Roman Flügel is one of those producers whose multifaceted career makes him difficult to describe narrowly, so I’ll stick with two simple truths: his 15 years spent making electronic music have proven him to be courageous and innovative. Never one to shy away from new sounds, Flügel has tackled everything from tribal house to experimental electronic jazz. But his most lasting project have been equally bold, from the serrated acidic electro of Alter Ego to the soothing scope of Sensorama (both in partnership with Jörn Elling Wuttke), from reduced and acid-house as Soylent Green to the IDM-flecked downtempo created as Eight Miles High. He’s harnessed the highs of crossover hits and powered through the lows of of steep expectations, never apologizing for being ambitious as an artist or appreciating success. Mr. Flügel was kind enough to chat with LWE about underground credibility, challenging audiences and days spent producing in a garage.
Please tell me about the founding of Ongaku/Klang Elektronik/Playhouse. What was your role in the label? What is your role now in Playhouse?
Roman Flügel: Klang and Playhouse were founded around 1993 by Ata Macias and Heiko M.S.O. who worked at the Delirium record shop in Frankfurt; Jörn and I were collaborating in a studio at that time. Before I started to produce with Jörn in his more professional studio I did all the pre-production in my living room of my parents house. Finally we handed a cassette tape with a blueprint of the first “Acid Jesus” album over to the guys at the shop telling them some things about our “Detroit influences” and our love for “Chicago house.” Ata called us up the same evening and told us about having “big plans” for releasing our music on a label that would be called Klang Elektronik (named after Kraftwerk’s “Kling Klang” label and our own Klangfabrik studio). Ongaku was founded without Jörn and me, although later we delivered a few tracks like “The Supreme Truth” and my “Tracks on Delivery” series.
Playhouse started as the Klang/Ongaku counterpart. Techno was becoming faster and more boring and stupid (but even bigger) in Germany around ’93-94. House music was still for the “bon vivants” and hated by most people who were into techno. Again, there was Ata forcing me to go in the studio and to produce a house track. One day he and Heiko arrived with a crate of beer at Jörn’s grandpa’s garage where we used to record everything. The sun was shining and we let the door wide open during the session. When they heard the first organ chords of a track that was then called “Surprise,” they jumped from the outside to the inside of the studio, telling me to keep that as the foundation of what was later the first Playhouse 12″ from our new project named Holy Garage. Then we became close friends, running the company more or less together. But still I was was more into making music and DJing than anything else. The most important part for all of us together was to decide what music we’d like to release on the labels and trying to establish a platform that was driven by sheer enthusiasm. 15 years later many things have certainly changed. The labels have been through heaven and hell (from the honour of working with and establishing great artists like Villalobos, Isolée, LoSoul, Jan Jelinek etc. to the crash of our main CD distributor, EFA, and all the problems that appear when people know each other very or maybe too well). After the big success of “Rocker” I was less and less involved in the everyday business of the label because I simply didn’t have enough time as before. Today I consider myself at least as an artist on Klang/Playhouse and Ongaku, but I don’t think I will ever be as involved in the labels again as I was during the first 10 years.
Much of your recorded output has been in partnership with Jörn Elling Wuttke, although now you two are only active as Alter Ego (as far as I can tell). What’s kept you two working together for so long? What do each of you bring to the table when working together? Any plans to work together on projects other than Alter Ego? Also, who else would you like to collaborate with?
Actually, we went to the same high school for a few years without knowing each other. When I had finished school Jörn was already running a small studio in our hometown, recording bands and singing and playing guitar in his own band. I handed him a tape with some of my very early stuff and he called me immediately asking me to work with him. Being a few years older then me, he introduced me to a lot of interesting music and I was able to work in a proper studio and learned a lot about recording and mixing. It”s hard to tell exactly what keeps us together for such a long time. Basically we still respect each other with most of the strange habits we might have. If it goes well in the studio our work can be a good exchange of ideas and a combination of me playing the instruments and him making the mix, but it also makes it easier to deal with contrary wind and broadsides if you’re working on something together. Before Alter Ego became successful we released three, in my opinion, beautiful albums as Sensorama on the once Hamburg-based Ladomat label. There was also an album named The Primitive Painter as an collaboration with R&S in the early 90’s. I don’t know if we will ever do something like this again, since it is our biggest challenge to work on our fifth Alter Ego album in the near future. I did a collaboration with a brilliant jazz musician named Christopher Dell on the small Japanese label Laboratory Instinct once. I could see myself doing something like this again sooner or later.
I know you’ve spoken in defense of making tracks that can move/appeal to larger crowds. What are the benefits and drawbacks of doing this for you? Is it at all worth worrying about or considering your credibility with certain scenes when producing/releasing?
You’re right. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with music that appeals to larger crowds as long as it shows at least something special, creativity and courage. After all those years being part of the electronic music scene I find it hard to consider myself as credible and constant as, for example, the guys from Basic Channel. I guess I’ve stopped trying to be part of a certain scene years ago when some people around me started to hate techno in general and loving house instead and finally ended up as drum and bass DJs because it was “the thing.” That is not the way I consume or do music. It’s natural for listeners or journalists who try to pigeonhole what I am doing to become disappointed and disturbed if something else happens. But thinking too much about the next “right step” kills my creativity; and if credibility means producing the same track over and over again, I’d rather stay unpredictable.
When you were making tracks like “Geht’s Noch?” and “Rocker,” did you know they had the potential to become as big as they did? If so, how did that influence the final version of the tracks? Have you ever expected a certain track to get big and then been disappointed? How do these expectations factor into how you operate as a musician?
