As the title of his recently released double pack tells it, there's a pretty simple answer to all of this. Laubner is on a "quest for sound." It's a journey that reminds me of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Over and over again, you see the same sort of painting. Blues, reds, yellows, blacks, whites. Each arrangement, though, is different. And if you look at them long enough, you find yourself drawn to certain paintings over others. Yes, they all "look alike," but if you engage with them, lose yourself within them, you'll see that each has a unique character.
Perhaps I've loved Mondrian for too long. But when I recently encountered a link to an experiment where a computer produced a facsimile of Mondrian's "Composition With Lines," I was immediately able to tell the difference. The thing that people perhaps don't immediately see with Mondrian's work—especially when viewing it on a computer—is that there are rough edges. Despite his reputation, Mondrian was rarely interested in filling those famous large blocks of color cleanly. Look closely at a Mondrian painting the next time you're in an art gallery. You'll see his paintbrush everywhere.
The same goes for Laubner, whose dance floor-orientated music seems to do the same thing—with minute variations—over and over again. A drum loop, a murky piece of melody, set things to autopilot and watch things develop. As any electronic musician can tell you, however, finding those loops is hard work. Echospace's Rod Modell will famously listen to something around the house all day long, and if it starts to lose its luster before hour eight, he'll throw it away and begin anew. These are snatches of music that need to somehow take on new forms the longer you live with them, all within the span of a few seconds.
Laubner favors a hands-on approach to his work, finding it easiest to coax living, breathing electronic music out of hardware. "Over the years I've built up my small studio, which is almost 100% hardware, ranging from analog to digital synths, samplers and effects," he told me via e-mail earlier this month. "I like the combination of everything. Additive, FM, Wavetable hybrid or analog Subtractive, whatever. I don't care so much where my sounds are coming from, whether it's a cheap digital Casio VZ-10M or an expensive polyphonic analog [JoMoX] SunSyn. Both worlds have their strength and possibilities." He also takes his trusty field recorder with him for inspiration as well: "I make many [of my] percussion samples by recording outside." You can hear his touch, his paintbrush, everywhere.
Laubner's work first saw the light of day on Perlon. In 2000, he shared a split 12-inch with Ricardo Villalobos and Dandy Jack, recording as Ric y Martin. For many, it was the Ric y Martin side that hit first. But over time, Laubner's "Portside Waves" emerged as the track of choice. A typical reaction can be found in the comments on the release's Discogs entry from Archipel label boss Pheek: "Although I bought this release for Ric Y Martin when it came out, I found myself playing Stephan Laubner's track in 95% of my sets...One detail that I love about Laubner's track is the port sounds played in a loop, through a lo-fi effect."
But then Laubner disappeared. It wasn't until 2003 that he was heard from again, his "Strains of Nowhere" included on Perlon's Superlongevity 3. It's unclear as to what happened during those years, but over that time Laubner made the decision to start his own label, the simply titled Something. Since then, with a few very notable exceptions, Laubner has released the majority of his work via the imprint, embracing a DIY stance that often puts him in a precarious position financially. "At first, [Something] was very experimental, maybe too experimental for most people out there. It didn't sell a lot, so I was not able to produce new vinyl. I simply had no money for it. Even nowadays it's hard to get the money together for a new 12-inch. I have [had] an ambient album ready for weeks, but I can't go into production because of these reasons."
Despite not selling as much as some of his more celebrated work under the STL moniker, the experimental work that Laubner describes, which largely goes under the name Lunatik Sound System, is among his best. Unlike STL, which seems devoted to a very specific sound, the Lunatik Sound System output defies such easy categorization. He has made an album of sine wave experiments that would nestle easily among the Raster-Noton camp, put out releases exploring interlocking drones as ably as any mid-'90s Kranky artist and produced the aforementioned Sounds Like Water, which he says is "pure field recordings mixed together."
Soon his tracks were appearing on various mix CDs and podcasts, bringing him to the attention of labels eager to release his music. echospace [detroit] and Smallville are among the most prominent, with the latter putting out the celebrated "Silent State" to massive acclaim last year. "I never expected such a feedback. My Smallville releases were older tracks from around 2004 or so. The guys at [the label] did good advertising and promotion I guess. Without them, these tracks might have never been released," writes Laubner. "I've done that more dubby sounding bass-heavy music for a long time. There will be more coming out in that vein. Watch Echospace in the near future!"
The man behind Echospace, Stephen Hitchell, is typically mysterious when it comes to specifics on what Laubner has coming on the label, aside from a forthcoming remix, an STL first. His passion for the music, though, is obvious: "Our initial conversations circled around analog equipment. That's how we became friends." And that's how Laubner seems to want to be regarded as well. When I ask him questions about his life, he's reticent. "Many things happened in [my] life over the last few years. But music was always there for me." When I ask him questions about his upcoming projects, like the new moniker Synthonic Matter, or his studio set-up, he responds effusively. "I like my gear to be complex, and love to program for days! That's where I'm coming from—programming synthesizers." It's a quest for sound, you see. A quest that shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.