Techno is the new folk
Good people of Kaput, please forgive me the not-so-creative headline – Sure, after Kings of Convenience’s „Quiet is the new loud“ and every other other re-appropriate-the-‘new’-thing, you’re not supposed to go there, sure. But Nick Höppner has called his album „Folk“ so we’re pleading not-guilty this one time…
„Folk“ is the impressive solo debut for the Berghain/Panorama Bar-resident and former head of Ostgut Ton label, Nick Höppner. He’s confidently united the two faces of the club he’s most associated with, from the nervous and dark opener „Paws“, to the euphoric „Mirror Image“ and „Rising Overheads“ to the sweet seduction „Come Closer“, the electroid „Airway Management“ and the dubby closer „No Stealing“. Techno-cognoscento and Kompakt label manager Jon Berry who penned the album’s liner notes has it right: „Folk feels like one of those rare albums that I will put on in ten years and it will sound as relevant as it is today.”
John Stanier and Thomas Venker met Nick Höppner inside (where else) the Berghain, for a long talk over coffee and still water.
Thomas Venker: Let’s start of with the title of your solo-debut-album, Nick: „Folk“. Let’s get the cliché out the way first, techno is indeed the folk music of Berlin right?
Nick Höppner. I was aiming for two things. First the stupid one, calling something something it really isn’t, like these joke t-shirts with Bob Marley on it and Jimi Hendrix lettering. But I mainly called it „Folk“ because I see techno and house as contemporary folk music, at least here in Berlin. But also in a lot of other places, although not as intense.
John Stanier: In the USA it has two meanings: both people and the acoustic music style. You know, when Bob Dylan went electric it was over.
Höppner. But his music was still called folk afterwards, or was he filed as rock’n’roll from then on?
Venker: In my opinion, he was still called folk.
Stanier: And it is a gang in Chicago, a big terrible gang like the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles.
Höppner: Gang-shit wasn’t one of my references!
Venker: Folk is a genre connected to socio-political concerns, the music arises from a the political zeitgeist. Is this something also true of your definition of techno and house?
Höppner. Not in a very direct way. But then I don’t agree with anyone saying that this movement is not political at all – it is an inclusive one, and that is very political in my opinion. I also like the DIY aspect within it, and its rather diffuse roots. Folk is about long traditions, you can’t trace it back to a single point, there are many different roots. Everyone who participates adds a slightly different perspective to it. That’s a grassroots movement and that’s also true, I feel, in our techno community. For folk you just need a voice and a guitar, or even just one of those – for techno, because it’s such a minimal music, there’s similarly little overhead to getting started. And house music, as an extention of disco, was produced on the most simple set up: one drum machine, one 303 bassline and maybe a synth. All of this was very basic and cheap. Even in pre-digital times. You could get gear like that from a thrift store for nothing.
Stanier: Was the TR808 (drum machine)’s popularity in techno really down to its being so old and cheap?
Höppner: I think this goes for the TR303 (bassline). The myth of that is that it was created by Roland for bands or musicians to programme basslines to accompany live gigs or for rehearsing – so the drummer or the guitarist could rehearse and jam to it. Supposely most people who bought it for that reason quickly realised it wasn’t really any good for that – so it was kind of a flop. They were kind of abandoned and ended in the America’s thrift stores, which is where some avant-garde club kids like Phuture in Chicago and Detroit found it and developed that you could do crazy sounds with it when used it incorrectly, swoosh the dials around. The 808 and the 909 drum machines were already accepted and loved mainstays in HipHop and Electro, that were developed back in the 70s.
Of course there was back then no hype at all, you could get all Roland drum computers rather cheap as they were so widely used. With those three Roland machines you were ready to go. If you listen to really early Chicago House you will hear it is the most basic stuff, sometimes the tracks only consists of the jam of one drum machine only.
Stanier: Like a Pete Seeger record! It’s just him with a guitar.
Höppner: Low cost of entry means it’s accessible music. Even today the kids might not be able to buy the 808 anymore – a fucking 808 costs 2500€, a price made for superstar djs – but they could save money for a cheap laptop and run a crack of something. They have a whole world of sound and possibilities.
