LWE Interviews Uwe Schmidt (Atom™)

Photo by Caro Faruolo

In this interview we chat with Uwe Schmidt about his recent work and his observations on the challenges surrounding contemporary music. The prolific musician’s discography and list of aliases are but a trace of his sundry activities that juggle multiple processes and concepts. Schmidt started making acid house and techno in Frankfurt in the 1980s under a number of aliases including Atom Heart. As the years went on, he navigated various forms of electronic music through his recordings for Pete Namlook’s FAX label and his own Rather Interesting. Relocating to Santiago in 1997, Schmidt has since incorporated into his repertoire a number of projects fusing electronics with Latin instrumentation and rhythm, most notably as Señor Coconut. His generous responses to our questions and the insightful observations he makes indicate a grizzled mind and creative force who remains thoroughly engaged with the changing structures that are radically reshaping music today. (Schmidt is playing two shows at Unsound Festival NYC this week, click here for more info.)

Seemingly like a backlash against minimal techno, there is now a widespread revisitation of various forms of “classic” electronic dance music. It deals with building consensus on what are electronic dance music’s histories, their conventions, their characters, their hallmarks, their sounds, then repeating or celebrating them, much like in a neo-classical manner. How do you feel about this?

Uwe Schmidt: My problem with what’s still called “electronic music” today, and which sadly only means “dance music,” is the fact that it appears to be and is marketed as “progressive” music, while truth is that it has not developed in any significant form for the last 20 years or so. The “no-progress” in itself is not a bad thing, I just think that label, which “electronic dance music” is carrying, is misleading and wrong. What I miss is this type of music coming to its true essence instead of promoting it under a false pretext. “Electronic dance music” is as “new” or “progressive” as my TV set. I think it is necessary to strip that label “progressive/innovative” off that type of music in order to be able to re-initiate a process of real musical progress. The so-called “minimal techno,” in my opinion, is just the tip of the ridiculous iceberg. The name “minimal techno” itself I never fully understood and somehow see it as practical joke of some sort. I mean, “acid” in 1988 was already minimal techno. Most electronic dance music I have heard in clubs for the last 20-25 years already WAS minimal techno. I honestly don’t get it, how one can seriously label contemporary music that way — AGAIN — and somehow think that it describes anything different from what there was. Maybe you can help me out?

Going back and forth between different historical types of electronic dance music, as you described, is certainly a step forward, in the sense that it is recognized as a stagnated musical style with more or less clearly defined borders. Back in 1994 I asked for such, as I would call it a frank definition of electronic dance music, simply because I found it wrong to see reactionary people dressed in “innovative” clothes. It reminded me strongly of the entire “authenticity” discourse of rock music, for example, which is equally wrong, misleading and altogether covers the music itself in an unnecessary mist of meaning and false truth. To see that very same thing happening to electronic music at the beginning of the ’90s I found quite shocking, I have to say, and I decided that I did not want to become a part of that. To me it felt and still feels ridiculous to act as a supercool, innovative electronic music dance act on a silver stage, on a party sponsored by a supercool, innovative cell phone company, knowing that I’m selling well-established, out of date musical code.

Celebrating electronic dance music, as you said, in a neo-classical manner, is of course, historically speaking, a logical step that has been overdue, yet had to happen at some stage. To me that is a good sign, since we can hopefully close the book pretty soon and finally work on some real progress.

One of your most recent releases, Music is Better Than Pussy, is a critique of the (un-)creative process of making dance music. To what extent are you deploying dance music tropes in irony or earnestness?

I wouldn’t say that this particular album was a critique. It does contain SOME critical lyrics, true, yet, the entire process of making that album was mainly born out of the interest to produce those tracks. Let’s say the lyrics, the criticism, the humor, etc. are just some flavors that spice up the album — such as the title of course. Talking about the criticism which had to do with “earnestness” to a certain degree, it had to do with looking at what’s going on within the scene of so-called “electronic dance music.” Quite some time ago, as a part of some self-analysis process, I looked around myself, at the people/colleagues/contacts around me, the scene I somehow found myself in, and I realized one important thing: that the reasons of WHY certain people make certain music are what differentiates them from each other.

Sadly I found myself surrounded by way too many “musicians” making music for reasons other than an interest in music itself. Not always, listening to the “product” this becomes clear of course, yet as soon as one has to deal with “the scene” it becomes more than evident who is doing what for which reason. To my regret, I realized that I had just nothing to do with the vast majority of my drifting companions, and some lyrics on Music is Better Than Pussy talk about that. In other words, “making music” can be triggered by a huge variety of reasons: making music unfortunately is just one of them, and sadly, the one that represents a minority of musicians. As the years passed I got more and more conscious and ultimately allergic to a certain type of human being music makers and more and more isolated myself from the scene I tend to be allocated in. This, in itself, does not have to do much with “earnestness” as good rock and roll doesn’t have much to do with “authenticity,” but to me it’s rather a question of personal hygiene. Bad people make bad music.

