As the label reaches its 20th anniversary, Frank Bretschneider, Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai reflect on two decades of pioneering sound and design.
1999 was a turning point for the newly minted Raster-Noton label. Not only did Nicolai move to Berlin, followed a year later by Bretschneider, it also saw the release of their 20' To 2000 series. 12 artists contributed a piece of music, released monthly, written for the last 20 minutes of the millennium. With clear packaging in c-shell CD cases that also collected as a set—with magnets for the middle holes—it won the Ars Electronica Golden Nica and was bought by both New York's MoMA and Paris's Centre Pompidou. Some 17 years later, after scores of releases by dozens of artists, the label has defined its own strand of experimental electronic minimalism matched by a strict, often conceptual, eye for design.
When I met the three founders at Halle Am Berghain, the space in the Berghain complex reserved for occasional special events, before the opening of their White Circle installation, they spoke with the interlocking ease of old friends. Graciously retelling old stories while smoking cigarettes, they appeared excited for the launch of their 20th anniversary celebrations. The installation itself is fantastically minimal, a large ring of white neon lights that glow in correspondence with the 16-speaker surround sound (and seven tiny aerial speakers) for the specially-commissioned music works, from each founder plus Kangding Ray. Stark and beautiful, the music's high standard invites lengthy engagement.
Do you remember what first made you turn to electronic music?
Frank Bretschneider: I was born in '56, so when I was six there were all these astronauts and cosmonauts going to space, and it was something that really influenced me. The whole era was really into technology. I was really into science fiction. You had only these tiny electronic sounds, like sine waves, because the soundtracks at this time were really simple. It was something I had never heard, because you don't hear these sounds naturally in your daily life. This was the first point I was really attracted to it, and later when I listened to rock music, it was always the electronic component, like Jimi Hendrix having all these pedals. What was really important was when synthesizers in bands came out. When there was something electronic, I was listening to it.
I had some tape machines and I tried to use them with loops to sound electronic. Only in the mid-'80s I was able to get a Korg MS-20, my first synthesizer. But I had guitars, and I recorded them at half-speed and played them at double-speed. If you had a three-head tape machine, you could make these kinds of echoes.
Carsten Nicolai: The tape machine was a very important tool for two reasons. We didn't have access to records, but you could receive West German radio stations. Almost everybody had a tape machine and this was first a recording tool, but second it became a tool that you started creating with because it was the easiest accessible tool.
I came relatively late to electronic music, maybe it started around '95—much later than Frank and Olaf. I was more interested in the visual arts, and was a music listener rather than a music producer. First, I was running a club, and we did a lot of concerts, theater, exhibitions, cinema, whatever. And music became a little bit more part of my life. I had a kind of crisis with visual art, and I started experimenting with oscillators that I found in the trash bin of the university of our city. So I went to the trash bin and pulled out all these East German, Russian, Hungarian oscillators and borrowed the mixing board, actually from you guys [Frank and Olaf]—I got your first old mixing board from [Bretschneider and Bender's pre-Raster-Noton band] AG Geige. Those were my first experiments.
But in this time, I was not interested in doing music, I was interested in the perception of sound. These oscillators had all possible frequencies, they were not made for musical instruments. I was more interested in the lower and upper parts of the frequency outside of hearing. In terms of, is it really true that we cannot hear high frequencies? Is it really true that we cannot hear lower frequencies? I had this idea that we actually can hear or perceive that. I broke many speakers. So I experimented in that way and moved slowly, slowly. And then the real kick came when I got my first computer, because I was traveling so much. I had this little laptop with me, and there was some editing software, I think it was already on the computer, called Sound Edit. And there was a sine wave oscillator, so I started making everything digitally during traveling, very attentively.
Olaf Bender: Let's say for me, the step in was Frank, because of AG Geige—they tried to make electronic music. At first, I was just listening to the music and watching the shows. Then more and more I became a member of this group. Without that, I didn't have the vision to do music in my life. I think it was really Frank's influence.
