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Part 1: An obsessive urge to create

img  Tobias Fischer

2011 has only just gotten off to a start, but the N headquarters are already a busy hive of activity. Throughout the past twenty four months, the project's mastermind Hellmut Neidhardt has unleashed a steady stream of music, including four new full-lengths, a remix-album and an EP, next to completing an extensive, two-legged European tour with his Belgian friend Dirk Serries. In the oasis of his Dortmund studio, Neidhardt has also worked on a plethora of highly diverse new material, which, if released, may well turn him into one of the more prolific artists on the scene over the next two years: There's an upcoming collaboration with tape-bending artist Jim Campbell, who has proven to be a perfect side-kick on stage, under the new alias Tape Measure Kid. Duos with Miguel Boriau aka Simulacra, Tzesne and plenty more are in the pipeline. At least locally, his name has considerably grown in stature: Denovali, a still fairly young imprint specialising in multi-genre politics and superior quality vinyl editions, have committed themselves to his oeuvre. There are also plenty of contacts with local colleagues, including a second LP with Mirko Uhlig, who hails from the nearby former German capital of Bonn, or Seconds in Formaldehyde's Martin Fuhs from Thuringia. It is hard to believe that this man, who currently seems to be infected with an obsessive urge to create and may represent one of the most talented artists in his field should only recently have re-surfaced after all but disappearing from sight for a full six years. Between 2003 and 2009, right after releasing possibly their most ambitious work, [multer], Neidhardt's band project with Mal Hoeschen and Thomas K. Geiter would lay dormant subject to a variety of internal disagreements, conflicts and a host of petty diversions. N would restrict himself to contributing loose tracks to a variety of small-scale compilations. There were occasional gigs. There was the infrequent medial spotlight. There was a new generation of listeners, who would, from time to time, order N's epic debut Bergen as an reference point for their own journey into the drone scene. But other than that, there was mostly a void, a pervasive non-presence – and an overwhelming sensation of wasted opportunities and a dream gone awry.

By the time I first got to know Hellmut Neidhardt, he had already picked up the pieces again, but was still rather known for his journalistic contributions for online mag unruhr than his musical endeavours. I'd travelled to Berlin on the occasion of Neidhardt's aforementioned tour with Serries in the Summer and, judging by photos of him I'd found online, which depicted him donned entirely in black and sporting a gangsta-style-cap, was expecting some philosophically inclined nihilist treating music as an expression of his deeply sceptical world view. Standing in front of the Bis Auf's Messer record store in Friedrichshain, a smallish but extremely well-assorted location with an endless array of crates placed on simple wooden tables and containing an assortment of vinyl in all sorts and sizes, a warm wooden floor and a tiny fridge filled to the brim with bottles of cool beer, he turned out to be the complete opposite: An upbeat, friendly and charismatic artist full of contagious enthusiasm and always in for a joke and a laugh. His performance, too, was anything but a dark ritual, but more of a gentle journey inwards: Reclined into an old armchair by the window, Neidhardt seemed rather like a storyteller than a typically grim purveyor of the drone manifesto. Music appeared to allow him to express some aspects of his personality more frankly than words ever could: Using his guitar, he took his audience on a trip through worlds of rich resonance and, as he might put it himself, archaic melodies of serene beauty. Following up the Bis Auf's Messer gig, I saw him in concert the next day at the more jazz-oriented Cafe Wendel, and I remember my time in Berlin as one of spending time with people who, even after many years in the trade and despite the obvious downs and lowpoints, still thought of music as a spiritual force - and of playing live, even to the tiniest of crowds, as a gift. There was a mood of excitement and opportunity in the air, of things „happening“. Memories of these days flash by like Polaroids: Dinner at a Japanese sushi-bar, where we enjoyed stimulating conversations and from which are asked to leave long after the actual closing time. Driving through an empty Unter den Linden in the middle of the night. Talking about music, writing about music. A performance combining pre-prepared elements and free improvisation, waves of woozy harmonics washing over us, fuzz and distortion turning into messengers of spritual elevation. It was also a time of asking a lot of questions: About how it all began, fourteen years ago, why things had come to a halt – and why he decided to end his silence after spending so much time in his own, private world.