Venker: But if we look at the current state of electronic music, especially in the USA, you find most of all rock-techno and yoga-house all over the place. Keeping the folk analogy going, the popularity of the genre has also produced a lot of really bad music too right?
Höppner: That’s why I am making my point. I would like more people to refocus. This music is such a big part of my life – and it’s not just a fascination with the sound itself… It’s also because of the way it was presented in the past, this DIY attitude. Even before I could totally relate to the sound, and the style, I totally appreciated that home-made dimension. Of course you could ask if this DIY thing is really still possible in today’s capitalism-everywhere world, but for me there is a difference between a do it yourself, empowered capitalism as opposed to the usual mega-corporate structures out there.
Venker: Absolutely. It is about creating your own community. That said, let’s talk about age. People often talk about the current state of having quite a lot of old DJs and producers around. But what they forget, when acid house and techno first appeared, this was an amakening for a lot of already-older musicians, in their mid- and end-thirties. So it’s not a new phenomenon. In that context, do you sometimes ask yourself why it took you so long to make this album?
Höppner: I’m 42 years old now. I could put it in a very sad way, to be honest: this is the past I have made for myself. I didn’t have a conventional education, I was struggling to find my way for a very long time in my 20s. I spent a lot of time at University, only to realise after six long years that I was completely lost there. I was doing it for all the wrong reasons, and I was smoking much too much weed to realise anything.
Venker: What did you study?
Höppner: In the beginning I wanted to be a teacher, so I started with English literature and language as well as with philosopy, media culture, bits of history, social science… all that.
Stanier: You tried to soak in English literature really stoned?
Höppner: I actually got quite far with the study of English literature and culture, but only by going to all the pop-culture seminars and collecting the easy credits. I once wrote a paper on the metaphorical use of colour in the movies of David Lynch. I did a class on Madonna, also one on the early gangster movies of the 1940s. I also liked linguistics a lot, the system and logic behind it – but I never thought of a second and third discipline. So by that I was progressing in english literature and was ready for the exams, but did not have my set up ready at all in other fields. That’s why at one point I signed in for German literature, where by the way I met Phillip Sollmann (today also active in Techno under the imprint Efdemin) – but it felt stupid, and I was still smoking like crazy, but I dropped out the second I could. It was doomed.
Stanier: So you jumped out for a job?
Höppner: I did an internship at the Hamburg office of Flyer Updates magazine which lead to a job. And by being in this position, Thomas Koch of Groove Magazine, better known today as DJ T, offered me a job at Groove. As I was interested in music, and just did start back then to dj in little bars. This is in the early 2000s.
Venker: Could we revisit the age apsect for a second?
Höppner: I think I just came out of my mid-life crisis. 40 really hit me like a train. I didn’t see it coming, I was completely unprepared for how strange it felt. It coincided with me becoming father of twins at 39. In my job, I was always smoking a lot, drinking a lot, taking drugs. Right now I feel quite good, I’ve quit smoking, I don’t drink at the moment, I’ve started to do a lot of sports – that’s the only way I could follow my profession for another couple of years. You know, once you hit a certain age, it is not that easy anymore. I always thought a little bit of drugs here and there, drinks, a couple of beers are making my life as a dj easier – but I am realizing lately, it doesn’t. I could handle little sleep and travelling much better now than before.
Stanier: The hangover gets worse and worse and worse. One of the guys in Steely Dan famously said: „At 40 you have your first midlife crisis and then every two years for the rest of your life.“
Höppner: We will see. Right now I really feel well. I am quite proud of my album.
Stanier: Your artwork reminds me of Richard Hamilton, the painter, the English Andy Warhol. It is a picture of an old train department, but it looks very much like the 80s with its washed out coloring.
Höppner: The story behind the picture is really interesting. I wanted it to not look like a typical Ostgut Ton album cover, a grainy, industrial black and white photography. My music isn’t like that, and I wanted it to represent something else than this general corporate identity. My wife suggested me the artist Frank Bubenzer. He sampled pictures from ads for a series with the title „Photoshop für Arme“: He buys like 40 copies of the same newspaper with an ad in it and removes the human beings from it by cutting them out and replaces the space afterwards with snippets from the other ads and glues all together. It is a scan, not a painting. It’s an ad from Deutsche Bahn from 2001 promoting an overnight ticket to Berlin, showing happy young people coming to Berlin.
