Thomas Melchior has to be one of the most under-appreciated talents in the Minimalist Continuum. While his biggest successes were probably in his Vulva project alongside Tim Hutton, which released three albums of acid squiggles, radical tempo variance, and drum machine mayhem (two on Rephlex and one on Source Germany), it was their Yoni project that first alerted me to Melchior, and as I blogged a few months ago, My Little Yoni remains one of my top ten or 20 ďelectronicĒ albums of all time.
He dropped off my radar until the past few years when he started releasing under his own name for Playhouse, but in fact throughout the late '90s he was working alongside Baby Ford in at least two duos, Soul Capsule and Sunpeople. Rededicated to the minimalist project, he applies the spirit of microhouse Ė spaciousness, truncated musical elements, a playground at recessí worth of swing Ė to a more traditionalist deep house aesthetic. Itís jacking, melodic, muted without sacrificing punch and glossy without giving up the grit.
Melchior also ran a short-lived label called Aspect; the CD version of his excellent new Playhouse album, The Meaning, contains many of those tracks on a bonus disc, and a remix 12Ē or two is in the works as well.
I recently spoke to Melchior for The Wire, catching up with him in his Berlin studio Ė heís just relocated there from London Ė shortly after his return from several months in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. That article will be out in September; read on for the full text of the interview Ė the first in what I hope will be an ongoing series of uncut interviews here on Chez Sherblog.
PS: Now that the new album is out, what are you working on?
TM: I donít know, really, just some new stuff. I havenít really kind of done anything for the last few months because as you know I had a baby. Thatís why i went to Brazil. My girlfriend lives there, and we had a kid there, a boy. So thatís been taking up my time.
The whole resettling to Berlin the last year, thereís been a lot going on.
Youíd been in London before that?
Yeah, and I finally decided that I should go to Berlin. I kind of had a plan for a while, but itís quite a move after a long time. The older you get, I think, the harder it gets to make a change. So Iím kind of a bit homeless at the moment, I donít even know where home is anymore.
So whatís your background? I thought you were English, but on the Ongaku site it says youíre German but raised in the US, Spain, and England.
Iíve always been moving around with my family, so I finally ended up living in Washington DC, and I did a few stints in NY as well. Iíve always kind of been moving around, but the last 20 years Iíve been in London. Pretty much became like a London boy, and I finally tore myself away from it. Because there were a lot of changes going on there as well, you know, in the last seven years. England has become a bit, I donít know Ė itís changed the emphasis a bit and the electronic music thing isnít really, it hasnít got the same force there as it has in Germany.
Well it seems not to be happening in England at all these days, except for some small sectors.
Yeah, itís a shame. Obviously thereís a lot of talent there and people doing it, but itís not really connected together. There you feel quite isolated. In the last few years Iíve been feeling quite isolated there. Me and Peter as well, Peter Ford, we lived in the same neighborhood Ė
In Ladbroke Grove, Portobello, a part of town thatís become really flash now in the past few years. Thatís kind of part of the change. It became more and more ritzy. Itís kind of nice, but after a while it becomes too much, and youíre like, Oh my God, Iím starting to participate in this glitzy world. I didnít want to, you know? I didnít want to do that. It doesnít go with the music Ė thereís something about it, and Iíve seen that in Berlin, itís a lot less glamorous here and itís more down to earth. In a way thatís better for the music, thereís less bullshit, you know?
Itís interesting you say that, because a lot of people tend to accuse the microhouse scene of being this glamorous, jetset, globetrotting, flashy music. And youíre saying the opposite, that a glitzy city canít support that music.
Well, to a certain extent there is the house scene, which is almost always a little bit more glitzy, isnít it. You know, the sort of Luke Solomon, Derrick Carter Ė which is really wicked, I think thatís really wicked as well. I love that Derrick Carter kind of stuff. But it is veering towards the more chic end. I donít know, the parties here in Berlin seem to be a lot rougher. You know the Watergate?
No, Iíve never been to Berlin.
You have to come! Well, for me Iím kind of rediscovering it, in a different way for me. Itís great making a comparison to London. Itís a German kind of thing. Adjusting to the German way of thinking is a bit of a change from the English way of thinking. The English are a lot more relaxed, kind of laissez-faireÖ Theyíre more relaxed, arenít they, kind of more soulful in a way. And thatís maybe reflected in the kind of music they like as well. They donít like it too intellectual, too intelligent, or tooÖ. I donít know.
Itís interesting because what I hear coming out of Playhouse or Perlon is incredibly relaxed and sensual and soulful.
