Phillip Sollmann’s career is a lesson in contrasts. Though his first morsels came out as Dial was just getting established, Sollmann, better known as Efdemin, came to prominence just as the minimal boom of the mid 2000’s was waning, with perhaps his best known tracks (“Acid Bells,” “Lohn und Brot”) eschewing the bland pastiche that minimal was becoming in favor of reduced, hypnotic house music. His ability to construct deeply engaging, resonant long-players (2007’s Efdemin, 2010’s Chicago, and the recently released Decay) has kept him and his characteristic sound firmly in the spotlight — a sound that tempers the roughness and directness of Detroit house and techno with a distinctly German minimalism without compromising its dance floor propulsion. His work in computer music and drone under his birth name has long been distinct from his career as a DJ, but with Decay the two worlds are becoming ever closer. We talked to Sollmann recently about the merging of these two worlds, the Internet, and the history of electronic music.
Last year you gave a lecture called “100 Years of Techno.” What was that all about?
Phillip Sollmann: That was a really funny experience. It was at Robert Johnson in Frankfurt. They have had this series going on for two years, I think, where they invite people from different areas or domains of electronic dance music to talk about whatever they want to. They asked me what I want to do, and I said I could imagine talking about the origins or the predecessors of what we have today as techno. It was a pretty freestyle thing; I wouldn’t call it a lecture. I was talking about music that was loop oriented as well as early electronic pioneers. I gave some examples in films and audio, and I brought a large collection of records and played music from Iceland to the Sahara and back. It was a really a lot of fun.
I always thought that if I know about something, then everybody knows about it, but the guy who invited me told me to talk about everything because most of the audience was quite young, and they would love to hear about that. It was a very nice two or three hours — I don’t remember; I could have done maybe five. I brought so many records and pictures and stories, and then I played a long DJ set: about seven hours, which was awesome because everyone who came for the lecture stayed in the club and we had this very close experience. I had the feeling I could go much further in my set musically than I could normally because people had heard me talking for a long time, and they could ask things and we had this intimate situation, which was a really great experience. I mean, I love that club anyways, and playing there is among the best experiences you can have, but that was a very special night. So we are now talking about a second edition because there was so much left to talk about.
What were some of the key records that you brought for that first edition, and what were some that you want to touch on going forward?
Like I said, I think things that I know or love are too obvious to talk about. I played Silver Apples to the young people, and most didn’t know about them, and they were blown away by this music, with sinewave oscillators and drums, but all live and so loopy and awesome. And then I played music from This Heat — “24 Track Loop.”
I talked a bit about Hermann von Helmholz, who did all the basic physiological writings about acoustics in Berlin in 1850, around that time. I talked a lot about Raymond Scott’s early music, and early ideas of sequencing, like the Rhythmicon from 1931 which was built by Léon Theremin, and all of the Moog stuff, the Buchla, and how those led to Roland and Yamaha. And of course a little bit of Stockhausen, the musique concrète guys, some Xenakis, Laurie Spiegel, and Morton Subotnick. I didn’t play any Pyrolator, which I love so much, and there is so much that I didn’t show. It was good fun, but it was not, like, a big thesis or anything. The title, “100 Years of Techno” was only to show that this idea of repetitive music is old. I also played some stuff from Ethiopia, some pattern-based ritual music, and it’s so much like Detroit techno, somehow. So it was just the idea of broadening the view.
How do you apply your love for these earlier forms of techno into what you produce now?
Well, I don’t know. All the music that I listen to and everything I read and watch and see becomes part of my system, and it’s quite uncontrolled, the subconscious part of what you’re doing. It forms and filters what I do and what I don’t do, or what I don’t like and what I love. The perfect moment for making music is that you prepare a lot and you set up a system or a setting where you can let yourself go and just react to what is happening. Right now I’m playing a lot with a modular synth, and I am just starting to work with that again after two years of not doing it. It totally controls me by its boundaries and possibilities, and everyday it’s completely different. I don’t have a goal that I want to reach or, like, a record I want to release. It’s just playing at the moment because I have some time to explore. Of course I record here and there and I use some of it, but this is the best state, when you can just let yourself go. And sometimes out of nothing something happens — I wouldn’t say I make it, it’s more like it’s happening.
