Interview: Markus Reuter

We caught up with the next generation in King Crimson's family tree
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German guitarist Markus Reuter is a busy guy. At the age of 46, he's enjoyed a career most musicians would envy. Since studying with King Crimson founder Robert Fripp as a teenager, music in all its guises — whether playing, composing, producing, distributing, or teaching — has consumed his every waking moment. What's more, his diverse musical interests cast a wide net, encompassing genres ranging from ambient electronic and experimental avant-garde to progressive rock and contemporary chamber music.

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Markus began his musical training at the age of three, studying piano and, later, guitar and mandolin. He began composing by the time he was 12 and went on to privately study music theory and composition. His primary instrument now is the 8-string Touch Guitar, a direct descendent of the Chapman Stick that’s played by tapping on the strings. It’s an instrument he designed and patented about ten years ago and actively teaches others to play.

Since the beginning of 2017, Markus has contributed to some 20-odd records, including four solo albums, an album with Crimson drummer Pat Mastelotto, two with synthesist Ian Boddy, and three with synthesist Robert Rich. He’s also a member of prog-rock trio Stick Men, alongside Mastelotto and need-to-know bassist Tony Levin. As I write this, the trio is touring South and Central America with Crimson alumnus and violinist David Cross. In addition, Markus is a regular member of the Crimson ProjeKCt, a King Crimson spinoff playing mostly Crimson material, as well as improvisational electronic loop duo centrozoon. The industrious musician is credited on well over 100 records, spanning the past two decades, and when he's not composing and creating his own music, he spends his spare time (if you can call it that!) running record company, Iapetus Media.

You’ve released so much music in the past year or so. How do you manage to be so productive?

I’m a professional musician who works on music all the time. All my life revolves around making music. With current music technology [enabling musicians to] capture performances so easily, it’s quite possible to create a lot of material. Obviously, the quality of the material needs to be all right, but I’m lucky that I can play with wonderful musicians who play wonderfully. There’s not much editing involved, so we put out a lot of live recordings.

There’s this project, FACE with Pat Mastelotto, that had been in the works for ten years [when we released an album last year], so that was something that took a long time. Last year, 2017, was special in the sense that a lot of stuff came together. A lot of projects were completed in late 2016 and then released in 2017. I’m not always that productive, but it’s just like when you’re working in a field and you have acquired the skills to be able to produce quality stuff, then you get lots of product.

You studied with Robert Fripp at Guitar Craft in the 90s. What can you tell us about that experience?

It was just the right thing for me. It was a perfect match. When I first met Robert, I had no idea how much of a guru he was for other people, so I always had a very straightforward relationship with him. Maybe it’s because I never really put him on a pedestal or anything. He was just my teacher, he passed on a lot to me, and I’m very, very grateful for that. First of all, I’ve learned a lot about the kind of music he was making and is still making and his process. But the main influence was actually the approach to practicing a musical instrument. That particular approach is probably too much to go into now, and it has really defined how I work generally. It’s been a great foundation for my career.

How did he influence your playing style and your career?

When I had my first one-on-one lesson with Robert Fripp, I asked him about the Chapman Stick. I was interested in it because I had seen Tony Levin play it. Robert Fripp said to me that it’s a very interesting instrument and he would even like to play it. He said if he were starting over, he would try to play the Stick. I was maybe 18 or 19 years old at that point. I decided I wanted to pick up something that other people were not doing and then applied very strict principles to my practice. This might sound funny to some, but the principles go beyond music.

Reuter with his distinctive Touch
 Guitar – a direct descendent of
 the famous Chapman Stick

Reuter with his distinctive Touch  Guitar – a direct descendent of  the famous Chapman Stick

The way that I approached the Stick, and now the Touch Guitar, is more as a stage where my fingers are dancers, so to say, that want to be in a position or are capable of going to any note on that stage at any time. So it was never about replicating any particular sound or any particular style of music, but just the freedom to move within the space of music. I think that’s very much what defines my overall approach and my career, that I can work in almost any context. Whether I want to do that, that’s another question, but I’m interested in gathering information about all sorts of music, all sorts of production techniques. In a way, I was inspired a lot by Mike Oldfield as an instrumentalist and a producer, like a self-made one-man band — musician and producer. I really enjoyed that. But Robert Fripp gave me the tools to actually get there.

How did the Crimson ProjeKCt come about?

As far as I can remember, Adrian Belew had asked Robert Fripp to tour on the thirtieth anniversary of [King Crimson’s] Discipline album. Robert was retired at that point and didn’t want to do it. Then Adrian and Tony had the idea to put their respective trios, Stick Men and Adrian Belew Power Trio, together to go on a tour. We did that. A third of the set was Adrian, a third of the set was Stick Men, and another third was Crimson material. That tour was called Two of a Perfect Trio. After that, when there were requests for that band to continue, Tony was talking with Robert to find a name, and it was Robert Fripp who actually suggested the name Crimson ProjeKCt. We had an offer to open for Dream Theater. That was the summer of 2012, and that’s really when the Crimson ProjeKCt became the Crimson ProjeKCt.

How did Stick Men get started?

Stick Men was originally an album project by Tony that Pat contributed drums to, so it basically started from that album. Another guy called Michael Bernier was in the band for, I think, one-and-a-half years or two before I joined. So I can’t really tell you much about the real beginnings. But when Michael left the band, I got recommended to Tony by the California Guitar Trio and by Pat, obviously, because I had worked with Pat before. We got together, I think it was September 2010, and we had a really great time at Pat’s place in Austin, Texas. On that very first day we met, we wrote some of the biggest hits, let’s say, that we still play. So we had a great chemistry. It was just a really, really wonderful opportunity for me, and I still enjoy very much playing with those guys.

What can you tell us about your stage rig?

