It seems quite in keeping with our recent theme on Mixtape of the intersection of the global and the local to talk to the electronic musician, artist and theorist Cristian Vogel. Born in Chile, he went to school and began his music career in the UK, since which he has lived for prolonged periods in Barcelona, Berlin and now Copenhagen, as well as holding artistic residencies in Japan and elsewhere, and touring the world as a DJ and live act.
In the mid-late 90s, he threatened to become one of the biggest names in techno – indeed for a short while he had superstar DJ status in Germany in particular – but he always exhibited a furious refusal to swim with the shoal. Relentlessly experimenting with avant-garde electro acoustic music, ballet scores, AI-generated rhythms, mutant soul (in the Super_Collider project with Jamie Lidell) and more besides, he constantly baffled those who wanted techno to be a standard and predictable formula, and was himself alienated by the scene itself.
Nonetheless, he has continued to evolve his sound: still making glorious dancefloor tunes, most recently under the NEL guise, and making albums that, while often abstracted and always varied, are still true to techno’s first principles. His latest, The Rebirth of Wonky, composed and recorded in lockdown, is his 25th album and is as radical as anything in his catalogue. With sounds and rhythmic meltdowns that recall psychedelic rock and free jazz, despite being 100% digital, it’s a million miles from the “business techno” that fills big venues – but it’s maybe truer to the sci-fi dreams of early techno pioneers than those cookie cutter club records are.
Sound of Life’s Joe Muggs spoke to Cristian to get a perpetual outsider’s perspective on the place of electronic music in our strange new world.
Q. Hi Cristian, with the album out now, what are you working on next?
Every day in 2021 so far, I have been working to keep my creativity, sense of purpose and musical thinking healthy. Like many other musicians, I'm a lifelong practitioner, but we've been expected to just do an emergency stop and handle the jack-knife pretty much on our own. I don't find this state of mind conducive to a healthy musical imagination at the moment: there's a lot of anxiety and confusion about the value of it all. And that microcosm reflects the macrocosm – the free fall of the culture-creating community. For those that might be reading this looking for inspiration... well, I can say that study and learning is a good way to go. Personally, I am plumbing the depths of big creative software packages.
Recently, I consciously made a move into working more with visual production – perhaps pre-empting the NFT trend? That has felt good. Since 2020 I have worked on visual effects, sound design and video editing for Danish literary collective mycelium and the Danish theatre director Anja Behrens, as well as making my own promo clip for “Peace La Roche” from the new album. In these collaborations, we are all dealing with the same undertow, so there is an easy group flow. Jarringly though, the fact that there has been zero reimbursement for hundreds of hours of work reminds that we are being pulled out to sea.
Q. You began in, and are probably still most known for, techno: where do you see yourself in regard to nightclubs and their ecosystem?
I still feel like my music, the career I wanted for myself, and in fact my whole physical being can't belong there – at least not the way the cliquey festivals and club scenes were when it all began to shut down in March 2020. I felt like that in the early 2000s too – we formed Super_Collider back then as some kind of circus runaway attempt to escape, but the exploitation just got worse and worse. At least now I can say that the way it played out in the electronic music club scene, especially in the States, meant that it wasn't all down to my low self-esteem or gutsy paranoia. Most of the scene got either boring or disingenuous, biased or bland.
For the record, if I do ever play out again after this – and don't count on it – I want it to be on my terms. For at least some time, I want to be able to say how much I need to get paid without feeling like I am an imposter at that fee level. I want to be able to say what time I want to perform without promoters telling me what time would be better for them. I want to be able to meet a respectful audience that doesn't jeer and shout commands at me to play louder and harder for them and their drunk mates.
I would like to be able to live out my years being held in the highest esteem by a music community of profound significance for global generations born in the ‘70s and onwards. Those whose dedication and hard work helped craft the skills of the technological music scene are not being treated in the way that jazz veterans are, for example – unless they recorded on WARP Records at some point (the independent label for the likes of Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada, Flyign Lotus), which as a museum is not even slightly close to comprehensively representing what happened in techno in Europe. If the club scene can wake up then I'll be happy to take a coffee together with it and figure something out for the future.
Q. Has the rise of "business techno" impinged on your world? Having been through the big superstar DJ boom of the late ‘90s, how similar do you think this is, and how much do you think it differs?
Yes, I think it could be fundamentally different. “Business Techno” – a good name for the DJs and promoters that we won't name here – is a little similar to what happened in the commercial rave scene in the ‘90s, except the big difference for 21st-century event promoters is that they became involved in some kind of hyperventilation of an economy that was running on a scarce fuel: namely, the moral values of the counterculture which spawned and nurtured the music. The big promoter cartels back in the ‘90s – even before the alcohol, energy drink and tobacco sponsors – started to see an incredible opportunity when it became obvious that the "boom-chack" could become a “boom cheque”.
I'm talking about the innate sonic pulse of the music – it has this functional, driving aspect to the sound and they managed to turn that sonic function into one that made lots of profit for them. And that's what went wrong. Money was not (only) what the music and underground music community was dealing. Techno was also the best attempt at a real diversification though music, a decentralisation of a current sound and a sonic history. Musically and socially, it was inclusive, elusive, protective and re-combinant. For me, those early experiences were characterised by a spatial community massively altered by the sheer abstraction of the music that was amplified in big spaces – some dancing, but also a lot of ideas moving about, of wonkiness and fun alongside courage in the face of imaginary futures – like an exhilarating gallop towards tilting temples on the horizon. I don't hear that kind of vibe in the promotions anymore!
On recent events, the DJs who shunned the global message of social distancing way too quickly in 2020 in order to answer the calls of their promoter cartels – well, I opine that there was no valid excuse for them to appear to be normalising clubbing before it was safe to do so. They should have done the exact opposite; the big promoters and alcohol companies should be creating funds to bail out the incapacitated venues and music creators. Where are the private foundations? Where are the museums, the didactic institutions? RBMA couldn't have been the only thing to give back from the big corporates who exploited our sub-culture.
Q. Have you followed any of the super-vivid "deconstructed club" or "hyperpop" music of the last decade or so?
I have a little bit. I think it's always a challenge to add lyrics to abstract electronic sounds. It’s not easy, and brings up a lot of questions about lifestyle, values, meaning – at least to those who understand the language of the lyrics. To everybody else in the world, I guess the music has this sonic imprint of material that’s made for radio play and mobile speakers. You know, the pop music cookbook with added flavour enhancers – instantly recognisable rhythms, extremely reduced dynamic range, massive high-end boost, low frequencies cut off below 100hz, etc. Can't say I am particularly caught by a lot of it, but what I heard of [Scottish electronic producer] SOPHIE – sadly after her passing – seemed to have a unique artistic expression to it that’s lacking in other stuff from that genre I've come across.
Q. I once spoke to the dubstep/techno producer Pinch about his inspiration in Pakistani and Afghan ritual qawwalimusic. He said he wished he could be as rhythmically free and flexible as those musicians. Do you ever imagine a dance culture could emerge out of techno but cut free from the regular grid of sequencers?
Absolutely. The time is now! There's a lot of different ways to make musical events evolve over time. I really hope that the audience wakes up and snaps out of the reliance on having so much cyclical repetition before they can get into music. Repetition is important, but there's many more musical dimensions where repetitive phrasing can occur. The thing is this: all forms of music have the power to be revelatory. If that is a sensation you have had from music at some point in your life, and you want to feel it again – you want to have music reveal things to you, to speak to you – then you need to get better at tuning into that voice. The practice is called active listening, and it needs some training, that’s true.
One good exercise is to listen closely to music that is outside of what you are used to, and try your best not to talk on top of it, but make observations after the music has played. For example, if you normally like music that has a lot of repetitive rhythm and is monotonous or mono-rhythmic, then try and listen to something that does not have a repetitive rhythm but keeps that drone like aspect. Try and do that at least once a day. Find out what it feels like to hear the other details that usually get overshadowed by beats, like the sense of duration which is a very important musical variable. Drums occupy a lot of the frequency spectrum, pulse and dynamic energy. It’s actually quite liberating to put a bit of distance between your listening position and the banging of the percussion. From there, one develops a way to listen to percussion as a tuneable structure – but not like other instruments are, not tuned in pitch space, but something else, something architectural. Something you can inhabit or explore.
Q. You've worked in ballet, installation art, and more. Do you feel a part of “the art world” as such?
Well, I'd love to be there more to be honest, but in some ways I have felt that “the art world” sees my background as baggage. I was so happy to see Turner Prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller's Everybody in the Place TV essay counter that feeling. Personally, I have always enjoyed working in theatre and cultural institutions. I feel comfortable placing the act of creation within a conceptual framework. I enjoy the sensory preoccupations of the more impactful art forms. I like the concept of the gallery and the museum – places to be immersed in artworks, where the shop and bar is outside of the gallery. You can browse and feel all sorts of feelings, but a museum is not about being a consumer in the same way as in a boutique. I wish there was something more developed like that for sonic artists, a better way to engage people with sound art where it is not subservient to the visual arts. As I said at the top of this interview, I am currently in a “if you can't beat them....” phase, so I am trying to get more into the art world – the wolf's soul of my music, dressed up in a sheepskin jacket of something visual. That’s the strategy I employed in my feature film, Agnete and the Merman.
Q. Does techno, or electronic music, still have the capacity to maintain, as Alvin Toffler put it, "the habit of anticipation", to be speculative fiction? Do you still imagine beyond the immediate hype topics in art and technology to more distant or radical futures?
Yes I do. I am utterly convinced that music and sonic practice can do much more than it is currently known for. Auditory design thinking, global music communities and sonic culture will contribute significantly to the complex challenges we face in the 21st century and the massive societal shifts we must undertake. In 2019, I founded a sonic design agency called Ekometic, aligned with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. I'm still trying to get it off the ground, but it is firmly built on the very concept you mention in your question. That discovery through sound is how we continue to understand our place in a complex world. Music and sound design must no longer be sidelined as entertainment. Its stakeholders need to emphasise the inherent potential for sound to imagine the future and weave in the past, in order to create new sonic experiences which can drive social and technological innovation towards life-centred goals.
The Rebirth of Wonky is out now!
Cover Image: Cristian Vogel
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs