Uwe Schmidt is a genius; that much we know.
Rising to prominence in the late 80s and early 90s thanks to a string of acid house and techno 12″s released through a bewildering number of guises, Schmidt soon outgrew the rules and regulations of European club orthodoxy, and, after releasing more ambient-oriented material for Pete Namlook’s legendary FAX imprint, upped sticks for South America. Eventually settling in Santiago, Chile, Schmidt realized the limitations of his own musical vocabulary and began to absorb in earnest that of his surroundings. Not only did this bring a certain Latin flair, fire and even melancholy to his subsequent productions, he inspired a whole generation of Chilean dance producers including Dandy Jack, Luciano and Ricardo Villalobos; this period also gave birth to his most famous alter ego – Señor Coconut. Over the past fifteen years Schmidt has continually to be frighteningly active as an artist, at one point putting out an album a month on his own Rather Interesting label; those knew to his work we direct to Bleep 43’s lovingly compiled Uwe Schmidt podcast, which rockets through 3 hours of disparate material – from abstract tone poems to clicky minimal techno via numerous experiments in avant-jazz and exotica – by this most visionary and effortlessly psychedelic of musicians.
This month sees the release of Liedgut, a new album for the peerless Raster-Noton imprint exploring ideas of German nationality, language and romanticism, with a guest turn from Kraftwerk’s Florian Schneider. A mature, philosophically rich yet good-humoured work, Liedgut is yet another impressive peak in Schmidt’s ever-growing Andes of achievement, and deserves to be heard by all.
Kiran Sande called on Schmidt at his Santiago home to discuss his EBM origins, his souring relationship with techno, the impact of South America on his muse, and the relative benefits of orbiting and absorbing what is generally perceived as national identity.
What was the first music in your life that you got really excited about, that you took seriously?
“The first time I heard, let’s say, electronic sounds was in mainstream electronic music – like Depeche Mode, Visage, which to my ears back then was a very new sound and was happening in parallel to rock, pop, disco, punk and all that. Suddenly I heard drum machines and synthesisers, and that was the first time I got really conscious about music and a certain sound. I was at the gates.
“When it happened I was 13 or 14 – not an age when you’re serious about anything, really…But I listened to that kind of music and I really explored that mainstream, popular electronic thing. Then I happened to change school and suddenly I had lots of new friends – it was more like an alternative, left-wing type of school – suddenly I had new friends and they listened to electronic music, but it was like, I didn’t know until then that it was underground electronic music. They listened to so-called Electronic Body Music like Front 242, Skinny Puppy, industrial, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, that kind of stuff, and introduced me to it.
“This was the first time I really started to get serious about music, to seriously listen to it. You know, new friends, everyone listening to electronic music, some of them making music already, and that was the point for me that I got interested in playing music: I got a drum computer – I was playing drums before that, but more like a hobby, playing in the basement, you know – and I got more serious about music, I got more interested in how it was made and then I bought a drum computer and just programmed for fun…But that was the moment where I had friends who were making music already and had recorded records already, or tapes, and that was how I go started.”
Were your own early recordings in that EBM style?
“I would say so, yeah. I mean, that whole EBM thing wasn’t called EBM or industrial in some countries…That was already kind of fading away, had kind of passed its peak, I would say…What was next was actually techno or house, we didn’t really have a name for it around ’88, ’89…So I started making music that was pretty much influenced by, let’s say, industrial/EBM, and then all of a sudden techno happened – or acid, I was really into acid around ’88-’89 – which again for me was a totally different approach to music. It didn’t have that seriousness which to me is really typically 80s – you know, all that EBM was very dark, and serious, and suddenly there was acid, which, I don’t know…it refused any kind of statement, actually. Unlike EBM, it wasn’t social – it wasn’t really a statement, it was just about somebody on the dancefloor, really. So I very quickly switched to that kind of music, around 1991 I would say…
“What interested me about this music in the late 80s and early 90s was that it really didn’t make any statement – not about politics, not about society, not about emotions. It was just…in that sense, it was very drastic to me, it was a very drastic statement to make in the 90s. We were just coming from a very intense social and political period – Reagan, Thatcher and that whole thing happening in the 80s – and music just said, “No more statements” which was a very, very drastic thing to do at that time. And I really liked that, because it was even more political, it was like meta-political or something to me! [laughs] I remember that back then in Germany I was reading about some politician who was really annoyed about that – that the youth or youth culture was so anti-political. It was a very powerful statement to make.”
Do you think that acid house’s lack of political engagement was ultimately why you grew bored of it?
