With a few exceptions, post-'90s dance music has lacked any identity. Although top-flight DJs continued to thrive in clubs around the world, there was a sense that much of the excitement and relevance of the past was gone. Yes, people are always going to be hungry for a party, but in what new directions was dance music really going? For a time, dance music became extremely uncool — it was caught in a rut. Then, we looked overseas to places like Germany for a resurgent underground trend toward minimal house, techno and electro, names like Michael Mayer and Ellen Allien — and their respective labels Kompakt and Bpitch Control — have championed a form of dance music that appeals to the sophisticated fan with a real sense of history for the genre. The next step in dance music's resurgence falls to crossover rock/dance acts like Soulwax and MSTRKRFT and French labels including Ed Banger and Kitsune. Built with more of a stripped-down, raw vibe and a youthful exuberance, artists and labels of this ilk are producing dance music that's bringing the rock kids back into the dance fold. While the sound may be different than in the past, dance music is back with a vengeance, and it has a wider range of fans than ever before.
Just north of the two dance-music capitols of cool — Berlin and Paris — is the much talked about Hamburg-based duo Digitalism (Ismail “Isi” Tuefekci and Jens Moelle). Known for a series of EPs and several critically acclaimed remixes (Depeche Mode, Klaxons, The White Stripes, Daft Punk, The Cure, The Futureheads), Digitalism might very well be the poster boys for dance music in 2007. Licensed for the U.S. through France's Kitsune label, the act's debut album Idealism (Astralwerks, 2007) is a diverse stew composed of electro, house, punk and even hip-hop. Furthermore, despite being endorsed by the global hipster community, Tuefekci and Moelle have left all pretension and negative attitude out of their new album. Idealism is a blue-collar album in every sense, and aspirant producers will be motivated by what can be accomplished with just the basics, if not less.
HEY, MR. DJ
Tuefekci and Moelle met in the '90s while working at Hamburg's Underground Solution record store. Without any formal music-production training or DJ experience, their first introduction to DJing occurred when the store's owner, Ollie Grabowski, recruited the duo to play at a local party. As employees of a top record store, they had unparalleled local access to interesting records, and Digitalism's DJ sets soon became the toast of the town. The eclectic sets were made even more interesting by special edits of popular rock tracks that Digitalism would incorporate into their sets. Of early note was their edit of the White Stripes “Seven Nation Army,” which sold very well on vinyl and was played out by tastemaker DJs including Pete Tong and Errol Alkan. The remix also led to their first record deal with Kitsune and the subsequent EP releases.
Given the assorted nature of Digitalism's productions, it should be no surprise that the duo has a laundry list of references and influences. Moelle cites classic movie soundtracks (“because we think in terms of images, pictures and movie scenes,” he says), hip-hop producers such as Dr. Dre and RZA (“because they don't take everything too seriously, and a bit of silliness is quite important for us”) and UK emo, disco and '90s-era German trance as the main influences on Digitalism's sound. This diverse cocktail feeds straight into Idealism. For instance, while tracks “Magnets,” “Zdarlight” and “Jupiter Room” have a very dirty and bass-heavy dancefloor sound, the focus often moves into more of a dance-punk realm with hooky vocal tracks, including “I Want I Want” and “Pogo.” Changing things up even further, “Home Zone” introduces a little block-party hip-hop vibe, “Apollo-Gize” taps indie-tronica, and “Echoes” brings the classic Daft Punk nouveau-disco vibe. “Surprisingly, we really didn't have a master plan for this album,” Moelle says. “All we did was stop taking remix requests so that we could concentrate on working on the album, and then we locked ourselves in the bunker studio.”
While Idealism might sound like an involved album created with high-tech production methods, that couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, there may not be another act out there who does more with less than Digitalism. As with most current producers, the computer is at the center of Digitalism's production world. However, we aren't talking about a jacked-up Mac with all the fixings. Rather, they created Idealism largely by running Emagic Logic (a pre-Apple version) and basic plug-ins on a very old PC (OS Windows 2000). Moelle insists that what other producers would look at as a disadvantage is actually at the center of what makes Digitalism unique. “We don't have that many possibilities, and we can only use a few tracks in Logic — not hundreds. This is good for creativity because it makes you inventive, and you can make the most out of less. It makes you think of ways to get a certain result in a way that others would laugh at.”
Digitalism's setup is highlighted by the Korg Electribe ESX-1 sampler, drums, guitar and dueling Korg MS-20 synthesizers. “We have two MS-20s and use them because each piece has a totally unique sound,” Moelle says. “Also, the sound that comes out depends on how long it's been on standby and what the temperature was the night before. It's really like a living thing.”
Another key element to the Digitalism sound is their war bunker, which doubles as a recording studio. It's a real converted war bunker, void of the amenities that most music producers are accustomed to. However, in a strange way, this is Digitalism's own Abbey Road Studios. “We just landed there because we didn't have much money, and it was the only cheap space available for us,” Moelle says. “You don't have any windows, no heating and no oxygen — nothing. It's like another world because you are isolated from the outside, and time doesn't matter anymore. There aren't any seasons. I also think the bunker added some edginess, roughness and a lo-fi attitude to the recording. It's also very creative because it's like a cell where you slip in, and you are stuck inside some abstract world.”
