Efdemin, to the uninitiated, is two things: a true DJ's DJ and an artist whose productions have exemplified a strain of the German ambient and deep house movements, championed by the long-running Dial label since the mid-2000s. The Berlin-based Hamburg native recently took a three-month break from his touring schedule for an artist residency in Kyoto, Japan, collaborating on a project with his girlfriend.
Whilst over there working on this, amongst the nature and displaced feelings of being a foreigner, an album he had recently been working on in his studio also came to fruition. 'Decay', the producer's third LP under the Efdemin moniker, comes out at the end of March and is his most cohesive and complex work to date.
On a snowy Brooklyn Monday morning, DJ Mag Skypes Efdemin in his Berlin studio. After a few joking comparisons on how much snow our respective cities have received so far this winter, we set out to discuss the process behind 'Decay', his background, and music in general. He speaks candidly and with a great deal of warmth, laughter often punctuating his sentences. When we get onto the subject of DJing, and other people's records, he becomes giddy with excitement and it is clear that, however passionate and accomplished he is with his own artistic work, he really bloody loves playing vinyl as well. But first, we touch on his experience upping sticks and temporarily relocating to Japan and how that impacted the making of the album.
“Yeah yeah!” he exclaims. “I was in a special state of mind out there. I'd spent the last year recording lots of the music and the sounds for the album at my studio. There were plenty of ideas, but it was still very much unfinished, and I took my hard disk full of all of this to Japan for those few months. We explored the country and had a great time in this new culture, and from this I felt like I was ready to finish the music.
After just three-and-a-half weeks of intense work I was done; I had previously recorded my instruments in my studio in Berlin, and then put everything together and mixed it on my laptop and headphones in Kyoto. Those were the two distinct stages of the process behind 'Decay'.”
Weighing in at 10 tracks, 'Decay' is subtly darker than Efdemin's previous output and also aligns itself with the glacial buzz of techno alongside his usual minimalist warmth, rooted in deep house. It opens with a disconcerting sample of a sick man stating the failings of his own body, and closes with the same voice saying he would go to the piano if his hands still worked; repeating the shaky phrase “touching music” as the LP's final moments of sound.
Efdemin explains that the sample came from a man who'd had a stroke. “He can't move. He opens with 'my body isn't listening to me', but if you take it away from its original context then it can lead you to interesting directions. I have a huge library of voices, weird recordings and tapes. Concerning the rest of the opening track, 'Some Kind of Up and Down', it represents the other, more drone-based side of things that I do. It brings together these two identities, and that could be a starting point for future productions perhaps. The other bit of sampling in there is Salvador Dali guesting on the 1950s and 1960s American TV show, What's My Line?”
The ambient and drone work that Efdemin is referring to stems from some of his other aliases, as well as his university background and early projects. Although his youth was steeped in dance music, he temporarily left it behind when he moved to Vienna for his degree in Computer Music before moving to Berlin in 2005. He released his first album under his real name, Phillip Sollmann, and it's a culmination of the experimental work and installation sound he was doing at school. “Yep and then I came to Berlin and I got lost in techno for a while,” he laughs.
“The Viennese scene was very different, it was incredibly abstract and more concert-style improvised music. Nerds with laptops. Then in Berlin it was the wave of minimal techno and after-hours for days. So different! I was quite shocked to see what had been happening because I hadn't been to Berlin for ages. I used to go in the early 1990s every weekend from Hamburg. We'd stay out clubbing for two days and come home totally wasted, but then I stopped going there for eight years and returned to this completely different city.”
I ask about other influences present on 'Decay', touching upon the freeform Sun Ra-inspired Detroit techno of Terrence Dixon and its presence in a few tracks across the album. “Yes and the track 'Parallaxis' especially represents this Terrence Dixon direction,” Efdemin agrees.
“It was a sequencing patch I did in [visual computer music programming language] Max a long time ago. I found the bell sound, set everything to a random controller, recorded it, added a bit of 909 and it was done! I'm so happy that Terrence is releasing so much amazing music. He never got his deserved reputation and finally is now. He is one of my heroes and I have nearly as many records from him as I do from Jeff Mills.
I have to mention Jamal Moss [aka outsider techno king Hieroglyphic Being] as well in terms of influential, uncompromising musicians. I look up to these three so much.”
