When it comes to the German musician Ulrich Schnauss' recorded output, the term "oeuvre" seems particularly apt. The three albums he recorded between 2001 and 2007 — Far Away Trains Passing by, A Strangely Isolated Place, and Goodbye — are designed less for listening to than for crawling inside, like nests woven together from twigs of shoegaze, swatches of Kompakt's ambient pop, and shimmering threads plucked from the Cocteau Twins' ethereal spool.
The title of his last solo album marked the artist's move from Berlin to London; in retrospect, it also seems to have been a way of saying farewell to the style he had spent six years fine-tuning. Six years after Goodbye, Schnauss finally returns with a new solo album, and while it's impossible not to hear his signature in its gossamer textures, A Long Way to Fall represents a subtle but significant shift in his approach. The starry-eyed pop melodies are more subdued; the feathery guitars have blown out into a diffuse harmonic spray. But the music's outwardly ambient characteristics can be misleading; finely tooled machine rhythms ripple discreetly beneath the haze, and there are ominous undercurrents running through even the most blissed-out passages, as though to suggest that the illusion of weightlessness comes at a price. Titles like "The Weight of Darkening Skies" and "Borrowed Time" reinforce that sense of forces looming and reckonings to be made.
On a video call from his studio in London, Schnauss discussed the particularities of his sound, the reason for the six-year gap between solo albums, and why he won't be moving back to Germany any time soon.
I see you're in your studio.
Yeah, which is my home as well, so it's kind of the same thing.
Is that a Tangerine Dream poster on the wall behind you?
Well spotted! I'm quite good friends with Edgar Froese's son Jerome, and I know Edgar a little bit, so when I lived in Berlin I quite often went to their studio. They have loads of old stuff lying around, so I got that one. It's an old gig poster from the early '80s, when they played Greece.
Let's talk about the record. Your last solo album was six years ago; what were your intentions going into the new one?
The reason for the delay is two things, basically. Musically, I did want to change things after Goodbye. This initial idea I had for the last three albums, of merging a sort of shoegaze aesthetic and songwriting with electronica — I think with Goodbye I had said everything about that that I could imagine. So it took me a while, probably like two years, of just experimenting and trying new things to come up with something that I found equally challenging and interesting. Also, at the same time, during the past five years there were some quite significant personal changes. I had some health problems, I was diagnosed with diabetes, and my relationship broke down after 10 years, so it was a mixture of several things that contributed to that delay.
A lot of ambient electronic music has turned very dark in recent years, with a lot of influence from post-punk and industrial. But your music continues to be very colorful and even happy.
To be honest with you, I always saw that as a bit of a misperception. My music may be happy sounding, but it's not because I am happy. My music sounds happy because I am trying to describe, through musical means, the state that I desire — but not the state that I'm in. It's like a utopian or escapist idea. It's not like I'm sitting down, I'm feeling great, and I'm going to write a happy song. It might actually be the opposite. I'm really sad and I write something optimistic or hopeful to lift me out of it. Which is pretty much the way I've always listened to other people's music as well. I've always used music as a way of escaping reality, rather than confronting it.
Since your last solo ablum, you've collaborated with Jonas Munk and Mark Peters. Did working with other musicians affect how you make music alone?
It always has, to a degree. I've always tried to collaborate with other people as much as I can, and in fact I've always tried to keep a balance, where 50% of what I'm doing is collaborative stuff and 50% is solo. A, for the reason that it's enjoyable to work with other people, but also B, for a more strategic reason, maybe, that it's a very good way of learning things and to become a better musician. You learn a lot about how other people perceive music if you work with them; you learn about the techniques they're using. It challenges you as well, because you have to react to things that you wouldn't have come up with on your own.
Did your techniques change much on this album, as you tried to change your sound?
Ever since I started making music, I had this idea in my head of trying to create an electronic type of music that is made almost in a symphonic kind of way, where you don't just record a foundation and put a strong lead line on top, but you have different elements interacting with each other. Just like in an orchestra, where you also don't necessarily have just one lead line and the rest is backing track; all the different sections react towards each other. And then, beyond that, on a more formal level, I tried to change certain things about the general sound aesthetic, because I was getting a bit tired of using conventional, breakbeat-type rhythms. I wanted to try to create rhythms more out of found-sound stuff — so instead of using a snare drum, using footsteps or broken glass. In terms of synth shapes and figures, I wanted to use more percussive sounds again, because the previous sort of shoegazey stuff I've done, all the colors were really washed out and reverby, and I just started enjoying the synthesizer again as an instrument that can also create quite present, quite sharp, rhythmical shapes.
Do the titles come first, or after the songs are written?
First comes just a mood or an atmosphere, I guess. For me, it's not that easy to come up with titles that describe that, because obviously I'm not a native English speaker, so I always have to think a bit how to express this adequately in English. Quite often, I stumble across certain expressions in conversation, and I'll think that exactly describes what I was trying to express with that song. That even goes for the title track, for instance. Mark and I, in the kitchen one day, were talking about a friend who was very successful 10 years ago as a musician in commercial indie music, and since then it's been a long way to fall for him. Mark used that expression, and I thought, "That's it, that's exactly what I was trying to express."
I read an interview from a year or two ago in which you were quite dispirited with the state of the music industry. Do you still feel that way?
