„It is better to leave people while enjoying it!“
I met with Ren Schofield, the man behind the imprint Container, in a small café at the outskirts of Neukölln, right next to the open field of Tempelhof. He is in town for a performance at Berghain the next night as part of the excellently curated Polymorphism #18 night, but as his current touring schedule is not too packed, he already arrived a few days earlier and is hanging out with some friends.
He tells me that the other night he went out to Ohm club to see some electronic acts, but actually the audience made more of an impression on him as the musician. „I was shocked to see mostly American people showing up –not cool at all“. Completely different are his memories of Cologne. „The city is much more my cup of tea!“, he comments with the most slacker smile one could send out. Enough sweet talk, time for the serious questions.
Ren, do you still live in Nashville?
No, I moved back to my hometown of Providence already a few years ago.
I was socialized with hardcore music. Providence was always a kind of magic place to us in Europe as so many tour schedules included the town and by that there were all those live recordings of gigs available. As a matter of fact as a young kid I always wanted to go to Providence.
It is a small town, but a really big music city. Especially for underground music and weird stuff. The shows there are not so specific as in other towns in the way that not only one niche of music is included in the lineups. It could for example be a rock band, a folk singer and me on a bill – but all quality stuff.
Is it a town or a village?
It is a small city with like 200.00 people and a big art school – but this fact does not mean that so many students show up for the shows, it is mostly folks who already graduated from school.
Interesting. When I was in Durham, North Carolina for Moogfest the other week, I also expected to see many students from the campuses close by – but it did not seem true. What is the main industry in Providence?
A good question, I do not know who the big employers are. My friends are all doing art jobs.
Do you make a living from your music?
I have been able to get by for the last few years: the music pays for my rent, the food and the beer –that´s all that I need. I mean, in the back of my mind I always wanted it to be like that, so I am very grateful that it happened. I never expected it, but I also never went to college to learn something else. I’ve been playing music since I was a kid. The moment Container kicked off, I got rid of my side job.
Do you remember the initial moment when you realized you want to make music yourself and not just listen to the music of others?
I guess when I was twelve years old or something like that and I was getting into modern rock radio and stuff like Beck. I started playing guitar and since then this is my main interest.
So you look back on a long list of indie and hardcore bands before the electronic stuff happened?
Yeah, lots of noise rock bands in which I used to play the drums.
Noise rock in the tradition of labels like Amphetamine Reptile and Skincraft?
Yes, sorta like that. In Providence there was a big label in the early 2000s called Load which was very influential for me, my first exposure to weird underground music. They released bands like Lightning Bolt and Six Finger Satellite. It taught me the possibilities of DIY culture, showed me that music does not have to come from a corporate business mind.
Are you still sceptical about the commercial aspects of the music industry?
Yeah, in a way. If someone wants to pay me to do a corporate show, I’d probably do it for the money, but I wouldn’t support it. On the other hand and more important, I would not decline any small show because of money reasons.
Do you still run your tape label “I just live here”?
Not really, it fell apart. I tried to start a vinyl label at some point after that, but then I realized I do not have enough money to make it the way I want to do it. I didn’t want to compromise. But lately I get back into the idea to have a label again. Hopefully, I could realize it soon.
It is interesting how the idea to run a tape label changed over the last five, six years from the most DIY thing you could do to the full on hipster move. Everywhere are tape labels popping up, releasing everything from obscure stuff to major label releases. Was that also part of the process of you stopping it?
I don´t know. I just wasn’t interested anymore. But I know what you are saying and it is indeed interesting. The perspective regarding tape labels changed: a few years ago only few cared about them, it was just for a handful of people. But it is not a bad thing as suddenly a tape label could get recognition in magazines like The Wire.
Ren, you are going to play at 6am tomorrow morning at Berghain. Is this something you normally try to avoid?
It is something I am not used to. In the States shows are normally over by 2am. It is very rare that something goes longer and definitely not in the terms of Berghain.
