Ensconced among the first wave of North American producers to infiltrate Berlin’s modern techno movement, Konrad Black‘s shadowy production style and charismatic live persona has since had dance-floors basking in the long shadows cast by his presence on the scene. His signature sound is a masterwork of harmonious contradictions, pairing apocalyptic basslines and moody synth progressions with a cinematic temperament that finds its most compelling moments within the spaces between the notes.
Finding himself disillusioned with a drum and bass scene that defined his formative years as a producer, the dawn of this new century found Konrad newly inspired by an evolution in sound marked by artists like Maurizio and Basic Channel. While still in Vancouver, Konrad joined forces with Mathew Jonson, Graham Boothby, and Jesse Fisk to form the acclaimed Wagon Repair label. From there, Black would forge a more intricate sound with releases like ‘Draconia’ and ‘Medusa Smile’, both championed by tastemakers like Ricardo Villalobos, Tiga, and Richie Hawtin.
Riding the momentum of these releases, Konrad Black relocated to Berlin with a shift from production to performance, being tapped to play the scene’s most coveted venues. His Berlin apartment became a fading memory; with so many unfinished tracks on his drive and a thin layer of dust collecting on his keyboards. Newly inspired by this life on the road, Konrad has recently shifted back to an emphasis on original productions.
In this rare long-format interview, Konrad Black speaks at length about, among other things, his hometown of Vancouver, getting used to the tap water in Berlin, tuning out of drum & bass and ‘Janitor of Lunacy’, quite appropriately, one of his favourite records of all time.
Why Konrad Black? Is it after the Canadian media baron?
It’s quite a thrill ride of a story. I used to work for the national newspaper, The Global Mail. There was a lot of techno, house, drum & bass people working there…Somehow, my friend Mario Glavicic got us all jobs working in the human resources department. Basically, we fielded calls and complaints. And any time there would be an issue that was too artsy or an issue that talked about gay marriage, you’d get all these hicks from the middle of the country, the cowboys calling up and cancelling their subscriptions. And they would follow that up with, “You wait for Conrad Black to start his paper.”
And I thought to myself, “Who is this guy? [He] sounds like some sort of power baron. A Darth Vader of sorts… Citizen Kane meets Darth Vader. I thought to myself that’s actually what I aspire to be in a sonic way…a sonic power baron if you will. And I also at that time started travelling to Europe and I wanted to retain a piece of… Canadian link… back to Canada. Thirdly, the phonetics in the name are really strong, so I thought I’m gonna [sic] appropriate this name. I did, however, change the letter from the ‘c’ to the ‘k’. First off, because knowing Konrad Black he’d probably sue me. And, second of all, because the ‘c’ is a bit of a pushover letter; you knock it and it rolls right over whereas the ‘k’ is a more ‘stand-up-and-fight’…
And yes, he did end up starting The National Post shortly after. One thing I didn’t bargain for…he sold all his papers and then he got caught embezzling 700 million dollars from his own company. So I would travel around especially in Canada or the States…people would say, “Oh, Konrad Black. Yeah, I’ve heard of you and for a long time, for the most part, it was not me that they’d probably heard of…”
What was growing up in the ‘90s in Vancouver like?
I have to say, it was quite good, because there’s not enough of one thing going on in Vancouver. You, kind of, knew about everything. You went to the art events, punk rock and hip hop shows. I felt like I was a much more diverse person then, than living in a place like Berlin, where there is so much of each specific thing: techno or the arts scene or whatever. The negative side about it is that…in Canada you are given the impression that you can’t make it unless you’re from London or New York or one of these bigger cities. It has this real defeatist attitude but that’s what separates the doers from the talkers.
And there are a lot of talkers in Vancouver: “Oh, if I was in London, or, if I was in Berlin I would do that.” But I went to London and Berlin, you know. Canada is a beautiful country. It’s just a little boring, I guess, at times. When you leave a place and you see all the other people that leave, it takes a certain kind of person to make that move, so it makes it really amazing to find each other when you’re in a foreign place. You’re all like-minded individuals so it’s made for quite the Canadian posse here in Berlin.
Speaking of movies, Blake Mawson, the director of the Russian horror short PYOTR495 that you’re doing the sound design for, mentions how Quasimodo’s ‘Hour of Pain’ in the ‘Hunchback of Notre Dame’, though written in 1831, hasn’t really changed at all. The world continues to publicly and privately whip people of all genders, sexual preferences, faiths…What are some of Vancouver’s or Canada’s biggest horrors? A lot of Indians think of Canada as a place where it gets really cold and is a great place to emigrate.
When you say Indians, it made me think of Native Indians in Canada, that’s the term that we grew up with for the native aboriginals. That’s a bit of a horror, actually, the way they were treated. That’s something our nation is trying to make right.
As far as other horrors, let’s say the downtown east-side of Vancouver is a pretty crazy situation. That area has the highest property crime rate per capita in North America apparently. And also, a high street-drug addiction problem, which is in one of the cleanest, beautiful cities. Its like people shooting up everywhere, looking for crack rocks. That’s a situation that needs to be dealt with.
The biggest horror right now is our Prime Minister Stephen Harper. There’s an election is about a week or so and everybody wants to get this guy…even The Guardian and the New York Times writes about how terrible he is. The Guardian, last week, or a few days ago, wrote about how he’s the last remaining…remnant of the Bush administration. He became worse than Bush. He’s a terrible premier and everybody’s trying to rally to vote him out. Hopefully the vote doesn’t get split between the two parties. But that guy is terrible. He’s got to go.
You moved to Berlin during Halloween in 2005. Everyone’s always raving about moving to Berlin, but was there anything that you found hard to adjust to there?