Inconspicuous Beginnings
As any biography, this one, too, starts inconspicuously. Classical music is the most frequently played genre at the Neidhardt's house and young Hellmut quickly learns to hate it, to this day preferring the profound and powerful blast of electrically produced sound. Nothing, however, indicates his love for the intricate tone poetry of N or even the shifting patterntronica of [multer] at this stage. Rather, Neidhardt's first love is, of all, English pub-rock. Just like his pioneering compatriot Manuel Göttsching, who, two decades earlier, described the surreal, otherwordly cosmos of early Ash Ra Tempel albums as a failed attempt at copying his heroes from the realms of blues and folk, this point of departure will nonetheless come to influence his future path. Partly, because it introduces him to the guitar, which will remain his main tool for expression to this day, And partly, because it provides him with a mirror image of his real intentions as an artist. So-called experimental music is still firmly underneath his personal radar, although he does quickly discover that, unlike most of his peers, he is less interested in learning scales on the fretboard or traditional song structures and more in „sound“ as a musical element which can be moulded, transformed and sculpted in a bid of influencing the impact of a piece. Effect pedals turn into an early object of interest. With the result that some musicians and audience members of the local scene refer to him as the „effects guy“, poking fun at his interest in aspects which seem to bare no relevance to seemingly far more important factors like melody and harmony. To Neidhardt, however, one can not separate one from the other. Playing music means controlling the entire signal path to him, from the moment his fingers touch a string to the blast of electrically charged notes emanating from the speakers:

       „Looking back, those guys maybe just didn't understand that an electronic instrument comprises the entire set-up connected by cables; it isn't only the guitar, but involves  everything from effects to amplification with effects and amps not playing some static role but being essential in creating a particular sound.“

While most are still shaking their heads about this perspective, he is experiencing his private epiphany and a moment of creative break-through. Playing a „just for fun sessions“ with two friends on bass and drums, he uses the breaks in between different sections to dive into deep ambient-drones for the first time, armed with nothing but his guitar, some delay and a tube amp. He will remember the experience as laying the foundation both for his current sound and style as well as for his ongoing interest in experimental music. And as personal as it may have been, it was directly inspired by the scene at the border between electronica, ambient and rock gradually growing around him. More particularly, it was inspired by the work of one man: Thomas Köner.

The German experimental scene in the 1990's is marked by great expectations and a quickly accelerating momentum. There is both a sense of cohesion, as communities are discovering shared aesthetics and philosophies, on the one hand, as well as a trends towards warring factions and militantly opposed camps on the other, as the division between a commercially viable mainstream and an art-for-art's-sake underground is turning deeper and deeper. Two forces are mainly responsible for sublimating electronic music from an academic exercise and novelty gag into an internationally dominating progressive force. One of them is electronic dance music. When Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson took a plane from Detroit to London in a bid of advancing their careers and propagating a style they had dubbed, for better or worse, techno, they could never envision that this fusion of soul, house and electro would soon come to spread around the globe and infect millions with a love for repetitive beats and hypnotic monotony. In Germany, after the fall of the Berlin wall, the wordless ecstasy of relentless bass power would turn out to be the perfect medium for East and West to find a common language after five decades of separation. Empty warehouses and bunkers, most of them for rent at next to no cost, provided for perfect meeting points. And clubs like Tresor were turning into international brands. Although the love parade would come to dominate the style's public image, Techno remained an essentially underground phenomenon for a long time, continually pushing forward and extending its influence into a variety of adjacent genres. [multer], the formation Neidhardt eventually set up, showed no shame in displaying these influences by relying on grim four-to-the-floor bass drums at strategically chosen instances.

At the same time, as computers were becoming more affordable and new software solutions allowed for intutive composition techniques without  formerly indispensable theoretical training, the „serious“ strand of electro-acoustic composition started merging with a both mythically and psychologically inspired brand of rock and sound art. In 1993, Stefan Knappe founds Drone Records as a highly scene-oriented label and mail order, releasing a series of 7inches of unsettling sounds aimed at the unconscious. His band Maeror Tri has already built a steady fanbase with its „transcendental“ blend of mind-altering soundscapes and will, after the departure of founding member Helge Siehl, continue as a possibly even more influential duo called Troum. In 1994, Mille Plateaux opens up shop, steadily building a discography of seminal importance on the basis of a philosophical concept. The entire country is now firmly gripped by the feeling that a new era has begun, of new forms of music emerging, of the unimaginable being turned into sound. Asmus Tietchens, who had formerly worked at the fringes of the spectrum, is hailed as a pioneer. Wolfgang Voigt establishes Kompakt, invents minimal Techno a decade before it turns into a mass phenomenon and publishes his classic gas-albums. Thomas Köner (pictured), finally, is one of the first to represent an exciting new fusion of all these different worlds, coining the term „media artist“. By 1997, he already has four widely acclaimed full-lengths under his belt and Teimo and Permafrost, re-released as a twofer on Mille Plateaux that very year, are epics of sustain, majestic one-tone symphonies of quiet low-frequency hums growing into crystaline beams of light and moving their audience to tears. Just like thousands of others, Hellmut Neidhardt is stunned. The fact that Köner has studied in his own town of Dortmund seems to suggest that he, too, could make it with his music. It is the year [multer] is founded. It is the year his dream of finding the right partners to realise his personal vision comes true.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: [multer]
Homepage: Thomas Köner

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