Kassem Mosse has always been a bit of an enigma. There are pictures of him around (though not many), and he’s got a strong internet presence, partly due to his “critics’ darling” status. He even has a Facebook page. Yet the mystery of Kassem Mosse endures, largely due to his music. Surely any producer whose tracks seem to be evenly distributed in a tempo range covering about 50 beats per minute is operating on a different tip from most. His sound appears to be wildly diverse as well, from slow-mo, bleary-eyed tunes to wiry, jacked-up workouts and back again, often on the same slab of wax. It’s this ingenuity and unflinching output that has earned the man born Gunnar Wendel acolytes from across the dance music spectrum, from UK scene-makers like Instra:mental and Joy Orbison to Omar-S and the Laid crew. But it’s his work for Workshop and Leipzig-based Mikrodisko where Wendel has let his freak flag truly fly, where his sound becomes as swampy and amorphous as it can be. We caught up with Wendel in July after his set at The Bunker to chat about context, his newest projects, and to solve the mystery of the facial-haired stamps.
How did you think your set at The Bunker went?
Gunnar Wendel: I think it went quite well. I can’t really judge from a spectator point of view, but I’m very self-critical and there’s always something that I don’t like or I would like to do better. There’s always something you can improve, because there are always changes in the set up. All these changes keep it interesting for me, but I also have to be able to adjust to the situation. So it’s always different.
I saw you had a lot of gear up there. Had you planned on using those things?
Yeah. I contacted the promoters ahead asking if they could secure some stuff I could use. I wanted some things I know, things I know how to work and I can use, because it’s difficult, obviously, to bring so much over from Europe. If I’m in Germany it’s easy, I can take my own gear with me. But traveling to the U.S. is difficult when you have lots of gear, especially because of these power and voltage issues. It’s much easier if you have something on location. My experience has been that sometimes promoters are confused with those requests and they don’t know what I mean and they cannot get you anything. But I’ve gone to some places where you could get the most amazing gear and we didn’t know beforehand. We did it on the night. And it always works well.
I like it that way. It’s all so different, you know? If you get different types of gear, it will set a different flavor. It’s like an additional flavor. The ingredients are similar, but if you get a 909, you will have a more harsh, banging sound, as opposed to if you get an 808. It gives you a different experience.
So do you allow for a lot of improvisation in your live sets then?
Yeah, definitely. I like to keep it as open as possible, because otherwise it would be really boring to me. Obviously I don’t want to bore myself, so I try to structure my live set in such a way that I can respond to what is happening and to each situation, because you never know what crowd you will get and what the space will be like. Sometimes it is a bit more crass, sometimes it is a bit more house-y, or a bit more laid back. I can adapt to the situation. I like to be able to change the tracks in a way that they suit the situation as it is.
I also just use tracks that I’m working on, unreleased material. I rarely play stuff I have released. I played some in New York, but that was like an encore, so [laughs] it’s OK to do it, I guess. But usually I’m not fond of doing that because I don’t like this rock attitude where you have these songs and people want to hear those songs and you have to play all of those songs all the time. That’s not something that interests me. I’m more about improvisation and trying things out on the spot.
Do you think that you’ll keep honing some of the tracks from this live set and that they’ll see eventual release? Or do you like to keep stuff back for just live performances only?
I do keep stuff just for live performances. Some of the stuff I eventually wind up releasing, but often I prepare that material and I take it to a live set. I just have so many other ideas to work on back home that I don’t go back to actually finish it, and I end up just keeping it for a live set. There are certain things that work in a live set but that don’t work when you make them into a track. That’s the reason why I don’t like people recording live sets. I personally don’t like to listen to them that much because I hear all the mistakes and I think it doesn’t really translate. If you listen to these recordings then you don’t know the audience, and you don’t know the context. You don’t know the situation, so you cannot properly evaluate why somebody is doing what they’re doing. Like, “Why is this part going on for so long?” If you have a particular groove and you’re riding on that groove, it might be cool, and it might work on that specific night, but it might not be something that you want to listen to at home, right? Because it’s something that happens right there on that spot. It’s a reaction to what’s going on. It’s not something that you are producing for listening. I think that’s something is hard to get across and it probably doesn’t translate so well.
