“I Can Finally Enjoy The Here And Now”: Ulrich Schnauss Talks


“Saturday nights are quite depressing really, I’m usually sitting at home and trying to figure out some software problem. And then Sunday is my least favourite day of the week, people stay at home and when you walk about you hear parents fighting and kids crying.”

Ulrich isn’t as miserable as that, but it made me chuckle and it seemed an apt way to start off a conversation I had with him. His delicate, layered and emotive electronica over the past fifteen years has much in common with the man I chatted with. Both seriously measured and light just outside a shadow, but also chuckling often. Sympathetic and nostalgic, but very present. He is in Brighton, hastily rehearsing for an improvised gig (is that possible?) with Colin Newman (Wire) and Malka Spigel (Minimal Compact) ahead of a show in Tel Aviv next week. His new album ‘No Further Ahead From Today’ is just out, and has just put in an appearance at Rough Trade East (“the best thing is they said if I come back, next time they’ll give me a discount. Which is very nice.”)

Ulrich was born in Kiel, North Germany, “Unfortunately yes”. I had little knowledge of that city, but it turns out it’s just like most here in England. 

“From a British perspective it’s probably a bit like a place like Portsmouth or somewhere like that, not a particularly interesting coastal town. I don’t wanna slag off Portsmouth or anything but even people from there would say the same thing. It’s not the most exciting place to live. The dilemma for people from Kiel is that anything to do with music or culture, it stops in Hamburg and then starts in Denmark again. The bit in the middle is left out and it’s just a cultural wasteland. It’s a really industrial looking place. It got destroyed in WWII and they rebuilt it in a horrible way, grey 60s and 70s concrete.”

Clearly not a fan of Brutalism, which I found surprising. He tells me he always knew he wanted to leave and at least “try to do music for a living”. The obvious choice was Berlin, which he moved to when he was seventeen. He then remembers something good about his long abandoned home town, when asked about his love for the late Nineties British music scene and in particular ‘shoegazing’ (horrid Melody Maker definition). Kevin Shields must be livid about that description of his majesty.

“The one good thing about Kiel was that because of the amount of British troops in the area, they had their own radio station, the British Forces Broadcasting Service. All the local people that were interested in music basically just listened to that station, and that’s how I got exposed to some music that under other circumstances I would never heard of. They were repeating the John Peel show, they had a show that was dedicated to electronic music once a week, and even the Top 40 in those days introduced you to a lot of music. The first time I heard Cocteau Twins was when ‘Iceblink Luck’ went into the Top 40, My Bloody Valentine’s ‘To Here Knows When’, and Ride the same. The electronic stuff like LFO, Tricky Disco, Sweet Exorcist were all in the charts so even if you listened to the radio once a week, you got exposed to some pretty interesting music.

So the military formed your musical upbringing? “Ironically, yes”, he laughs. His music has had much critical acclaim, but also much commercial success as in ‘successful in commercials’ and sound beds. He’s no Moby on that front, but Super Bowl ad-breaks, Playstation games and Hollywood films have all put Ulrich’s music in front of unexpected audiences.

“It’s definitely been an advantage because it’s the one thing that has enabled me to survive making music. Obviously it’s impossible to make a living out of just making records and playing shows, but if you get some syncs on top of that, it’s very helpful.” 

Most of the few articles I found on Ulrich focussed on his studio set-up and synths. Seen the same with most male electronic artists that weren’t commited to 4/4 dancefloor records. Seems lazy and dull generally (although I did spy a Voyetra 8 and remembered Gillian on The Perfect Kiss video, so who am I to talk?) He laughs in agreement.

“In my opinion that has always been one of electronic music’s biggest weaknesses, because the technology seems kinda exciting or enigmatic to some people. There’s a tendency to have this ‘gear fetish’, you know. I was never really into that so much, for me the synthesizer is a musical instrument. There’s a nice quote from Edgar Froese that I always use, he once said ‘Technology doesn’t interest me at all, but the possibilities are fascinating’. I’m not one of those guys who get super-excited about about some module or other, but I do get excited about the sonic possibilities they provide.”