Carsten Nicolai: In this period, the '80s, the scene was very compressed and we were hanging out with writers, musicians, theater, visual arts—it was very dense. We all experimented in any kind of direction. So it was not only music that was interesting, it was any kind of creative experimentation that was possible. It was very similar to this movement they call "genius dilettantes," related to [Einstürzende] Neubauten. It could happen that you played one day a free jazz thing, but only one day without preparation. The next day you shot an experimental movie, the next day you made a painting, the next day you made a happening, whatever. There was no clear definition that you do music. It was absolutely not the goal.
Frank Bretschneider: Most of the activities we did were not really public. It was more like private, organized living-room concerts—somebody has a flat, we play there for fun.
Carsten Nicolai: There were no public places, as well.
Frank Bretschneider: As long as it was private, it was hidden. So officials didn't really have access to it, or they didn't know about it. And as long as you didn't have something really against the state, it was OK.
Carsten Nicolai: We basically operated underneath official circles. Completely.
What happened if they found out about it?
Carsten Nicolai: They could close the concert. They could see you as somebody against the state. But they saw basically everything against the state. You know all the stories, but we didn't care, to be honest. Without knowing, we operated as though there would be no limits. And we tried to test, where are the borders?
Frank Bretschneider: And we didn't know exactly who was working for the Secret Service. I know I had my file—later on, I read some stuff, like what they observed at parties. But it was mostly trash: "He has a new girlfriend," or stuff like this.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah it was just gossip rather than real information. Because we didn't carry any reliable information [laughs].
Olaf Bender: But it was a very complex situation, because you couldn't really figure out who was your friend and who was a spy. But I think it's not so different from today. Even today, the secret service wants to control everything.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah, the guys who have a free opinion about how society should work, or whatever. There's always a control mechanism, right?
Olaf Bender: I think they really wanted to control, that's why they involved so many people. Even people I was really sure were against the system.
The period when the Wall came down in Berlin is also the period when techno broke out. For you guys, you didn't start Rastermusic until '96, and then in '99 it merged with Carsten's label Noton, but what was techno to you? How would you describe your relationship with techno then and now?
Frank Bretschneider: For me, I was happy to hear analogue synthesizers again, because they were being used for the first time since the '60s, early '70s. Then all the music had these digital tools, digital synthesizers. And I heard suddenly filter sweeps, which I hadn't heard for ten years. I said, "Wow, this is my music." I was not so happy about the rhythm because it was the same, but it was the 303 and this was something that made it interesting for me.
Olaf Bender: My first connection to techno was in Chemnitz. We had a studio and next to it there was a club—but it was more like a social center. From one day to another, it took us a while to figure it out. Some people came with motorbikes and they started a party during the night—probably 20 people or so. And they danced the whole night. One day, I stepped into this club and they were playing techno, very young people, and I remember it was very intense. But I really enjoyed it. You didn't see any instruments, you didn't see a stage or someone performing—it was a guitar-fee zone. In a way, it was like, "Wow, this is a completely new lifestyle." I think it was in the air.
Carsten Nicolai: For me, it was the radio right after the Wall came down. There was a show where they played completely unannounced tracks non-stop, two hours, this music where I had no idea who did it. And it all sounded basically the same—it sounded like one super-long track. This was something completely new in many terms. First, it was anonymous—the artist disappeared more or less. It was really more about making one track for one night, or for two or four hours, whatever. Later on, you figured out there are names; these names completely changed every time. We have many artists from this time who released every time under a different name. I mean, this was something completely new from the period of the late '80s, which produced a lot of superstars—with names, with covers, with photographs. Suddenly, it all disappeared. And of course, everybody that heard that music felt like, "I can do this, too. I can join in." Because it didn't matter if you were known or unknown, you can just do a track. And I think that was liberating.
And as we started the label—Olaf and Frank—there was a very interesting situation created, because the industry didn't take care of this music stream at all. So there had been all these 12-inches in black covers with sometimes no names on it. There was a distribution of record stores, and they spread out really fast, worldwide, under the radar of the industry. And of course, this was our distribution system too, even if we didn't produce techno. It gave us the opportunity to go out of this little city and have an international network. And we used that. It was an absolutely fantastic situation for starting a label.
