Last seen in these parts just over a year ago during Drill Festival, Ulrich Schnauss returns to Brighton on 5 March to play The Haunt as part of a nationwide tour with support from BITBIN and Inwards. We caught up with the man via e-mail and tried and failed to get that Guns and Roses story out of him.
You moved to Berlin in 1996. Who were your contemporaries at the time? What was the electronic music scene like in Berlin? How did you find being away from home at an early age?
I was heavily into drum & bass and one of the reasons I moved was that I wanted to be in a place where I could not only listen to that music at home, but also go to clubs and dance to it. It was liberating to move away – I felt very isolated and restrained in that small town in northern Germany where I grew up – and of course I also knew that I ‘d only have a chance to make a living out of writing music if I left that environment behind.
You have been a prolific remixer in your time, how does the process of your remixing work differ from you compositions and collaborations?
For me, remixing is about providing an alternative, electronic arrangement of a song – so I usually try to keep the harmonic, melodic core of a piece untouched while concentrating on coming up with different sounds and colours. Obviously that’s a very different approach in comparison to my own music where I also write the actual chords and themes for instance.
You were a pioneer of playing electronic music in traditional gig venues at traditional gig times. Do you prefer this to nightclubs? Do you find traditional venues still beholden to rockist attitudes? What is your perfect venue set-up to play?
It was never necessarily a conscious decision – when I started playing solo shows under my own name dance music was still very dogmatic and inflexible. Anything that would pose the risk of ‘clearing the floor’ simply wasn’t happening in clubs – I think that’s actually changed a lot over the last five years. My favourite places to play are those in between – ones that don’t have an old school pub rock type of atmosphere, but also don’t come across like a fancy club. Bowery Ballroom in New York is my favourite venue in the world, I’d say.
Particularly on your early work you sounded like an electronic artist trying to recreate the work of a band? Were you in a band as a kid? Do you think it’s helpful for electronic musicians to have been in bands? Did you have any formal or classical music training?
Yes, I tried (and still try) to go for a broad, symphonic sound – but not because I grew up playing in bands (there simply weren’t any in the area where I lived). From a very early age on I had a strong love for electronic music that explores the capabilities of the synthesizer as a musical instrument – not just as some weird box that does strange sounds. I guess that approach more or less automatically leads to a result that combines conventional compositional techniques (which in this country are strongly associated with band culture) with the possibilities of synthesis – in the 70s I’d have probably called it ‘electronic rock’.
You have been a frequent collaborator with other artists. What do you feel you have bought to these projects? How do you think they have changed you as a musician? Do you have a favourite collaboration?
I try to keep a 50/50 balance between collaborative projects and solo work – this way I can ensure that I receive challenging and inspiring input from other people, but also have an area just for myself where I can focus on realizing my ideas from start to finish. I believe I’ve learned a lot from other musicians over the years – and if it’s just to realize and acknowledge how subjective your own perspective is. I love working with Thorsten Quaeschning on tangerine dream material – we’re coming from such different backgrounds, but totally respect each other’s point of view – an ideal scenario I’d say.
As someone who was closely associated with the shoegaze aesthetic, what did you make of the recent shoegaze revival (MBV, Slowdive etc…) Do you see it influencing a whole new generation of electronic music perhaps?
One of the things I liked less about it was that it seemed to spawn a whole wave of trainspotting hipster bands – that’s also why I decided to take a step back from that sound for a while. However, things have changed now – shoegaze is where it always should’ve been: an integral and respected part of uk indie culture. I recently even recorded a few pieces revisiting that sound – and felt surprisingly good while doing so.
Your last solo record A Long Way to Fall was a real break from that previous shoegazy sound. What inspired the change in direction? What were you listening to? What are you listening to at the moment?
I guess the answer ties in a little with the previous one – it wouldn’t be a lie if I’d say that I started listening to a lot of electronic music again because of my disappointment about the hipster-infested nugaze-scene – however, the full truth is probably that I simply lost the plot a bit and didn’t manage to find an adequate new aesthetic. In parts I’m rather dissatisfied with A Long Way to Fall for that reason as well. It’s a big relief for me that we now seem to have moved on to cultural climate where style fascism has lost a lot of ground and I can continue exploring the templates I’m interested in without being at risk of getting lumped in with people who care more about haircuts than oscillators.
Your music has been used a lot in advertising and films – Is this something you do as an economic reality of being a modern musician? How do you feel about this relationship between corporations and music? Do you see it as better or worse for the artist than being tied to a major record lablel?
If this was down to my decision I’d certainly prefer to make a living out of releasing records (not even playing gigs necessarily) – however, the reality of the music market is obviously a very different one in the year 2016 – that’s why any advert or sync is a blessing and enables me to pay rent and food – to survive essentially. accordingly, the times where major labels had just a remote interest in leftfield music seem to be long gone – don’t know whether it’s even worth discussing that topic anymore. To avoid misunderstandings: I do think that’s a shame – good music should be heard – and by as many people as possible. I was therefore always happy when artists recording great music had the opportunity to present their work on a major platform.
We read that you have joined Tangerine Dream, which must be every electronic musicians dream come true! Were they a big influence on you and how did it come about?
Yes, if anyone would’ve told me 20 years before, I’d never have believed it. Well, I got to know Edgar through his son Jerome (who shares a passion for drum & bass) in the early 2000s. We kept in touch and Edgar was always someone I turned to for advice and critical assessment of music-related decisions. In summer 2014 I visited him in Austria and he asked me whether I’d like to join Tangerine Dream – completely out of the blue from my perspective. Further down the line and after a couple of conversations concerning the overall creative direction of the band (the ‘quantum years’ as Edgar called it) I realized that my inclusion must be part of a general approach to change direction once more – as Tangerine Dream had undergone several times over the past five decades already. Very unfortunately Edgar died in January last year – a loss that still fills me with great sadness, for personal much more than just for musical reasons. Thorsten, Hoshiko and I (the three remaining members) will do our best to finish the album we had started working on – it’s still pretty much impossible to think about anything beyond that at the moment.
You’ve been a fairly frequent visitor to Brighton in recent years. Is there anything you particularly like or dislike about the city?
I grew up at the sea so I’m always happy when I’m playing in places which are too. Beyond that I can only warm up old cliches (which in this case happen to be true though): Brighton strikes me as a rather relaxed, maybe even a bit hippie-ish place – I like that!
Finally, tell us about suing ‘Guns N’ Roses.’
I would if I could – unfortunately I’m not allowed to publicly reveal the story. Yet.