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Interview with Efdemin

img  Tobias Fischer

There are two sides to each story? In the case of Phillip Sollmann, there may well be a lot more. Constructing a sonic language suitable for sweaty nights in sparsely-lit basement clubs and concentrated headphone listening alike, Sollmann is without doubt one of the most recognisable, refreshing and original voices in electronic music. His unique position is the result of experiencing first-hand two of the most important movements in recent German music history: The rise of an ambitious, local rock scene in late 90s Hamburg, whose bands expanded and rejuvenated the song format and lent a fresh ring to their native tongue. And secondly, the expansion of techno from an underground phenomenon to a broad cultural movement. Although it would take him a while to turn his passion for music into a career, Sollmann quickly managed, both as a solo artist or as part of different collaborative projects, to release tracks, EPs and a full-length with pioneering label Kompakt and the fledgling, yet highly respected Dial imprint of his friends Carsten Jost, Paul Kominek (Pawel) and Peter Kersten (aka Lawrence). Breakthrough Chicago, both a tribute to the birthplace of house and a reflection on its influence, managed to sound experimental and accessible, garnered album of the year accolades across the community and is widely considered a masterpiece. At the same time, despite the praise bestowed on his dancefloor-oriented work, Sollmann's vision continues to be inspired by his years spent studying experimental sound art in Vienna, a phase which he documented on frequently overlooked and long sold out solo album Something is Missing, an exercise in slowly evolving, peacefully humming drones. His fascination for this kind of installational, spatial approach has never died down. And so, after finishing his long-awaited third Efdemin album Decay, a collection of extremely subtle and microscopically developing deep techno tracks, Sollmann may well return to his more explorative side in the studio. As soon as he gets through the questions of this in-depth interview about his past, present and future, that is.

A while back, I spoke to Ralf, one of the owners of the Golden Pudel in Hamburg, and he had some incredible stories to relate about the club. What was your time there like?
I arrived in Hamburg in 1994. It had been clear to me for a long time that I had to leave my provincial hometown of Kassel and Northern Hesse in general, which felt constricting to me. I was magnetically attracted to Hamburg thanks to its association with bands like Blumfeld, die Goldenen Zitronen and Kollosale Jugend, so there was really no other choice for me. During the eight years I lived there, two locations were particularly important to me: Heinz Karmer´s Tanzcafé and the Golden Pudel. The Tanzcafé was a bar at the beginning of the Reeperbahn. They'd put on gigs and I can vividly remember many unique moments, as I attended performances by Silver Apples, Les Robbespieres, Cat Power (solo) and John S. Hall. The old Golden Pudel Club down at the harbour looked different than it does now. It was a lot smaller and did not have a canopy – I actually helped building that later on. It was more diverse in terms of approach, too. Communities from the world of music and the visual arts would blend in the club and that's how it has essentially stayed until this day. I was blown away by the DJ-sets of Jochen Distelmeyer, who would contribute short spoken intermissions in between records with a microphone. Next day, someone like DJ Koze would spin hip hop and house records and anything in between. And on Monday, there'd be an art exhibit with the artist collective Akademie Isotrop. It was an incredibly exciting time.

How did you hook up with the guys of Dial?
At first, I had a band which played a blend of post-punk and soul. But since I was also fascinated by electronic music, it was only a matter of time, before it would take on an important role as well. Around 1998, I met Alexander Polzin, who had an Akai S1000 sampler and a wide selection of techno records but who, just like me, originally came from a background in independent rock. We started producing tracks together. In 1999, we released our first and only 12'' under the name of TOBIN. Only shortly afterwards, we made it to the opening installment of Kompakt's Total sampler series. We'd get our first DJ-gigs in Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin, all with a plethora of records and all very exciting. On the other hand, we weren't particularly well set up to run a label. So I was happy that Lawrence, Pawel and Carsten Jost founded Dial around that time. Suddenly, there was a record company which represented exactly the kind of music we liked and which organised fantastic parties as well. Their "Changing Weather" nights at the Pudel were the stuff of legends. They'd put a flag of the antifascist movement behind the booth and then play ten hours of techno in the intersection between Kanzleramt, Perlon and Moodyman, with Carsten and Lawrence acting as DJs. I learned a lot about music during these events and I think that they still continue to influence me to this day. We're almost like a small family and will still meet up regularly in Berlin.

