After a long hiatus, Mute Records subsidiary NovaMute is back! Having started out in 1992, the imprint released records by the likes of Plastikman, Luke Slater, Speedy J and Justin Robertson over its initial 12 year run. Now label boss Daniel Miller has just relaunched it with new music from Nicolas Bougaïeff, whose Cognitive Resonance EP explores rave music through a composer's lens.
After that on NovaMute it's Ostgut Ton/Planete Rouge man Terence Fixmer with his Dance of the Comets EP, having recently remixed Mute acts VMCG and Depeche Mode. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Bougaïeff and Miller recently met up for a chat which covered the relaunch of NovaMute, the state of the techno scene, and the difficulty of being 'underground' without running into contradictions. Read the transcript of their conversation below.
NB: How are you?
DM: I’m good, thank you!
What have you been up to these days?
Running a label and a sub-label. Mute is very active, we have just re-launched NovaMute and I’ve been DJ'ing a bit.
I’m absolutely thrilled about the relaunch of NovaMute. Tell me more about it and why now in 2017?
NovaMute was very active from 1991 up until 2003-04. It was being run by a couple of people - originally a guy called Mick Paterson, then it was taken over by Seth Hodder and Pepe Jansz who both worked for Mute as well. They were very into the scene and had a lot of connections, but Pepe eventually left and Seth ended up moving to Berlin to work with Richie Hawtin on Minus, so the label fizzled out and I didn't personally feel confident enough to run it myself at that point. Also we were at EMI, and NovaMute couldn’t really exist within that.
They simply didn't have the distribution network for that kind of thing. At the time NovaMute was operating, they had their own alternative system called ‘Labels’, which worked really well and they loved it. That got closed down for whatever reason and the mainstream EMI distribution just didn't have the ability or the desire to do something like that.
The distribution network necessary for techno was some underground alternative, just the way the music was.
Yes, dealing with specialist shops that tend to have small orders. I tried to get it going again at EMI but met so many roadblocks along the way. When we left EMI it was partly because of that. Anyway, why bring back NovaMute now? Well, it's been an idea for a year or so. I have been DJ'ing regularly for the last 5 years playing techno, and through that and other connections I met a lot of people in that world. In fact I was introduced back into DJ'ing by Karl O’Connor aka Regis.
Yeah, I ran into him at Tresor two weeks ago!
He persuaded me to play at one of his parties which was crazy because I hadn't DJ'ed out in a long time - but I enjoyed it and got into the world. Over the years I understood what I like in techno and what works for me when I am playing. Some people had said it would be great to start NovaMute again, so I thought yeah, why not? I'm still in touch with Seth who is sort of the A&R for NovaMute - he works for a publishing company and sends me records. Some other people like Chris Liebing, Matrixxman and Jonty Skrufff have been very helpful as well.
It sounds as though it's not just due to the distro network, but also the people around you that made the re-launch a reality.
Yeah, the people I had around me, and my confidence to A&R it. You and I have known each other for quite a long time in a different context and finally you sent me the album which I really enjoyed, and I said, let's go. I was especially keen to work with someone that was not a techno superstar for the first release. I could have got some bigger names but NovaMute in its original form worked with people in the early days of their careers and supported them - people like Richie Hawtin, Speedy J, Luke Slater, people that went on to do big things - and I want to keep that spirit of discovery alive.
You have been a driving force behind countless successful acts. Looking back through the NovaMute catalogue, what can you say about the records that didn't do so well, did you ever see a common pattern between them? And what can a young artist today learn from that?
I don’t think any of the releases were particularly unsuccessful or disappointing. The ones that were successful were people who were first of all extremely talented, constantly pushing forward, ambitious and worked hard. Not to denigrate anyone, but we had some acts or individuals who I thought were extremely talented but never really did more, and a couple of people we really pushed hard but they went off in different directions, which is also fine. Successful artists like Richie, who we worked with over a long period of time, did their own development - we were not A&R'ing them in the sense that some labels do. Seth and Pepe also had a knack for picking the right tracks, so I couldn’t say that anything did really badly. Some of the releases were one-offs, some were longer term.
Speaking of Seth, he told me about a DJ set the two of you did at Sonar, playing strictly with locked grooves from the NovaMute back catalogue?
Yes, that was a previous DJ life, in the mid '90s. [There was] a thing called Sonar Lab where they asked people who ran labels to DJ using the music that they released. Throughout all the labels we worked with - Mute, NovaMute, etc. - all the music was very different, so [for example] we had a Richie track and a Nick Cave track and then we had the difficulty of how to get them together.
Were you layering some songs?
