Tensnake interview: “Pop music is the ultimate and I am not afraid to say that!”

12.05.10 Words by: Charlie Jones

I like the German alphabet. And I like German haus. And whilst the Eurozone is contemplating meltdown and stand-off between the sensible Teutons and the indulgent Greeks, I am indulging in the euphoria of one Hamburger just before he takes off to play at Prins Thomas’s ‘Ekstravaganza’ at Corsica Studios: Tensnake. Or to friends and family, Marco Niemerski. From bedroom producer in the mid-Nineties to commandeering his own label, Mirau, and co-producing Sally Shapiro’s sophomore last year, he has, as he said, regained the confidence to fulfil the soundscapes that pop into his head. And he’s quite markedly different from the nu-disco producer (cf. Keep Believin’ on Endless Flight, In The End (I Want You To Cry) on Running Back…) many would pigeon-hole him as – he’s working towards something resembling POP. Something that electronic music has found so hard to reconcile without coming across as marginal or crass.

This problem, with being accessible, populist – and its affinity with the underground – is that it perennially leaves the detritus to those up above. But sometimes, just sometimes, something will crossover proving too irresistible. This is the case with the title-track from Tensnake’s recent 12”, ‘Coma Cat’: its rapture heard from many a dancefloor across Europe. In fact, I’ve heard it in London, Berlin and Paris in the past few weeks – and like the best music, it breaks down that which separates us – from the stoic Parisian sophistication to the chin-stroking of minimal Berlin. Which is quite poignant given that this tune is the personification of a memory – a memory of youth and self-discovery. ‘Coma Cat’ really is the immaturity of idealism; and Tensnake the idealist for the dancefloor.

Coma Cat / snippet by Tensnake

His perfectionism, and need to progress from the nu disco sound that catapulted him to the dancefloor, may mean that for the foreseeable future we will have to savour the brilliance of abovementioned track. In the meantime we can focus on some choice selections from his evergrowing label with releases galore throughout 2010. Without or without our mutually beloved “ß” ligature. Now, if only I could improve my German pronunciation…

How did you start getting into producing your own music, was it something that developed quite organically or something that you planned?

Yeah, of course, when I started, it was maybe like 10 years ago? I started like every other bedroom producer. It always really felt like something I wanted to do but…actually, it started in the mid-nineties. I was buying a lot of house stuff which is back right now – vocal house is selling more and more! But you guys [the UK] always had UK garage here! I always was trying to reproduce the sound, which never worked because I thought all those guys [house producers] were really playing the music – until I figured out that they were all just sampling old disco stuff!

So it was more that the production process was demystified, then? The feeling of wanting to do it but feeling that it wasn’t achievable was smashed?

That’s true. But then there was the point when I quit again – and it took me a few times to start over again! Then, finally, it worked. The last time I tried to produce again was in 2003, maybe. Then I felt because there a development in software and computers – let’s not get too technical about it – it felt it was just the right moment!

Ah, OK. Technical development = your own development! Actually, what did you do before you started producing full-time?

Lots of stuff. I had a day-job, I was working in – what’s it called in English – music promo. So I was on the otherside of the industry.

Ah, so you were still involved in music throughout your production hiatus(es)…

Yeah, I was…I got “trained”.

Here you go, my only “technical” question. So, when you restarted you could see certain technologies that provided an impetus for you, what was the biggest one?

I think the biggest development was, of course, the software-based plug-ins – you know, like synthesizers. Which sounded like crap many years ago but it was kind of new and affordable.

Yeah, that’s true…but also when you do something that is wholly produced on a computer – as liberating as that can be – you’re working with “colder” sounds. Because replayed samples on a computer don’t have the same warmth to them. What do you think you did differently?

I think you just have to focus on your sound, you have to be confident in it…and the most important thing is the idea. I think you need an idea of a track, of the result. Then you just have to learn how to get there. But if you don’t have the goal in your head or idea of the sound then it’ll never work!

When I was younger I was really into “electronic” music, or if you could say it without the stupid connotations, “dance” – labels like Kompakt – but over the past few years I’ve moved away from it but in doing that I’ve seen the circularity to it all. The best example off the top of my head would be George Clinton remixing Nitzer Ebb! I wonder if being German and being surrounded by (electronic) sounds as diverse as Kraut to Industrial have influenced you just as much as Disco and House?

Yeah, of course, the sounds you mention [DAF, Kraftwerk, Einstürzende Neubauten] have influenced me. But I was never really very much into it…Actually, I don’t see my music as “nu disco”; for me, it is just whatever comes out, comes out. I am never trying to produce a certain genre.

I guess that when you first started getting noticed it was within the “nu disco” genre, but Coma Cat is definitely towards the housier-side of euphoria! You’re not pigeon-holed in this idea that you’re a house producer, a purveyor of disco.

That would be way too boring!

I don’t think in this or this territory [Points to a piece of paper with “Disco House” written on it]

True, I went to see Moodymann play at Berghain in February, and beforehand I was wondering how he would react to that environment – at times techno, techno, techno – and he just didn’t react to it. In the sense he just played what he wanted – Yazoo, late 80s house but also new wave…it was brilliant being unconventionally conventional…

I don’t think in this or this territory [Points to a piece of paper with “Disco House” written on it] For me, it is just my music, and all the other stuff is for the media to name it and to channel it…and to SELL it!