I agreed to do the Trilogy Tapes release because I like the work of Will Bankhead, and because they said it would just be a limited cassette. I’m usually not much into the idea of limited editions, but in this case it worked for me because I don’t really want to have that many live recordings out there. I wouldn’t have agreed to put this up as a download somewhere. I have some other recordings of live sets that people want to put up and I shy away from that. I mean, you can see the reason, the promotion, stuff like that, but I’m just not… it’s a different thing. You know what I mean?
It’s not a finished recording. It’s not something where you can say, “Yeah, I worked on this. I added these details. It has a certain meaning; I put a lot of work into this.” It’s a recording of something that happened that night, and I think it’s better if it stays like that. If you were there and you don’t have a recording of it, then what you have is a vague memory, and that is really all you need. I think there is a certain beauty in vague memories. You don’t need all those recordings that we have of everything nowadays. I mean, who listens to all those recordings anyway? I wouldn’t. I have some recordings of my sets, but I never listen to them, just as I never really listen to my music once it is released, honestly. Do you know the live recording from Tokyo?
That’s one thing I agreed to do, but only under the condition that I could edit it together with the live recording that I did from the space. We recorded the floor sound at Module so you can hear the audience and you can hear the sound from the mixer. It’s mixed together, so it’s not just a recording from the floor. That wouldn’t sound so great, so the recording of the audience is mixed with the output from the mixer. This way you relate more to what is going on. You can understand certain situations.
So when you are in your studio producing tracks that will be put out, do you try to account for the different contexts in which people will listen to your records?
No, because I can’t. I have no control. I cannot control the context in which people will listen to them. Sometimes I might think about adding things that you wouldn’t necessarily hear depending on the situation. You might not hear some things on headphones that you would in the club. Background bits, like [makes rustling sound]. Maybe some silent voices somewhere that you wouldn’t hear unless you are listening to the track very loud. I remember I did this with one track where there was some muted spoken word parts in the background. It’s pretty much silent, just one or two parts, and then it gets a little louder. I like the idea of being in a club where a track like this is being played, and then suddenly you hear a soft voice coming from somewhere, but you’re not sure if it’s coming from the recording or if it’s somebody just talking behind you.
I have some recording devices that allow me to record different places. I also like the idea of putting recordings of a space into a track, but one that isn’t necessarily the type of space where you would listen to it, so you have sort of a clash. But I cannot control context. It’s not like I sit down and think, “OK, this is going to be something for home listening.” I don’t really do that. That’s not something I care much about, actually. I’m happy that people listen, but I don’t sit down and think, “I’m gonna make a real banging club track.” I have certain sounds and ideas and I want to see what I can do with them. Whatever I make should work as a track in itself. These sound recordings I was talking about have to tie in. It has to match somehow. It has to have a certain aesthetic that fits that track, even if it’s not necessarily focussed on a particular situation. The record that I did for Laid has this bit on it that’s taken from a live recording. That’s from a live set I was playing. You probably know it: there is this one loop at the beginning and at the end which is the sound of the audience taken from a live recording. Dor from Laid approached me during a live set in Berlin and asked me to release this track. It was one of the parts of my live set and the guys at Laid were like, “Can we have it?’” and so yeah, well why not? When I finished the track I wanted to keep the idea of the live set, so you still have this relationship of how it actually came about, you know?
That was a track that played with classic house tropes in a way that you never had before, and you haven’t since. Was that planned out?
I’m happy people see it that way, but I don’t think that it is like that. For me it’s not something that tries to be a big house track. But yes, it uses some classic sounds. It’s an interesting question. I wasn’t planning on making a proper house record, but I had the basics of the track in my live set and maybe I was thinking that it would fit well with the label and that gave me an idea. I knew where it was going to come out, so I wasn’t finishing it just because I wanted to finish it. It was based on the fact that they asked me to do it, and I think in that sense there was an influence of going in that direction, because I could have taken it in other ways as well. This was just one of the possibilities. I tried to integrate some details that are based on me playing live. Like, it’s not done on a computer, it’s not automated. I like to have these kinds of human elements in it where you can… well, you probably can’t hear it, but I know it’s there. [laughs]
And then I can say to myself, “This is something I did myself. I’ve been working on it and I made it sound like this, and not some plugin.” It’s not one of those randomizer plugins that does it either. No, I do it. There is some kind of… I don’t know, human agency or something. It’s handmade, or something. I like to have an element of that in what I do. A personal element. Maybe that’s a better way of putting it.