Does this also mean that the perception of the people towards your music is different in the States? Do they come to experience a noise manifesto or do they also come to dance?
It depends on the show. Both. I do not like playing clubs or dance nights, I prefer to what is in my mind a regular show as I feel like in clubs it is most of the time not about who is playing and the music and instead about the vibe. A lot of times the audience is not paying attention who is playing what, they are there for the party.
Are you playing differently when you play at 11pm as opposed to 6am?
No, exactly the same.
How adaptable are you anyways in the way you perform your material?
All my material is more or less composed, so I stick to the structure of the songs. Sometimes I mix up the order. On this tour I included a lot of beatless sections in between the tracks, that varies a lot from show to show.
How long are your sets these days? I ask as you are known for playing on point.
I play for about 35 minutes.
That is quite a change to the normal set times in a club. More like a performance.
A lot of promoters ask me upfront how long I’m going to play and seem a bit upset that it is not longer. But I feel that my music is intense and that if it would go on much longer than that it will get to be dull. It needs to be very consistent and as you said on point. It is better to leave people while enjoying it. I saw so many sets where I first thought „I love this“ and then it goes on too long and at the end I hated it.
A lot of people act consider the length of a show according to economic considerations: they paid a certain amount of money for the show they are attending and depending on the amount of money they spent on the ticket price, they expect a respectively longer or shorter set.
They are paying for a certain amount of music!
Yeah. It is weird to look at culture that way, but that is definitely happening. Let´s take for example the Japanese noise community, there it is totally normal that some of the performers like Violent Onsen Geisha is performing just like one and a half minutes. An explosion on stage. The Japanese audience is able to understand this.
That is one thing I do not like about clubs. They have these very specific set times. Everyone is playing for exactly one hour or so. You should not force something to happen like that.
Well, it depends. To stick to Berghain, as you play there tomorrow, DJ-wise it makes sense as it comes from this idea to give the artist a maximum time frame to really built up a set. It is a statement in a dramatically changed world of DJ culture where it is all is about 1 or 1,5 hour-sets these days.
You are right, it makes sense for DJs.
The last time I played there was in a real club night – that was when I just started to play club shows. I was new to that world and there were a lot of things I did not yet understand, club rules. I went on at 4am. By walking up I realized that the DJ looked at me and waited for me to start so there was an expectation for a real transition – but I was waiting for him to just stop. So eventually I started to make a bit of sounds so he stopped and then I made it silent for some time as in my world I wanted to stage a signal that something is changing. But the promoter got really upset. So I started again faster as planed.
I was trying to actually fill the full hour. But when I was in the last song I checked my watch and played at that moment for 45 minutes. So I realized that I will be done in two minutes. The DJ who was next was close by so I walked up and asked him if he is ready to go, but he replied „no you have 15 minutes left“. I did not really care about this and stopped anyway ¬– and he got his records together in a panic. Of course the promoter was again really upset.
I actually never heard about Berghain before I was playing there. Only afterwards I realized that a lof of people dream of playing there. I felt bad.
The idea of an artistic definition of time is not existent in a moment like that.
Let´s see what happens this time! The schedule is again fixed to a full hour.
Who is playing after you?
I am the last live act, Shapednoise is djing after me. So it should be no problem.
It’s gonna be a great night. I am very excited to see Mika Vaino perform together with Franck Vigroux, it is a long time since I saw him last.
I saw him couple times recently, but I am still excited to see him again. I also wanna see Xosar.
Ren, are you a dancer?
Definitly not. I would not say I never danced, but I need to be pretty drunk and in a very good mood and must have listened with friends to some funny music before doing so. I am definitely not dancing in the club.
Lately we saw noise music and techno getting closer and closer to each other. When did you realize these two fields have something in common?
The first track that caught my ear and got me interested in techno was „Losing Control“ by Daniel Bell. I really liked that there is barely anything going on besides this super minimal beat and the voices filtered over it. I had not listened to a lot of techno before and I liked the idea that the song is actually really weird, totally bizarre music. After hearing that I realized you could do things with danceable beats which does not have to be corny or dancy.
