Sonic mind control: In conversation with Phase Fatale
Listening to Berghain resident Phase Fatale's productions, you can hear the myriad influences that have sculpted his sound – a heady concotion of techno, post-punk, EBM and industrial. Not only are these musical inspirations at play – a constant that stems from his background as a guitarist – but you can also hear the emphasis he puts on exploring and examining different sound frequencies.
For his brand new album, Scanning Backwards, on Berghain's label Ostgut Ton, the latter became the central focus, more specifically the idea of control. After hearing other resident DJs in Berghain over the years he became interested in how these spaces could act as a tool or instrument for sound. Not only that, but the way in which these frequencies can affect the mind and the body: how they could conjure up certain memories or dictate the way your body moves to the groove.
Following the release of the album on 24th January, we caught up with Hayden to dive deeper into the processes and motivations behind his new LP, as well as chat about his label Bite and the musical influences that paved the way…
Happy New Year Hayden! How’s 2020 been treating you so far?
I hit the ground running into the new year with all the prep work for the album as well as getting ready other artist's first releases of the year for my label BITE, including a remix for Sarin done by myself. I had a couple weeks off from touring after New Years and started to get cabin fever in dark, cold Berlin. But now I’m beginning to hit the road again and got my energy back.
An exciting start to the new year already – your new album Scanning Backwards has just been released on Ostgut Ton. The LP explores sound as power and the way in which different frequencies can affect the brain and the body. Why did you want to examine and break down these particular themes on your album? Where did the original idea stem from?
I began brainstorming concepts for the album immediately following my last EP for Ostgut in summer 2018 and wanted to focus on the idea of control. It fascinated me how people could view a certain place or soundsystem in an almost cult-esque manner. After hearing certain resident DJs in Berghain some years ago, I tried to learn myself which frequencies or tracks made up of certain tonal balances best executed the vision or sound I wanted to portray in there. For me, I’m mostly focusing on the bass frequencies, those that really dictate the groove and power of a track, and you can feel almost as if the floor is going to fall out beneath you. There are definitely certain frequencies that hit the right resonances to go towards that feeling.
After a long conversation with my dear friend Vatican Shadow about ideas of control, it was clear to dive deeper into ideas of insidious mind control by organizations such as the CIA, which started with many different experiments after WWII, including using sound and extreme frequencies, under the name MKUltra. For example, one project “Perfect Concussion” was an experiment where they attempted to erase or change someone’s memory through the use of extremely loud blasts of low frequencies and also high frequencies in attempt to fry the brain basically. Imagine how that feels like.
There’s a connection between these more subversive uses of sonic mind control to how the sound on the dancefloor (or wherever you’re listening for that matter) can also act as a form of mind control. Dictating the way your body moves, recalling memories or even burning a moment in your mind forever attached to that particular sound or song. So on this album I found it fitting to explore that, especially being released on Berghain’s label. It allowed me to develop my sound further with more attention on the interactions of low frequencies as well as incorporating more high, sizzling frequencies all having an effect on the body and mind.
Each track is tailored with Berghain in mind: as if you were using the space as an instrument to explore different sounds and frequencies… Can you talk us through some of the characteristics on individual tracks and what you wanted to translate with each one?
So here are a few examples: on ‘Mass Deception’, which to me is maybe the clubbiest track on the record, there’s this huge crashing metal percussion sound throughout the song. It’s very reminiscent of the infamous sound in Berghain of bottles crashing down the stairs, especially if you are sitting on the ground floor and hearing the music also echo through the space. Or in ‘De-patterning’, which is named after CIA experiments conducted on unknowing mental hospital patients where they were drugged up and given heavy doses of electroshock therapy while also being played loops of messages to erase and reprogram their mind. The main synth sequence acts as a sort of psychic driving, very repetitive and changing in harmonics, getting right into the brain. While the pulsing bass and drones in the track also assists in this, the experiment where they tried to use extreme pulses of low frequencies to cause concussions and brain damage.
‘Proxy Contact’ gives direct messages to the listener in a surreal way also with pulses of low and high tonal blasts tuned to certain frequencies that resonate well in the club. I used Burroughs-esque cut up techniques on the samples to create a sense of disarray and confusion, referring to when in the Vietnam War, the US army would fly helicopters and blast manufactured messages of death from apparent ancestors to lower the morale of the North Vietnamese army.
Another example could be in ‘Velvet Imprints’, where a lot of the instruments are actually double layers. It was hard to find one sound to cover the range of frequencies I wanted say for the kick or bassline, so one layer has to focus on the low end strength and the other the top to create this wall of sound but still clear and precise. The samples in the track are taken straight from a historic disaster still prevalent today uploading the song with another interpretation, and other samples throughout the album do the same even if they are buried deep into the music.
