Thoughtfully picking at the remnants of a croissant, TJ Hertz is articulating some of the ideas behind his new album, Flatland. "I think in some ways it's about realising how much of the worldview that I hold comes not from what you're taught, but from the company that you keep. And how easy it would've been to see the world in a completely different way had I made different friends, or lived in different places. It's a very, um... I suppose it's quite a detached way of looking at it. Let me see if I can give you a concrete example. I realise I'm waffling."
Hertz isn't waffling at all. Nor has he been at any point in our late morning meeting. Even during a lengthy ramen session a couple of days earlier, for which Hertz was tired and spaced-out following a Berghain blow-out (a rarity for him), his every word was carefully measured, and each new thought preceded by a lengthy silence, as if freighted with the awareness that to say one thing is to discard an infinite number of others.
Doesn't this arbitrary quality to the way we see the world, I ask, make him feel a bit cynical about things? "No, it makes me more engaged. I find it interesting what kind of different shadows you can cast from the same object depending on which angle you light it from."
I've dragged Hertz out of his bed for the second time this week because I still have questions about Flatland. The album is a dense knot of conjectures, re-imaginings and remembrances; a hall of mirrors in which maybes and might-have-beens gather like fog around the more straightforward contours of the dance floor 12-inches Hertz is known for. "[Writing the album] was a bit difficult at first because I realised how much I'd come to rely on the necessity that anything that I write would have to work in a club," he explains. "And when you're unsure what direction to take on a piece of music, that can eliminate a lot of the possibilities and simplify decisions a lot."
Confronted with this broadened field of possibilities, Hertz took his time. The album germinated back in 2012, during a lengthy episode of writer's block that roughly bisects his career. On one side is his emergence, with a pair of striking white labels and a single for Hessle Audio, each riffing on signifiers popular on post-dubstep UK dance floors. On the other lies the grinding discord of "Agnes Demise," the euphoric "Ganzfeld" and the exquisite technoid through-line of "The Stitch-Up." A Berlin-based techno devotee whose relationship with dubstep and its offshoots was always tangential, Hertz's recent work has grown ever more self-assured. But finding his voice involved going through an identity crisis of sorts.
"I'd spent a lot of the time in the late noughties thinking that what I wanted to make was really functional, straight techno, and not being very good at that," Hertz recalls. "[I released] a dubstep record, that went quite well, and then thought, 'Right, cool—now I can actually get back to what I wanted to make.' Which was functional, straight techno—which I still wasn't very good at. I just felt like I was clutching at straws basically. The one thing that I'd always fallen back on before, I realised, was something that I'd never actually done successfully." He laughs ruefully. "I guess in retrospect I was trying to do it too much by the numbers, which has never really suited me that well."
By contrast, Hertz's breakthrough records traded in aggressive subversion. Most set their sights on an established style and, with the offhand glee of an outsider, pushed it to the breaking point. Hertz openly describes his incendiary Hessle single "Cactus" as a "comedy song," a tongue-in-cheek "ode" to the serrated basslines of Rusko. These days, however, he's aware of the limitations of such an approach. "There are tracks where I listen back and I think, 'Was that really necessary?' I listened to 'Unglued' [from Objekt #2] again the other week and thought, 'This is actually quite silly isn't it.' I don't feel that way about 'Agnes Demise' for some reason—maybe because I'd worked out how to produce in such a way that it felt a bit more genuine and had a bit more power to it. I feel like gradually I've been able to convert that silliness into idiosyncrasy, which is something I'm a bit more comfortable with. I feel like I don't have to resort to actually making fun of a genre any more."
Flatland certainly isn't playing for laughs. If there are pranks here then they're the sort that are so darkly cryptic that the victim never even knows she's been had. For every moment of exuberance—"One Fell Swoop" and "Ratchet," both electro nailbombs—there's a "Strays," whose melodies howl like a cold wind across a barren landscape, or a "Dogma," whose implacable trudge is a far cry from the daredevil intensities that mark out some of Hertz's most satisfying work. Past Objekt productions have tended to deliver answers, albeit with a velocity and eloquence that would leave you reeling. Flatland raises many questions.
