An institution in global techno, Chris Liebing has delivered his sinewy brand of terse, functional and pummeling techno to the furthest outposts of the globe for nearly 20 years. Liebing is one of a rare breed: a DJ who manages to entertain on the world’s very biggest stages and festivals without diluting his underground essence. Techno through and through, anyone who has seen him play will testify that he also brings a refreshing physicality of presence to the decks — a confidence in performance that comes from years of hard graft and unrelenting service. His CLR imprint celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2010 and is followed by CLRX — a new label to showcase a more 80s/industrial inflected sound. In anticipation of Oktave’s August 31st party, when he’ll headlining Smart Bar Chicago, Little White Earbuds caught up with Chris via e-mail to get the scoop on his plans.
How have you seen the techno scene change these past five years? There seems to be a lot of interest right now…
Chris Liebing: Well, I think that there were two main factors in the last five years. Minimal had a big impact in the beginning/mid-2000s, when it started to come in — and it did actually have an impact on other musical styles such as house and techno. But as the interest in minimal kind of faded away, the new minimal influenced techno paradoxically gained more and more interest — especially in countries like the United States.
When it comes to me, there were many technological developments in the past five years, but that’s always the case. I’m not doing anything different than five years ago. It’s just a constant development of style. But it’s really fun to see that there is suddenly so much more interest in this kind of techno music. I think it’s also happening in the wake of electronic music that has been blowing up — especially in the States — partly due to very commercial factors like David Guetta and stuff. I think in the wake of something like that, people also get more exited about various underground styles of electronic music. It really is very interesting to see this happening.
Tell us about CLR X. What was the idea behind this development?
I have always been of fan of the 80s. I grew up in the 80s, with lots of bands like ABC, Human League, obviously Gary Numan, and Depeche Mode. Bryan Black basically offered me the MOTOR album which sounds like a modern techno/80s update. It also features people like Gary Numan, Douglas McCarthy from Nizer Ebb and Martin L. Gore from Depeche Mode, so I was pretty much blown away. I thought, ‘Wow, this is something I like very much,’ but I also knew it would not fit into the regular CLR techno sound, so we created CLRX to be able to be a little more open to more industrial, musical kind of ideas — really whatever happens, as there is no big plan behind this. We just wanted to see what grows out of it and so far have been very happy with this connection of 80s and techno and all the related remixes. I just enjoy throwing together different styles and have artists remixing each other who would not normally do so.
What keeps your passion driving for techno after so many years? Which dance floors offer the most inspiration right now?
I have never really been asking myself what drives my passion, but I have been asking myself sometimes why I am still so passionate about DJing and so happy to be out there playing. I think nowadays I’m more happy and passionate about playing out than I have ever been. This is partly due to the technological development, which gives me all those new possibilities to do what I am doing right now and what I wasn’t able to do 10 years ago. It’s still a new territory, I am learning every day and it just seems to get better and better. Secondly the clubs and the whole scene are getting more professional and fun, but then again you still have those completely fucked up gigs (in a positive sense) where everything goes wrong — that is also inspirational and fun.
Of course one of the most inspirational dance floors for me in the last three to four years has been the Berghain in Berlin, where I have pretty regular gigs and can play extended sets of 13-14 hours. It gives me the opportunity to really go on a journey with the people. Actually every weekend I encounter inspirational dance floors with so many new people who come to hear me play, mixed with very experienced people with a big knowledge of the sound. It is always a lot of fun and somehow it does not seem to stop.
Do you ever write tracks with a particular club or scenario in mind?
I actually used to do this. I used to be very inspired by the weekends and went into the studio to work on new music, but I found that this can be limiting. I ended up doing the same thing over and over again, until I came to a point when I was not really happy with the outcome of what I was doing anymore. So I have slowed down my production at the moment, to be fully able to concentrate on label work and to just do some occasional edits here and there. Another important factor is that my DJ work is almost like taking a production studio on the road, if you want to see it like that. I’ll see whenever it draws me back to writing music. Right now I rather use my studio for mixing and producing in the original sense of the word, for other people’s albums and single releases, which I really enjoy a lot.
How do you mentally prepare for one of your marathon 12 hour sets? Do you go to a “special place” during these sessions?
You cannot really prepare much for a 12 hour set as you never know where it will take you. But what I use to do when I have a Berghain gig coming up in a couple of months — never knowing how long it will go — is dig through my old records and select those I haven’t played in quite a while and those which might work for the purpose. I just put them in a special playlist, and when I am playing at Berghain I just see where it takes me and throw in one of them once in a while. It automatically takes me to a different place. So it’s basically like mixing up and remixing tunes in real time, which requires a little bit of preparation, but still leaves the outcome relatively open. I just enjoy myself playing and see where it takes me in the moment; no matter if it is a one hour, two hour or a twelve hour set. This seems to be the key to me: as long as I am enjoying what I am doing, I don’t really need to think about it that much.
You’ve recently come back from Sonar; how was the CLR party?
