Whether as a studio hand, engineer, remixer, producer, collaborator, or source of inspiration, Tobias Freund has been deeply involved in the music business for nearly 25 years. And where other veteran musicians might have been content to rest on their laurels, Freund is hungrier than ever, pursuing the depths of aural experimentation as one half of NSI. and crafting some of the best techno and house around as tobias. We can only hope younger generations look to the man as an exemplar of how to age gracefully. Mr. Freund was kind enough to enlighten us about his stance on computers in music, to explain how he stays prolific, and to offer advice to the next crop of would-be producers. (interview by Steve Mizek)
Back in the day you were a studio engineer for acts including Milli Vanilli. What did you learn there that carried into your own music? How was it to switch to making your own music?
Tobias Freund: I did my own music before I became a sound engineer. I bought my first synthesizer, a Korg MS-20, in 1980 with the money I earned at a summer job. Together with my school friend Lars I developed my interest in sound and recording experiments. Right after school in 1983 I had to finish my civil service before I started working in a recording studio as an apprentice. My equipment at home started to grow. I bought a drum machine (Roland TR-808), several effect units and samplers. Almost 20 years later and after engineering and mixing some successful productions like Milli Vanilli and Meat Loaf I quit my job to concentrate on my own music.
How did you first become interested in electronic music? What were some of the first electronic records that inspired you to produce?
I still think the time from 1977–1984 was the most innovative period in electronic music. I started my musical interest around that time and listened a lot to bands/artists like David Bowie, Cluster, Der Plan, Yellow Magic Orchestra, The Flying Lizards, Suicide, This Heat to name just a few. I was definitely infected by experimental music, music that had a little twist.
What’s going through your head when you make more conceptual stuff like “Beat Study One”? Or nsi.’s Non Standard Institute Plays Non Standards?
Well there is no concept behind those works. My music always develops out of experiments. I am combining old sequencer programs like Notator on an Atari, or the sequencer of the Roland MC-202 with new sound sources like Cwejman S1 or the Korg M- 20. The “Beat Study”s are results of those combinations. With Non Standard Institute Plays Non Standards it’s quite similar. In this case Max Loderbauer, my nsi. partner, was the sound source and sequencer with the piano and I treated him in real time with effect units.
How much do computers and their attendant sequencing programs figure into your productions? Do you find them useful?
As I explained before, I believe that different sequencers lead me to different music. I really prefer hardware sequencers to computer based sequencers like Logic or Cubase. For me it’s more fun to turn real knobs. I use Logic more or less like an extended “tape machine,” but for sequences I count on the individual groove of hardware sequencers.
Do you think the democratization of production through softwares like Ableton and Reason is a positive or negative thing?
I never use Ableton in the studio. Somehow I always have the feeling that I am cheating. The program makes everything so easy. Everything fits together and in the end there is just a lot of emotionless stuff going on. Sorry! That’s the reason why a lot of music nowadays sound so similar. Of course there are productions done with these programs that are brilliant, but it’s no fun for me. I only use Ableton for live performance, but actually I will be switching to a live set without computer in the near future.
Tobias awaits the future.
You’ve collaborated a lot over the years, with Atom Heart, Martin Schopf, and more recently Max Loderbauer and Ricardo Villalobos. What do you take away from your sessions with other producers? Do you and Cassy ever work on music together?
I have a very good and long friendship with the people you mentioned. I’ve known Martin and Ewe [Atom Heart] for 20 years. We went through a lot of different phases in our lives that affected the way we did music. With all these friends I developed an individual language and style. I also started to do music together with Cassy and it is again something completely new.
Which contemporary artists do you listen to these days? Which older artists have you been enjoying lately?
That’s hard to say; I am listening to so much different music, old and new. But recently I listened to the new Erykah Badu CD. She is not looking for the next hit, she is just doing music. Some old stuff I was listening to was Cluster’s, Grosses Wasser, one of my favorite records.
Do you ever look through your own discography to see what ground you’ve already covered? Do you ever look back for new sources of inspiration?
Right now I am re-doing my new website with a friend of mine. I had to scan all artworks of my releases and completed my biography. It was quite scary to see how much material I had to take care of. Sometimes I listen to some old DATs to find some inspiration, but I usually don’t listen to finished productions I once did.
A lot of producers who started around the same time as you aren’t making music anymore, and it seems like you’re just as productive as you’ve ever been. What is it that drives you to be as prolific? Do you feel you have a lot left to accomplish?
Well, I always had a job besides doing music. Five years ago I quit my job, five years I’ve been living of my music only. I have to be productive. I was always afraid to do this step, but it was the best thing to do. Also a great source of inspiration is my wife. For me there is still a lot left to accomplish, for example investing in a perfect sounding studio space. It is a great pleasure creating and listening to pure sound so I’d rather do it as real as possible.
What advice would you give to young producers trying to get started in techno/house?
Don’t start if you think money or fame is more important than music.