Yeah, yeah, definitely. This kind of minimalism, a lot of people have to get it first, donít they. But in a way you donít want it too big anyway. The music becomes too big; itís nice if itís kind of small, [played in] small clubs, itís much nicer, isnít it? I think so. I donít know, itís definitely a change in Berlin.
So what drew you there, was it the community?
Yeah, basically. Over the last few years, I got to know Zip more and more, and basically yeah itís four years now, and he was always quite into the stuff I was doing, and Ricardo as well Ė theyíre kind of like my biggest supporters. After a while I realized that I should give it a go. Try going back, you know, because sometimes itís nice to touch your roots again.
Where is your family from?
From all over the place, but I spent about 10 years in Freiburg, in the Black Forest. Near Switzerland.
I donít know Germany at all Ė Iíve only been to Cologne.
I donít know Cologne. Sounds quite happening.
A million producers, but not much nightlife, which is perhaps different from Berlin.
Here it just seems to be Ė I mean, compared to London, people say thatís the trap in Berlin, that you get there, thereís so many things to do, you can always go out. And everyone is here as well, you get like Ė I mean, itís great having everyone there. Luciano, Ricardo, Daniel BellÖ itís really nice. Itís basically a meeting point. Itís almost mind-boggling to get all your favorite producers in one place. Itís probably like Detroit or something.
Is Peter Ford there as well?
No. Iím trying to convince him to get over here as well but basically heís got different circumstances and itís harder for him to leave. I think heíd really like to, but itís hard for him to get himself out of there for the time being. You never know. Everyoneís trying to get him. It would be perfect.
So Brazil, youíve been spending time because of your girlfriendÖ
Iíve always been into Brazil, so I kind of, yeah, basically via my girlfriend there. But basically I wouldnít mind kind of living there Ė obviously itís everyoneís dream to live on the bay somewhereÖ
This is in Salvador da Bahia?
Yeah, and itís a totally different world. I really like it there, I really like the people. I suppose itís like, you said youíre going to Chile, so you know the difference. You get a different perspective to the world you live in, this high tech, everything modern, big cars, and then you go into this world, and you meet a bit rougher side of life.
Itís interesting because the whole Perlon crew has a strong Latin American connection via Chile. Now youíve become part of the German/Latin American contingent as well.
Itís odd, thereís some cosmic thing going on.
Is your time in Brazil starting to filter into your music?
Obviously I donít want to do, like, Brazilian house music. To translate it onto a minimal level is a bit more challenging. But Iím working on it, yeah. I think itís not quite Ė thereís so many different styles you get influenced by in Brazil, so many different directions Ė thereís so many different rhythms. Just so many rhythms you can use there, itís great. Itís a great country for learning rhythm, understanding it Ė getting the African mixed with the white, with the Latino, PortugueseÖ thatís probably the most amazing thing about Brazil anyway, is the mixture of cultures. Itís unbelievable the kind of variety of people you get there. Itís quite mind-boggling.
I was only in S„o Paulo once, for a week, but it was unlike anywhere else Iíd ever been.
S„o Paulo is obviously a bit more European, itís like the European Brazil. When you go further up North the African influence becomes stronger, and it becomes poorer and poorer as well. Salvadorís an amazing city. Itís African baroque, basically. Really surrealÖ it seems odd, you know? Like some weird fantasy. And everyoneís playing drums all the time, itís unbelievable Ė at least the Baroque part of the city feels like itís vibrating. Thereís an unbelievable energy.
So in a way itís not entirely unlike Berlin, where youíve got parties going on 24/7.
Yeah, though there itís obviously the more primitive variety. Here itís more in a controlled environment. The whole atmosphereís more controlled.
Electronic music isnít really going on in Salvador. I mean, the whole thing in Brazil, obviously the further south you go you have the more interestingÖ well, Buenos Aires is a bit of a hotspot, isnít it. Everyone goes there, basically, and then S„o Paulo sometimes. Theyíre more switched on, and theyíre really into whatís a bit trendy. The further up north you go, their idea of electronic music, is like the batistaca [ed note: I didnít catch this word] kind of stuff. Really fast, really hardcore Ė thatís what they think is techno, you know?
Itís a bit like it used to be here 10 years ago, itís 10 years behind. On a mass level, you know. All the old rave DJs from the UK, you know Ė itís really funny, you meet people you havenít seen for years. ďOh, what are you doing here?Ē Itís like, ďIím playing on a rave.Ē The same stuff [they were playing 10 years ago]!
Tell me about your passage through the rave scene. I think I told you, but Yoni was one of the first 4/4 records that really turned me on. Iíd grown up punk rock, and somehow anti-electronic music, and when I heard Yoni it just flipped my head around.
