Joe Muggs chats to René Pawlowitz, one of techno's most respected producers, about his artistic evolution.
And when he sets his mind to something, he makes sure to get it exactly right. Even when he's using similar sounds or tropes to those around him, he boils them down to their most intense essence and reconstructs them with unerring impact. Thus, his music as Shed and other aliases has found him a place right at the heart of the crowded Berlin techno scene. He's allied to the local powerhouse Hard Wax, with his releases fervently anticipated.
His new album, The Final Experiment, named after his Hard Wax-affiliated label and released on Modeselektor's Monkeytown, could be his most complete statement yet. Where his music has always had a strong dub and UK bass undercurrent, this LP goes the full way into absorbing breakbeat rave and '90s backroom drug-dub into his palette, almost completely leaving the four-to-the-floor of Berlin techno behind.
He's not the only one in the techno world to absorb the sounds of British raves and chillout rooms, but there is a unique way about his approach, and in The Final Experiment he has lovingly constructed a very distinct and total sound world. I wanted to know just how deep his roots in British rave music went.
Sorry to interrupt your holiday. Incidentally, how does family life fit with an electronic music career?
Not at all. There's a strong border in between. I don't mix it up. It's cool, though, each is cool, but they're separate. The good thing with having a family is it's really big fun to come home. When you're working the whole weekend, if there's someone waiting for you it makes it much better, in a way. Both worlds are great, but it's great to leave one world to come to the other. I couldn't imagine doing family life with a normal eight-hour job, though!
Your music is your living, right?
Yeah, I'm a full-time musician.
Doing club shows every weekend?
Yeah, it's starting that way again. I took a lot of time off for December and Christmas. I only did one show in December, two in January, but now it's getting busy, with the album coming out, a lot of requests for shows.
Is this mostly DJing or live sets?
At the moment there are a lot of requests for playing as a DJ. Now that I have a proper video show for live, they don't want to see me live anymore [laughs]. It's a lot of DJ gigs. Of course it's easier to book just a guy than a whole live show with video.
Do you still enjoy the gigs?
Absolutely! Sometimes I feel a bit old, I'm a bit more than 40 now and the audience is half of that, and when the 20-year-old guys are all running around sometimes I feel a bit like a daddy there as well [as at home]. But it's funny. Sometimes I think, oh, I'm too old for all this, but there's still fun for me. It's cool.
Do you have favourite places to play?
I love to play in Britain, Ireland is cool, I really like Helsinki, and I had some good gigs in Oslo, too. In the north, really. I prefer the cold feelings in the north. That's what I like. I love Scotland too, but it's very hard for me to understand them. In the end every gig there is really good, but this accent is really difficult for me.
How do you feel about the scene in general now? Do you feel like you fit in?
I think the problem always is that we all say "techno," but what I understand by the term is very different to what someone else is thinking. Some people think it's just a four-four kick drum and hi-hat, but for me techno is a bit more than that. It's not only bom-bom-bom, it can be difficult and experimental, it can be dark but it can be also happy. So that can be the misunderstanding, and yes, sometimes I feel like I'm in the wrong place because people expect something I can't provide. But I'm techno—I'm definitely techno!
This new album, though, really seems to refer back to a time when techno was very broad, somewhere around '90 - '93, when it blurred into rave, ambient, home-listening electronica.
Was it deliberate to look back to that time?
Not at all. But that's the time that definitely had the most impact on my taste in music. I was around 16 or 17, which I guess is really special for everyone, because you are young and discovering the whole world and music. And that early '90s rave music is what really had the impact on me, that's what's still there. There were lots of other types of music, like gabber or Chicago house, but they're not the big thing for me anymore, but this rave sound, it really is. So if you think this record reminds you of that time, that's cool with me, it's not that I wanted to do this, but this is my music, this is where my emotions are.
Did you come to England back then?
