Nestled along the broadside of Berghain’s hulking mass, Beirhof Rudersdorf is an outdoor restaurant that makes for unusually good people watching. This is where, on a recent Thursday afternoon, we sat at the bar waiting to interview René Pawlowitz. Among tables of old people eating schnitzel and drinking beer, Ricardo Villalobos ordered a mini-tub of Ben & Jerry’s to go with his café latte. A while later, Zip plopped down in an armchair across the patio and cracked open an issue of the Berliner Zeitung. Soon I caught sight of Pawlowitz, sitting at a table while another man talked to him. It was a few weeks before the release of his highly anticipated second album, The Traveller, and he was fielding the surge of media attention that came with it — an interview with FACT had just gone online, his podcast for RA was ready to go, and before our interview was over a photographer from XLR8R appeared for a shoot. Pawlowitz doesn’t have much enthusiasm for this kind of thing, but all the same he seemed generally at ease, stirring his sekt on ice and talking about his new record. As the afternoon turned to evening, he very candidly filled us in on his typical creative process, his misgivings with the general state of techno, and the burden of having a moniker that sticks.
So you’re pretty much working on music full time?
No, it’s only when I’m in the mood for making music. For instance, with the album, it was for maybe a month or two and then I stopped. The computer at home for doing music is turned off for two months now. I only make music when I want to, when I feel there is something. It’s not that I try to do it every day or that I have to explore new sounds. It’s not my thing. I produce music.
So what do you mean you don’t explore new sounds? You mean you don’t sit there experimenting?
When I start, I always have an idea. I don’t want to make music when I have no idea. I know what I want to do. And then, when I have this idea, I start doing it, I start producing it. And it’s not a hobby that I sit down searching for new sounds or new drums. It’s not what I do. I make it, I simply make it.
When you say two months, you mean the album from beginning to end just took you two months once you actually sat down to do it?
Yeah, all the tracks but one were made this year, I think between March and April. Actually it was very easy, because I had an idea. [laughs] And that’s why it was very easy. The one track was made last year — the second track ["Keep Time"] — this is the only one which was made last year. The other 13 tracks were made only for this album. Sometimes I made three tracks per day, and then I took a break for a week.
Did you have the same process for Shedding the Past?
No, that was something different, it was more a collection of tracks. I didn’t produce this album because it was…. How can I say it… I didn’t want to do an album. The offer came from here [gestures toward Berghain] to do an album. It was very quick to do it — only two months, and then it came out. That’s why I had so many tracks that I only collected to do an album. It’s not an album, really. It’s more of a compilation.
I was going to ask about that. I think Shedding the Past feels like it tells a story — there’s kind of a narrative throughout the album. There are little flourishes like the spoken word piece that segues right into the next track.
Very cheap. [laughs]
I liked it, there’s a continuity from track to track like it’s all one piece. And I think The Traveller sounds just the opposite. It’s like each song is very self-contained.
Ah, really? I think it’s more a story in the second album than in the first one. Because it’s always the same sounds. And not just the same kind of music, but the same sounds. All the tracks were only made for this album. And because it was made in a very short time, it sounds very similar.
Is it the same process when you’re doing 12-inches?
No, not at all. When I do 12-inches, the tracks must be a normal tempo, and the tracks must have a function in a club — they have to work. That’s why you need an intro, you need a break, and all that. And on an album you don’t need it.
Do you feel more comfortable with one or the other?
No, both are good. When I’m not in the mood to do something for the club, I do something that’s more dub, electronica, or this kind of chill-out ambient stuff. I dunno. I can do everything [laughs] — and I don’t need to. That makes things easy for me, a very comfortable situation for me.
So with all your different aliases, and different sounds for each one, do you feel like there’s still some part of you that hasn’t been expressed yet? Do you feel like there’s still something you’re waiting to unleash?
I don’t know yet. Maybe. But nothing planned, nothing at all. I will wait and see what happens.
