By Kier Wiater Carnihan
Sascha Ring, AKA Apparat, is desperate to lose his tag as a famous Berlin techno producer.
It's no small task.
Berlin is world-renowned for electronic music, thanks not least to global icons like Ellen Allien and Modeselektor, and labels like Shitkatapult. Apparat has collaborated with both Allien and Modeselektor, to huge acclaim. And yeah, he also used to co-own Shitkatapult. So it's not that surprising he's finding the techno tag hard to shake – he's still heralded as one of the scene's key players.
Which is funny, because he hasn't actually made techno for quite some time. Last album “Walls” was a lush and dreamy affair, although it retained an audible fondness for its creator's dance origins, albeit a fondness expressed from the VIP lounge with a cocktail rather than on the dance floor itself. New album “The Devil's Walk” ( Mute, 2011) goes even further, leaving the club altogether and catching a taxi to the airport, where it drops a couple of valium and after soaring through the clouds wakes up in a hammock strung up between two palm trees, with the sea gently lapping at a deserted shore nearby. Specifically, a deserted shore in Sayulita, a small town near Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. For that is where Sascha decided he needed to be to put together the bulk of the music he had rattling around in his head. Basically, about as far from Berlin as it's possible to get.
Sitting in a stuffy office on a grey yet stifling afternoon feels similarly far away from sunny Mexico, but Sascha is more than happy to talk us through the conception and execution of “The Devils Walk”. Just don't mention the electronic scene in Berlin. Oops...
You're famous for being a big part of the electronic scene in Berlin, but “The Devil's Walk” was created in Mexico. What were you doing there?
Well of course, winter sucks in Berlin ( laughs) so that was a huge reason to go to Mexico! It's a nice place during winter. But really the main reason was I didn't want to record this album in a real studio. I didn't want the drum kit to sound like a nice, perfect drum recording. Of course, in a studio you have possibilities and you can make it sound fucked up or whatever, but if you just set up a drum kit in a Mexican living room, with a palm tree-leaf roof, it sounds different and fucked up - instantly. And also it's a way more playful way of making music: maybe you set up the drum kit there, maybe in a different room, or maybe outside; and that's what I wanted to do, I wanted to play around a little more with sound. Another thing, I was there with three other people, Josh from Telefon Tel Aviv helping me produce a bit of the stuff, Fredo [Nogueira] was the guitar player and Jörg [Wähner] my drummer, and it was really nice to have everybody in the house the whole time. Because whenever I needed a drum sound I just had to ask the drummer to come up and play a few beats for me. So it was some kind of a production camp!
I chose the place because I have some friends over there and they hooked me up with a drum kit and guitar amps and stuff like that; obviously I didn't want to carry that. I also picked Mexico because I really like the culture, the laid back atmosphere of the people over there. Everything seems to be a little... easier than it is if you live in Europe.
It's got quite a reputation for being dangerous at the moment...
That's more the northern part though, like, the border, because that's the drug gateway to the States and that's where all the trouble is basically. In the middle of the country and on the coast it's pretty safe.
Did you go there with a concept in mind for the album? Or did being there inspire the sound?
I already went there with some ideas. That's the big difference in the way I made this album because I started with some ideas I made at home on the piano or the guitar, or even just humming on my iPhone. I was lucky I could figure it out in the end! So with just a few ideas like that I went to Mexico and we started producing these ideas, and of course I had a few ideas in Mexico as well. I wouldn't really say that the environment changed the sound. Probably it would sound quite similar if it had been done in Berlin in a studio.
Yeah, it's not like there's any mariachi on there or anything, it still sounds like an Apparat album.
Yeah, the production is the only thing that sounds a little different. Also, that was only half of the album, the other half was done in Berlin when I came back. I was only two months in Mexico and then it took way longer to finish the album. A lot of recordings though - a lot of drum recordings and also some vocal recordings - I did in a closet which I prepared; half a square metre for vocal recordings in a dark closet! ( Drily) It was very inspiring.