No! I was too young. The Wall had just come down when I was 14, I was from the East. We didn't have any club music there, maybe some tapes from friends with this acid house thing like Tyree or Lil' Louis, Chicago house or hip-house. But that was really seldom, and it was just stuff from the charts, so we didn't know that there was a scene or anything, or where it came from. I don't think acid house had a real big impact, even in West Germany, to start with, so all we had were impressions of it, but no one who taught us about any special or interesting music.
Did you have any other interests as a kid?
There wasn't much. It was the GDR, there was just some stupidness. I liked a bit of sports, but there was no success if I was in a team or anything. There were no other special interests.
Nothing that could have suggested you might end up doing something creative for a living?
No. Just hanging around wasting time. Smoking. I started smoking when I was 13. It was a really small town where I grew up, maybe 70km from Berlin, not very nice, not beautiful at all. There was nothing to do.
But hearing this British rave music in 1990, '91—this changed things?
Yes. So "Stakker Humanoid," "LFO," of course, Quartz "Meltdown," these bleep sounds, any Sheffield stuff, compilation records with smilies on the cover, 808 State, of course, "Pacific State," the first Altern-8 stuff, "Infiltrate 202" was very special for me. These were things you could hear on a mainstream radio station, but just sometimes, not much.
In England these were often top-ten records!
Right! But in Germany it still was underground. The techno scene was starting, but not so successfully in the East, and anyway I didn't really get it at the time, I was more into this rave thing. It felt like something really special to me, later I would discover how successful it was in the UK, but at the time I really didn't know that at all, for me it was kind of an underground thing.
So you were hearing these tracks without context?
Exactly. I always try to not be a part of a scene, for me it's a very private thing to listen to music, it's between me and the track. I'm not really the fan kind of guy, I don't want to be part of a fan base or a scene, I don't really think about the person making the music, it's my relationship to the music. As a teenager it was only me and maybe two other guys in our town who were really listening to this kind of music. It was a private thing, outside there was nothing bigger going on, it was just for us.
I've often found that the more innovative musicians are the ones whose earliest experiences weren't with scenes, so they had to use their imaginations more regarding the way the music was made and consumed.
Yes, something like this for me. Also a lot of these old tracks had some kind of whistles inside, people don't do this now, but they'd have these whistles and signals like [makes airhorn honking noise], the crowd was part of the track, and that was special for us—exactly like you said, that you try to imagine how it is in a big room to listen to this music very, very loud and very intense.
Do you put yourself in an imaginative space like that when you make music now?
I don't know, I can't tell you. It's simply this kind of music where I feel something, where emotions take me back to good old times. That's still what I'd like to hear, so that's my reason for making music: to listen to stuff that I love. So that's why I like to make music like from the early '90s, because that's what I'm into.
The '90s tracks you mentioned are pretty much all big rave tunes, but when I listen to your album, I also hear things like The Black Dog, The Future Sound Of London, Aphex Twin, Global Communication. Were you listening to those things, too?
Not all this stuff, but some tracks. I wasn't the guy who bought the whole album, but I picked out some tracks. So yes, to this kind of music but only parts were interesting for me, not the whole thing. The same with the impact from hip-hop and reggae at this time in UK rave history: to start with I was only into this 4/4 beat, but when it came to this bringing in of the hip-hop breaks or reggae bass it wasn't always cool for me until I understood it better, so there was always a process of discovering and learning. Even with something like Global Communication or Leftfield or 808 State, it was always about a track or two tracks, then two years later I'd be listening again and I'd realise, oh these other two tracks are also good, and much later I'd find something else. It was never the whole thing.
Of course this was the way for a lot of people because we all discovered music through DJ sets or tapes from the radio.