I did not see the whole potential during the production, especially not with “Geht’s Noch?”. “Rocker” had a very simple and effective almost song structure. That is something Jörn and I try to work with in many of the Alter Ego tracks, and I guess it’s because we both played in bands before and simply like the good aspects of pop music. When we started to do some promotion for “Rocker” most of the DJs did not like the track, thought the bass drum was not loud enough, the music was to difficult to mix, it did not fit into their set, etc., but could not remember themselves a few weeks later when people started to enjoy the song. The Robert Johnson Club, with its great crowd at that time, also helped a lot. There I could feel and see for the first time we had a potential hit. Sven Väth liked the song immediately and lifted the track to a bigger level. So did some of the remixes. So did Skint in England. The rest is history. “Geht’s Noch?” was a slightly different story. I did the track for one of the first Cocoon compilations. When I sat in the studio I was pretty desperate looking for something to catch my attention for more than five minutes. Suddenly I programmed this stupid two tone “melody” on a cheap monophonic synth that left me smiling, which was a good sign ’cause I wanted to record something “humorous” from the beginning because techno was already a very serious business. It was Sven Väth again who smelled the potential and decided to release it as a single after he played the track and had the right feedback from the dance floor. At the end you can say that both tracks were not designed as “hits” in the studio. I try to avoid big expectations because I don’t like to disappoint myself too much and thinking about potential hits causes me cramps.
Photo by Stefan Freund
I always found it curious that some of your biggest tracks have been the most astringent or grating. Why do you think these sorts of sounds have such great appeal when people might normally find such things unappetizing?
I once read that Andy Warhol said it was very important to him to do things exactly wrong to always end up with something right. I guess that also explains something about some of my music. Creativity, in my opinion, is linked to curiosity and courage. I try to leave behind — as much as possible — what’s considered cool or trendy for many people in techno nowadays. The best tracks of a trend are normally already produced at the moment most people start to follow it. What I try to do is simply record what I feel is most important to me. To do unappetizing things that taste heavenly is part of that.
I’ve read [Alter Ego’s fourth album] Why Not?! was a challenge to yourselves and perhaps audiences as well. Has challenging audiences paid off as much as challenging yourself? Would you rather make a track that pushes your own boundaries that’s tepidly received or a straightforward release that’s a big hit?
I’d never say that a big hit is not satisfying. It is the process of producing a follow up single that easily leaves you behind, suffering from depression. But the interesting thing about Why Not?! is that at the same time it was tepidly received by people who anticipated a second “Rocker” it was a door opener to a big scene of other people who were basically bored by straight forward techno, minimal or rock driven electro. If I looked back I would not say I’m happy with the whole album, but remembering how much of the music surrounding us during the time of the production was strongly influenced by the “Rocker Sound” it was good to make a change and present something else — even though we lost a lot of money by doing so. Despite the fact it is hard to top a record like “Rocker” in terms of sales, the “Why Not?!” single did quite well. Today we still have a lot of fun playing parts of the Why Not!? album live and it was the live sets that convinced many people to finally dig the album.
Was the “Neues Testament” EP a rework of your “Altes Testament” material [as Roman IV]? Do you often revisit your older work? Have you considered coming back to the Eight Miles High or Sensorama monikers? How do you think your older material has aged?
Only the chords of the “Neues Testament” were sampled from the old version. It was the first time I looked back and recycled myself and I’m not planning to do so again in the future. Actually, “Neues Testament” was released to announce the re-release of the old Roman IV tracks I did for Playhouse/Ladomat. I’m actually thinking about another Eight Miles High release, as this is still my favorite moniker to hide behind. The interesting aspect of Sensorama is that some people playing house music have started to play some of the very old tunes like “Harz” again. But I don’t see another new album since Ladomat is bankrupt and Jörn and I spend too much time playing live with Alter Ego.
Acid was obviously a big part of your sound and a prevailing sound in techno/house more generally. Since the 90s it’s largely tapered off. Do you think it’s due for a comeback, and do you think the appetite is present for it?
Every now and then acid sneaks around the corner. I don’t know. I’d rather hear something really new than another TB 303 revival. But it will be back for sure.
Serge of Clone described acid as one of the last new sounds that’s emerged in music history. Right now much of house and techno is looking backwards rather than forwards. Do you see the future, or at least anything new, in any of the sounds currently being made?
There’s another theory saying there’s nothing really new happening in music i/o youth culture because of the constant presence of the Internet. Every sound, every look is spread around the world super fast. It seems everything can happen everywhere at the same time. There are no niches left that can’t be copied within days as everything is shown on the web. At the same time, there seems to be no urban trend that can grow in the dark for a few years and shape its attitude until it is ready to be presented to a wider public. Acid was analogue and it took some time until it became “overground.” We have not developed a digital sound that had a similar impact so far.
I really enjoyed your “Stricher EP,” which took a sort of unusual approach to arranging some more familiar sounds. I was curious what was on your mind when it was being made, what you were looking to accomplish and who you were writing for. Do you have a lot of unreleased material stored up that will see the light of day?
I wanted to make “Stricher” to sound like Patrick Cowley on ketamine. A dark and twisted disco record that is not “right.” A record for open minded DJs and less controlled dance floors. “Discofiasco” on the flip side — the name says it all. It’s a fun track that switches between random notes and a simple melody. The inspiration comes from making mistakes. And finally the far more serious and skilled “Prinzessin X” has its roots somewhere in Detroit techno. I still have some unreleased music but I guess most of it should remain unreleased.
What can we expect from you in the next year or so?
I really can’t tell. But I definitely want to release more music again.