In 2004, a good six years into a never-ending Slowdive obsession, I came across a double album at the Madison, Wisconsin record store, B-Side Records. Titled “Blue Skied ‘An Clear,” it was a tribute to Slowdive from various electronic musicians.
The first disc features a bunch of creative Slowdive covers, while the second disc contains songs inspired by the band. The standouts were Ulrich Schnauss, Limp, B. Fleischmann, Herrmann & Kleine, and Manual. Ulrich Schnauss covered “Crazy for You,” a track from Slowdive’s final album, “Pygmalion,” and his rendition instantly got me hooked on his work. It combined the swirling wall of sound found in great shoegaze music (Slowdive, Chapterhouse, My Bloody Valentine) and superimposed breakbeats into the atmospherics.
Soon after I bought Ulrich’s most recent albums “A Strangely Isolated Place” and “Far Away Trains Passing By.” In 2006, I had the pleasure of meeting Ulrich at the Empty Bottle in Chicago, where he was the opening act for M83. For awhile after we tried to arrange an interview (which never came to fruition), but also talked synthesizers and music. Ulrich suggested I check out Casino vs. Japan, who lived in the same city I was calling home at the time—Milwaukee. In this way, the doors of shoegaze-influence electronic music were opened.
Recently, I finally had a chance to interview Ulrich, and we talked musical inspiration, pursuing multiple projects simultaneously, and rediscovering the sounds of early ’90s dance music.
Talk a little bit about your current projects. You’ve been rather busy from what I understand.
I’ve mainly been concentrating on three projects. My new solo record, which is now finished. The record with Mark Peters, “Underrated Silence.” And I also did a collaborative album with Kirsty Hawkshaw, which is now finally finished as well. That’s probably the reason that so little happened over the last five years [since "Goodbye"]—I was working on these three large projects and other smaller projects in parallel. One thing kept delaying the other, now a bunch of stuff is ready.
For those unfamiliar with Kirsty Hawkshaw, can you tell us a bit about her?
She’s a singer and songwriter. In the ’90s she used to be the vocalist for the UK band Opus III. In the last decade she’s been more of a guest vocalist on commercial dance records for people like BT or Tiesto. Our plan was to do a record that was more in the style that she did in the ’90s. Something less commercial—a more atmospheric and melancholic approach, really.
You’ve been active with Longview and Engineers in recent years—at what point did you and Mark decide to pursue a collaborative side-project?
To be honest with you, it wasn’t even a conscious decision to do a collaborative project. We obviously saw each other quite regularly, not only because of The Engineers but because we’re really good friends. Whenever Mark is in London, he stays at my place, and we just started doing these late night jam sessions and recorded stuff for five hours. We didn’t even expect too much from that, to be honest, but when we listened to what we recorded, we were thinking, “Well, this is a good bit that could be turned into a piece. This is another good bit that could be a song.”
Speaking of jamming within the context of electronic music, one of the best tracks on the album, to my mind, is “Rosen Im Asphalt,” which sounds rather like a jam and amalgamation of Vangelis’ work on “Bladerunner” and then the Krautrock band Harmonia. At the same time, the sound is very focused and current, with some of your sound design hallmarks.
Yeah, that’s completely true. It started as a jam. I was playing those sequences on the Yamaha CS-80. Mark was improvising various guitar lines on top. We added rhythmical elements and a couple of other details, but the core of that song is what we had recorded as a jam session.
You just mentioned the Yamaha CS-80, which is known as one of the greatest synthesizers ever made, used most notably by Vangelis. How did you come into possession of that piece of hardware?
It’s not even a particularly interesting story. [Laughs] I had wanted one for a very long time, and then one popped up on eBay and I just got it. Ironically, I got it from a really rich Italian filmmaker who only had that CS-80 for two weeks, and decided that he preferred the plug-in version and then sold the CS-80.