Which was a lovely segue for me to ask about something I hadn’t known. He’s been a member of Tangerine Dream since 2014. I was surprised (and a little ignorant it seems).

“It was a big surprise to me as well! I’ve known Edgar for a long time, he was maybe like a mentor or a substitute father figure. Then at some point he invited me to visit him, in Austria in the summer. I thought it would just be like another friendly visit and he said ‘sit down at the piano and play’, and from other former members I knew this was the sort of thing he did to recruit new members. And so I got very nervous and improvised for about fifteen minutes, with shivering hands, and when I stopped he said, “that sounded like Keith Jarrett kicking George Winston in the balls. Welcome to the club”. He laughed long, and remembered.

Edgar Froese founded Tangerine Dream nearly fifty years ago, and was the only continous member of that collective until his death from a pulmonary embolism in January 2015. Ulrich was obviously close to him, how did the loss affect him and was it surprising? He sighs long again, maybe I shouldn’t have been so rude to ask.

“It was very hard to deal with because as I say he was clearly more than a colleague to me. Like a father figure. Someone that you could turn to for advice and was very helpful, and would give you some really heavy criticism if it was necessary. The thing about his illness was right to the last minute he very convincingly portrayed it in a way that there was no question, that he was going to go on another ten years. Objectively, all of us could have known, we somehow believed that and that was why it was a massive surprise. There were obvious signs, like when we toured together he couldn’t eat anymore so when we ate he’d go to a separate room and have liquid nutrition. Obviously things were not well, but because he was such a strong personality and wasn’t moaning about any pain, I think we all just ignored it to a degree.” 

He tells me how the whole Tangerine Dream experience was educating and inspiring for his solo work, especially working under such a mentor. His new album ‘No Further Ahead From Today’ was influenced by some of that critical input from Edgar. 

“About four or five years ago he said to me he thought it was always a big mistake that I abandoned the sound that I had with the first two albums. And then software and sound synthesis had changed, and although I wouldn’t necessarily want to go back to that old sound, how about recreating it with today’s technology?”

The album is recorded, out and done with as far as he is concerned, “It’s weird because for yourself it’s like it’s already a case closed. If I didn’t have to play the stuff live I’d probably never listen to it again. I’m already working on the next stuff.”

Ulrich has been living and working in London for the past ten years. His first “pragmatic” reason was that his music is better received in English speaking countries, but also that he wanted to leave Germany and “live in one of those cities where you feel you have the whole world in one place, and I feel London is one of those places.” Is he concerned post-Brexit?

“I’m disappointed. A lot of the debate reminded me of the situation I was trying to escape from in Germany. I was very surprised as well, I always thought the British public were quite rational thinking. If I had been in charge of the Remain campaign I would have simply pointed out the obvious economic facts, that basically you might not like the ‘shoe’ that is the EU, but shooting yourself in the foot is not only gonna damage the shoe, it’s gonna damage your foot. There are plenty of things to criticise about the EU, but leaving it is certainly not going to make anything better. I do think that wave of nationalist resentment is the biggest damage, it’s the change that it’s caused in British society, the resurgence of a nationalist recourse. I don’t know what to say about it, it’s happening everywhere. It’s like the whole world is going German, and that’s a big problem for me.”

So does he have any big regrets? He finishes by telling me about his darkness, and why the album has it’s name.

“So many, I try not to beat myself up. The reason why the album is called that is because I went through a long period in my life when I was struggling with depression. I always had this perspective that I was either hoping for a better tomorrow, or looking back and feeling sad about the past, but I never managed to live in the present. Over the past couple of years I’ve finally reached a level where I can finally enjoy the here and now. And that is probably my biggest regret, that I didn’t come to that conclusion earlier, because I could have been a lot happier.”

And he laughs and leaves.

Ulrich Schnauss – No Further Ahead Than Today is out now. Follow Ulrich on Facebook.

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