We had a great stage at the Eastender Festival, which has grown into one of the major events during the Sonar festival. I was amazed by the turnout and the amazing vibe the people brought to the place. We definitely have something going there and I am sure we will work on an even bigger floor for next year.
With such a proliferation of new music these days, finding an individual voice is getting harder. How does the A&R process for CLR work? Are you still sifting through mountains of demos?
Actually I have never been sifting through mountains of demos. I kind of try to sense what is going on around me and feel where I want to take the label. The A&R process is more about feeling what kind of people you should ask to do music for you. That’s a big part of the whole thing. That’s why the Internet is so great, you hear some music you like and get in touch with those people. You ask them to send you their latest releases, you ask them for a mix, and maybe you do a podcast with them. This way you get to know them better and get to know how they function.
This is a big part of the CLR philosophy. I like to work with people who really enjoy themselves making music and who kind of bring a certain vibe to the label — which either adds up to what we are trying to do — or which takes it to a completely new level. There is a good vibe between all our artists; no bullshit, no soap operas, nothing that stands in the way of a good feeling, and people on the dance floor seem to notice this. Some demos also come to me through friends who know what I am looking for, who pass on a demo of a friend, so I don’t have to listen through heaps of demos — which I really don’t have time to do. I can only recommend artists who want to approach a label, to introduce themselves first, get to know the crew, to develop a personal connection and stay in touch with those people instead of just sending out a demo to twenty different labels. If there is a personal connection already, it is way more likely that someone will really listen to the demo.
Which artist’s work are you finding engaging right now, and which tracks are you particularly enjoying playing?
One of the artists I would like to mention here is Luke Slater and his Planetary Assault Systems project, someone who has been making music for around twenty years by now. He did an amazing album on Ostgut Ton last year which I still play a lot. All the things he is doing at the moment, it may also be remixes — like the one he did for CLR — have their own signature style to them and come from a quite deep place. This is a quality I appreciate very much. Another artist whose album I look forward to release later on this year on CLR is Monoloc, who is blurring the lines between housey stuff with vocals and techno and gets this done really, really well. There are loads of new artists around nowadays and the music scene is quite versatile, so everyone can find something they like. It’s a great time for electronic music right now.
How important is it to step outside the box and engage with music from other genres? Do you need to get a bit of artistic distance now and again?
I think I spend quite a lot out of time out of the box as I don’t listen to a lot of electronic music when I am on the road. I listen to a lot of rock and independent, industrial stuff; and I am still kind of stuck in the 80s and often dig out good old stuff I used to listen to 20 years ago, which I might have never really understood as well as today. There is a lot of inspiration coming from there, and I think my musical taste has never been only about electronic music, it’s just the music I can express myself best in.
Germany is going through a turbulent time with the GEMA situation. What is your take on this?
Well, GEMA is really not helping itself. Their reputation is going down the drain and it is justified that their reputation is going down the drain, for all that they have been doing. For example when you open YouTube to listen to a piece of music and you get the sign that GEMA would not allow to play a certain track to you. And now the raising of the rates for the clubs, which is completely stupid, especially if you consider how GEMA works.
One example: I am playing at Berghain and I am playing music by so many underground artists like Luke Slater, Juan Pablo Pfirter, Tommy Four Seven, Monoloc, Brian Sanhaji and all those people. GEMA wants to have more money because I am playing this music — that’s why they want to raise the rates. They basically want to give it to the people who did the music I played. But it does not work like this, because they will never know who those people are, so they just take the additional money and give it to their best selling members. It is a statistic way of distributing the extra money to the artists they believe are most likely to be responsible for the music that gets played. Like this the money will never go to the actual artist, but more likely to the German equivalent of Michael Jackson or whoever — the big selling artists. The system can never be just, so the solution would be to get rid of the whole GEMA thing. It might have been justified 20 years ago and their system might have helped many artists in the beginning, but it is completely outdated and starts to harm artists (and now even a whole music culture) instead of their original intention of helping them. So, let’s get rid of GEMA I think.
What is your take on the worldwide scene by way of comparison?
There are various countries where it always goes up and down. For example in the United States, you used to have small underground gigs — but now there is so much demand and I must say that the parties are really good and people are very open minded and interested in techno. I really enjoy going there to play. I’ve been doing this worldwide for 15 years now, and I have never been as much on the road as I am now. I believe that the underground scene, niche and techno music, is pretty healthy at the moment. There are a lot of people putting a lot of energy and interest in there. I think it’s all about being together and those moments on the dance floor when you feel one with everyone around you. I believe that the kind of music I do, and other techno artists do, is very appropriate for this. I really can’t compare that to anything else.
What have you and CLR got going on for the rest of this year?
Loads of gigs, great releases like the Monoloc album, various single releases and a compilation. We are currently collecting tracks by people like Rebekah, Jonas Kopp, Roberto and many others. So there is a lot happening on the label and a lot happening with the gigs. It’s all good fun. Still, I try never to plan too much, to remain open to whatever happens.