Why didn't you stay in Hamburg, then?
I left the city in 2002 in the direction of Vienna to study music. Somehow, Hamburg had lost its appeal to me. It was funny in a way that at the very end I got a call from Jochen Distelmeyer, asking me if I would like to join him and play keyboard with Blumfeld. Five years earlier, this offer would have brought me to the point of fainting. But now, it came too late, I wanted to move on. The time in Hamburg had been very intense and important, however, and I enjoy thinking back to it. On the 21st of June, there will be first big DIAL allnighter in Hamburg, with all of the original crew attending. I can't wait for that and hope to see many of my former friends there.

Your time as a student in Vienna must have been quite an incision.
Absolutely. I hardly had any money, didn't know anyone at first and was attending classes again. During the first two years, techno hardly mattered, especially since there was no noteworthy scene for it in Vienna. And so, I dedicated myself to electro-acoustic composition, immersing myself in anything from Musique concrète to Stockhausen, spectralism, microtonal music and sound art. At the Institut für Computermusik, Max/Msp was the main tool, alongside analog synths such as the Roland System 100 or the Arp 2600 and I spent several years building patches. Unfortunately, I lacked the mathematical background to really get to the heart of these things. I eventually realised that I was loosing too much time with programming and wasn't actually creating any music. Still, I learnt a lot there, especially from Wolfgang Musil, who was one of the first Max/Msp users. I was an assistant to different projects of his, ranging from audio-visual performances to contemporary opera and I gained valuable experience.

Then, while working at the Wiener Kunsthalle, I met Oliver Kargl aka DJ RNDM. This encounter re-kindled my interest in techno and we started making music together. That's how our collaborational project Pigon got started.

Your first solo release Something is Missing compiles various performances recorded during your time in Austria. What were you interested in, conceptually, back then?
The idea behind the album is radical minimalism within what I referred to at the time as 'static music'. I was interested in the work of people like La Monte Young and other post-minimalists and against this background, I developed different sound installations and performances during my time in Vienna, all of which were built on sinus generators and specific intonations. Once I'd arrived in Berlin, the CD compiled these ideas and presented an extract of pieces which had originally been conceived in an installational or performative context. In a way, the tracks don't have a beginning or an end. I am still interested in dysfunctional drone music and have continued putting on different exhibitions with sound art works in this direction.

I still think the album sounds great. How come you didn't pursue these concepts in more depth, instead turning towards techno and house?
I actually keep asking myself the same question. I can only attribute this to Berlin. I moved there in 2005 and arrived to a city with a wild club life. I was instantly hooked. In Vienna, I had only been dealing with techno tangentially. Now, however, I could experience first-hand how this music was branching out into a variety of different contexts. Back then, the Berghain was still relatively young and the Bar 25 was only just opening up, there were events like the legendary Beat-Street-Afterhours. Somehow all of this grabbed me and I would DJ wherever I could and spent a lot of time in record stores. My first performance at the Panorama Bar in 2006 then clinched the deal. After I released tracks like "Acid bells" or "Just a Track" and, later, my first full-length in 2007, interest in what I was doing started building outside of Berlin – and my current life started taking shape.

I never planned it that way. Over time, I have repeatedly questioned whether it is really the right thing for me to be travelling around the world as a DJ. I've come to the conclusion that these doubts are part of the job. I'm enjoying this life and if it means I don't have the time to create music and art under my civilian name of Phillip Sollmann, then that's simply the price I have to pay. This doesn't mean, however, that I've lost my interest in these concepts. On a smaller level, I've always tried exploring them. There've been a few exhibitions, classes at university and various residencies. Although I've not been able to release much, it's never too late for that, whereas it may well be too late at some point for spinning records. Which is why things are going just the way they should.