Olaf Bender: It was a complete business, very independent. Even more than in the '80s with new wave independent labels. It was a very special situation. And on top of it, this situation with East/West when the Wall was falling, there was a lot of space. That's why techno grew so fast in Germany. I remember in Berlin, in one or two weeks there were three new clubs.
Carsten Nicolai: And it was the soundtrack for political change.
What about the political implications of not just techno, but electronic music? Because we've got the futurism element, the egalitarian element, which is what communism/socialism were meant to be about. Did that factor into it at all?
Carsten Nicolai: Of course. We have to mention that before, music was very much related to lyrics, and lyrics had a meaning. And whatever the lyrics, you could use them. Let's say, "Tanz Den Mussolini" by DAF—that was a very clear political statement. And this music didn't have that political statement. This was for us the liberation—that art could not be automatically used for any propaganda or any kind of meaning, even if it was funny or not funny, or political or not political, or just a love song. That this was simply gone. And this was exactly what we wanted. We wanted music that was just music.
I like that because it's not what I thought you might say. It really makes sense, given the background.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah, for us, whatever you did could be used. If the officials liked it, you became famous and they used it for their purpose. And that's exactly not how we wanted it to get used.
How would you describe each of your roles for Raster-Noton, and how have they changed over the years?
Carsten Nicolai: Frank is really the key point because he started it. And he was the earliest person who was attached to electronic music. And as Olaf was saying, he influenced quite a lot of people.
Frank Bretschneider: I was always interested in music. It is my big love. I only wanted to do music, so in 2000 I moved to Berlin and I stepped out from office work and the label. Since then, Olaf and Carsten have run the label.
But you still contribute in terms of recommending artists for release?
Frank Bretschneider: Yes of course, if I have something. I'm still releasing my records there, and we have a close relationship still.
Olaf Bender: If I were to describe the situation, in the beginning, we worked from one place, from Chemnitz. Each of us had a special talent. For example, Carsten was really into visions, to create a plan—maybe a bit oversized [laughs].
Carsten Nicolai: Always!
Olaf Bender: It was good because we were maybe a bit too shy for this. The three of us, we hold a really nice balance between dreams and reality. I would describe it today as I'm the minister for the inside, Carsten is the minister for outside [laughs], and Frank is in a way our think tank. If we have some important project, we always ask Frank. And it's given us until today a good feeling. When we come together like this, it always brings good results.
Frank Bretschneider: Also, in the beginning, Olaf was working for the biggest independent distributor in Germany. So we had already a base to make CDs, for example. We had a burner, we had the technical infrastructure to run a label. Carsten was somebody with a vision. He recommended Pan Sonic, who I didn't know about. I still remember the first concert I saw of theirs in Dresden, and it really blew me away. It was something I never heard, and I was immediately thinking, "This is the future of music." This was around '96. We went together to see the concert. So he brought a lot of new impulses. We were more interested in labels like Warp and what they did at this time. But this kind of experimental music was something really new.
Carsten Nicolai: In the context, we're not the only label founded in this time. If you look now, how many labels turn 20? Some of them disappeared already, but it was really a period when many small labels appeared. And we were part of that situation.
I'm going to come back to that, but let me ask you first, what achievements for the label are you each the proudest of?
Frank Bretschneider: One of the first high points was the 20' To 2000 series of CDs. They made a real impact worldwide. We won the [Ars Electronica] Golden Nica with it and it was bought by MOMA for the first digital release they put in their collection, or something like this.
Carsten Nicolai: Yes, let's say this was the first time that everything culminated really strongly. This was '99. In terms of releases, I think this was absolutely a highlight, for sure. But I would answer that I'm most proud of the fact we survived, because we saw many labels disappearing in this time. We saw as well the phase of techno in crisis.
