Born in Germany but raised in Texas, Spain and England, Melchior started making his name around the dawn of the '90s, when some of his soulful early work as Ohm caught on and helped seed the ground for trip-hop. After that came work under the names Vulva and Yoni for Aphex Twin's Rephlex label (among others) and eventually a collaborative streak with Baby Ford that would directly inform the kind of flecked but forceful minimal grooves that Melchior favors now. To that end, his recent work has found homes on labels like Perlon, Playhouse and Cadenza—each of which has released crucial parts of the Melchior discography in the past six years.
As much as it has evolved in that spell of time, Melchior's sound draws on an unusual mix of energetic warmth and heady pensiveness. His 2004 Melchior Productions album The Meaning came adorned with a sticker quoting Ricardo Villalobos as saying "The later the evening, the more of a fan you become," and that kind of blissful, uncertain after-hours vibe has only become more pronounced. In 2006, Melchior worked on a deeply spiritual and hypnotic 12-inch with Luciano ("Father" b/w "Solomon's Prayer") for Cadenza, as well as a Melchior Productions 12-inch on Perlon that peaked with the searching track "Different Places" and it's mantrically looped vocal sample "people get lonely in different places, yes…" All that led late last year to No Disco Future, a second Melchior Productions album that dove even deeper into the idea of going deep.
Devotion to ideas of the sort certainly plays into the mysticism apparent in Melchior's work, but talking about it all, he's just as quick to revert to a liking for the down and dirty. On the phone from Berlin, Melchior was happy to talk about his working methods and serious spiritual leanings, all without sounding like he needed any of them to be known to be properly understood. In person in New York, where he played to a swaying and attentive crowd in June, Melchior proved very much the affable bloke who also just happened to have a magical way for making grooves accrue.
You've lived in Berlin for around five years now. How does the city play into your work?
I lived in London before, and Berlin has its pluses and minuses like London has. It's good here for the music, but it's less cosmopolitan, less multicultural—it can feel a bit smaller sometimes than it is. But for the music it's really good. I've been really happy because it really got me back into the music, because you can actually live it.
Here people really feel it. People care. I play out every weekend, which is a result of getting more into it. And I share a studio with Ricardo Villalobos and Zip. When I made music in London, I did it at home because I couldn't afford a studio. But here, it's everyday, with other people in the same building, which has increased my exposure a lot.
How would you describe your studio?
It's quite homey, quite simple. It has curtains, cozy armchairs with fur on them. I guess it looks a bit hippy, actually. As opposed to Ricardo and Zip, who have full-on "gear" studios, mine just has a computer and a mixing desk. The one thing I think is really important is something really simple and cheap: the Korg Electribe. That's a machine you can really get into. Everybody should have one. Instead of getting a laptop, just get an Electribe. [laughs]
All of your tracks have a really considered, contemplative quality to them. How do you go about starting work on a track?
I just try to build something up and then leave it for a time and go back. To make music with a strong atmosphere, I have to really work on it, on the levels and things like that—really boring shit. The writing part of it is quick, but I like to twist tracks in different directions, to transform them. You can use a drum pattern and there's so many ways to put an emphasis on this or that, to make a track totally different. I don't stick to ideas; I'm not like that. I go through a million possibilities, until I find something that really hits me. I record a lot. I kind of "jam" like that.
that people don't like it."
How long is a long time?
A week, I'd say, before I can finally decide I can leave it and go back and listen to the results. Sometimes it'll be months. A track can be OK—labels will put it out—but I don't want to put something out if there's no point to it. There's too much stuff coming out as it is, so I try to keep my releases down. I don't like having too many records out.
Come Fly The Emotive Skies
Listeners to Thomas Melchior’s records are well-prepared for ultrasonic flight. They’ve been given sounds as long, lean and deep as the Concorde’s nose cone. Each sound makes motion, furthering the sense of propulsion reinforced by the last, so that repetition begins to take on the sense of flight: driving, but also floating. The whole assemblage is made for space gliding.
But what kind of space? First listens tend to suggest the empty kind, a room waiting to be filled, either by dancers or by stars. But wrap your ears around it (like the sky wraps around the horizon) and you find that what you first thought was emptiness was actually just the space necessary for you to carry on gliding beyond the horizon, a space craft and a dream frame. So a Melchior record might be just a light-weight, low-friction rendition of a glide that’s simultaneously space travel and room-making. So far, with so little.
As he explained in his Slices interview, you can show "I love you" by being youself. So how you do things is important. That’s why, he says, his tracks are made with equipment, each with their own imperfections. The machines are hitched to the groove, all with the idea of steering them not toward perfectionism, but emotion.
So there you have it: an emotional glide on an emotive spacecraft.
We don't really sit down together and have a session often. It gets mentioned every once in a while and everybody says, "Alright, how about next week?" [laughs] We don't play stuff to each other much. I don't like playing tracks for people and saying, "It's not finished." Some people say that minimal music sounds like it hasn't been finished, like big-time producers who say "Yeah, I can knock out a track like that that doesn't sound finished!" Sometimes people don't have the guts to wait and say a track is finished. But that's what you need. That's part of the art, isn't it?
What other sorts of sounds are most instrumental to the ways you think about music in general?
Obviously jazz. To me, electronic music is really a continuation of jazz. And then James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic, lots of black American music. I listen to a lot of Brazilian music nowadays. I'm over 40 now, so I'm starting to discover lots of ethnic music. [laughs] When you're younger you sometimes think of all that as boring shit, but when you get older you lose certain preconceptions about stuff having to be on a cutting edge or whatever.
But with music it's so hard to say: Everybody has their own personal consciousness that dictates what they get into. A lot of people I find are quite unconscious about it, and the more simple music they make demands less actual listening ability. It's a different language, and if you want to understand it, you really have to listen to it. Like if you study literature and read a lot of books, it changes the quality of the conversations you want to have. You want to have intelligent discussions instead of making small talk all the time.
Do you feel like you can hear your own work through different ears—through the kind of ears less inclined to listen as deeply?
The more you listen seriously, it's increasingly hard to comprehend how it might sound to somebody who's not really paying close attention. Or, to them, it won't sound that good, basically. I know that. I understand people who don't like it. I'm quite tolerant of people not liking it; in a way, I kind of like that people don't like it. If people don't get it, they don't get it. Some people get it, and I'm happy. It's like having friends: if you've got five friends or only one friend, that's better than having no friends at all.
When was the first time you were really struck by the power of repetition in music?
When I got my first sequencer. Back in the '80s when I started, the bands that were really inspiring were electronic bands like Cabaret Voltaire and obviously Kraftwerk. I always thought that was the kind of music I wanted to make, sequenced music. I liked the perfection in it. Then I got a sequencer, and as soon as you have a sequencer you realize you can run the most stupid lines and if they repeat, it immediately creates this hypnotic kind of vibe. You've just got to be the right kind of person to get straight into that.
The thing about repetition that people like Kraftwerk and Can picked up on, it goes back to the African kind of thing, a funk thing. There's a kind of black version of funk and a white version of funk, and the white version is like Kraftwerk, no? "White" meaning like putting another edge to it, a harder edge, because of the way the rhythms fall gives everything more of a stiff edge.
That was a problem I think in the beginning of that whole kind of music, that a lot of people didn't get that funkiness right. But the hypnotic effect, that's probably originally an African thing: the tribal get-together-and-get-high-on-dancing-and-repetition thing. That's how I feel anyway. It's a kind of religion. In Brazil they use it in the Condomble religion, a voodoo thing where you drum yourself into hypnosis.
electronic music, is minimal."
It's a big thing there. To be honest, it's got a witchcraft thing to it. Everyone's into it, but then you don't really speak about it, and you've got be careful. Some of the people involved in it can be quite mean. They curse you and shit like that. It looks Christian from the outside, but it's actually not. It's an African thing as well, the black slaves from Africa who [crusaders] tried to Christianize in South Africa and Brazil. They mixed their African pagan culture and used Christian elements to cover up the African gods. It's quite mad. But the drum ritual is just a way of putting you in a frenzy from dancing and the physical movement.
Repetition is interesting because it makes for such a highly ordered way to get lost. What do you think that hypnotic effect really is?
It's a way to spin you out. In the beginning the brain goes "Alright, I know this and it's repeating," but after a while you lose consciousness and you don't listen to it anymore and something else takes over. That's why some people have a problem with it. They stay conscious on that bass drum in techno and house.
If you stay conscious on that bass drum and you don't want to lose it, then it can really get on your nerves. And all you hear is boom, boom, boom. If you let yourself go and forget about the bass drum, then you can get into the rest. That's more of a problem with techno really, because that bass-drum effect is harder, whereas in house, you try to keep the kick pumping. Like in samba: keep it low, just pump it, at the bottom.
When do you remember first becoming conscious of minimalism as an idea?
The music I've been doing has always been minimal. I never really liked bombastic music. With funk or jazz, I like more of a Miles Davis/Herbie Hancock style, where it's quite tight and really muted. With techno, people started thinking that the bass has got to be loud, the snare drum's got to be loud. But it doesn't have to be. It can still pump without that sort of volume or thump. To me, that's minimal. It's just a way you look at music.
You can make anything minimal. It's like a consciousness. And the conclusion of techno music, electronic music, is minimal. It's like Basic Channel and Maurizio: his music is so good because it's like the consequence of something. It's perfect and timeless because it's really simple and there's nothing that dates the music. If you can do that, it's an achievement. If it doesn't date, it's a perfect music.
I'm curious about your hi-hat sounds, because I think they make for as singular a sonic stamp as anybody else has in play these days.
I really like the bass drums, but I really like that um-ts-um-ts-um-ts, that upbeat kind of thing on a hi-hat. It's such a fine line with hi-hats as well. You can mix them down really low and it can be good as well, really funky. Just a bonus, no? Only when it comes on at a club, I think. I don't know, I suppose I like hi-hats a lot, but I never thought about it.
I've always imagined you walking around hearing heavenly hi-hats in your head all day. That's not the case?
They're so subtle, hi-hats. I spend so much time on a hi-hat and I always think, "It's not quite right." It really annoys me too if the hi-hats aren't right. I'll listen to it later on and I'll think "Noooo." But as long as it rocks, you know.
shy away from deep feelings, no?"
The voice is another thing that interests me, so I always look out for voices—just like one line, or a sentence, or a quality of voice that says something in a certain way. I always try to buy a cappella records, and I had this a cappella record and I really liked it. I don't like Pink. I mean, I don't mind her, whatever—I don't care about Pink. So one side of me said "it's Pink," but the side of me that didn't know who it was really liked it. I decided it was all right, because it was quite… You can't really hear it initially: it sounds like a dub voice or something, and only when you dive into that kind of reverb delay thing can you really hear it. It's kind of an odd effect. Once you figure out what it is, you always hear it.
Do you know if Pink has heard it herself?
Oh my god, no.
The voice in "Different Places"—the one that goes "People get lonely in different places. Yes, oh yes"—is really affecting. Where did that vocal come from?
I don't want to actually reveal the source of that one. If you tell me you have an idea, I could confirm it, but…
I don't have any idea, actually.
It's a funny little monologue on a record. It's somebody really cool—like, really fucking cool. That's all I can say.
Do you feel like there should be more range in terms of mood in dance music?
Definitely. Using a sample like that was like using the Pink sample but in a different way—in a better way. People shy away from things that could sound negative or sad or lonely, but the tone of that voice is really soulful. You can build an atmosphere around that. A lot of people [in dance music] shy away from deep feelings, no? Or when they go for deep feelings they maybe go for cliché deep feelings, by just hammering down a few nice chords. There's definitely a lack of different kinds of atmospheres that really stretch the imagination.
The liner notes in The Meaning thank "Jesus and the Almighty Creator" and references to the spiritual realm in your work abound. How much do you think of your music as spiritual music?
I wouldn't think of that term, but I like it when people see it like that. I guess I am a spiritual person, a deeply spiritual person. From my upbringing, kind of gnostic, I got confronted with a lot of philosophies and religions when I was younger. And I saw the sense in a lot of it.
My father was really into it, and then I went to Steiner schools based on the teachings of this guy Rudolf Steiner, who was a philosopher, a mystic. He was part of the Theosophic movement, and then they separated and he founded these schools. He was quite interested in restructuring society from a spiritual point of view, around the 1920s, after the First World War. He had ideas for how things could be better, and also talked about organic food and medicines, homeopathic stuff. They were quite influenced by Eastern religions, mostly from a mystical point of view. They drew on ancient wisdom, like the Kabbalah or something like it. The religions don't really come into it, but the teachings behind them might. The more mystical stuff, basically—the stuff that the church won't talk about. Within religion, the "spiritual" is like a different thing, isn't it?
How would you say it plays into your life now?
I suppose—I hope, anyway—it plays into an increased consciousness. Increase consciousness, become aware of yourself. I am not totally aware of myself, because it's a journey, but by increasing your consciousness of yourself and your surroundings and everything you do, your life becomes richer. You see life as an amazing thing. Even if it doesn't mean you're happy, you can look at it from an objective point of view and think there's a higher meaning that you don't understand but can try to become conscious of.
That to me is interesting, and gives my life sense. I think there's so much you can do and become conscious of. It's like music, you know: you can always discover new music and think "My god, why didn't I hear that before?" Maybe you didn't have the time, or you weren't in the right time or the right place, or you weren't ready to hear it. Or maybe you heard it but you didn't hear it, you know?
Do you go to a particular church?
No, no. It's nothing religious, really. I study astrology. I've been studying astrology for 20 years. It goes quite well together with music, actually. I see a connection between the cycles, and the repetition, of how planets move around the sun and form different aspects between each other that always come back so you can calculate them like a hundred million years into the future, you know? It always comes back, yet it's never really the same.
Like a super-slow BPM.
Yeah, it's like a super-slow BPM. And each planet... For example, Pluto represents the base of life, the depths. Venus represents beauty, and Mars the energy and the drive. There's something about it: this ever-changing thing that's repetitive and always comes back. The planets will always come back to the same point, some slow and some faster. But I'm down to earth as well. It can't be all too intellectual. I like it funky and dirty as well. If you combine that it's something unusual, I suppose. But it all fits together.