Yes we were, Erasure, Depeche and all the rest. But rather than playing tracks one after the other, Thomas Fehlmann, who is another close friend of mine - a long term Berlin resident who works with The Orb now - inspired us with the idea of using locked grooves, which you had to do at 133bpm, with one bar loops. I said to Seth, why don’t we just get lots of one bar loops from right across the catalogue and they'll all be in time? So we got some dubplates made and used three turntables. We didn't know what was on each groove so we just randomly put up to three things running - so you might have Nick Cave, Plastikman and Diamanda Galas or Depeche Mode and Sonic Youth - and if it worked well then we left it playing and if it didn't we quickly swapped one out. The dubplate thing was great but it was a bit unwieldy to keep making new ones, so round about that time I started using a Reaktor programme called 6-Pack which time stretched loops.
This was years before Ableton of course.
Yes exactly. 6-Pack was a really great programme, we had different versions of it. Lots of filters and delays, so we used that instead of the dubplates. Thomas and I both smoked cigars, and we defined the length of our set by the length of time it took to smoke a cigar, it was good fun for a while.
Sounds like there's a bit of a lineage between that and Decks, FX & 909?
Yeah, it was a bit before then.
So back to the bigger picture here, how do you see the techno scene today with regards to the '90s, and in what ways is it significantly different now?
I can only talk about the techno scene as it is today, with the things I experience.
How are those bits different?
For instance, we used to go to the original Tresor or the clubs in Berlin just after the wall came down and one thing I can say is that the atmosphere was dangerous.
In what way was it dangerous?
Well, it was semi-illegal, maybe it was more experimental, everything was new in Berlin which was our focus at the time. DJs seemed younger, the technology was simpler, and the great producers stood out because they found ways of pushing the technology forward, often for the first time.
With all these changes, from repurposed cheap consumer gear, of course everything is much more polished now and we don't only use vinyl, what do you think we have lost? What have we gained?
I was there and I don’t think it's lost that much. Maybe some of its edge - not the music, but the experience.
And what have we gained?
Great soundsystems, and that really pushes people further to make the best music they can. A great soundsytem does not makes things sound great - it makes bad things sound worse.
I never realised that until recently. I was talking to Jonty over at Sisyphos and listening to some of the tracks there before I released them. The sound that I grew up with - I thought it was monolithic, that's what clubs and festivals are supposed to sound like - but it was coloured by the sound of the Funktion-One systems.
I play at Sisyphos quite a lot, and that has the underground feel. It started out as an underground party, a bit of a squat atmosphere.
Yes, even though it's completely legal it still has lots of chaos.
Very professional chaos, from a DJ's point of view.
Yeah, the party gets delivered.
I've always been on the edge of the scene. I don’t go clubbing that often, I don’t DJ that often. I know a few established people in the scene, and when I hear people playing experimental techno I get excited, especially on a great soundsystem.
What do you think of the recent enthusiasm for industrial experimental and noise music seeping into techno that we have been seeing in Berlin? Especially the acts associated with Atonal, the crossover between dancefloor music and expressionist noise.
I think if you talk to a lot of the DJs from the early days, those influences were there already, up to a point. Industrial is a big word - Throbbing Gristle is industrial. If you speak to Richie or Luke they were very influenced by Skinny Puppy, [Einstürzende] Neubaten, Front 242. There has been an undercurrent of that ‘industrial’ for a long time, maybe now the audience is more open to hearing it.
Speaking of underground, the word is thrown around a lot, it can be used to describe everything from global stars to dirty Berlin venues. One of the key things of commercial music is the desire to make things accessible, whereas the underground is about delivering a message that is typically for a smaller community, so it seems impossible to use that word ‘underground’ without running into contradictions.
Yeah, I am not a fan of that word.
What does it mean to you as a producer and label owner?
I think it's hard to be underground. There's a famous San Francisco magazine about industrial culture called Search & Destroy which was very active in the mid '70s and '80s. Vale, one of the guys that runs it, said "Is it possible to be underground anymore?" and I said, "It's tough, everything is on the internet" - the only way to be underground is not to have a website, not to put your music online, not to have a Twitter.
That sounds exciting!
I grew up in the '60s and there really was an underground back then - clubs like UFO where Pink Floyd played originally, bookshops and poetry readings that were off the radar. I remember when the underground went mainstream - one instance was when Allen Ginsberg did a reading at the Albert Hall, or the 14 Hour Technicolor Dream at Alexandra Palace, and then everybody knew about Pink Floyd, Yoko Ono, The Pretty Things. So I think you have to be off the radar if you want to be underground. Sisyphos do quite well, they don’t advertise who is playing. No posters, just word of mouth. I don’t even know how important it is to be underground or not underground. I would rather use the word 'specialist' or 'niche'.
Yeah, you can talk about the specificity of your audience or your message, without the political tone of the word 'underground'. Do you think techno can be political?
In one sense you could say that all music is political. It has an impact on society, and small pop acts or niche acts affect people and their lives. Does techno have political messages? It depends on how it's presented, it has no words in its current form - this could change. Your titles for example are not apolitical. Berghain is a classic example, everyone from every walk of life, the whole sexual spectrum, are enjoying themselves together in a peaceful way, there is no judgement and this can be a political act.
When I started going to raves in the '90s, I noticed it was surprisingly safe and secure and peaceful.
People doing whatever they want to do is in itself political. Berlin, as opposed to London, was never about age - it's not necessarily just a young persons' thing to go to a club, and Berlin allows that. Berlin has had a long culture of an ‘underground scene’ even from the late '60s.
Maybe we can replace the word 'underground' with ‘non-conformist’.
Haha, yeah. People like Tangerine Dream, the hippie and squatting movement, Berlin bands like The Bad Seeds, Die Haut...
Were you spending a lot of time here back then?
Yes, I was spending a lot of time in Berlin because we recorded at Hansa Studios. What I'm saying - this is very broad, of course - is that people involved in those subcultures have drifted into the straight life in London. But in Berlin people could continue that subcultural life if they wanted to, because of basic stuff like cost of living and space. I don’t often see people older than me in Berghain but I see people within 10 years of my age and people that I recognise from way back and that is a positive thing, it's very distinct in Berlin. I have not seen it in many other places.
I got that sense immediately when I came here. I spoke to a family friend who is 24 and told her I was working in club music and from her perspective, as someone who is not involved in the scene, it seems like the oddest thing to still be involved with.
That conformist life... you know you will be going out between 18 to 21, drinking, maybe taking drugs, and knowing by the time you leave university you will settle down, get married, have a serious job and some kids, so there's this conformist path that people follow. Berlin allows you not to do that, if you didn't want to.
Do you think some of that spirit of non-conformity can be carried over in the music when people outside of Berlin listen to it?
Up to a point. I played at The Warehouse Project in Manchester, right before New Order [who are on Mute], I played what I normally play and people came up to me after and said, "That was very Berlin wasn't it?" It wasn’t rave enough for them. People recognise the Berlin sound, whatever that might be. I played Egg in London recently at a night called Berlin Berlin, clearly influenced by the city, and it went really well.
What does techno mean to you in one word?
Hypnotic. One of the challenges of techno and something I like about it is that it's a specific genre, and within that genre there are ways out. One of the really creative challenges is to be specific but innovative at the same time, because otherwise you will be playing the same songs that you played in 1990. I like the subtle changes and drawing people in.
I asked some friends if they had any questions for you, and one good one was, ‘Spanning your whole career, even the NovaMute years, did you find happiness?'
I found many moments of happiness and many moments of frustration and disenchantment. If things are good 50% of the time, then that's good enough for me. There is always disappointment, whether it's an artist you think is absolutely incredible and no one takes any notice, or a band that implodes too early in their career to reach their potential. I get a lot of pleasure at seeing bands play live and watching the audience and of course when you see a great review or performance it makes me think we must be doing something right.
Do the bands always know when you are in the audience?
Pretty much, yeah. When I go to one of our bands' live concerts I am super-critical, partly of their performance and partly of their sound, I don’t think a live performance should sound like the record. I used to lurk around the desk pushing a fader here and there just to get it perfect. Those are big moments of happiness and surprise for me.
Do you have any plans...
[Interrupting] I've never had any plans. We have a year-long release schedule but longer term, Mute and NovaMute have never had a plan. Well, I guess I’d like NovaMute to release six or seven things a year, if I find things I really like. You need to make sure there is a reason to exist, there are so many labels out there so if you are not doing something new, then what's the point? You might as well just buy the records other people put out. That's what I say to younger artists that I work with, when they show me a track and then they tell me about this artist's sound and that artist's sound, but I want to know about their individual sound. That goes back to the way we used to make records with Depeche. Banning presets, banning polyphonic synths, we were pretty strict with that. When Martin Gore and I got our first PPG synths, we started going through presets - it’s a mind numbing and un-creative thing, we were never going to make a creative thing just by using presets. That's why I like modular stuff, it cannot be reproduced.
What are your current plans as an artist / producer / DJ?
Well I wouldn’t regard myself as an artist or a producer anymore. Jonty asked me to do a remix and that inspired me to do some more tracks for myself to fit into my sets, and it took me a long time to get that remix finished, but it's done now and I'm happy with it. I am into doing a bit more of that.
What about making loops and segments and using your own material?
I use Traktor and a laptop, which feels old school. I don’t really like having a laptop onstage for many reasons but the workflow is really great for me, I quite often have four things going at once - say four loops that sound great - and leave it for a while.
I often feel like with production and performance it's about finding those magic moments, and when you do find them don’t touch it, just let it be...
I want to learn how to use CDJs, I think it's a great back up, but my controller and laptop setup works for me right now. It's all valid if you can use it to do things you enjoy doing.
Cognitive Resonance is out now on NovaMute. Order it here.
Mute: A Visual Document by Terry Burrows with Daniel Miller will be published by Thames & Hudson on 16th November.