yourself an Institute?
Well the thing is, it's always my job to look for names. [laughs] With the Institute, I thought of the Max Planck Institute you know. But Max Planck didn't work so somehow I came to Non Standard Institute for some reason. Non-Standard is actually from a record from Haruomi Hosono who was in Yellow Magic Orchestra that came out in the mid-'80s.
When you work with Max, what is the process? Is it always different?
No, we almost always have a similar approach now that we have everything connected in the studio. Max has his corner with all of his gear, and we just jam. I am the master with all the sync stuff and at some point there'll be something special and I will start recording two tracks, like in a live situation.
No. With Martin, we work differently. We build things up. With Ricardo it was similar. The reason I did something with him, though, was just because I wanted to listen to my 808 on his soundsystem. He doesn't have an 808, and he always says, "Ah, I don't need this machine." And he also somehow doesn't like the 909 as well. He doesn't like the real machines, he wants to have machines that just imitate the 808, you know. I don't know why. And actually, when I connected it, it didn't sound as good as I thought it would for some reason.
It's funny. He has the biggest speakers and subwoofers in the world. So I guess it's too much; it sounds kind of fat and unbelievably loud and full of sound, but usually the 808 in a club will sound perfect through the speakers. When the soundsystem is nice, the 808—without EQing and without compression—sounds perfect, but not in Ricardo's studio, I don't know what happened there.
How did you meet Cassy? You met her in Santiago, correct?
Right, I met her in Chile. Oh. No, actually I met her in Martin's studio apartment for just five minutes, but we weren't quite interested in each other. Then I saw her at this Mutek rave thing in Chile. She went there with Ricardo and some friends, and I was playing with Uwe and Martin and at this concert we got connected.
You mentioned when you did the RA podcast that you were starting a slow-beat project with her?
Er, yeah. [laughs] It's still in the beginning stages. We have about six songs, but I don't think it's the time for them. I don't want to promote it right now: I'm in a different mode. Right now I really feel like I want to produce for clubs, and I already have the project on the side with Max which is more experimental, listening music.
I think the thing with Cassy is that it would take too much time and we would have to promote it and go on tour to make sure to do it for real. Right now Cassy wants to do her own records—she is working on her CD—so I think at the moment it would be a waste of time to just release it without a plan. The songs won't go bad, you know.
You mentioned that you are really into making music for clubs right now. What's so interesting about that to you at the moment?
For my tastes right now, I really like the direct response of the audience to what I am doing. My live sets are as open as possible. I always bring the 808 and I have a little controller that I always play in real-time to change the set completely. This immediate response is something that I've never had before.
Is this a case of the technology being more powerful now, enabling you to do things that you hadn't been able to imagine in the past? Or is just that you'd never thought to do it before?
I found out that the simpler it is—just to have a kick drum and nothing else…I don't know how to say it. It's the best sound in the world. I really dig it a lot.