“No. The reason that I moved away from that kind of music didn’t have much to do with this aspect, it was more like the fact that I was tired of making, let’s say, functional music – music that was only perceived on the dancefloor and by a certain group of people who selected for the dancefloor. Up til then it was a very intuitive thing to do, I was making music with DJs, and for the dancefloor, and for techno labels. And all the feedback that I received was very simple and almost very functional: always about, “Well, this worked” or “This didn’t work” – and I found myself feeling very limited, in an artistic and creative sense.
Do you things have changed much in the past twenty years? Do you think house/techno is still subject to the same limitations?
“I think it’s still the same. The only difference to me is that it has maybe diversified…You have more styles than in the past – you know, you have breakbeat, or drum ‘n bass, or dubstep, then you have techno, minimal and all the other stuff. Funnily, all these different things are not cross-compatibile with each other, so every scene in itself is very narrow-minded – so if you want to play in a dubstep club, you have to follow certain rules. The same is true for any dancefloor, I would say. And that’s really boring for me. The way that I compose and think about music is not like that. In a sense, there’s much more things happening than in, let’s say, ’88 and ’89, but within all those microcosms I think it’s still the same, with a label or a DJ or a club who’s setting the rules for the dancefloor in a way…And I found that very limiting for what I wanted to do.
“Back then, I was making music, DJing and stuff, and then just for the fun of it I tried to incorporate different elements. It could be very simple, it could be a saxophone sound or something which was not happening on the dancefloor, and it would be a very minor element. Or there would be a 3/4 break in a 4/4 song and this would make it unplayable for the DJ because he couldn’t play a 3/4 change into a 4/4 set. So even this ridiculously minor upward increment of musical richness, people would refuse…They would say, ‘No we can’t play that, nobody would play that, so we can’t put it out on vinyl’ and then, you know, that’s it for the song. So that was the moment where I just decided to forget about the dancefloor – which had anyhow stagnated around ’93 or ’94. I found it was pretty dead, actually, it had already entered the mainstream – which changes a lot. It was interesting to me as long as it was unlabelled; the moment it had a name and a label it was dead to me.”
At what point did the influence of South America begin to exert itself on your music?
“It was still during my ‘techno period’. I had been living for six months in Costa Rica – it was a purely for personal reasons that I’d gone there. I really didn’t like Latin music very much until that trip. And when I was living there, I listened to all kinds of music on the streets and at parties and stuff like that, and suddenly I really understood it – I understood the language, understood the environment of the music, and listening to it more closely I suddenly realized how limited my own musical vocabulary was. I come from a track-oriented kind of thinking – layering tracks, it’s very sound-based. And then suddenly I was listening to mambo or back then it was ragamuffin in South America, and it was a totally different musical language. I really wanted to absorb all those codes. I wanted to know how the breaks work, how fills work, how harmonic progressions work, and how rhythms work, and so on…
“It doesn’t really have much to do with whether it’s Latin or not. I just realized that my own vocabulary was very poor, so just wanted to expand myself and give myself a chance to try as many things as possible, to absorb them, and make them my own. And when I came back to Germany – it was the first half of ’93 – I decided to found my label, Rather Interesting, just in order to release CDs. I came more from a 12” market or 12” thinking, and I wanted to do music apart from the dancefloor and apart from that scene, and also apart from any market or the need to position a product on that market. I just wanted to really play around and do my stuff and not really bother too much about what was in or not, or happening or not, or possible or not…
How did South American party culture differ to what you knew from Europe? Was your absorption of Latin music in any way a social experience?
“I’m not a very social person…I wasn’t back then, and I’m still not, so…I’m very much an observer; I don’t go to parties in order to socialise; very often, when I go to a party I will most probably find myself standing in a corner for six hours or something – and this usually means I’m having a good time. People often think I’m bored or something, but if I like a place and I like a group of people, I really like to absorb. I’m not totally passive or anything, it’s not that I’m completely uninterested in the social aspect, but of course, I was witnessing how music was happening, or how music was perceived in Costa Rica or in Chile. Always as an observer, but always trying to extract things out of those situations.
“One of the big reasons I moved here was that I wanted to be isolated…We just talked about my moving away from the dancefloor, so maybe moving to Santiago could be understood as being part of the same move. I realized, around ’94-’95, that I didn’t really have a connection to the place I was living in. I was born in Frankfurt and everything, but I was always perceived, almost automatically, as the guy who was doing techno or electronic music in Frankfurt. It was like a cliché, a routine response to what I was doing. I was never really part of the scene in Frankfurt – maybe in the beginning I worked for people from the scene, but I was never really a scene guy, and I never really did things for the Frankfurt environment or anything; rather, I was sitting at home just doing my stuff. But through the media and labels, the general response was like ‘Oh yeah you’re from Frankfurt – electronic music!’.