A fantastic track. But I was coming with my questions from another angle: one could see a use of sounds in techno as much as in noise and experimental music which comes from the same soundbase. You could either built a Sunn O)))-esque song of it or a club track.
That is true, that is a thing happening.
Do you as a producer work in both fields in a similar way?
In terms of writing you mean? Sort of in a way. At first I wanted just to play techno music, I guess it came out a bit weirder than I expected it – because I do not know how to play real techno. Eventually while doing so I lost my interest in producing techno, but I am still inspired from it, at least for this Container project. I do not produce tracks for djing or being accessible in the club. I want to come up with something that people listen and enjoy and react to – at the same time I do not want to serve a certain function.
But don´t you also see more and more DJs being able to drop your music in their sets lately?
Maybe. I think so.
As your songs are quite defined I wonder what this does to them? You know what I mean: what influence does it have when your music is sharing space and time with other music?
I never thought about it like that. I don´t know anything about DJing to be honest with you and I don’t pay attention to it as I am not interested in it.
Coming from this unanswered question: how do you decide about space and time for your own music?
I don´t really think about it that much. Once I have a basic structure in my head and I know what´s going on in the song… the hard part is to get an arrangement done which makes sense and still has a unique structure. Lately the structures I am coming up with and the material I am writing are coming by quite fast – in achieving this the tracks are getting much shorter, most of them are around three minutes. I think what happens is, that I try without purpose to write them like I am writing for a rock band: short and fast tracks.
Where do you think does this lead to?
I am curious myself. I guess we will find out soon.
Ren, have you ever considered going back into a band structure and bringing in your newly activated sound interests?
I have thought about hat. Actually I started playing in a straight forward rock band with friends recently. The name of the band is Wax – it is brand new, we just played one show. Playing in that context helps me with working on the solo music. But I do not think I want to take the solo stuff into a band setting, but while writing my solo stuff I feel like being in a band.
There have not been so many remixes of your stuff so far, right?
None, actually. I am not really interested in it. Well, I am sort of interested. Maybe with the new record I could give it to some people to make remixes.
Who would you like to challenge with your material?
A Japanese guy named Fruit Man. He is one of my favorite electronic artists recently. He says he is playing foodwork, but it is not foodwork at all, it is really bizarre music. A lot of erratic sounds happening all over the place. It is hard to tell first, but there is a structure going on, it is absolutely mental. That is someone I would be interested to see what he is doing to my music. He is touring Europe in the fall by the way, you should go and see him.
You mention quite often your non-techno socialisation in other interviews I read. Has there been a moment when you asked good friends for a little history of techno?
I checked all that stuff out. Besides Detroit techno and Chicago acid stuff my favorite techno music comes from a Swedish label called Börft.
Coming back to the composing aspect of your music: how do you find your very own structure?
I try to work on music every day and often nothing clicks for a long time. I am messing around, sampling, trying to get something going –and eventually two sounds will click together and I get ideas from there on. Or when jamming three or four different parts sound cool and I have to brick them together. I have this one machine, a sampler and sequencer all in one, that’s were most of the sounds come from. I am mixing that in a four-track-cassette and add sounds from tapes. I never played music on a laptop actually, all happens analog.
How would you describe a sound you are interested in in contrast to one you are not interested in?
Well, I definitely like dirtier and more textual sounds in opposite to clean ones. If something sounds organic, I am more into that.
Do you see your music as dark and noisy?
I do not like dark music. For me it is these days rock music. I want to be fun, not dark.
That said, violent and brutal are also not attributes?
I guess it ends up being like that, which is fine: heavy and fun!
There is indeed a lot of humor in your music.
I agree. Not intentional, it is just there. One of my least favorite styles for me is dark, serious music, like these creepy tons. Not that it is scaring me, but I find that to be too serious.
