Electronic artist Ulrich Schnauss crafts music that is often the audio equivalent of staring in awe at the stars and wondering at the mysterious beauties of life. His music is often upbeat, with dense layers of vocals, synthesizers and percussion, exhilarating when played loud. After six years, Schnauss returns with A Long Way To Fall, which sees him trading density for a more direct approach in his percussion and elements, adding more space between the sounds, making music you can still immerse yourself in, though this time with more uneasy moments, songs that ultimately reward with a larger color palette, more subtle emotions, more spine-tingles and provocative images. Tracks like Her and the Sea, Like a Ghost in Your Own Life, the title track and A Forgotten Birthday are thought-provoking yet blissful examples of Schnauss’ personality, but there is a darker side to the album with the likes of I Take Comfort in Your Ignorance, The Weight of Darkening Skies and closing track A Ritual in Time and Death that show Schnauss challenging himself with some rocking and muscular rhythms and tempos.
Hi Ulrich, where does my phone call find you? I’m in California.
I’m at my home, in London.
When did you move there?
It’s been seven years this month.
Do you feel the culture and area affects your music?
I always think these things don’t affect the music that much because I think music is more like a personal thing and wherever you may live you always take yourself with you. Maybe in some ways because you experience slightly different things. I’m not sure it has such a big impact though.
I enjoy living in London because there’s lots of interesting stuff going on but I wouldn’t say I’m part of a specific scene that guides me in a certain direction.
What ideas or visuals or themes do you use in making your music? Do you have any movies or stories or pictures that motivate you?
Usually I just start by improvising on piano for a while and then sooner or later some kind of theme, it could be like a set of cards or something appears that gives me an idea how to start a song. I think quite often its more allowing something happen through you rather than being conceptional about it, or planning in a certain direction. Sometimes I write something that is quite contradictory to the mood I’m actually in. So when I’m sad or melancholic, I listen back to the song and I’m amazed that it’s euphoric or the other way around.
Along with your own music, you’ve worked with some incredible bands. I saw you perform with Chapterhouse. How awesome was that?
That was amazing. If you would have told me that twenty years ago my head would have exploded. That was really nice to play with them and tour with them.
How did you get in contact with them to do that?
That’s a while ago. We met the first time, I think we met at a gig in London. I was supposed to record a cover version of one of my favorite shoegaze songs for a compilation album and one of my favorite songs is Love Forever by Chapterhouse. So I decided to cover that one. Since I had been in touch with Stephen (Patman; Vocals, Guitar) and Andy (Sherriff; Vocals, Guitar) already I asked them if they’d be interested in getting involved in this remake. So we did that together and at some festival in the UK we also performed just that one song live. And then after that it just went step by step, so when they had this idea of doing a reunion I was somehow involved with that as well because on a couple of songs they needed an atmospheric background on keys. Then the idea of an American tour came about and they asked me if I wanted to support them on that tour as well.
And the whole time you can’t believe you’re dealing with one of your favorite bands.
That was really nice. The funny thing is that also, in the very beginning I was very star struck but then we became really close friends. I just visited Andy in Cornwall at the beginning of the year. Now it appears quite natural. Only now and then when we’re making music together I think ‘wow, this is amazing, I would have never expected this’ other than that we have a friendship-based relationship and it’s not so much anymore about me going ‘wow, I admire your music so much’.
They were pretty young when they started out. I talked to them outside their Troubadour show in West Hollywood and they said the first time they came to the States they were too young to get in to the club other than to play on stage. I realized they’re about the same age as I am, I’m 44.
That’s probably one of the reasons we get on so well is because there’s only about ten years between us so they’re basically one generation ahead. That’s not a massive amount of time.
When you work on music how do you have your instruments set up? All in one area or spread out?
My setup is all in one room. I’ve got one of those typical English flats so there’s a bigger room in the front, the lounge and that’s where I put the studio in. I’ve laid it out so that on one side of the room is the piano, where I do the basic writing and opposite of that is the computer and all kinds of synthesizers arranged around that. So then I turn around from the piano to the electronic setup and start arranging my core ideas.
In England people don’t have quite as much space as in continental Europe so I had to organize everything, trying to be efficient which means not all the synthesizers aren’t set up. They’re stacked in the shelf. So I have to take them out and set it up. I enjoy that because it makes you focus a bit more. If I’m putting the effort into taking one instrument out and setting it up then I’m more inclined to spend a lot of time with it.
What is one of your oldest instruments and one of your newest and what do you think they bring to your music?
I think the oldest one is probably an Oberheim Eight Voice. That’s an American synth from the early ’70’s, I think this one in ’74 or ’75. And the newest one is probably the Waldorf Blofeld. That’s a small synth that came out two or three years ago, I think. That is quite representative of my setup in general. I’m not into this analog versus digital debate. I think both platforms and all the hybrid forms all have interesting things to offer. For me its more a question of whether I like the actual instrument rather than what kind of technology is inside.
Just to take these two examples you’ve got the Eight Voice from the ’70’s. Its amazing because its basically eight true monophonic analog synths packed into one setup. So you’re playing eight synths at the same time, that’s how the polyphony is achieved. Therefore, it has a very powerful sound. You can hear it on records by Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Tangerine Dream and it has a very rich and a very warm presence. The Blofeld is really the opposite end of the spectrum, it would fit into most peoples’ pockets. It just makes the most out of digital technology. It has tons of wave tables in it, all digitally emulated, there’s nothing analog in there. But that doesn’t mean that its not capable of creating interesting textures, quite the opposite, actually. I really like working with digital waveforms and setting the modulation settings in a way that the synthesizer sort of strides through different digital waveforms and then you get these weird, always moving textures which actually sound quite organic, although its purely digital. [The Waldorf Blofeld] is a very good instrument, its very cheap as well but it offers a lot.
What chances did you take on A Long Way To Fall? How much is a departure from your past work and how do you think you’ve grown in the past years?
That’s always a difficult question for yourself to answer. I sometimes feel like I don’t have enough critical distance from my own music to analyze that. But its also funny because when I’m reading reviews it sort of covers the whole range again. Some people say it’s all the same again, hasn’t changed at all. Other people say it is quite a radical departure. so I guess that shows how subjective it is. My idea was just that I basically wanted to move away from this sort of Shoegaze-inspired stuff to a more pure electronic approach. I wanted to use a wider range of synth textures again, also some quite percussive, quite sharp stuff, not just these reverb-y textures which sound like early ’90’s guitars. That was definitely one thing. Another thing I also wanted to change is I got a bit tired of using conventional breakbeat-y rhythms so instead I wanted to try to create rhythms out of lots of found sounds, like footsteps or breaking glass. I do think there are changes. But at the same time I’d also acknowledge that it still sounds like something I’ve done.
You’ve worked with many bands as a producer, but is there a time you think you’d like to play in a band?
No, I’ve always thought that was a problematic direction to take because if you play with a band, especially because I have played in other bands, I think I have quite a bit of respect for that kind of setup and I think it should be done when it really does make sense creatively. And when you play with a group of people where everyone has a certain amount of input as well. I think sometimes these electronic projects then go live and hire a bunch of session musicians, that can be problematic because as someone in the audience I sometimes don’t buy these things, it doesn’t come across as believable to me. However I also think the problem is, this is electronic music, this is not music done by four or five people in a room with one person playing drums, one playing bass and so on. I think I’d much rather sacrifice on the showmanship end of things and not put on an amazing rock performance but stay true to the idea that it is electronic music and that means that I can actually handle it myself. I’ve got a pretty flexible setup now and I think that as far as music is concerned, that’s fine. I don’t want to start dancing on stage anyway. I don’t need to have my hands free. So I’m fine to work with MIDI controllers and stuff.
I’ve seen Moby and 808 State where they had people stage diving and musicians on stage along with the main electronic manipulators.