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to achieve with this album?
In the past, the way I've made music has always involved layering sounds - more and more and more and more - and this time I really wanted to make a more stripped down version of Apparat and a very pure version of the songs I had in mind. Also I wanted to make a kind of organic sounding record, not such a computer record. That means a lot of recording takes were done from the beginning to the end of the song...with a few edits but not like usual, crazy loops where you would just do a four-bar loop and loop it through the song. That's what I didn't want to do. I wanted to make a human record that still has some kind of electronic appeal to it - which I don't even hear any more when I listen to my music but other people tell me that it's still somehow electronic.
Is that why you wanted to get a band together specifically for this record?
Yeah, but the band maybe happened after. Of course, I knew I wanted to play all this music with the band in the end, for the sound definitely, and also for the sake of interaction on stage and making it more interesting to perform. Because I've been performing on my own for years and years and years, and then I did Moderat of course and shows with Ellen [Allien] and it's always different if you have other people on stage. We push each other somehow. But most of the record, when we were up in Berlin, I only did with one guy. My manager Daniel [Meteo] hooked me up with a friend of his, Nackt, and he's also in my band now. He basically played every instrument. So for the rest of the record production we were the band. I was sitting in the control room and he was sitting in the recording room of my studio. Both of us were working on songs and from time to time I was asking him “hey can you play this piano line – du-du-du-du-du?” Everything was mic-ed in the room; piano, drum kit, guitars, whatever, so he was kind of my human sampler! That was really handy, really cool.
Were you listening to much other music when you were writing it?
Not so much actually. Whenever I make music, I really try to not listen to too much - somehow it always influences you. You hear something and it gets stuck somewhere in the back of your brain, and then you might just repeat a line you heard somewhere unconsciously. So I'm pretty much trying to avoid listening to music.
That can't be easy.
It was easy because normally I'm always listening to music when I'm travelling, when I'm on a plane or waiting at an airport. During the time I was in Mexico I was always just in one spot and there were always people around so I really didn't have the opportunity to listen to much music. Of course, before [recording the album] I listened to a lot of music and figured out what I really wanted, and one really important thing for the album was Steve Reich, because his idea of repeating patterns and shifting patterns is really compatible with electronic music. But way smarter, it's not just looping.
A lot of electronic artists bring up Steve Reich as an influence for that very reason.
Was there a reason you decided to release this album through Mute Records?
Yeah, because at the beginning of this interview you told me that I'm mostly associated with the Berlin electronic scene, and this album isn't really a Berlin electronic music album. If I was to release it on BPitch Control or any other Berlin label it would be considered an electronic music album even more - and I don't even play clubs anymore! Of course I have all these friends who DJ and I know everybody in Berlin, it's my home town, we hang out together, but I don't really feel connected to that, especially not to the dance scene. Which is crazy, if I read “Apparat, the German dance producer”, it's crazy! It seems like no one has ever listened to my music before! That's why I really wanted to get out of the Berlin thing for a little while, and I thought Mute was a very good idea because it has this electronic background, it's always seen as a very eclectic label. Also, some friends of mine already knew [Mute founder] Daniel Miller and it was really easy to connect. It actually wasn't even my idea, some of my friends were like “did you hear Daniel has this label back as an independent label again [following its purchase by EMI]? It sounds interesting; you should give him this album”. Then a friend of mine gave him the album and instantly it was signed, the deal was done!
I suppose Mute is particularly appropriate as it has a reputation for approaching electronic music from a band perspective, rather than just one guy on stage with a laptop or whatever. Do you get bored of that kind of performance?
