Interview with Matthias Grübel from Telekaster

by Mikhail Karikis

In the realm of classical and experimental contemporary music, it is customary that the name of the composer is transparent and visible. The artifice of creating a persona, furnishing it with an invented name and then presenting the music through this persona is something that has always intrigued me. In your music career so far, your work has appeared under different ‘band-names’. Can you say a few things about the thinking and meaning behind these, and how they represent (or not) different type of music you create?

Well, I prefer not to release my music under my real name, because it just doesn’t feel right for me. I like creating some sort of abstract persona by using these project names or monikers. Also to separate various things that I do/did from each other. I made a few records as “Phon°noir”, vaguely indie elektro, indietronics kind of material, using vocals, broken beats and acoustic guitars. But once I had reached a certain point there I felt I got sort of stuck and needed a clear cut and a new start, not only namewise, but also in terms of sound and attitude. That’s when “Telekaster” was born, the more open, more abstract, more free, more powerful music with less pop-framework. Yet for instance when I do more beat-orientated stuff or remixes, i still like to use the Phon°noir moniker as Telekaster obviously stands for something completely different. So basically using different names is not about hiding or denying some sort of authorship, it’s more about making a certain structure and developement within my own work visible by using very straight forward “categories”.

You have mentioned the Beatles as a band that has been influential in your music-education as a teenager. What other bands did you listen to?

Oh yes, The Beatles were of great importance for me, still are. I was drawn to them by the age of six or seven, my older cousin gave me a tape entitled “20 Golden Hits by The Beatles”, I remember listening to this tape until it literally broke into pieces. beatles songs were the first I learned to play when I picked up the guitar a few years later. Of course there were more and more artists in my growing tape collection, in the 90s loads of guitar music – Nirvana, Radiohead, Oasis, Deus, Madrugada and Leonard Cohen. Some of the most important records of that time, for me, came from Radiohead, Björk, Portishead, Sigur Ros and Massive Attack. I basically listened to a mixture of all this throughout my entire teenager days…

To continue my above question, I wonder what role the Germanic musical tradition played in shaping your music taste and your music, and whether you ever felt you had a special connection (psychic/emotional) to German music.

To be honest, german music was of somewhat marginal interest to me when growing up. as a matter of fact, there wasn’t too much interesting german music around for me back then –  I was trying to listen to contemporary german indie stuff but just could never find what i was looking for there. The only german artists whose music had a huge and lasting impact on me was The Notwist and maybe Tarwater. It was way later that I found out about all the great electronic pioneers and what their contribution not only to the german but also to music history in general was. I became a huge Kraftwerk fan, and I especially admire the work of Michael Rother and Harmonia. And some of the Can albums have become favourite records of mine. But to be honest, this is something that has developed over the past 5,6 years, while I was already deeply into making music myself. I can’t claim to work in a certain tradition here, but all these things keep adding up to something in my head and of course they find their way into my music, into telekaster, too. So there might be connections here and there, but I suppose these aren’t directly rooted in a certain german musical heritage. Yet there is something about all the mentioned artists, something that might be typically german, I don’t know, but it’s something that also drives me in writing and playing the Telekaster stuff: this somewhat romantic ambiguity of experimental sounds and techniques, sort of “head-music” on the one side and a serious emotional depth on the other.

What determines the choice of instruments and sounds you use in your music? Can you talk a little more extensively about your use of the guitar?

First of all, my limited abilities of actually playing instruments. I just can’t use a huge variety of instruments, because I just don’t know how to play them. Yet anything that makes interesting sounds can be useful for me, and during recording and piecing things together I often try to use weird sounds here and there, things I might not know how to use properly but which I end up using anyways, like an cheap electric violin or little toy instruments. It’s a bit different with the guitar though. I have been playing it for about 15 years now and I used it in many different contexts. I never had a classical training, and I never became a rock solo virtuoso. But i know how to make it sound good and especially with Telekaster I feel I finally found my very own, very special sound, which I developed over the years. I was looking for something more open, more abstract, something that sounds the way water moves, flowing, endlessly evolving and growing, never exactly the same twice. I try to play not to many notes, I try to keep things simple, leave open spaces here and there. But the way I layer things and the way I run everything I play through various effects and chains of plug-ins makes it come out very unique and very massive. I pieced together some nice patches in audioluch (one of my favourite sound softwares) as well as in ableton live for this purpose. I also go through a few delay pedals and a little pre-amp. Combining the three (and that’s what i do when playing live) creates this highly textured and layered Telekaster sounds. On the recordings I also create loads of backgrounds or bass-layers only by reworking recorded guitar sounds, which i keep manipulating, pitching, editing, resampling etc… so basically what you hear in Telekaster music is made of these 6 strings, in endless variations of course.