In what ways do you think musicians can express themselves in, as you say in Liedgut, the delirium of present times (“im rauschen der gegenwart”)? What struggles are they facing? What contemporary themes do you and others deal with, or not deal with?

I think that one of the biggest problems electronic music, or, rather, music itself is confronted with nowadays is just the “delirium of present times.” What I miss so much are personal signatures. Personality is made unrecognizable underneath that layer of “present times.” It’s actually a lot of work and requires a lot of determination, energy and strength to position YOURSELF on top of those layers, or at least find a well-defined spot within the chaos. Unfortunately, most music I hear today is either made by people that long for acceptance by the present times, or by people who are totally unaware of how generic they actually are. This itself would not be a problem if we were talking about jazz, rock, or any other historic musical style, but especially within “electronic music,” once [considered] a label of progress, innovation, craft and personality, I find the generic hard to take.

Photo by Dieter Wuschanski

It’s always been of importance, to any artist, to transform your times into YOUR times. More and more so this has become an almost impossible task. Quoting Gary Clail, who said in one of his recent interviews something like “We all are edits.” I really love that phrase, because it explains so well our current state, as well as the current difficulty: to become aware of the edits and finally to start re-editing yourself!

You mentioned that music and art have been thrown into a system of free economics. When music was first recorded, economics was characterized by mass production and industrialization. When music became portable and critical appropriation (remix, sampling, etc.) was a dominant artistic mode, economics was characterized by services. Up until several years ago, one could say economics was about transforming debt into securities, but then the system of financialization collapsed. How do you view music in light of this most recent economic development?

I think that music itself is changing, just in the very same way it changed from the pre-recording to the recording age. That may be hard to understand and even harder to explain. It’s not only the musical language that is changing, but what music is, how it sounds, where it appears, how it makes us feel, and so on. All that is being transformed right now. Mainly this has to do with the fact that music is still strongly linked to the economic system, which in itself is in crisis, and most probably won’t make it much longer if the fundamental structures of it aren’t changed.

As a second observation, one can say that the process of how music is progressing through time can be described as new ideas flowing into the mainstream from the rims of the creative pool. “The rims,” the outskirts, the minorities come up with new ideas hence they are the innovators (in most cases), while those ideas are picked up and transformed into the cultural mainstream where popularization is taking place. With the new conditions of music industry, one can say that the rims are getting smaller and smaller day by day. The interesting question to me is, from which source the mainstream will be nourished in the future with no or very little innovation to be sucked in from the borders. We are no doubt standing at the very beginning of an era where this is happening and still don’t know which results this will bring for music in general.

One way we can measure the music industry is by how records are selling. If we look at a recent chart, we can see that the music industry is doing terribly. Material formats of music are being outmoded, but immaterial formats like downloading, streaming services, and subscription-based services can barely provide artists with compensation. Per unit of time, recorded music is worth less than it once did by about a factor of three hundred. No matter if it’s mainstream or underground, the costs of producing music (from recording and manufacturing to distribution and marketing, etc.), are changing. How do you as an artist, and perhaps just as importantly a person who runs a record label, work within these constraints?

A couple of years ago, I would say from 2003 onwards, when participating in panels and discussion groups, I realized that for the first time we the artists asked questions like, “What is the future of music industry?” Frankly, for many decades an artist would have been the last one to be asked such question. I realized that had to do with the proper cluelessness of the music industry itself. Now, since years have passed and the overall situation has become more and more dramatic, one was confronted with, let’s call it “the practical issues” of such decline of music industry. Instead of lamenting the decline, which is a common human tendency, I decided to try to turn it into my favor. Most importantly to me, it has to be seen that the relationship between the composition itself, the recording, the reproduction and the sound carrier needs to be redefined under the decline of economics, which up until today defined those parameters.

In other words, economics, the so-called “music business” decided which musical code/language/style, was recorded how/where/if at all and according to which sound carrier how and where it was consumed and reproduced. We the artists gladly adopted the formats such as the 7-inch, 12-inch, EP, album and finally the CD and made them the defining borders of our musical composition. Now, instead of lamenting the no-sales of albums, I received a tremendous feeling of freedom, when I realized that from now on my musical code was no longer related to any format whatsoever! I CAN produce an album, but I don’t have to. It CAN have 20 minutes or six hours — it’s from now on entirely up to me. That said, I think almost everybody is currently drifting around a fuzzy realm once called “market,” trying to inject it with sense and a user’s manual. I personally find that very entertaining and it has certainly inspired me musically.

