There are so many questions to ask when you get a chance to talk to someone who's had the type of career Len Faki has. Of course, the first question that comes to mind is about what it was like inside the legendary Berghain while he was a resident there.
But those kind of surface questions are wasted on someone of Len's magnitude. This is a person who has been living the club culture for his entire adult life, running labels, making music, and touring for years.
A relentless creative, you can be guaranteed he has spent more time thinking about techno, electronic music as a whole, and club culture than you have.
And so with a chance to pick his brain in the lead up to this year's SEMF, I peppered the famed producer with questions on everything from his Figure label celebrating a couple milestones in 2018 to the influence of festivals on clubs to the makeup of blackholes.
With Figure turning 15 this year, it seems like a good time to look back. What's an underrated label release that perhaps flew unfairly under the radar?
Numb from Setaoc Mass (Figure 73) which was his debut EP on the label. It did well, especially due to the more dance floor orientated tracks on the release. But there’s this terrific electro tune on the B-side called 'Solo Part Two' which I still love to play and that I think many are not aware of.
Figure's hundredth release came out recently. Tell me about putting that together...
Well, of course a lot of effort was put into Figure 100. We just celebrated 15 years of the label and catalog number 100 at once, so we wanted to put out something special, a real collector's item representing 15 artists that currently shape the sound of Figure. A lot of time in advance was needed to get the mixture of tracks right. There were so many great possibilities, which made it hard to finally decide.
For the artwork, we also came up with something different from the usual. We got Munich artist Julia Schewalie to do a 180x200cm artwork, for which she cut and reassembled Figure records from the last 15 years into one piece of art representing 100 releases. We then took photos of the art to be printed on the cover of the gatefold sleeve of Figure 100. By that the cover design is reduced to what has always been essential to our label and our music - grooves etched into vinyl.
Reaching such catalog number is unique, we spared no effort.
Your LFRMX series, where you make your own edits of classics with the profits going to charity, is a fascinating project. How do you choose which songs to edit? Do you think there are songs out there that would be better served being left in their original state or is everything fair game?
Thanks. LFRMX is actually not just about editing classics. It’s a variety of old tracks I might have accidentally dug out while browsing my shelves, but the majority are newer tracks that are not even on the radar of many and unreleased tracks as well.
Ideas eventually pop up when I prepare my sets or digitalise vinyl, and then these edits and remixes just happen. The idea tempts me so much that I often go for it directly and put a lot of effort into realising it. There’s no order or concept to which tracks I work on, every single one has the same importance and I always try to get them perfectly fitting for my sets and sound vision.
I think it’s always a question of how you treat the original, and yes, there are some untouchable classics, but apart from them, it is always a matter of respect and in what specific way you tweak them, in my opinion.
As a person who's achieved quite a lot of success, how do you keep yourself motivated creatively?
Creativity can arise from many things obviously, and can change over time. It got more and more essential for me to have that certain life-balance, which I think results in more creativity. The years of experience of being in the 'business' also changes because the way you deal with everything gets more relaxed. That also supports creativity.
I spend as much time in the studio as possible. Experimenting, trying out new things, looking for new sounds, and then transferring these things into new tracks, into drum patterns, to use them in sets or channeling that into new edits for LFRMX. That’s all highly inspiring to me. I am all about that - taking creativity from being in the process and doing it constantly!
Electronic music has undoubtedly influenced all popular music genres and yet remains somewhat removed from the mainstream music discourse. Why do you think that is?
I think some electronic music already plays a role in the mainstream. But the techno and house club music might just not be the stuff people want to hear outside of clubs all the time. The radio unfriendly format and the repetitive nature might also play a role.
Most radio stations or streaming playlists do aim for a broad spectrum of listeners, it has to be entertaining and varied. I think you just reach more of an audience if you stick to radio-friendly music. But that’s just one aspect. There’s a lot more obviously.
Another mention-worthy one is a lot of the club music does not really want to be mainstream, but rather stay in the so-called underground. This scene and music were invented for being different, non-commercial, and also played in spaces that provided alternatives to the mainstream. I think there will always be a countermovement to what’s commercial. Electronic music will always have new sub-genres and styles in that sense.