Yeah, although I wouldn't even say I'm bored; I mean, I played this “DJ Kicks” tour last year and it was fun, every gig was really cool. But I just can't see myself doing this thing over the next year because it's not totally rewarding from an artistic point of view. Because lots of people in the clubs don't really come for the music, they're just there because their friends told them it's hip to be there. I do think a big part of the audiences came to listen to my show when I played which is cool, but I'd really rather play concerts. Also it's healthier for me playing a show at ten o'clock...yeah, I don't know, it's the whole thing, I'm just not so connected with the whole dance music thing anymore because there's not much more development there any more, it's just using tools to make people party somehow. You're just giving them something to party to, a soundtrack.
And you're trying to disassociate yourself from that.
I'm not even trying, I totally did it already! I'm just trying to convince the media and other people that it happened a long time ago! The only thing is whenever I say that it appears somewhere in magazines that I broke up with the dance scene because I hate techno music. It's not like that, you know? In the right context I still understand the music – when I'm in a club and it's the right moment and the right music I see why this music exists and it totally makes sense in the context, but I could never listen to a techno song at home or on my headphones somewhere. It's just not musical enough for me anymore. It makes sense why it exists; I just wish a lot of people would take more risks. A lot of DJs, clubs...not everybody, but a lot of people play it very safe because they don't want to lose money or fans or whatever, and that's a little bit too simple.
I guess a lot of people think “well, the broader audience I can attract the more likely I am to get offered more gigs”...
Yeah, but it even maybe starts subconsciously. If you're a DJ and you're in front of a crowd at a club you have this... urge to see hands in the air. It's fun to get something back, and that's the easiest response you can get from people, so probably that's why people go the easy way quite often. I always have to mention James Holden in this context because that's what I like him for – he's completely different. He DJs in a very musical way. He always takes care to make sure all the songs are in the right key and that it's a real journey, and then he'll play this very hypnotic and weird set for a very long time - he's not trying to get the very quick 'hands in the air' moment after twenty minutes, he's saving that for the last track. And also, in the middle of the whole journey he's gonna sneak in some more adventurous music that will probably educate some people in the crowd as well. I think that doesn't happen often enough.
I loved his “At The Controls” mix, but he hasn't brought out any new music for quite a while now.
Well he did a “DJ Kicks” before I did one, and this one was also very interesting because it was a slightly different sound. It's crazy; from the first song to the last one it sounds like the same arpeggio goes through the whole record in different variations. It's really interesting. Even if it's not your style, when you listen to it you can hear that it's very smart and there is a lot of... passion.
You do a lot of singing on “The Devil's Walk”, is that something you're comfortable with or did you have to push yourself to do it?
Definitely. The main reason I started singing is because I couldn't find the right singer! I do think everybody can sing you know? You only have to know a few basics, and then you have to practice of course, and then you have to know what you want it to sound like, you have to have a vision. But I don't necessarily want to tell a story or have the urge to turn my insides out. That's the theme of the whole album; I use so many acoustic instruments because that's a faster access to the sound. The guitar – ping! The computer – click click click click click, hmmmm, nonononono, try this note, neurgh, oh, not the right one. It's more direct, and it's faster access to the emotion as well. And the voice is the very fastest, because there's a direct connection – the connection doesn't even go through your brain sometimes, it's crazy! I mean you know what I'm talking about, you don't think about stuff, you just do it, it just comes out of you, and that is, in my opinion, the most direct way to the musical idea that you have. Maybe an idea you're not even aware of having but it's somehow inside you.
There are these moments in the studio where you're really inspired – some loop is in the background and you're like “OK, now I have to sing”. You sing something and you don't even really have lyrics. Then you listen to it again and you're like “ah, yeah, there's something that works, somewhere hidden”. And then you write some lyrics and it all makes sense - the second take makes it onto the album. Magic moment. And that's the beauty about the voice, because it's so direct.
Is there a reason why you choose to sing in English?
The main reason is it just sounds horrible if you sing in German! I don't know, it doesn't work. Also it's no fun to write lyrics in German because...I mean, it's a beautiful language for poetry and stuff but it just doesn't sound good.