“Back then, within Germany there was only Berlin and Frankfurt as electronic music centres. And even around Europe it wasn’t happening that much – there was London and Sheffield and Frankfurt and Berlin, but that was pretty much it – there was no Paris, there was no Italy. And I was sitting in Frankfurt, and either it was you were from London or Sheffield or Berlin or Frankfurt, and I didn’t really find myself being part of that, or representing that. Then in ’96 a couple of things happened on a private level that enabled me to go wherever I wanted to go, and I really wanted to move away from those obvious places, those obvious surroundings. I ended up in Chile by a chain of coincidences. I just thought, it’s far away, and it doesn’t really matter whether I’m sitting in Rome or Santiago or South Africa, it doesn’t really matter. I really wanted to focus on myself, and I had lots of ideas that I had collated that I didn’t really have the space and time to work on when I was living in Frankfurt.
“The main interest wasn’t really to connect to people here or to make music with people here; I just wanted to be on my own. But of course, since Chile is a very small country, and the artistic community is very, very small, so immediately I hit the core. I came here with a friend of mine who was a Chilean musician, and of course I got to know all the important people within the first three days or something! It wasn’t really about electronic music; electronic music hadn’t really, really arrived – it was just about to arrive or arriving, I would say. When I got here, it was funny, it was a little bit like time travel – I went to a party here in ’97 and it felt like Berlin in Frankfurt in ’88. It was like a ten year flashback! It was a very good moment in a way, it included all the enthusiasm I felt in ’88, the way people behaved in the club, the way people listened to music, the kind of music was just very diverse and not really defined…
“So in lots of ways, it was a flashback, which was kind of funny, but I wasn’t really interested in that flashback to be honest. I just stood there and I saw all the same characters: I saw the DJ, I saw the label-maker, I saw the press people, everbody the same way I saw them ten years ago in Frankfurt. And I knew what was going to happen , I knew the development…It was a funny and a kind of awkward flashback, because I knew what was going to happen, and it has happened over the last ten years. It got more popular, and people got more narrow-minded, and everyone went the same way more or less that they did ten years ago in Europe. I wasn’t really interested in seeing that and being part of that, even apart from the fact that what was being considered new music in Chile was very old music for me already. I was moving away from that in Frankfurt so when I came here, I was like what’s going on? It was like a nightmare in a way, I was back in the nightmare! So yeah, I make friends with music and artists here, but it’s much more about friendship than making things with them.”
You’ve released music under over fifty different aliases. How come? And how would you describe the character, or define the parameters, of the Atom™ project?
“When I started to release music, in the beginning it made practical sense to define different projects by different names – in order to simply finish them, and move from one to the other, and give to different labels. Sometimes it simply had to do with contracts – I couldn’t sign the same contract with the same name on two different labels, so…So I just started working like that without really reflecting upon it; and then suddenly I realized that it became totally necessary for my creative flow, and how I distributed different energies and ideas, and I realized then, after three, four or five years, that I was already thinking in different sets of ideas, maybe…Like I put up a headline and I would sum up things in a certain box of ideas. It was a lot of fun for me to give all those different musical ideas different names and different identities, sometimes hiding myself, coming up with new characters…Like Señor Coconut, which in the very beginning not many people knew was me, and it was fun to do that. There was always Atom Heart as my sort of alter ego, and then maybe after ten years I became sort of pinned down as the guy who’s always doing that – I found it pretty boring to be defined like that. Also, I didn’t find it that entertaining any longer, I think I had explored that playing around with identities. So I simply decided to reduce myself – and to name everything I was doing, apart from Señor Coconut, Atom™ – independent of its content or the musical shape it takes.
Liedgut seems like very concerned with German identity, and German language. Is this fair to say?
“There was a breaking point, a point of definition after 5-7 years – I had a strange feeling about living far away, and feeling uncomfortable in Germany and feeling uncomfortable here [in Chile]. It was that typical question of whether you want to adapt a culture and define yourself within that culture, or you whether you want to orbit it, to be an alien. Either you get a Chilean passport, or you move back to Germany. Or you just try to orbit this strange situation. I really decided to go for the orbit. It’s hard work, I would say: to reduce yourself to your individual core, and reject all kinds of hyper- or meta-national ideas, let’s say. Of course there are things within me that are very German, there are things I have adapted which I think are very Chilean or, I don’t know, maybe very Japanese – I don’t know where they come from! But the important step for me was to say OK, let’s forget about all these national or cultural traits and just reduce yourself to who you are. Which is hard work to do – because you have to really define yourself, enclose yourself permanently wherever you go. I would say adapting a certain culture, it’s a very easy thing to do. Once you’ve decided, it’s very comfortable.