Do you think it’s important to follow technological developments in music-making? How is technology used in your music?

As long as it serves some overall artistic vision it is very important, I’d say. I like to search for new plug-ins or read nerdy interviews with people whose work I admire, Four Tet or Christian Fennesz for instance, both of them very forward-thinking people, also on a technological level and in terms of how they use software. I am always happy once I learn something new regarding the endless possibilities of producing music or mixing it. Yet it rarely happens that something new changes the way I work completely. I usually try to find new things that i can insert into my existing set-up. of course technology is with me from the very start, writingwise as well as recording wise. I keep “jamming” with the set-up of guitar/effects/audiomluch/ableton live, and the step from improvisation to recording a good idea is always a very fast one, as everything happens within the same digital environment. Sometimes I’d like to be a little more independent of all these things, but for the moment it looks as though i just can’t go back, Telekaster music is based on the real-time-manipulation and extensive treatment of audio material, so I have to stick with my laptop and all the other tools to make things work somehow.

What music have you listened to in the last two weeks?

Mainly the self-titled album by Aufgang, “Monoliths & Dimensions” by Sunn o)), “One in other” by Chloé, which i just bought, and a “Storm in Heaven” by The Verve.

I have been very privileged to have collaborated with you, which was a joy, inspiring and creatively liberating. Can you say a few things behind your interest in collaborating with other artists?

Generally speaking, collaborations are a great way to expand your own musical horizon. That’s what drives me to keep on working with other people in the first place. another nice thing about them is that you can invite friends who play very different music from your own to contribute something to a new piece, for instance. The feedback created by two people putting ideas into the same piece… that’s what our collaboration was like for me. I asked you to be my guest on a piece that sounded very much like the others on the first record when we started. Once you had recorded loads of new layers and voices and instruments for it, it turned out to sound more like some sort of orchestral remix, something way bigger and more expressive than I could ever have imagined. It went far beyond my musical limitiations, and I learned a lot from it. I guess moments like this are the main reason for my interest in collaborations.

You are very prolific and work for the radio and the theatre. What do radio and theatre projects involve? Do you have something coming up soon?

Yes, I have been working in theatre music as well as in my radioplay project Phonofix (with author Jörg Albrecht) for a few years now. It’s basically what i do for a living. Soundtracking theatre productions is not only a great and challenging way to create new music, but, luckily, also a good way to make some money, at least here in germany. I am part of a performance/theatre collective that I work with regularly, but I also work with contiuosly with one director in particular. It’s an exciting and, as I said, highly challenging task to come up with loads of new music within 5-8 weeks time. I like to spend days on rehearsal stages, connecting myself to a process taking place where the space, the actors and everything else come together. Music can define a lot in this process, too, so it’s a very tricky thing to do, but very rewarding if you see it working out well. Finding the right approach, the right connection to the text, the setting, the director’s ideas etc usually keeps you busy until the very last days before the premiere, so it also never gets boring… coming up is a premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s “Baal”, I did the music for this production at Staatstheater Oldenburg before the theatre summer break, the premiere will be 21 september. And I am currently talking with a director and a choreographer about maybe soundtracking their new production in Berlin later this summer, which I hope will happen. It would be a huge production with quite a few dancers plus actors, so – very exciting again. Let’s see.

Telekaster is Berlin-based musician Matthias Grübel and video-artist Stefan Bünnig. Together they create a universe of abstract narration and associative beauty consisting of Grübel’s shimmering noisy soundscapes and Bünnig’s perfectly crafted yet always universally minimal real-film sequences.

photo (c) christopher grübel