It should not go unmentioned that Efdemin and Chicago were substantial, deep and explorative works in their own right. How do you look back on these two records today?
To my own surprise, I actually really still like both. To me, they document certain phases in my development and what drove me at the time. I've integrated "Acid Bells" off the first LP into my current sets, it's a track which I would still create almost the same way today. And I feel as though "Shoeshine" is still a fine piece of house. In a way, I''ve been making the same music since the first album: a schizophrenia between reductionism and romanticism. Both albums are marked by a search for an individual script and openly display their creative cracks. I find that sympathetic.

It took you four years to come up with a follow-up to these albums. What finally made you return to producing?
It was a period marked equally by routines in my work as a DJ on the one hand and finding a new direction for the future on the other. Two years ago, I started building my studio, located in an old church building. That took up a lot of time, but whenever I enter this room, I am glad I invested it. Finally, I have a space at my disposal which is entirely isolated from the outside world, where phones don't work and which contains all of the instruments and tools I currently work with. There are other musicians, composers, graphic designers and video artists in the same building as well and working with them has created a kind of community. The cover of Decay was designed in the basement, in the studio next to mine John Gürtler created a phenomenal remix of "Parallaxis" and in the basement, we produced the video to "some kind of up and down yes".

As a DJ, I've arrived at a point where I can deal with the inconsistencies which you're repeatedly confronted with as part of this profession in a more peaceful way. I also think I'm continually improving – at least by my own standards. By making the change to Ostgut booking, I feel as though I've become better at expressing what matters to me as a DJ. It has also allowed me to play with formidable DJs such as Steffi, Tama Sumo, Marcel Dettmann, Ryan Elliot or Ben Klock. And then, I also spent some time composing MASSE, a ballet performed in the hall behind the Berghain, for which I worked with Marcel Fengler. That was an amusing and creative time. Ostgut will soon release our reworking / remixes for the dancefloor. I'm really looking forward to that.

What prompted the concept of the the new album, these thoughts about decay and transience?
I think different conceptual strands are coming together on the album. I am increasingly observing that economic, political and societal developments are marked by a sort of decay. Occasionally, it seems as though what we consider reality is nothing but a Potemkin village. Ecologically, things are quickly deteriorating, but no one seems to care particularly. Personally, as I get older, I, too, am subjected to processes of decay and have started dealing with them. Musically, this idea of things sounding out is extremely interesting and plays an important role in my work. And finally, I produced the album in Japan, a country, which, post-Fukushima, is confronted with half-life periods, meaning the disintegration of isotopes, on a daily basis. So the title almost forced itself on me.

One of the things you instantly notice is that the arrangements are marked by very subtle shifts. Almost as delicate as in your 'dysfunctional' work.
It is an interesting phenomenon that you can listen to some loops for hours, but when you start arranging them into a time-frame, they will crumble and run through your fingers like sand. On Decay, there are various examples where it was simply more effective to present an almost static arrangement and allow developments to take place on a micro-level and within the sounds. These include my personal favourites "Drop Frame" and "Some kind of up and down yes". For the latter, I shot a video with Toby Cornish, for which we used a translucent strip of celluloid. Because you can see through it, you can also see the dust particles on it, as well as the colors and chemicals which I pour onto it over the course of the film. I am extremely happy about the video, since it approximates in visual terms what is happening in terms of sound through delicate phase shifts.

Now you've finished this techno-leaning album, when can we expect the new drone record you've announced in the past?
It'd already be finished, if journalists like yourself wouldn't ask me these kind of interesting questions, stealing my time (laughs). But it's actually the next item on my list. I guess I'll start working on it now …

Efdemin interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Efdemin
Homepage: Dial Records

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