How did you get into electronic music in general, and house and techno specifically? Was there like some sort of big moment that made you think, “I want to make house records now,” or were there some records that you heard when you were younger that really inspired you?
Yeah, there were probably some records that inspired me. It definitely was working more through records, which is at a time when it wasn’t as easy to access music as it is now. I’m from a rural area, so there were some things happening around, but if you didn’t have access to go to those places or an incentive to go there, you wouldn’t go there, so I didn’t have any teenage club experience until I moved to a bigger city. In the beginning I had no relationship to house music, but I always had a soft spot for synthetic sounds. It’s something I realize more in retrospect. When I go back and look at music I used to like when I was younger, I notice that they all have these elements in them that I still like, or they have particular drum sounds, or synthesizers and stuff. You know, stuff that I didn’t consciously realize at the time because I didn’t know how they were made, but it’s something that you subconsciously soak up in a way, and then… I started to dig deeper into electronic music.
It was a very long learning process. I’ve been recording things for a long time. I started out doing field recordings, and I have some field recordings I did with a tape recorder when I was a kid, and when I was a teenager I experimented with recording all kinds of stuff in really primitive ways. Overdubs with cassettes and stuff like that. Then I started to collect all sorts of electronic devices for cheap or from yard sales. I didn’t know how to use them, or what their purpose was even or if they were any good. But I learned along the way by acquiring new technologies and sometimes making the wrong choices. It was a very physical thing, maybe because it was such a long time ago. There was, of course, software around at that time as well, and I tried to fiddle around with that as well, but I don’t know. It didn’t catch on to me. I was more of a hands-on person.
Anyway, there wasn’t one particular moment. There wasn’t one particular record where I listened to it and it changed my life. No, I just grew into it. I was more interested in leftfield stuff anyway — anything that had an experimental edge. Then I went back to listen to where that music came from. I just connected the dots from that to all the stuff I used to like from before. Somehow it all made sense in the end.
How did you first hook up with Mikrodisko and Workshop?
Well, Mikrodisko evolved from a crew. We did parties together in Leipzig, and we started to do underground techno parties. It was a collective called Homoelektrik. There was no money involved, we just covered the overhead for the soundsystem, or it would be a free event. No one ever got paid. It was very idealistic. If we had money left we would spend it on a big dinner for all the people who had helped set things up or who had played music. It was mainly locals and everybody did everything, if you played you would also help cleaning up. Sometimes we had guests from other cities, even people that were quite known, but they too would play for the transport money, without fees. It was a really cool time. And then some of us started doing the label.
For Workshop, I knew Lowtec because he had played at one of our parties. He had a partner, Even Tuell, who had another label that was connected to Airbag Craftworks. A friend of mine, Nadine, she knew him as well and played him some of my tracks and then he asked me to do a record for them. One of the tracks on the first record was supposed to come out on a compilation, but that never happened and then they started Workshop and I just happened to be there at the right time. That’s how it came together, it was all through knowing people. I didn’t send out demos or stuff like that, it was just connecting with friends.
Workshop 03 was pretty notable at the time for the fact that two tracks on the B-side were slow, and that’s become like a much bigger thing recently. What attracts you to those slower tempos?
It’s not something that I consciously do. I don’t have a slow agenda. A lot of the electronic stuff I first got into had hip-hop roots. I’ve always been into hip-hop, and if you look at the early Warp stuff, they also had downbeat type tracks that were slow but electronic, and that’s maybe the connection. I didn’t care if these tracks were supposed to work on the floor. I never had this intention of producing DJ tools, so I didn’t bother to produce at a DJ-friendly tempo because it wasn’t something that occurred to me. It doesn’t matter. I just wanted make music and not necessarily as something that would run a party.
Sometimes I just think there are a lot of tracks that sound much better when you play them slower. Some things are really funky when you play them really fast, but then there are some house and techno tracks that, if you play them slower, have more of a groove. I like slower tempos where you can still get the impression that it is fast. You know, all these people that run around and say, “Play it faster, play it louder, play it harder!” Why? The way it feels depends on how you do it. The live set I’m doing now is at 115 BPM. I never had people complain about that and I can still do stuff that is pretty… well, I wouldn’t say aggressive, but driving. It can be slow, but it can still be driving.