And we saw, of course, the distribution system changing from physical to digital, which was a huge discussion. To be honest, we were absolutely against it in the beginning. We discussed maybe for two years if we ever wanted to do digital. But in the end, we realized that this was exactly our distribution system. We realized much later when we went to China or something there was nobody who could buy any CDs. We never exported to these countries. I was in Georgia or Saudi Arabia or whatever, CDs never went to these areas. But they know us! We realized much later, obviously we had a distribution system because of sharing, downloading, free, illegal platforms. It was out of our consciousness that this is distributed—we didn't know. We just realized sometimes when we came in, "Oh shit, how did people know our stuff? How is it possible?"
Frank Bretschneider: "Yeah, I downloaded it" [all laugh].
Olaf Bender: For me, a very important point of the label was after the 20' series, because we had fortune with this first period. But it felt a little bit like ending in a ghetto. We were super experimental, a super minimalistic label, so we took almost everything out of CDs—we had only clear vinyl or clear stickers [laughs]. We needed a turn. I think it was also fortune and a good step for us, but probably not so good for the profile of the label. But it gave us a lot of freedom. Today, I think the music business is much more commercialized than ten or 15 years ago. As a label, we still have a lot of artistic freedom in this very commercialized situation of music business.
Carsten Nicolai: We all are a little bit control freaks. We didn't want to go to a label—because Olaf and Frank had this experience—where they decided how the cover looks, what kind of paper, whatever. We wanted to control everything, and this was only possible if you do it yourself. Until today, the cover is an important part. We try to be different from the industry. Of course, the industry had a crisis—they realized, "OK, we have to make nicer covers in order to sell the product." In a way, many of our release concepts have been copied.
Yeah, what did you think when Kanye West's Yeezus came out?
Carsten Nicolai: I said, "I know this cover! Clear tray with a red sticker on it, we had this already. Nice that they are finally getting it."
Frank Bretschneider: I saw that, I was thinking it [laughs]!
Carsten Nicolai: A little bit too late, I would say [laughs]. It was like 15 years later.
Frank Bretschneider: Yeah but this is unbelievable, this is a million seller, it's really huge business.
Raster-Noton not only survived, it's succeeded in a way that other labels in a similar orbit didn't. Some existed before you, like Sähkö or Mille Plateaux or even Mego—although obviously Mego still exists. Do you have any theories as to why that is?
Olaf Bender: There are many answers to this. First of all, we need to survive [laughs], because it's our lives. It's not only a company, it's really a vision for a whole life. You could call Raster-Noton a record label or a company, but in the end, for us, it's much more like a platform to do what we want to do. I think it survived because it's not a maximum profit-based idea. We want to release our music or music that we find interesting.
Carsten Nicolai: I always said actually we aren't releasing music, we are releasing ideas... All of us had a role. We've been independent in terms of graphic design—Frank, Olaf or me, we could all do it. So we had great independence. And we're the artists at the same time as the people who run the thing. This is what Olaf describes. When you're the artists, you're not going to give up. You cannot. A company could give up, of course. If you would have economical management, they'd probably call us two weeks after and say, "Guys, what are you doing here? It's absolutely not working out," [laughs].
You say that, but every year you throw a party at Berghain and it's always packed. So obviously people have responded to this. Were you surprised about that?
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah but we've also had parties where we've said, "OK, if there are more people who are involved than in the audience, then maybe we don't play tonight," [laughs].
Frank Bretschneider: I think there was a really cool East German way of distribution. It was never easy to get it. In a way, we copied this a little bit. As a label, I think we are not too pushy. Maybe that's why even until today, people like to follow us. When you play every weekend or whatever, you're becoming a little bit tired.
Carsten Nicolai: We saw this with Mille Plateaux, for instance, where at some point they released four records every week. I think it was part of the problem they created on their own. We said, "We have a very limited audience, we would like that everybody is able to buy the CD. Let's not put out four CDs a week. Let's put out one CD a month." So then people can still follow, and on a real budget it's OK to buy one. Until today, we have releases that sell around 1000 copies. We never pushed it. It was very dangerous when you have one super successful release, and then the next one is only selling 1000. We kind of leveled it always, in a way. Until today, we are very scared of huge, successful releases because we know the business will grow and then it has to shrink again. Many times Olaf and I have been traveling together, and we've discussed endlessly the idea of growing. We decided at some point as well, "Let's not grow. Let's keep this way, it's healthy."