My stage rig, traditionally, has always changed because I was always looking for the perfect solution. Once I started touring with Stick Men, I realized that I have to boil it down to the essentials, especially as there’s no way I could take an amp on the road with that kind of project. So that’s why, in the end now, my current rig is the Line 6 Helix in combination with the Boss SY-300 guitar synth. Those are the main tools I’m using to create the sounds. I have to say, it’s almost perfect as a setup for any guitarist, really. It’s a perfect combination of things to get all the sounds you need.

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In addition to that, I do use a laptop for looping, for live looping. But I usually do ambient looping there. I don’t build my own backing tracks or something like that. It’s almost like I see the guitar as the input device for my pedalboard, and the laptop and I can be like my own one-man orchestra. That’s what I was always kind of looking for. The equipment that I carry around on this tour, it’s maybe like 20 kilos. It’s just wonderful how technology nowadays enables me to make first-class recordings on any stage or bedroom in the world.

Is the gear you use in the studio different from what you use onstage?

Yes, very much so. In the studio, I don’t use any digital. I mean, obviously I use digital effects sometimes, but I’m not using the Helix in the studio, for example. For me, the Helix is the best solution to bring all the sounds that I come up with for production, and then I re-create that in the Helix. But when I’m working in the studio, I like to work just with pedals, with small, simple pedals. I have a big collection of them, and I like to always combine them and recombine them in new ways to get new sounds.

Do you ever use plugins for effects processing, or are you strictly a stompbox kind of guy?

In the studio when I produce, it’s always a combination of both. But whenever I need, let’s say, a special sound or even if I’m trying to solve a sonic problem, I usually like to go and re-amp something, rather than try to fix it with plugins. Even though, nowadays, it’s not a big difference anymore, it’s just more of a psychological thing for me. When I’m re-amping something, I always have my hands on the knobs, and I can tweak stuff in real time. That, I think, is very important. As we know, it’s possible to do the same thing with any plugin, but somehow having a physical object in your hands is just so much more intuitive.

Are there a lot of plugins that you use consistently?

Oh, yeah, there are quite a few that I use consistently. The funny thing is that I hardly ever mix myself, because I still believe in dividing up the process, like composition, arrangement, recording, mixing, mastering. And I like working in teams. The software that I use every day is iZotope RX and Ableton Live. RX has become like my main audio player. I use it to fix and restore audio that I work with almost every day.

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How do you use Ableton Live?

Ableton Live is my creative tool to compose. I have my live looping setup in Ableton Live. It’s a very interesting setup that I’m using, which is basically a feedback matrix that’s built around a couple loopers, and it’s an evolving system. You play one sound into it, and at first it seems like the sound is repeating, but it’s always changing. With each repeat, it’s changed by the process, and that has become such an important part of everything I do in any context. Like, when I’m playing with Stick Men and there’s a soundscape-y pad in the background, that’s always coming from my looping setup in real time. That backdrop, that sound in the back, is never static. It’s always changing. In my solo performances or my recent performances with Robert Rich, I do that all the time. And situations when I play with other people, I even take their audio signals and mangle them with my system.

What do you most enjoy about working with synthesists like Ian Boddy or Robert Rich?

First of all, like I said, I really love working with other people because my perspective is you always get something that is better and bigger when you’re working with other people. That opinion has changed slightly recently, but I still believe that it’s just wonderful to have different perspectives represented in a piece of art. Ian Boddy was actually the first synthesist I worked with in that regard. That was in 1998. It was just wonderful to see what he could do using my source material, rather than using purely synthetic material. Back then, he was using the Akai samplers, and he was just filtering my guitar loops and cutting them up with his modular synths and stuff.

It’s been just a wonderful and exciting journey for me to discover what you can do with — it’s difficult to really find a good word for it. I don’t just want to say technology because it’s not just technology. It’s also the approach, like the more traditional approach of actually plucking a string on a guitar. Electronic music can come together as one really exciting thing. A lot of the music that I put out under my own name sounds probably quite synthetic to people. However, it’s all created from an organic source, and that’s kind of fascinating to me. To bring different worlds together — and opposing worlds together — has always been my interest when it comes to music, musical styles, but also sounds.

What other hardware or software do you use for producing music?

Hardware, I don’t really have any particular audio interface I use. I’ve been using MOTU interfaces for a long time now, and Focusrite interfaces. I mostly use Ableton to record, and like I said, RX has been my most important production tool. It’s not that I can always capture perfect audio. I have left that idea behind, because I never had big budgets to even go into a studio. Do you remember [Syntrillium Software] Cool Edit?

Oh, yes.

Cool Edit and Cool Edit Pro were actually the first software I really got into in the mid-90s, and that was really my introduction to FFT files and de-noising and all that kind of stuff. It’s always been just a fascinating idea to me that you can capture something that is on some level imperfect, but you can kind of polish it in a way that it works in a professional context. But at the same time, it retains the original idea and intention perfectly. I still work quite a bit with those ideas. So whenever I’m producing, for example, I don’t have people do dozens of overdubs, like maybe three or four, because I believe that performance gets psychologically compressed when you do too much of the same thing. I’d rather have the drummer make a few mistakes and then I fix the mistakes later, than to lose the spirit of the performance. Does that make any sense?

Absolutely. That makes perfect sense.

That’s why RX has really become such an important tool, because it allows me to have true recordings that I can polish to sound good.

Has your career so far turned out the way you thought it would?

Yeah. I have to say that I’ve always had this vision to get to a certain point at the age of 42, and yes, that worked out perfectly. I remember I did reach all the goals I had. That was like four years ago, and I had a little bit of a burnout crisis, and I’m now kind of getting back and finding new things. But yes, I think it’s gone much better than I could have ever wished for and hoped for.