Ulrich Schnauss came on the scene with his brilliant Far Away Trains Passing By in 2001. It was, in my estimation, an incredible freshmen album that catapulted him into the public eye. He went on to open for acts such as M83 and has been prolific since. In the last year, he’s released brilliant collaborations with Jonas Munk and his Tangerine Dream band mate Thorsten Quaeschning on the new Azure Vista Records label. Ulrich was kind enough to answer my questions about his process, his newest collaborations, some talk about synths, and his future plans.
Hello Ulrich. Thanks for taking the time to answer some of my questions. It’s been since 2007 since you answered questions for Somewherecold. So that’s about the time Goodbye came out. Since then, you’ve had two more solo albums come out and some collaborations as well. I guess I would like to talk a bit about your career to date from your own perspective. How do you view your output looking back over it from 2017 to 2001? Is there something among your output that you are particularly fond of? why?
Hello! Good to talk again indeed – it’s been a while. I’m always struggling to be just reasonably analytical about my own music – probably lacking the necessary distance for obvious reasons. To me everything’s part of the same story – making music is a bit like recording an audio diary anyway. As far as more mundane career aspects are concerned I think I went through that typical thing that a lot of musicians have to experience: first you’re being hyped and all the journalists enjoy having some new guy or girl to write about. Then they get a little bored and start pushing you down – if you survive that period somehow then you’ll most likely enter phase3 at a certain point where you’re obviously not as exciting as a newcomer anymore but at the same time you’ve also reached that level where you’re being labelled ‘established’ and they try a lot less hard to knock you down. I might be a little too optimistic here, but I have the impression I may slowly be approaching that third scenario now.
The last time I talked with you, I asked about the advancement of technology and your adaption to it and utilization of it in your work. Since 2007, things have grown leaps and bounds in terms of what one can do with just a laptop let along Ableton or other systems. Can you talk about how you view these advancements, what you’ve adopted and adapted for your own work, and what excites you most about current tech in writing and recording music?
A lot of the things I said in 2007 I’d probably have to revise – often stating the opposite now. To me that’s always been one beautiful thing about music – while I do appreciate people who reliably stick to principles in politics and philosophy, with popular culture it’s the opposite: what may have been a lie yesterday, can be the truth tomorrow – and vice versa.
For instance, for a long time I refused to make use of plugins – however, about 3 or 4 years ago I couldn’t help but to confront the truth that some major improvements had happened – and that software today may not only match hardware in terms of fidelity but even character as well. Since it’s much easier/cheaper to implement new and varied techniques of synthesis in software, the fact that it now sounds great as well has opened an infinite amount of additional possibilities that i very much appreciate. In fact, quite often these days I actually get that ‘kind in the candy shop’ feeling again that I experienced last time when i started getting into synths as a teenager.
The Passage album you did with Jonas Munk is brilliant. I know you have done another collaboration with him but can you talk a bit about how you two got together to begin working on music as a duo and what the writing process is like between the two of you? Also, has anything changed in the process between 2010’s Epic and Passage?
It’s not a big story to be honest. We’ve been friends for a long time, Jonas may visit me in London or I could be going to Odense – we sit down in the studio, drink coffee, smoke cigarettes and eventually start jamming. Usually rather quickly we’ll have settled on a core idea for a song and then we start arranging it together. Personally I like ‘Passage’ a lot better as it sounds more ‘mature’ (whatever that may mean in this context) to me – but I guess that can’t be a big surprise – musicians commonly suffer from the delusion that their most recent work is their best as well. 😉
I would like to ask about a few tracks off Passage that really struck me. can you talk about the writing and recording of both “Ao Hinode” and “Caffeine Blues”?
Jonas insisted on doing what eventually turned into ‘Ao Hinode’ – I think he was listening to a lot of 80s American new age stuff at the time and was keen on adopting that aesthetic for one piece on the album. ‘Caffeine Blues’ is based on an Ulrich idea – I actually wanted to have this a bit of a detroity vibe initially – so I tried to write some soulful chords with the 2nd oscillator detuned by 5 semitones. Throughout the process of working on the track it somehow morphed into a different direction though – to me it now actually almost has a bit of a brazilian vibe to it – certainly not something I’m disappointed about. 😉
So you just released the For Nothing ep, which is a collection of remixed and reworked older tracks along with an unreleased track, “Water Under the Bridge”. It’s a great track. What time period is it from in your catalog? Why did it get left off your former albums and why release it now?
