Focus Forward: an interview with Marcel Fengler

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Widely regarded as a stalwart of the Ostgut Ton stable, Marcel Fengler has released a string of brooding 4/4 techno 12″es for the Berghain-affiliated label over the past eight years, as well as for Luke Slater’s Mote Evolver and his own IMF imprint.

Two years after his brilliant debut album ‘Fokus’, that instantly made him one of the brightest stars of Ostgut Ton, Yotam Avni catches up with Marcel Fengler to hear how’s he doing and learn more about his future plans.

A lot of people don’t realise it, but you’ve been a Berghain resident from pretty much day one. Can you tell us when and how you got there?

“I played my first set at Berghain in January of 2005. Ever since then I’ve held a residency at Berghain and I play there once a month. It was sort of like a long journey trying to find a home for myself, musically speaking, with which I’d be able to identify completely – a journey that began in the nineties already. When Berghain opened in December of 2004, a friend told me about it and I sent in a mix. Between the mix, initial talks and my first gig about a week passed. As these things go with milestones in your life, my first gig at Berghain was definitely an experience I will never forget.”

Having been a DJ first and foremost, at what point did you decide to try your hand at production? And how did it affect your musical production?

“I think the producing began shortly after I got my residency at Berghain. The desire to create music myself had existed before and I’d played around with Fruity Loops and stuff like that for a while. It was still very much a hobby then, but it ended up being very inspiring and made me long for more. Through Berghain I ended up getting in touch with Marcel Dettmann again – since we’re from the same hometown we’ve known each other for a very long time. We ended up spending a few nights together and playing around with Ableton Live. That period was incredibly fun – when friends would start playing FIFA on the Playstation, we’d hop on Ableton and play around with music. That was our game console.”

We’ve come a long way since then, but I believe everything you do constantly serves as inspiration and influences you. I think that’s especially true for the connection between DJing and producing.

We’re all fully aware of the benefits of being associated with the world’s leading club and its record label (Berghain / Ostgut Ton). Can you think of a time or an incident where it didn’t serve you well?

“Of course I’m incredibly happy for everything to have worked out so well with Berghain. I used to study while DJing and ended up having to decide whether I wanted a 9-to-5 job or wanted to focus entirely on DJing and producing. I ended up choosing music, and would do the same again. Of course Berghain played a large role in that decision, primarily because it gave me the feeling of being accepted as a musician. I don’t think back then anyone expected the Berghain thing to become as big as it did. In a way, it’s both a blessing and a curse. If an idea becomes very big and successful, people start following that trend. As a result, something special gets turned into something normal.”

I don’t like comparing Berghain to other clubs. Sometimes promoters are trying to explain to me why their club is not at eye level with Berghain – I never really understood that. I visit other clubs precisely to experience the vibe and the magic on site. That’s what makes the job so interesting; it’d be horribly boring if everywhere felt the same.

You seem to enjoy taking on diverse musical projects (Masse/DIN). Are there any other areas you would like to explore?

“‘Masse’ was an all-round amazing experience. It was the beginning of the project DIN which I run with Phillip (Efdemin). On the other hand it was, musically speaking, quite out of the box and allowed us to see production from a different vantage point. I really enjoyed the combination of classical instruments with electronic music, and was very inspired by our work in that context. We’re picking up that approach now as DIN and I are using it extensively for our first album, which will be coming out on Ostgut Ton. I’d love to be able to continue to work in this vein, alongside my more club-oriented output.”

It seems that IMF is working on quality over quantity. Is it because you’re very picky with its music? What’s next for IMF?

“After the first release on IMF in late 2011 there was a longer pause – this was mostly due to the fact that I saw IMF as an outlet for my own productions exclusively. That focus shifted as I was working on ‘Masse’ and ‘Fokus’. The main focus now is to provide a base for other interesting artists and collaborations. I spent last year finetuning the label for this purpose and am very happy with our small but talented artist roster. IMF04 is about to be released and is a compilation of previously released artists on IMF plus a track of mine. This was originally scheduled for late 2014, but the current situation with pressing plants makes it incredibly hard to set fixed release dates – or requires a LOT of time ahead of the release. This is just something you learn as you go along, I guess. For the fifth release in March we’re going to be showcasing a new artist named Somewhen, whom I found through productions on his label SANA – if you aren’t familiar with this label yet, make sure to check it out. In May, the Zenker Brothers, whom I’m very close with and whose label Ilian Tape I love, will be responsible for IMF06. A further highlight is Echoplex’s album release, slated for the second half of 2015. Considering it is his first album in an almost 20 year long career, I’m particularly excited about this one. Alongside new material from Thomas Hessler I’m also working on setting a release date for Sandrien on the label, not only because I’m a huge fan of her DJ performance but also because we’re close friends. I won’t forget the last label party, which was one of the last events at Trouw Amsterdam toward the end of last year – simply amazing. We’re going to be playing several label showcases over the course of the year and are looking forward to reaching a broader audience.”

