Tosca's Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber are living it up, lounging in a Polynesian tiki bar outfitted with African tribal masks, sprawling chairs made from virgin-rubbed tree trunks and seven towering portable heaters that recall the cult film The Wicker Man. Into this nonsensical interview setting (in the back room of Manhattan's Park Bar) Huber interjects: “Today, I am on the trace of discovering what is the secret of [composer] Anton Webern. How do you write something that you cannot recognize?”
That question concerns every sample-based musician: How do you turn sonic snippets, record samples and machine beats into an original, unfamiliar composition yet still succeed in creating a satisfying aural experience? Webern, the controversial early-20th-century Austrian composer who performed such atonal works as “Entflieht Auf Leichten Kähnen” and “Das Augenlicht” to often confused audiences, was not particularly concerned with pleasing listeners — even the Nazis banned his music during World War II.
It's been a century since Webern studied music at Vienna University, and Vienna natives Huber and Dorfmeister are absorbing the echoes of Webern's musical influence. Although Tosca's soft-focus downtempo is definitely listener-friendly, the duo is searching for novel ways to challenge and entertain. Tosca's Dehli9 (!K7, 2002) is a double-CD: One disc is a dubbed-out collage of bouncy beats and smoothly soulful and ethereal sounds; the second is a piano song cycle of simple, Erik Satie — like melodies transformed by delicate electronic treatments.
“It is based on the idea of Bach,” Huber explains. “Simple things that are easy to play. In this sense, it is like a series of loops.”
“But for me, it was too classic,” Dorfmeister adds. “I thought, ‘What can we do to get this whole thing happening?’ So we modified the piano parts. It is still Rupert's thing, but we added some sounds from the other tracks so it came more into what we both like. I was always a big fan of Brian Eno's piano album with Harold Budd called The Pearl. It was on his EG label in the '80s. I always wanted to have something that you could listen to late at night when you come back from a club, something without beats that is pure. I really listened to this [second CD] now for over half a year, usually in bed or late at night. It is perfectly working.”
Since Dorfmeister's primary project, Kruder & Dorfmeister, recorded its Austrian take on UK trip-hop with the now-classic 1996 EP G-Stoned (Quango), that illustrious pair has become renowned for remixes that are always “perfectly working.” Resisting a proper follow-up, Kruder and Dorfmeister instead became increasingly in demand for their remixing skills, which were in ample evidence on their 1996 DJ Kicks (!K7) disc and on The K&D Sessions (!K7, 1998). Perhaps Kruder and Dorfmeister are suffering from writers block as a team, but that has not stopped their solo ventures: Kruder shining as the Peace Orchestra and Dorfmeister joining with teenage friend Huber (the pair used to play in a band called Dehli9) for Tosca's two dreamier-than-K&D albums, Opera (G-Stone, 1997) and Suzuki (!K7, 1999). Although there will be no talk today of K&D when and ifs, Huber and Dorfmeister will gladly hold court on a wide range of subjects, including remixing (clichéd), sound systems (most are substandard), gear (info overload) and their recording process (old-school and simple).
SOUNDS AROUND THE WORLD
Tosca's recording process is simple, but to create something the duo likes, Huber and Dorfmeister give each song breathing room to ensure that they like the direction it is taking. “We always have a session to get an idea, which is normally two or three days,” Dorfmeister says. “We get a beat going and then a groove and a theme. After two or three days, we have a certain idea, and we make a recording of it. That is the first step. The next week, we continue; we get it done as a whole song. Then, the third week, we do the mixing and editing. So we normally take altogether three weeks for a track. We never work on multiple tracks at once.”
But even when devoting 100 percent of their energy to one song, Huber and Dorfmeister don't count on the first idea being the right one. “We put down a loop,” Huber says. “It could be anything: a piano, a beat, a guitar. So you basically start, and it sounds awful; then, it gets better. I wouldn't play you the song on the first day, though! What you play to the people is a very different result from the original. We just fool around and find out what sounds good. We might have a loop, then lose it later.”
Much of Dehli9 sounds as though it were constructed around a bass line. Disembodied voices (Earl Zinger, Anna Clementi, Tweed) swirl overhead; hypnotic keyboards and metronomic drums pulse while wiry bass instruments drive and frame the mix. Although the bass lines command a presence, they weren't necessarily the first ideas recorded. “No, it is always different,” Dorfmeister says. “It is not based on bass lines. Also, what is different is that Dehli9 is 90 percent played. All the bass is an electric stand-up; it has a very present sound. We played also the saz, a Turkish instrument with two strings. It is like a bouzouki.”
“It sounds a bit cranky,” Huber adds. “We also played a steel Hawaiian guitar with a bottleneck. The bass is an upright but [the recordings are] cut up and edited, like everything. I am not into sampling other people's records, really. If we do it, we modify it so you wouldn't recognize it. But we don't take whole parts. If we take something, then it is beats. The beats are free in a way. But we did have a drummer in, Diana, playing brushes on ‘Rolf Royce.’”
NOTHING MORE THAN FEELINGS
Dorfmeister admits that the staccato bass riff on “Rolf Royce” was sampled from “I'm a Man,” a Steve Winwood song recorded by the 1970s horn-rock band Chicago. “That is from their first album, that black album [Chicago Transit Authority],” Dorfmeister says. “But we doubled the bass line — it is relatively thin on their album. We put a little extra [motions with his hand] on top of it. It has more volume in the deep frequencies than the original. This is the only one that is sampled.”