A second issue has to do with your previous questions. The crisis, to my delight, has been and still is putting a lot of pressure on every artist. This has led to a process of purification, if I may call it that. More and more “ex-musicians” have abandoned music since they realized how little money can actually be made by making it. On the other hand, those who are in it for the money now have to clearly go the commercial route, which means they no longer can mix between the credible folks :) Even though making a living from music hasn’t become easier, making music has become so much more fun!

What role do you believe physical formats of music have today? Can physical formats take new forms? Since this is an electronic dance music site, please feel free to elaborate on or avoid the well-discussed implications they have for DJ culture, etc.

Though I am not an economist, I believe to have understood that every market after a period of expansion shrinks down to its “natural” size. Every now and then that size is so small that the market disappears or transforms into something else. When looking at formats such as cassette tapes or vinyl, the very same is true. In some countries for example, cassette tapes are still a huge market. In other countries 12-inches that contain certain types of music are still an important format for a certain group of consumers, and so on. The CD, for example, does have a strong link to a specific type of music and is necessary for that music to be listened to. What is happening right now is that in the turmoil of economic re-definition, physical and non-physical formats have to find their places and sizes within that structure. All this is in the making, I think, and we have not come to a stable situation yet.

That physical formats are taking new forms is already happening, I think. All kinds of mixed formats — books with USB sticks, CDs AND download codes, hard discs, etc. are being invented and tested. The final place of the physical format has to do with which type of music is related to which type of consumer who belongs to which sociological sub-group. We can see that music has expanded into almost any corner of our society, from cell phones to websites, elevators, malls, and so on. In all those corners music functions as a texture, like a color or a smell which people need in order to socialize “in the right place.” For the majority of corners in which we socialize physical sound carriers are no longer needed, and the existing ones are moved into the corners they belong to.

Photo by Dieter Wuschanski

As recordings are valued less due to their reproduceability, musicians rely more on the value of their performances, because they are unique, experiential and less prone to reproduction. Someone can record an Atom™ live set and post it as an mp3 to the web, but it’s hardly the same as experiencing you perform in person. How do you value performances versus recordings?

I have always considered them entirely different experiences and therefor, as Atom™ for example, never tried to play a recording, nor tried to reproduce the complexity of a recording at a live concert. The performance and the recording are entirely different as experiences themselves and in my opinion are necessary in order to understand the work of an artist. I would most certainly not like to see my activities reduced to just one of the two. However, live performances are only possible by producing a repertoire. A repertoire does not necessarily need to be recorded, though in most cases producing a repertoire can be seen as a process similar to “producing a recording.” Musicians are in a studio/rehearsal space together and compose new material. The compositions are either just recorded live or indeed recorded, so final “live versions” can be produced from those. Live performances require a lot of “unseen/unheard” work before they actually become reality. Established artists do have that repertoire, while artists which are just starting to establish themselves are trapped in a situation where they need to have a repertoire/name/record deal to play gigs, while at the same time need to have played gigs in order to get a record deal/produce a repertoire. No gigs, no deal, no deal, and no gigs! So the interlinking between the recording and the live performance, in my opinion, is fairly underrated.

The technological tools of our time, with the Internet being the dominant, promise new complexities and theories of music. Yet you find the opposite and are puzzled by it; at a moment of freedom, we create less diversity. Could it be that we’re at a stage where we’re still mining all of the information made recently available to us on the net, and as soon as its absorbed, something explosive will happen? This is to say, can we start to use what you call decadence as fuel for creativity?

I guess you are well aware of the irony that lies within that situation you described! In another interview I recently stated that technologically speaking, music now days can/could take ANY shape at all. The making of music and the possibilities we are holding in our hands are pretty incredible! Just as with images, sound can be entirely modified down to the pixel. Now, interestingly the hippest thing seems to be “minimal techno.” How can that be? How is it possible that in times where technologically merely everything is possible, the variety of music and most importantly, the interest in exploring those possibilities is so little. It’s a complex problem and I don’t have the answer, to be honest.

There are many factors which determine a musical “product.” Most importantly the market and the economics which sadly define whether something is “possible” or not. There are very few artists which are able to produce without economics in mind. I guess it all comes down to personal decision making here. But if you want to make some money, the easy way is the generic formula. Further, there is technology itself which is just another of the above mentioned “layers” that bury the artist under an incredible burden of possibilities and options.