Efdemin goes on to mention that he was listening to a lot of the American avant-garde minimalist musicians, Phill Niblock and La Monte Young, during the first stage of the recording process in Berlin as well as techno and house, since he was still playing out every weekend. Leaving this world behind for a few months was not without difficulty.
“I think it has to do with the differences and the history,” he says whilst discussing the obstacles him and his girlfriend encountered when setting up interviews for their project. “Japan has a long story of exclusion and treating foreign things as strange. It doesn't mean they're bad at all, but the culture doesn't really include other things. It is both the most up-to-date contemporary capitalist society, but also so traditional! It's just a very different way of treating people. A tourist wouldn't see any of this, but staying for extended periods, you do begin to notice it.”
He is reticent to agree or disagree whether these feelings of alienation can be heard in the music. “I don't know!” he says earnestly. “Maybe thinking about things out of my comfort zone put me in a different state of mind, but I can't tell if it was this exact experience that you hear.” He expands on this when I next ask him if there is even a running theme present at all. “It's just what I could do in this one moment. It represents me a lot, but it's not a planned showcase. Decay' is only the title, which I thought was a nice concept to touch on my age. It's also very Buddhist, which I was surrounded by at the time, both reading its texts and seeing many temples. We have a lot of decay in our social and political values, so that's what I came up with. Now that I'm facing getting older I have to deal with decay. Not in a bad way. I came back home feeling so much better about getting older!”
This sense of calm acceptance and lightness is also present on a few tracks, delicately balancing out 'Decay's moodier offerings. 'Track 93' is an intensely soulful house number that is exquisitely built around a simple vocal that Efdemin recorded of himself in the studio one evening. 'Meadow' is also fairly upbeat, with its swirling dub techno chords and driving beats reminiscent of Studio 1, Profan, and other early Kompakt-affiliated offshoots. The infamous Cologne label distributes Dial, which is home to the majority of Efdemin's oeuvre, and Efdemin is happy and proud of the strong connection between him and them, even if their musical alignments differ.
Although he dabbles jamming and real-time edits as Pigon, a collaborative duo with fellow producer Rndm, there are no plans to perform 'Decay' out in a live setting. “I'm returning to Kyoto soon for a bit with my girlfriend to finish our project, and then the year will be focussed on DJing,” Efdemin explains. “I never play live. I'm not interested in doing this. Carrying all the stuff around (laughs). Seriously though, this kind of music is not...” he pauses for a while until proclaiming, “I just like DJing! That's what it is! I love record shopping! I want to do that …to play other's people's records instead of my own stuff all the time. That would be so boring. My artistic output and DJing aren't completely different things, but I'm still more interested in other people's music.”
There's no escaping Efdemin's deep love of DJing and buying vinyl. His voice immediately assumes a quicker, impassioned gait each time the subjects are broached. When it comes out that I work at a record shop, he even insists on going to its website and discussing our new releases. Then he tells me about a particularly meaningful seven-hour set with Cosmin TRG the weekend before (“So much fun! It's still fueling me!”) and proclaims the fact that you can never fully know how a night is going to go until you start playing as a challenge he revels in.
“Sometimes it takes a long time to get everyone on your plane and bring them on your journey, Everyone has to be on board and understand your rules, but then you have to understand their rules and their needs as well. It's super interesting on a sociological level. One day someone should write books on this! DJing as a way of controlling society,” he laughs.
Nearly out of time from discussing our shared addiction to the black-wax crack, we quickly discuss Efdemin's continued aversion to using the term 'deep house' after it became ubiquitous in dance music a few years ago. Stressing that he doesn't feel a part of any one genre or movement, he partially blames the internet for muddying things by hyper-elevating parts of the underground to the mainstream. “It's super weird when people are cool and why,” he muses. “For instance, a real DJ never limits himself to any one thing because it's about selecting all the good stuff from various genres and ideas and bringing it together for this one performance that changes completely from night to night.
Too many famous people today represent the same thing over and over again without looking around.” 'Decay' is a prime example of Efdemin drawing from a variety of sounds, influences, and genres to produce something outside of the humdrum sameness present in a lot of dance music today. It is a beautiful statement that he is ready to let the wider world fully interpret. “I hope everyone who listens can find some tracks they like, but my work is done,” he finishes up. “Now I just give it away to you!”
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