Thatís great, I think thatís really great if you can get people into it who normally wouldnít really like that. Part of my brain has an element that understands a person that doesnít like techno music. I can understand if a person says he doesnít like it. I can understand thereís something to it they obviously donít like.
Itís quite nice if you can do it in such a way that you can get somebody into it that wouldnít really Ė I suppose, coming from the same background, you know, being a musician you understand a certain fact, certain things about electronic music Ė you could do it a bit lighter, or make it really obviousÖ I think itís really great you say that, coming from punk rock. I used to like punk rock as well, but obviously Iím a bit older.
How old are you?
39. I wasnít punk rock, I was more, I guess, new wave. I kind of had a few musical growing-ups, basically, as everyone does. I kind of come from a black music background as well, liking James Brown, FunkadelicÖ just basically completely funky music. Anything that kind of goes, basically. Punk has that energy as well, doesnít it. Ch-ch-ch-ch-
Yeah, the forward motion Ė
Yeah, pushing it.
And at what point did you get into the rave scene?
Well, pretty much from the beginning, really. It was kind of like, doing electronic funky music, when the acid stuff first started, and you could hear it on the radio, you know. Ď86, Ď87, you were always really listening to it, yeah, crazy sounds from America. So obviously that had a big influence, and from then it started growing and I started getting deeper and deeper into the music itself. Kind of started going different directions, and yeah, basically Ė the progression got more and more dancy, basically, like a path that was opening up.
Thatís where Iím at at the moment. Thereís a lot of stuff which is more ambient, which I really like Ė itís a lot more on the electronic, electronica, I suppose. And now itís much more, like, well, as you knowÖ minimal.
Kind of, I donít know, maybe there is a direction, a natural progression in electronic music Ė especially when you get a couple of decks, and then you go, ďHold on Ė I want to play this together with another record!Ē
I was going back through the Vulva records, which I havenít listened to in a long time, and I was intrigued by the variety of tempos. Nowadays, and frankly I like this, everythingís in the same range. But that Vulva record is really all over the place, from half-speed to double-timeÖ
Obviously, thereís a lot of styles to explore. In the beginning there was kind of a search for a style, like which is the oneÖ because theyíre all good, you know? I suppose in that era as well, it was more like the thing if you did an album, it wasnít just for the club, it was kind of like an album, a band album. Itís nice if you have different tempos, especially if you donít have vocals, that you can bring variety through the beats and the tempos. Itís not like that any more now! [Laughs]
I like the fact that I can play all my records together and mix them seamlessly Ė within reason.
I kind of think there is something addictive about it, 125, 128 BPM, jacking. Thereís something about it, Iím addicted to it.
Tell me a little about the new record. What you said earlier Ė you understood people who donít like certain elements in electronic music, and that might be what appeals to them in your work Ė the new record in many ways is a traditional deep house record, with a lot of elements that I would otherwise find boring, but thereís a lightness of touch that puts it over the edge.
Yeah, yeah. I suppose thatís the way I like it. When I go out Ė Iím kind of a house fan, I like sexy house music. I have a weak spot for it. And I kind of like, the more the beat is bumping and grinding, the more I like it. Obviously with the garage stuff, itís got this two-steppy Ė sometimes itís too crass, bang in your face, almost like drumíníbass. But I try to make it a bit garagey, and the other element, another influence I have, is Chez and Trent productions, like Prescription Records and Balance, this sort of phase of Ė I donít know if youíre familiar with them, itís kind of Ė in my eyes itís the best house music thatís been made, some of the best, anyway. Ron Trent and Chez Damier, thatís the golden era, the mid-Ď90s, and everyone was in that scene. Derrick Carter when he was beginning, or not the biggest DJ in the world yet. Thatís the kind of style. It is quite basic as well, what theyíre doing. In a way their productions are a lot bigger, in the more classical kind of Kevin Saunderson studio productions, in a way. But theyíve made it sound very small already Ė you couldnít really play it in a big club because itís too small sounding, in a way, and very muted, and veryÖ unlarge, you know? Almost understated, and in fact immensely beautiful. Obviously thatís the direction I like Ė taking the sound and making it basic, having the rhythm pumping and using certain elements that in a way are traditional, but they work. They can be minimalized.
Itís a bit like bringing the old, that era, and trying to fuse that.
Your music is very suggestive. Youíll have one little keyboard blip that implies an entire melody you donít have to say.
Thatís right, itís like hinting at what could be. Itís basically like, obviously the musicís kind of, the whole kind of minimal house stuff is really wicked like that. Thereís a lot of, a lot more now, funky minimalÖ itís a lot more sexy, the music now. Because a lot of the German stuff was a little more stiff, you know.
