The word ‘seminal’ is a music critic’s favourite cliché. Sometimes, though, its usage is entirely appropriate.
When Pole (aka Stefan Betke) started incorporating the snaps, crackles and hisses of a damaged Waldorf 4-Pole analogue filter into his minimal dub techno landscapes in the late 90s, he laid down trails that a legion of producers have happily followed and built upon in the decade since.
Now, 10 years after debut LP Pole 1, the trilogy of albums Betke released over the years 1998-2000 is being reissued in one package. We caught up with Pole in his Berlin studio to talk about the recording and impact of these, yes, seminal works.
Why have you decided to reissue your 1, 2 and 3 albums now?
“The main reason we put it out again is because it’s my 10th anniversary – ten years of Pole. And all three of the records have not been available for nearly five years.”
They’re presented as a trilogy: was that your initial intention when you were recording, or did that evolve over time?
“It was not [my intention] when I started with the first tracks for the blue one [Pole 1 – each of the three albums comes in a primary colour sleeve: Pole 2 is all red, and Pole 3 all yellow] but it came up pretty fast. It was planned, yeah.”
How would you describe your working methods at that time?
“Since all the tracks were based on this broken filter that just crackles and hisses randomly this was very often the beginning of the recording of a track – that gave the rhythm structure, the main part. And then I simply started with some basslines or some atmospheres. In general, I’m really working more in atmospheres than in song structures.”
What’s the story with the filter? How did it actually get broken? I’ve read a couple of different accounts.
“This is a very old story: it was a present from Thomas Fehlmann and Gudrun Gut and it fell on the floor and broke. First it didn’t do anything, so I forgot it in the corner. I thought about taking it to a repair place, weeks went by and I didn’t do it. And by accident I turned it on again and it started making all these crackles and hisses – it was running in the back of a track I was working on, still with beats and everything, and I thought this is a nice atmosphere in the background, so I muted the beats and the crackles came more upfront and I thought this might be a good possibility to create something different – not working with beats but with randomly made crackles and noises.”
Did that sometimes present a problem where it would make crackles and noises you liked and then the next time it wouldn’t do the same thing?
“There was only one way of doing it actually – I had to keep the machine running when I liked the loop and I worked on the track for a few days with this machine running and never turned it off and then I recorded straight to the DAT machine. When I turned it off and restarted it was a totally different beat, so it was not really re-doable – it was just for the moment.”
At the time what were you listening to and what was inspiring you?
“That’s a long time ago, I can only guess! I was never really monocultural: I always listened to a lot of different styles and genres. When I started with the blue album, I was still in Cologne and I was involved with the hip-hop scene there. And I was already listening to some dub and reggae, a lot of jazz, and when I moved to Berlin to finish the blue album of course Berlin was influential with techno.”
What about things that people like Oval were doing with damaged CDs – people trying to create music out of the noise and errors produced?
“Of course, you couldn’t go around Oval or Microstoria or that stuff because it was so important in those days and so revolutionary in some ways that we all listened to it – it was really, really important for me too.”
Listening to the music now, you get a lot from very few elements – was it a conscious decision to strip things down?
“Yeah, I mean that is the experiment about Pole music in general – really minimise the elements in one track as much as possible, and see if it works with less information in a track. The less information is in the track, the more interesting I find to keep it running. If the basic loop works for five minutes, then I know this is a good loop. If I get the feeling after 30 seconds, I have to change the loop or I need a break, then something is wrong with the main loop.”
On Pole 2 and Pole 3 there’s more of a dub feel. How do you see the progression from 1 to 2 to 3?
“On Pole 1 there was already a big dub influence – it was just not that obvious. It was hidden behind this film soundtrack-like music. But there were already all these heavy bass lines and strange echoes and reverbs and all that, which is the method of dub. I never tried to do a dub record in the original meaning – Jamaican dub – I always tried to take out some elements of dub that I like – the bass sound, the deepness of bass, the delay stuff – and work with a single sound and manipulate it with effects instead of tone changes and melody changes or whatever. So, it was intended from the first record on, but it became more obvious on the second one and then on the third one.
When you were recording tracks did you have a particular listening environment in mind?
“Idealistically, I wanted it to work in every situation – I don’t know if it really worked out in the end. I wanted it to be possible to listen on the train on headphones, at home, in lounges, in clubs, whatever: wherever you felt like listening to it. To some extent it worked – a lot of DJs played the second record in the background with straight techno beats; a lot of ambient rooms played it in the old days; and I know that a lot of people have it at home.”
People often mention dubstep as drawing on a lot of the elements particularly of Pole 2 and 3 – is that a connection you see?
“Dubstep originally has a more rave background than an ambient listening background – more from Garage or the UK rave scene, or whatever, and of course drum’n’bass. But I know because I’m in contact with a lot of dubstep producers – because I’m a big fan of dubstep – so I talk to these people and nearly everybody says that they know about the old records. If it was really influential, you would have to ask the dubstep producers. I think a lot of them are aware of what I did in Berlin in the mid 90s, end 90s, and what other people here did as well with dub influences and club music, techno, dub-techno – all these different little sub genres of bass music.”
In terms of what you’ve done since Pole 3, do you see a continuum in your work?
“Pole on Mute (with MC Fat Jon) was definitely the most far out direction I could go – it was not that close to my original way of producing and it was an experiment to see how far I could go with that. But Steingarten (2007) was a little bit back to the roots: it has a lot of elements in there that I would have produced in the late 90s as well, and similarities to Pole 3. Even though it’s a different format and different formula that I’m using in my latest work, the basic principle is the same – use as few elements as possible and try to create something interesting out of it. The idea of Pole was always to develop from one record to the next. Every record has to be something new, otherwise I feel really bored about my own music actually.”
So what are you doing next?
“I’m working on a few 12-inches for the second half of the year. The first one is already done, I think it comes out at the end of September – it’s very bassy music, and very uptempo, but it’s not techno. It is kind of ‘dance music’, but in my specific way. It’s pretty rough, actually, pretty raw.”
Are you going out live to support the reissue of Pole 123?
“It’s not possible to play the music of 1,2,3 any more – all the files are gone. And the sampler I was using in the old days, it’s broken. And it wouldn’t really make sense because the music I do nowadays is so different. I think it’s enough just to re-release it and leave it where it is.”