Some artists can carry it off... Barbara Morgenstern for instance...
Or Rammstein! ( laughs) It's true. Barbara Morgenstern's lyrics are quite thoughtful so that's another dimension. I don't know. It's just...you know, even without thinking about it, being in the studio, loop in the background, I start mumbling something, somehow I mumble in English! So, yeah, that wasn't even a real decision I made, it just happened.
Did you write any of the lyrics before you started recording the music or was it something that just happened spontaneously?
Most of the time I'd write them before. I figured out the best situation is if I have an idea I just write down something, and then I have a little folder on my hard drive of lyrical ideas, and when I'm in the studio and I have a cool song I just find the right one. But this is the easy way to do it; the perfect way is what I mentioned before, when it all comes together magically somehow. But, honestly, it only happens maybe two out of ten times. And basically I wanted to do an album like this but that would take ten years! And it would also cost me about three hundred songs I'd have to throw away...
Which songs on this album would you say that happened with?
“Ash [/Black Veil]” and “Your House Is My World”, the last one. Those are the two songs where I can completely recall the moment when I was in the studio. I played a loop on the mandolin, then I played another one, I layered the stuff, and then I was so in my own little world I just started singing, and it worked. Actually, both of the songs you hear on the record are the second takes. First take I found the lyric – writing lyrics in fifteen minutes basically, because they are quite short and abstract. And then the second take made it onto the record, because it's always the most emotional one. Maybe it's not perfect, but once you sing something ten or twenty times it becomes kind of a routine. And then it loses a little bit of its magic.
The reason I keep a folder with lyrics on my hard drive is to be able to sometimes capture the very first take of the recording. Because that's the only reason you can't use the first take – the lyrics are shit! So in the best possible case you already have the lyrics, because it's not gonna happen that everything comes to your mind at the same time - amazing loop, amazing lyrics – not gonna happen.
After this album comes out are we likely to see another Moderat album?
Yes, definitely, we already decided that we'll start working on it quite soon. I think this time we just wanna meet from time to time and collect some songs. The cool thing is all of us have lots of leftovers now for the album, and that's how we did the first album, we just exchanged song ideas. I couldn't hear myself anymore and they couldn't hear themselves anymore – “oh oh oh take it away!” - and then suddenly someone else has turned it into a good song again. And I think we can do that again, with a lot of leftovers from our albums. It's a big recycling project! Although half of the [first] album were new songs in the end.
I was lucky enough to see you supporting Radiohead in Poznan, Poland a couple of years ago, how did that come about?
Good question. Modeselektor had been in touch with Thom Yorke for quite a while. Gernot [Bronsert] just sent them the Moderat album and they liked it. It's cool; I like the idea that Radiohead always choose some not-so-easy-to-digest support acts.
It wasn't an obvious choice but it worked amazingly.
It was a little bit hard to play during daylight; we're meant to play in the dark with the screens and all that stuff, so it was quite tough. But I guess support slots are mostly tough. One thing I can add to the Moderat thing is that I don't consider it a one-off project. Now, all of us consider Moderat as our second band. Which is kind of cool because it gives us more freedom for our own projects. For me it made it possible to make such a different Apparat album, because on all the albums before I was always thinking “oh my God, this is too crazy, too many instruments, not electronic enough, blah blah blah”, and for this album I never had a single thought like that, because whenever somebody tells me, (adopts snob voice) “Oh I don't like it, I like only electronic music”, I would say “OK, go and buy the Moderat record”. That's my electronic side you know? I can live out my electronic ambitions within Moderat.
And that'll still be coming out on Bpitch Control?
Yeah, and also still be connected with my homies and my family which is so important. [That's] another reason I chose Mute because it's still like a family label somehow. Daniel's always at the gigs. I could never release on a very anonymous, big major label, where you're just a number. That's not really where I'm coming from. Because I still work with the same people. My manager, I've been with him for eleven years now. Since I was very, very little. And all the other guys as well. I think that's necessary, it's really cool and it's healthy.