The media always want to label something – everybody needs compartmentalisation, on some level. But what people might ask is how you go about making something like ‘Coma Cat’ – is it what you’re listening to at the time?

Yes! When I started buying vinyl in the Nineties and going to clubs – well it was the first club I ever went to – the Front club in Hamburg which was really famous, it was a gay club. There was a really famous and brilliant DJ called Klaus Stockhausen there, and all this was a totally new world for me. I remember a record, what was it? Ah! Ce Ce Rogers ‘No Love Lost’ and this guy, Boris Duglosch, he was the resident DJ there and he was doubling Ce Ce Rogers’s records. I just came in for the very first time, I must have been 16 or 17, and I was like “wooow, what is this!?” And that was the moment when I became totally into house music. Before I was listening to totally different stuff like the Pixies, the Pogues, and Alien Sex Fiend.

That’s quite funny – and totally natural – but, still, it is quite hilarious how people move on musically in their life! There is this suggestion that you start with something in your Teens and that somehow has to form the core… “I’ve loved them forever”, etc. But then you realise that most of the time you move on…and forget…

You have to move on! To be excited. But to get back to ‘Coma Cat,’ I tried to reproduce a memory of mine…like from the old days. To have the same excitement of discovering something new for the first time.

But that’s brilliant, because with nu disco, although there isn’t very much new about it, people who may partake in it are of an age where they can’t associate feelings with it. Whereas growing up in the Nineties you associate moments with that particularly housey sound…and the best thing about ‘Coma Cat’ is its ability to capture an euphoric moment in time…if only for 6 or 7 minutes! The first time I heard it was at the BeatsInSpace anniversary party at the Paris Social Club, Optimo dropped it around 2am, and the crowd went mental – to get that reaction to the stoicism of a bunch of hip Parisians only goes to illustrate its pure potency! I miss that about dance music…it has been replaced by a repressed sort of minimalism…

Yeah, absolutely…

To me the music you make has this ideology of early Nineties dance music which never tried to niche, it tried to be in the charts…and nowadays a lot of electronic music is incredibly niche and underground, so it doesn’t really challenge the autonomy of the really shit “dance” music that dents the charts. Coma Cat is definitely a panacea to this tendency to be niche, it’s a challenger because it’s just so irresistible – there that’s a good way of describing it!

Ha! It’s pop music…and I feel like I am making pop music more than I am making club music. For me, pop music is the ultimate and I am not afraid to say that. I can totally understand if someone listens to ‘Coma Cat’ with the vocal and everything and he runs away. Because it is, let’s not say “cheesy” – yeah, even it if is, whatever! But to me that isn’t a bad word.

Like the teenagers in the Sixties who heard rock ‘n’ roll for the first time…

With Berlin it just seems like an islet of techno DJs who DJ for themselves and make music for people in Berlin; maybe I am being too harsh, but it seems that sometimes they don’t make music for the world outside of Berlin?

[Laughs] Which is totally ok.

Of course, but it has a certain inwardness…

What I am trying to do is have a piece of music which lasts. Of course it might fit with the fashion of music right now but I think you can also listen to it a few years – or maybe you can’t because you’ve listened to it too much [laughs] – but I feel it will still be fresh on some level.

So the power of ‘Coma Cat’ goes full circle from the emotion that you felt from hearing house music back in 1996, to the people who’ll hold an emotional connection to your song?

Now that would be nice! Like the teenagers in the Sixties who heard rock ‘n’ roll for the first time…

I’ve read in previous interviews that you would like to be more involved in producing other bands – for example, you’re foray into producing Sally Shapiro? How was that? I guess quite different to producing “a band” considering her insistence on recording the vocals alone, and so on.

I’ve never met her [Sally Shapiro]…it was really unsexy, they just sent me the vocals, the backing track and the raw idea, and I just produced it.

Maybe [laughs] Why not!

Really, so you never met her? Have you met Johan?

No [laughs] – I only know them by e-mailing!

Odd, my strange idea of the production process is something so intimate and symbiotic…but I guess it is very “now” to know someone but to never have met them…do you ever yearn to be in the studio with the artist exchanging ideas in person, then?

It depends on the production, I think…or the person. If it’s a really nice person then it can be nice work. But if they’re annoying then it is better to have him/her in another country and do your own thing. [laughs] In respect of Sally and Johan, they know what they want, they know their stuff…

Is it harder then to produce someone who knows what they want?

Actually, they told me to do whatever I wanted, and I think that they were really happy with the result…there was no disagreements over the production. So…

Are you trying to focus on your role as producer, a producer of other bands, artists, musicians?

Hopefully, yes! But there are no plans at the moment to produce anyone else, the main goal at the moment is to produce my own album…and maybe collaborate with some other musicians.

I’ve always wondered if artists in electronic music who distance themselves from “DJing” as some sort of counter-reaction to the entrenched view that they’re DJs producing and not producers’ DJing. Is that true?