Venker: Did you know this story before you chose the picture?
Höppner: I was aware of his method, but not what the original was. My wife gave me the original recently as a gift. I chose it cause it looks like an 80s post-punk cover and does not represent my music at all. I like the process how it is cut together and that you have to engage with it to understand. Besides that aspect I really love those old German trains with the big windows you can stare out of. Some people find them really ugly – but I really appreciate them.
Venker: As you travel a lot, how different do you experience the musical communities you’re connected with? Is age a factor?
Höppner: One situation where I really feel old, are Indie-Rock shows. There you only find old people like me, and some are even still wearing that old „Eraserhead“ T-Shirt they bought in 1988! When I see a band I saw 25 years ago for the first time, like, Dinosaur Jr, I often think „what the fuck am I doing here?!“. It is sad at these concerts, no atmosphere, no vibe, no one is going crazy, maybe except of some young ones. That’s when I feel old. At Berghain this is no problem at all, the age mix always works. Once you’ve got through the door, everybody is welcome, the people are super mixed. As I travel as a DJ for work, the people in the clubs accept me, even though I could easily be the dad of most in the crowd. Techno and house have always been represented on the professional side by rather older people. But you know one thing, because it works like this, it does make me a bit schizophrenic. I don’t see myself in the mirror when I perform, I just see 20-somethings. The result is that I feel I am a part of them, that I am still that young. It creates an illusion. Then I start drinking, maybe take a few drugs, and then the next morning I realise I should not do that anymore.
Venker: The main difference to Indie-Rock shows of course is that people are mainly coming to the club to dance and not checking out the scene that much.
Höppner: That’s changed a lot. The DJ is very much the center of attention these days and on a stage like at a concert. With the popularity of techno and house all over the world, it is almost more common these days for a set to be a proper show. That makes me uncomfortable. I don’t like to be on a stage in bright spotlights. I am just a DJ, I do that well and I have good taste, there’s no need for this grand performance.
Venker: That’s the beauty of the darkness of the early days of techno when people like Underground Resistance tried not even to show face at all.
Stanier: You think that EDM is–
Höppner: –In my world EDM doesn’t happen, doesn’t count. Of course you have tons of people going to these shows, but the crossover is not happening. If I would be Marcel Dettmann or Ben Klock, who are playing really big festivals and fulfill the role of the underground DJ on a small stage there – still playing in front of 10.000 people, but next to Guetta or whoever in front of 80.000 people – it would, but I have no connection to that world. But I think it would have also happened without them.
Stanier: You mean that the DJ has become the rock star?
Höppner: That happened early on. Just look at all the Progressive guys in the UK in the early 90s: Paul Oakenfoald ,Danny Rampling, those pioneers got these ridiculous fees and had big crowds – but back then it was still a small circle of insanely paid superstar DJs. Now with the globalisation of dance music, the scene has grown so much.
Venker: The interesting fact is, that people decide to dance for hours in the direction of someone who is – in opposite to rock shows – quite static in his performance. Most DJs don’t really do “shows”.
Höpper: Well, some DJs are nice to watch cause they are handsome. Others do put on quite a good show – maybe that’s already enough for some people. But it is definitely becoming more relevant to put on a show. Not so much in mine, but you know why Steve Aoki is throwing cakes….
Venker: Is the song „Mirror Image“ about all these reflections?
Höppner: No, that comes from the sample I used in that track.
Stanier: Is it the one with the man talking?
Höppner: Yes. It is from this movie called „Another Earth“, a low budget science-fiction movie from four years ago about a young doctor who kills in an accident the child and wife of a guy and makes an hit and run afterwards. She feels very guilty after that and contacts the guy. All of the sudden another Earth approaches and they realise that it is an exact mirror image, the moment the woman makes a call to the other earth and reaches herself. The sample is someone talking on the radio about the weird feeling that there is someone up there doing the same things.
Stanier: Did you like the movie first and then decide to use a sample of it?
Höppner: Yeah. When I came up with this instrumental track with its melancholic, Detroit-y undertone, I knew immediately it was fitting perfectly.
Venker: How important is the combination of Ostgut Ton Label and the Berghain/Panorama Bar to understanding you as a producer?
Höppner: A good question. I did not have both in mind so much while recording. Before I started, I did not feel really comfortable with myself as a producer, so I was quite modest with my goals: I wanted to sit down and work and see what happens. One ambition was to make a modern and contemporary sounding record – I am really fed up with all that retro-looking ones who sound like they have been done ten years ago. We had too much of them since Minimal went down a decade ago. My second ambition was not to fall into the trap of trying to make an eclectic album with one Downbeat track, one Ambient, one Vocal, one… – I wanted it to be DJ friendly with a straight kick more or less.
Stanier: It doesn’t sound like you’re trying to show off stuff beyond four to the floor Techno. Me, I prefer that straight Techno record anyway.
Höppner: It is a genuine and honest representation of what I can do. I have tried so hard to do half decent club tracks, why should I change. That road hasn’t ended for me, there is still so much more to explore. You could put anything on top of the 4/4-kick, why should I leave it out suddenly to be a pop composer? The way I do music is very unconscious: I try not to have to many big ideas about the music when I go into the studio – it is about openness and remembering were I am coming from.
Venker: Is this really possible for you? I mean with your past experiences as a music journalist and label representative you’ve got so many other influences – don’t they all come out in the studio?
Höppner: I am not saying I don’t want to be influenced by things. Of course my own history, experiences have an impact on me. But the aspect to the album was that I was taking my time. When I split up from my MyMy partner Lee Jones five years ago, I thought of going solo and taking care of my DJ career.
Venker: Does your background as a writer make you more critical? Being exposed to those 500 albums a month that get sent in to those magazines.
Höppner: No. That writing period in my biography shouldn’t be taken too seriously. I got there rather by accident and as a music fan not because I had ambitions in journalism itself. I didnt do it for long, just from 1999 till 2002, and I never became the Editor-in-Chief, I was just the reviews editor. I struggled with longer features and also with striking a balance on why something was not as good or great as other music – I felt I didn’t have the required knowledge. It is always easy to rave about something, but that’s not what journalism is about for me. If that job had an influence on me, it meant that I at least took my time for my debut album. Well, and it maybe made me more critical about my own stuff. Not critical enough perhaps, as I have released a few records I probably shouldn’t have done. But then I am not alone in this. A lot of producers grow up in public.
Stanier: This is true for all musicians.
Venker: Which of your records sucked, John?
Stanier: Those EPs we did with Battles. I can’t listen to them any more, they’re terrible. They are so wack… Did you sit down to write a full record or singular tracks, Nick?
Höppner. Of course I sat down to write an album. I sat down and decided to write as much music as possible in the given time and then see what’s there.
Stanier: How long did you work on the album?
Höppner. At first I gave myself three months.
Stanier: That’s it?
Höppner. No, that was at the beginning of the story in January 2014. Back then I decided to block out some time. I planed to write between January and March and then polish it in the next two months. I gave myself five months in total – that was also in the end the time I needed, but wit a different schedule. In the middle of that February my Dad got sick and died two months later. He was in the hospital in Hamburg on intensive care and I went there every two or three days. I still tried to work on the album, but I didn’t get anything done until the early summer when my sister and me were done dealing with this. I went back to the studio to re-visit the first half I had already written and started with the second.
Stanier: Did you look at the first stuff and thought it sucked?
Höppner: No. I revisited the older material as somehow everything I did after the death of my father sounded so much better. You know what happens when you learn stuff, it sinks in slowly. I had to work quite hard to bring it up to the level, but I didn’t question it musicly or composition-wise, I just had to make it sound better. That is super hard with stuff you’ve already put down, I never take notes, sometimes I do not even know which machine and presets I used. So I couldn’t recreate some things, I had to work with what was there.
Venker: Are the songs on the album grouped in this first and second working phase?
Höppner: The CD starts with the first track which I had written in December 2013, just before my Australian tour. Back then I had just made the decision to do this album. That track was recorded and finished in two days – I had never worked as fast before.
Stanier: You did that song in two days?
Höppner: The demo. It took three or four more to polish it. But that was a quick track.
Stanier: Speaking of full length albums – I am still a believer in the art of an album, into the idea of taking the listener on a journey. That said, the sequencing is very important. A fact left completely out on modern music today as everything is so single-song based. These days, the first song must be typical for the album, the second one showing of a bit of different mood, the third one is the single, the fourth one the weird one…
Höppner: As said, I really didn’t have a masterplan. When I was back in the studio in the summer, it became clear that it will not be a functional record for DJs. I wanted to reward real patient listeners – not the fast Spotify ones – with a journey into sound.
Venker: Maybe this is too much interpretation, but for me – talking in vinyl terms and cutting the whole album after five of ten track in two sides – the first side represents the Berghain floor, while the second one represents the Panorama Bar dancefloor, starting with „Come Closer“.
Höppner: But the vinyl tracklisting is different from the CD, it starts with „Come Closer“. We combined the tracks for the vinyl that way, that each side will be the shortest possible to ensure the best quality. The cd and digital tracklisting is the intended order. Regarding your question: it is funny what you realise when you talk about your music with interviewers. I never intended it like that, but it makes sense – even if Berghain music in general is definitely harder than mine, I would only play my songs as a warm up not at peak time.
Venker: What about „Grind Show“ and „Airway Management“ – are they like links, mood-makers or full songs? For me they really helped build the feel and structure of the record.
Höppner: They’re different as both rely on much older recordings. I started both at home on the balcony, on my laptop, by going through my collection of old recordings and throwing things together and editing them with headphones on and smoking and drinking. Later on I took them into the studio.
Venker: Is „Rising Overheads“ a comment on the nature of the culture world in 2015? All those little companies trying to deal with their terrible economic reality by overacting the big business schtick: too many meetings, too many Google docs and Wunderlists.
Höppner: I have to say I’ve been carrying this track around for a long time with me and its working titles was „Working Overhead“, cause of the rising sound element. Later as my English improved and I learned about “Overheads”, Nebenkosten, and just added the „s“. But I understand your interpretation.
Nick, did have to stop working for Ostgut Ton label before being able to go that far as a producer?
Höppner: Yeah. But the main reason that I had to stop here, were my kids, my wifes’ ambition to work again, and my wish to promote myself as a DJ. After seven years at the label, I was not keen anymore to put myself always in the background. Afterwards I realized under how much pressure I have been all the time.
Stanier: That was a lot of hours, right?
Höppner: For ages I did it all on my own. In 2011 Jenus, who is running the label now, came in to assist me and slowly took over. So much weight felt off my shoulders back then – it felt good, to be honest. It refreshed my love affair with music, I went record shopping a lot more. It is so good to just represent me, not the machine anymore – and a lot of people saw me as the spokesperson of the club as I was one of the few actually speaking about it. Everybody wanted to talk to the owners and managers, but as they refused – the bosses were doing boss stuff – I was the second best choice.
Stanier: So you had to answer the annoying questions of the people regarding Berghain?
Höppner. Sure. I became responsible in a way I that I really wasn’t. Once it is rolling, it is hard to stop. When I started the label, no-one was interested, but by 2008 the interest was constantly growing.
Stanier: Why that late? It was a successful club back then already.
Höppner: Sure. But the label was nowhere as successful as it is today. Now, everyone knows the club – and much more also the label. German Schlager stars are even posing for pictures outside. Even my mum has heard of Berghain, without me mentioning it. So everybody wanted to get a piece of it – and I was in the centre of attention. But I was just trying to do a good job and create a platform for the artists to communicate.
Venker: Was it hard to quit a job and go back to freelancing?
Höppner: Hard is the wrong word. But it brought a big financial insecurity. Although I never made a lot of money here, it was steady income. The last four years has been pretty up and down, cause I am nowhere near established as my collegues and was facing huge gaps in my booking calendar, not really knowing where to get the money from for. In the meantime my wife started working again and is also earning some money, so the situation is not that frightening anymore.
Venker: Do you plan to play live with „Folk“?
Höppner: As much as I enjoy being also a producer, most of all I am a DJ. I will go back to the studio soon, cause I have a deadline for the ten year anniversary compilation of Ostgut Ton. In general 2015 is all about DJing for me.
Stanier, Venker: Nick, thanks so much for this long chat, we really appreciate it.