“So I did that seven or eight years ago. I said, OK, I want to reduce myself to myself, actually, and not to..whether I’m German or Chilean or whatever. And this gave me a lot of freedom in terms of how I to perceive anything outside of me: music or spoken language or whatever. So I’d travel to Japan and feel the same way as I feel here or in Germany – like an alien, arriving somewhere and observing. I’m enjoying that sensation still. Doing that, I realized a lot of things about my German roots, the things which are German in me…Doing this was only possible having this distance from all those things – my personal life back in Germany, my family. Suddenly I started to investigate, like an observer, all these things: I was thinkingabout why I never felt homesick about Frankfurt, for example – it’s quite strange, I never miss Frankfurt, or Germany – if I’m there, it’s OK, if I’m not, it’s OK too.”
“I started to investigate where my family came from. It turns out that they were really wondering around for many, many decades – they’re not from Germany, they’re from Czech Republic. So I suddenly realized that all this moving around and being detached from things had something to do with this family background. And of course I was getting very interested in what being German could actually mean – for them, and for me – so suddenly I stepped into lots of very interesting cultural artifacts. Like the Hapsburg dynasty, I was visiting Prague and Vienna and I felt really connected to those kind of places. And then I started to listen to more German classical music connected to that Hapsburg dynasty, which was very much classical and Romantic music, actually. I was touching all kinds of cultural fragments; they’re not even necessarily German, they’re like Austro-German – but they’re very connected with German language. I think I rediscovered German language by being very detached from it. I hardly speak it here when I’m in Chile, and suddenly you’ll hear a word or something and it sounds really strange to your ears, and it gets inspiring to listen to your own language as if you’re an alien, as if you’re a foreigner. So that was basically how the whole Liedgut idea appeared – as little fragments of words or melody or relations between words and stuff like that.
How would you describe the Austro-German Romantic tradition? It’s very different from British romanticism, right?
“I was referring to Romantic in a general way rather than Romanticism. Like Romantic as opposed to analytical. When I was thinking about electronic music – not German electronic music, but electronic music in general – I realized that what we call minimal nowadays, which is a word I don’t really like much, but let’s use it…Minimal electronic music, especially in Germany nowadays, is always connected to certain economy. The dancefloor is an economy – the functionality of music these days, in my opinion, is very strongly connected to whether it’s marketable or economically feasible or not. To me, that’s where minimal stands at the moment. Suddenly I was reading a poster in Vienna about Biedermeier – which was a post-romantic movement in Austro-Germany. It was a poster for something called Biedermeier: The Invention of Simplicity. This was something right before the 20th century, before World War I. I realized that what we would call minimalism nowadays – not only in music, but also in art and in architecture and in general culture – it can be seen very much in that strain. We’re still escaping or repulsing from a very, let’s say, baroque movement. We’re still trying to get away as far as possible from the ornament, from everything which was connected to the pre-bourgeois culture. Interestingly, in the very beginning of the, let’s say, ‘invention of simplicity’, there was always a kind of melancholy, especially the Austro-German romanticism. If you listen to the music for Schubert, for example: he was really extremely minimal for the time, but at the same time it was songs about love, songs about being abandoned, about some eternal search, very romantic topics. And this disappeared after WWII, I would say. Especially in German music, it disappeared completely. From this moment on, everyone was suddenly making music about machines, and technology, and this whole romantic element was gone.
“I didn’t really know why – and then I suddenly realized that I was very bothered by the fact that minimal music, let’s say electronic music, is so connected to elements which, in a way, are just post-capitalist fragments. I mean, technology and all that, what’s so interesting about it? I found it just very, very uninteresting to make music about technology, you know? Especially when I then re-listened to Kraftwerk I found that they had a lot of Romantic elements – like the way they were singing about an Autobahn, or a train or something – even though it was technological topics, or topics of modern life, it always had a romantic connotation to it, which was for me the connection-point. I talked with Florian Schneider about it, and he was very annoyed about how they [Kraftwerk] were perceived, and which type of musicians say that they’re inspired by Kraftwerk when they lack entirely this romantic aspect which for Kraftwerk was very important. He felt that what they were doing in the 70s and 80s was a bit misunderstood. All that was kind of in my head, thinking how minimal electronic music with a romantic sensibilty might sound. I wanted to reconnect with a certain type of content that I found had been abandoned during the last maybe 40 years…
As someone who makes electronic music, you must be specially attuned to the romantic, or emotive, potential of technology?
