Word spread quickly about Hauntologists’ first EP, a record that reveled in heady live experimentation, but with unrelenting tripping rhythms that guaranteed as much energy on the dance floor as in the studio. Their sophomore record refined the palette, and its winding, often eerie grooves garnered plenty of DJ support. Considering that they left their names off of those two Hard Wax-distributed records, though, we count ourselves pretty lucky that Hauntologists’ Jay Ahern and Stefan Schneider agreed to an LWE interview. Hardly hiding behind mystique, the duo treat us to an engaged, in-depth conversation, pulling back the curtain to reveal what’s behind their stripped-down, twisting funk. Along the way, we talk about gear and human interaction, Neu! and Berghain, the ghosts of Berlin, and “the Africa of the mind.” And to accompany your reading, Hauntologists have compiled a special mixtape for our 37th podcast. An eclectic yet cohesive snapshot of influences and interests, the selections range from classic house to avant-jazz to… well, you should just hear it.
LWE Podcast 37: Hauntologists (71:10)
01. Ramjac Corporation, “Cameroon Massif!” [Irdial Discs]
02. Art Ensemble Of Chicago, “Promenade: Cote Bamako II” [ECM]
03. Mike Dunn, “So Let It Be House” [Clone Classic Cuts]
04. Tortoise, “Gigantes” (Mark Ernestus Version) [Thrill Jockey]
05. Unknown, “‘Akazéhé’ Par Deux Jeunes Filles” [Ocora]
06. Abe Duque & Acid Maria, “Turn Down The Lights” [Abe Duque Records]
07. Delia Derbyshire, “Liquid Energy” [Glo Spot Records]
08. Shackleton, “Blood On My Hands” (Ricardo Villalobos Apocalypso Now Mix) [Skull Disco]
09. Rhythm & Sound, “Poor People Must Work” (Carl Craig Remix) [Burial Mix]
10. The Congos, “Congoman” [Blood & Fire]
11. Eric Burell, “Badness”
12. Roter Stern Belgrad, “Afars” [Klar! 80]
13. Rhythim Is Rhythim, “Kao-Tic Harmony” [Transmat]
14. Instra:mental, “No Future” [Nonplus Records]
15. Terence Dixon, “Minimalism II A2″ [Background]
It’s great to have you two in the same room for this conversation. Stefan, you’re not based in Berlin, are you?
Stefan: I’m with Jay here at the studio in Berlin now, but I live in Düsseldorf. I’m over here for a couple of days, because I’m working on a theater production in Potsdam, near Berlin.
How long have you lived in Berlin, Jay?
Jay: About three years. I came via Ireland. My family’s Irish American. I grew up in Florida, went to high school in Florida. For my university years I went to London, fucked that up, and then went to Dublin where my family could keep an eye on me. And I settled in there and enjoyed living in Dublin. I used to make music there, and also worked for a record distributor. But I always loved Berlin, I had friends here, and after a while, that was that, I moved.
Was that related to the distribution job?
Jay: Basically, I was asked to come over to set up the German office for Domino Records. So that was my day job. But I knew Stefan before, because I used to run a little seven-inch label called Earsugar Jukebox, and I released Stefan’s music on Earsugar. So it was kind of funny that we were meeting in Berlin, years later, in the context of To Rococo Rot.
You were distributing them?
Jay: I was their label in Germany, via Domino. I did that for a couple years, and now I work at Hard Wax. I love Domino, but obviously electronic music is my thing, and when I got the opportunity to work at Hard Wax it was a pretty big deal for me.
And Cheap & Deep, Hauntologists, and even your Add Noise records are distributed through Hard Wax, aren’t they?
Jay: I’ve had a long relationship with Hard Wax. I mean, Ireland is a beautiful and wonderful place, and there are great producers coming from it, but the club scene is very small. It was one of those things where you wouldn’t really make music full-time for a job. It’s an expensive country to live in. But yeah, I always made tracks. I loved Hard Wax and when I’d go to Berlin, I would go into the shop, I knew the guys. So long story short, then when I moved to Berlin, they said, “Look, why don’t start putting all your stuff through us, and we’ll distribute it for you.” That was wonderful — I still remember the day.
Stefan, listening to the “Loss of Clarity” EP you recorded as Mapstation, and Jay’s last Add Noise record, it’s as though I can hear your sounds beginning to come together. What was it that made you two decide to first work together as Hauntologists?
Stefan: As Jay told you, we knew each other through that seven-inch label he ran. Then I found a record of Add Noise, which I found really, really exciting. And when Jay and I were discussing new records, I said, “I find that Add Noise record really exceptional.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s me!” That was pretty much a surprise. Then he asked me, “Stefan, I’ve heard that you have a Roland 303. I have an 808.” And we thought, okay, it’s time to bring the two together. So we ended up having a recording session together here in Berlin, one and a half years ago. It went really well. You immediately could feel that there is an energy between the two of us, an energy that is quite rare. The past couple of years I’ve collaborated with a number of people for one-off concerts, live concerts, and also sometimes studio work. But that session with Jay had something very special, very unique from the first moment.
So what did that recording session, for example, look like?
Stefan: To be honest, I don’t find the equipment very important. Some of the machines are those legendary Roland machines, but I think we could also do what we want to do with a totally different setup. I bought a Roland 303 some years ago, and always used it in a very un-acid way, for occasional bass hums or frequencies. And I told a lot of people that, like on the last Mapstation EP, on every single track there’s a 303. People couldn’t hear that, and found it interesting that I would use a 303 in a non-acid way. That’s also a bit the way Jay and I seem to work together, so that — maybe not the next session, but for recordings in the future — we could totally drop our equipment. It’s more that the stuff we’re using at the moment is what we’re familiar with, and I think that that’s more important than the history of those machines.
Jay: My introduction to Stefan’s music was through the Sleep, Engine Sleep album that he did as Mapstation. And what struck me about it was the purity of tone, of rhythm and also, kind of the advancement of dub. But also the performance aspect. It’s like what Stefan was saying about the equipment. You know, 808s and 303s and x0xs… those devices came from a time when it was about being able to perform on stuff. I think that it’s interaction that’s the most important thing. Whatever equipment you’re using, I think that the actual ability to interact with another musician is really what we’re talking about. Plus, sound design is really important, but we’re also really burdened with it. I think that sound design can be something quite simple. The whole idea of sitting down and mapping out a track on a computer, and it’s just being sketched, y’know, that’s not where Stefan and I are coming from. It’s actually about performing and then recording the results, and so it’s an interaction between us. And we’re not super technical people, I think.
Stefan: Those machines give you the ability to start working very quickly. You don’t have to have like a big knowledge about… you don’t have to read through the manual. It’s not like software, like Max MXP, which you have to study for one year before you get something that you can create with almost any synthesizer. I think that it’s quite important that immediately you can start working, so that whenever we meet, after one or two hours, music is rolling.
Jay: It’s musicians playing together, and I think that’s the difference. Obviously Stefan and I are both hugely influenced by or interested in groove, but it’s not just… you know… something that is sexless. I find so much music so fucking cold in a way, and for us it’s more of a warm conversation. We see these moments happen, and they become other things.
You can kind of hear that, especially on the first EP. The tracks sound like pieces of a session, with clear connections from one track to the next. I can sort of imagine ellipses between tracks, as though we come back two or three hours later to hear, not so much a different song, but an evolution of the previous one.
Jay: Stefan and I both hugely love dub, and also I love this kind of cyclical repetition that changes slowly over time, because I think that’s a little bit more human, a little bit more hypnotic. And you gotta remember, too, with house music it’s the same groove. You’ve got drum and bass, which is largely based around the “Amen” break, techno has its rhythms… and everything’s being versioned. So I guess with Hauntologists we just kind of cut to the chase and said, “This is our rhythm.” Like reggae always has a rhythm. And we just versioned that rhythm.
Stefan, you’ve talked about “taking a step back” in your music, letting your equipment make some decisions. I can imagine with the Hauntologists sessions, this also means giving a groove some duration, some space to breath and to develop that hypnotic effect. You guys included Ricardo Villalobos’ remix of Shackleton on the mix you’ve given us, and that’s a pretty good example of this as well, letting the rhythm pattern draw out. Was this something you set out to do originally?