I made these tracks slow because I didn’t care so much about whether they would fit in a DJ set. But then again I’m also doing tracks where I don’t know how they’re supposed to be played. That’s one of the ideas of the last single I did for Mikrodisko. It has two different tracks and it’s anyone’s guess how fast they’re supposed to be played. One is really fast and one is really slow.. or maybe they’re both really slow, or I don’t know. You can decide for yourself. I know lots of records where people just wouldn’t know what tempo to play something at. Maybe people are losing this idea, or the notion that this is actually possible. It used to be that you can play a record at 33 or 45 and it could work both ways, and now you have digital files that are just one tempo. You can pitch shift it seamlessly with modern software, but you know, it’s not the same thing. I have friends who would play records that I liked to play at 45 at 33, and you would only know that it’s not the intended tempo if you had a CD to use as a reference. But it was OK. It’s good if you have a choice how to approach, experience and enjoy a piece of music, even if it’s a silly choice like how fast you play a record.
Well this happened to yourself. When Workshop 08 came out there were some pretty heated discussions about which speed to play the B1 at, and I heard it played out numerous times at both 33 and 45.
The original recording was slow. At the time when it came out, it didn’t occur to me that people would play it fast when it was pressed onto vinyl, and to be honest, I believe it’s only because of the sample I used that they do it. Now I’m more aware of these things and keep them in mind, but at the time I didn’t think about it, and then I stopped caring. Whatever people like, play it fast, play it slow, as long as you play it it’s OK. [laughs] Personally, I don’t like it so fast. I like it played slow. I think also it’s obvious because the last track is ridiculous when you play it at 45. Whatever. It’s good if people have a choice and it’s good if they make these choices, so I’m fine with that.
Why is there always a bearded or mustachioed man on your Workshop records?
They just started with the beards and then it became this running gag. There’s not really a concept behind it. I think we have to stop now, though. It would be silly to have somebody else with a beard after this. It’s three records with beards, sort of a trilogy I guess, but time to look for something else. It’s weird because sometimes people assume I have a beard. I’ve had this recently again, which is funny because it tells you a lot about the assumptions people have just based on some stamp on a record. It’s not a picture of me. The one on the eighth record is a British cricket player from the 19th century. We picked it up when we were in Manchester, so it’s a bit based on coincidence, and again, friendly ties to the meandyou crew from Manchester.
You’ve said that the name Kassem Mosse sort of affords you a bit of anonymity due to mispronunciations and misspellings.
Well it might, in theory. Obviously it doesn’t anymore, so that’s a bit of an issue. It’s interesting because you can still find people who misspell it, so it’s still working to a degree, but in a way you are fixed with that role and that specific spelling now that evolved out of different names and misspellings. Now I’m stuck with it.
The idea of monikers and misspellings of artist names has always been a thing in techno, but now it’s all conveniently located on Discogs. Do you think that takes away some important aspect of house and techno, or is it not really a big deal?
Well, to a certain degree. I mean, there are good reasons for obscuring your identity. The point with techno used to be that it doesn’t matter who did this because you’re trying to just let the music speak for itself, and so the name isn’t really important, or how you write it is not really important. You find it also in the idea of the collective: people involved in the scene should treat each other as equals, it’s not about treating someone as “the star” but rather as someone who happens to be also part of this. If you have different monikers, it gave you an opportunity to hide behind those names, to not be a big name, to remove those preconceptions and judgements. The mutation of the name had a lot to do with doing parties as I mentioned earlier: sometimes we would just make up new names for the next event, or not have any names on the flyer at all.
Coming back to Discogs, you now easily find those lists of all the different types of spellings of a name, which is a bit silly. I mean, who really cares? But in the end it’s something you cannot work against these days anymore. The Internet requires you to have one fixed and stable version of your name. You have to make a brand out of a name. I would prefer if it we could get back to the flexibility. How a name is written or how a name is pronounced is an example of how you typecast things. I mean, in the Internet it’s all written down, but you still you have a level of flexibility in how you pronounce the name because that’s something that people don’t really know when they see it. People interpret it in different ways. I don’t want to have some music nerd who says, “This is the right way to do it. This is the right spelling. This is the correct pronunciation. This is how it’s supposed to be done.” No, it doesn’t matter. As long as you like that music and you know who we’re talking about, it doesn’t matter at all. And the same is true for music: there is no right way, there is no “real” way of doing it.