In what ways did having a defined concept in mind influence the process? Are you normally the type of person to come in to the studio with an idea in mind or do you work more impulsively?
It was quite inspiring to dig deep researching these topics and getting some beautiful ideas, such as sonic booms from jets used as scare tactics and applying that constructively to dance music. I always came into the studio with an idea, it could be the whole track playing already in my head, or maybe it’s just a sequence, rhythm or ideas of where to sample or generate atmospheres. Sometimes it can take days, weeks or even a month for me to realize that idea and be satisfied with it. Of course when working on it, I try different things in the process and new ideas can also come impulsively. With the process of this album specifically, I usually started more with the atmospheres and melodies and then always at one point was unsatisfied with it. Only until I inserted these heavy rhythms and made everything a bit more cohesive did it get to somewhere that felt kinetic and sensual. Moving towards more electro and broken drum patterns also helped open up things for me to explore new combinations of these sounds.
In achieving the desired output for the album, you must have tried and tested the tracks in Berghain. What was the reaction? Did this help dictate small tweaks and changes to the tracks?
I actually never tested the tracks out while they were in the making still believe it or not. The first time I tried them out was right before we had to approve the masters at Snax last November, and then still was only a few of the songs. But they were extremely effective and translated as I had planned. I think I had enough trust in myself after playing in the club regularly for 5 years and also going there for even much longer. As well, I worked closely with Martin Maischein to mix the record in his studio in Neukölln. He has a lot of experience working with electronic music and amongst other things used to be the sound engineer at Berghain. He shed a lot of light on keeping each instrument within certain bandwidths and carving them out so each layer existed within itself but also worked together to make a greater whole.
On your releases, particularly on Unterton and Jealous God, you can really hear your influences in EBM, industrial and post-punk really shine. As someone who grew up playing guitar and bass in bands, who or what would you cite as some of your main influences?
As a guitarist, the bands whose sound really carries over into my vision of electronics would be My Bloody Valentine, The Cure, and Godflesh. They create huge, dense, and psychedelic atmospheres that are wide ranging in their sonic depth. On the more classic industrial / ebm side would be DAF, Skinny Puppy, and Leather Strip. And with this album, I was also greatly influenced by the contemporary psychedelic techno approach of Rrose, Traversable Wormhole, and Orphx but also alongside classics like Joey Beltram or Robert Hood.
How has your experience and background as a musician played into the way you approach electronic music production?
I started training in music when I was 10 years old. So I’ve had musicality ingrained in me for quite a while. I tend to think about everything harmonically and how even the tuning of the percussion is in the right intervals of the bassline or pads or whatever. I think a lot of my favorite electronic music also relies on counterpoint and instruments leaving space for one another or playing off one another. I tried to approach that more with this album rather than just building up one massive patch. Instead, I could break it down into multiple elements that then become more massive with their summation. Some days, I actually wish I could unlearn everything and try it, because I can also get trapped in my own rules I’ve learned and that can be hard to get past. A track having inharmonic parts also has the potential to be even more extreme and interesting.
Your label Bite has become a firm favourite of mine. Although you only launched the imprint in 2018, you’ve already had 10 very solid releases. What’s the vision behind it and how has it evolved since you first started? Anything in the pipeline for 2020?
Florian’s and my vision of BITE from the beginning has been to present other artists who operate beyond the borders of common preconceptions of techno and to illustrate this increasing momentum by attempting to push the genre into its next evolutionary state. In the past two years, we’ve created a weirdo family and have done label showcases all over from Tokyo and Seoul to Tbilisi and Vilnius. Even now at the Berghain release party, so many of the label's artists are joining me for this long weekender. We have almost all of 2020 planned out and even the first half of the year’s releases are already mastered. We’re putting an even stronger focus on the dance floor but with a very forward-thinking outlook from both new artists and veterans and with some awesome new sleeve designs. Really looking forward to sharing all this sick music with everyone.
Looking ahead to the rest of the year, anything you're excited about? Any new releases penned this year?
Getting back on the road and seeing some new places, label showcases in different cities. Next thing I have in store is contributing to Sarin’s remix 12” of his album from BITE as I mentioned before and otherwise just a couple compilation tracks and new collaborations. The next release I want to do would be a dance floor-focused techno EP applying the ideas I’ve fostered while making this album. Nothing set in stone yet but it's starting to brew maybe.