You have to remember that in those days a lot of that wasn’t really live. They had a DAT machine in the corner playing the backing tracks and then they would occassionally play a solo on top of that. But 99% of what you heard wasn’t live. I think then it made sense to create some kind of movement on stage that entertained or distracted people. As far as the whole band thing is concerned, only very few people have ever managed to do that in a good way. I remember The Orb had a really great setup. It was around the mid-90’s they had quite an involved setup with a big analog desk and effects and they had a drummer, guitarist and some other musicians and all that stuff was fed into the desk and they were on-the-spot manipulating and treating that. Then again, you have to be realistic nowadays, who would have the budget for that kind of setup? That would be insane. I’d love to work on a project like that. I don’t think I’d find anybody who would be willing to sponsor that.
I saw The Orb around that same time at the Park View Plaza near Downtown Los Angeles and there were several big trucks on the street in front for all the gear. There were huge mirrorballs and standup bassist, a hand percussionist, a drummer, all that stuff you were talking about. Alex Paterson did it while he could. You’ve collaborated with Airiel, one of my favorite bands. How did your work on Sugar Crystals [from the Battle of Sealand, 1998] come about?
I’m trying to remember how we met the first time because that was such a long time ago. I do remember what happened. I was on tour in the U.S. and I played a gig in Chicago and they were playing a gig later on that night, just around the corner. I knew about that and I went to that gig. I think we had been in touch before that via email as well. In those days I used to post lists of music that I was enjoying. I think I had put on one of their EP’s and I think Jeremy maybe had dropped me a message on Myspace or something. Maybe I sent them a message, I’m not sure how it happened.
Airiel’s new music sound like Jeremy is going in the same direction as your music, that of a one man electronic outfit, but maybe with some guitars. Talking with Jeremy I found out that we and probably you as well, share the same taste in music.
I think we share very similar musical roots, no doubt about that.
I know you’re going away from the “shoegaze” direction but since your album comes out about the same time as My Bloody Valentine’s, what do you think about their new music?
It’s difficult because I think this album would have really blown me away five years ago but since I’m not really listening to that type of sound that much anymore I couldn’t connect to it very easily. I think there’s a bit of a saturation as well for this kind of stuff. That’s why I was wishing they’d done something different. There were so many bands in the last decade that used that kind of guitar sound and a lot of them did it really well. So when I listen to that I don’t think there’s a need for another record like that. If you listen to the Lost in Translation soundtrack Kevin Shields is certainly capable completely different stuff as well. So I think it was a shame that he didn’t try to break away a bit more from that core MBV sound.
One band that took their inspiration from MBV is Seefeel. They came back a couple of years ago with their S/T album that drastically changed their sound.
I think they’ve done that several times in their career. Their third album [CH-VOX, 1996] Which was basically like an ambient album without any beats, any recognizable structure. I think they’re really brave. It’s always interesting to find out what they come up with next.
You worked on the Engineers album and I asked some of my friends on Facebook for questions for you and Anthony asked: “What’s going on with the Engineers?”
I’m still a member of the band. It’s not like that band has split up or anything. But the thing is just that the band is essentially Mark’s project, Mark Peters. He just needs to decide where he wants to take it next. He’s written a number of new songs. I think he’s made quite a bit of progress regarding demos but I think he hasn’t even decided yet how he wants to present them and what kind of setup it’s going to be. It’s definitely not the end of anything. I’m sure there’s going to be something happening this year or next year.
And you’ll be ready for when it happens?
Mark’s one of my best friends and we have a separate project together so we see each other constantly. I’m sure there’s going to be some involvement from my end. I think it might turn out to be a Mark Peters solo record and I’m just going to help on the live end when it comes to try the stuff live.
Do you have any plans to tour, come to the States in 2013?
There are some European dates and then the American tour is being worked on. I’d like to spend some of the second half of the year doing new music.
A Long Way To Fall is out now on Domino Records.