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You wouldn't get the impression from listening to Idealism, but Moelle confesses that much of the music on the album is the result of impatience and laziness. However, much like the less-than-ideal production constraints of its bunker, Digitalism finds a way to excel at challenging situations. Take, for instance, the track “I Want I Want.” It has a full-on band sound, complete with live drum sounds, guitar and vocals. But much of the songs' key elements are the product of studio trickery and the desire to finish the track out of boredom. While there was a drum set and guitar available in the studio, neither Digitalism member is able to actually play the instruments. Essentially, Moelle would toy around with the drums and guitar and record whatever was workable. Next, they fed the recording into the Korg Electribe ESX-1 sampler and looped the desired sections throughout the track. “I pretended we could play the guitar flawlessly, and it's really DIY stuff,” Moelle says. “We aren't patient, so if we need any sound or need a drum loop, we try to record it quickly with the sampler. We don't really care if the take is perfect.” That casual, hurried approach applied to Moelle's recording of his own vocals for all the tracks on the album: “I was sitting in the bunker, and the ventilation system [supplying the bunker with air] was running in the background while we recorded the vocal. We just edited it a little to make it sound a bit cleaner, but there's a lot of dirt still in there. We just moved on to other things rather than concentrating on the vocals and getting multiple takes.”
One of the most talked about tracks on Idealism is “Digitalism in Cairo,” a unique edit of The Cure's “Fire in Cairo.” Before the full-length version of the track was created, it existed as a DJ tool that was first edited together in just 30 minutes prior to a DJ set. “We just looped the chorus for a few minutes and then wanted to add something around it to allow us to play it in clubs,” Moelle says. “It's boring if you just loop 4 bars for 2 minutes, so we had the idea to add an effect that turns the track on and off. When we thought about making this a long track, we rerecorded the sample and even recorded vinyl noise to make it sound more like a classic sample.” With Robert Smith's blessing, the track appears on Idealism.
Elsewhere on the album, there are certain proper club tracks that can only be described as having the sound of a jet engine. In particular, “Jupiter Room” provides one hell of a massive jolt. Digitalism's tip for creating such an intense sound centers on compression. “We always produce with a compressor first and an expander afterwards and never leave any head room in the track,” Moelle says. “It's pretty funny because we boost it so much that we had arguments with the guy mastering the album. He simply couldn't do as much during the mastering process as he usually does with other albums.” Moelle also says that by playing around with the decay and release times and by putting massive distortion on the tracks, he's able to create a “dark, bad, storm of sound.”
Digitalism is a two-headed monster live. As a DJ team, Digitalism garnered much attention for their sets featuring a cross selection of music from the likes of The Prodigy, Boyz Noise, Soulwax, French house records and their own special edits of popular rock tracks. “Isi likes to use mixer effects, and I'm more of a purist,” Moelle says. “I think it's the content that counts more than tricks.” Though, for the full-on Digitalism experience, it's best to check out the proper live show featuring a laptop, two synthesizers, controllers and an effects mixer. Aesthetically, the equipment is spread out across a table, and it looks similar to a DJ set. The show is evolving though, and Moelle reveals that they are looking to rely less on the laptop and outsource more sounds to other gear. Also in the works are the addition of an electronic drum kit and vocals. “What we've experienced in the past is that we didn't know what to do live, and I had to do so many things at once,” Moelle says. “I don't know if we are going to actually play too much stuff truly live, but we will probably concentrate more on adjusting the sounds of the noise generators. If I'm looking down too much at the gear and not connecting with the fans, then it's not going to be that interesting.”
While Digitalism has achieved a strong buzz and a moderate level of success leading up to the release of its debut LP, it may seem that the band's direction and working habits — the old-school gear and devil-may-care attitude — are a bit half-baked. Seeing as how the Digitalism boys are green and still evolving their sound, it's tempting to chalk up their impatient methodology to their “youthful naivety.” However, after one listen to Idealism, you'll realize that it all works — it's just not clear how they make it work so well. “We started making music because we were bored,” Moelle admits. “We heard so much music that was just boring, so we just had to produce the kind of music that we would immediately buy and like. We felt there was a lack of it, and that's why we started making music. We think very positively all the time and have big visions, and we wanted to transfer it to everyone listening to our music.” In Digitalism's world, this is Idealism.
INSIDE THE BUNKER
833 MHz PC running Emagic Logic software
Doepfer MCV24 MIDI-CV/Gate/Sync interfaces
Kenton MIDI/CV converters
Mackie CR1604 mixer
Samplers, drum machines
Akai MPC2000XL sampling workstation
E-mu ESI-32 sampler
Korg Electribe ESX-1, Electribe EMX-1 drum machines
Roland TR-808, TR-909 drum machines
Synths, modules, software and plug-ins, instruments
Custom drum kit: “It consists of many different parts — can't really tell which brand,” Moelle says.
Doepfer MAQ16/3 Analog Sequencer
Fender Stratocaster guitar
Korg MS-10, MS-20 (2) synths
Native Instruments Kontakt soft sampler
Roland SH-101 synth, TB-303 bass synth
Mics, mic preamps, EQs, compressors, effects
Boss guitar pedals
Akai MFC42 Analog Filter Module
Alesis 3630 Compressor
Ibanez AF-9 Auto Filter guitar pedal
Shure SM58 mic
Tannoy active monitors