Which is why his traditional turn on his most recent record is so surprising. When Horses Die is an album with real songs, acoustic textures, and Thomas Brinkmann doing his best Trent Reznor impersonation. Brinkmann? Singer-songwriter? It’s certainly a left turn that is going to divide opinion. Me? I initially found it deadly boring, but then I listened again. And then I couldn’t stop listening. It can have that type of hold on you, if you let it.
But why the move to NIN territory, Mr. Brinkmann? “I’m tired of what’s going on with techno today. All of the refinery,” Brinkmann wrote in an email as we were setting up this interview. “All of the punk and soul from it is gone.” Intrigued, I called him up to talk to him about soul, today’s club culture, and that curious flag sticker on the cover of When Horses Die.
Let's start at the beginning, before you did Studio 1 – Variationen. Were you making art during that time or did you have a full-time job?
In that period, I was like everybody—trying to live as good as possible with any job that I could find. I had a couple of different jobs and I was doing a couple of different things like everybody. Music was…well, nobody wanted to release that kind of stuff in the '70s or the '80s. There was no real independent movement. Everything was up to major labels, especially in the '70s. The things that I was doing in the '70s were closer to noise music. Even though the term noise didn't make sense back then.
It seems interesting with the new record, though, that you're almost coming full circle. When Horses Die seems indebted to the likes of Einstürzende Neubauten and people that were making what might be the closest thing to noise in the '70s.
Yeah, I don't know exactly where these influences are coming from. Now everyone is talking about some sort of Coil connection and I don't have one fucking Coil record! I'm sure it's really good stuff, but I don't know it. [laughs] It's the same way with Nick Cave. He has a band. And Neubauten was also a band concept. And what I'm doing is not rock 'n' roll-based stuff. It's more electronic music.
While I was recording When Horses Die I was listening to a lot of Trent Reznor stuff. I don't think that there is one track on the new album which is really like a Nine Inch Nails track, but they still have that mood. I think that I share some of this mood. I mean before techno became big, lots of people were into things like Nine Inch Nails and Suicide. It was quite depressing and techno took people out of that. Out of this mood.
I don't know. I think maybe it doesn't have that kind of power anymore because it's already quite spoiled by time. There's nothing new anymore. Loads of people are refining tracks now, but in the beginning it was more like punk, in the sense that you probably couldn’t play an instrument but you wanted to make music. No one really cared about the mistakes or what had been done yesterday. We didn't care about the next day. It was the music for the moment and minimal techno was something new like this once. Nobody asked about business and shit.
I wanted to ask you about mistakes. I think they're obviously very important to your work. Is that something you consciously try to produce?
No. Absolutely not. On the Ernst records, I once used one little sample from Grace Jones where she is saying "Use your faults, use your defects". It's more about this. It's not on purpose that you put mistakes in. It's absolutely not this way. It's more that you don't have the ability to play the drums like Jaki Liebezeit, for example, or sing like Britney Spears. Because you didn't grow up that way and you're not this kind of circus horse that the market machinery is producing. Always, your defects are part of it. It’s quite human.
It's the same with instruments. I learned how to play guitar and it was a pain in the ass. My fingers didn't want to do what my brain wanted to do. With machines, it was much easier to express myself. But then, even with machines you can still hear our defects and faults. And often these were the best moments—when the machines were not working properly. Stefan Betke's work as Pole is a great example, with his broken Waldorf. That was a part of his sound for a while.
I'm not sure that I follow exactly, though. It seems like with electronic music, Stefan Betke excepted, that those types of things rarely happen. Do you consciously try to get yourself into a position where mistakes can happen?
No. Really, mistakes are a part of me. For example, I don't have all of my teeth anymore. There are already mistakes this way. I smoke too much. I know it's not healthy and stuff, but humans are like this. They're not perfect. Everybody tries to make a big show of making everything polished. I think humans are a little bit too sheltered. They have to shit, for example. Every day. The quantity of shit that humans produce in a year is twice the weight of your body. [laughs]
I did not know that.
And this is part of our life. But in television or whatever, for example, you wouldn't see that at all. Only pretty things next to abstract news from the different combat zones. Paris Hilton, Barbie images and some more or less stupid Hollywood shit.
What are you listening to these days? Do you listen to modern European techno?
Sure, sometimes. I'm still playing live so usually I'm hearing that stuff in clubs. And I'm playing that stuff when I play live as well. Usually I do dance sets. But the last time I was really in love with a techno record was from Anthony "Shake" Shakir. That was a while ago, though. [laughs]
So is there going to be another techno record from you anytime soon?
Oh, sure. There will be one out on Traum that's going to be centered around their 10th anniversary. They're doing a double 12-inch with a couple of people from the first days of the label. I’m also involved with the Nate Fisher project along with TBA and our friend from Alaska.
I wonder what dance music people will think of When Horses Die. Do you care about stuff like that?