Stefan: There was no concept we had before we started. We just gave it a go — see how things come out. I think that was one thing that was very seductive to me, that those tracks would be more or less clearly addressed to the dance floor. I’m still working in a field, either with To Rococo Rot or with Mapstation, that people always consider as “exploring the edge of the dance floor” — if you think of a club, the place between the bar and the edge of the dance floor. And so I find it very exciting to move with Jay more to the center of the dance floor.
Jay: In Berghain.
Stefan: Even in the center of the dance floor, there are a lot of possibilities for experiments.
Jay: Club music is kind of a beautiful and simple thing. I mean, so many electronic musicians over-engineer dance tracks. At the end of the day, it’s a really simple formula that you can kind of do anything in. I do know why people bitch about it sometimes and, yeah, things need to evolve but, ultimately, if there’s a rhythm that people can dance to — and, for me, it has to suit the nighttime — everything else is wide open.
Talking about repetition, you mentioned Ricardo. Ricardo’s a master of repetition and subtly changing grooves. And so were Neu! And so is Lee Perry. These subtle changes made huge impact on the dance floor… okay, obviously Neu! weren’t huge on the dance floor but, y’know, there’s a lot of freedom. It’s a combination of being meditative, and also, I mean, people wanna move.
Stefan: Neu!, for instance… I met Klaus Dinger some years ago in Düsseldorf, and he always said that the music, it has to keep on. It’s supposed to never stop. That was the force behind the Neu! tracks, especially like “Hallo Gallo” and “Für Immer.” “Für Immer” is…
Stefan: Music that never stops. It’s also like your idea of a dance floor, that the club night is going for like a weekend. Or a week, or a whole lifetime.
Jay: I live in Kreuzberg. The Berghain is five minutes away from me. I love that club, I do go a lot, and this kind of “endless” music is kind of happening every weekend there. So aside from musical touchstones you have in the past, like what Stefan was saying about Klaus Dinger, in one sense that kind of endless groove also happens in clubs like the Berghain. It goes all weekend. Of course I’m not in there for forty-eight hours, but I will go one night, go back home and go to bed, and then go back for the Sunday session. And when you see that still going, it’s such an amazing thing. It’s this groove that just… doesn’t stop. That also informs our music, its what we’re trying to say. So it’s a combination of records we like, our interaction, and also experiences we’re directly having. Likewise what Stefan is experiencing in terms of his performances. In a way, Hauntologists is pretty much us, and us communicating together.
Traditional African music, in various forms, seems like a thread running through the mix you’ve done for us. What bearing does it have on Hauntologists’ own music?
Stefan: African tradition, that is something which I find very interesting. I listen to a lot of traditional African music and field recordings from the 50′s and 60′s from French or English ethnologists.
Jay: And your new Mapstation album is also informed by that.
Stefan: For my part, that is something that is totally on a fantasy level. I don’t try to create authentic African music. It’s just something that I imagine to be like African. I think that there’s Africa the continent, but there’s also the Africa of the mind. For instance, last year I was in Brussels and saw a super-lovely-looking stamp shop where nothing has changed since 1955 or something. I went in and spoke to the old man sitting in the shop and we had a little chat. And he said, “This shop, this is my Africa.” I found that very interesting — like Africa is wherever you want it to be. That can be an island you totally absorb yourself into, or a place where you connect to like traditional music of the fifties, or a place maybe also for the unknown and the unexpected. There’s a number of meanings for that Africa. That is my take on that Africa connection — something rather in the mind. It could have a connection to African music, but it’s not something that I could explain to somebody from the Ivory Coast. Maybe I could, or I would love to, but it’s nothing that needs to be authentic.
And how about the cover images for the Hauntologists EPs?
Jay: It’s all Stefan. He’s the visual designer. I’m rubbish at visuals.
Stefan: Nearby Brussels there’s a big museum called the Africa Museum — huge monstrous buildings where the Belgians show the history of colonialism and Leopold II. I gathered a few images from that and combined them for the first EP. And the second one is taken from a black-and-white photograph of two people dancing under a blanket. I cut these apart and took photocopies, and that was it.
Jay: I think what appealed to me about Stefan’s images was that I guess I always looked at Chicago house and Detroit techno as, I don’t know, some sort of fantastic genetic memory. It was African Americans with boxes creating these rhythms to make people dance. You can kinda hear Africa in the soul in a lot of that stuff. Combine that with our healthy interest in reggae, and Stefan’s knowledge about African music… I mean, after a while this stuff just seeps into you. And then when you start communicating as musicians, I think your influences come out.