By listening to your music over and over again, one is able to observe very well the switch of the texture. While in the beginning all seems to be super tight suddenly there are more and more light spaces opening up. Is this something you see as part of your composing process and is this also part of the reason you need so much time to finalize a song?
Possible. I don´t know to be honest, I don´t think in depth about my philosophy of music. When it clicks it clicks and it is what it is.
How detailed are you working on specific sounds?
More and more I am searching for them. I definitely do not only think in terms of eight bars or so, I think of singular sounds.
So there is a long process of preparing before you actually sit down to record.
Yes, there are no overdubs: I record my songs in one take. It is a matter of writing the song, learning to play it tight properly and then nailing a good version of it on a recording. Once there is a basic structure for it, I record it and revisit it and make changes and so on until all is fixed and it becomes the way I want it.
How much space do you need to record such a final version?
My studio is set up in my bedroom. So it is always set up. It is a big room and it takes more than half of the room.
And how many runs of a song do you usually record before you are finally happy with one?
Depends. After I got it all the way I want it, I am usually able to get the proper version of the recording within ten times.
You mentioned you make music every day. How many songs do you finish every month?
One maybe. I start a lot of tracks, but I lose interest when I do not get them the way I want them to be. I just record what makes sense to me. If I work too long on a something and do not manage to get it the right way, I scrap it. My favorite ones are the ones happening instantly in the moment. It is rare that that happens, but when it does it is the best.
While researching for our conversation I found this great term you used to descrivbe your own music: „damaged music“. Did you make this up or is this a popular phrase?
I wouldn’t say as it as a genre. But I heard it from others, too, to describe music.
Ren, do you still feel like that when you hear music? Because I find it hard these days to still be shocked by music the way for example Japanese noise music shocked me in the late 1980s.
I guess I try to make the distinction how other people will hear it. For me damaged is something good – that´s how I want to hear music. But most people do not want to hear it like that.
How much does your music owe to the fact you live in a small village? Or could you also live and produce your music let´s say in Tokyo or New York City?
I am not sure as I never lived and do not want to live in a place like that. I enjoy living in a small town which is more affordable and you get also more space. I live right now on the top floor of a three-storey building – on the other floors are friends who are also in bands, so there are no complaints about noise at all. This freedom helps. Imagine only being in a small studio with neighbors.
Are you able to produce while traveling?
No, I tried it before but it is difficult to get in the right mood for me and find the head space to concentrate on recording music. I am always so tired when traveling and just feel like relaxing.
Are most of your friends also musicians?
95% of them I would say. A lot of them are also playing electronic music kind of similar to the stuff I produce, but some are in rock bands, too.
I ask as the economic situation is easier these days for electronic musicians. Are your friends also able to make a living from their music?
No, most of them are working regular jobs. Only a couple of people around me are able to live from music.
Ren, what I forgot to ask when we were talking before about others remixing your music – have you done remixes of other people?
Yes, three so far. One for Four Tet, one for Panda Bear and one for Fucked Up – they sent me a weird 25-minute psychrock song with spoken word and heavy rock parts. Remixing is not my favorite thing actually.
Would you say that the results have your signature sound?
Yeah, I would say so. And that´s exactly what I do not enjoy about it as I know when people ask me to do one they want that specific sound of mine. And then I feel pressured to give them that sound cause I want to see them happy. But I have all those other ideas how to remix the song in my mind and would rather do that.
So you are delivering your brand.
Yeah. I feel weird about it. Honestly: the main reason I am doing it is to get paid.
Does it take you a long time to change their world into your world?
Kind of. You want to be good, right? So it takes a while to be good.
Coming from this: What is the basic element of a Container song?
It is hard to put into words. Well, I know what it is.
Okay, then let’s try it the other way: how would a remix sound that you would be happy to release?
Not techno orientated at all: no beats, some rhythms maybe, but definitely no rock-techno. Because that is the frame I am expected to work within. I would be so much more happier with an abstract and free form.
I am pretty happy with our conversation.