ART:CAST #31 & INTERVIEW Stefan Goldmann

Stefan Goldmann represents the modern artist despite or exactly for the reason of being a consistent part of the electronic music scene. Aside from running his label Macro the Berliner operates in various fields. As a DJ and producer he mainly focuses on techno music with an experimental touch and additionally is connected to the world’s most famous clubs Berghain, but that is just one tiny part for Stefan to express his passion for music. The artist likes to cross musical frontiers with compositions for music theatre, films, ensembles and dance. On top of that Goldmann writes the monthly Berghain column and published his book ‘Presets’ as well as several articles in magazines. Furthermore he was a guest lectures at Universität der Künste in Berlin and did production workshops in places such as Mongolia, Guatemala or Japan. With his art:cast Stefan focuses on the deep, yet raw and experimental side of techno music and introduces his audience to soundscapes that are far away from being called ordinary, still remaining melodic and memorable. This month, he his curating f(t) festival at Berlin’s Radialsystem venue. The two day event features artists such as Shackleton, Rrose, Ensemble Modern and others, and has Goldmann premiering an entirely new live set based on irregular metres.

Torture the Artist: Hello Stefan, tell us something about your day.

Stefan Goldmann: Hi there! Today I’m travelling, and my flight is two hours late. I bought a coffee and am using the time to answer this interview.

Torture the Artist: Name a track that impressed you lately.

Stefan Goldmann: I’ve been on a bit of a research binge recently. I found some great tracks from Troy, Hodge & Peder Mannerfelt (that one is from last year), Kamikaze Space Program, Stef Mendisidis… a lot of techno. On the other hand, I’ve been playing a couple of house sets recently and got deeply into old Mood II Swing dubs again. So much great stuff!

So right from the inception, this music has been aimed at the edge of tomorrow.

Torture the Artist: Your bio states that ‘Techno has always been about imagining the future and experiencing the excitement of change and discovery.’ How does your imagined future correspond with the upcoming developments in the electronic music scene?

Stefan Goldmann: You probably know the story of how Juan Atkins read a few sci-fi books by Alvin Toffler, and there he found the word ‘techno’. So right from the inception, this music has been aimed at the edge of tomorrow. It’s quite an interesting mindset. A distinctive feature of ideas concerning the future is that it never quite looks like what we believe it will. Most commonly, science fiction gets it wrong. Think of the Metropolis movie by Fritz Lang, there are people toiling away at giant cogwheels… it’s all mechanical! Their idea of the future was that it will be like the present, just bigger.

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So when I say I’m interested in what’s not there yet, as opposed to what is already established in proven concepts, I don’t assume I can reinvent the mass culture of tomorrow. But I can certainly have more fun with it than figuring out how to exactly reproduce something historic. There are certain people who try to sound like 1988 or 1992 or like this artist or that artist. One could argue that’s against the spirit of techno, but then again, it’s not like there is a techno authority where you have to send in your tracks for approval, not even to Juan Atkins. To me, there is no linear development of the electronic music scene. Instead, there are all these progressions going on in parallel. It’s all very exciting because techno can be all these things to all these people.

Torture the Artist: How did techno find its way to you?

Stefan Goldmann: Growing up in Berlin, inevitably you’d hear about it, but what I heard wasn’t too promising. I also don’t think I had seen a proper club from the inside before 1996. The thing that completely turned my head was Jeff Mills’s ‘The Other Day’ compilation. I found that on a pirated cassette in Sofia, and it must’ve come out within weeks of the original release. Mills’s stuff was so complete and accomplished, standing at the pinnacle of what music could possibly achieve in the 20th century such that I was too intimidated by it. In fact, a little while later I also discovered house music. I produced some house records first because I thought it was kind of sloppier, so I might get away with it. Go figure.

Being busy is a decision. It has become some sort of ideology where people engage in meaningless activity, probably because it makes them feel important or appear important to others.

Torture the Artist: As an author, DJ, producer and label-head, it is inevitable to call you a busy person, but how much time and freedom do you have to develop further ideas and to remain creative? Or does one field complement each other?

Stefan Goldmann: In my opinion, being busy is a decision. It has become some sort of ideology where people engage in meaningless activity, probably because it makes them feel important or appear important to others. Everybody is terribly busy, but what exactly is being accomplished? As author Tim Kreider pointed out: ‘busy’ is not about the people on a 4:30 AM commute to one of their three minimum wage jobs. These people are exhausted. Busy is something for those who can afford it.

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So people also assume that I’m as busy as they are. I receive emails that begin with ‘I know you must be terribly busy, but…’, and I say to myself: ‘No, I’m actually not.’ Just about every day when I’m in Berlin, I go to this cafe in my neighbourhood. When I first found this place, I noticed about five people that are there anytime I come in. I began wondering: ‘what do these people do for a living?’, and it’s not one of those laptop cafes either. Eventually, it dawned on me that I actually am one of those people. And before that, I’ve been to lunch, and after, I might ride my bike for another two hours.

If you shift gears, go with the flow of your attention, and cut down on meaningless activity, you tend to be pretty efficient when doing something.