You went to the Institute of Computer Music in Vienna. What was your focus there, and what did you do there that you still use today?
I think the most important thing about that time is that when I decided to go there after I got accepted, from that moment on, my whole life was focused on music completely. Before that I was always working in different fields, like as a journalist, or working in bars, and doing different things while trying to make music without connecting it to making money. In Vienna I was living on nothing for a few years, and I had a very simple life. I was studying a lot of music. I had very nice teachers and had some help in Max/MSP programming and stuff like that, but I had a lot of time on my own. I was making music that never made it into a release, but it feels like I was preparing something that I could use later.
I didn’t buy any techno records for three years. Not at all. I had no money, and I wasn’t really interested in that for a while and was really absorbed by this whole improv and neue musik, musique concrète stuff. I was exploring all that and trying to find what I wanted to do and always ended up with drone. And then when I came to Berlin, I met some old friends and I went out and I saw Berghain and saw all this crazy after-hours stuff, and it was very interesting. I started making a lot of music again, and it all came together. And now I am here, you know? [laughs] It kind of took over, and now I’m trying to go back to the Viennese time a bit more, now that I’m getting older and can’t work late too often anymore.
Your drone or installation music is under your real name, while everything else is under a pseudonym. Why?
Yeah, it’s quite strange, but it’s more serious stuff, and at that time I wanted to divide it into parts. But with the new record [Decay], I think it was the first time that it came together, these two different people. That will be the goal for the next years: to make music that contains both worlds and is still interesting. That would be my vision of future techno. I’m never really satisfied with what I’m doing; even if I put out something, it’s only just what I’m doing at the moment, and I try to realize much better music in the end, hopefully.
With Decay you seem to be a little more focused on techno.
I think techno was always part of my musical world. If you listen to the first album, you have that side there as well. I just posted this set from seven years ago in Jerusalem, which I just listened to for the first time after seven years. It’s exactly the same music that I’m playing at the moment. I’ve always been interested in both worlds. I love house music and I even love people singing or whatever, but I also like very dark and strong techno. But this is a problem for the outside world, that they are not supposed to be presented as one — you know, in one person or one show or whatever. I always try to bring in as much as possible. For some people, that maybe know me as the guy that did “Just A Track” or “Bergwein” or something, and they may be a bit surprised.
Going back to Underground Resistance, in the early days you would have extremely harsh techno music, and then you would have vocal house with saxophones and whatever. It was the same label and the same guys, and that was just one idea. I like these extremes.
Over the last two or three years, I’ve just played more and more what I want to play. Sometimes I was maybe playing more for the audience, or thinking that it would fit better if I would play more like this or that instead of just playing what I was feeling. That is completely over, and I’m just playing what I want to play now.
[Ostgut] has helped me a lot, of course, with filtering some stuff out that I don’t want to play, but I think I’m just trusting myself more and also realizing that there’s people coming to hear what I’m playing. Sometimes I felt like I have to entertain someone, but that’s so boring — if you try to play to meet people’s expectations, everybody’s bored. You have to present something that you want to do, and then most of the time it’s surprising, and then it can get really good. Sometimes really bad. [laughs] But that’s part of the game.
How did your recent stint in Japan affect your work on Decay?
It didn’t affect this record because it was all recorded in Berlin before I left for Japan. I only organized and made final decisions in mixing there, but the music itself was 90% recorded in Berlin. But I was impressed by the culture and behavior of the people. I’d been there many times, but this time we stayed there for three months and we met lots of people. We also traveled a lot through the country and we went to a temple for two weeks, nearly every day attending a ceremony. That had a very strong impact on us, and in this state of mind I finalized the album. But there’s no Japanese music or instruments on in. I’m trying to work with someone who plays a very old Japanese instrument. I can’t say if it’s happening, but I would love to do that. There are some very interesting tunings and some very different performing rituals. I would love to go back there for a year, if I could. It was really a very intense experience.
So you would say it was more that the environment of Kyoto affected the album?
Exactly. Yeah. It’s very funny. Most of the journalists are focusing on this and saying it’s a Japanese album or something. [And I’m like], “Aw, dude, come on. I told you. There’s nothing Japanese in it.” You can mention it, but you don’t have to completely focus on that. But of course everyone does. Of course you need something special or new because otherwise it’s just another techno record — I understand. [laughs]
You tend to use a lot of samples in your music from old TV shows and movies, and instead of burying them in the mix they sit very prominently on top. What can you tell me about that?
I just have to do it. When a track is about to be finished, then maybe I can work in some strange person talking about something that you might not understand. I have a large collection of these recordings. Whenever I see a movie which I like or where I think someone’s voice is interesting, I try to record it. There is no big concept behind it, I just like it. I think it’s a nice contrast to the electronic music that you have. There is this person talking and this recording always has so much information of the space it was recorded in, the time, the technique, the hiss… or maybe it’s from a vinyl record or it’s from an old VHS or something. And that’s what I totally love, to bring all this information in. I’m trying not to filter it out or to clean it or put it into reverb on it or something, because that would hide most of the information, and I like this contrast between electronic music and the human, very bodily experience of someone talking. The first track, “Some Kind of Up or Down Yes,” is my favorite track.
It sounds like it’s from one of those old quiz shows.
Yeah, it is. It’s Salvador Dalí on “What’s My Line?”.
There’s always been a strong visual element to what you do, between the design of the record sleeves, as well as your involvement with the art world in Berlin. And nowadays it’s really common for basically every song to be on YouTube with some sort of video behind it. Does this sort of thing bother you?
Yeah, a little bit. I’ve tried to control it as much as I can. I mean, I appreciate that people like the music that much and that they want to put their own visuals under it, but I would like to control it. So I am working with some [visual] artists for this project, and we’re about finish some videos. Maybe it can reach other people as well if you have the visual, and it reflects the musical ideas a little bit.
The whole Internet thing kind of freaks me out. All this information and all this hype and these blogs and whatever… I can’t really decide anymore what is important or what I should look at. It takes so much time, and I still — honestly, I’m a person who really loves to have a paper in his hand and read, or a magazine or a book. I’m really too old for this blog world. I’m always happy when someone tells me, “This is a really good one.”
It was just this week that De:Bug is going out of print — I guess that’s just a sign of the times.
Yeah, it’s sad. De:Bug helped us so much. They were big, big, big supporters of Dial from the beginning. It’s really sad. I know many people that work there or used to work there, and I know that all of them put all their effort in and never really earned a lot of money or anything. It was just because they liked doing it. How did you find out about this?
I saw it on Facebook.
What do you think about Facebook?
In what way?
I mean it’s there now. We have to deal with it. These days you end up more and more with — there’s a link somewhere and you click on it, and then you end up on a Facebook page, which contains no information and has always the same grid and this cage-like design. It all looks the same, and so much is lost on the way. I don’t want to sound negative, or like a cultural pessimist or something, but I’m really not the biggest fan.
The Internet changed the way people listen to music quite drastically. I think it’s very rare that people listen to a whole album these days. So the experience that I have in my car still, which has a CD player, is a very rare one. Like, when I get a CD I put it in and I listen to the whole CD. Sometimes I drive an extra mile to finish that song or that CD, you know? It’s not good for the environment, I’m sorry, but it’s a very nice way of listening to music.
Well you have a Soundcloud, but it’s all mixes. Would you ever put your own music up there?
They keep telling me that I should upload my album there and make people listen to it a week before it comes out, but that seems so silly to me. Because then why do we have a release date? But they tell me, “Yeah, but this is how people do it these days.” And I’m just like, “Hm, OK.” I’m not sure how to deal with all this.
Is Pigon still mostly Max/MSP-based?
No, but we haven’t done anything in two years, sadly. Because Oliver [Kargl] is the father of two kids now, and he’s taking care of them most of the time. He can totally live without making music for a while. But I have the feeling that he’s coming back soon, and we can start making new stuff again. But no, Pigon was never limited to Max/MSP. It started with that, but then we used whatever. I think when he comes to my new studio, which is finished now and very nice and working and everything is connected… you can just come in and switch it on and it starts. What’s more important than the tools that you use is what you want to do and what inspiration you have. And that was always good, making music together. I hope he’s ready soon.
