One of 2017's most fun and adventurous albums was the product of a long and torturous process. Lisa Blanning explains.
The first time I met Erik Wiegand was three years ago in Berlin, where he's been living since 1991, at Hard Wax's Wax Treatment party. I was struck by the DJ playing Aaliyah, ghetto-tech and footwork—not what I expected to hear at a party thrown by one of Berlin techno's most famous institutions. When I went for a look, I saw a gray-haired, nerdy German guy on the decks, wearing a smile that showed how much fun he was having. Spotting him in the crowd following his set, I went to find out his name. Upon realizing we had an old friend in common, we became—full disclosure—fast friends, regularly seeing each other at the club night Janus, where we were usually the oldest people in the room.
"At 20, I had this fear," Wiegand said. "I read that most people get stuck in the musical taste they had when they are in their early 20s, and stop digging new stuff. I was anxious that it might happen to me. That stuck with me somehow in that I want to see how far I can go—when is the time that I will struggle to understand what's going on in the music that I love? One day it will be over, but at the moment, I'm good. There is some music that is hard to digest, even though it's probably a kind of modern dance music. I'm always complaining when something is too messy, but then it's like, 'Is it me? Do I not have the capacity to process it, or is it my taste?'"
"Messy" is one of Wiegand's favorite critiques. Digging into his back catalogue—MMM in 1996, his solo material in 1999, Smith N Hack in 2002—no matter how ravey or experimental the music gets, there's always an overriding structure or logic to it. Perhaps that's related to his work as a programmer, which runs parallel to his musical output. (He studied computer science in a Berlin university, where he met Ableton cofounder Gerhard Behles, but, thanks to his blossoming music career, he never finished his degree.)
"[After Donna in 1997] there was a long break for MMM," he explained. "It has something to do with when I started to work with Generator—that was the name of Reaktor back then. It was a tunnel for me. I could see how people built up all these devices: reverb, echo, chorus, flanger and other classic modules in the studio, how they function, how they can be programmed. And it was in a way that I could very easily translate, especially with my background as a programmer. Reaktor is a programming language but in a graphic way. For me, it's much more convenient to read. It was life-changing, like, 'Wow, that's 100% for me. This software fits my needs exactly.'" It opened up new dimensions for his solo work.
The story of Wiegand's music career is its own micro-history of the development of electronic music. "In '97 or '98, the computer just started to be powerful enough to have synthesizers on them," he said. "It was the early days of VST plug-ins. You can hear it also in the first Errorsmith records: these were very simple, light. The Reaktor documents are tiny, they were much less complex and CPU thirsty than Razor, for instance. Nowadays, I could load them in seconds. Before that time, MMM used analog synthesizers—hardware, basically. There was no other way."
Encouraged by his engineer father, who had a music studio at their family home in Kassel, Wiegand's early musical adventures were anatomical as well as aesthetic. "I started opening these boxes up, and going, 'Hmm, this synth doesn't have this parameter and other synths do.' I wanted to modify them with the little electronic knowledge that I had, which wasn't that much, and I built my own analog modular. I did two modules similar to the Eurorack. One worked and the other one didn't. I didn't know enough electronics. But it was already a similar approach to extend it. When I work with something, I immediately see the limits. That's why I've also worked as a beta tester. I am not a very positive-thinking person. I say that without judgement. Sometimes it's very frustrating, and I admire people who can have a more positive outlook on everything. But when I look at something, I always see the faults," he laughed.
Wiegand started working at Native Instruments in 1999 as their first software beta tester. Several years later, he helped develop and became responsible for the Reaktor instrument library. He left Native Instruments in 2004 but still freelanced for them occasionally, and eventually had the idea for a plug-in digital synth designed to operate within the Reaktor environment. "Razor was released in 2011, but I pitched the idea several years before," he said. "It took a while to convince them. I developed it a little to get the deal, and then I worked maybe one and a half years constantly on it. And I didn't hold back because I wanted to show what I can do, and really do my best. There's not much out there similar to it. I mean, it's a synthesizer and there are a lot of synthesizers, but it's an outstanding synthesizer."
Coming from a man not prone to superlatives, this is easy to believe. But you don't have to take his word for it. You can hear the results clearly on Superlative Fatigue. It's his first album since developing Razor, and it's made almost entirely in Razor. "Only two tracks have 808 drums, but the rest is all Razor. Even the drums," he smiled. "It's not obvious that Razor can be used to create these drums."
