All of this, it turns out, is completely by design. As he told me a month later at his flat in Berlin, Friedman is in pursuit of a sound that bears no connection to any existing musical tradition, especially the Western one. As an artist, he aims to contribute something entirely new to the zeitgeist, and believes that the only way to do that is to willfully forget—or "dis-learn"—fundamentals he'd long taken for granted, beginning with a cornerstone of music: rhythm. It's a perspective he shares with Jaki Liebezeit, the visionary drummer of Can, with whom Friedman has been playing and exchanging ideas since 2000.
Chatting over tea and pistachios in his immaculate kitchen, Friedman spoke in long, uninterrupted bursts, drifting between music, sociology and politics—USB sticks, the Pythagorean theorem and the Arctic Monkeys all had their turn in this outpouring of thought. Though his delivery was quiet and mild-mannered, his insights were often fairly radical, rejecting most aspects of music and pop culture as we know it. But even at his most contentious, Friedman is driven by a profound optimism: that music as an art form still holds infinite possibilities. The challenge is hearing it with clear enough ears—to hear it, as he says, from the perspective of an extra-terrestrial.
Do you find festivals like Labyrinth conducive to the kind of performance you want to give?
At first I asked Russ [Moench, founder and director of Labyrinth] if I could perform in front of the PA system. Generally I always ask for that.
The thing is, why would anyone want to perform behind the PA system? There is no reason for it since there are no microphones. When you have microphones, you have feedback issues. But an environment that's solely set up for electronic equipment, you don't have these problems, so why would you have people setting up behind the system? Then they are the only ones who are not hearing the sound properly. And why draw a line between audience and artist? To me it's a rock music kind of thinking that you need someone to focus on, someone who's more or less on the stage. Or in this case, in a tepee.
Do you often perform on the floor in front of the stage?
I always do it when possible, but more often when it's just me alone. If it's a band with drums, we need the stage because it's something nice to look at. You get someone drumming in the right way and you see how it identifies with the rhythms, with the computer rhythms. It's really nice to watch.
But with DJ equipment, and especially DJing without records, the performance can only be very poor onstage because nobody knows what's going on. The stage is ideal for dance choreography, for theatre and for music as well, but if you can't watch the music, if you don't understand how they produce the music, the whole concept falls apart. If you play your tracks off the USB stick, which is technically logical and understandable because you have a much wider repertoire, and you are using CD players, I mean, there is no reason why you would perform a spontaneous mix out of fresh new tracks, it could easily be made up, especially in the environment where you have the responsibility for 2,000 people.
Do you think there's reason to suspect those DJs?
I don't suspect it, but you could say the situation suspects it. Imagine someone who's not an insider, who doesn't know about CD players, who doesn't know about turntables—he would assume that it's completely automatic. I'm always trying to look upon things from an outsider perspective, to get a more objective impression of what's happening. Like an alien, extra-terrestrial point of view if you like. As far as possible, at least.
So when you're playing and people can't see what's going on, that makes you uncomfortable?
Yeah, it makes me feel uncomfortable, absolutely. Ideally I would perform in an ensemble. Each sequence that is played back would be performed by someone and I would be playing my part as well. But you can imagine that this is almost impossible today. It's not feasible for all musicians to do that. In my project with Jaki Liebezeit, this is a three-man team: sound engineer and two musicians. We hardly carry any equipment, less than 20 kilos each and there's only a little bit of backline that we require, but it's still for many organisers not possible to afford it.
Given all this, do you feel out of place at house and techno festivals like Labyrinth and Freerotation?
I wouldn't say so, no. My live set isn't so uncommon, it incorporates computer and live instrumentation. To me that's completely natural, it just doesn't work as well as a 100% real live band. But generally speaking, electronic music gives you freedom—the freedom to get rid of musical idioms.
If you look at traditional music for instance, if you have a tabla and a sitar performing together, a classical Indian ensemble, it will always, no matter how you actually play, it will always be in that field of Indian classical music. And this is the problem with more or less every instrument all across the planet, even with the jazz drum kit, which is Western instrumentation.