Well, itís going in a couple of different directions, because on the one hand, Kompakt is going in this trancy direction, like the Ferenc stuff, really banging, it would be hard to call it sexy Ė and then what Ricardo Villalobos is doing is in the opposite direction, that it goes so deep into the groove, itís weirdly static. It sort of draws out a moment over the space of several hours.
Itís true, you know. Ricardo kind of works that was as well, doesnít he, using long sections and then editing them, doing it live and then editing them later on. He kind of thinks like a DJ anyway, so obviously Ė thatís partly why the tracks I do as well are great tools as well for a mixer. You can use them very easily as tools, and Ricardo likes that as well. Obviously you have to make them really long and very repetitive.
Itís a certain element of dance music is made like that, isnít it. If you think as a DJ already. Because you know that theyíll want to mix it.
So itís intentionally incomplete.
I suppose, because you complete it on the floor.
And yet your new record is a really lovely listening record, I listen to it around the house all the time.
Did you get the Aspect CD as well? The finished copy has got a bonus CD Ė itís a little bit like a hidden gem, the way itís worked out with Playhouse. You know about my label donít you?
Thatís like my third attempt at running a label. Iíd done it in the past, during the Ď90s, I never had the success that I wanted to make it continue. So Aspect, I started that in 2000, and only put three records out, but these three records have become quite sort of sought after. I donít know, not many were sold, but the ones that people have, they love them. Itís like collaborations with Peter, and another French guy, and a couple of friends, and itís a lot more varied than the album. Thereís a bit of a variation going on, and in a way, that is a real gem.
So if you buy the CD of The Meaning, thereís an extra CD with all the aspect stuff.
Yeah, basically, with all my back catalogue on it.
Wow. Will you be reissuing the vinyl?
Playhouse is taking two tracks out of it, and Ricardo is doing a remix. Itís like four years old now, but it basically slipped under. You can get the vinyl through Hardwax,
Thatís really nice on CD. The album itself is more jacking. When I heard them together, I thought, ďOh no! The bonus CD is better than the album!Ē
Iím interested in your productions because on the one hand thereís a similarity to your colleagues in Berlin, and yet youíre using drum samples instead of clicks and burps and pops. Where are you sourcing this stuff from?
Yeah, itís basically done the old way, with an Atari and outboard gear. Itís pretty simple, pretty basic. Iíve got a good mixing desk, fairly good. Itís quite simple, but basically Ė Iím glad I didnít Ė there was this time a few years ago when everyone changed around to the Mac, and I suppose itís just me and Peter, he as well is an Atari man, we just sort of stayed on it because we wanted to continue with the music. I found a lot of people who switched over the to the Mac thing kind of lost it a little bit, for a while. I figure, if it ainít brokeÖ
So you donít have plans to go to Mac then.
Well, yeah, Iíve got a Mac already and Iím sort of in the process of switching over. [Laughs.] It is kind ofÖ obviously with time, you realize that itís a lot easier on a Mac, you know. The control is tighter in a way. But there is something great about the old hardware. The Atari has a tighter groove than a lot of the laptop programs. Itís more primitive, and therefore the groove is moreÖ bang! People canít really explain why it is, but itís just got a better groove. Thereís another machine, an Akai hardware sequencer, and sometimes these machines have these particular grooves to them, and you canít really get that on a laptop.
It seems to have improved now though, so thatís why Iím changing. People say itís MIDI or something, thereís a millisecond delay or something. Thereís definitely a difference, almost becomes like a trademark after a while.
I suppose itís a challenge as well Ė obviously Iím inspired by the laptop music as well. Not all of it is good, I have to say. Often I find that the sound is a bit Ė it sounds too hollow. It sounds great and perfectly engineered, and all the gear youíre using is all in one machine, itís a lot easier to control it, give it a unity. Whereas with analog equipement I find itís more manual.
Well, I recently saw a laptop producer follow a pair of DJs, and I love his work, and yet there was something missing, following the vinyl, which was pressed so live and hot Ė it was as though the laptop just couldnít replicate that intensity of sound.
Itís a different sound, you know. It goes back to the digital thing, and although I canít claim to know much about the analog to digital converter business, itís quite hard to get right. People say they can produce the analog sounds in digital programs, but itís still not quite there. Obviously itís becoming a lot better. But again, vinyl, a track always sounds much better once itís on vinyl, definitely. Itís got a warmer sound to it, doesnít it. Especially with bassy stuff.
Another band, Plaid, I think theyíre great as well Ė they like to use a digital kind of setup, completely digital, and it does sound a little bit tinny at times. Itís hard Ė at the end of the day, these are like details. You can get used to it. If you listen to all digital stuff, you think this sounds great. But if you put a vinyl on, you go Ė oh!
Tell me a little about Soul Capsule.
Itís basically this project thatís established itself. Weíve been friends for a really long time, and basically started working together, and we seemed to work quite well.
Before I was with Soul Capsule, I hadnít really established my profile so much, and when I was working with Peter I realized that it was an important thing, and he guided me along a bit, so I became a little more independent. And by that time this sort of more jacking house direction became the thing I really like to do. So I kind of established myself by working with Peter. It was quite a hard process, because you kind of realize youíre in the shadow of somebody, so it can be frustrating as well. But basically we continued because everyone said it was great. It was a good combination as well because Peterís really slow, he slows the process down, and you kind of get in deeper.
I think itís more fun as well with two people. If youíre by yourself it becomes a little Ė personal life comes up, the lonely hours in the studio. But with a friend itís really good fun.
With Yoni and Vulva you did a lot of really acidic work. Have you been tempted to go back to that, especially now that acidís coming back?
Obviously itís the old Rephlex kind of Ė well, the acid thing. But then Iíd go with the old sort of Rephlex philosophy, which is basically doing acid music but not necessarily using acid sounds. So basically the whole idea is that itís kind of trippy, isnít it? Thatís what acid is, for me, anyway Ė you know, get fucked up, trip out with the music. I suppose, yeah, itís always tempting to do an acid track. But then when you switch that sound on, you go, ďNah,Ē you canít do it.
Anyway, I donít know Ė I donít like being part of a trend particularly, you know. I kind of feel like I see myself outside the trend, over the years. If it then slips in together with something, thatís great. Obviously that means you sell more records, doesnít it, if thereís a trend. But yeah, I mean, no. I kind of think my music is a bit acidy anyway, without using the acid sounds.
But yeah, the old acid stuff is amazing. The acid sound is part of what gets a lot of people into the music as well, this sort of element, that kind of frequency. But the acid thing got a bit ruined with the Goa thing, didnít it? That took on the kind of, hey, letís throw some trips, get really fucked upÖ it really crystallized into that, didnít it? That kind of psychedelic trance. The excess of acid music.
I know quite a lot of people from the psychedelic trance scene, from London, you get to know them sooner or later Ė or a lot of people from the old days as well. And they throw good outside parties. Good parties; the music always sucks. Hippie chicks, you know? [Laughs.] But a lot of these people, theyíve kind of progressed as well Ė theyíre really kind of into the minimal stuff now. Theyíre particularly into Akufen. So you see the continuation of this acid vibe Ė obviously thatís more the insider Goa people who switch to Akufen and realize that if you can take a trip to Akufen itís a bit of a step up from psychedelic trance.
Maybe we could talk about minimalism briefly. Youíve always been to a certain extent a minimalist.
Yeah, I suppose, obviously the thing about minimalism is you keep it to the essentials, and you concentrate on the part rather than on the overall effect. You basically build it through all these layers of parts. Obviously you become more and more into the parts, and then you want it to be more and more simple so you can hear the parts quite clearly. I find that itís kind of complicated, but you can still look through it. And if you blast it up too much and make it too big, itís too much. I often find if the musicís too Ė on the whole Iíve always liked the more muted sounds. If itís too bang, the snares are too loud; I find that with a lot of the Trax stuff, for instance, theyíre very clanking, arenít they. Obviously thereís a minimalism of the sound, and a minimalism of the parts.
Thereís a restraint in the sounds you use, and a reduction of the elements.
I like that about, basically the whole of this popping and clicking, I like that about the minimal direction of the past few years. That the sounds have become very chk-chk-chk, clicking.
Well I think Pantytec is the extreme example of that, very clicky and scratchy.
Theyíre quite small sounds, arenít they. I like when you listen to someone like Herbie Hancock, you know Ė he does like, basically, itís a kind of jazz funk, and itís electronic but everything using very small parts, and very snappy and yet very flowing.
Thatís almost exactly what Jan Jelinek once said about Roy Ayersí Ramp project.
Obviously itís come about a bit as well through having a laptop or whatever. When you hear this minimal music on these cheap speakers, like on your laptop, it kind of pops really nicely, doesnít it? I reckon thatís how it came about. It sounds good on a big system, obviously, but you get a lot of fuller sounding music, and you have it on cheap speakers, and it doesnít sound as good. So I reckon thatís how the clicking got into it. [Laughs.]
Thatís kind of a dream come true, the minimal house thing. You get a lot of it in the hip hop production as well; thatís becoming more minimal as well, isnít it. Like really stripping it more and more Ė obviously thatís the future.