When you've spent over 20 years at the top of your profession, it must be hard to find new ways to challenge yourself. A true superstar of the German techno scene, Chris Liebing is one of the most in-demand DJs in the world.
But instead of resting on his live show, Liebing ventured into new ground to create by far his most cohesive and compelling album to date. Burn Slow sees him steering an enviable group of artists into dark and cerebral territory.
We caught up with the techno legend and asked him about everything from the album as an art form to an artist's responsibility to their fans, to how he plans on integrating his new music into his live show and to see just where his head's at in the wake of releasing his game-changing record.
First off, congrats on the album. It's not really what I was expecting and I'm sure you'll get that quite a lot but I've been listening to it on repeat.
Chris Liebing: Nice! That's great to hear because that's basically what it was intended for. Not necessarily on repeat, that's a nice bonus, but basically listening to it from beginning to the end sort of thing.
It's already exceeded my expectations because I really never expected that anyone would take the time to listen to an album from the beginning to end but apparently a lot of people still do. It's great to hear.
Yeah people have been talking about the death of the album since Napster, but I just haven't seen that. What I've seen really is people doubling down on the album experience.
That is the first time I've heard that from someone, what you just said. I didn't really realise that. You're probably talking to more people than I am about things like this but I grew up with the album listening experience and I think the album format is just such an important format.
When I was sitting on this album I definitely put down my expectations of people actually listening in full. In these modern times everything needs to be so quick, and every video on YouTube should only be like three minutes because nobody's looking for anything that's longer.
I thought this is kind of like something that is really out of fashion, so it's really nice to hear what you just said that people are doubling down on it, that's great.
It would be a real shame if the album went away. One of the things I've taken away from Burn Slow is it sounds like you're really trusting your instincts, and I'm wondering how you get to a point where you can do that?
That's a good point [laughs], I hadn't thought of it that way. What I was trying to do when I went to the studio everyday with Ralf Hildenbeutel was basically to start a new track every day. I told myself I do not want to think about target groups. I wanted to get rid of all these limits for myself, especially the limits you put on yourself.
When you're a DJ for twenty years, you're dealing with BPM all the time, so you think of BPM a lot and that was something that I didn't want to do on this project. We had fourteen studio days and we literally started a track every day and the basic layout was completely done every day. Every morning I told myself, ‘Okay you’re just trusting your instincts,’ like you say. I was just randomly listening to playlists of mine and whatever came up that inspired me I walked into the studio and I looked at the console without much thinking involved. 'How about this line’ [hums a melody] something like this you know, and ‘oh that sounds good.’
So yeah you're right, I trusted my instincts. I just did it somehow. That's the point of the album as well I just really stopped thinking about it.
You mentioned Ralf Hildenbeutel who is credited on all but one track of the album according to Apple Music. Tell me about working with him.
I have to say Ralf gave me the confidence to trust my instincts. I'm in the studio with someone who's basically responsible for the early amazing Harthouse and Eye Q days.
He was one of the first producers who I really consciously listened to. When I was in a record store, it must have been '93 when I put an Eye Q record on and I saw the name Ralf Hildenbeutel and I was like ‘wow this is great.’ Then in '95 I started working for Eye Q and I met Ralf for the first time. So this is a person I've known for quite a long time and who's an absolutely super amazing musician and so he made it really easy for me to trust my instincts.
I was so happy to be working with him [laughs]. Just like, ‘wow this guy actually agreed to go to the studio with me to make this album’. And that's kinda part of the story of the album as well, who I made it with.
Yeah I wanted to talk about another collaborator on the album: Gary Numan. I feel like he doesn't get his credit for being such an instrumental figure in modern music.
Absolutely not. He doesn’t. And it's interesting because if you speak to English people and you talk about Gary Numan, actually they look at him like not as iconic, not so cool, somehow. I sometimes hear even that he’s a bit cheesy.
But I do agree he's never got his credit for what he's achieved because what most people really don't know is that he was really, I would say, the first one in 1978 probably who had a chart hit which featured a Moog synthesizer for the very first time in a big prominent way in the track. And I don't think he gets enough credit for this, for basically breaking synthesizers into the commercial world.
Bringing it back to you a little bit, your sound has changed over the last few years and I wonder if you think about an artist's need to progress versus a responsibility to give the fans what they want?
You know I think for me not so much has changed inside my head, because I always felt like I wanted to make music like this Burn Slow project, or even what I already have my head for the next one.
There were certain factors that have prevented me in doing it before. One of them was that I basically don't have the ability on my own musically. I have to be honest with myself, I've never learned an instrument but I really want to make music and I think that was the main reason I got into DJ-ing, it was my access to music. I'm coming out of a family that had no musical connections or anything and I think DJ-ing was my way of making music.
But I grew up in the '80s with all the great music that came out then and I've always like melodies and vocals but I had a hard time making them without it sounding cheesy. I really hate cheesy music so I stayed away from melodies and vocals for a long time, and still am.
The DJ-ing put me more into a rhythm state of mind and so I got really good with rhythms and sounds, especially with sound design and I know I can mix a record and things like this.
So you concentrate on what comes easily to you and the DJ-ing was amazing for this and obviously that limited me to make music that suits that direction. But I think somehow I had this urge to find the right person to make music that carries over the vibe of '80s and '90s music in sort of a technoid form I would say. It’s a weird combination [laughs].
It sounds like this has been a relief to make this album and yet when I listen to the album I get a lot of paranoia and isolation. It's super intimate and super personal.
It is really intimate I think. The project was about getting rid of all your limitations, being in the present moment and creating music out of this. But at the same time sonically and lyrically it's about what happens if you completely lose yourself in thought so heavily that you fall into depression.
