German DJ-producer Phon.o – along with his peers Apparat, Modeselektor, Shitkatapult, and Pfadfinderei – spun together during the peak of Berlin’s nightlife scene. In his own words as paraphrased by us, it was a time when everything was anarchistic; sounds ranging from IDM, techno, clicks and cuts, electronic hip hop, breaks, pop and vocals intermingled without making anyone stop dancing. Recent release Black Boulder showcased how that period had influenced Phon.o’s music. JUICE, ever curious about nightlife, spoke to the man to find some insight into Berlin’s scene and the nature of genre names.
What’s good Carsten, whatchu up to at the moment?
I am doing a bunch of shows in Europe at the moment and start working on a new album next week. But the most exciting thing is looking forward to the Asian tour in April.
Being from Germany, you dabbled in a lot of techno-based genres in the past. How did the transition to the more step-oriented sound happen?
I was always interested in different styles of music and in combining them. For sure there is this huge influence of techno from the ‘90s I grew up with. But I love to explore new genres, grooves and sounds and combine them with my background. I always try to keep it interesting for myself and, I guess, this is the main reason for exploring new fields of music.
We noticed that DJ-producers who make atmospheric records don’t necessarily play that kind of music when spinning. Is it the same with you? If so why?
It really depends on the night and crowd and also on the amount of time I have for my set. If I have 3 hours I am able to go through a huge variety of styles and tempos. If I just get a short slot, I use more songs which have this mixture to create a certain atmosphere and flow. In the end, I never stick to just one style of music in my sets, because I would get bored by it and I also wanna surprise the audience.
You’ve described Black Boulder as an album that you’d play at a club but also to listen to at home. How do you balance between making a tune that is apt in a dingy club environment yet still act as headphone music?
I tried to reach that by using warm sounds and I also tried to avoid to over compress and over-limit the mixdown. So in the end the sound is not so aggressive and is easier to listen to. I also tried to arrange real songs and not just tracks. I used melodies or harmonic phrases in nearly every song, which create a deeper and more interesting structure in my eyes. I didn’t want to just make very repetitive tracks without any soul. Especially not for an album.
You were a graphic designer and went to art school. How much of your artistic inclination translated into your music? Black Boulder sounds quite conceptual…
I am still doing graphic design on the side. It frees me to take risks when it comes to my music because I don’t depend on it to live.
There is definitely an influence from my university background and graphic design jobs when I am doing music, because somehow I “see” a song, especially the dramaturgy of a song is influenced – in an abstract way – by this classical design rules I learned. And while working on an album, I’d compare it to a book I would design. I have to write the chapters (in this case, songs) and compose it to the right order to create an interesting dramaturgy.
You’ve stated that with Black Boulder, you try to make tracks that could work without vocals. You do have a few tracks with guest vocalists though, are you very selective when you do choose to have ‘em? How so?
That’s true. I tried to use vocals just in an abstract way and I decided to have just 2 songs with real vocalists to place some special peaks in the dramaturgy of the album. I don’t like it if you got an over-input of words in an album. Choosing the right vocalist followed more or less 3 important points. First, I chose them from the sound of their voice and second from their attitude or better their way of dealing with a song. And third reason was, that I knew these guys and that they are friends of mine. I wanted to have like a private intimate atmosphere while working. I have to trust them as a people and as artistes.
How much does the nightlife culture of Berlin factor into your music-making?
I was strongly influenced by the Berlin of the ‘90s and early ‘00s more than nowadays. This is based on the fact that at that time everything was so fresh and more anarchistic. There was this huge techno and IDM thing in the ‘90s.
Later on in the early ‘00s there was this very interesting period of strong mingling and mixing of all sounds and genres like clicks and cuts, electronic hip hop, breaks, pop and vocals. There were many places and clubs where you could listen to this fresh eclectic mixture at peak time and where people danced to weird abstract music.
The WMF club was maybe the biggest or the most important melting pot for music and visual art and I went there very often. All my favourite acts and friends played there and I became a part of this later on as well. It was also the time when I became friends with Modeselektor, Shitkatapult and Pfadfinderei. I think this was the most interesting time for me in Berlin so far.
Your bio says you were “misled, used, and abused” by Shitkatapult. Was this tongue in cheek or was there a real story behind it? Care to share?
(Laughs) This was just ironic and funny. I had and still have a good time with my peeps from Shitkatapult. So unfortunately I can’t tell you any story of rape and torture by these guys.
That’s disappointing (laughs). Some have labelled your recent music as IDM. What’s your opinion on that term? We think it’s as inane as EDM, if not more.
I don’t really think about what genres people stick on my music. They need to categorise music and as long as it is not EDM, which is terrible as f*ck, I am fine with that.
(Laughs) You’ve described the scene in the States as “sh!tty” before. Does Europe not have its equivalent of Skrillex? Is it that much better?
I did not say it in these words! I mean, you can find really good and engaging scenes in the USA like on the West Coast, Detroit and New York. But unfortunately they are just a few of these people, and only because they don’t have the infrastructure we have over here. I really respect the works of the people who try to make good parties and events happening in the USA under difficult conditions.
What I called “sh!tty”, is this super commercialised bad taste EDM scene. It’s so “plastic” that I get sick of it. For sure you have a cheesy EDM scene over here as well, but the cool thing about Europe is that the interesting scenes are way bigger and stronger. So that means I can live (more or less) from being part of those scenes without being a bitch and doing commercial music. I am really happy about that!
Speaking of whom, the commercial dubstep phase has past… we know how much you hate wobbles. However it seems like a new trend is growing (hint: it starts with t and ends with rap), what’s your take on it? Is electronic music getting too trend-based?
This bad music industry needs to take over cool genres to sell their soulless stuff. They also need to come up with new subgenres every week. This happens faster and faster and I don’t know where it will end in the future. But – the same with dubstep – you can find great and fresh music in this trap scene which isn’t commercialised and bad. So for me it is not a stigma at all.
What can KLites expect from your set this 20 April?
I will play a melodic and varied live set which will be dancy and emotional all at once. So I hope to kick ya as$es!
Brought to you by Detour Asia, 50Weapons pres. Phon.o’s Asia Tour ’13 will hit Kuala Lumpur at new venue Mai Bar, Aloft KL Sentral on Saturday 20 April. More info on the Berlin homie at phon-o.com.