Stefan: But there’s nothing that we want to put in front of the music, or nothing that should be seen as conceptual, like “African Detroit techno” or something like this. It’s just somehow in the room when we create music.
Jay: Yeah, the spirits enter the room.
That kind of connects to the name of the group. How did you decide on the name Hauntologists?
Stefan: That was Jay’s idea.
Jay: I think it was…. I guess three reasons. One: for years, even though Stefan and I knew each other, he didn’t know that I was doing Add Noise, because this is typical Hard Wax philosophy — you have all these ghosts making records. The other thing is that, yes, I’m aware of “hauntology” as a musical definition for certain sounds, and I like those sounds, but I’m also aware of Derrida’s original meaning. And, okay, I live in Kreuzberg now, but I used to live in East Berlin and, politically, in Berlin you can definitely see two histories — well, more. In terms of the West Berlin-East Berlin thing, in the East you’re surrounded by… I mean what was the quote? Marx said, “The spectre of communism haunts Europe…” One wonders, as time goes on. But it’s not a big political thing. I think it’s just me being playful, and trying to sort of put a finger on atmosphere and geography.
I’ve never heard the philosophy of techno anonymity described that way — this idea of “ghosts.”
Jay: I’m the new boy, in terms of releasing music through Hard Wax, but the fact is, it’s not a studied thing. It’s just that people are… the music. If the music is good, let the music speak for itself. Promotion can just be so silly, and I just think that it’s about releasing records, and letting people find the music. I think that’s kind of an attractive in a way. As a result, there’s a lot of ghosts at Hard Wax.
It allows these interactions like you two had, as well. Where Stefan, you were excited about this Add Noise record, and mentioned it to Jay without realizing that he’d made it. Which is quite a different conversation than if he handed you a record and said, “This is my new record, what do you think?”
Stefan: I find it interesting these days how people find music in general. Maybe that’s exceeding your question, but for instance I’ve found mixtapes or mix CDs of friends very helpful. I love to receive mixtapes or mix CDs to explore music that I wouldn’t necessarily find in the record shop. I’m not a big radio listener, but I like the idea of surprises, of someone introducing something new to me.
Jay: Stefan and I are both diggers. We like finding music. And I guess we wanted to release stuff in a way that people hopefully people found it as well. Sure, there are giant philosophies behind how music is marketed, because some people make lots of money for it. But I think that if you have a real interest in music, and you’re a musician, and if you’re releasing the stuff yourself, you present it in the way that you are. And there’s so much hype! No disrespect to certain dance labels, but some of that stuff, I mean, man, it’s so pushed at people, so hyped. I just think that if you’re on a search for personal authenticity in terms of what you’re doing, or exploring musical dialogues in a way that’s really from the heart, you don’t want to present it to people in a way that’s complete bullshit. You just kind of hope that they’ll find it. Hopefully that makes a refreshing change from the way a lot of other stuff is presented.
Stefan: I also quite liked the fact, the way Hard Wax distributed our records, especially with the first one, that nobody knew who was behind it. I found it very refreshing, because I’m pretty fed up with, whenever I do something new under a different name, there’s always the image of To Rococo Rot. Whatever you do, it’s “kraut rock” or “post rock.” I was really happy to find reviews of the first Hauntologists in the techno sections of some magazines. And as soon as it was revealed who was behind it, we got the first reviews, people saying, “That’s ‘kraut techno,’ what you’re doing.” That’s the way it goes. So I was quite happy that, for the first record at least, we were ghosts. That was very refreshing.
Jay: We’d just made a musical document, and wanted to let it stand on its own two feet, as it were. It got to a point, though, with the first Hauntologists record, that there was so much wild speculation in terms of who’d done it. That was really fun. And Hard Wax told nobody, I mean absolutely nobody. They really were super cool about that and didn’t leak it at all. But then, obviously through the course of Berlin, people start talking to you, you meet people, there’s other musicians… and eventually one day on Discogs, it showed up that Stefan and I had done the record.
And that didn’t come from you two?
