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In Conversation: Roman Flugel

In Conversation: Roman Flugel

Oscar Lister | Features & Interviews

Over the last 30 years Roman Flugel has made his mark in just about every corner of the electronic music world as a DJ, producer and record label founder. His work ranges from acid techno, deep house and electro to more experimental work drawing from jazz and Krautrock, as well as ambient music. Roman can perhaps best be defined as a musical chameleon and is characterised by complete sonic unpredictability.

We caught up with Roman for an end of year chat, just before he joins Maceo Plex, Marcel Dettmann, Axel Boman, Floorplan, and Kink, on New Year's Day at London’s Tobacco Dock.

Something many people might not know about you is that you’re a classically trained pianist. Classical Music and dance music are often thought of as at completely opposite ends of the spectrum but I’m interested to know whether you feel your classical training still informs your music now or whether you feel it’s completely detached?
Yes I played piano until the age of 15, then some other things became more important and I had a few years without playing, and then finally I started again when I went to university aged 21 for another couple of years. I used to play classical piano a lot but I don’t do this very much anymore unfortunately. I think there are still bits and pieces that are quite helpful. I’ve learned to keep focussed and to get along with disappointments, because it’s not easy to learn an instrument. But mostly my classical training has very little to do with what I do now.

Do you think this training allows a certain adventurousness in your production?
Perhaps. Maybe you end with some unusual harmonics or you learn something from playing more modern classical music that becomes a part of your own music, even though it is dance music. I guess there’s definitely still some connection.

Leaving behind your classical background, what were your early inspirations when you started making electronic music?
It was of course the early days of Chicago house and Detroit techno around 1986/7. You could hear the first acid house and early Detroit techno coming to the record shops and then suddenly also being played in clubs and I think that made a big impact on me. Compared to everything that was played before it was rough and abstract. There were hardly any vocals involved. I felt it so deep. I had to find out how these tracks were made.

Did you feel at the time that you were part of some sort of musical movement? Or is this something you only recognised with hindsight?
I think in the beginning I didn’t feel a connection to a whole movement. That was more, as you say, looking back. You can see now that it was pretty much the starting point for a new musical genre. But in the beginning, at the time, I would never have believed that it would turn out to be something like this. Many people in the beginning had the fear it would be over in a matter of months. Many people didn’t like this stuff. For many it was too weird, maybe too rough. Compared to new wave, or electronic body music as they said back then, it had a completely different vibe. It was more funky, and at the same time a lot more far-out, even psychedelic maybe. It was only after a while I realised that this wasn’t going to stop anymore - it was getting too big. But I certainly didn’t feel that in the beginning.

So the longevity was quite a surprise really?
Definitely. It had its ups and downs of course but it was some time before we realised it was here to stay.

A lot of people find it baffling how the producers of that time made electronic dance music before computer software was widely available.  What sort of tools were you using in the very beginning?
In the very beginning I didn’t even have a computer. I was using a drum machine. The rim shot was the trigger for a sequencer in an old Roland synthesiser. Along with that there was a sync connection between the drum computer and lets say a 303 maybe. So that was a very small set up. Everything was recorded into a four-track cassette recorder. That was before Atari computers became affordable.  After a while I was able to buy an Atari and then I started working with software but in the very beginning it was pretty much just a trigger and a sync connection.

Do think in a way those limitations were advantageous to you?
I definitely think so. Looking at the studio set-ups today, or even just the basic software you can get that comes along with thousands of sounds presented within the software, it can be really irritating. You really have to make decisions all the time. Back then everything was limited – I mean you had to programme everything into the drum machine and make your own arrangement and maybe you’d have a piece of paper and you’d write down how many bars you would like to have this pattern or that pattern and then the breakdown or whatever. It was pretty much without any monitor or ability of looking at a screen so it was a completely different work-floor.

It’s a much more romantic idea of electronic music making than the one today.
It wasn’t very romantic I can promise you that.