Definitely. You’re right. I am not DJing mainly because I would have to buy vinyl – or MP3s – whatever you choose. You really have to dig into it, you have to know what’s going on, every weekend. And this obviously takes time and that is time that I wouldn’t have for producing – and that’s what I love. I like doing gigs like the one I am doing tonight with Prins Thomas or travelling, but my love is sitting in the studio producing – putting all the pictures in my head into soundscapes.

I did read in some older interviews that you didn’t really care for vinyl, or buy it at least? But what is interesting for me, is that the genres that seem to influence you, glorify the vinyl format? Do you think there’s maybe a contradiction between the two?

[I hastily look up the the meaning of “contradiction” in German – “Widerspruch” according to my Blackberry app]

No, no, I don’t. I am embracing vinyl because I have a small label and as long as it will be possible and affordable we will put out vinyl too. I love vinyl so no, it isn’t a “Widerspruch”!

Some people in your field idolise vinyl, that’s all, and you seem much more receptive to digital…

I’ve moved on and I feel like I have to do something new. So I started with one track [Coma Cat] and I actually have no idea in what direction it is going.

Ha, and maybe they’d also mind me talking about pop music…! “He’s not a really club guy…” This might happen but I am not afraid of other people’s perceptions, I have to do what I want to do. I have to do the stuff I love, you know? I can’t produce more techy or clubby stuff just because people want it to be like that.

So what do you feel of the contemporary Berlin electronic scene because you are in Hamburg and that’s different again? Does it feel alien to you because there is such a community of producers there?

What, that I am outside of it? No, not really…I mean I’ve always felt alienated, ha! I always felt like I want to do something else. For me, I am really bored of all this disco – it’s my love – but everything is disco at the moment. So maybe my next track is going to be…

…industrial!

Maybe [laughs] Why not!

What are the plans then for the future?

To finish the album by the end of this year. Half of it was ready but I deleted everything…

Why? Because it was disco?

Yeah, you’re right. I started 2 years ago and it just didn’t feel right anymore. I’ve moved on and I feel like I have to do something new. So I started with one track [Coma Cat] and I actually have no idea in what direction it is going.

Absolutely, I produce instinctively. And yes, I am a perfectionist

It seems like you are someone who produces really instinctively? It also seems like you are a bit of a perfectionist?

Absolutely, I produce instinctively. And yes, I am a perfectionist, someone asked me last week if I was a “tortured artist”. It’s the same thing as being a perfectionist! But it is just your own approach to something, if you want something to be perfect – I can’t release something that doesn’t sound “perfect” to me. But then again, I am never 100% satisfied with it.

But I don’t think any perfectionist ever is! The one drawback of being a perfectionist is that you may never ever get the album done!

Yes, that’s a concern – a little bit. That’s one reason and the other reason is that I don’t feel that there has to be an album.

…and that’s perfectly acceptable. You could continue to go down the Eighties tradition of releasing EP.

Yeah, I’ve always been more into twelve inches, because there were always more exciting mixes on them. Plus it is so much faster and reflective of the way I am feeling at the moment. Then you can be more satisfied with it.

If you had released some of the disco album tracks in EP a few months ago then maybe they would have had a shelf-life, you would have enjoyed them, and you would have also gotten them out of your system!

Yeah, that’s true, and a very good point.

But with Mirau – sorry I am rubbish with German pronunciation but I have become obsessed with that ligature in the German alphabet – the sharp S… [ß]?

Ha! The scharfes S! Yeah, it’s dying…it is officially being removed more and more from the German language because of reforms [he imitates the sound of the ß]

It’s dying out – but I hope you’re continuing to use it!?

Yes! [laughs] It’s also called the “eszett” in German.

Good…! So the label this year…?

Actually I started it with two really old friends and it originally a hobby – nothing too serious – but now we have serious plans for this year.

Yes! [laughs] It’s also called the “eszett” in German.

Like?

More releases, of course…and our latest release is from a Dubliner who lives in Berlin: Mano Le Tough [http://www.myspace.com/manoletough] and his record is called ‘Eurodancer (Dances for Euros)’. I’ve remixed it and I’ve also remixed Azari & III – you know them? [WE INTERVIEW THEM HERE ]They’re from Canada and I love them.

I guess you’re actively looking for other people to release so the label isn’t solely just for your own recordings?

Yep, we’re trying to establish the label. Now we’re getting more interesting demos…

I presume because of your own exposure?

Yeah…there are some nice releases. There is going to be a release by a really young guy from Romania, his name is Aero Maschine [http://www.myspace.com/aeromaschine] and there will be a remix by Marcus Worgull. The track is pretty clubby. And the release after that is – you’re going to like his name – Erdbeerschnitzel [http://www.myspace.com/erdbeerschnitzel]

But has it got an eszett in it?

[laughs] Not yet but we could put it in it! We could put it at the end and make it plural “Erdbeerschnitzelß”…the track is called ‘To an End’. And that track is absolutely amazing. I think that’s it for this year with the label.

TENSNAKE’S MYSPACE

READ DAVID’S PIECE ON SALLY SHAPIRO

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