It's the sort of thing that everyone says they would do, given the opportunity, but it's harder than you might think. Financial security is tough to turn down. A DJing career gave him a nice fallback. It's clear, however, that production is equally as important. Soon, he teamed up with Stephan Bodzin in the studio—another producer that had chucked in the safety of more commercial music—and they went to Get Physical along with Caitlin Devlin, recording under the name Elektrochemie.
Instincts, again, told him in 2007 that the creative partnership with Bodzin had run its course. So Schumacher went solo, releasing work under his own name for the label as well as collaborating with DJ T. on the label boss' The Inner Jukebox full-length. Following on from his own trio of albums—Electric Ballroom, Electric Avenue, Home—Schumacher is set to release his own record, as yet untitled, later in 2010 for the label as well.
We caught up with the DJ/producer in Berlin to talk collaboration, regret and following your instincts.
That was when we re-released "When I Rock" over here in Germany through Warner Music. It was huge, pop stardom for a moment. Weird. But I avoided a couple of things, and with hindsight I am so glad. I had three singles at the time that went top 10 or top 15 in Germany. So automatically you're supposed to go to Top of the Pops in Germany. All my instincts were like... you cannot go to Top of the Pops, you cannot do it. Because at the same time, I had a full-on underground career, playing the coolest clubs all over Europe. I was like, no, that just doesn't go together.
So we sent these lookalike dancers, and took the piss a little bit. The producers of the show were really offended. They said, "Who does he think he is? Even Robbie Williams comes, everyone comes. Thomas Schumacher says he doesn't come?" They put a lot of pressure on me by constantly calling up the boss of Warner at the time, and he'd call the A&R, and he'd say "Thomas, you have to go." I realized after the third single, that's it. I stayed with Warner for another album, but I shifted the whole direction away from singles and charts to just do what I would do on an indie label. Which immediately led to them canceling the contract! But I'm glad I did it like that.
There were a few years between that and you hooking up with Get Physical.
Exactly. Get Physical was in 2006. In the two years before that, I was extremely busy traveling and remixing a lot. 2005 was where I felt a bit burnt out. Music-wise, this was when the hardcore techno thing was really starting to get popular in Germany. Interestingly, I felt a lot of pressure when I came to clubs. People put me in that cupboard also. They asked "why don't you play harder and harder?" I was like, "I've never played hard or soft..." It was something really weird for me, that people were so narrow-minded. So I stopped for a while, I took some time, listened to some music.
You can make wrong decisions if you don't follow your instincts. If you cater too much to people's tastes, for example. I could not do that, because I wouldn't be happy with what I'm doing. I don't ever want to stand there and play music just to please people. That would be the worst thing possible for me. Which, to be honest, there are many colleagues who do that, who make career decisions. So I took time off. Then I started working with Stephan Bodzin, and then the Get Physical connection started.
Was working with Stephan quite an inspiration for you?
It was for both of us. We had known each other for years because we're both from Bremen. But musically we were always here and there. He was doing a lot of very commercial stuff—trance, commercial trance. I did my techno thing, my house thing. In a way, maybe we were both in the same situation.
Did you go out with him much in Bremen when you were growing up, or did you meet him afterward?
Now and then before, but once we started making music together we very quickly developed a friendship. We were constantly working together and going out together… we moved to Berlin and I traveled to his studio because we were working mainly at his studio at the time. It was a very intense time, very inspirational for both us. We really clicked. What was so unusual for me was that, for the first time in 15 years of making music, I was not the one sitting at keyboard or in front of the computer. I took the backseat. Maybe I was the inspiration, and the director. Which was scary, but it opened my ideas of how interesting it can be if you have the possibility to take yourself back a little bit and see the big picture.
I was looking at the Discogs entry for Home today, and there was a comment about the album, wondering how much you actually had to do with the album. This gets to a point that I wanted to talked to you about. Working with other people, like DJ T. for example, where there's a name attached to it, and the other person has a lot to do with the sound…
Working with T., he experienced the same. People were posting things like, "This is Thomas Schumacher's production and this is his handwriting, and he should not be so outspoken about it, he should give Thomas more credit." To me, it depends on what the feel is with the person you're working with. T. always forwarded to me the interviews he did when he promoted the album, and there's not a moment when he didn't say clearly the way it was. I wouldn't be able to stand behind something if I thought it was wrong, if he didn't give me the respect for it. The most important component of any collaboration is mutual respect. If two people respect each other and treat each other accordingly, the issue of "who is better than who" does not come up. As for the those who have strong opinions about who they think is better than who, I'm reminded of this quote from a book by Francois Lelord's called Hector and the Search for Happiness: "Lesson no 1: Making comparisons can spoil your happiness."
Having been on both sides of that situation, what did you take away from working with T. in that way? Was there anything that was different, or the same as when you were working with Stephan Bodzin?