At the time when we were working on these lyrics, Chris Cornell committed suicide and there was lots of talk about mental health issues in music. You see all the struggles that all the stars go through, and in the DJ world you have people who play music all over the world constantly without having breaks, really losing all their social surroundings because they're constantly travelling.
It is quite mentally and physically challenging because you play between eight and twenty gigs a month some months, basically every month. It's really physically quite challenging because there's always gigs you can play. Bands have their tours so they see the beginning and the end.
And this can really turn into heavy depression for some people. What is the way out of it? That's the point of these lyrics that comes across so personally, you're right.
Musically speaking we're going back to the instincts. It's literally me. When you hear 'Ghosts of Tomorrow' and you hear [hums the melody] this is literally me standing in the studio doing this sound with my mouth [laughs] and then trying to find a sound for that. So it's very personal because it's not filtered.
There was a music critic and philosopher named Theodor Adorno who was super classically oriented and hated jazz and popular music, and said that super repetitive music is bad because it mimics psychotic behaviour. I just wondered what you thought about that?
It sounds to me like he might have a point [laughs]. I agree certain repetitive music maybe mimics that but I think the majority of repetitive music is actually there to put you in a sort of trance. So, the purpose, or let's say motivation, is a different one.
I'm sure there's some repetitive music that is produced out of the craziness that goes on in the mind but I think the majority of music comes more or less from African rhythms. The endless drumming rhythms, dancing around in order to lose yourself.
It's the other way around. The music didn't come out of a crazy state, the music helps you lose your state. So I think it's probably not one or the other, it's probably a little bit of both. Although I would say it's more the purpose of repetitive music to lose yourself in a repetitive rhythm and not be thrown out of it constantly by something new.
To me the album works as a cohesive unit story-wise. Something happens to the protagonist, like their relationship falls apart in 'And All Went Dark' and then they kind of lose it a little bit and run away from wherever they are, leaving everything behind and starting a new life. Then they fall into some ideological crowd or something but are still really isolated and they get this opportunity to do something impactful with this group but they decide not to because they want to keep living.
Yeah [laughs]. You can actually put it that way. That is an interesting way you put it, but what you describe in the beginning is essentially a little bit my story because of my wife and I; she broke up with me in 2012.
We have an amazing relationship and still live next door and we have two wonderful kids together who are really, super happy, and there's a great friendship between us now but it was really hard for me. The end of that relationship was extremely troubling for me because I was not expecting it.
But looking back I say, 'wow that was really an eye opener', because that was not the situation both of us wanted to be in anymore, and also for the sake of our children, because I think children should grow up in a happy environment and not in a forced happy environment.
So the five spoken word passages on the album, they're not really related but there's a common theme. It's not one big story, what Polly [Scattergood] wrote for 'And All Went Dark' was whatever came out of Polly. What Miles [Cooper Seaton] wrote for 'Card House' came completely out of him, but it was really apparent a common theme was strong, which was: completely working out of the present moment and what happens if you fall out of the present moment and you get lost in thought.
Not to take up too much more of your time, but tell me about getting the album signed to Mute Records.
I always think about two facts that appeared to me only much later because if I had planned it that way it would have never happened. I got to produce this album with Ralf, the person who actually started making techno in the early '90s in Frankfurt. I would say Frankfurt was a birth place of techno too, not only Detroit [laughs].
I don't know if you remember that they put up this billboard at Movement Festival saying Detroit is the birthplace of techno. I've always had troubles with that idea because I always felt like Berlin and Frankfurt were very much there as well. Maybe it'd be better to say there's a triangle going on between these three cities and then obviously other places added to this.
I mean I could go really deep into this now but when it comes to this kind of techno, the fall of the Berlin Wall gave us so much new space and crazy places to party. The music was there, there was a real big group of Frankfurt producers in the early '90s and I think Ralf was one of the leading ones making that sound.
But this is what I wanted to say with this, Frankfurt's definitely one of the birthplaces of techno and Ralf definitely was one who helped this process. He made these records that got me into techno, like the early Eye Q records. At that time I was still DJ-ing pop music basically, and then I discovered techno. There's a vibe and there's a certain feeling to it and I always had felt like we needed to relive these old Eye Q days somehow again.
There was a certain vibe to it that I wanted to recreate on this album. So making this album with one person who actually made the music that got me into techno in the first place is the first fact.
And the second is getting to release it on a label that really shaped my musical understanding. I grew up with Depeche Mode, and back when I was like 14/15 years old I didn't even know about labels, I was just listening to the music. And then the more I got into music, the more I realised 'wow,' there's this label Mute that has all this great stuff.
You should make a movie out of that.
[Laughs] It's pretty funny actually.
One more thing I wanted to ask was about playing the album live.
This is still something that I have to think about and to find solutions to how to present this and where and when. There is this crazy idea that some friends and I had a couple of weeks ago at a late night dinner. I was discussing the issue that I want to at some point present this album live, but I'm not sure how to. First of all technically, and secondly where and in what environment.
The difficult thing is if I branded it as I'm playing this live, there's a lot of techno-heads who'd come out and I'd be playing a lot of music where you basically just stand there and listen, not dancing. You don't want to disappoint people who expect to dance but then again you also don't want to turn this album into a whole dance floor album by just adding dance beats. So that's where the problem lies.
I still have to contemplate it in my head somehow. I think about it a lot but we came up with this crazy idea. I've never been to Burning Man, so maybe Burning Man 2019 will be the place where I have a little mini camp for myself and I bring the whole album to life.
Damn. That's a really good idea.
So it's Burn Slow live at Burning Man 2019.
Yeah, that's too good to pass up.
It is actually, isn't it? [laughs]
Catch Chris Liebing at Awakenings & Time Warp present Connect 2018