Olaf Bender: It's not really healthy [all laugh].
Carsten Nicolai: It's not really healthy but the risk is calculable.
Olaf Bender: And we could mess it up.
I would actually say that one of the reasons for your success and survival is that it's got such a strong, unified aesthetic.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah, but this is coming out of limitations. I always say, in terms of music or creativity, we are not flexible enough to do whatever. We could only do one kind of music [all laugh].
That's self-imposed, though.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah. But it's our music education being more in the avant-garde spectrum. There was a period when we were teenagers, in the moment something had success, it was uninteresting. Immediately, you said, "OK, I'll sell all my records from that band. I really don't like this anymore, too many people like it. I have to look for new stuff." Olaf describes this when he says that he feels like in a ghetto. We got suspicious when the success comes. We say, "OK, obviously we did something wrong," [all laugh].
But when I talk about an aesthetic, I'm not just talking about the music. I'm also talking about a visual aesthetic and how it is very closely related to the music.
Olaf Bender: I think it's true what Carsten describes, but on the other hand, I'm really surprised if I compare to some other labels. Almost all of the musicians are friends with each other, so it's much more a family than a business. And there are a lot of not even music-related questions, philosophical questions or something. Until today, we have a very strong exchange of ideas. And we also had over the years some artists who couldn't really share our way of doing it.
Carsten Nicolai: Oh, they hated us. Until today, people hate us because we are such control freaks of how the cover should look for another artist. And we actually said, "OK, sorry. This is actually part of our policy." We were very shy in the beginning to say to people, "Actually, you cannot do your cover. We're doing your cover." So we're trying always to find compromises, but until today we have to convince the artist really to trust us.
I also think it's unique to have a label where all three of the founders make music that's so closely related, but not only that—you all work with visuals, you're all graphic designers. Your visuals are also all closely related. Obviously you all have your own thing going on, you do different things, but it feels part of one larger identity.
Olaf Bender: It's funny that you say this, because I think today almost every act or festival has visuals, but it doesn't feel so connected, maybe.
Carsten Nicolai: Yeah, but this is our connection, what I described earlier, that we all have a very big backbone in visual arts. And if you look from the visual arts side, an artist's career as we know the classic artist career, they work on one topic their whole life. They have their creative style. So for us, it was actually more normal that you create a kind of style, and that you stick with this style and you work on one topic.
To me, it feels as though you've created such a complete identity and it's devoted to that. And now you've influenced a lot of people. So how do you keep ahead of others? There's a lot more people out there doing this, there's a lot more people working in electronic music. So what keeps it interesting for you? How do you remain true to this aesthetic that you've laid out but also keep from getting bored? Because it's been 20 years.
Olaf Bender: Yes, but today it sounds or feels like we had an idea in the beginning and then we just did it. I wouldn't say that we really created the image. We recognized much later, "Oh we have this specific..."
Frank Bretschneider: But we had always something in mind that we wanted to do.
Carsten Nicolai: But Frank, you will have this until you die, in your mind [all laugh].
Frank Bretschneider: Of course! It's not the creative image, it's you! To keep it alive, in a way, but to change it, there's a lot of influences nowadays. We play a lot, we travel. We see new, young artists. Often I say also, there's a lot of stuff we did ten years ago, it's not so important for us, but there's always young artists doing fantastic new stuff.. This is for me, a really big influence, to see what they do. If you are 20 or 25, you are more free to experiment. And when I see some of those things, I really like it. This is something that makes it thrilling for me until today.
Carsten Nicolai: But for our internal view, it's not that we're so straight. We always think we're pretty flexible. Because we compromise—now we have a CD out with Kyoka with her on the cover. OK, we're corrupting our concept here or whatever. You see the limitations are quite strict. But the main thing is that we're trying to develop a language over the years of what we are. You say, you've worked all these years and you worked inside developing your own language. As a label we've done that. And I think this is a pure artistic idea.