In all honesty, Axel Willner could probably hit cans with sticks, we’d still listen and you can bet he’d still find a way to make it sound interesting. Stockholm-born, Berlin-based producer The Field has been making techno on Cologne staple Kompakt since 2005: this spring has seen him return with a new LP, his first in three years. We spoke to Axel about about his newfound love for modular synths, the process behind ‘The Follower’, his distaste for social media and a guilty pleasure.
This is your fifth studio album. Where do you think it stands in your discography?
For me it sits somewhere between the first album and Cupid’s Head. It is made in the same way, in the sense that it’s just me on those two records. It is a bit of a continuation of Cupid’s Head.
Is that why you kept the cover black like in Cupid’s Head, to make a point?
Not consciously. The first ones were white and I just thought maybe after Cupid’s Head, we could do a few black for a change.
You say it is a continuation although I found Cupid’s Head a lot darker than the Follower.
Yeah I find this album quite dreamy and comforting. Cupid’s Head is darker than this one.
You started using modular synths for this album and the title track the Follower ended up being a bit of a departure from your usual sound. Why did you decide to name the album after it?
Because it was the first track I wrote for this album. It’s always difficult to start. I have to block out time to really sit down and go to the studio and be in the right mood...The first track meant getting over the threshold of making the album. That’s why that track is quite important to me.
You say you found using modular synths very inspiring and making music was fun again. When did it stop being fun?
It was never boring to make music, don’t get me wrong there but with the Field, it is a bit dangerous when your passion becomes your job. Since Cupid’s Head came out, I have been playing almost every weekend. It’s taking the fun out of it. If you do that continuously for a long time, maybe it is not as exciting to go into the studio and try to make something new. That’s why I started to get lost in modular synths. It was very inspiring to use new gear.
Is that advice for other producers who hit a creative block? Changing hardware, or perhaps software to re-wire your brain...
Totally! For every album, I tried something new that I could lose myself in. While you’re learning it or experimenting with it, “oh”, you suddenly have a couple of tracks! You don’t have to master it from the beginning; no one can do that. You will create something along the way. It’s a really good way to get started.
Especially with the type of music you do, which is already quite repetitive...How do you manage to keep your productions fresh and interesting and avoid repeating yourself while still retaining your individual style?
I don’t know! I think I’ll come back to the gear. New gear often brings something else. I change everything using new gear but at the same time, nothing is changed. When I listen to the last album, I listen to the rythms and things in the background more, like the modular synths. This album was more about exploring rythms in a different way but that’s also mostly in the background. It is still quite the same but if you listen carefully to other things, it’s quite different. It is not straight four to the floor. It had already changed a bit at Cupid’s Head where I used ¾.
Are you one of those producers who are finding straight four to floor techno tracks the same and boring and reacting against that?
I am not against it. I see the point in it. It is nice to go to Berghain and lose some steam and lose your mind. For me, that music is created for that concept and I don’t listen to music that is solely created for that purpose. I like being able to listen to music wherever I go, whatever I am doing. A banging techno track might work in the club but I can’t listen to it having dinner or chilling at home.
You mentioned all these little details in the background. Is this more of a headphone album? To many people, your music works best on headphones or small venues...
I agree. I personally don’t listen to music on headphones much. But there are so many things that get lost on a big PA. The live versions for instance may not contain a lot of the things in the songs. Wherever you want to have it I hope it works. But listening to it on headphones is more exciting definitely.
How does it feel to be called the “loopmaster” all the time? Is it nice that you have managed to carve yourself a very distinct sound or is it limiting?
It is actually very flattering. It is good that the Field sounds like the Field when I have these other monikers going on the side. But it is also a bit enslaving that it should sound like that. It is good if you could stay within a framework but still do something different within the rules of that alias.
With electronic music, it is very tempting to go back to a track constantly and tweak everything to ‘perfection’ if there’s any such thing. How do you know when to leave a track alone?
It’s hard to say. When I record the bass, everything that I think it might need and arranged it, then it’s done. I do it in one go, I never come back to tracks. Because you can never fix that first feeling you had. I’d rather leave mistakes and if something’s really fucked up, then I try to re-do it. There are pros and cons. When a track is insanely perfect, it gets a bit boring. There has to be something alive behind it, a human error...
Now that you are solo instead of a band, what do you do to convey a unique live experience because it is not easy for electronic music producers behind a laptop?
When I first started out, it was me alone with a laptop. I got sick and tired of that because laptop never really was my tool. Then I brought in hardware and humans. It was a lot more fun but then it became very difficult logistically as I am in Berlin and the band was in Stockholm. We could never rehearse, we could never take it to the next level. Now I am back to myself. It’s just a lot of hardware and me. There’s no laptop so no one can complain about me checking my emails but of course they can say I’m just pressing a button! But I think people are getting more and more used to someone with electronic gears. They don’t necessarily have to see someone with their legs apart sweating over a guitar anymore.
How do you find being in Berlin compared to Stockholm?
Wow it’s like night and day. Stockholm is very clean and beautiful whereas Berlin is very dirty and quite rough. There’s a lot of beauty here too of course. I was out in Berlin more before I moved here. I had a reaction to that and didn’t take much part in the clubbing scene. I started playing more since I moved here. It is easier to fly everywhere from here than from Stockholm.
You named a track after a Swiss hill. That makes me think that you are reminiscent of your country still.
For this record, I drew a lot of inspiration from old utopias. One of the first types of anarchistic, vegetarian societies was created on Monte Verita. That’s actually what inspired that track, the people at that time. Like the first hippies...
You are pretty absent from social media. Is it because you are shy, is it a reaction to over-sharing, is it a strategy to stay mysterious?
First of all, I think I am too old! All this social media craze started after the internet. I was late in keeping up. I opened up a twitter account after Cupid’s Head three years ago. I wasn’t forced but I was ‘encouraged’ to start using it. That’s the only place I post some work-related stuff. Like on Facebook, the page the Field is not mine. Somebody created it a long time ago and it is impossible to get it back! Of course people tend to share way too much but also there’s a market for that, people are interested, they want to know. I don’t like it as a private person. I’m from the days when you had a pen and a book.
Last question, does the Field have a musical guilty pleasure?
Hmm let me think...I don’t know...Hmm I’m trying to think...I listen to a lot of uncool music but I can’t think of anything at the top of my head. How about Bill Withers? People maybe wouldn’t think I’d love ‘Lovely Day’? Abba! I love Abba!
Ok I’ll take that.
Buy the record HERE.
See him at the Moth Club here.