Ulrich Schnauss – The Ransom Note Mix & Talk


Throughout the last decade Ulrich Schnauss has produced three albums which perfectly captured his vision of taking the 90's 'Shoegaze' aesthetic – very uncool at the time as we'll discuss below – and placing it into an electronic context. With the new album 'A Long Way To Fall' Ulrich felt the need to change and explore new avenues. And it's another beauty.

On the 3rd July, German born musician and producer Ulrich Schnauss will play an extra special live A/V show at Electrowerkz. We decided that this was the perfect time to have him create his Ransom Note Mix and we caught up with him to find out a bit more about his background, his mix and his general thought on music;

Please introduce yourself.

Where are you from, where are you now?

My name is Ulrich Schnauss, I'm a 36 year old musician and have been living in Northeast London for the past 8 years.

Could you talk us behind the process of putting this mixtape together? What was the concept behind it? I couldn't help noticing a significant amount of this mixtape features music and productions from Ryuichi Sakamoto & Haruomi Hosono. In fact looking through the track listing it looks like it's all Japanese artists.

When I get asked to do mixes I often take that as an opportunity to put together a selection of my favourite pieces from a specific era, genre or composer. In this case I compiled a number of my favourite Japanese electronic tracks as I have been listening to a lot of that stuff for the past year or so.

What was the first electronic record you ever heard? How did it make you feel?

I grew up in the 80s so electronic instrumentation was a common element even in mainstream pop music then. However, Inner City's 'Big Fun' was most likely the first 'proper' electronic record I heard. I still remember the moment when the extended version was played on a radio show – at first I didn't quite know what to make of it and then somehow something happened and I was deeply fascinated by this new, very unconventional sound. I must've been about 10 years old – that track was high up in the charts all over the world and therefore even available in a supermarket in the small town in northern germany where i grew up (yes, big supermarkets were actually stocking 12"s in those days!).

You're playing a special live AV show in London next week. Visual elements have always played an important part in your live show, can you tell us about what makes an AV show in your eyes.

I've been collaborating with visual artist Nat Urazmetova for a while now. We both have quite similar, improvisation-based set ups (we even use the same midi controller) – Nat has an infinite archive of visual material she's created on her laptop, I've got tons of audio sequences and patterns. When we play live we basically combine both aspects in a way where I try to come up with a live re-arrangement of existing pieces based on the elements that I have and Nat reacts to the music utilizing the library she's compiled.

Is playing live the only way to make money for musicians these days in a world where no one is prepared to pay for music or do you manage to make a living from productions too?

There's a lot of misconceptions around regarding the live situation. playing gigs only generates profit if your performance is part of a bigger event such as a festival or if you're popular enough to fill rather large venues – if I'm playing solo shows I usually don't make much money: the kind of leftfield electronica I'm doing is not exactly filling the brixton academies of this world. Since record sales have been decreasing for a while now i'm mainly surviving on syncs – every now and then a piece of music is being used in an advert or a film – without that I'd have been gone a long time ago already. The unfortunate thing is that these things are never reliable or even predictable – but I try not to think about it too much. making music is the only think I could imagine doing so I don't have a choice anyway.

Similarly, you speak of your love of living in London over your native Germany. As costs escalate in the capital and the place becomes increasingly difficult for younger people to move to and survive in what do you think the future holds for London? Personally I think it could be a healthy thing for this country where the creative hub of the UK becomes decentralised to places like Bristol, Sheffield, Glasgow and Manchester.

I agree – recently I had the opportunity to talk to somebody who's been part of the london music scene since the late 70s – from what he was saying I was getting the impression that London once also must've been one of those cities that you'd escape to. Nowadays moving to London seems more likely something you'd do if you wanted to push your career and make business – it's a double sided sword: the city's very dynamic and constantly in motion for that reason – but there's also an increasingly challenging competitive element. Admittedly, i could happily do without that – my goals's never been to make tons of money or be famous – I just want to be in a place where i can work on music and survive.

Did you have any idea what an impact your incredible remix of Justin Robertson's Love Movement would have on the ears of so many? It got licensed to a fair few compilations too didn't it?

Thanks – i'm aware that this remix has been fairly popular, yes. 😉

Tell us about your love affair with Nat and the great Sonic Cathedral.

Haha – 'love affair' is a nice way of describing our relationship – I'd assume nat's wife may not be quite as amused. Well, Nat and i met about 10 years ago when he started putting on Sonic Cathedral shows – we were both excited about the idea of supporting a style of music we always felt very passionate about and that had been misjudged – 'shoegaze' was still a derogatory term in those days. In the following years I played many live sets at Sonic Cathedral parties and DJed a lot as well and we became friends.

What does the word techno mean to you in 2014.

A very broad term for various types of electronic dance music with a 4/4 kick drum foundation.

And the word shoe-gaze?

Again, a very broad term – related to a whole number of styles in contemporary rock and electronica. Basically, any music that utilizes a rather dreamy, reverb-ladden production approach and is expressing a melancholic, escapist sentiment seems to easily get tagged 'shoegaze' these days. It's nice to see that it's not a negative term anymore as I think that has also helped the original shoegaze stuff from the early 90s to receive the recognition it would've deserved a long time ago already.

There's a so-called 'movement' going on called Neo-Primitive as labelled in certain areas of the press. It feels like this is dressed up with a new label but is really a cyclical thing that happens every 6-8 years, basically a reaction to the confines of very dull stripped back techno. I'm not sure what I'm trying to say here, other than have you ever felt part of any 'scene'?

Yes, I've read about that as well. I did embrace the idea of being part of a scene for a long time – it was fun to be a drum&bass kid in the 90s and for a while the 'nugaze' scene in the UK and the US had a genuinely friendly and communal spirit. Then again, 'scenes' always seem to fall apart after a while – these days I don't consider myself to be part of a particular 'scene' anymore.

Remixing the Pet Shop Boys eh?! That must have been exciting. What else do we need to know about what's coming up in the world of Ulrich Schnauss?

I'm half-way through working on what may become my next solo album. I introduced some changes on my previous record 'A Long Way To Fall' but in hindsight had the impression that I didn't go far enough. So, I've tried to remove beats and percussion to allow the synthesizer textures and the writing in terms of melodies and chordal progressions to have a much stronger impact – but still going for a very structured approach, not wanting it to become an 'ambient' record in a traditional sense. Other than that, Engineers (the band I'm playing keyboards in) are releasing a new album very soon.

What was the music of your teenage rebellion?


Let's talk politics in the UK. It's in a pretty shit state of affairs at the moment but you're still hereŠ and so am I for that matter! What does the allure of the UK stlll have for you over Germany? Some would say that Germany is far more accepting of the creative process in this day and age than the UK.

I've never heard anybody saying Germany would be 'far more accepting of the creative process'. I think that'd be a strange assessment as well since the UK is certainly one of the most liberal and 'open' societies in the world. However, there's also a flip side to that coin: in the UK even leftfield music for instance is a part of the 'entertainment industry' – that provides opportunities and a much more serious, determined approach to handling things, but it also creates a rather harsh and competitive climate.

In Germany, however, if you're doing any kind of off-centre creative stuff you're part of a very small minority that has zero impact on German overall popular culture but that also results in a solidarity and supportiveness among those artists that I've been missing in london. Again though, the cosy atmosphere in the creative scene in Germany and other European countries is a side effect of marginalisation – certainly not an indicator that these societies' overall attitude to artists would be more embracing than it is in the UK. On the contrary.

First and last record bought? 

The first record I ever bought (or more precisely: that I forced my mother to buy for me) was Pink Floyd's 'Wish You Were Here' when I was about 6 or 7 years old. The last album I bought has been Luke Abbott's 'Wysing Forest'.

What do you think about the current fetishisation with the world of the analogue? What has always fascinated me about your music, that whilst you use a lot of synths you always strive to create something new and ethereal in all that you do in your productions. I would never do down analogue synths but do you think there is a danger at the moment where people are more obsessed with what something is produced on, as opposed to how it sounds? 