One thing I learned from working with Stephan—the way we worked was great at the time and I enjoyed it for what it was—but it was probably a mistake to completely take a backseat. Because once we stopped working with each other, I really felt like I had to start from scratch again. Even though I had 15 years of experience, I really neglected that other side of myself during that time. It took me quite a long while to find my own way in the studio again. It was good [when it was happening, but] we decided not to work together for personal reasons, and it was also clear for me that I didn't want to follow through with that Bremen sound that we had developed. The good thing was that the label was very supportive. I think that they were also a bit nervous—what will the new sound of Thomas Schumacher be like? But when I played it to them, they were really excited actually.
You didn't always have this faith in Get Physical. I remember reading that you had to send an anonymous CD to the label before they signed you. Why was that?
With my name at that time, in 2006, if I had put it on the demo… and T. admitted it: He would have not even listened to it. For him, I was in that corner of techno, techno, and he was something completely else. I set up a UK yahoo account, and we sent the Elektrochemie material to eight labels. The feedback was amazing. Mute wanted us, and another UK label. We were in a position where we could make decisions. Mute Records was a dream of mine, because they'd been so influential on my music. So sitting there in this office, it was very intimidating. The lady there was very straightforward with us, though. She said, "We've been bought by EMI, we're part of EMI now. We have a certain degree of independence, but when it comes to releases and stuff, lots of things apply now, that you know from your time with Warner." I said "What do you mean?" She said "Well, we need commercial remixes for single releases." When I heard that, I was thinking, "Oh my god. Here I am three years after I left Warner and it's more or less going to be the same thing again?" Meeting with the guys from Physical was a whole different story.
I remember it was my job to call Mute to tell them. Of course, as it happens, I talked to someone else about it, and he talked to someone, and then I got a call from Mute and she was like, "Why didn't you tell me that you signed with Get Physical?" I was like, "I couldn't do it!" But she was lovely. I told her that it was one of the biggest dreams of my life to release on Mute, to say no wasn't easy.
Yeah, still recording. As you can tell, it's unusual to release the first single without having the album finished!
How close are you to being done?
To be honest, it's kind of my decision right now. I think I could say to Physical, that's it, and I know all the tracks. My dilemma is, and I don't think it's a real dilemma, listening to the tracks that have been recorded in the last two months—I've been recording for almost six months now—I feel like the latest stuff is so much stronger than the first stuff. I'm also not sure if they would really go well together. So I said to the guys, "Let's start with the single now." Everybody loved this specific track and said this could be a great start for the album, so I'm just buying myself a little time to record more of the stuff that I'm doing right now. I've talked to the product manager at Get Physical, and there are two tentative release dates. It's either going to be out in July, or in September.
How, in your mind, does the new stuff sound different from the older stuff?
Last year was a year where I enjoyed producing a lot of housier, funkier stuff. I was really inspired by Motor City Drum Ensemble, because it brought me straight back to the mid-'90s. It was music that I loved at the time, didn't play that much, but I bought. So I just went straight back there and checked my record collection. I knew for my album that somehow I needed to produce stuff that would show that side of me. The first two months I produced really underground, dirty warehouse house stuff. But the last things that I've produced are really somewhere else, somewhere…. It's typical for me, I get so inspired by music that I hear. I quickly get bored also. So I have these months where I did this house thing, and I love it, but now I'm somewhere else.
I suppose it's dangerous, in a way, to be inspired by this stuff, then you produce it, and then it comes out four or five months after that.
Yeah, that's another thing, timing-wise. But this is something that's just a part of me, I sometimes make it difficult for myself or for the people who love my music. There are other producers that are as experienced as I, but the way they do things… like Marco Carola for example. If you look at his music over the past ten years, he's only twisted the sound a very little bit. Very smart, making it a little bit more accessible for people, and also easy for the people to follow I think. Often for me, I can't do that. I don't know why, but I often come to this point when everything has been said and I want to do something different. Lots of people like that about me, and others criticize me, they say how can you get really deep into something if you haven't been following that style for the last ten years or something.
to realize it will never be as good again."
We haven't heard anything from Spielzeug recently. Is your label done?
Yeah, that's totally dead. It was great to have it at that time in my life; we were really successful. But I felt like there was nothing more to say. For me, it was my major outlet from the late '90s until 2003. We had five great years releasing music that I'm still very proud of, that featured some great artists. My partner is still in Bremen who I used to do the label with. Musically, he has also started doing other things.
It's so strange to be able to let go of things, to realize it will never be as good again. It's OK to realize that we had five years of Spielzeug, 40 releases. Now we're off to new shores, pastures. This is something I had to learn, I was always really afraid of that. In the past couple of years I learned to really embrace change, and not be afraid of it.
Why were you afraid of it before?
I think [for] lots of personal reasons, absolutely. Personal reasons that started to influence my business decisions a lot. When I found out that's where it comes from, you can identify why you do it. It's much easier to change. I really started to actively embrace change, and see it as something you don't have to be afraid of, something good. To not spend time thinking, how you could have saved something or done things differently. Because you can't. It's in the past, you have to be able to let go of it.
Is there one thing you can isolate and say "I wish I could have that one back"?
I don't know… one thing?
Or two or three...
Honestly, I feel pretty happy with my decisions. I wish in the past, certain moments in my life, I'd been a bit more wise maybe. So when there were situations of change, that it would have not been so extreme for everyone involved. But it's only once you go through that you can learn from it, you know?