To me, the music that I want to produce shouldn't remind anyone of an existing musical idiom. And with today's means, electronic equipment will not necessarily produce this kind of idiom because the sound spectrum is so broad that it's an area where you can find a lot of interesting new sounds that don't remind you of any existing genre. On one hand, musical forms like rhythms and harmonies, scales and the methods, the techniques, they also carry music idioms. For instance, with techno: if you have a certain structure, a certain song arrangement, it would always be considered techno.
This is something that, since I consider myself an artist, I have to leave behind if I ever want to make a point with the spirit of the day. I will have to create actually my own instrumentation, my own sounds, and work with any musical vocabulary or formal structure that doesn't relate to specific genres. That is part of the reason why I try to discover uncommon rhythms.
So that's something you consciously think about as you're making music? Avoiding established musical idioms?
Musical idioms and musical misconceptions, especially in the West. With the Western musical tradition we have set up laws for music, which help the understanding of certain techniques, or help to memorize pieces from, say, 400 years back in time. We still can play the pieces by reading the sheets. But these rules, or laws—men can't set laws, there are laws already there: natural laws, cosmic laws. Men can only discover these laws.
For instance, music works on Pythagorean numbers, and this is often what is lost in the way rhythm is notated, because notation was made for tonal instruments, not drum instruments. Drums hardly appear in classical music, that's why the way we learn drums, the way we consider drum patterns, the way we analyze them, is often quite misleading, because there is no tradition for it.
The only tradition that is there can be found in non-Western music, where drummers play rhythms according to natural laws, and this is quite a surprising fundamental difference. In the West, the way they depict rhythm patterns is derived from the way notation is depicted for classical instruments but not rhythm instruments. The way drumming really works from a practical point of view doesn't require any sheets of paper or notation because it's a set of natural laws which simply exist, you don't need to notate it. "Syncopation," "downbeat" and "offbeat": all those terms come from Western thinking. They result in notating music as quarter notes, half notes and so forth, creating a grid and slicing up that grid and having sub-divisions of that grid. There are a lot of symbols at work that don't really make sense for the practical world of drumming unfortunately.
I wouldn't elaborate on this so much if it wasn't the reason that I think music needs to go in a totally different direction, because rhythm is the core structure of music.
So you think the Western musical tradition, or the Western way of conceptualizing music, puts a limit on what's possible in rhythm?
On the contrary, it opens up a field, which doesn't account for the natural laws of music. Take free jazz, for instance—the musical rules seemed to be a power that you would resist. The idea that you have to "free" jazz—of course you can't free music from anything but they wanted to free jazz, so they didn't allow any repetition, that was one of the rules, and all notes of the 12 tones of the chromatic scale had the same priority, though there was no priority of the structure. The octave is a natural law—the octave exists, it's not man-made, it's just a doubling of the frequency or a halving of the frequency. One makes two and four and eight and 16 and so forth, but they didn't accept this, didn't allow this kind of proportion in the music anymore.
The other important part of Western music is the individual: music focuses on the individual in the Western world, it always has. They're looking for someone to express themselves. That explains to me why we have a predominance of the singer in the music that we hear. You have this one author, the others in the band are replaceable, they are employees. Even with the most famous artists in Germany, like Marius Müller-Westernhagen, Herbert Grönemeyer, everybody who works for these singers, they are employees, studio musicians—they don't really care. This is a global phenomenon; it's considered a natural thing. I think it has all gone wrong since they ignored the cosmic laws for music; all of the ancient knowledge has disappeared.
The ancient knowledge?
Yes, musicians and audiences are not connected to the old knowledge. I've just tried to convey some of the ideas with what I was talking about; the rhythm concept is part of it. I could go deeper in this.
If you create rhythm, you have to deal with three numbers only: three, four and five. These are the Pythagorean numbers, they account for the pyramids, for the 90-degree angle. Pyramids are built on proportions of three, four and five. It's a mathematical principle, you can find these numbers everywhere, so this is part of it. And the harmonic scale of course, the overtones. The octave is the first overtone and then the fifths, the second natural overtone. You have this whole set of overtones that is given, it's in harmonic scale that is there, it's not man-made.