You’re known to have quite a collection of equipment, but you’re also known to be very well-versed in software. Did you find it surprising that this Italian filmmaker would find he preferred the plug-in CS-80 to the hardware?
Yes, I would say that. The plug-in is good, but, at the same time, the CS-80 is a very unique instrument. It’s worth keeping and should be treasured.
The track “Gift Horse’s Mouth,” which was used to promote the album, evokes early ’90s electronic dance music in a way. Was that era on your mind while recording?
I bought a Memory Moog, and the basic sequencing lines that you can do on that instrument gave me the idea to do a little bit of a retro dance track. I think it’s 108 bpm or something. At the same time, I was a bit concerned—I didn’t want to do something that was early ’90s dance style all the way through. I wanted to put something in that created a dichotomy, and so Mark played guitars on top, which are probably quite untypical for that type of music. I think that’s what sort of made it interesting. Without the guitars, it would just sound like a straight forward retro track. It’s more special now.
You and Mark wrote another track called “Ekaterina.” It sort of has this cosmic or psychedelic country atmosphere, resulting in this very beautiful and interesting form of electronic music. Can you talk about that song?
That song is even less about technical stuff, and more about emotional content, which probably had an impact on the way it sounds. I basically wrote that song for someone I really liked, who very unfortunately didn’t like me as much. It was supposed to be a very romantic and beautiful song. Mark and I tried to orchestrate it in a way that the idea comes across in the most intense way.
Are their plans for you and Mark to tour in support of the album?
We are thinking about that. The main problem is that if we do this live, we want to do it in quite a different way than how I perform my solo stuff. It should be more instrument-based, like treated piano and guitar, and without backing tracks. As exciting as that may be for us, we haven’t got quite enough material that would work with that set-up. So we need to write probably another three or four songs so that we can play a full set. That would probably be the case around the middle of the year.
Speaking of solo performances, a couple of years ago I had the chance to catch you at The Troubadour in Los Angeles. Whereas the Empty Bottle audience was quiet, three years later in LA the audience was bouncing around and screaming, which blew me away. Do you have any thoughts on the variety of audiences who get into your music?
Well, on a more general level, that is something that I notice—that my audience really varies from city to city and gig to gig. That seems to be an advantage of the sort of stuff that I’m doing: it appeals to quite a wide range of people, not just indie kids or dance people. It’s a little bit of everything. The mood from gig to gig changes depending on the type of people who show up that are in the majority. I actually quite enjoy that because for me it’s always a bit of a surprise. Just like you said, I’ll play more seated, civilized shows where people are essentially listening, and then I’ve played more dancey-type events.
With the current live setup that I have, I can even react to that a little bit because I’m quite flexible. I can play more beat-oriented or more atmospheric versions of the songs, which makes it more interesting for me as well.
And the ability to do that, of course, isn’t as easy with electronic music, whereas a live band can adjust to crowds quite easily. You mentioned earlier that you have a forthcoming solo album, can you talk about that at all?
As far as the music is concerned, I’m as happy in my life as I’ve ever been. Basically, I did these three albums which were trying to translate the shoegaze aesthetic into an electronic context. After the last album, “Goodbye,” I felt a bit worn out by that sound and didn’t feel inspired to continue in that direction. For quite awhile, I was a bit clueless and didn’t know what to do next. And then I sort of rediscovered my love for the synthesizer as an instrument, and a more electronic sound aesthetic, in general. I think this new record reflects that quite strongly.
It’s going to have a strong emphasis on composition and writing as far as core melodies. At the same time the sound aesthetic has changed quite a bit, in that it sounds a lot more electronic. It’s difficult to describe these things, but it’s just nice to have something again that you feel excited about and inspires you.
Stream Ulrich Schnauss & Mark Peters’ tracks “Rosen Im Asphalt” and “Gift Horse’s Mouth,” as well as the fantastic solo Ulrich Schnauss song “In All the Wrong Places,” and his remix of the track “Love Movement.”