Dave Sumner alias Function hat ein Album veröffentlicht. Es heißt Incubation und ist auf Ostgut Ton erschienen. Das ist insofern erstaunlich, als dass es das erste richtige Soloalbum des gebürtigen New Yorker ist – und das nach fast 20 Jahren im Technogeschäft. Grund genug also, sich mit ihm zusammenzusetzen und etwas zu plaudern. Über seine Wahlheimat Berlin, über seinen Tourplan, über das Ende seines erfolgreichen Labels Sandwell District, das er mit Karl O’ Connor aka Regis bis Ende 2011 führte, und natürlich auch über die Entstehung seines Albums.
David Bowie recently released his first original song in almost a decade, which is basically a memory of his Berlin days. Do you think you will have a similar emotional relationship with Berlin in twenty years’ time?
It’s interesting that you ask me that, because a lot of people have mentioned that Bowie song to me recently. Berlin is in some odd way home to me like New York and New Jersey, where I grew up and lived back and forth over the years. I also lived In Birmingham for a while, you know, the actual Sandwell District, but it didn’t feel as if I wanted to stay there for a longer period of time. I’m not one of these people who can move to another city and immediately adjust. Berlin is the only place where I actually felt comfortable doing that. I have been told my whole life to get a proper job, that’s it’s never going to work out. And literally from the day I touched ground here, everything changed.
Still, I think there are a lot of ties between Berlin and New York. They are drastically different cities, but there is a similar mentality. I’ve always noticed that people form Berlin go like “Oh my god, you’re from New York!” when you tell them and in New York it’s just the other way around if you say you’re from Berlin. There is definitely a bond between them, as Leonard Cohen once wrote: “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin”.
You once said that a lot of people come to Berlin to play a game of “last man standing”. Given that you’re here since the end of 2007, you seem to be still standing pretty well.
I moved to Berlin because I had a network of people since I started who happened to be here. That’s what’s kept me here. I get homesick very often, which is I guess understandable if you ever lived in New York City. But realistically you go to where the work is. I’d actually rather live in New York, but Berlin is a much better place to be centered at. That is also my excuse for not speaking German so well, because I’m here to work and where I work, everyone speaks English. I feel very embarrassed about it, because it’s somewhat disrespectful to not speak German. But learning a second language is easier when you’re a lot younger, especially if it’s German… [laughs]
Have you noticed any changes in the local techno scene since you moved here or is it still going as strong as ever?
I wouldn’t say it’s going as strong as ever. I would say that when I arrived here it was more alive and pushing boundaries and ground-breaking. The Berlin scene had a good six, seven years when it was considered new. I think now it has just grown up, matured a bit with a lot of people now doing other things. I must admit that I’m not as exposed to it as I was when I came here for the first time. Back then I was taking a lot of things in, going out a lot. The first year I came on a mission and I wasn’t accepting gigs, didn’t want them, because I just wanted to experience things and focus on what I was doing. But from my perspective it feels like there is less happening now.
This is surprising, given that the media still hypes it.
The thing is you don’t see a reflection of stagnation in the press, you will only notice that if you are within the scene itself. But don’t get me wrong. Berlin is still capable of doing it like no other city does it. The restrictions remain very low. Everything that any other party in the world is trying to do within the law – the grip is loosened in Berlin.
So how hard is it for you as an artist to focus on your work in this party-ridden environment?
Well, it’s been five years now and I’ve settled in as well. I’m away most of the weekends on gigs and that’s what makes it difficult to focus on things. It’s not that I’m going out partying all the time, it’s because I’m gigging all the time. It’s a difficult thing with DJ culture and electronic music that I just got my head around and realized it once I began working on my album. Bands have the luxury of taking periods of time to record their album and not tour at all, and their fans, the managers and press are fine with it. They have a block of time to get things right. We don’t. We’re constantly trying to stay on top of things, trying to get booked all the time. You can’t really take time off, because then you’re not ‘current’ anymore. My eyes have been really opened to this whole concept and it’s sort of directing the way I see my future.
As much as I love playing and travelling, I also love writing and creating and expressing myself. But both things work hand in hand: You don’t make money by selling music, you make your living while touring. We’re more like jazz musicians than rock musicians, because jazz musicians were always gigging and doing the recordings on their downtime. That makes it very hard to create something, because it’s usually not until Tuesday that you’re back in the swing of things and once you get some momentum and engulfs yourself in something, it’s Friday and you have to leave town again. Then you play in front of a large room of people and this whole new experience wipes everything clean.
Are you playing more gigs now than, let’s say, ten years ago?
Oh yes, definitely. As I said, you go to where the work is, and the work is right here in Berlin. I’ve always been playing gigs, but I hadn’t been “in the mix”, so to speak. It’s only once you’re in it that people take notice.
It’s been a bit over a year since you closed your Sandwell District label. Did this give you more time to focus on other things, such as producing your album?
