The Unsound program at the Adelaide Festival this year features a collaboration between Atom™ and Robin Fox. The Atom™ brand has been attached to a bleep-y vein of electronic music for a couple of decades now, including shows playing the Love Parade in Berlin and Sonar in Barcelona. The funkiness shouldn’t be surprising given the pedigree of this electronic blend.
The artist behind the music of Atom™ is Uwe Schmidt, also known for Senor Coconut, Atom Heart and as part of Flanger. It’s a diverse discography, from acid to merengue to jazz and many points in-between. A solid collection that has earned many accolades and fans here at Cyclic Defrost.
Atom™’s show in Adelaide is a collaborative result with Australian artist Fox. “We’re combining,” says Schmidt. “The show is entirely new, there are works from each of us but everything is reworked.” The two performed at Unsound in Krakow last year after months of correspondence and then one week of rehearsals. The result combines Robin’s laser and audio with Atom™’s video and sound work.
“We thought of a process but never managed to work together in one room. We communicated via email for 8-10 months, it was all language based. Fortunately Robin is a very focused person. There’s a 12-hour time difference between Australia and Chile but we managed to communicate very well about what we could do and how. Independently we worked on ideas and exchanged them.
In a video about the making of the work, The Making of Double Vision, Robin Fox explains the process and result. “There’s only so much you can really do over the internet. We traded some files, traded ideas and talked about the form of the work and how it was going to take place. We really needed to get the video and laser to sit together, because we worried they wouldn’t gel.”
“I think we found a lot of common ground and complementary sounds,” concludes Fox.
The duo of an Australian and a German living in South America are a good fit for Unsound. “Often I have the feeling that music festivals are based on marketing, who’s hip. With Unsound I get the feeling that someone made a conscious decision [to curate the festival].” He mentions having known that someone, Matt Schulz, for “about a decade.”
The process of incorporating two different artists to present a cohesive show leads me to ask about Schmidt’s own processes. His musical identities seem to serve particular styles of music, so I’m curious whether he plans the output to suit the different labels or whether he intuits a moniker for the resulting audio at the end?
“Normally most of the ideas are born in an abstract way, on paper or in my head. I have an idea what I want to do and then I decide the technology to use. Sometimes I have the name and identity beforehand. Sometimes I do things without a plan but that’s rather rare.”
One aspect of Schmidt’s process is his interest in interior design. Pictures of his studio show that he places more emphasis on antique furniture than the usual audio hardware. “I have a complex relationship to gear,” acknowledges Schmidt. “When I started to make music I realised there is an obsession toward gear. You start to fall in love with the gear. I’ve seen many people get lost in that aspect of it, buying tons of equipment and not making music. I’ve always been interested in musical ideas rather than the gear itself. I look for ideas and then find the gear to realise them.”
“I was working with one computer and a pair of speakers for 10 years. I really wanted to dig into one piece of equipment. I think it’s very important to be comfortable in the physical environment to create. Natural light is important. There are elements of interior design in modern studios that I don’t like. So I focused on making my studio inspiring. I don’t feel inspired in a place that looks like a studio. I want to be in a different space, like a living room.”
There are a lot of people making music in their living rooms and many more in their bedrooms. What do you think about the rise of home-based producers? “It brings a new quality,” he answers somewhat cautiously. “I think it brought a new perspective to music making in general.
“There’s a positive and negative to the movement. It’s opened up the opportunity to many people but it’s overwhelming, there’s so much music on the internet. It’s created a bigger amount of noise but it’s hard to navigate. You can’t find interesting new music because there’s so much of the usual music being produced.”
Warming to the subject, Schmidt presents a view of the negatives in the mass of music-making masses. “In the past you needed at least ten different professions, engineers and composers and producers and so on. They delivered some kind of quality to what you were doing. There’s been an economic reduction and it’s liberated many ideas but caused a backlash in quality. In my opinion it’s not a super-positive. There’s not always progress. I hope that history will reincorporate those roles again. Recordings where everything is done by one person in a bedroom, every now and then I find it a bit painful to listen to. I hope that we, and I’m using ‘we’ as an abstract term here, can combine the skillful approach with the freedom that is now available.”
Do you think that all of those roles in the past meant that there was a collaborative sort of friction that’s now missing? “Friction is a very powerful catalyst. Nowadays everything is quite easy. The technology is incredible but I don’t think it’s reflected in the music that’s being produced. Everything gets so easy and formulaic. How does that make sense? The technology is powerful but the results aren’t creative.”