What was it in your personal history that turned you on to seeing music in this way? Was there a person or a musical experience that changed your perspective?
Absolutely, yeah. About 14 years ago I met Jaki Liebezeit and we started playing together. He discovered these laws on his own, and in the past four or five years, I began to really understand these rhythms, they feel natural to me. During that time I discovered a few other people who were into the same territory, for instance if you listen to some interviews with Sun Ra Arkestra, they're talking about it all the time.
How did you meet Jaki Liebezeit?
Cologne is a small city and I knew Jaki from his records, so when I started working with uncommon grooves, I knew he would be probably the only one who could relate to it, because I knew from his records that he was able to drum like that. And it was such a good idea to get in touch with him. It changed my life.
When we met in 2000, it hadn't been so long since he'd gotten rid of his jazz drum kit. It was only in the '90s that he radically changed his setup and his technique, and balanced all this knowledge that he came across, like how to write down motion sequences and how to play properly. This is a real learning process for someone who was trained as a jazz and rock drummer, he needed to learn almost from scratch again. It's like hand drumming with sticks, it's not so easy. It's not like what we know from Pakistani or African drummers; they use their left and right hands, but he found a proper system to it.
It's something that motion sequences naturally suggest. So, if you played a drum by yourself and learned how to play without ever watching a rock drummer or people playing jazz on TV, you would probably do it right. If you don't have Western influences, just by trying to find the right motion sequence, you would get it. And it's not necessarily in four—it could be three, four, five and the combinations of those. It's just something natural.
I sometimes try to find the basics of a new track like this, by drumming in a natural way. When I find something that works nice, that I consider groovy, I would then try to find out what signature that is. I wouldn't be really aware of it before because it's just the motion pattern that matters in the first place. Then I try to program it on a sequence, and then I find the logic around it.
This reminds me of what you said about trying to see things from the perspective of an extra-terrestrial. It seem like this is a technique of yours, to try to willfully forget Western traditions as you create a rhythm.
Yes. People without an academic background in playing drums would have much easier access to this kind of natural drumming, because they don't need to dis-learn, forget and get rid of this conditioning. For an academic, it's harder to understand—they've gone through a school and they have an expertise, and then someone comes and tells them everything is much easier and they're doing it all wrong. For such a person, that's much harder to accept. Someone without that background would instantaneously understand it because it's right, it's just the right way of looking at the problem of how to move left and right to make and create a rhythm.
Do you think some margin of human creativity is held back by the established ways of understanding music?
Yes, and you could say this for any political territory that's dominated by the empire, so to speak, because the empire has hard and soft power. Hard power is military power, the presence in camps and prisons all over the world, but there's also soft power, which is the ideology conveyed by media and theory by a certain school. But strange things have occurred since we've had the internet. So many revelations, for instance the way Jaki discovered the natural laws of drumming. Similar things are happening all over the world that make me begin to doubt my education and the established history. There's a lot of crap as well on the internet of course, but also many, many very interesting things that confront the common ideologies.
It seems like it's part of your artistic method—maybe even your mission as an artist—to intentionally undermine the established history.
Absolutely, for sure. I mean, I've been through the arts academy, and a lot of the debates I had there and the classes I went through and the colleagues that I've had, a lot of the questions touched on the definition of an "artist" and of the role of an artist in society. And there were some figures in the art academy who were quite interesting, who always constantly questioned themselves.
Do you feel the same way? Do you constantly question yourself as an artist?
Constantly. I mean, it comes down to the question: what kind of music should I produce given that the world is so full of music? I have to compete with all this music, because if I don't, there's no point. If I want to make a point, I have to be very clear about my musical message. I'm not the kind of person whose content to have a record that's played out in clubs for two or three months. Since it is music of today, and if it shall reflect the spirit of the day, I have to pose these questions, I have to be very critical because I think there's a lot more interesting music going on. Why stick to the same doov, doov 4/4 thing?