It sort of set all three of us free. It all started out as something sporadic and then suddenly it became routine. That’s what ultimately killed it, because once a thing gains some momentum you feel obligated to deliver something. But we never worked like that, and I don’t think it should work like that. So yeah, it was liberating and after all, we are still Sandwell District, we still tour, we work together. I think that’s an incredible thing and it only works because it all happened naturally. And once it didn’t feel natural, we literally killed it in order to be natural again.
Do you think that routine kills creativity in the long run?
I don’t think it has to, but I think it can. For us and for me, routine doesn’t work. Once something takes on a form, people are expecting something, but there is certain spontaneity to the way that we work, there is a chaos to the way that we work. Trying to tie it down and make it uniform is counter-productive. For instance, my album couldn’t have happened on Sandwell District.
I felt like a weight fell off my shoulders once we finished the label. That enabled me to write this album in the first place, without any sort of pressure and expectations. For a long time while recording it, it didn’t have a home and that was quite liberating. However, once I started thinking about it, it kinda stressed me out, because we’ve always been releasing our music independently and I didn’t want to go with my hat in my hand to anyone. Fortunately, once word got out that I’m working on an album, a lot of people wanted to hear in it and that’s when I got in touch with the guys from Ostgut.
But didn’t this also put a lot of expectations on the album?
Probably, but I find that the way I work best is to paint myself into a corner and to impose a strict deadline on me is what gets the best results. I love the last, almost panic kind of moments. I mean, artists and musicians tend to be lazy kind of persons and as many of them do, I love these do or die situations. You need some sort of chaos and pressure and drama.
So when did the pressure hit you this time?
The pressure came because it was supposed to come out a few years ago [laughs]. After all, it is my first solo album since I started out almost twenty years ago. I was careful that it wasn’t too close to Feed Forward [the Sandwell District album]. I didn’t want it to be so heavily compared. We live in a world where everything is looked under a magnifying glass, where everyone is so connected and focused on things. I really wanted to make it right.
How long have you been working on it?
It’s all new material, nothing is regurgitated. I started writing it about a year ago and I had a two week writing session. I was going over to Karl’s [O'Connor aka Regis] place to show him some of my progress and I really wanted to impress him. So I got a lot of this stuff done in a very short amount of time and afterwards I shelved it. I knew the direction it was going, I knew how I wanted it to sound and I had conceptualized the whole piece and when I felt comfortable with it, I put it away with the idea to let it sit for a moment, completely remove myself from the process and then come back to it and see if it still works.
Apparently it did.
I think you can get caught in process a lot of times, especially with technology these days. It’s a total recall; you can work on a dozen of tracks at the same time, seeing all the automation and stuff. It’s not how it was done before, when you were working on one track at a time and because you were sitting on a mixing desk you had to keep your EQ settings and really see a track through. It’s great to have the possibility these days to blend together several pictures to make it cohesive, but it can also very easily distract you. So it’s good to step away from it once in a while. There is a technique that I learned from Damon Wild at Soundwave. I would go over to his house and was showing him music and he always did this thing: He put a record on the turntable, put the needle on it, turned the volume down and then watched the record spin while he listened to the other track. There is this psychology involved that helps you get away from the grid on the screen and get some fluidity back to your work. And I think that’s where the whole concept of shelving things and coming back to it comes from.
Does technology foster perfectionism instead of spontaneity?
It definitely takes away from it, yeah. It sterilizes it, there is a raw energy getting lost in that process. But, as I said, with any sort of technology it opens up plenty of other possibilities. Just look at Star Wars, the old films versus the new ones. George Lucas was finally able to accomplish what he was striving for but didn’t have the means to do it back then. But in the end, it just didn’t work the same way as the analogue films did.
In fact, many fans hate it…
Yes, but why? Has it something to do with nostalgia? We won’t know that for sure until future generations review it that are completely removed from the process of comparing the old ones to the new.
Speaking of process, is the album’s title Incubation a reference to the way it was made?
Well, I’m 39 years old and this is my first solo album. So it took 39 years to make, jokingly said.
How long was it until you came back to it after the initial session?
I started writing in January last year and then there were about four months when I didn’t go back to it all. Then I got back to it occasionally, adding new stuff. But it wasn’t until July that I really sat down and said to myself “Alright, let’s do this.” In the end, about six tracks from the original session went into it and the rest came about later once I gained some momentum.
Were there any special inspirations that went into the production of this album?
I hope that you can hear some Sandwell District in there. It’s all been part of what we’ve been up to in the past couple of years, but also what I have been up to all my life basically. A lot of the influences are pretty clear and I’m ok with it, that’s the point of doing an album, to put your experience and years of listening into it. But at the other hand, I tried not to gear it towards the club. I mean, that’s what my 12″s are for. So I can’t really see this project being played outside itself. I’m sure it will be played by DJs to some extent but that wasn’t my mindset.
