Brazen appropriation or sensitive exploration? Angus Finlayson unpicks this German artist's striking music.
The flutes—simulated using a piece of software—are far too large to exist in the real world. And the frog sounds were recorded in three different parts of the globe: you'd never hear those animals in the same place. The track, taken from an EP called Authentic Exoticism, is "Southeast Subterrane." Its artwork is borderline disturbing, a set of 3D-rendered panpipes transforming into pink flesh, scrawled with veins and sprouting scraggly hairs. On the inside of the record's gatefold sleeve is a lengthy essay from its creator. It opens with a quote from the writer Victor Segalen—"exoticism is… the keen and immediate perception of an eternal incomprehensibility"—before touching on The Expendables 3, Erich Scheurmann's hoax ethnographic novel The Papalagi, and the biological theory of Lamarckian inheritance.
It ends with a mini manifesto. "To occasionally discover something other than one's ego, to encounter and withstand real difference and even enjoy it, is the pleasure that enriches those who at times manage to break free from fear!"
The author of this strange treatise, and the producer behind the record it accompanies, is standing next to me on Kreuzberg's Heinrichplatz. He's wearing chunky black-framed glasses, a T-shirt for his label, Diskant, and an expression somewhere between concern and amusement. It's a sunny day in August, and the pavement around us is busy with locals drinking coffee and tourists scrutinising Berlin city guides.
"I didn't put these up," Florian Meyer says, pointing up at his first-floor window. His flat is part of a co-operative housing scheme, a low-rent relic of Kreuzberg pre-gentrification. "This one I don't mind"—he points at a hand-painted banner hanging beneath one window that says "community not commodity."
"But this one"—it says Kapitalismus: Schweinesystem—"I don't like. Not because I'm a fan of capitalism but because I quite like pigs. For that to make sense you have to really hate pigs."
We go upstairs for a quick tour of his scruffy studio, which he shares with his partner, the artist Lotte Meret Effinger, who was partly responsible for Authentic Exoticism's artwork. Keen to savour the sun, we head back outside and find a bench in a nearby park. Our conversation turns to his essay, and to "exoticism." Meyer has spent plenty of time in academia, and he isn't afraid of discussing big ideas, even in his second language.
"If you look at it from a critical standpoint, you might choose to not have anything to do with it," Meyer concedes. "Because historically, products that came to the market with this label often seem to have a—maybe unconscious—political agenda that is blatantly racist. Yet there often is something to the sound. I mean, for me at least. I felt like there's more to it than just fascinating trash aspects, or camp aspects. And I felt exoticism actually is a sign of the times. We are now living in a global society; all traditional societies are merging into this swamp of global culture. And there are hybridisation processes, culturally, that take place. No matter if we like it or not. We can try to resist it, or engage in it. The way we approach it is now at question."
As Don't DJ, Meyer has been refining his approach since 2013. Early releases on Diskant sound like complex technical exercises for tuned percussion instruments. Later, things became more expressive. 2015's "Hexentrix" starts throbbing and sinister, before twinkling arpeggios scatter over its surface like jewels flashing in the dark. The following year's "Gammellan" is darker, with something unsettling in its sour, metallic polyrhythms.
The track's title puns on the Indonesian traditional music, a German word for rotten food, gammel, and "lan," a Turkish word meaning "dude." Meyer often brings his nerdy academic humour into play ("Don't DJ's DJ-sets are experimental crowd control based on postcolonial cultural imperialism. You may book but you might pay the price," he wrote). But his music isn't ironic. It's deadly serious in its pursuit of the uncanny.
For Meyer, this isn't just about cultural fusion: it's also about man and machine. "The aspect that is mostly discussed [in the essay] is the hybridisation of cultures," he says. "But there is an underlying subtext about a hybridisation with the machine world."
This is reflected in his choice of tools. The Don't DJ sound relies on two relatively young music production technologies. One is physical modelling, by which the acoustic properties of various real-world instruments can be algorithmically imitated, which is how you get the fantastical flutes and artificial mallet instruments. The other involves generating Euclidean rhythms, the strange, off-grid beats that seem to tumble on forever.
"I really like this approach of making a virtual reality completely generated by algorithms that sometimes mimics a natural sound or rhythm but at times it's also not, it's something bewildering," Meyer says. "For me this is not so far away from developments I see in design, where you have people 3D-modelling some object rather than just photographing it. The auto-tune revolution is also a sign of this time, I would say. People seem to prefer a quality that is not entirely artificial but it's also not natural. It's something else."
Meyer's music has been "something else" for as long as he's been making it. He got his start in the mid '90s, just as techno hit the rural Black Forest town where he grew up. But he has always taken a questioning stance towards dance music culture. First as part of IFF, an attempt by four childhood friends to "recreate techno with stupid means," namely four pairs of turntables and a strict dogma: no records, no effects, no overdubbing, no post-production. The quartet would treat their decks with rubber bands and bits of paper to produce strange rhythmic patterns, a sort of analogue counterpart to glitch music.
Later, Meyer and his IFF bandmate Marc Matter formed The Durian Brothers with Stefan Schwander, AKA Harmonious Thelonious. The group used turntables in a similar way but eased off on the dogma. A string of EPs on their newly founded Diskant label, and an album for Kontra-Musik, explored a more playful, immediate sound. Still, not everyone would have agreed that the group's bizarre chugging rhythms were dance music. In a 2013 Wire interview, Matter said, "We wonder that this techno thing is still so big—it's so boring!"
During this time Meyer left his hometown, Bad Säckingen, to study sociology, philosophy and cognition sciences in the nearby Freiburg, and then media art in Karlsruhe. Matter had moved to Düsseldorf, where Schwander also lived, and Meyer was slowly drawn towards a Düsseldorf institution that shared his contrarian streak. His encounter with Salon Des Amateurs was inevitable: Matter worked at the cult club, and one of its founders, Detlef Weinrich, who happened to also be from Bad Säckingen, had been a fan of IFF since their early days.
"We did not have a rehearsal room but we could always use Salon when it was closed. The Salon soundsystem, some people like it, some people really hate it," Meyer laughs. "But it was a very important reference for us. The Durian Brothers records on Diskant, they are for me some kind of Salon sound. Not only in terms of genre but also in terms of the quality of sound." (Some of those records have "amplifier: Salon Des Amateurs" printed on the sleeve.)
It wasn't just the Durian Brothers project that was shaped by the club. Meyer wasn't producing as Don’t DJ at the time, but the groundwork for the project was laid on the Salon's eclectic dance floor. It was there that he "realized that I really enjoy, in a club atmosphere, sounds that are world music-like." He singles out DJ sets by Weinrich, better known as Toulouse Low Trax. "To me he opened up a whole new world of, 'No, it is possible...'" Meyer’s work as Don’t DJ would keep this freewheeling aesthetic in mind.
"I love going to clubs because I feel like it's a really good place to have good conversation, to think or to just lose yourself," Meyer says. "But sometimes the sound really bores me. When I'm in a club I like to listen to music I can completely get lost in, and think of something else. But at the same time the music should also be something to hold onto and entertain you. I like it to have a high complexity level so I can look into it deeper and deeper and still not figure out the whole thing. That's the kind of rhythms I produce."
Meyer's rhythmic tastes come to the fore on his recent debut album, Musique Acéphale. An intimidating 80 minutes long, it dials down the kitsch of Authentic Exoticism in favour of meditative, de-centred beats. The title, meaning "headless music," came out of experiments Meyer conducted with a friend during a stay in Japan.
"We were on a quest for a rhythm that would continuously shift the metric focus, or that would have the listener continually shift the metric focus. So you couldn't say here is the one [beat]. Within the rhythms I'm pursuing, I search for something that takes me to some different place."
Meyer goes off on a long, thoughtful tangent about how certain rhythms take the listener to a place "outside of language." I'm reminded once again of his essay, and his suggestion that we should all be embracing the cultural unknown.
I wonder if Meyer's talk of cultural hybrids leaves him open to criticism. It is, after all, easy for a white person from a wealthy European country to kick around these ideas without having much personal investment in the cultures they're referencing. I mention a video recorded at the launch party for Authentic Exoticism, in which Meyer discusses "the positive potential in exoticism" with Thomas Schwarz, a white German academic.
"You're not the only one bringing this up," Meyer says. "Obviously it's very easy to sit in a safe environment and solve other people's problems who are over their head in it, while you're outside and not having even your foot in it. I don't mean to relativise everything when I say we can also think in terms of humankind. I think all people have to, in one form or another, position themselves to these issues. Also for white people, it's not so strange to think about this kind of stuff. And for people who have the resources to sit and think and talk, it's maybe even more of a necessity to do it."
The conversation carries on later, via email. I'd been reminded of criticisms of William Bennett's Cut Hands project, another musical exploration of the exotic. Meyer had missed that particular controversy. After I clue him in, he sends a lengthy reply, complaining about people's eagerness "to have an opinion on everything." It's forceful stuff; he later tells me, with his characteristic small smile, that "before I pressed send, I wasn't entirely sure if it was a good idea. It felt like giving my career in your hands."
But on some level Meyer can't help himself. He has an academic's eagerness to butt heads with ideas, and a contrarian's urge to provoke, even when provocation might not be the wisest course of action. A few weeks after our interview I bump into him at Berlin club ://about blank, at a Sunday garden party disrupted by sporadic showers. The DJ and most of the crowd have moved under the roofed bar to escape the rain. Not Meyer: he's stood on the soggy dance floor, smoking thoughtfully, a look of obscure satisfaction on his face.