‘Water Under the Bridge’ was the first piece I wrote and recorded for No Further Ahead Than Today – that’s why it still features a number of instruments that i actually have sold in the meantime. That main sequence in the first and third part is a memorymoog for instance.
It eventually turned into one of those pieces though where I always remained somehow unsatisfied about the overall mix. After ‘no further’ came out a couple of people expressed their disappointment that ‘Water’ wasn’t included. I took that as an incentive to give it one more shot achieving a decent mix – luckily I think it actually worked out ok.
I have heard the new synthwaves album and it’s just resplendent! How did you and Thorsten Quaeschning come together to produce this collaboration? How do you both write together and it is different from how you interact with Jonas in terms of writing?
Thorsten and I are bandmates in Tangerine Dream – and also the two remaining composers after the very sad departure of Edgar. The overall writing process is probably not different at all to Passage – maybe with the exception that in the case of the Synthwaves material we didn’t even consciously worked on an album at first. We just had some time to kill in-between shows and enjoyed jamming based on the idea that everything should lean towards an 80s synth music aesthetic somehow.
So, on Synthwaves, I would love for you discuss the writing and recording of “Rain on Dry Concrete” and “Cats and Dogs”. What were your thought processes behind these pieces and any insights into the writing and recording you could give listeners?
I probably should explain a general thing here – I hardly write about particular things or just in a remotely conscious way overall. If anything, it’s more the opposite: I sit down at the piano, try to enter an almost trance-like state and improvise – with a bit of luck sooner or later some kind of theme (a set of chords, a melody etc.) will appear that catches my attention and wakes me up again – I then turn around and put that rough sketch into the sequencer and start developing ideas for an arrangement. It’s not that different with jamming really – just that obviously you’re sharing that experience with one or more other people. I really can’t say anything more exciting than that Thorsten and I got up in the morning, had a coffee, switched on the gear and started playing – without giving it too much thought at all.
The titles (as so often) came a long time after the music was already finished – the music of ‘Cats and Dogs’ for instance simply reminded me of an atmosphere I’m familiar with from my hometown in the north of Germany – it’s the city with the most average amount of rain per year in the country – so the title is simply referencing that.
When beginning a project, how do you approach the initial stages of creating? What is it like for you to come to the console or your instrument with a clean slate and begin to explore possibilities?
Like i said above: when I’ve reached the level where it’s actually about working with electronics and arranging a piece (after the initial search for a worthwhile idea via improvising on the piano) I usually don’t have much problems working in a pretty focused and determined way. Most of the time I will have settled on an idea in what kind of ‘sonic’ or ‘aesthetic’ direction I want a piece to develop during that initial piano phase already. So, later it’s primarily a question of how close I can come to reaching those goals. I feel like I’m still at the beginning of a long learning process and far from satisfied with the results I’m getting – but there’s an element of encouraging progress as well of course – otherwise I’d most likely struggle to motivate myself to continue.
When you play live, what is your set-up like? what sort of equipment to you utilize on stage to bring your music to life?
At the moment my set ups very reduced – quite simply also because there’s only so much gear one person is allowed to travel with on planes etc. – the set up is centered around Ableton live.
Once a song is finished I break it down again – about 16 tracks per section of a piece (4 main synths, 3 pads, 3 sequences and leads, 3 rhythm/percussion tracks, 1 bass channel, 1 channel for transitional elements that help me to move to the next section and an instrument channel for a dx7 emulation plugin which carries a lot of old sounds I programmed on the original hardware – oh, and then there’s a whole bunch of FX busses as well of course).
With such a comprehensive amount of individual elements I can then quite easily create alternative arrangements and even experiment a bit.
While it may not be the most original, to me it certainly is the most rewarding and inspiring way of performing electronic music live at the moment.
So, what’s next for you Ulrich musically? Should we all be expecting a solo record soon?
I’d like to put out an EP with exclusively new material in autumn – working on that at the moment. It’s probably gonna be around 6 tracks or something like that.
Also, the Tangerine Dream album we started with Edgar and had to finish without him is finally being released in late September.
Besides that I think I may have a couple more surprises in the bag for the second half of the year – and am also working on a number of projects which will hopefully see the light of day in 2018.
Thanks so much for answering my questions.
Thanks for an enjoyable conversation and continuously supporting this kind of music!
Buy the newest collaborations at the Azure Vista Bandcamp.