"The whole city vibe, I don't think I can ever connect to that," he said, looking out the window as the autumn morning rolled by. "I can't take it if I don't go to the woods for a period of longer than three weeks. It's the air and everything, the birds, I don't know, it's very important for me."
Stepping off the train, Hirschgarten Station looked like a reverse oasis: a blemish of metal and cement in the bosom of the forest. Brunner, who has the calm vitality of a personal trainer (his other job), trotted up a flight of concrete steps, through a gate and down a little alley, and he was there, in the hinterland (or what passes for it in Berlin). Clad in various shades of grey, with a black skull cap and a scarf peeking out of his windbreaker, he walked the long misty trails, looking around and soaking in the mood of the place, occasionally stopping to collect samples on his iPhone. At one point he stepped off the trail to hit a stick against a tree trunk. "You hear that?" he said. "You could make anything from this sound. Put some nice reverb on it, make some atmospheric pads, melodic pads." A while later, he came upon a skinny tree sitting loose in the soil. He pulled it back then let it snap into place causing a low "thwump" noise as it moved through the air. "That's a really good sound, could be a bass drum."
For excursions like this one, Berlin's woods get the job done, but they're just a stand-in for Brunner's real inspiration: the place where he grew up, a village of just four or five houses in Lower Bavaria called Berg (German for mountain). This is the hinterland his new album refers to, and that's pictured on its cover, in a photograph taken by his girlfriend. For Brunner, this secluded corner of Germany represents a pure state of being, and an emotion he chases in his music. Hinterland is both a love letter to the region, and an attempt to recreate the feeling it gives him.
"I love when you can step out of your house and you have the feeling that everything belongs to you—you can look at the landscape and not see any other buildings or people. You get the impression that it's yours, and this builds up an illusion of self-confidence. When I was a child, my family lived in a very old farmhouse, though it wasn't a working farm anymore. There was a little forest connected to the property, and yeah, it felt like it was mine. I spent a lot of time alone, and I think in this time a big appreciation for nature was developed. That's why I like to come here, to regain that sensation."
Brunner derives inspiration not just from the region itself, but also from its people. He and his family were cultural outsiders in Bavaria—atheists with strong ties to the Green Party in a largely Catholic and conservative community. This goes some way toward explaining his fascination with what he considers the classic rural Bavarian.
"Bavarians, you might know, are a special kind in Germany. They are always living in their own circle, they're not very open and they don't talk about emotions. The most important part of life is work, mostly on the old farm. Cows have to be fed, fields have to be taken care of. Everything else comes after. When I talk to these people, I sense this closure they have, but when I see the expressions in their faces, I also sense they have a very strong emotional existence. I think that comes out of the connection they have with the landscapes, and the changes that go on throughout the seasons. We have very strong winters, but also really beautiful summers, colourful falls and really, really uplifting springs, very heavy changes of the seasons. These people spend so much time outside—even if they drive to a shop, they drive through amazing natural landscapes. So many nice moments: sunrise, sunset, the fog in a valley—it must be inspiring for them, but they don't show it.
It was in something close to this environment that Brunner became a techno artist. In the mid '00s, he worked as a physical therapist at a five-star hotel in the Alps, when he heard Superpitcher's mix CD Today. He was floored. "It was so inspiring, really hit me with a bang." House and techno replaced hip-hop as his main obsession, and he was determined to get involved. "I said, 'OK, when you're done with this job, go back to your hometown... From then on, every major decision I made was more or less devoted to music." Brunner holed up at his mother's house with a keyboard and a borrowed copy of Cubase and taught himself the ropes.
"I had this basement room on a hill, and all summer I had the door open. One day I was making music and there was a deer there, 15 meters away just eating grass. It was so nice. I took another part-time job as a physical therapist so I'd have enough money to make music the rest of the time, and I did this for three years. I had hardly any money, I really had to be careful with my budget, but I had an amazing time in that little studio."
Solitude was essential to Brunner's learning process. "It was a perfect time for me to learn. No pressure at all, no one saying, 'OK man, what about a release?' Nothing like that. My development as an artist was very healthy, I feel very lucky about that." Somewhere along the way, he became so introverted that he stopped listening to other people's music. "I don't want to sound arrogant," he says. "So many people are making great music, but I have a very established taste in what I like." As Brunner tells it, his sound has had the same key elements ever since, not least its smooth production style and rich but ambiguous melodies.
