A conversation with Ulrich Schnauss.
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
I had the chance to grab some hummus and coffee with Ulrich before his show at the Middle East Downstairs with Chapterhouse and 28 Degrees Taurus.
JB: When is your new album coming out?
US: I’m trying for a spring 2011 release for the new album. I’m working on that now and am more than half done. I’ll be trying out some new songs during the live set tonight.
JB: Are you signed with anyone currently?
US: No. I’m hoping that Domino will be interested because when we worked together before, it was a really good experience.
JB: You mentioned in an interview that LA is where you’ve sold the most records in the US. Would you ever consider moving to California or anywhere else in the US?
US: Yeah, but I probably wouldn’t necessarily move to LA. New York is very fascinating. It just basically depends, like so many things, on money. It would be interesting to do that, but I think at the moment I simply couldn’t afford a move like that. It just depends on how things develop.
JB: Yeah, New York is [laughs] interesting. Very fast-paced.
US: Yeah, I think when I’m old, I’d like to live in Orange County (CA). I had a couple of days off on the last tour, and I really enjoyed that. It was really nice – there were houses there, and I liked walking by the ocean. I definitely don’t feel like I’m going to spend the rest of my life in London anyway. There are a few places that I would like to check out, but it always just –
JB: Depends on money. [laughs] So you like the countryside better?
US: Yeah, but the only problem with that in a job like this, you have to be able to afford living in the countryside, and if you’re in an isolated place –
JB: “A Strangely Isolated Place?” Sorry, I had to say it.
US: [laughs] – Yep. That can cause problems. That’s actually one of the best things about living in London – it’s actually really easy to connect with other people who are working in similar directions, and it’s really easy to find new projects to work on. And if I lived in the countryside, I would struggle to find that.
JB: What is your least favorite song that you’ve done, in terms of the finished product?
US: The older the stuff is, the more distance I feel from it. I think it’s pretty much the same for everyone who is creative… the further away you are, you appreciate it less. But at the same time I don’t think it really matters, because it’s not like I’m sitting at home and listening to my old music. The only occasion I have to listen to that is when I have to play it live, but that’s probably about it.
JB: So you’re pretty prolific, in terms of producing new music?
US: Well, I try to be, yeah. I mean, probably not necessarily with the solo stuff, because it takes me quite a while to do that. But I have a lot of side projects as well, so if you put all that stuff together, then yes, it probably is a lot.
JB: So looking back on your older work, what’s your favorite song or the one you’re most happy with?
US: A lot off the Isolated Place album. “Gone Forever” has always been one of my favorites of my own music.
JB: What’s the worst/most negative comment you’ve ever gotten on your music from a fan?
US: Maybe not from a fan, but it’s sometimes funny to read reviews and what critics say. I think one of my favorite ones is the review on Pitchfork of the last record (http://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/10406-goodbye/). But I think that’s great in a way, because I know what kind of anger Pitchfork is coming from and what sort of stuff they do like, and to be honest with you, it probably would irritate me more to get a good review from Pitchfork than to get a negative one.
JB: Yeah, there’s a lot of negativity going on there.
US: Obviously musical tastes are very subjective, and therefore your intention as an artist can’t be to appeal to everyone. You want to appeal to the people that feel in a similar way and understand things in a way similar to the way that you understand them, and that obviously excludes other people. I don’t even want to appeal to those people – I don’t want to make everyone happy.
JB: So what’s a compliment that you received that you were really happy with or that you found really resonating with what you’re trying to do?
US: I don’t think it’s any one in particular – it’s just generally really good to hear when people can use my music in a similar way to how I use the music that I really love, as something that helps you through difficult times in life, something that takes you to another place when you put on your headphones or whatever. If I can create something that people can use in a similar way, that’s great because that gives me the feeling that I’m doing something that is worthwhile – not just for myself but for other people as well.
JB: I read in a lot of interviews that you say your songs deal with melancholy subjects, yet to me there’s an ecstatic sadness to it – you seem to straddle the line between emotional extremes. Where does that come from?
US: Well, I always like that idea of having a very escapist element of music, and obviously that has really positive and, if you want to say so, negative connotations. The negative connotation is that you want to escape because you’re obviously not happy in the situation you are in, but the positive aspect is that you haven’t become cynical yet, you still have enough imagination to at least think about how things could be better. And that’s why you’re trying to create something beautiful. But not as a reflection of what you think the reality is like – more as creating an alternative version of reality, how you want it to be. That has always fascinated me. I think it’s a lot more interesting than trying to do something that’s basically just depressing or just really happy – it’s nice to have these two elements combined, in any art form.
JB: Who did your cover art for the last two albums?