A lot of electronic music is lyric-less. What effect do you think instrumental music can achieve that music with lyrics can't?
Lyrics in music are the simplest form to excite people’s emotions. It’s natural and reaches people most directly. Pure electronic music is, at least to me, a different kind of music perception, as is also classical music, for example. What always amazed me from when I got into techno and house was the hypnotic effect. Tracks you can lose yourself in or dream. But also the energy that sound can express - it can be totally uplifting and inciting. That’s still the same for me after all these years and absolutely fascinating.
Is the changing nature of access to music changing the way you approach making music?
The variety has become bigger. Back then it was quite costly to get the sound you wanted. You had to spend thousands on that certain effect, drum machine or sampler. Today it’s all cheaper, digitalised and can even be available for free. A lot has changed in that sense. It’s all become more accessible through technology and the possibilities have become overwhelming. Still, it is crucial to stay true to your sound and not get lost or distracted in the endless choices. A certain balance is healthy, otherwise it can be rather stressful and make you lose your focus. This is me speaking about my perspective, there are many different reasons and also cultural differences I suppose.
Some people are genre purists and want techno to be techno and house to be house. Do you share these sentiments?
Not really for my part. I think that is because I grew up in another time where genres did not really matter that much and everything was mixed with each other. In the last years I also found it interesting to take over from someone who played house. I’d even wish for more diversity, I must say. I can also understand the purism thing, of course. I see myself primarily as a techno DJ. But I’m more the type who tries to show several moods during sets, such as some house grooves, then something rough and so on, but all making sense in a "techno frame". For me personally techno does not have to be three hours of darkness.
With a lot of electronic music acts there's a huge divide between the music they produce versus what they play in their set. Do you think that divide is necessary?
I think it’s individual. I can understand that some might produce different stuff to show another side of themselves on an album which differs from the music they play in peak time sets. I produce a lot and the majority is dance floor focused, but if I started to work on an album now I’d probably also decide to not go for bangers but to use the opportunity to show a different, more personal side and get deeper. But on the other hand, to those who constantly do complete opposite music of their performances I cannot relate.
You're playing SEMF and have played it a number of times. Can you share a memory from a previous edition?
It’s always great to play there, as the area of Stuttgart is where I come from and I still have a lot of friends there and family. So it’s definitely special to play at SEMF every time and I’m much looking forward [to it]!
Festival sets are shorter than normal club sets. Do you have an ideal set length? Why?
The longer a set the better in order to tell your own story. In clubs that is not always possible, and at festivals the approach is also a different one, as are the set lengths. I find it quite balanced in my case though. I sometimes have the opportunity to play longer, three-hour sets in clubs are good, and then at some festivals you have to tell your story in a more compact way in an hour or so. That’s part of the job and over time you manage to adjust to it.
Music festivals are everywhere these days. Do you think this is changing electronic music and club culture?
I am convinced that club culture will always exist, as it’s the foundation of the whole scene and vital to it. Of course, a lot of clubs are struggling because of the long festival season and big number of events. But both have their right to exist. I personally try to find a good compromise between club gigs and festival gigs. We discussed this among our team and intend to support both in a healthy manner. I think that is the responsibility of every DJ in the scene, and I hope they all remember where we’re coming from.
Finally, and most importantly, do you have a theory as to what's at the bottom of blackholes?
Well, that is an interesting question! Out of science we actually can’t say much about them as it’s hard to measure anything really. From the point of the event horizon there’s no turning back, light is disappearing and going further ensures nothing comes back. I find blackholes really fascinating and mysterious and I hope I will get to know more about them during the time of my life.
It’s not imaginable for us humans what power these black holes have and what might lie beneath. As a sci-fi aficionado, I like the theory of them as kind of portals - going into a blackhole lets you go to a white hole, a dimensional connection so to speak. This idea seems a logical one for us to understand at least and I was already fascinated by it in my younger years from watching Star Trek Deep Space Nine. The so-called wormhole was a central element of the show and I think the first time a theory close to a blackhole was emphasised in such a show.
But apart from that, I have read a lot of crazy theories, but that would go too far for being discussed here.