Jay: That was a surprise. I had a friend email me that, “It seems your secret has been revealed.” At that point we said, “Okay, let’s take charge of this. Let’s try to control it and just say, ‘Here’s our stuff, and yes it’s us.’” Because what else could we do at that point?
Stefan: We’re talking about a very small circle of people anyway.
Jay: And we had fun. It’s nice to talk to you. It was lovely to be able to make Hauntologists tracks available on the web, for blogs — and we controlled that — and just see how the music spreads from there. I think we’ve just been very fortunate.
Do you feel that reception has changed, now that people know who you are and can dig through your back catalogs?
Stefan: No, not really. As I said, we’re talking about a very small circle of people. The reception hasn’t changed. It has, rather, changed because the second EP was different than the first one. And I’m very much looking forward to the reception of the forthcoming stuff, because we are looking forward to releasing our next EP this winter, and then there might be some more music coming up next year, maybe an album or something.
Jay: And we’ve also got some friends — people who we respect — who, when it was revealed, offered to do mixes for us. So we’re really excited about that too, because we do love club music — a particular type of club music, but…. So I don’t think it was a disaster when people found out who we were. And no, I don’t think perceptions changed at all. It’s actually quite nice being in a club and people coming up to you, and they tell you that they really like your record or something. I guess no man is an island! It’s nice to get feedback from your peers. So all’s well that ends well.
And you’ve already recorded a third EP?
Jay: Yeah, we’ve done the third EP. We’re in that kind of Hauntologists idea of “versioning.” We have two distinctly different tracks, which Stefan mixed in Düsseldorf. We do the recordings in Berlin, and then Stefan takes them back to Düsseldorf to do the final mixes. And Stefan had just two fabulous tracks that I passed on to… I’d love to tell you who it is, but you will hopefully be pleased when the record comes out. Basically two producers that we respect very much doing versions for us. So rather than Hauntologists versioning Hauntologists, we’ve got two tracks and then there will be two versions by other artists. It’s cool.
Did you approach this session any differently?
Stefan: No, that is also what we did for the first and the second EP. We record the sessions here at Jay’s place, and then I take the original tracks to my studio and…
Jay: It’s kind of like this is Channel One, and he’s King Tubby…. Sly and Robbie work here and…
Stefan: Right, I take it to the White Ark in Düsseldorf! For the moment, that seems to be quite a good way, but we might change it next year when we work on other stuff. We will see. The recording sessions, in the way that we did them, were not radically different. But I think, in the way the music came out, it was a different atmosphere, but it’s quite difficult to put that into words.
Jay: The spine of it, or the skeletal makeup, is definitely clubbier, if I can say that. The tempo’s up a bit, the beats are a bit tougher, the bass is there. This is our perception. To people who hear Hauntologists, it’ll perhaps represent a subtle change of sound, a kind of sharpening of the fact that we also like stuff for the dance floor. I hate using this expression, “the club record,” but let’s just say that our interests are more on grooves and beats on this one, where the second EP was more…
Stefan: …to show some other possibilities with what’s possible with that array or constellation of instruments and ideas. But yeah, we look forward to hearing your reaction on the new material.
You have a lot coming out this winter, between the Cheap & Deep, and Mapstation, and then this new Hauntologists.
Jay: The Cheap & Deep stuff, that was a nice surprise. I’d done Add Noise for so many years, and I was always kind of “faceless techno bollocks,” to use an old techno expression. I wanted to find maybe a language that was more “me now.” And also, with Hauntologists and the interaction with Stefan, I felt I found myself in that. With Cheap & Deep, I’m very interested in club music. Like on the mix that we gave you guys, you can definitely see Stefan and my interaction musically. When I was putting it together, Stefan sent me a selection of records that he wanted to include. And we talked a great deal about it. I mean, I was really glad you guys asked us to do it because, in a way, I kind of saw our personalities interacting. It was just so funny, because it was like a Jay track, a Stefan track, a Jay track, a Stefan track, and when I was done with the mix, I was kind of like, “Fuck, this works!”
Stefan: When I got to hear Jay’s mix, I thought, “That’s what our album could sound like,” almost like a blueprint for different levels of music. So that you mix maybe experimental tracks with a straight bass drum, and bring all these levels together in a very natural-sounding way that doesn’t sound like “multi-media,” but one unit.
LWE Podcast 37: Hauntologists (71:10)