It seems like there are many artists will have a track kicking around for a while, they play it in their DJ sets and their live sets, and then finally, sooner or later, they actually get around to releasing it. Are you that way at all, or do you just sit down to do a track and then you release it?
No, I only play tracks in my DJ set or live sets which are released. I don’t play any unreleased tracks.
For the tour to support this album, you said that the club setting wouldn’t be an ideal place to present this album because of the format. What’s your ideal situation for performing material from The Traveller?
Actually, I thought that it would be very difficult to play these sounds live, but in fact it’s very easy to switch through the styles. I’m sitting at home right now to setup the new live set, and it’s actually very easy. It’s not a problem to change the speed of the track. There are whole tracks with 120 BPM and the last track on the album is 160 I think [smiles] — but it’s no problem. It’s a show, and I play for one hour. And it’s easy, it’s OK.
At Mutek in Montreal they have a whole section of the festival where you sit down in a concert hall to watch the more experimental artists. Would you ever picture yourself in that kind of situation playing live? Or do you think you’d always be a club?
I dunno, hopefully I can play more “shows,” not at the club. Hopefully. But at the moment I only get bookings for clubs. And when I play at a club I have to “push it.” It’s hard, but I can do it [laughs]. But not with the new album. It’s not possible to play, for instance, I dunno, at Berghain. Maybe for the release show, yes, but not on a Saturday evening. It’s impossible. That’s why I have to change it to the older stuff to do four-to-the-floor.
Do you feel like you express yourself well playing live?
It’s okay. It’s hard work because of the traveling — with all the equipment. It’s easier for the DJs who are playing only CDs or MP3s. I always have a bag with me which is over 30kg, and this is hard. And always what’s very, very bad for me is… to do sound check. I hate it, actually. But you have to do it because you need to hear the PA. But playing live, it’s cool. It makes sense.
Why don’t you like the sound check?
Because you have to go to the club before. It’s wasting time, actually. It’s easier for DJs. They can go to the club one hour before or ten minutes before and they can start. It’s very easy, they don’t need to check anything. But I always have to talk to a lot of people — to the sound engineers, who are very, uh… difficult sometimes. That’s the bad side of playing live. The good is that I only need to play one hour [laughs]. But it’s long enough to be very exhausted after that.
I get the impression that you don’t play or DJ as much as the other Ostgut Ton artists. Is that true?
I would love to play more as a DJ, but the problem is that I don’t get any bookings [laughs]. Maybe some. But I don’t play techno music that much, and this is the problem. Because every promoter books DJs from the Ostgut Ton or Berghain to hear techno music or house music, and I’m not a techno or house DJ. Not anymore. So it’s always hard for me to play and to see the promoters eyes going, “Oh god! What a DJ! He’s not the right DJ for today!”
So are you playing more dubstep most of the time now?
Yes, kind of hip-hop, dubstep. House and techno as well. It’s always a big mixture. It’s not easy for the dancers [laughs]. But I need it, I need the mixture.
I just read in FACT that when you buy records, nine of them are dubstep and maybe one…
MAYBE one! [laughs]
…Is techno. How recently did that happen, or how long has your taste been like that?
It’s not my taste. It’s which records are available. There’s no interest in techno. That’s why. It’s not my taste [laughs]. I love techno and I have a lot of techno records. But at the moment I can buy more techno records in a second hand store than in a store for new records. There’s nothing happening right now, nothing interesting.
So why don’t you bill yourself as a dubstep DJ?
No no, I don’t want to be a dubstep DJ! No, no, no… It’s not that I’m into dubstep as well as techno. It’s more that I’m between all of these types. It makes it very difficult to promote myself as a DJ. But…
So what about Disco Shed? I saw that coming up.
[laughs] For instance, as a DJ, I like Diplo. He’s mixing very fast. And all this bam-bam cutting the whole time. This is what I like!
So when you DJ, is it really eclectic like that? You do one song then switch something really different?