Yes, right, it was all about tapes. Yes, I'd forgot this—taping at home! Only having a part of a track from a DJ mix on another tape you've made. It's funny, I should be ashamed of how badly I remember, though. Around 2002 there was a news documentary series in Germany, and when I heard the theme track I would always go, "I know this track but I don't know who it is!" and for about six months I was trying to work out what it was until finally I realised—this is my shame—it was "Papua New Guinea" by Future Sound Of London. I thought, oh my god, I'm getting old. But the special thing was that it reminded me that you can forget these tracks, you can forget the name of them, you can forget the emotion you felt, but ten years later you have a really deep impact on your mind when you hear these tracks, you feel the same as you did ten years before. Suddenly it's there again. That's what I felt when I listened to "Papua New Guinea" again ten or 12 years later. That's what I want to feel when I make my own music—what brings you back and makes you feel something that you didn't know was inside of you anymore. It's there again.
People forget how important the complex emotive component was in rave. It gets divided into just "euphoria" or "darkness" but it was much more complicated than that. I guess the word "hardcore" makes people forget that emotional component.
Well, we said "breakbeats" in Germany. Hardcore meant hard techno for us, so we didn't name the UK stuff hardcore, that was the hard music from Western Germany and Netherlands.
Part of it was this whole soul thing that came with the influence of people like Carl Craig on the early UK hardcore. You look at comments on YouTube videos and there are still rave tunes that can make a grown man cry!
Hopefully! Also Kevin Saunderson and Kenny Larkin—they both made tunes that were in between Detroit and the rave thing.
So at what stage did you think these elements of rave music might be something you could do?
I don't know. I liked house and techno, and I still do, but my real love was those chords and rave signals and bass, and that was a problem because it really wasn't popular in Germany. Maybe that's why I thought I couldn't make music like this. And I didn't really until the first Head High on Power House [in 2010], and surprisingly it was quite successful. This release started quite slow, but in the end it was the most successful thing I've ever done. Until this next album is coming out of course [laughs].
And when did you start producing the more techno stuff?
My first release was made in 2003, I had it manufactured but I'd had it in my basement for a year, because I thought it wasn't good enough. Then in 2004 I put it out. I was going into Hard Wax with 20 copies and it sold out immediately, so I thought, OK it's good enough to release.
In between your teenage years of listening to rave and actually putting music out yourself is a whole decade. What were you doing in that time? Were you a clubber?
Music was a big part of my life, but it was a really difficult time for everyone in Germany when the Wall broke down, everything was hard, especially for people from the East. All the East people were crying, going, "Everything is bad, the GDR is gone, all the bad people from the West are coming and selling out our country," and I wasn't really into what was happening.
At that time, yes, I was going into Berlin almost every weekend to go to parties or raves, but then in '97 I moved to the western part of Germany because I was not into it anymore, having these people around me crying and going, "Everything is bad." Did they realise they had a chance to do something new? No, they were simply crying. I was not into these sorts of feelings, I wanted to go out and do something.
Now, I didn't make the best decision in going to that part of the West, which was on the border of the Netherlands, and there was no music culture, there was nothing going on. But I just wanted to go away from this bad influence, everything being so dark. Five years I was there, in the West, and in that time, no clubs. I just listened to music at home, started to make my own things. 2002 I moved to Berlin, and then I had a restart with my club life after that five-year break.
What did you do for a living?
I was a painter. A painter of houses, that's the job I got in the West. That was until 2000, then I was in the army for a year, then I said, "No I don't want to do this anymore, not the army, not being a painter." And finally when I got back to Berlin in 2002, I had the chance to learn something new, which was making websites and things like that, the kind of thing everyone is doing today, media and internet, so that was a good starter for life in Berlin.
How did you feel about the scene when you got back into it? 2002, that's when minimal was on the rise, right?
Oh I hated that so much!
I'm guessing, by the sound of your records, you must have listened to a lot of Basic Channel, though?
Sure, all the time. And 2002 was a time a lot of the Detroit stuff was getting its second wave, along with Basic Channel. Juan Atkins, Kevin Saunderson, Underground Resistance. Something like DJ Bone's Subject Detroit, that's what I was into. Harder, a bit faster, still funky. From 2000 to 2004, that's what I liked.
Where did you like to go out?