US: The cover for Isolated Place was a photo of tulips, taken from a photographer’s archive. [The photographer] was a friend of the guy who sorted out the technicalities of the layout. I just tried to choose something that had a bit of an early-‘90s indie culture and also a bit of a hippieish vibe. At the time it was very important for me to make a statement with the cover artwork that this wasn’t an IDM record, but had a lot of humanity and warmth in it. And with Goodbye, that picture was taken by a friend of mine who was driving on the motorway. It was taken out of the driver’s seat of a car, basically. But it was obviously treated a bit. The two lights you see in the middle are the lights of the car ahead.
JB: I notice there are a lot of train references in your music. When you were growing up, did you live near trains? Was that part of your childhood?
US: It’s not necessarily trains, but the idea of traveling and getting away and going forward. My parents and I moved around quite a bit when I was a child, so I had to adjust to new environments. That probably goes with what we were talking about beforehand – I’ve always liked the duality of this type of situation. Obviously it’s sad because it’s a goodbye to your friends, to an environment that you’re comfortable with, but it’s also a new beginning, a chance to discover new things, to make new friends. So that’s probably the kind of feeling that I try to reflect in my music a lot – that kind of duality.
JB: Are you still working with Judith Beck?
US: Yes. She is not on as many songs [on the upcoming album] because the album is more instrumental. She’s on about three songs.
JB: Were you involved romantically?
US: Yes, we were a couple for about 10 years.
JB: What’s your favorite color?
US: Probably that [points to painting nearby].
JB: Purple. OK.
JB: If you had to say your music was one specific color, how would you describe it?
US: It really depends on the song. I always have colors in my head when I make music. I always use that a bit as a guide as well. When I have a certain feeling for a certain color, I always think about what would make that impression or feeling even more intense, and that’s what I use. That’s how I base my decision on what else happens in the song. I can have an orange feeling, or a green feeling – and I have no idea why that is or why that happens.
JB: Do you like traveling?
US: I think I would like traveling if it wasn’t pretty much 100% of the time related to touring. Because touring is a bit of a double-sided sword – it can be fun, but it can be stressful. Especially if you’re a solo artist. That’s why I enjoy this tour with Chapterhouse so much, because I’m basically traveling with five other friends, and it’s not like I’m in the spotlight all the time and everyone is asking me all the time, “When do you want to do this? Have you got that form? Can you play that?” [laughs] There are five people with me on this tour, and I can just take a bit of a break. That’s really nice.
JB: So have you been able to go on a vacation recently?
US: Um, never, actually. [laughs]
JB: You must get tired. Where would you go if you could go anywhere?
US: Denmark, probably, to a quiet place up north, with literally no other people around. It’s really beautiful up there. I love the ocean. I grew up on the coast.
JB: Do you have time to read these days? What are you reading?
US: Not as much as I’d like to, but yes. I read mostly nonfiction – a lot of political essays that I find interesting. Not often whole books because I don’t have time. When I was younger, I was involved in political stuff, so I try to follow up on the current state of things.
JB: What kind of politics were you involved in?
US: Well, I was a member of the Communist party back then. I still consider myself a Marxist, but I wouldn’t get involved with politics anymore. That was quite a frustrating experience.
JB: How long were you involved?
US: For about four years.
JB: Do you consider yourself religious or spiritual?
US: I think if you’re doing any kind of creative activity, there is a spiritual element to it. What still fascinates me after all these years is that I could probably give you a blank canvas or you could put me in front of a piano, and if we had an hour or two, something would happen. I don’t think there’s really a rational or logical explanation for that, and I think that is a spiritual moment somehow. What I believe is something that I can’t scientifically prove, but that any kind of creativity is a connection to a possible alternative reality – a way to get a glimpse of what humans theoretically could be capable of. I think that’s why it’s so important to keep that alive. It’s one of the few things that can provide hope.
JB: I noticed that Jesus Christ is mentioned a couple of times on the last album, specifically in “Shine,” and I wondered if you had any connection to that faith.
US: I didn’t write the lyrics to the song “Shine” [which Rob McVey from Longview sings]. In terms of the other songs, I used [Jesus] for symbolic reasons, not as a defined Christian. If I was from a different cultural background, I could have used another religion to describe that certain feeling of an ecstatic, trancelike state, but I grew up in a Christian environment, so I chose that symbol.
JB: As an art form, how would you categorize music versus such things as writing, painting, or sculpting?
US: Music is the most abstract, and that’s probably why I like it the most. The good thing is that for that reason music gives people the most room and freedom of interpretation. If you have a picture or something that’s written, that’s already a defined framework. With abstract art, that gives you more room. But music is more radical in that sense because what actually happens in your head when you listen to something – the memories it triggers – is so subjective. I could play the same piece of music for 100 different people, and I’d get so many different ideas from them.
JB: Last question: Do you have any vices?
US: Smoking, obviously. And in terms of my character, impatience. [laughs]