People often stress your Frankfurt origins. People seem to think this is quite important. Do you particularly associate yourself with Frankfurt?
Well even though I have been living here for many years I was not originally from Frankfurt at all. I lived in a smaller town a little bit further South and I took the train to Frankfurt every weekend to go to the clubs. Frankfurt was always a little more forward thinking because the dance music influence was already there in the 70s because of the situation of the clubs. There were quite a few clubs in the city that became famous in West Germany back then, and there was the big airport, so we had an international crowd coming in. I would say that, when Germany was still divided, Frankfurt was at the front line of club culture and dance music in Germany. It was basically Munich, Frankfurt and maybe Hamburg. Berlin was already back then a kind-of island, a divided city, with a very alternative scene - but not with a dance music scene. Frankfurt had a thriving dance music scene already in the 70s.

A lot of people now would think of Berlin as the dance music capital but what you’re saying is that this was actually quite a late development.
Definitely. I would say Berlin was always the most alternative place. There was punk, there was industrial, but I would say dance music became really big in Berlin only after the wall came down. Frankfurt was especially important because of one place that was the club named Dorian Gray. It was a big discotech with 2 clubs and a 24-hour license that already played, by the late 1970s, disco and funk and new wave and then also played a major role in the development of house and techno in the city.

Is there a clubbing experience that really sticks in your mind as a pivotal moment for you?
Of course there has been many many moments, but I would say for me the early days of Sven Vath’s first club ‘The Omen’ are definitely worth remembering. They were at a completely different level of intensity to anything I had seen before or heard before. He was playing really rough acid house and techno back then and the sound-system was very loud. There were hardly any lights and people got involved with any kind of substance that would make them dance all night so it was a really intense atmosphere. At the same club, I witnessed the first live shows of UK acts like LFO in a Warp Records Showcase in 1991, and this was totally mind-blowing.

Do you think those sort of events and occasions are harder to come by now?
Yes I would say so, simply because people are more used to harsh sounds or dance music in general. Back then the music that was presented sounded really like it was from a different planet. It was made with totally different equipment and it had a certain vibe that was just beginning to explode. Now you grow up with that kind of music, you have the entire history laid out in front of you on the internet. You can find out almost anything. Back then it was all new and a sort of hidden secret that you had to discover.

The scene is almost a victim of its own success then?
I wouldn’t say victim. But then I don’t know what it feels like to be 17 or 18 these days. Everything has changed of course.

You’ve done a lot of collaboration in the past, I’m thinking particularly of your work with Jorn Wuttke as Acid Jesus or Alter Ego, but also with Ricardo Villalobos and Simian Mobile Disco. But more recently you have mostly operated as a solo artist. What mode of practice do you prefer?
I would say after I collaborated with Jorn for more than 15 years I was ready to be more on my own again, which I mostly have for the last seven or eight years. In between then, there has only been Ricardo and Simian Mobile Disco. Jorn and me had this long-term relationship in the studio that was interesting but at the same time pretty intense - because it really is like a relationship and it’s a sensitive thing, sometimes you can annoy each other very quickly. We managed to get along for many years but at some point even with just the two of us we had to somehow find our own paths. But before that, in the very beginning of my musical interest, I played in a band as a drummer. When I started making electronic music I left the band behind because I was actually looking for something I could do on my own. I didn’t want to discuss everything anymore. So I’ve had both worlds twice over now. But I don’t know if I’ll start another collaboration or band. I guess I won’t start another band, but another collaboration is possible.

I’d like to press you on your work with Jorn, a period that has obviously shaped you so significantly as an artist, how did that first come about?
Well as I told you, I started making my first demo on a very small set up in my parents’ house. I was looking for the possibility of getting to know someone who could take me to another level, or could make a connection to some kind of record company. So someone told me about Jorn. There was basically one alternative music pub to go to in our town, where everyone hung out, and so I went there one night and handed in two casettes of mine. He called me right away the next day and said he really liked what he was hearing and he wanted to start working with me. And he invited me over to his studio, which I found out was in the garage of his grandfather’s house.  So it wasn’t a fancy place, but it was already a lot better than what I had. That’s where we started to record for the next eight or nine years, before we moved into a studio. We managed to work together for 15 years.

As you’ve progressed in your career you have used a variety of aliases, Eight Miles High, Soylent Green, Roman IV, Tracks On Delivery. Is this just to differentiate the different aspects of your music making or is there an element of hiding behind new names too?
In the beginning when I first started to record music for record labels, the scene was so divided that you couldn’t get away with one artist name without disappointing everyone else. For example you would have a name for more loop based techno and different name for something more deep-house orientated. You would always come up with a new name because otherwise people wouldn’t understand. You had to do one thing. So labels would ask for a techno record and I would invent a name for that project. Labels would ask for a disco record and I would invent a new name for that project. At the same time it was really important for me because, as you said, it was a good way to hide my personality. Multiple monikers allowed me to step into this little role that I had fashioned myself in the studio - And to think “okay so today I am going to be Eight Miles High” and then next week “I am Soylent Green” and the week after “I am Tracks On Delivery”. Every project had its own direction, which worked for many years, but after a while it got really complicated.

We now only ever hear of you as Roman Flugel. Is this because the industry now allows you to be you, or because you are simply more comfortable doing what you do?
Yes. Both of course are part of it. I can now do, or at least try to do whatever I want under my real name. But there is another story. In 2005 the only record released under my own name was a track that became really big, like it was actually charting in some countries. It was very strange because the record was kind of stupid, but at the same time I still like it. The record became a huge success. So people thought that ‘Roman Flugel’ could only produce this sort of music again. And I was really afraid of that. So when I put out my first release on Dial Records under my own name it was the complete opposite of that particular hit, to make clear that everything is possible under this name. This was the turning point, when I decided to not use my other monikers anymore.

That hit was of course ‘Ghetts Noch’. You’ve said this was something of an outlier for you in your work in that it was almost a musical joke. Does this playfulness in your production ever seep back into music today?
I think to make something funny in music is really not easy, and most of the time it doesn’t make sense, it just ends up being really stupid. So I think my music is not really funny, it’s more about not wanting to set myself up as a super serious techno producer. You have to feel what you do and I think the playfulness is just part of who I am. I don’t want to make jokes out of anyone or anything; it’s nothing like that. I don’t want to fool anyone either, it’s just part of the music.

I wanted to ask you about your time running a record label, or rather multiple record labels, Ongaku, Klang and Playhouse. What is the story here? How did they start and perhaps more importantly why did they finish?
It started around 1990 to 1991. There was a record shop in Frankfurt called Delirium Record shop and these two guys Ata and Heiko MSO both worked at the shop. They also had the label Ongaku, I think they had only 2 releases on it at the time, and so after I finished a few tracks with Jorn in his studio, we went to the record shop and gave them a cassette. They called us back and asked us to release the record with them, but we all thought it should not be released on Ongaku. That was the starting point for Klang Elektronik, We thought the music of Acid Jesus should be on a new label. The same happened with Playhouse. I did a track called ‘Holy Garage’ in Jorn’s garage studio, which was more kind of house music orientated. So we had to start a new label for house music - that was Playhouse.

And then we had these 15 years of releasing plenty of records on all of our labels. Looking back I have to say it was a beautiful work flow. It was amazing how many good demos people sent us and how many beautiful records we were able to release. But at a certain point we got into trouble financially. Two of our biggest distribution partners back then declared bankruptcy and we lost a lot of money. It was during the time of Ricardo Villalobos’ first album, Alcachofa. The album sold many records but we didn’t get the money from the distribution company. We really couldn’t recover from that problem basically. So things gradually got worse. We moved to a smaller office but it didn’t work well and then it was a chain reaction. 15 fantastic years and then suddenly in two or three years everything broke down. It’s a sad story really. And once the business wasn’t going well we ended up having problems as business partners also. So we decided – I mean it wasn’t really a proper decision as such, it just fell apart. That’s all it was. We all fell apart. That’s how all the labels ended. And also its not nice once you realise you can’t pay the artists and the record is already out. That is not a situation you want to get yourself into.

There’s a growing trend now of much smaller artists setting up very small independent record labels. Is this the reaction of a complete shift in the distribution industry now?
Yes this is true, very small labels. I think most sell between 300 and 500 records. When we had Playhouse, Klang and Ongaku, we could put out the most bizarre record and we would still sell 1000 copies. This meant we were free to put out what we liked and we could almost certainly balance out records that didn’t go so well with records that went very well. Back then we had vinyl, which went very well, and on top of this, because we had no downloads of any kind, CD sales. Most people forget this now because people just don’t buy CDs anymore. CDs were the best way to make money. It was very simple and cheap to produce and the retail price was relatively high so you could easily make some money. These days I think the vinyl thing is a wonderful thing to do, it’s a wonderful product, but most people only just about sell enough records to finance the release. You can’t have multiple employees as we had or an office space or whatever, that doesn’t work for most people these days.

There have been irreversible changes to the distribution process that mean we can’t return to that way of releasing music now. To move forward, do you think these very small record-label-like bodies should be encouraged?
I think it’s a very positive thing. First of all you put something out that you really believe in, you put out something beautiful, you make the effort to have a beautiful release, I think that’s still important even thought the numbers are different. But at the same time people have started playing in public much more than we used to in the 90s or early 2000s. The business has changed a lot and I think most people go basically on the road for the whole year to make a living. But ultimately yes, it is definitely to be encouraged.

So you have a show coming up on New Year’s Day at Tobacco Dock in London. Looking back at the sort of shows you have done in the past and the sorts of shows we see you doing now, there seems to be a definite shift towards ‘big room’ events if you like. It strikes me that the sort of music you’re producing seems to be moving in the reverse direction - you’re making much more minimal music than you used to. Is this a conscious decision? Is there perhaps an element of resistance going on in your production?
Resistance is a big word. I don’t mind bigger rooms I have to say. It can be really something beautiful, even though of course most of the music I am producing at the moment wouldn’t work in there. That is obvious. Whenever I make a decision to present anything live I would definitely not rent out a big space for myself. But when it comes to DJ sets you have the opportunity to play other people’s music and I think that’s the great thing about being a DJ. You can play the best music produced by other people for that particular space and atmosphere. I don’t mind playing clubs, but at the same time it was a strange experience for me as I started growing with the rooms. I was unsure how to deliver, or even what to deliver, without sounding too obvious or pretentious. But it can be a great experience and I certainly wouldn’t say ‘big room’ events were bad.

I think there’s a change as well isn’t there in the sorts of acts that are seen playing ‘big rooms’ these days. I’m thinking particularly of your work with Eric Estornel as either Maceo Plex or Maetrik. Playing in Pacha in Ibiza must have seemed like a bizarre idea to you not so long ago.
That’s true. But that was such an interesting decision by him. I had never played in that place or anywhere much like that place before, but he invited me to play the big room with a good set time and it worked out very well, we had lots of fun. It was an experience, you know, and he really knows how to push the buttons, he knows 100% what will keep people interested. I thought it was a very nice move to give me the opportunity to join him and to know there were no restrictions. I could have played anything as far as he was concerned. He just wanted me on board and I was happy to have the experience.

I think there’s a real appetite now for more alternative acts, like yourself, in these big spaces like Tobacco Dock. Would you agree?
I think you’re absolutely right. I haven’t played Tobacco Dock before, but to see Axel Bowman on the same stage as Marcell Dettmann I think is pretty daring, and I think that’s very exciting.

Is there anything exciting in the pipeline for 2018?
There will be another long-player coming out. But it should remain a surprise. But there will be more music coming out and there is already something finished. This will probably be coming out in April/ beginning of May, and it won’t be with Dial this time, it will be on a different platform and it will be something very different again.

Roman Flugel plays alongside Marcel Dettmann, Floorplan, Nastia, Maceo Plex, KiNK and more when he lands at London's Tobacco Dock on New Year's Day.

Photo courtesy of Roman Flugel

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