Take languages. When you Latin-ize a name from other languages, you have all kinds of different spellings, in different languages, and there’s not a problem there. You still know what you are talking about, no matter how you write it. It’s difficult because obviously as a promoter you want to do everything right. Recognizability is also a market interest. If there’s a misspelling, well, I might appreciate it, but from a promoter’s point of view it would be an issue because people wouldn’t find it in their search engines and they couldn’t Google it if it’s misspelled, so you really take care to write it the right way. I think you can clearly see the effects of the Internet at play here. But electronic music it’s not all about the Internet. It’s about going to a party, about what you see, what you experience or what kind of experience you have when you listen to the music, what you feel, what it makes you feel like. That’s more important than just how something is written or how something is supposed to be. It’s a bit boring if everything is set in stone.
You did a podcast for LWE a couple of years ago with Mix Mup as Chilling the Do, and that was an ode to the basically now-extinct chill room. You haven’t really released much of that stuff on record; any reason?
The reason is more that we are still working on putting out a record, to be honest. [laughs] We are working together on another project now that is somewhere in the middle ground between both of us making dance oriented stuff, but not necessarily just for dancing. It will surface soon on Will Bankhead’s label. We’ve also been working on material to release that is more chill stuff, but we simply haven’t finished it. We’ve been doing some remixes together recently and we’ve got some more coming up, so you know, it’s evolving in different ways. We are not really in a hurry because these chill rooms are gone. [laughs] We put it out and it doesn’t make a difference.
The chill room is, to a certain degree, extinct. This also means that there is not a big demand for that type of music. While you have lots of music that is mainly for listening now, with all the retro 80′s synth stuff out there, you are still limited in terms of where to perform it and what type of scene tends to get into it. I mean, techno and house labels are not exactly pushing you to press music on vinyl without a beat in it. A lot of this is happening in an art/experimental context, but that is not necessarily the context we want. Maybe I don’t really want to release this material at all, because I just like to keep these tracks to myself or use them for something else. I don’t know. It’s hard to say. I don’t know if it connects to the fact that these spaces don’t exist. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. It’s a difficult genre.
Have you guys been able to do the Chilling the Do stuff live at all? Despite the chill room’s extinction.
We have certain situations where we can do it, and we do it once in a while, but it’s obviously difficult because the demand in a club is for stuff that makes you move. In Berlin, even in the afternoon people aren’t open to listen to stuff that doesn’t have a beat in it, so it’s a difficult situation. You can do it in an art setting, you can do it in a bar, but we want to do this in in clubs. Not on the main floor, maybe. But on the second. At the opening of a party it might work. We do it sometimes for friends who are into it, but it’s not something that bookers are after. It’s such a strange format. It’s difficult because somehow people have to be able to actually listen. They have to sit back and tune into what we are doing, even if they don’t do it consciously. You really need the right situation and the right space to make it work.
How do you decide what tracks go on what label? Do you just send off a couple of tracks and let label heads choose what they want? Or do you plan releases for labels in advance?
Sometimes I have a particular idea for a single release and do certain tracks for certain labels. Sometimes it’s a selection of different tracks that are lying around; I’ll listen to stuff with label heads and they’ll tell me what they like. My problem is that there are a lot of tracks that I like, but I’m not the best judge; sometimes it’s better if someone from the outside helps you evaluate. It can be weird because sometimes you’ll end up with tracks from different periods on the same release. The material for Nonplus I did exclusively for them, intentionally. These are not tracks I would send to anybody else. It’s different from other stuff I release, obviously. Like I said before, with Laid they wanted that one track from the live set, so it was a very particular thing. I don’t want to branch out that far, so I limit myself and I’ve learned to say no to offers because I don’t want be on too many labels, especially not too many similar labels. Still, if I get an offer that is interesting, or gives me an opportunity to move in a new direction, I might do it. For now I’m sticking with Mikrodisko and Workshop. I like to have some focus. I just sent some more stuff to Nonplus, so there’s another EP coming out there as well. Some people who appreciate one type of record I did don’t necessarily appreciate others, but that’s just what I do. I don’t just want to stick to one genre; I don’t think I fit in just one box, to be honest.