And to get into the sociological, more political territory: everything and everyone keeps going, no one's taking any risk. Mark Fisher, I don't know if you've ever heard of him—he called this "capitalist realism." Basically there's the artistic infrastructure, this is very important for creative people to have their time and their space to work, and it has continuously eroded over the past 20 years. This affects the way musicians work. I mean, you hardly find any musicians anymore. If someone tells me, "I would like to become a saxophone player," that's complete nonsense in a world where someone who plays saxophone—aside from the few real experts with gigs all the time—would not even survive anymore. Likewise, in the electronic field, you survive by assimilating to the current fashion.
How would you describe your relationship with that world? It seems to me that's the universe you end up in, but it's not exactly what you do musically. Do you consider yourself a techno artist in some broad sense of the word?
Not at all. And I think it's always basically getting worse. In the real world it's been really tough to survive if you don't have a day job. For instance, you can see that there are the top artists who earn a lot of money, which I think is really unfair given that most musicians don't do well. There's nothing wrong with competition, but it's gone totally out of shape where you have people earning, let's say at a big festival, more than ten times as much as other artists, probably of the same caliber. And I don't want to judge upon the caliber and the quality, it's just looking at the structure, the infrastructure of how things work today, it's obviously not fair. Granted, it's never been fair and it's very hard to make it fair, but I think at the moment it's gone totally out of shape.
When and where was it substantially better?
I'm not sure because I wasn't conscious by this time, but I assume from what this generation is telling me that the mid-'60s to mid-'70s would have been the most interesting times in Western music, because there was a different spirit. It was taken for granted that there was something to discover, therefore a lot of new things were discovered—and in Germany especially, because after the Second World War, there was a cut. Nobody wanted to be related to Germany, to the nation. Of course as a German musician, you wanted to get away from it, therefore musicians chose metaphors from outer space, outer space was the way to go. You can see this on the covers, like those science-fiction fantasy covers that suggest a cosmic connection. Drugs were kind of an accelerator, a stimulator to further go deeper into those cosmic relations. I think that's also because of the Second World War and the trauma for many German people.
That's something that's missing today—the feeling that there are new things to be discovered. Simon Reynolds, in Retromania, says that we don't have retro anymore… one takes it for granted that this music is the music of the day even if it's 60 years old. One example for me is Arctic Monkeys, who sound like a band from the '80s, but today would be considered the music of the day. There's no music that reflects or could be seen as reflecting the spirit of our times, which was quite different in, say, the '60s or the '70s.
In the '90s, even, we still had the idea of constant emersion of new genres in a very short period of time. Like dubstep, for instance, drum & bass, all those other things that happened. This, too, is a Western concept: that you always have to invent something new and a new sense for modernism that signals progress. In any case, this certainly has come to an end—now everything is contemporary, people don't expect anything new to happen.
It's quite common for musicians to say everything's been said in music. I've looked at a variety of interviews where this statement is made. It's a popular statement to make: "There's nothing more to say." And I say that's total nonsense, complete rubbish. If this was true, it would have been true 100 years ago. To me it's now becoming more interesting, it's getting more and more interesting since you have access to all the music of the world, since everything is present and accessible. The influences are incredible, so huge that I think it's a big challenge, to create something that incorporates the knowledge of all this music. These are really interesting times for making music. To say that everything's been done is just a lame excuse for recycling and sampling and making the same thing over and over again, which is actually what we have: the same kind of old formulas regurgitated all over again. If it was rock or techno, it doesn't matter.
Is a departure from Western musical traditions the way forward?
Absolutely. There's no excuse for someone to carry on in this Western model given the sheer presence of all this music on the internet. There is more than the 4/4 beat, there is so much more.
Is it hard to compose these rhythms with a sampler or drum machine?
Not at all. Well, it's as tricky as playing any other kind of rhythm—you only have to know what to do. It's like with a new yoga exercise: at first it seems impossible—how could you ever stretch or bend like this? But after practice, after a few months, already you have a feeling of progress. Eventually it becomes a game.
Was it a difficult process transitioning from one mindset to the next?
Yeah, absolutely, because it's not something you could comprehend by reading, for instance. It's about experience, practicing over and over and always thinking about how it works. It's not just about the drumming pattern, but also about the spirit. The rhythm wants to be played that way; the music almost plays itself.