Obviously, I do manage to produce a number of projects, I’m putting releases out, I’m on tour, I’m running a festival… So what am I doing in this cafe, or riding my bike, you ask? If you look at the day of the typical ‘busy’ people, there are maybe 40 minutes of meaningful activity a day. The rest is just the same two tasks chopped up into a ten-hour shift by interruptions, predominantly meaningless back-and-forth emailing, cc emails, reading up on chatter on the internet and sitting in meetings that don’t go anywhere. At least 80% of the activity of most people in my line of work is essentially frivolous.

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Macro founders Stefan Goldmann and Finn Johannsen.

It’s not like I never do any of that. But I found out pretty early that if I sit in the studio for eight hours, I don’t get any more or better tracks done than if I’m there for two hours, at most. I have a very short attention span. So once I’ve exhausted my mental capacity for music for the day I can actually relax by doing some label work, like smart-assing our graphic designer. Once I’m through with that, I might look at the globe and say ‘I wonder if there are any techno clubs in Myanmar’ – that kind of thing. At the end of the day, there’s a track, a release and potentially a tour. It’s not that I pretend to be smarter than other people, I just don’t ignore that inner feedback that tells you ‘I’ve had enough of that for today’. I’m reasonably good at eliminating nonsense. If at all possible, I don’t go to any meetings. I don’t micromanage. I don’t listen to promos. No Twitter, no Instagram. I don’t do a whole lot of stuff you’re supposed to do. So if you shift gears, go with the flow of your attention, and cut down on meaningless activity, you tend to be pretty efficient when doing something. There really is no need to be ‘busy’.

Jacobs coffee probably contributed more to the fall of the Berlin Wall than any political text ever.

Torture the Artist: Which artistic frontiers would you like to cross?

Stefan Goldmann: Could I answer this more literally? I like to play in places where a techno party isn’t the most usual thing. In Berlin, Amsterdam or Tokyo you can choose between twenty parties a night. I’ve been to places where I’ve been the first, third or maybe the fifth guy to actually cross that border and play some music on records. That’s totally exciting. I mean, I remember when I was sixteen and in a club for the first time for a drum’n’bass party, the music was brand new at that time too and everybody was still trying to figure out how to dance to that stuff. It has a totally different form of energy from going to a club in Berlin now. What you get now is this bunch of tourists up front who go like ‘Yeeeh! Berlin!’, and in the back you see the locals standing around with the expression of ‘we’ve seen all of this, so many times’ on their incredibly bored faces. None of that in Mongolia, I tell you.

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Stefan Goldmann enjoying the Bangkok crowd.

So yes, I wanna go to the ‘frontier markets’ of techno, and I don’t really set myself any limits on the kind of places I’d be willing to check out. There have been these debates about not playing this or that country, and I just don’t get it. I can’t imagine what degree of megalomania is necessary for a DJ to think they are playing ‘for Putin’ when going to Russia for instance, or ‘penalizing’ the guy by not going. This is totally nuts. Just the opposite applies. I grew up in communist countries and pretty much anything from outside would undermine the status quo. West German TV advertisements for things such as Jacobs coffee probably contributed more to the fall of the Berlin Wall than any political text ever. Well, now that they’ve tasted the stuff, some want their wall back. But that’s a different story. In short: I like to travel, go anywhere and just compare notes.

Working on a straight-up dance track is the most demanding task.

Torture the Artist: Over the past two decades you have worked on compositions for music theatres, films, ensembles and dance. Which one of these musical experiences has come closest to stretching you to the limit and how did you overcome it?

Stefan Goldmann: In my experience, working on a straight-up dance track is the most demanding task. That’s because by now, there are a whole lot of dance tracks out there, so there is a lot to be measured against. When I check new records or demos, sometimes it’s enough to listen to 1.875 seconds of music – that’s one bar of 4/4 at 128 BPM or less. In techno, that means you’ve heard everything there is to the track two times. It’s a loop, right? And maybe, 95% of the time that’s just enough information, hearing the sounds, the tuning system, the shuffle… If you go to Hard Wax and record the headphone signal of how seasoned DJs check records, I bet there are tracks that get less than a second of doubt. It probably often goes like boom boom… ‘No way!’, and the next goes on. Imagine you are a salesperson and have 1.875 seconds or less for your pitch. Good luck! It’s merciless.

Compared to that, doing a ballet with electronic music is a piece of cake, really. What are they going to measure you against? You have the freedom to do whatever you like. Certainly, if it occurred to them to ask me, they might also ask the next techno guy. So eventually, there will be a repertoire, and then they can compare notes. Thus, rule number one is, you should never ever do shoddy work, even if there’s no way for anyone to know just now. There’ll come a time when they have enough to compare and develop the criteria, and then you’d better be the one who has provided the yardstick.

There have been months of preparations. There’s this tight schedule with every detail fixed to the minute. Then, I show up to the rehearsals and there is no sound system. They just forgot about that.

Torture the Artist: What was a memorable moment in the process of creating the music for either one of the aforementioned compositions?