The tap water I am still adjusting too. I’m not a big fan. It was quite an easy transition because the city is built on such an international scene that everybody is from somewhere else. And it’s all creative types from somewhere else. I came here for three months and it’s going to be ten years in two weeks.
As Ricardo Villalobos said to me one time I was doing an interview [with him] for The Guardian newspaper. This was five, six, seven, eight years ago. I was at an after party with him. I realised, oh, my god, I have to get this thing done. As you can see, I am late with these things. I said, “I need to talk about Berlin. What would you say about Berlin, to me, for this article, your impression of Berlin?” And he goes, [imitating German accent] ‘Ja, Ja, it’s ze last urban paradise. Ja, for sure, it’s the last urban paradise.’ And I believe that. It’s getting much more gentrified, for sure. But it still has that feeling.
You’ve also lived in London working with Virus Recordings…
Getting to meet my biggest hero and making music with Optical. I scored this job. I was so happy with myself, getting this interview with him. I played it so fucking cool, I was really impressed. I had always said, “If I ever get out of Vancouver, I’m going to do all those things I wanted to do.” And this was a big litmus test for me. I talked the talk, but I walked the walk. I got hired. I got to use the studio. I heard all the discs with all the samples from all my favourite songs. And he [Optical] said, “Yeah, no problem, you can use the studio.” The funny thing is I broke some of my first techno records in there instead of even doing drum & bass. It was, kind of, funny to do that.
That was also the time you got turned off drum & bass…
Drum & bass stopped being for me what it was when I got into it. It was this…futuristic…future soul, kind of, interesting, pushing the boundaries of production, and space. Anything space-related…for me, drum & bass is spacey, and dark and trippy. It just started becoming about the Double A-side. I always like the B-sides. And when the producers started DJing…they realised that the money is in the DJing. They stopped making the deep, introspective tracks. It just became more faster and aggressive. And I also think that cocaine seemed to be a big thing going on in that scene. And I think that really came out in the music, becoming faster and more aggressive
Also, for the first time I heard records by…Rhythm & Sound with Tikiman, Plastikman’s Consumed, labels like Perlon, Playhouse and Klang. I heard this record by Peter F Spiess, on the album Anatomic Smile. I was walking by [the] Boomtown Records [store] in Vancouver. I was like, “What is that?! I’ve never heard anything like that.” I loved it. I walked in and bought it instantly. I didn’t know they made 4X4 like this. It was one of the first non-vocally, non-wailing 4X4 tracks that I had heard. In Vancouver, it’s just this, sort of, West Coast, house-y house-house. And I hated that stuff. What drum & bass was for me, is what this music became.
Can you recount how Wagon Repair came about?
It was all pretty organic actually. Mat[hew Jonson] and I didn’t really know each other. Which is kind of funny because we were both putting out records in Europe. And we’re like, “What?! Somebody else is doing that? But how come we don’t know each other? It’s such a small city.” He was actually living in Victoria, not Vancouver, for a very long time. So he moved to Vancouver, we finally met and hit it off. I was talking to a friend about may be doing a label with my stuff. And he was friends with my friend Dominic, and his friend Graham Boothby, who I also knew. But Graham was doing other labels like Leaf Recordings, Totem and all that. Jesse Fisk, Mat and I decided, “Hey, we all have this music. We have our own sound.” Graham already had all of the infrastructure in place from the other labels. He was doing pressings in this plant in the Czech Republic. It was all very organic and happened very naturally.
You’ve DJed at the Watergates, the Rex-es, the Fabrics, the Panorama Bars of the world regularly. What makes a perfect nightclub for you?
The perfect nightclub…it’s got to be the sound…Fabric has amazing sound, of course. Lux in [Lisbon] Portugal is one my favourite clubs for sound. You can hear a pin drop in that place. The room is acoustically treated. That’s expensive to do and you rarely find it but that, to me, is really important. A lot of people cheap on that. It’s cooler to have a smaller place, you know, 300-500 is great in an acoustically treated room with a great sound system. Sound is so crucial. And places where you can get weird in the corners. You need to have the weird corners. Dark areas, dark weird places to do weird shit in, that’s integral. Sound, acoustics, weird-shit areas. That’s half the fun of being in a club, being able to go off and do weird shit. For me, at least, I’m a weird-shit kind of guy, what can I say?
How challenging was it to step back into the studio after such a long break from putting out your own material?
Challenge wouldn’t be the word. There was an element of, kind of, learning how to ride a bike. Sure, you can pick it up again, right away. But to get good at something you have to be doing it all the time. And that’s pretty much why I wasn’t putting out music because I was touring so much that by the time I recovered from going all weekend…I need to spend a few weeks to get into my flow. And I just would never really…I never had that chunk of time at one go. This is why I’ve taken time off and now I’m right back to where I was a long time ago. I don’t want to leave my studio these days. I’ve flipped my script.
If you want to make interesting stuff, you need to spend time getting…cutting out all the crap that comes out first and then getting to the heart of what you are after. And then, stripping it down, stripping it down to its rawest elements. And then, building it back up. That’s where I’m at right now and I’m happy to be back.
What are you listening to when you’re not gigging?
Everything but 4X4 music…let’s have a look. Today, I listened to Arve Henriksen on ECM, he’s a Norwegian [trumpet played and vocalist] jazz guy. I’ve been listening to Nico all week. Her ‘Desert Shore’ album is amazing and one of my all-time favourite tracks is ‘Janitor of Lunacy’. And there’s a very good cover of it by this girl Soap & Skin from Austria.
Words by: Kenneth Lobo a.k.a. LoboCop
Konrad Black and Loopkin play Cafe Nemo on Saturday, 17th October. On till late. RSVP here.