A lot has been said about the fact that some of the tracks for ‘Fokus’ were produced while you stayed in Thailand for a holiday. Are you considering working on your next album at another exotic destination? When can we expect the second album? And what would you want it to sound like?

“Most of the ideas for ‘Fokus’ indeed happened while on vacation in Thailand. That wasn’t originally part of the plan, but it ended up being very inspiring. Unfortunately that cut into private time quite a bit and as you can imagine – my wife Jasmin found it less than amusing in the beginning. She did end up supporting me completely, otherwise I wouldn’t have been nearly as far by the end of the vacation. The portable equipment I bought specifically for it is excellent and is waiting to be used again, As a result I’d love to try doing it the same way again, but with less time constraints and more private time for myself and my wife. Like I said earlier I’m currently working on a DIN album with Phillip, for which we’ve recorded a number of analog and acoustic instruments, such as different types of percussion and even a harp. It’ll remain experimental, but will be more stringent and at the same time clubby than previous DIN tracks. Furthermore, I’m planning on starting to work on my second album from the end of 2015 on.”

You said once in another interview that you might do a colloboration with Peter van Hoesen. How do you guys know each other? What do you think about his music? And when we can expect the two of you working together?

“I met Peter at my first Labyrinth festival in Japan in 2009 at which we both played. It was an unbelievably exciting time that connects us to this day. Even though some of the earlier Time2Express releases felt a bit too cold and sterile to me, I value the label and Peter himself, especially as a DJ and live act. If that wasn’t the case, I don’t think we’d have a solid base for collaborations or shared project ideas – which we are still working on. So far however, it’s mostly been brainstorming and coming up with draft ideas and outlines. I can definitely still see us working together on tracks and will see what the coming year will have in store for us.”

Techno in the last few years has seemed to move forward from the heavy, dark, droney, reverbed kickdrums feel. A sound that you weren’t necessarily into in the first place. Do you find there’s now more music to play?

“Yeah, I’ve been noticing the same development. I generally welcome it when things are changing and evolving, so we don’t end up with everything sounding the same. I think there’s more similarities in other respects though – arrangements and grooves are becoming more and more uniform.”

When there’s this little diversity a lot more attention is required to separate the cream from the crop.

“I’m still a fan of drone tracks and heavy sounds, but primarily strive for diversity. As a result, I don’t notice too much of a shift in how I select my tracks since these differences are constantly shifting anyway, and differences now aren’t necessarily differences down the line.”

You have a great passion for hiphop, the genre you started DJing in. What would you consider to be your most influential records from those days?

“I started listening to hiphop when I was about 13 years old, just before the reunification, in the late 80s. I remember one of the first hiphop crews in the east, the Electric Beat Crew, leaving a lasting impression with me. ‘Go Go’ and ‘Here We Come’ were their greatest successes and generated quite a hype in the former GDR. After that there was a number of essential works, which I still enjoy listening to these days. For example ’93 til Infinity’ by the Souls of Mischief, LL Cool J’s ‘Mama Said Knock You Out’ and A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘We’ve Got The Jazz’. Furthermore, Pharcyde’s ‘Runnin’, Gang Starr’s ‘Mass Appeal’, KRS-One’s ‘MC’s Act Like They Don’t Know’, Pete Rock and Kool Keith used to be things I played a lot, to name some of the most important.”

There are many famous techno DJs who started out in hiphop music or turntablism. How do you see the connections between the two genres? Do you think that helped or shaped in any way your style of DJing these days?

“Honestly I don’t think I felt any connection between hiphop and techno in the nineties. The respective scenes completely rejected the other, it was very much a one or the other type vibe. All the technical skills from back then are barely used anymore nowadays, which probably has something to do with the tendency toward seamless mixing in techno. I don’t mind that at all and just see it as part of my musical journey, which I constantly strive to transmit to the listener as part of being a DJ. That being said, my love for funk is definitely something deeply rooted within me and is definitely something I try to implement into my own productions.”

What are you striving for in 2015?

“Having spent a large portion of last year on building the label, I’m definitely planning on focussing 2015 more on the DJ and producer Marcel Fengler. Aside from that I just hope everyone has a great time, and I hope to see many of you at one of my upcoming gigs!”

Marcel Fengler plays at Soenda Indoor at Central Studios in Utrecht on february 7.

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Yotam Avni

Mostly known for his DJing and Music Productions for Robsoul, Yourba and Transmat, Yotam Avni is no stranger to most DJ's. By the age of 25 he already produced records with some of the greatest names in electronic music history such as Osunlade, Terrence Parker, Jovonn and Charles Webster. In Israel, where most of his Journalist work is based, he's known for his long opinionated articles about the orgins of electronic music and the importance of Detroit to him and the rest of the world.