Schmidt argues that accessible technology has meant there are more musicians but they aren’t straying far from the predictable in their results. “There’s a sense that people want to sound like something else. There are too many blueprints. People need to develop their own stuff. We have tons of musical history to refer to. The weight of history is bigger than the creative horizon. It’s as though the information we are accumulating is bigger than anything we imagine. As a young musician you are confronted with everything in real-time and have to negotiate your relationship to it. The technology isn’t the problem.”
Later on in our conversation he offers this summary: “The tools we have today mean we can do almost anything but then you look at what people are doing it’s incredible that people want to sound like someone else.”
“Is it a form of cultural hegemony?” I ask, thinking of the song ‘Stop (Imperialist Pop)’ from Atom’s HD album, which talks about “sonic invasion from nation to nation”. “What I find interesting that there are certain values being promoted in music. It’s interesting to see how certain corporations share values.”
At this point I’m reminded of an interview to promote HD where Schmidt put this more bluntly and memorably: “I find it impressive how world wide media is controlled by a couple of companies and how incredibly full of shit nowadays mainstream media actually is. In fact, it is way beyond just being ‘bad’.”
Meanwhile, over the telephone Schmidt continued to discuss the taint of values. “We’re looking at it from a musical perspective but it’s throughout culture. If you step back and look you can see there are certain values attached to it.
“I find it really scary, to be honest. The other day on an airplane I saw Godzilla and there are different layers of information being presented in that film. You think it’s a sci-fi movie but when I looked at it it’s a military movie. It’s a military message being bombarded onto you using Godzilla as a pretext.
“When I listen to music I hear different values. I travel a lot and you can fly for 18 hours and arrive at a destination and turn the radio on and it’s the same stuff as where you left. There’s no opportunity for alternative values. I wouldn’t call it subtle but it seems so normal.”
Later I see on Atom™’s Twitter feed the following status from days earlier: “Sometimes Electronic Music feels like dog shit you’ve stepped in and you’re wondering when and how, but mainly, how to get it off your shoe.”
Schmidt’s love of electronic music is obviously deep and has been sustained for decades. Before discussing the substantial body of work he’s amassed, I ask what attracted him to music?
“I started to play drums when I was 13 or 14. I was playing in the basement and then in bands but I wasn’t interested in bands. I wasn’t the guy who was into music to get laid. That was late ‘70s and early ‘80s when suddenly all this synthesiser music appeared on the radio. When I heard a drum machine on the radio I was really impressed. I wanted to know what was going on, how it was producing music that was impossible to play. I found myself attracted to the synthetic quality in music. I’ve always been inspired by electronic sounds.”
Electronic music is still quite new. The sounds aren’t as old as other instruments, I suggest. Schmidt replied that Karlheinz Stockhausen said electronic music tries to sound original. That “there is an ‘emptiness’ in the technology”. It leads our conversation back to the idea of musical blueprints and, these blueprints are obviously something Schmidt has referred to a various points in his career. The work exploring the chronological history of the acid genre, Acid Evolution 1988-2003, springs to mind.
“History is a buffer filled with information and following generations have to work through that,” says Schmidt. “History is filled with blueprints. There is no originality anymore. It’s an interesting moment in history right now. I’m inspired by that, because there are forces that are still interested in the possibilities, as well as those that are interested in what has already been done.
“I’m very positive about that future for electronic musicians. The people who are interested in the blueprints can continue but there are people recognising the opportunities. It used to be that every English rock band had to confront The Beatles. It’s inspiring, I think, to look beyond the blueprints. There’s a lot of complaining but I’m interested in seeing the positive side of things.”
Schmidt’s own history must feel like a weight at times. He casually mentions that he has “about 150 albums” in his archive, of which 17 are now available online. “The archive project was born out of a practical need,” he explains. “I had to bring it under control.
“I’m not a backward looking person but I realised it needed to be done. It’s my body of work. Every now and then people want to license a track and I have to find it. I realised I have 95% of my work under my control, so it was mine to manage.
“It didn’t feel like one body of work. It sounded quite chaotic. Without wanting to change the character, I’m not interested in changing history, I thought it’d be good if everything had a homogenous feel to it. So I started to remaster it and make it available. It’s a very slow process, I’m only 10% through.”
At this point the weight of history, the one mentioned earlier as crushing the creative horizons of musicians, it starts to take on a Sisyphean shape. It’s clear that Schmidt has made a career by picking through the history to find new paths in familiar sonic territory. It will be interesting to see and hear the path that Atom™ and Robin Fox have found to follow through their respective and combined output at Unsound.
Atom TM and Robin Fox will perform Double Vision at Unsound at the Adealaide festival on friday the 13th of March.