“Definitely. I’ve made music with all kinds of musicians – rock musicians, jazz musicians, Latin musicians and so on – and suddenly I realized that my own understanding of making music was in fact very technological. I hadn’t really realized it before. It was normal for me to think about musical composition in terms of synthesis, or which kind of algorithm to programme sound X with, and normally musicians don’t do that. They access music through a keyboard or, I don’t know, they see chords or notes or any other musical system they have. And I found it really interesting to get back to that. So I started to read literature from the nineteenth century that dealt with that – namely by a guy called Hermann von Helmholtz, who was an important German scientist back then. He wrote a lot of interesting things about synthesis of human hearing, the human ear, how it works, and how it perceives music…For example, he builds machines that pronounce vowels and vocal sounds. He was a scientist but he was very interested in music…
“So I rediscovered that whole area, and interestingly, going back to romanticism, rock music – everything that’s connected with rock music, the whole attitude of rock music, and also jazz – it’s very romantic in itself. It’s not even a topic; it’s just like that. The things the singer is singing about, the way he’s singing them, it’s a romantic thing. And of course within music it’s considered a topic, it’s normal. At the same time, within electronic music, not being romantic is considered normal. It’s become very normal to behave like a scientist. Very often it’s arrogant – especially nowadays in the techno scene. I find it a bit pathetic, people behaving as if they’re at the forefront of modern art, doing music which is like 20 years old. I mean, techno is 20 years old. It’s done still – people are making music that sounds a better than 20 years ago, but it’s still the same, everything’s the same within the music. It’s always connected to being really ahead of something, or being really futuristic, and it’s not. It’s definitely not. To me it was important with Liedgut to make that statement: you know, come down please, being futuristic or being ahead of its time can be something different, it doesn’t have to be pathetically futuristic.”
Tell us about the packaging of the album. It seems to be in the style of a volume of poetry or something…
“It’s a Raster-Noton album, so we tried not to make it too old-fashioned. With Liedgut I wasn’t interested in anything retro at all, which is also the reason why it’s out on Raster-Noton. It’s a label which I feel has always refused any historical or cultural connection, actually. It’s a label and the music has always been very isolated, it’s always self-referencing. So releasing Liedguit through Raster-Noton has been quite a challenge – because neither I nor Raster-Noton wanted to do anything retro, an old-fashioned album about old-fashioned topics. But of course there is an inherent connection – all this minimalism and all this romanticism is, in a way, where Raster-Noton came from, and of course they’re not showing it or making it a topic within their music, but there is of course a connection. So I think what we’re trying to do is create a certain aura of historic reference without making it retro, and at the same time giving it, through its minimalism maybe, the correct connection to the Raster-Noton environment. Of course it’s not easy – I hope we managed to do it!
“What we’re trying to do is create a certain aura of historic reference without making it retro…”
Is your Rather Interesting label still extant?
“I didn’t release anything on Rather Interesting last year, I was touring a bit too much, I think…When I started, the first three or four years I released an album on the label each month; then, when I moved to Chile, this reduced to maybe an album every three months, and it has considerably diminished since. It’s still active, and I’ve been touring much more than I did before, but this year I have a couple of things in my mind which I would like to release through Rather Interesting. I’ve been remastering and reissuing part of my back catalogue, putting it up on iTunes and Beatport, so it’s still an active channel, and I think in 2007 I have released one or two albums but this was the last activity really.
Will you be bringing Liedgut to the live arena?
“Actually, last year I began perform solo shows again – which is just me on stage with one machine – not a computer – and I’m playing, improvising music and video in real time, at the same time. Last year I didn’t play that many shows; I just wanted to get going with it and I had a very small 45 minute set which I played in Japan and Europe a couple of times, and this year I would like to expand that set and incorporate a couple of elements that aren’t necessarily Liedgut but are extracted from Liedgut. There won’t be a Liedgut show or anything – impossible to do anyway – but there are certain elements, I made a video clip which perhaps will be in the show. I also decided last year to play more solo shows, rather than what I did the last ten years, which was playing in duos or trios or improvised group music. I was very interested in improvising and sharing the stage with other people and I kind of got tired of it…I really want to focus on being on my own on-stage and being able to create something more defined, more solid maybe…
Photos: Dieter Wuschanski; Chemnitz, 2008