You were using this Max patch that you called Rocker. Do you still use it? Has it evolved over the years?
No, I have it on the computer that’s in the basement, and I want to now bring it up and see if it’s still running. I hope it is — it had a very nice sound. I loved it. I want to hook it up and sync it to my whole environment now. I stopped using Max for a while because I’m not a super-clever programmer and it took so long for me to make things. And then I decided to make music instead of making patches. But I miss some things about it. I really appreciated the idea of Max For Live, and I used Live at the time when it came out, but now I work in an analog environment and use the computer as a tape machine.
Were you using Max mostly to create things that you needed but that didn’t exist? Or did you enjoy making patches in Max?
I think it was an interesting process because I learned about sound synthesis while patching in ways I would not with, like, Cubase, or something that someone else programmed. I looked at patches other people made, and then totally changed everything in there. I always loved physical modeling, and Max has some really amazing abstractions for that. I’m not the math guy, I’m not a programming freak, so it took a long time to make something useful. But I like the sound a lot; I think it’s much better than anything else from a computer. But then you have friends that say, “Yeah, but if you used SuperCollider then you would have real sound.” It’s like, “Okay, forget it.” [laughs]
You also run a couple of small labels: Lirum Larum and Naïf. What’s your approach to these labels?
Naïf is a platform for friends, and a bit more tool-y music — club music. Cheap production, no cover. It’s the opposite of Dial, let’s say. And it’s totally free because the guy that runs Diamonds and Pearls distribution is such a nice guy. It is such a luxurious possibility that he’s like, “Whenever you want to do a record, you can do a record.” Normally people would get on your nerves and say, “Yeah, you need a business plan, at least four records a year,” something like that. Hopefully there will be more records coming in the next year. It’s called Naïf; it’s simple music you can play in a club. It’s just a vinyl record. That’s it. And I love the a cappellas — I love vocals, as you know. So that is the only rule that I have: that you have to deliver the extra vocal skit. I play a lot of these little snippets in my sets. I always loved records where you have something to play on top of the music, just for a second.
Liram Larum is with Oliver, and when he became a father we kind of slowed down a little bit. But we also will continue with that one day, but it’s also the same distribution, same situation. Totally fine, no hassle with that.
So what else is upcoming for you?
I’m traveling a lot this year, playing a lot with the album coming. And I have all these videos to be released soon, and I will make some more experimental, droney stuff, hopefully, this year. And two remixes… the last ones ever, because I really don’t like remixes.
I don’t know. It takes so long. I don’t really understand the idea of remixes. It takes so long for me to make music, and if I make a remix, I spend so much time making other music. I’m not the best remixer. There are people who can easily do it in five hours, and I’m not them. I try to be as relaxed as I can and take care of myself. Sometimes this traveling is a bit too much, but I’m trying to find strategies to deal with it better. But it’s really good.
The great thing about playing and being a DJ is I can go to Japan this year, or I can go to the States and to South America again, and I really appreciate that, after all these years. Sometimes you end up in this kind of ghetto where you meet the same people you could meet in Berlin, or you see the same shops or the same clubs that have the Funktion-One sound system now and, you know, blah, blah, blah. But from time to time you run into something completely mindblowingly different, and so local, and so full of love, and so disconnected. When that happens, it’s so great. And that happens — especially in Japan, still. You end up in a club in southwest Japan, and it’s so mindblowing because it’s awesome people and amazing sound, with, like, hand-made sound systems and no lights and people just dance. It’s great, you know? And that’s why I still love doing this so much. Of course, I also like playing in Fabric, it’s also great. London is a very different vibe than Berlin or New York. But it’s very rare that you end up with something that you don’t expect at all and it’s a completely local style.
Do you have any other examples?
Last year I had one of these experiences when I went to Istanbul. I expected to play at a club inside, and then it was outside, on the beach… Suma Beach — I didn’t expect that. It was such a beautiful vibe, and they had this hippie feeling going at the beach. It was very soon after the riots: at Taksim they had these riots, and the military was suppressing it. Then you had all these people there, and it felt so free and kind of like a parallel world to the Turkish reality at that time. It was really, really great. I didn’t want to go home. Sometimes when you don’t expect anything it’s the best.