Pole – aka Stefan Betke – found his project name when he allegedly dropped a Waldorf 4-Pole mixer in 1996, which he then started using within his production due its imperfections of its “strange hissing and popping noises.”
He has just released his 12″ three-disk series, Waldgeschichten (roughly translating to Sounds of the Forest), heralded as an organic wonderland of sound, of which he will be showcasing at three shows in Brisbane, Sydney and Adelaide in March. He talked with us at some length via Skype about his origins, views on production and art at large.
Cyclic Defrost: Tell us a bit about your origins.
I was born and raised in Dussledorf, which is a middle-sized city with about 600-700 thousand inhabitants, but was really important for the electronic scene because Kraftwerk and Die Krupps were from there and making music during the time I lived there in my youth. I always got inspired by the people I saw around home when I was growing up.
But it wasn’t just electronic bands that inspired me. I was just as interested in jazz and rock as Kraftwerk and pop, and it wasn’t just one set style that I was focused on, and this helped form my ideas on music altogether.
So you didn’t start producing purely electronic music straight away?
I started producing in the early 80s, with a band and we made kind of avant-garde jazz-rock stuff. During the 80s the first synths came in and the first rhythm machines, and it was then that electronic music really started coming into play. We included sampling technology and moved into jazzy hip-hop type stuff, before I finally moved into Pole in the late 90s. By then I’d already been playing in bands and stuff for around sixteen years.
What were the bands like you were working with?
I played keys for several bands in Dussledorf, and one of my own that some of the same guys played drums, guitars and background singers. But that was a long time ago, and not really that important to talk about old, weird, used bands, ya know? (laughs)
What about the origins of Pole? Did you regard it as an evolution of your older work?
Well, I couldn’t say that Pole fell out of the sky, I guess. My whole musical development has been a gradual process of me. I develop my skills along with my tracks, and this shows in how I use my synths and compose my pieces.
Would you call yourself a synth musician or a producer when it comes down to it?
(Pauses) Oh phwoar huh, good question actually. I’m a piano player, but these days I’d call myself a producer even though I sample all my own keys and other bits, and I am now on laptops and computers by myself. It used to be back in the days that we’d get in a producer and other people to record us. I’ve now figured it out for myself, so every function is performed by myself.
Do you still consider yourself a live musician after producing for so long?
I would say I definitely still am a musician in one way, as in a musician who produces his own music.
First and foremost, but?
I still have to maintain that it’s one person performing different functions, that change from when producing and to when playing live.
Okay, moving on from that one then (Note: I felt a bit guilty for trying to put him on the spot at this point, I’ve just been intrigued about producers and what they consider “live” for a while now) … When you released your first bit of music, was that that Pole or was that something beforehand?
Pole was the first real result I would like to discuss about nowadays. It was the first thing I’d done that I was 150% happy with.
What label was this with?
In North America, it was Matador. You had all these rock bands and independent artist from places like New York, and it was quite a big independent label actually, so very influential.
Did you know many people at Matador when you started releasing with them?
Sure. Otherwise I wouldn’t have signed to it! My idea was always that I would try and know the contacts personally. I wanted to know the music of nearly every release on that label so I’d know that my own music would go along with it and that we were in context with each other.
It is definitely an organic and personal approach, I’d never send stuff to Sony because I would not fit there.
How was your release received?
It led to a lot of touring in America and Canada. I was playing a lot of shows, and this success managed to transfer back over to the UK, which I started touring, and then back over to Europe. It was like a little wave and interesting to be a focal point of and worked in the right context that I was about.
Were you surprised at the popular reception you got?
We thought it’d be good for selling a thousand, two thousand sold copies at the most. Then all of a sudden I’m playing around college radio stations and headlining at Saturday night shows. So yes, we were all surprised at this success and just showed that you can be successful with experimental sounds as long as it sounds good and interesting, if you have the right timing.
If you had one word to describe your sound, what would it be?
I can’t define it in one word, it’s impossible! I like to leave that up journalists and critics to define, because I don’t like to say my music is that thing or whatever. It has influences from dub music down to experimental jazz work, and there’s so much in it it’s impossible to explain it one word, I’m sorry.
Let’s try this again. Do you have an apt metaphor that describes your approach?
I try to collect an idea, which is more a structural idea rather than a melody or a hook line. It’s more of a basic atmospheric loop, and then I try to deconstruct the whole thing until something happens that makes sense to me in an abstract way, beat-wise, sound-wise and the atmosphere must be correct. I don’t make intros, bridges or outros, my track usually just start and end.
Why do you prefer using deconstruction within your production?
It controls the little fragments in music that you have, in that it helps you eliminate components that may override the nicer little bits. Then you decide which of the fragments still okay to put together again within a full work. My rules are the fragments have to be listenable after five minutes, otherwise if it gets boring, I throw it away. Another rule for my little sounds are that (the first sound) must be able to create a following second idea for sound automatically.
I have about twenty sounds currently open on my mixing board, and I’m only going to use five of them today. Tomorrow I’ll have another twenty open and it continuously operates like this.
You’re pretty prolific then?
I try to be! I also work in a mastering studio and cut vinyl for people.
Do many people approach you for mastering?
There are a lot of people using my services, my studio is usually full, and people approach me with label projects all over Europe, US and UK.
Do you have any other hobbies or other creative pursuits you engage in?
I would not call what I engage in anything as a hobby, in regards to what I regard as normal professional work like cutting lathes (for vinyl) and studios and everything, I don’t have hobbies (laughs).
You consider music work?
Music is always work if you take it seriously. Music is not a hobby, and is 95% work and 5% talent.
That’s interesting. Would you consider yourself much of an improviser with your work, or is it all carefully mapped out?
I wouldn’t call myself an improviser, to be honest. I need a beginning and a sound to start with, and that needs a lot of work, and then I might be able to play around with it a bit. I was never really good at meeting other people and improvising on the keyboard or something like, I was always too structured for pure improvisation.
What other things inspire you? Environment, books?
If you call yourself a musician, everything serves to inspire you. Newspapers, or books, or every movie that you see, all of this social and political input serves your music and so therefore I’m open to everything around me. Sometimes it can be a walk in the city, and a piece of architecture that can creates kind of like a sound in my head, or create an atmosphere within myself. It’s all over the place; inspiration can be everywhere.
What do you feel gets ignored within a lot of releases of electronica these days? Are you worried about what other people produce?
I don’t want to talk negative about colleagues, but I think people are producing too fast. Producers don’t take the time to compose a piece that is truly extraordinary, there’s too much music that follows the same formula and is not inspired enough. I don’t feel that there’s enough of a responsibility taken by producers in what they create, and this creates a lot of imperfections and unfinished compositions that could be so much more.
Wrapping up, are you touring Australia some time soon?
I’m coming to Australia on the 11th of March, where I play at the Adelaide Festival, and I’m going to play in Brisbane and Sydney. I’ll be playing my Waldgeschichten series with my analogue equipment on stage with a mixing board and effects unit in a very dubby way. It’s basically listening stuff, but very funky, so come check it out!
Pole Australian tour dates presented by Goethe-Institut:
March 15 – Adelaide Festival, Reggae DJ set
March 16 – Adelaide Festival, Unsound at Queens Theatre
March 21 – Brisbane, Mono, Institute Of Modern Art with Tim Hecker
March 22 – Sydney, The Gate at St Philip’s Anglican Church with Galapagoose, Hinterlandt (Co-presented with Cyclic Defrost)