Ellen Allien & Apparat
Interview by Adam McKibbin
If only fusion always produced these results. Working independently, Ellen Allien and Apparat were two of the leading lights in techno, respecting roots while still working toward unseen futures. Aside from their own music, they have also each been responsible for exposing an eclectic array of artists to bigger audiences, thanks to their work with their own labels; Allien continues to head the preeminent BPitch Control, while Apparat recently stepped away from Shitkatapult.
Orchestra of Bubbles brought the two Berliners together in the studio, and the collaboration challenged and liberated Allien and Apparat to make an album that stands outside the sphere of their own solo work; it also stands as one of the best top-to-bottom albums of the year.
Though this was your first joint collaboration, the two of you were obviously already well-acquainted with each other’s work. Was there a clear sense from the beginning of where you wanted to go, of how you each wanted to maybe step outside of the music you’d made individually? Or did you go into the recording without that sort of a road map?
Ellen Allien: I wouldn’t describe it with the picture of a road map. Sure, we knew about the other’s abilities, but what was definitely more important was the fact that we share the same understanding and approach to music. We hoped to open up our own horizons and boundaries; each of us has a trace to follow. But through the collaboration, we found a crossroad—and that’s the reason why we didn’t knew before what will be. We were free enough to trust into the double-pack.
Did ideas start falling into place right away, or did it take time to adjust to each other and feel out where the music was going to be taken?
Apparat: When we actually started the production we already had some rough ideas both of us made during the year. This turned out being a very good idea since we were able to start working right away without finding a “sound” first. After we found the “flow,” we started completely new songs.
Ellen Allien: Of course we needed some time to adjust each other in the beginning. But, nevertheless, that wasn’t the first time we spent time in the studio together. We are also quite close friends, so we knew about the other’s ‘world’ and how each of us deals with things. So the ideas came out of the ‘bricolage’ we developed or the mosaic we both built up in a very democratic and open minded way. But Orchestra of Bubbles is more than the sum of the single pieces. As I mentioned before with the picture of crossroads: we established a new way to go for both of us.
Were there any songs in particular that were especially hard to finish or flesh out completely?
Ellen Allien: “Leave Me Alone” possesses a funny story to tell: Apparat gave me instructions how I had to sing, he wanted me to sing more high and nevertheless to imbed some kind of whispering. That was quite hard for me to follow, because he couldn’t get satisfied with the way I did it. Finally I told him that he should try to sing that way – and he did. And it became so amazing!! It was the first time in his life that he really sung – and I have to tell you: a band missed quite a singer!!! But in the end we hadn’t really to face any problems like the ones you’ve asked for. In fact, it was a very uncomplicated, relaxing and fresh way of working and producing.
Apparat: There were some songs we had different opinions on. “Jet,” for example—we have two versions of it, like the Ellen and the Apparat version. In the end, Ellen’s version made it on the record because it fit a lot better and I could put “Do Not Break” on it, which she didn’t like so much. But since we kept our egos mostly out of the studio, we didn’t really have many problems like this.
Were there discoveries that you made during the creative process that you think you will apply as you go back to your individual work? Or was this more of a stand-alone project, where the sound won’t necessarily be tied to what we’ll hear in the future? Following on that, will be hearing more singing?
Ellen Allien: Hm, I’m not sure about that yet. I definitely will do more expressive stuff such as playing live and singing. I haven’t played live before. But I have to admit that this kicks me as hell! Maybe I will look further into that direction with my ongoing productions. I took singing lessons—and I wil carryon on with that because it sets a lot of emotions and creativity free. The voice is the most powerful instrument people can listen to; it touches them directly and creeps under the skin. I love it!
Apparat: I started singing…that was last year’s highlight. Now I’m about to finish a whole vocal album! [It] contains lots of singing and instruments. I guess I have to pick a new name for it since it doesn’t sound so “Apparat.” I’m already excited about singing live!
Both of you have been steadily involved with various facets of the industry, from recording and playing live to working with your respective labels. Do you ever temporarily burn out on music—or on the business?