Years ago for example, I realized that I had been dragged away by the stream of upgrades, updates and new possibilities. It took me a while to understand that I had lost control of my very tools themselves (which are of course part of the economic system too, therefore need to be renewed faster and faster). As an “electronic music” composer, one is strongly tied to the technological tools that are provided by the system. Due to the huge amount of tools available, each single one of them offering huge amounts of possibilities itself, and the rapid fluctuation of platforms and tools, one hardly ever gets to know the very same tools in fact. In other words, most musicians are using the surface of the tools, the presets and the pre-defined logical paths. The problem is complete when, because of economic reasons, a production has to be done fast and therefore never allows the tools to be fully explored.

As for the second half of your question, and your theory of “explosion,” I would like to contrast it with a theory F. Jean Baudrillard, who more than 20 years ago stated that we are heading towards an implosion, not towards an explosion. Back then, when I read Baudrillard’s words, I was fascinated by them yet could not imagine how an implosion would feel like. Unfortunately, today I perfectly understand what he meant and feel very attracted to such theory. Let’s say, little innovation in times of huge expansion of knowledge and possibilities, makes total sense when looking at it as an implosion.

You’ll be performing at the Unsound Festival in New York with Pink Elln, aka Tobias Freund. Your collaboration started 18 years ago with the release of Elektronikkaa 1&2 / Electronique. What do you and he consider to be important about your work together? Are there any constants that run throughout these 18 years? Has anything remained the same, and what has changed?

This may be explained perfectly well by a short story. To start with, Tobias and myself have worked very, very little in studios together. Even though he is the engineer who mixed my very first album back in 1989, we never really “made music” together in a studio. Somehow we ended up playing live concerts at a very early stage, in 1992. Sometime around 1995 we stopped playing together since each one of us was taking different paths. Almost 10 years later, at the MUTEK Chile festival in Valparaiso, we decided to play a show together. We did not even rehearse that show, but just brought our equipment to the stage, hooked it up and simply played the show which lasted almost two hours. Standing on stage with him, I realized that we actually hadn’t rehearsed, just very briefly outlined the show verbally while the rest was improvisation. During the entire show we never spoke a word on stage, gave orders or anything. It was just “playing together,” and after not having played together for 10 years. So to me, Tobias is one of the very, very few people I have shared a stage with, with whom I can do something like that. It’s perfect musical communication on stage, which most importantly is great fun with him.

Finally, what’s on the horizon for Uwe Schmidt?

For Uwe Schmidt, like for anyone else, it’s the light!

Noah Phonaut  on April 6, 2011 at 12:03 PM

thanks for posting this rather interesting interview. it’s a relief to hear from an artist who has maintained an awareness of what made electronic music interesting to begin with, and has consistently followed that thread through the years.

Winslow  on April 6, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Marvelous interview! Finally someone asks this guy some thoughtful, provocative questions!

The real question is, Why don’t more people recognize Herr Schmidt as the true artist and thinker he is? He really stands well above the crowd, but so many people, it seems, just don’t “get” him or his music. Those of us who do, however, are blessed.

jm  on April 6, 2011 at 12:32 PM

Now that was a rather interesting interview.

This man has and always will be my hero.


Simon  on April 7, 2011 at 4:28 AM

Very good interview. I was a bit cautious when I read his first answer and was expecting more “bitching” but as it went on there was a lot of insight, good points and even a nice bit of optimism about the current state of the industry which is always nice.

Paul Chillage  on April 7, 2011 at 7:55 PM

Uwe has been a hero of mine for nearly 20 years and I find it interesting that he is not so well known either here in Ireland or wherever I travel despite how much his music is better than pussy.
I love this quote (and long may the crisis continue):
“The crisis, to my delight, has been and still is putting a lot of pressure on every artist. This has led to a process of purification, if I may call it that. More and more “ex-musicians” have abandoned music since they realized how little money can actually be made by making it. On the other hand, those who are in it for the money now have to clearly go the commercial route, which means they no longer can mix between the credible folks :) Even though making a living from music hasn’t become easier, making music has become so much more fun!”

coldfuture  on April 9, 2011 at 11:13 PM

I loved this interview. Very, very inspiring. It spoke right to my heart.

aaron  on April 12, 2011 at 10:09 AM

great interview, and a great preview for an amazing performance with pink lln at bunker last weekend. props!

Adam  on May 26, 2011 at 4:41 PM

That light better be LB. Bring back Lassigue Bendthaus!!


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