Other than the occasional sample, Huber and Dorfmeister play it all, a rarity among DJ/musicians. “We play it all but the drums,” Dorfmeister says. “Drums are hard to play and hard to record, as well. Anyway, if you compare it with a '70s sample, we would have to go to an American studio and find somebody from the '70s and ask, ‘How did you record that? What microphone?’ The sounds were much better then. The '70s gear was different. If you listen to a Steve Gadd drumbeat on a Bob James record, nobody is doing those sounds anymore. But you don't have to because you sample it and put it into [Propellerhead] ReCycle.”
Tosca works in Vienna's G-Stone Studio Two with what the pair describes as “a simple setup.” “We've got an old Mackie 24-track desk with the extension,” Dorfmeister says, “and Mackie HR824 powered speakers, so you don't need an amp in between. We also use Tascam DA-70mkII DAT recorders, E-mu and Akai samplers, and Cubase with a Mac G4. We use an acoustic Yamaha guitar and lots of old guitars, which are just lying around the studio, and loads of old analog synthesizer gear: Moogs, Korg MS20, Wurlitzer electric piano. I always read equipment magazines, but everyone uses the gear differently. It is possible to work in such a small setup if you have the ear. You can have all the Memorymoogs in the world and the best of everything, but it doesn't help you, really, if you don't have this feeling.”
Dehli9 does come across as an album of feelings, not logic or calculation. Huber and Dorfmeister constructed the tracks to have lasting appeal, though at first listen, the music sounds slow and lethargic. No single sound or track leaps out to grab your attention; rather, the music creeps up on you slowly, like a tranquil background balm or minimal sonic soundscape. By the time you arrive at CD 2 and Huber's “12 Easy to Play Piano Pieces,” it's not clear whether Tosca is profound or superficial.
“I don't know anyone who sounds like us, really,” Dorfmeister says. “You get so many trip-hop records; you listen to the stuff, and it has no substance. With our tracks, each track has real meaning for us. Each track says something that is important for us. It is not just another track. It is not work.”
OPINIONS ARE LIKE …
What is work for Dorfmeister is a busy DJing schedule, which finds him globe-trotting among clubs in New York, London and his hometown residency at Vienna's Flex. “Tosca is not so banging,” he says. “But if you mix it cleverly and combine it with other stuff, it works very well. Everyone is doing the normal house thing anyway. So if you come with something else, it makes a difference. I combine my music with reggae and midtempo things from all sides.”
Being that Dorfmeister's first language isn't English, his comments in the language are very direct. When it comes to the music that he prefers to DJ, it's all about soul and swing. “Dub is one part, but the whole black-music thing is such a big world,” he says. “I just like black music more; it is just better. It sounds warmer and more human to me than all this white music. I am not into white music. Guitar music, like Johnny Cash or John Denver, this is ridiculous music. There is some great white music, like Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Serge Gainsbourg. But influences go on forever. I like to change style four or five times during the night. The most boring thing is when I go to a club and the guy plays straight techno or house.”
Dorfmeister also finds remixing to be quite tired, a surprising claim from a man who made his name morphing the tracks of others. “The whole remix thing is over,” Dorfmeister says. “It was really good five years ago. It is the same with the compilations. Now, there are compilations for yoga and probably even for this table. [Knocks on table.] It is easy business. You license a track; you don't pay the artist most of the time. You can finance a compilation with manufacturing for around $15,000. You bring it out, you don't pay mechanicals, you don't pay the artist, and you make quite good money. You can sell around five- to ten-thousand units. The artist might come after you, but most of the small labels don't have good publishers, so they do it for the promotion. And there are so many records now. I listen to a hundred records, and I buy two.”
Dorfmeister feels a similar disdain for the constant rush of available new gear that will do everything for you except pay your taxes. “It is horrible how much equipment is available now,” he says. “Every company has a different model of something. The more you get rid of gear, the better. It takes a long time to get used to a certain program. Rupert had the Korg MS20 for many years, and he is really good with it because he has had it for so long. But if you buy a new synth every month, you will probably just use the presets. Then it costs a fortune, and you have all of this trouble setting it up. It takes ages.”
THE MORAL OF THE STORY
Back in the dark ages of the late 1970s, Dorfmeister and Huber were making what they call “extreme chart hits” with their band Dehli9. “We had our first class together in 1978,” Huber says. “We are like an old couple. There was no home recording back then. They didn't even have multitracking. We had to use two Revox [tape] recorders and bounce the tracks. Now, you can have 500 tracks layered. But I don't think about technical things anymore. I care to make better music. If you don't have an ear or a feeling, it doesn't work. That you are okay mentally is the most important thing.”
This old couple is content to do it their way — you can keep all of the latest gear, Ministry of Sound compilations and exclusive remixes to yourself. Tosca is only concerned about one thing: the music. Although the message is a little rocky in their English-as-a-second-language commentary, Huber and Dorfmeister's philosophy is profound.
“I just read something about what remains [when you die],” Huber says. “If you have everything and you live in pure luxury and you have everything you need, when it is all finished, it's gone. Even the money doesn't help, really. So you have the money; you have a tax problem — what's left? The only thing left is that you did something new because that is what satisfies you, because the process is the game. That is the target.”