I don't believe that people are so limited that they are only willing to listen to dance music. Maybe a couple of people are, but most aren't. But, you know, even in electronic music, it's not always about dance music. It's also about experimental, dubstep, all sorts of stuff. On the one hand you have Moritz von Oswald and the stuff going on around Basic Channel, or the Rephlex stuff, on the other hand you have people like Anthony "Shake" Shakir, or AGF, which is anything but straight-ahead techno. You have very groovy people like Daniel Bell, Moodyman or Theo Parrish, or even Radiohead. There are various things. The last record that I bought was the soundtrack to Dead Man from Neil Young.
Yeah. I really like the movie and the songs. So, you know, it's not just about dance music. And in the last few years, things have really changed. After September 11th, lots of clubs closed. Like Twilo in New York. They shut Twilo down because of drugs, but I don't think that was the only reason. It's the same in Cologne. It became a little bit more difficult to do parties over here because there were no spaces to have them in and the police were more restrictive. They’ve closed down more so-called illegal parties everywhere.
There are some exceptions like Berlin where things are still going on like never before but also I feel today in these kinds of parties, in a way, they're more empty. Not in terms of people, but empty in terms of soul. The music became something different. There are other examples of this. There was rock music like this when everyone started to do jazz rock, which was a pain in the ass for the jazz musicians and for the rock musicians. Things became more and more complicated, more and more refined. And now everybody is able to use a program like FruityLoops or Logic or ProTools or whatever and people have started to make very nicely produced music, but without soul.
How does your new thing coming out on Traum fit into that?
That track I produced to play live. I've been playing it for a while now. But I didn't feel any real reason to release it on my own label, so when Riley was asking me if I had something to contribute for the 10th anniversary project, I gave him four or five tracks and let him choose one. I'm still playing them, and some of them might find their way to labels like CMYK. So I'm not totally out, it's just a little different.
I went and bought When Horses Die this past week and I noticed on the plastic packaging that there is a Star of David.
Yeah. It's a Russian flag with a Jewish star on it. And a German name. [laughs] What a mixture, huh? A big part of our culture is influenced by Jewish culture. Thanks to them. They left a vacuum in Germany like they left one in Russia. It’s a nice contradiction to put these three levels on one flag, a bastard flag, maybe the only idea about a flag I like.
But for me, the distribution is always asking that I put my name on the records, but I love not to put my name on the records. We always have this conflict. So we end up with this compromise of a sticker. And, this time, I thought that we should really do a sticker, you know? It's quite absurd, the combination. The Jewish star, the Russian flag and the German name. But, in a way, it's quite logical. If you really think about it, it has a point.
Whenever I look in a used CD store and can't find any markings on a record in the B section, I have a hunch that it might be you.
This was an idea from the beginning. In 1995 and 1996, the Studio 1 records didn't have Mike Ink's name on them. Society was a little bit different back then I think. The DJ was not necessarily the superstar. It was just as much about the crowd. A DJ spinning alone to no one doesn't make sense. Just think about what Mad Mike said about this. I think he's right. The media all wants to have a photo of him, but for him music is much more important. And, you know, what they said about Kraftwerk back then in Detroit’s suburbs, that these guys were robots. I really loved this idea. I don't care much about fucking names and nationalities, but we have roots and they don't care about borders of national states. Identity for me is not based on nations, it's based on culture and values.
It's funny you bring up Kraftwerk. I read recently that you ended up standing next to Florian Scheider at a Trouble Funk show…
Yeah, I was in Düsseldorf in the back of a venue there and next to me was Florian. We were really far away from all of the people. Anyway, Trouble Funk somehow found out that Florian was there and they began to do an improvisation on 'Trans Europa Express'. I really love both of those groups. For me, Trouble Funk had a real groove inside that is missing today sometimes.
I think that there are so many people used to dancing to 128 BPM, with it maybe being a little bit faster in Spain and a little bit slower in Switzerland, but if you really play anything else, it's tough. It's already hard to play a Theo Parrish record which is, like 110 or whatever. Trouble Funk is even slower than that. But they were funky and you can really dance to it. But they're not part of club culture today. All of the DJs that are playing in clubs these days aren't using this tempo and I don't know why.
I recently saw Theo Parrish play here in New York and it was interesting to see how easily he could go between tempos.
These guys have lots of soul. Theo Parrish, Moodymann and even Dan Bell. I think he has much more soul than Richie Hawtin. Which is interesting. They are from the same area and there's this big hype around Richie and there was never a hype around Dan. He did fucking 500 Accelerate records there and 500 here. And it's some of the best stuff. Every Dan Bell record was wonderful and soulful, but he never became a big hero of techno music like some other people who, in my opinion, are doing less interesting stuff.
That's what I'm worried about, you know? There is something missing these days. This soul. Everybody is doing fine technology-wise. But where is the struggling? Is music like a comment from the news, entertaining somehow? Where does music start hurting you? Where are the wounds and the scars? Where is the need and where is the fucking soul?