Stefan Goldmann: Imagine this: you’re on a major project that involves around fifty people. An ensemble, a stage set, a cast, dramaturgy… all the frills. There have been months of preparations. There’s this tight schedule with every detail fixed to the minute. Then, I show up to the rehearsals and there is no sound system. They just forgot about that.

Torture the Artist: In an interview for Deutschlandfunk Kultur (a German radio station) Michael Thalheimer, a German theatre director, said that ‘an artists’ motivation to create something is pain’ and that artists, as well as the stages, do not exist to please somebody, but to come as close as possible to a truth, however painful it might be. How much pain lies in your music and do you find Thalheimer’s approach attributable to the electronic music scene?

Stefan Goldmann: ‘Pain’ and ‘truth’… how old is the guy? It certainly sounds like something they used to discuss in the theatre canteen back in 1965.

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Torture the Artist: Which movie or theatre play would you have liked to produce the soundtrack for, and why?

Stefan Goldmann: There is this movie by Anton Corbijn, I forgot the name of it, and I believe Herbert Grönemeyer did the soundtrack. At the beginning of the film, there is what feels like a twenty minute stretch with no music whatsoever. And I think… this guy is so good! Well, right about then, the music kicks in, and I’m not that convinced anymore if you know what I mean. It’s not what, but how. I’m neither a director nor a playwright, so I depend on people bringing me a script. With this line of work, I really enjoy just sitting there and being surprised.

Torture the Artist: You published your book ‘Presets’ and you are currently working on another one. Additionally, you are responsible for the Berghain column. Where does your inclination for writing come from?

Stefan Goldmann: Well, as mentioned, I have this short attention span, so I found four or five things I can alternate between which I enjoy doing for long enough. So I’ll sit in the studio and sometimes I’ll just EQ the bass drum for half an hour, and then I feel ‘this is actually sufficient for today’ and leave it there. Obviously, the big advantage here is you can come back at it the next day and check what you did after having reset your hearing in the meantime. When you sit there for ten hours, you get so psychologically invested in your own doing that you can’t evaluate anything objectively anymore.

So let’s say, I’ve tuned this bass drum and that’s my doing for the day, then I can lie on the sofa and read. When I read something interesting, I can often connect it to another idea which I’ve had earlier, and that’s then something I can write about. It’s a lot of synthesis really, and I find that to be quite pleasant.

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Torture the Artist: Aside from music, is writing another outlet of expression for you and what would you rather express with words than music?

Stefan Goldmann: Certainly. The other thing that interests me in writing is that there are these hundreds of thousands of tracks, but there’s no theory behind techno, or it’s only shoddy theory. This is very peculiar. There is a lot of anecdotal history – who did what and when, but almost no aesthetics, as in how does this music work, and what makes it different from other music? At a linguistic level, we are totally at a loss here. There isn’t even a meaningful terminology for a whole lot of stuff. So I’m thinking that in 2018 it is easier to contribute something meaningful to techno in words rather than with yet another track.

Every now and then, somebody puts together charts like ‘The 100 most important techno tracks of all time’, or ‘The top 100 DJs of the year’. Inevitably, everybody’s reaction is: ‘What kind of list is this if X is not in there???’ And for X you can substitute any of the other tens of thousands of tracks or DJs or labels or whatever didn’t make the cut. In 2015 ‘Groove Magazin’ did a poll of the most important techno related books of the year. Well, it was a top five list – not twenty, not one hundred – and my Presets book was in there, and the Berghain book, to which I contributed, was in there too. And the year after, they scrapped the category in the poll. And I like to tell myself that’s because I didn’t publish a book in 2016. So that’s the situation with books on techno.

Torture the Artist: What presets would you delete in order to overcome a routine and a boredom related to it in your life?

Stefan Goldmann: Man, I haven’t been bored in twenty years.

I used to have this mental list of idols, but I think it’s mostly a sucker’s game to collaborate with people who already made their impact.

Torture the Artist: Name an artist you would like to collaborate with.

Stefan Goldmann: I used to have this mental list of idols, but I think it’s mostly a sucker’s game to collaborate with people who already made their impact. It’s quite tricky. There are numerous records where some hot shot works with some legend, adapting the style of the legend, and how many of those records are any good? There is also a time frame involved. When you have been around for fifteen years, you’re certainly not a hotshot anymore, so it’s more like a meeting of old folks, and who wants to listen to that?

Thus, you’re better off working with newcomers and have them set the course. They are more likely to bring the fresh stuff to the table than somebody who has spilled their beans twenty years ago – no disrespect intended. I mean, what am I to contribute in collaborating with Jeff Mills for instance? It would be pretty insane to believe I could ‘help’ him ‘lift’ his stuff to some next level. So forget about that.

I’d say find them young and hungry. Look at Miles Davis. When he was fifty, he had all those young hotshots in the studio and they did ‘Bitches Brew’ or ‘On The Corner’ for him. So they didn’t come in and tried to play ‘Kind of Blue’, as he wouldn’t let them do that. That’s what you wanna do.