Obviously you've had quite a long career now, what would you say has been the toughest point so far?
Actually, never really, even in the beginning. When I started more than ten years ago, Berlin was such a cheap city it was crazy. I paid, maybe [the equivalent of] 110 Euros for a flat. A month. And food was ridiculously cheap. So basically I started living on music quite early, you know? And it worked. And I just slowly became more and more and more successful. The whole time there was just a slow increase. Which I liked, I don't really need the 'big bang', I think [slower progress] is way more healthy. And I don't have ambitions to play stadiums or whatever. It's cool, yesterday I had a chat with my band member and we were talking about “getting rich” and I just realised that if I had the option to get ridiculously rich right now, or keep the same lifestyle I have, for this amount of people, for my whole life: I would rather keep on living this life instead of choosing the big bang. I think that's one of the big advantages of Berlin, at least the Berlin that existed when I moved there thirteen years ago. Because now it's become more expensive. Berlin became quite [a lot] more expensive after we had the World Cup. The whole world looked at Berlin and then people said “oh, it's not that bad after all” and came and bought a lot of property. Now it's different. It's still way, way cheaper than London but it's not what it was. I mean it was ridiculous, it was cheaper than...Mexico!
I'm actually going to Berlin for the first time in a few weeks, is there anywhere you'd recommend visiting?
The problem is the last five years I was barely in Berlin! I'm not really the right person to ask where to go out. But definitely you should hang out in Kreuzberg a little bit. Of course there are more key areas, Prenzlauerberg which was the scene area before, but now the cool stuff basically moved to Kreuzberg. There are lots of bars and little clubs. Of course you should go to Berghain [nightclub] just once to check it out and see it, because it's still cool. It has this kind of right of freedom inside, you feel like you could just run around there naked and nobody would give a fuck! Which is kind of cool.
What would you say are the key non-musical influences on your art?
For me, it's always these crazy escape fantasies. Whenever I have a little bit of time off I always want to get away: Mexico, Thailand, wherever. Now, I really wanna go to the Middle East for some reason. And I always go on my own. If you're somewhere for a month on your own it feels like a year. I'm not the kind of tourist who goes somewhere and hangs out at youth hostels and talks to people, whenever I'm somewhere else I only talk to order food, that's it. You see a lot of things. That's when I get really, really creative and I have lots of ideas.
Do you keep a journal while you're travelling?
I do write down stuff. I also record ideas. Next time I'm travelling I really want to take a guitar with me for the first time, and then a very simple, very little recording thing. But that's it: solitude. Getting away from everything and being completely alone in the middle of a very new, strange, exotic environment. It's always very exciting for me. And I had to learn how to do that; I went somewhere for a week and it was kind of hard, and then two weeks and I was like, “oh my God, I wanna go home!” But now it's easy. And also one of my biggest hobbies is riding my motorbike. I have a really nice motorbike and I'm always riding into the countryside and that's what I do in other countries as well, I just rent motorbikes.
And with that, he leapt onto a nearby Triumph Thunderbird and rode off into the sunset. Well no, he didn't (although it would've been cool). Sascha's not one for the Hollywood moment, the oh-so-obvious final hurrah. The reflective, emotional tranquillity of “The Devil's Walk” attests to that. He's provided party soundtracks with aplomb in the past, but this album argues that Apparat's best heard on headphones. Fact is - whether in Berlin or on the beach - he's a man totally obsessed with sound; and that can only be a good thing for his listeners. He needed to get away from Berlin, to develop a new sound from techno and to forget about dance music for a while. So he went to Mexico and started to write songs for “The Devil’s Walk”; an album that – paradoxically - shows Apparat to be one of electronic music’s sharpest visionaries.
“The Devil’s Walk”
Review: “ Sayulita EP”