It's a very mixed picture, you know? There's a lot of great music around, and I think there always will be, probably, but the music industry as an industry obviously has severe problems. No one can deny that. I think what pains me particularly about this, and probably more as a music consumer rather than a music producer, is that I enjoyed that situation in the '90s where the mainstream music business was almost subsidizing smaller things as well. Let's say you were an underground artist trying to realize very ambitious projects. You could basically, as a part-time job, make commercial remixes for major labels, and they would pay you significant amounts of money, and that way you had the artistic freedom to do the stuff that you really wanted to do on the side. I think few people realize that because this whole industry is collapsing, that has unwanted side effects in so many ways. I don't really share this sentiment, "Oh, it's great that Britney Spears earns a couple million less." It doesn't work that way. It means that the people at the bottom will also earn a couple thousand less, and in those cases, it's basically robbing you of the chance to fund your existence.
You're one of the lucky ones, in a way. You're with Domino, and they're in that middle space where they're still actually able to sell records.
That's what I was trying to say. I'm not moaning because I'm doing particularly badly myself. To be honest with you, if I look around my circle of friends, I think I'm actually doing surprisingly well. It's not about me. But what I'm worried about, as a person who loves music, is the long-term effect of this situation. I do see around me that fewer people are able to make a living out of music, and fewer and fewer people are able to raise the money that is necessary to realize interesting projects that don't have a straightforward, commercial approach. That's what I'm criticizing. But I do acknowledge that, personally, I'm one of the few people who are still doing all right, and I'm grateful for that.
You moved from Germany to London seven years ago. Has it been a nurturing place for you? Do you feel connected to the London music scene?
I think the good thing about London is there is no such thing as "the London scene." There's so much going on here. That's why I wanted to move here and that's what I appreciate so much. It's the variety. In Berlin, it's different. There are some things happening in Berlin, other things are not happening at all, and if you are in the unlucky position of being into those things that are not happening, you can be very isolated in that city. What I like about London is that, regardless of what I'm interested in, I always quite easily find a reasonable amount of people that are into the same thing as well.
The longer you're away from Germany, are there things that you miss about German culture?
The problem answering that question is at first you have to define what German culture is. That's a very different situation to England and probably also the United States. In England, for instance, you have a subculture and a mainstream culture, but there's a strong interaction between these two things, and things from the underground will eventually cross over into the mainstream and change mainstream culture. In Germany that's not the case at all. It has always been a big, very uninteresting, very reactionary, very stale mainstream culture, and a very small pocket of interesting, underground stuff. I sometimes miss the camaraderie in Germany, if you live there, that comes out of that unfortunate situation of being in such a minority position. At the same time, I certainly don't miss the lack of perspective. I really appreciate living in a country where it is possible to do something that has a certain social relevance, even if it's quite far out. I think that's why pop culture in the U.K. is so much healthier than it is in Germany.
I can see a number of your synthesizers racked up behind you in the studio; were there any machines that you particularly relied on for this album?
There are always certain instruments that I have almost a personal relationship with, either because I love their sound so much, or I've owned them for such a long time, and they provide an easy starting point. The Oberheim OB-8 is an instrument I pull out very often just to start something, because for me it's a very comfortable instrument to play. My favorite synth is an American one from the early '80s called the Voyetra-8. I love that one because whenever I switch it on, I very easily come up with sounds that I find inspiring. But overall, I would say that the idea for this album was to realize this symphonic idea, and therefore I tried to use as many different colors and as much as I have available here. Some instruments may only appear once, others probably 10 or 20 times. But still, I would say everything is quite important in its own right.
Do you ever have a tension between the sound design and the songwriting? Or does the one lead pretty naturally to the other?
I think one of my main advantages — and disadvantages, at the same time — is that whenever I'm writing something, I always have quite a specific idea which sounds will be suitable to arrange it. I think it's an advantage because I never really get lost or stuck, because I'm always working towards an aim. But it also can obviously be a disadvantage, because I think other people get a lot of new ideas just from jamming and trying things out. I'm not very good at that. I'm not very good at just playing around and coming up with stuff randomly. The only unhappy moments that I had during the recording of this album, and that happened a few times, were when I tried for weeks and weeks and I just couldn't get close enough to the result that I had in my head. That happens.
I think a lot of electronic producers today, for some strange reason, are coming from guitar as their main instrument, or don't even have any formal musical education at all. My background is piano. It's also the instrument that I write on. I can't really write on synths. I think that's why I'm probably coming from a different angle.
For a while, you were making techno as Hexaquart. Are you still working in dance music?
Yeah, I've got a techno project called Beroshima with a friend of mine in Berlin. We're actually just in the process of finishing another record. And recently I started getting back into drum and bass a lot as well. I've done a few things in that direction. In autumn, I released an EP with a producer called ASC from L.A.
Will you be performing live for this record?
A U.K. tour is already booked for March, and the American one is being sorted out right now, so that's probably going to be April or May, something like that.
What's your live show like?
At the moment I've broken down every section of every song into 16 elements that I put into Ableton Live and that I can use to improvise, like a live remix or something. That's quite a good, flexible setup to have. Sometimes you play seated venues, a more ambient approach, and sometimes I'm actually playing club gigs where people even want to dance. Then I can focus more on the rhythmical bits. It's quite a nice setup, I think.
When you're composing, do you think about how it will translate to a live performance?
No, I don't ever think about that. To be honest with you, playing live — with this setup it's reasonably good fun, and I feel like I can deliver something that's worth seeing — but still, I consider playing live a bit of a necessary evil. If I had the choice, I wouldn't play live. That's not the reason I wanted to make music. I never wanted to be on a stage. I'm most comfortable here in the studio.