Well, I started going out again really when I made the first record. I thought, now I can be a part of this whole thing. I wasn't a raver from 2002 to 2004, really, but when I started making this kind of music I felt I should check out what was going on. Also I was meeting a lot of friends there. I started to work with Hard Wax in 2004, so if you have more friends in the scene you start going out not just for dancing, but also for having a chat or drinking a beer. It wasn't like in the '90s any more to listen to new music, that's no longer the point. It's all about people, that's what clubbing became then for me.
At what point did it become clear you could make a living from music?
When I made the first album with Ostgut Ton. That was the turning point, so I started working with Ostgut getting bookings and the first international bookings came in. That was when I knew there could be a proper income from my hobby. That was a bit strange, but OK!
How did you feel about the dubstep influence coming in? In the late 2000s a lot of people were talking about your music in the same bracket as people like Scuba, Martyn, T++, people who had this UK garage and dubstep influence.
I think that was a fashion thing for a while. Every techno DJ from Berlin was saying in interviews he's also in dubstep, some dubstep guys were telling you they were in techno. So I dunno. I was into dubstep, sure, into the early stuff, of course I have to say that [laughs]. All this stuff from Tempa, then guys like Martyn, Appleblim, Shackleton of course. There are points where it's really the same music, I mean not exactly the same as techno but there are common things.
Did you see a connection there to the British bass you'd loved in the first place?
I think so. I don't know if they see it and they are into it, but I hope so. It's going away and it's coming back. When you're into this kind of music you're always with it. Like I say, it moves away slowly then it comes back ten years later. I hope that they are still with the rave sound.
I think so. I spoke to Pinch a while ago and he described dubstep as being like rave and jungle but turned inwards.
I love that. If Rob said that, then it's true, because he's cool, he's the best, he's the coolest guy in this world. I'm still working a little bit with Rob, I'm playing his parties in Berlin always, and he's serious. He's still good. He's always good. Yup. And he's still doing this really good label, Tectonic, which is great. It's a shame the whole cool dubstep thing went down because of the whole EDM thing with no realness. That was not good for all the guys like Rob who's serious, who knows what he's saying. For all these cool guys that invented the whole thing, it's sad that happened.
You talked about the misperception of whether you are "techno" earlier, but is there enough of the scene that's open-minded enough for you to play what you want to play?
Hm. I don't care. When I do this, it's not about the music scene, I make this music anyway, so I can't care about what people want because then it's not real any more. Like I said, I make what I want to hear.
Is your relationship to the crowd changing now you have the live audiovisual show?
Yes, it's more arty. I'm definitely looking less to the dance floor when I do this. I don't have to start with something dramatic at the beginning of the set to keep people there on the dance floor. I don't have to start with bass drums! The bass drum is not the only reason to stay on the dance floor anymore because there is something to see, there's something to see that's part of the music. And even when I DJ now, I also try and play some tracks from the new album that are not really for dancing and see if people will still appreciate this. I don't know if they're still into it, we will see what happens.
There definitely seems to be an appetite for spacious ambient music at the moment.
I know that, but it's different in different countries. When I go to Italy or Spain, or somewhere in the east or south, I know I can't hide the bass drum for more than two minutes. After one minute they're asking when it's coming back, so I can't do not-so-obvious dance things there, but with other audiences I'm hopeful. I'll give it a try!
How far do you think ahead? Do you know what your future projects will be? Or are you working on this album then deciding what's next?
I don't know, I'm going to see how it goes with these video guys, Transformer. I'd really like to do more work with them, because they're really, really cool, and they have great tricks and we have some good stuff coming up. I don't know. Techno is still the bread and butter thing, techno is very, very big right now, so I can't do just ambient specials, I need to give techno my attention.
I just put a new 12-inch out through Hard Wax on my own label. I like to do that: whenever there's a big project getting a lot of attention, I'll release something for the nerds through Hard Wax. To hide one of my records behind another. Monkeytown aren't really amused by this, releasing that while I'm promoting the album, but that's how I like it. I hate the cycle of album-album-album, and doing this is fun, hand-stamping every record, that's what I like to do. It keeps me enjoying it!