Ellen Allien: No. It’s important to set boundaries – to the industry, to the nightlife, to the office-stuff. What I’ve learned is that it’s necessary to spread all the tasks onto different shoulders. We both possess a quite well organized ‘background’ behind, like the people who work at BPitch Control office. They enable us to be the artists you can see, they are all part of the ‘Ellen Allien’-project, they set me free. When you managed it to get this network-structure, you can get not tired of the things you do.
Apparat: Different for me. I just quit working on Shitkatapult. It was very sad and a hard decision, but I just don’t wanna be involved in the whole business side anymore. I can spend my whole life in the studio without getting bored, and that’s what I wanna do.
There were lengthy message board threads back in January and February from fans who were getting their hands on the leaked album—months before the release date. Did that leak affect your own enthusiasm about the release? In the U.S., they’ve made a few attempts at prosecuting those who have made unauthorized copies so widely available—would you be in favor of seeing more of that?
Ellen Allien: We were not amused, I tell you. But, at the end, we were powerless to fight against that abuse of promo-material and copyrights. So we decided to produce a special track that appears only on the finished CD. And it worked, we hope. On the other hand, it also shows that we have a lot of people who are interested in the things we do. They treat us as something exclusive or a must-have.
Apparat: We’re not angry about people listening to the music! If anybody downloads it, he is just curious. I’d do the same. But it’s a different story how the tracks get there. Journalists know damn well about the value of music and how hard it is to produce an album. If such a person uploads our work and releases it on his own, I just feel angry.
I live in L.A. and, while I’m constantly going to shows, I confess to having little experience with live electronic or techno performances. For those of us who haven’t been immersed in the culture and community that comes along with the music, do you think it’s possible for us to still fully engage the music, or will there always be something that we’re missing until we’ve experienced it in a proper live setting?
Ellen Allien: No, you don’t miss something because Techno is always changing and nevertheless open to all approaches. Techno is only the thing you do with it. And it’s really boring to stick to those old stories and develop a closed community. I’m not so much into that nerd-thing. So, feel free to join us whenever you want to!
It sounds like one similarity between Berlin and Los Angeles is that it’s become increasingly difficult for artists in Berlin to find cheap spaces to work and perform—compared to, say, ten years ago. Has that forced some of your kindred spirits to relocate, or has the community largely been able to stay intact?
Apparat: Hmm, I was trying to find a studio around my corner the whole last year. I must admit that it was a nightmare. Berlin is still cheap, but it’s changing. But before we will reach LA level, I´ll be an old man.
Ellen Allien: Yes, in Berlin the situation must be still better than LA. Here there is still enough space left to perform and live out creativity. Even in comparison to other German cities, Berlin enables you to live quite cheap and nevertheless connect to the creative networks around. Of course, we have parts that become more and more exclusive or expensive, but Berlin has always had a relatively poor district – and that will last.
Electronic artists are seldom mentioned when the subject of “political music” comes up (at least in the States). Who would you recommend for listeners seeking some political bite with their nights on the dance floor?
Ellen Allien: Vincent Gallo, Underground Resistance, Hanin Elias, Björk, T. Raumschmiere.
After 9/11, we’ve heard lots of stories about our musician friends from overseas struggling with—or even being denied—visas and passports to come to the U.S. and work or tour. Have you had any of those problems? Do you two have any plans to visit the States with Orchestra of Bubbles?
Apparat: Yes, it’s a pain in the ass and not funny anymore. There are so many cool people over there and we should play for them—but I have to say that I feel less and less motivated to do the whole hassle.
Ellen Allien: Oh, I had [problems], too… I will not tell you all these stories, but it definitely makes it a bit too difficult for us European artists to get into the States. We would love to come to the States with OoB, we will see…
To close on a light note, I had to ask whether you’d heard the English overdubs of your video interview for Slices. The English overdubs are VERY formal and funny!
Ellen Allien: Yeah, I know. There’s always some kind of ‘différance’ to speak with Derrida...
Apparat: Hey, we are German – we are very serious and formal. It was the 1:1 translation!