For several years now, there’s been an extremely interesting debate in the electronic music community over what’s more boring: watching a laptop performance or seeing a live set in the traditional sense (with lots of gear and knob twiddling). As it turns out, the answer is that the question itself couldn’t possibly be more stupid.
Without turning this space into a Sam Kinisonian rant, let’s just say there’s no mystery behind why most rock heads assume electronic music is worthless. Certain electronic musicians have to understand that they look ridiculous on stage — nobody wants to leave their computer to go out and watch some other geek staring at one.
What’s really boring, though, is when laptop artists get that furrow-browed, my-girlfriend’s-breaking-up-with-me-over-e-mail look in their eyes when they’re supposed to be performing in front of actual breathing humans. What’s boring is when DJs looks ambivalent about the songs they’re playing. In short, boring people make boring music, and even more boring people can talk about all of this without boring themselves.
So, now that the whole boredom motif’s beaten to death, it’s high time we got around to thinking about electronic artists with soul and purpose — those who transcend would-be contrived formats by sheer force of personality.
(Whoa, dude. Living in the future is crazy. Computers are, like, instruments now.)
Disproving the fact that you have to be an introverted loser in need of Paxil to be a laptop musician, Thomas Fehlmann gets crowds going with his goofy, drunk-uncle-at-your-wedding style of dancing. His energy is completely contagious — almost overwhelmingly so. At 47, Fehlmann’s also the nicest guy in electronic music. He’s happy, poised and uninhibited — qualities that make it really difficult to retain a cool-headed posture at his shows.
Fehlmann has quite the résumé. Born in Zurich, Fehlmann moved to Hamburg in ’77 to attend art school and began making experimental music soon thereafter. Since then, Fehlmann’s worked with everyone from Robert Fripp to Detroit techno originators Blake Baxter, Juan Atkins and Eddie Fowlkes. His work with the Orb, though, is perhaps what he’s best known for.
Fehlmann met the Orb’s Dr. Alex Paterson back when the good doctor was interning with Killing Joke — meaning, of course, that Paterson was a roadie at the time — and talking about making high-energy dance tracks. Fehlmann’s since played an integral role in defining what became the Orb’s bouncy, ornate ambient production style. Paterson and the guys used to joke that after making a bunch of chaotic noises and directionless sounds, they’d “bring in the Gehrmahn to give it sahm ohrdehr.” Even though Fehlmann was more of a composer and producer and didn’t participate in the group’s live performances in the past, he’s now essentially half of the Orb — they drop a new full-length next spring.
Despite his roots, Fehlmann’s burgeoning solo career is finally putting the man behind the boards into the limelight.
“Fripp, for me, was my initiation,” says Fehlmann when asked how he got into production. “In ’79, he was in Hamburg doing his ‘Frippertronic’ concerts — a one-man show where he would play guitar with two Revox machines. He hooked it up so it was sort of like an echo machine. It wasn’t his musicianship or his sound that inspired me, but the way that he independently worked with his ideas and that he didn’t want to get held up by any business hassles. That’s what inspired me.
“After meeting with Fripp, I decided to buy my first synthesizer, a Korg MS-20. Maybe in the first few months after that, I founded my first band, Palais Schaumburg.”
Palais Schaumburg was a post-punk electro-pop outfit that didn’t prove to be indicative of the terrain Fehlmann would end up covering, but it gave Fehlmann experience with electronics, mixing boards and other musicians.
Enter Cologne’s Kompakt records, home of Fehlmann’s solo career and the label that currently dominates much of Germany’s gigantic electronic music scene. (There’s so much variety and talent in Berlin alone right now that it practically dwarfs the entire U.S. market for bleep-bloop music.) Fehlmann has always been a career musician, but Kompakt really seemed to get him. Although Fehlmann is gracious about what the label has done for him, surely the Cologne crew knew that he was extremely overdue for attention.
Why did Fehlmann go solo?
“As it goes, working with projects and collaborators is nice, but more and more, I discovered that I wanted to find my very own kind of language in music making,” he says. “It developed gradually — I was a bit of a slow burner in that sense. It took quite a while to be totally happy with the stuff I was doing by myself.
“I’m kind of inhibited sometimes, but the Kompakt guys put out my first 12-inch and that gave me a boost,” continues Fehlmann. “The emotional response I got from the Kompakt guys gave me the confidence to go out and play live, which before I wouldn’t have dared to think of.”
These days, Fehlmann’s hardly shy. At this year’s Movement festival, his performance — he closed out the Underground Stage Sunday after Akufen and Pole — had onlookers screaming with beaming faces. It was one of those chill-inducing, Cheshire cat-smiling moments in live-music appreciation that turns cynics into temporary hippies.
“I have to say that the gig in Detroit was the most emotional set I’ve ever had,” volunteers Fehlmann when asked about playing live in general. “You have to remember, I only started playing out about a year ago — up until now, I’ve maybe played 30 or 40 gigs, or something. Also, [the crowd at Movement] was the most people I’ve ever played to. It was quite incredible for me.”
Fehlmann returns to Detroit this Friday at 1442 (1442 Brush St., Detroit). Theo Parrish, one of our best and most animated DJs, closes things out with abstract soul classics for some welcome late night freakiness to cap things off. D.Mateo, one half of the Berlin group BUS — who’s worth more than the $10 admission on his own — opens. Burst Audio will supply the sound, deflowering the virgin venue at high decibels.
Known for mixing things up in the Hague, the Novamen make their Detroit debut this Friday with a laptop-free electro performance. The Novamen hail from Bunker and Murdercapital Recordings, two of the best/dirtiest electro labels in the Netherlands. They’re probably best known for their releases with I-f and Alden Tyrell (see the Parallax Corporation), but this Friday’s show at 2132 Michigan Ave. (near LJ’s Lounge and the abandoned Michigan Central Station, Detroit) promises to be a must-see.
Also performing is Alex Lugo (formerly of Ultradyne) playing his debut solo live set. Ultradyne, you’ll note, was massive in Europe and criminally underappreciated in their hometown, Detroit. (What else is new?) Nobody, possibly including Lugo himself, knows what to expect of this solo show, which happens so recently after the Ultradyne duo split. Counter-Couture and Jan D open at this party, which hopes to revitalize local interest in dirty electro — possibly Detroit’s most ripped-off electronic style.
Expect a punk-rock vibe as one might expect from the party’s wonderfully low-budget concert-style copy-paper flyers — that and lots of 808 kicks amid vocoder and synth sleaze.
As if there isn’t enough happening on Friday, Rob Hood has to play too. At least it’s at The Works (1846 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-961-1742) and just down the Corktown strip from the Novamen party. Detroit’s old-school minimal master, Hood is a rare treat these days. Allen Gamble, Neil V, Mike Clark, Dan Kahn and Seth Troxler will also perform at this FTR records release party.
On Saturday, check out NYC’s Joe Claussell at Tangent Gallery (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit; 313-873-2955). Claussell is one of the DJ/producers who was responsible for club Vinyl’s legendary Body and Soul nights. Sounds like spiritual garage house meets lush Afro-rhythms at a Buddhist picnic. Mike Huckaby and Michael Geiger open. You might want to bring a towel if you plan on dancing. Last time Claussell nearly set off the sprinklers with the crowd’s body heat.Robert Gorell writes about electronic music for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]