Oh yes, but it's always been like that. Around the time when I released 'Far Away Trains Passing By' I was called a 'laptop musician' in the press although I then didn't even own a modern computer – all the sequencing was done on the Atari. Then a few years later people would come up to me and say they liked the 'warm, analogue' sounds I'd be using – quite often it turned out that they were actually referring to a sequence recorded with STH like a Waldorf microwave for instance. I've aways avoided turning any of these ideas into a dogma – I'm looking for instruments with a unique character: it shouldn't matter whether it's digital or analogue.

What did it feel like to have been making music labeled shoe gaze – at the time considered deeply un-trendy – to then see a whole new generation of people pick up the sound and run with it? Did you feel a sense of vindication/elation that people were finally turned back onto this sound or did you think "back off my sound"?

Neither really. I haven't been part of the 'die hard' inner circle of the shoegaze scene anymore in the last years as I got more interested in investigating what's happening with contemporary electronica. no 'vindication' therefore – I simply haven't been close enough to what's been happening to feel that way. I would say though that it's been wonderful to see some of my favourite original shoegaze bands reforming (Chapterhouse, Slowdive) – and I guess people perceiving that sound more positively now has contributed to the likelihood of these reunions happening. I also wouldn't want anybody to 'back off my sound' – I don't consider it to be 'my sound' anyway: I've always embraced the idea that also my music owes its existence to a wide range of artists which have influenced me after all.

Tell us about your obsession with polyphonic synthesisers.

I guess quite simply I've always liked chords more than anything, even more than melodies for instance. My writing process works that way as well – I usually start with a set of chords that somehow capture an emotion that I can relate to.

If your sound was a visual thing, what would it look like? 

I'd love to say a superstudio collage or a Magritte painting but god knows whether I'll ever reach that point. It's good to have ambitious goals though. 😉

What's your favourite place on earth?

My studio.

What are you obsessed with at the moment?

After having read many books and essays by authors who are quoting and referencing Adorno over the years, I've finally started investigating the source – a challenging and endlessly inspiring task.

Favourite remix you've done of late?

My remix of La Pagliarella…

Where was the mix recorded? 

In my studio at home.

What would be the ideal setting to listen to the mix?

Any setting as long as it involves the usage of a pair of nice headphones.

What should we be wearing?

Flowers and flares.

What's your favourite recorded mix of all time? 

Bukem's very first 'Progression Sessions' mix from 1998 – the peak of the golden age of atmospheric dnb.

What's your answer to everything?

A radical critique of an economic system that perpetuates misanthropy and alienation on one side – empathy for the many different kinds of suffering it causes on the other. Having said that, it's important to formulate such a critique in a way where it demands an expansion of our freedoms – rather than to glamourize the idea of returning to structures which in reality would be even more repressive.

If this mix was an edible thing, what would it taste like?

I just love the fact that all the 80s YMO stuff and the various spin off projects are not just interesting as compositions but sound design and production are also done so skillfully and with an amazing amount of attention to detail – I guess a nice truffle praline would be a suitable equivalent. Delicious. 😉

Mix Track Listing;

01) ryuichi sakamoto: before long
02) inoyama land: apple star
03) testpattern: souvenir glace
04) sandii: zoot kook
05) ymo: expected way
06) ryuichi sakamoto: exhibition
07) chiemi manabe: うんととおく
08) yukihiro takahashi: curtains
09) haruomi hosono: hotel malabar roof garden
10) testpattern: ring dance
11) testpattern: ryugu
12) ymo: perspective
13) ymo: 音楽
14) haruomi hosono: madam consul general of madras

Catch Ulrich Schnauss at Electrowerkz on Thursday 3rd July, grab your tickets here

You can also check out a nice video interview with Ulrich here and keep up to date with him through Facebook.

Oh and there's a great video a collaborative album with Mark Peters released last year: