Between their mix CDs, constant world-wide touring, podcasts, and productions, it seems that at this point we’re all intimately familiar with the many Berghain and Panorama Bar residents and what makes them tick. What makes Marcel Fengler so captivating, both as a producer and a DJ, is that while you may have a grasp of the general sounds and styles that he prefers, the specifics are often surprising and enthralling. Berghain 05 demonstrated Fengler’s ability to navigate through tempered, tense techno tracks and bigger melodic moments with a masterful sense of control, but so far his own productions have mostly showcased his work in the former. Fokus is the big, melodic moment in Fengler’s discography, a thrilling hour-long journey through shattered rhythms and beaming, airy techno that sees him refine both his sound and his production prowess. LWE caught up with Fengler recently to chat about making Fokus in Thailand, ballet, and his DIN project with Efdemin.
Fokus seems to differ quite drastically from most of your past work. To what do you ascribe this shift?
In essence it’s actually not as big a difference as it may seem at first glance. Many of the tracks are built around ideas and production work of mine that I’ve had for a while. When I was starting to work on Fokus, I asked myself whether I should create completely new tracks, or work on recreating some older concepts for 2013. In the end I went more with the second option, and as a result, I think the album is a bit more surprising.
You started producing with Ableton, and yet I’ve read that you wanted to start using more analog gear. How much did this affect the album?
My studio-mate Peter van Hoesen brought a lot of equipment when we moved into our studio in early 2011. Before then I only used digital production techniques, so I’ve really been trying to incorporate more and more analog sounds into my work. For the end result, however, I would say that analog only played a small role in the production, and for two reasons. Firstly, I had to work on some of the tracks during my vacation time in Thailand and there was simply not enough room for larger analog equipment. The other reason is that I didn’t want Fokus to lose its direction by experimenting too much with new equipment.
Some of Fokus was done in Thailand while you were on vacation — were you coming up with and writing tracks there? How might that have influenced the results?
In preparation I made a bunch of recordings beforehand in the studio — drums, percussion, synth lines, strings — and then I sorted them into a sort of small digital library, which I took with me to Thailand. I also bought some portable recording equipment, my laptop, some small controllers and a few small monitors. So we had our bungalow with a sea view, and I was able to produce most of the sketches for the album there. I think the surroundings were very inspirational, I couldn’t image a better place to work on music.
Doing that outside of a studio, how did things change once you brought those bits back home?
Honestly, I was pretty unsure of how well it would work; I normally don’t like to produce on the go. When I used to work with headphones, I often had the experience that the production would sound completely different through the studio monitors, and the concept and style would be lost in the process. When I got home with my recordings from Thailand, I was very positively surprised how everything sounded. Of course it’s only possible to make the finer adjustments and complete the tracks in the studio, but I must say that the portable devices were really great to use and I will definitely be using them again in the future. It’s great to be able to record ideas when and where they come, without any pressure.
Your album had many more light, melodic moments than some may have expected from you. Does it ever get tiring only being associated with dark, banging techno so often associated with Berghain?
I think that the “Berghain sound” is often associated exclusively with a kind of darker, grim industrial sound. Of course that exists there, but there’s so much more to Berghain than that. The musical spectrum is much more complex, and if you spend a night there clubbing, you can hear all sorts of variants of techno and other genres such as house or electro. I think it does an disservice to the club to generalize about the music that is played there, and I wanted to reflect that fact on the album to some extent.
What were some of your sources of inspiration for those lighter moments, both musical and beyond?
A part of the motivation was that I wanted to surprise people. With Fokus I wanted to avoid any expectations of the production and technical side, and create something that is truly unique. I think that people probably expect something heavier and more punchy from Fokus, but to release standard club music as an album, when you could just press some singles seemed a bit lazy to me. Also, to be honest, I think the bare minimal, stripped-down techno sound is being overkilled at the moment, so I wanted to make something different to stand out from the crowd.
The usual line that techno artists toe for albums is that they are not strictly for the dance floor, but surely it’s difficult to remove that aspect completely from the equation. Did you spend much time considering yourself as a DJ while making Fokus ? Do you enjoy thinking about how your or fellow DJs might work the album’s more ambient passages into their sets?
The complexity and detail that goes into such a project is not comparable with the work of EPs or remixes in the DJ context. As I produced the first ideas for the album, I realized quickly that the further away from the “club music” standards you go, the more artistic freedom and possibilities you have musically. This, however, was a blessing and a curse. I really enjoyed experimenting with new concepts and ideas, the challenge was not to lose focus and to keep a consistency in production on the album. In the end the overall time it has taken to complete the album was surprisingly faster than originally expected and I am satisfied that I was able to keep the ideas and production consistent.
You’ve professed a love for the kind of early 90’s techno/trance that was quite big in Germany, and Fokus is certainly reminiscient of that sound in parts. What about that sound resonates to this day?
Yes, I first started going to parties at the beginning of the 90’s and that music was really very popular in Germany in the clubs. I’ve already received some feedback from people, that they can hear some influence from the old Aphex Twin and Moby tracks on Fokus, which I find very flattering. I do have many influences from the early 90’s, but there’s no specific inspiration for this album from that time. I can’t deny my love of big, diverse, emotional tunes, as long as it’s not too cheesy!
You’ve been putting out music for a long time. Why was now the right time to put out your first album?
It took me a while to figure out what I really wanted to express with the album and what mood it should have. I think it’s OK to wait until the time is right for a release. It’s definitely a difficult process to produce an album that is satisfying to yourself, especially if it is your first. It was also difficult for to estimate how long the whole process would take. I spent more time than initially expected working on the ballet Masse project, which was the reason that I had to work on Fokus while on holiday in Thailand.
Your label, Index Marcel Fengler, launched in 2011 but has been silent since. Is it tough trying to balance the production side with being an artist and touring? What are your plans for it going forward?
I will definitely be devoting myself more to my label IMF in the second half of the year. Up until now I’ve only been releasing my own material on IMF, so in the last few months I haven’t really had enough time for any new releases. Also, I’m not a fan of the “lucky dip” strategy, I want to be absolutely sure of the quality of a production before it is released. The best thing about having your own label is that you have no pressure to put out new releases. I already have some ideas in mind for my next release, and there will definitely be some new faces on my label — but I don’t want to give anything away yet…
You also recently collaborated with Efdemin for the Masse project. Both that and Fokus are, in their own ways, work for dancers, but how do they differ? What about making music for dancers in the club and dancers in the ballet is similar?
I was also a big fan of the “Shut Up And Dance” project in 2007 and I noticed that the difference between classical dance and techno isn’t as great as you might expect. The entire concept of both seems to be about getting rid of borders and opening peoples minds. We learned a lot about organization from our exchange with the choreographer, the dancers and the audience. To get the chance to experience ballet on a completely new sonic level was amazing. It felt like some of them were really happy to have some contemporary music instead of the same classics over and over again.
Both genres seem to be complete opposites, but as I saw the audience of Masse which consisted of clubbers and theater visitors at once I realized how well both worlds can mesh. I honestly wasn’t a big ballet fan before but I was very impressed by the dramatic contrasts and symbolic meanings. The main difference between the two genres in my mind is that during a ballet piece everything is measured to the second and the choreography must be strictly executed. With techno, you could say that dancing might also include after a certain kind of choreography, but dancing through the night in a techno club is about letting go, about losing control. Techno is a music of excess but its movements are reduced. Exactly the opposite is true of ballet, perhaps the most disciplined art form in the world.
How did you find the collaboration process with Efdemin? Do you want to do more collaborations in the future?
It was the first time that we’ve worked together. I mean, we’ve played DJ sets together before and knew each other already, but within the producing process of our Masse interpretation, we noticed that we complement each other really well. So I found working with him to be a really positive experience, and I’m sure we’ll continue our collaboration as DIN. We recently produced a track for an upcoming compilation on Ostgut Ton, which is a more club-orientated track, that hints at the mood of our work from the Masse project. Other projects, both in the theater and for Ostgut Ton, are in the works, we’ll just have to wait and see.
What’s coming up next for you?
Up to the beginning of December I have a pretty tight schedule, with nearly 40 tour dates. In addition to ideas from IMF and DIN, I will also share a little something I made with my studio-mate Peter Van Hoesen. We have similar ideas for live performances, and I am optimistic that we’ll be working on more in the future.