You’ve recently stepped up your remix output, having done none before 2010. How do you approach the remixing process?
Well, it depends. It’s different. Usually, it depends on the freedom people give you to work with the material. Actually, I want to cut back on it a little bit. I still have some coming out, but I’m going to take a step away from remixing a bit because… I started doing it because I’ve never done it before, and I wanted to try it out. I was wondering what it would be like to work with material somebody else sends you. What can you do with it? It seemed like an interesting idea, trying to make something out of someone else’s material. I did some completely blindfolded, and that didn’t really work. I did one where I didn’t listen to the original at all and just took the parts and focused on the sounds. Sometimes you get stem files and sometimes you get just sounds. In the end It was so far from the original I could understand why they weren’t so happy about it, so I did another version, but in general I realized I don’t like this process that much.
Basically, if I can have more or less free reign, then that’s good for me. I don’t like when it gets to the point where people are arguing with you. It’s like you are a contract laborer or something. You are supposed to deliver something, and they have a particular idea of what it should be and you are supposed to do it that way. I understand that point, but I don’t really want to do that, so now if people are not really open to just let me do what I want to do, then I’m not going to do it. After doing a bunch of remixes I’ve come to realize that it’s not something that I want to do that much anymore. But I’m OK with the ones I’ve done. This experience is one of the reasons why I started to work with Mix Mup on remixes recently, because I thought it help to have some other input. Like, now there are three people working on it. You have the original producer, and you have us guys, and it makes it even more interesting.
You’ve started a label called Ominira. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Why cassettes?
Why cassettes? The simple reason is that a friend of mine manufactures them, so it’s easy to do. Also, I like that cassettes are so redundant and useless to the techno and house scene. We used to have them as mixtapes for the car, but now that’s rare. Other than that, it’s an odd format, but at least it’s a format, not even an uncommon one in other parts of the world: cassettes are a nice anachronism. And they are not easily accessible. I like that. If you want to listen to it you have to make an effort, you need to have a cassette deck, you can’t just download them and forget about them. I don’t mind if only a few people are making that effort and listen to that music. I want to have liberty to just put out whatever I please, whatever I think is good. You can put out anything on cassette; it doesn’t have to conform to anything. It won’t be all cassettes, though. We have some CD-Rs and vinyl planned as well. There is one 12″ coming out that will be a bit more dancefloor oriented. It will have a track from me on it, one from Kowton and one from Juniper.
It’s an open process. It’s about trying out different things and having a bit more control. If you work with other labels then you always give up control, and that’s cool because somebody else takes the risk. Somebody else has to care about all of the annoying business, but you also give away a certain amount of control. Ominira allows me to do whatever I want. There is no concept other than that the label is not about authenticity, not about realness. Because personally I’m so bored with the notion of authenticity and realness in electronic music. Please, leave that to rock. As far as Ominira is concerned, we just make it up as we go along.
You live in Leipzig, which is close enough to Berlin to go in an out as you please, but still removed. Would you ever move to Berlin, or do you like being outside of the scene for the most part?
Obviously I could move there if I wanted to, but I don’t have any incentive to do so. I like to do my own thing. If you are in Berlin you constantly run into so many people, you meet so many people, which is great but not what I want. I don’t want to be too accessible or work with too many people and take too much influence from a scene. I try to stay away from scenes. I mean, I’ve been involved obviously in this party crew and everything, but even then that crew was quite different from what was going on around town. I like to take a step back and just do what I think is good, not necessarily wind up in a scene and then work on a certain sound or certain aesthetic. I want it to be my aesthetic, not the aesthetic of a particular group or club, so I consciously stay away from it. At this point, it might not even make a difference, because with this attitude I could probably go to Berlin and still not be influenced by it. But I have a good life in Leipzig. It’s easy. It’s chill, so I just kick back. I really don’t have any reason to go there. I’m not really an open person. I don’t approach people to become involved in projects. I don’t pursue people. Just like I didn’t send out demos, or didn’t run after guys like, “Hey, listen to this stuff;” I just don’t do that. So if there is anything going on in Berlin I can go there, but usually if I go to Berlin I will stick with people I know.