Using Razor doesn't guarantee you the same irrepressible rave energy and funky dance floor nous as Errorsmith. But it does mean you have access to the kind of flexible, powerful technology that Modeselektor's Gernot Bronsert described to DJ Times as, "the most innovative software synthesizer I've seen in ages." Razor works by adding up sine waves. "It's a method where you can be very precise in shaping the sound," Wiegand explained. "With other synthesis methods, it's like, 'If I do this, it goes in this direction, and it may sound nice.' But it's not so much that you can determine the outcome. With additive synthesis, I can determine the spectrum in an exact, mathematic way by adding up sine waves with a certain frequency and amplitude. Up to 320 in Razor per sound. Normally, I just work with a few sounds in one track—like drums and one main sound. But on "Retired Low-Level Internal Server," it has maybe ten sounds in the track—it's a track that works by switching between sounds—so that makes lots of sine waves to play with. I know every atom of this track. For me, it's very satisfying."
With that kind of meticulous craftsmanship going into it, you begin to understand why it took Wiegand 13 years to release his fourth solo album, although he had plenty of collaborative releases during that time. I asked him how his collaborations differ from his solo work. "I know that I can't waste the other person's time by saying, 'OK, I need to work on this compressor for two weeks. See you later,'" he said. "No. We take whatever is there, and I will still slow it down because, 'I need to change this! Sorry, I have to go in Reaktor. It takes me ten minutes, OK?' But I know I can't go full force with all these atomic definitions."
Left to his own devices, Wiegand is prone to allowing the technical side of his work to take over. "I was never very confident in using compressors, for instance," he said. "So what did I do? Downloaded every compressor there is, tested them out, did my own compressor in Reaktor, and copied all of the good features from everybody else—as far as I could understand—and the months are gone. And it's stupid. Now I know a little bit about compressors, but there are so many other compressors out there, it doesn't make sense for me to have spent so much time on it."
But technical tangents are only part of his struggle. "I had all the sketches [for the album] six years ago," he said. "I have a folder—when I develop something and it sounds nice I just make a quick recording. Sometimes I go through them and, 'Oh, this sounds nice, I'm going to make a track out of it.' Then the hardest part comes. You listen to the music so often that you lose objectivity. Turning the potential into a finished track is very, very hard for me."
Wiegand had been trying to finish Superlative Fatigue for most of the time I've known him, and at a certain points during the process the stress was enough to manifest as physical discomfort. Still, he never considered giving up. "I like to be on my own, developing musical ideas and synthesizer tools, doing my experiments in the studio—that is a very creative mental space for me. But making music is the ultimate goal. I only do these developments and experiments with that in mind. I would fail if I didn't finish music."
The difficulty behind the creative process is at odds with the joyful, buzzing, kinetic experience of listening to Superlative Fatigue. At its core, you could say the album's sound evolved from dancehall. "These are all tracks that have these kind of dancehall-y patterns," Wiegand said. "If you just see the pulses regardless of whether it's a bass drum or snare drum, it's notes that are spread out by three sixteenths. Sixteen notes make up a bar, but you cannot divide it by three. You have to reset it at one point. There was this phase where every time I made a beat or played a melody, it had these kinds of accentuations similar to dancehall. I thought this is a theme and it should be playful."
Merrily futuristic, especially with vocodered vocals and talkbox synths, the album is not only musically playful. Wiegand's titles are loosely themed to computers and reveal his gently sardonic sense of humor, especially in the album highlight "I'm Interesting, Cheerful & Sociable." "But this track," he laughed, "if a person you met on a dating site would have the character of this track, it'd be like, 'Whoa, what's this person like? Crying, hysterical, then breakup, breakdown again? It's a bit too much for the first date. But he or she said that they're social and a nice person.'"
As tongue-in-cheek as the name Superlative Fatigue may be, there's more than a hint of earnestness to it. "Most of the tracks have almost a hysterical feel to them, or a little over the top, emotional, where you don't know if I mean it seriously or not," he said. "It's an emotional state that I like a lot. It's not something I make up, it's an honest expression of emotions. But even if it's hysterical or sad, I do it with kind of a satisfied smile on my face. Similar to when you know something is very painful in life, but it makes you feel real or it makes you feel that you're alive. And that's a good feeling, even if it hurts badly. Even in this bad emotional state you get comfort or satisfaction or somehow a rich feeling. It makes it not so bad anymore."
Perhaps this honest layer of emotional complexity adds extra freshness to Superlative Fatigue. Either way—to these ears, at least—the album is a crowning achievement in an inquisitive, inventive, sprawling discography. I'm hard-pressed to name many other artists working in club music, especially at its innovative fringes, who are at the peak of their game in middle-age. "I want to prove that you don't have to suck when you're 50," Wiegand said. We might have to wait until he's 60 to hear what he does next, but I predict superlatives.