At the heart of all this is "First Witness," one of several moments of taut, brooding ambience. Its alien dialogue is sampled, Hertz tells me, from an early speech synthesiser demonstration: "Who saw you?" "She saw me." "Whom did she see?" "She saw me." "Did she see you or hear you?" "She saw me." The point seems to be that, through inflection and context, the same material can take on different meanings. Our perspective shifts, and different shadows are cast. It's an idea borne out in the album's shimmering partner pieces to "Agnes Demise" ("Agnes Revenge" and "Agnes Apparatus"), in "One Stitch Follows Another" (a ghostly negative of "The Stitch-Up") and in the oblique mirror image formed by "First Witness" and "Second Witness." It's detectable, too, in the numerous cross-references that bind these tracks together—tiny sonic callbacks that induce an eerie sense of déjà vu.
Hertz is hesitant to make too much of these ideas, and repeatedly draws attention to the contrivances behind them: those mirrored tracks were at one point called "Tomorrow's World I & II," featuring samples from the cult British science programme, while sounds from "Agnes Demise" were only stitched into "Revenge" at the last minute. But this only strengthens the impression of Flatland not as a static piece of music but as an endlessly multiplying scree of alternate possibilities, in which divergent realities blur together and collapse into one another constantly. Had circumstances been just a little different, we might have ended up with another album entirely.
On this particular morning, croissants by now a buttery aftertaste, I'm keen to quiz Hertz on the work that goes into his meticulous productions. In the past he's spoken about the numerous versions a track passes through on its way to completion—sometimes as many as 80—each leaving a "scar tissue" of incidental details in its wake. Is that still the case?
"I'll usually save a new version before I make any drastic changes," he explains. "Often it'll sound like every five or six versions I've made some fairly major change. Like, I don't know, replacing half of the drums, or restructuring. Sometimes over the course of 20 or 30 versions, most stuff will be replaced and you won't hear much of the original in there any more."
This is a failsafe, in case he wants to delve back into the timeline of a track to correct some regrettable decision. "I spend, I guess, 90% of the time going forwards and 10% of the time going backwards. But I definitely like having that safety net there. Also sometimes I'll get to quite a late stage in the writing process and remember something that used to be in the track that isn't there anymore, and have to go back in order to find it." It also affords Hertz a kind of flickbook account of a track's growth, a blow-by-blow of the decisions that were made and the changes they set in motion. "I have all these unfinished bounces in my iTunes, and often it piques my curiosity as to how [a track] got from there to where it ended up. I mean, that's not always how it works. Maybe the more experienced I get, the more directly I can aim for the end goal rather than do quite so much meandering. But I still very much feel like I'm learning."
Unsurprisingly, Hertz's workrate isn't the fastest. "It's getting less frustrating. I guess I've tempered my expectations. I no longer hope that maybe this jam that I'm recording will be the final version," he laughs. The main obstacle, he says, is "lack of perspective. I find it quite difficult to judge how something is sounding objectively when I'm recording it." Partly he's helped by his friend and "mentor" Joe Seaton, AKA Call Super, who has played an advisory role on virtually all of Hertz's released tracks (Hertz returns the favour just as often). But mostly it's a matter of time. "It takes that time off—it takes many revisits, a lot of comparison—in order to get that sense of perspective on whether something is good or not."
Which leaves one lingering question, regarding the album's title. "Flatland is this novella from 1884, a satire on Victorian society about a two-dimensional world in which all the inhabitants are shapes—polygons, triangles, lines. Its lasting legacy was its treatment of spatial dimensions. If you're a two-dimensional creature then your field of vision is a line rather than a plane, like ours. So a triangle looking at another triangle would just see one line, with maybe different shading. But in this book the protagonist is visited by a three-dimensional object who takes him outside of his dimensional home and allows him to see the whole of Flatland from above. I liked how it tied in with the idea of being able to see one story from the actual true side of it, rather than trying to construct a facsimile of it from seeing it only from one angle or from several angles. Instead, you can see the entire thing all at once."
As Hertz is explaining this, it's difficult not to think of the simple geometric shapes stamped onto his white labels, supplanted, on Flatland's cover, by a mess of fluid lines curving through 3D space. The forms they outline are eye-catching but supremely glossy and unreal. It's a nice idea, to be afforded that bird's-eye view, but we are all ultimately shackled to our own perspectives, doomed to see things from a single angle, or from several competing angles, none quite giving us the full picture. Still, that doesn't mean we can't strive for greater clarity—a process to which Flatland, knotty and alluring in equal measure, seems deeply committed. "It doesn't feel like I set out to write an album and then wrote it and now this is the finished product," Hertz says. "I mean, I'm really happy with how it came out, but it feels like it's something that I need to cleanse myself of now. And next time round it will be a much more focussed effort."