But as good as the countryside was for creativity, Brunner found he needed the city, too. "Basically, I wanted to get a job as a personal trainer, to work with patients or clients on a more regular basis, rather than temporarily as a physical therapist. And of course I wanted to establish my music. I figured I would just go to Berlin and see what happened." These goals ended up being more linked than he expected. He got a job as personal trainer at Holmes Place, a well-regarded Berlin gym, and soon an intriguing name appeared on his client list: Paul Rose.
"I was like, 'Who is that again?' So I Googled him and realized it was Scuba. This was four years ago, when he was still kind of a dubstep guy, transitioning into 4/4. I became his trainer, and way back before my first release he gave me lots of good advice on my label, Plangent—how to find a good distributor, who I should talk to for mastering. He also gave me great feedback on my music, telling me whether he thought it was ready for release or not, whether he would play it in a club. I never would have thought before I moved to Berlin that I could make such a picture-perfect connection. Paul also invited me to play at the Sub:stance party in 2011, it was one of my only gigs that year and my first in Berlin. Having Panorama Bar as my Berlin debut, I can't take that for granted."
Brunner has been voracious since then, putting out a dozen records in just over two years, including five through Plangent. This impressive rate of productivity is largely thanks to his healthy and deeply pragmatic way of living. Brunner rarely drinks, never does drugs, and generally relishes optimizing his day-to-day life.
"One of my most important strategies to maintaining a satisfying lifestyle is to have a certain confidence in the way I do things," he says. "If I don't have that, I feel insecure. So I really make an effort to think about what I'm doing, and keep making adjustments until I come to a point where I can say, 'OK, this works well, to do this and that in that order, yeah, it does the trick.' Then I stick to it until I see something that needs to be changed or adapted. I do this for almost every aspect of my life."
Brunner's existence seems extraordinarily well-engineered. A typical day for him is split between his two roles. He wakes up at 8 or 9 AM, and following a "long breakfast" he works on music for four or five hours. From 5 PM until 9 or so, he's in the gym with clients. Creative and professional, mental and physical—these two halves of his routine form a perfect yin and yang.
"By nature I'm quite physical," he says. "But in the studio, I'm working on my psychological life... it sounds cheesy but I feel relief when I make a good track, which in my opinion is one that I can associate with some sort of emotion I have inside. If I succeed with the track, the feeling isn't gone, but there's still relief, kind of like when you have trouble with your girlfriend and you finally talk about it."
Brunner has found a similar symbiosis between his studio sessions and his live performances. He plays live exclusively, but he approaches his performances as a DJ, drawing from more than 100 of his own productions in whatever way best suits the mood. When he finds he doesn't have the right track for a certain situation, making that track will be his first priority next time in the studio. In other words, his studio productions fuel his performances, and his performances inspire his productions.
Maintaining this balance is extremely important to Brunner—so much so, in fact, that it helped him decide to forgo DJing. He explains: "What I see with people who tour a lot as DJs is they get to a stage where they're really, really busy, and their output slows down. And I have an explanation for this. DJs are of course always playing tracks by others, and always looking for tracks that do the trick. If they can find these tracks, there's no urge to create them on their own—why bother? And, you know, playing and touring all the time, it's such a fast lifestyle, man, it's impossible to maintain the calm spirit you need artistically, only a few people are able to do that. And for me this is a mismatch. That's why I chose not do DJ, because then I wouldn't have the same incentive to make my own tracks, and as I told you, making music is very important to me as therapy. That sounds very poetic, but what I mean is that it's important to making my life enjoyable, you know? Just to be able to ventilate some shit and always have something to come back to, some consistency."
Another key balance in Brunner's life is the one he struggles with: the city vs the countryside. The natural world is what inspires him, but Berlin is where his music flourishes. And you have to wonder if his music would be as good if he lived in the sticks full time. Could it be his longing for that other world, more than that world itself, that gives his records their sense of depth? In any case, you could say that as Recondite, Brunner fulfills that fantasy he had as a child—in his music, the hinterland belongs to him.