What’s your favorite place to play? Is this (Berghain) still your favorite place, or are there other places that you feel your style works out better?
I think places in Bristol, or at Trouw in Amsterdam. That was surprising to me because it was a house evening, but what I did worked out. So it was OK. But it was more that I was not playing dubstep but more the slower… kind-of-dubstep. And that was good. You can’t play sets like this at the Berghain. It’s impossible. I tried this so many times, I’ve played one dubstep track and it sounds a bit like techno, but it was impossible. You can see on the floor that the people are leaving the floor. It’s impossible.
Have you ever played at Sub:stance?
You think that wouldn’t work either?
Scuba is not… I’m waiting for a offer! He’s not asking me [all laugh]. I have to talk to him. I would love to play there.
Well he recently played as SCB at Panorama Bar, and based on the recording I imagine it’s what you might sound like DJing.
I don’t like it at all. This SCB. Some dubstep guys can’t make techno music. It’s impossible. And here’s an example. It’s not very good. The same way when house producers want to make dubstep, it’s impossible.
Can you describe what it is you’re looking for that’s missing in techno that was there before? What about the techno that’s coming out now is disappointing to you?
I dunno. I think the problem right now is that every techno producer wants to do something like [Marcel] Dettmann or Ben [Klock]. When they do new techno music it always sounds like Berghain. And this is the problem. They don’t try to find their own sound. They always do what others do. And this is the bad thing. They don’t try to find something new. And this is disappointing.
Why do you think that is?
It’s the easiest way.
So, you’re pretty unsatisfied with where techno is at right now. Do you think that motivates you more? Does it make you more creative?
Actually, I don’t care what happens to techno right now. When it’s good it’s good, when it’s not, it’s not my thing. I will not “rescue techno” or whatever — I don’t care. I love techno, but I’m not in the position to help or whatever. I don’t care, actually. [laughs]
It seems like there’s a consistent theme in your music (with Shedding the Past, etc.) that you’re very un-distracted by what came before and what else is going on right now. Why do you think that is?
I have to explain that Shedding the Past is not like I wanted to shed something or to do something new or to leave something behind. It’s more to explain where the name Shed came from. That’s all. It’s a bit ridiculous I know, “Shed” the name — I know! [laughs] It was more to explain the name, where it came from. When I started with my label in 2003, this was the first sentence on my web page — “shedding the past” — but in that time, I thought I had to shed something. And actually the album name came in order to explain “Shed” — I’m not a garden shed or whatever! [all laugh] That’s it. There was a big idea behind it, but not on it, not while I made this album.
In general you have kind of an interesting relationship with your own names. I read that you said you’re not crazy about the name Shed. So will you have more releases as Shed, or are you trying to phase that out?
I dunno. There are so many aliases right now and there are more coming [all laugh]. I have to keep the freedom. Actually I wanted to stop this Shed thing, because I thought it’s too ridiculous — the name. But actually it’s okay. It’s my name right now.
Are Wax and EQD specifically used to get away from Shed?
Actually, these things like Wax or EQD — there is no artist behind it. It’s only tracks for the dance floor. That’s all. There is no artist behind. That’s it. That’s all.
But nonetheless it sounds like you. And people definitely consider Wax or EQD to be alternate names.
Actually I don’t care about all these things. When I play, as a DJ or live, I play also EQD or WAX tracks. But it’s always under the Shed name.
In general I feel right now like the EQD and Wax are really a lot of DJs favorite records to play out. Do you go out to clubs a lot — is the club experience still very important to you?
That’s the impression I got. So how do you come up with such effective records for the party if you’re not that into clubs?
Because I love to make tunes like this! Because I like it. I’m not going to clubs anymore because I play so many times the whole year, so I don’t need to go out. But I love to do club tracks because it’s very easy. You only need to push things. It’s very, very, very easy to do tracks like this which are very functional. I’m not doing tracks with a constructed break or whatever. It only must have a very heavy drums and heavy bass — that’s it. And that’s what I love to do. And it’s a good. It makes… It makes me happy. That’s all. And I dunno why it’s still working, because I don’t go out anymore, but it’s working.
So what about Subsolo? When you’re releasing other people, is it people you’re associated with? Do you hear something at random or do you go through a pile of promos?
No, it’s only for people I know and I like. That’s all. But there’s nothing planned right now. There may be something coming sometime — there are some problems with one artist [laughs]. There are remixes coming, Part II of Dub Shed Sessions. Remixes for Wax No.20002, for this piano thing. Pinch and Elemental are doing remixes. The Pinch remix is finished. It’s good, it’s really good. But Elemental, he needs more time. It’s coming… sometime. In October, November, December. But there’s nothing planned. It’s not very easy to release something because it’s coming through an English distributor, and this makes it more complicated for me. It’s very easy for me to release records through Hard Wax. [Subsolo] is more business for me.
So how do you feel about the business part of it? Is it fulfilling?
No, it’s not. Actually it’s very easy, it’s not that much. I know some other label managers who are always saying, “Oh, it’s so much work! Oh god!” But it’s easy. It’s not that much.
So when you say you release something through Hard Wax, that basically just means you have a bunch of records printed and stamped, then you just stock them at Hard Wax, and that’s it? That’s all you have to do?
On the new album you have the track “44A (Hard Wax Forever!)”. Could you just talk a little bit about your relationship with Hard Wax — how much has Hard Wax influenced you?
It’s one of the biggest influences. Because I buy records there since 1992. I always buy records at Hard Wax, that’s it. I collect my records at home like it was at Hard Wax — it’s U.S., it’s Euro, it’s U.K, and it’s dubstep. I think 90% of my records at home are from Hard Wax. I found some old invoices from Hard Wax from 1993 I guess. I lived in Frankfurt, the east side of Frankfurt Oder, former GDR, and it’s so funny to see these invoices from Hard Wax 17 years ago. It’s crazy.
Obviously Hard Wax is one of the most famous techno record stores in the world. What do you think makes it so special? The buying technique, the organization? What is it about Hard Wax that makes it such an exceptional record shop?
Um, I think it’s not the point that we have the best dealers or the friendliest dealers. That’s not the point. All the people working there are musicians. All of them make music. And there’s always the same idea behind this. They only want to do music, they only want to live music. That’s all. Nobody thinks about making a lot of money with this. I think this is the point. They are not working there, it’s more like friends working there. They are involved in the store, and that’s the point. Everybody can say something to the assortment, and sometimes …. Ah, we are friends. It’s hard to get in there as an employee, but when you are in, you are part of it. And that’s the point. They always try to find something new. They have very strong connections to the U.S., to Detroit, to Submerge in the early days, or to downtown in New York. That makes it very special for the U.S. back stock. And I think this is one of the last stores that has this big back stock of old records. This is something special. I think that’s it. And it’s still a store, a physical store.
I read that you said before you worked there you weren’t really that into reggae or dub — it was working there that turned you on to that stuff.
I had to leave [working at Hard Wax] before I started to buy reggae records [laughs]. I bought some. Actually I started to listen to dubstep when I started working at Hard Wax. I’m not so into reggae. I don’t like it, actually. It’s okay, some records are good, there are some pop and cheesy records I love, but not that old stuff.
Was it a difficult decision to leave Hard Wax?
Actually, yes. In the beginning. But then, when I felt, “Oh, it’s easy to go back,” then I felt it was easy. It was a good decision. And I’m there every week, so I can still talk with them. And of course I sell my records through Hard Wax. It’s okay for me to work there doing mail orders, to do packaging and send stuff out. But not in the store. It’s not good for me.
So is this a permanent thing, or are you just taking a break for a while?
Uh, no, I think I will not go there (again). I worked at the store, at the counter, and… I’m not a seller [laughs]. It’s not my thing I guess, so it’s hard for me to work at the shop — too many customers. I worked there for three years and I think it was good, but now it’s over. Now I can make what I want. That means music.
So what’s your lifestyle like? How frequently do you make music? What do you do when you’re not making music, day to day?
Hmmm… I waste my time! [laughs]. I dunno. I don’t make that much music. It’s not that big, it’s not the main time of my life. At this time, I have a lot to do with the album, with promotions, interviews, photographs. And it’s hard work to answer all the emails and make email interviews, then I have to start my new setup for playing live, which at this time is my main task.
Is it still fun for you to play with Marcel? A few months ago you did Deuce at Berghain — do you enjoy that? Do you think that goes well?
I think Deuce was only a trial. But it wasn’t that successful. For us.
The record was okay. It was selling okay. But it was not that fun for us.
So that’s the only collaboration you’ve done, right? You prefer to work alone?
[nods] Maybe in the future.
Why do you think that is?
Because my ego is very big [laughs]. No, I think the reason is that I know what I want, I know how it has to sound and how it must BE in the end. That’s why. I don’t want to have someone behind me saying, ‘Do it like this,” — No.
It’s kind of interesting how Ostgut Ton and Berghain are becoming a cultural exports, with gigs in New York and Ibiza now.
I don’t like that very much. And I always have to say that I don’t want to be called a “resident DJ” of Berghain, because I’m not. There’s always these “Berghain evenings at club blah blah blah….” It’s killing itself. I think next year it’s over. [laughs]
What do you mean?
This export thing. No one will want to listen anymore to any Berghain or Panorama Bar DJs, because they’re playing everywhere at the moment. I think it’s a bit too much.
In general, does being part of the Ostgut Ton crew help you, or is it a distraction?
Oh it helps. A lot. It makes things very easy for me.
Do you feel like having these artists as your peers affects your music?
The Ostgut artists? [Pauses to think.] I think Marcel Dettmann. I think he’s been an influence. He’s doing things very, he’s not very… He’s not thinking very much at all times. He’s cool, he does what he wants to do, and he makes decisions very quickly, he’s not thinking so much about what things can happen when you do this. I think Marcel.
So you like that way of doing things?
I like it, because I can’t do it! Because I’m always thinking about things. And he’s only doing it — he’s just doing it.
I had heard that you guys give each other feedback on each other’s tracks. Is that true?
Actually, I don’t care about feedback. When the record is finished, they get a copy and that’s it. I don’t try to find out how it works or ‘Is it cool? Is it not cool?’ When it’s not cool, it’s my problem. But I don’t do any promotions, it’s wasting time, I think.
So you don’t do promotion, but you don’t really need to. Do you think in general that people worry about it too much?
I think it’s spam. [laughs]
As someone who’s closely connected to Hard Wax, releasing on Ostgut Ton, do you feel like you have a lot of freedom, that you have less things to worry about than other artists?
No. I think that some other artists think they don’t have any freedoms, and they keep themselves inside of some borders, I dunno. They don’t want to have these freedoms, because they feel safe within these strict lines. They can do more, but they don’t. They think too much about it. They can do more than they are doing. They think that anybody out there wants… ah, forget it [stops himself]. They can do more, but they think they are not in the right position to do something free, something new. Because other DJs are doing the same thing, so they have to do things the same as the others.
OK, final question. On Shedding the Past you said that there was a song that was dedicated to your brother. And now the cover photo on The Traveller is by him.
That’s funny. When I did Shedding the Past, I did the track called “Flat Axe.” It’s because my brother tried to work an axe, and he cut his bone [in his leg] — he was lying in his bed for four months because it was a very sharp axe. And that’s why it’s for my brother. And the new picture, he made while we were traveling through Norway, and he tried to do some photos while we were coming out of a tunnel.
Interview by Will Lynch and Sarah-Joy Murray with thanks to Jordan Rothlein for his contributions.