When I listened to it for the first time, the track Counterpoint really stood out for me. It reminded me a lot of Manuel Göttsching’s classic album E2-E4.
I’ll take that as a compliment, because E2-E4 is definitely in my Top 5 records. It is something like the original minimalistic techno record. You listen to the album and it’s its own thing but at the same time everything, if you know what I mean. It was done without trying. I was actually listening to a lot of Ash Ra Temple and Krautrock in general in the last year while conceptualizing the album. So if you caught that and if that’s the impression the album left, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Counterpoint is also the track that seems most detached from your earlier work.
Overall, in some bizarre way, I consider this an ambient album because of the atmospherics. I wanted to incorporate ambient stuff but I didn’t want it to include this sort of cliché drones meets strings track with no beats. I wanted something to stick with you, something that was ambient but still had a time structure. So I guess that’s where the idea for “Counterpoint” and other parts of the album came from.
Last summer you wished for a certain producer to be mixing your album. Now this person turned out to be Tobias Freund. Why did you choose him?
We were all hanging out at Labyrinth Festival in Japan last year, which is truly a great place to be. It’s like a mini conference where you meet people with a same mindset, sort of like going to camp [laughs]. You can really bond over there. Working with an engineer was something I wanted to do with Feed Forward, but it was too complicated and we just did it ourselves. I wanted to work with Tobias for a long time because for one, I love his music. But I also know his background and his credentials. Take Milli Vanilli’s Girl You Know It’s True – he engineered that record! I remember specifically being drunk in a hotel room after a gig, talking to Karl and I said to him “I’m not going to be satisfied until the guy that engineered Girl You Know It’s True mixes my record!” [laughs]
What’s so special about it?
It’s not my personal gospel or anything, but the recording quality has a lot to do with it. Recording quality is what makes and breaks a record, and this may also be a raw quality, such as the early Aphex Twin or Underground Resistance stuff.
So you wanted to get the best possible recording quality out of your album.
I always thought of myself as an artist and not an engineer. Over the years I’ve come to realize that my stumbling part is sound quality. I’m a bit of perfectionist and I feel like I don’t have the engineering skills that I would like to have. I come to realize that’s not a bad thing but rather how music was done for a long time. Look at any band or singer-songwriter. They are not responsible for engineering their music. I know that a lot of producers such as Karl do the mixing on their own, which is perfectly fine. Myself, I needed to get past that obstacle.
And of course, Tobias Freund is an Ostgut artist as well. Do you think that you and the guys at Ostgut have a similar approach when it comes to presentation and demeanor? You both seem to keep it rather low-profile despite your success.
Ostgut and Berghain became a home for me as soon as I moved here. I worked with a lot of their resident artists by now and it had always been an inspiration, especially the way they work. You know, things have grown massively around them and the world perceives them in a different way than they did years ago, but Nick [Höppner] and Michael [Teufele] and the rest still think the same way. So yeah, I guess there are parallels in the way we operate.
Some might say the whole “Faceless Techno” has become a cliché in its own rights.
I understand where the idea comes from. I think we are at a point now where the DJ ego is a bit out of control and the faceless thing is sort of like a refresher to remind people on how it used to be. I don’t want to sound old, but when I grew up there wasn’t a picture in a magazine to what I was listening to. There wasn’t a global community. When I started to get into Acid House, I’d be recording tracks off the radio and then going to the record store to find out what it was. These days I just go on YouTube and find it on related videos. It’s all connected and lay out before you.
That sounds a bit nostalgic though, doesn’t it?
Yes, but people seem to miss that experience. When I first heard about Warp or R&S records, I just saw the record and I didn’t need to know anything else. It all worked in my mind, it created some sort of fantasy. I hate the word “underground”, but there was this underground world that nobody knew about. Now it’s missing that and that’s what attracted producers to set up faceless labels. Surprisingly, we [Sandwell District] got grouped into that as well and I never understood that. We were not hiding our identity, you could find pictures of us, we were all going by our own names. And yet we were tied into that whole faceless narrative.
But admittedly, Sandwell District wasn’t the most outgoing label either…
True, there were things about the way Sandwell District presented itself that may have led to that conclusion. One of the things we were saying about Sandwell District in the early days was that we wanted to “decentralize the artist ego”. And in a way we did, because we are still Sandwell District even though the label is finished. Recently, I talked to Karl and I was referring to both the album and the upcoming mix CD for Fabric as “us”.
Why is it important to get rid of the artist ego?
We are under pressure, being so close to the audience these days. Fans of music feel closer to the artist than they ever did before and I’m not a 100 percent sure that’s the right thing. There is this thing that’s been on my mind recently. I think fans are very selfish. They chew you up and spit you out in a second [laughs]. I’m probably pissing readers off right now, but I’m a music fan myself, so I know what they’re feeling. As an artist however, I prefer to let my music speak for itself. In the end, that’s what is important.