Schaltkreis Wassermann article and interview in Soundwall Italy: music writer GIOSUÈ IMPELLIZZERI has written an in depth article about Schaltkreis Wassermann and the recent vinyl double album SKW on soundwall.it (“electronic music & beyond”).
Unfortunately my Italian isn’t good enough to read and understand it. But here you get the English interview that Giosué made with me and that formed the basis of his article.
- Space seems to be the “main theme” of album. Which is the biggest difference between sci-fi of the past and sci-fi of the present? Something is changed around the sense of perception of the future? In the past decades was more easy to image the future than now?
„Space“ has many meanings. When I was a kid I would look up to the starry sky and try to imagine its vastness and the billions of stars that might have inhabitable planets. This gave me kind of a religious feeling, a different consciousness that I still can feel today. When as a teen I started reading Sci-Fi books (inspired by my father who was a big fan) „Space“ became a synonym for the fantastic and often libertarian and anarchistic visions of writers like Robert A. Heinlein, A.E. van Vogt and Philip K. Dick. Later when psychedelics came into my life „Space“ like in spaced-out was the code word for tripping. And finally in electronic music there was the Roland Space-Echo, the Space-Station and other legendary gear. So „Space“ was the perfect metaphor that got it all together.
A lot has changed about the perception of the future. In the old sci-fi days the future was full of hope for freedom and a better world although already then there were a lot of warning stories showing how things can go really badly. When the psychedelic movement was crushed by the reactionaries and their posterboy Reagan all the big decisions went into the wrong direction. Exxon already knew in the 70ies that huge oil consumption would lead to climate change but they hid their knowledge for profit reasons. Nowadays we are in a much worse position ecologically and worldwide overpopulation is a sad reality so necessarily there are much less hopeful visions. And with the general militarization of culture and society brought by the Bush presidencies sci-fi movies are mostly war stories decorated with Hollywood’s obsession of destructive visual effects.
2) What kind of instruments were into Space-Sound Studio in early 80s? “SKW” was produced entirely in this studio? I’ve read something about Fairlight CMI IIx…
In the early 80ies we we had an ARP 2600 with its 16step sequencer, an ARP Avatar guitar synth that was often also used as a sound module, a Roland System 100 modular synth, a Roland TR808 drum machine and the legendary Prophet V, all controlled by the Roland MC-4 Micro-Composer. Every note on the MC-4 had to be entered with 3 numbers: one for pitch, one for the length of the note and one for the distance to the next note. So it was a very tedious process. And we had some effects gear like the Roland RE-201 Space-Echo and Roland Phaser, Flanger and Vocoder. We also had the Marshall TimeModulator and the Ursa Major Space Station. I don’t come from a rich family so every piece of equipment hat to be paid for with soundtrack and jingle work. We needed 90% of our working time for making money and we had only 10% of time for our art.
Yes, we produced everything in our own studio except „Fly With Us“, one of our earliest pieces, that was produced in the electronic studio of the Academy of Music in Basel. The studio manager and composer David Johnson liked our enthusiasm and gave us the studio keys for the summer vacation. We slept on the studio floor in sleeping bags.
The Fairlight CMI IIx came later, after PSYCHOTRON, we leased it over five years and had to pay 1’000 Swiss Francs every month. With it we had our biggest commercial success: „MUH!“ by Matterhorn project. This is a different story and this success was a very two-edged sword for us. Anyway I think the Fairlight is vastly overrated. It was the first sampler, yes, but only with 8 times half a second in lousy sound quality. For a long time we couldn’t afford another 5’000 Swiss Francs for an interface to connect with our analog equipment. So there were a lot of tracks produced mainly with Fairlight, and today I don’t like these tracks, they have a really cheesy sound.
3) “Psychotron” was released on Mercury, label of Universal group: how many copies were sold? “Space Shuttle” single instead was out on CBS Netherlands…how was born contacts with these labels? Was it difficult to release this kind of music on major labels?
We always were in the dilemma of the Hippie/Punk DIY philosophy and working with major labels, they all screwed us but without them there was no access to a larger audience.
At that time there weren’t many musicians doing what we did, everybody thought we were crazy doing this electronic stuff but the labels were basically interested. We got signed to the Swiss branch of Universal (then PolyGram) and they put it on the Mercury label but Switzerland is so small and unimportant that Universal mothership wasn’t interested at all to even listen to our album and they soon dropped us. Then we released it on our own label, we got distributed worldwide by Bertus in Holland but never got any money.
Space Shuttle was also signed to the Swiss branch of CBS, it was just pressed in Holland. Same story again, nothing happened outside of Switzerland and no money coming in.
4) Why 2nd album remains unreleased? How you get in touch with Janis of Private Records?
In our perception PSYCHOTRON was a complete flop. There was no internet and we didn’t know how well it did in Italy and other parts of the world. We moved on to Matterhorn Project and more commercial stuff. In hindsight this was a big mistake but we were discouraged.
Some of the material on SKW, the 2nd album, is actually much older than PSYCHOTRON.
Janis of Private Records got in touch with us, asking for the vinyl re-release of PSYCHOTRON. The rest is history, as they say. Actually we owe a lot of thanks to DJ Alex Gloor of In Flagranti. He had lived in New York for 20 years and worked there as a DJ, he knew Schaltkreis quite well. When he came back to Basel at around 2002 he came to see us and urged us to re-release PSYCHOTRON on CD. Stella and I had nearly forgotten about Schaltkreis. First I was reluctant to spend my time with old material but finally I did it. Without Alex, Janis probably wouldn’t have found out about us.
5) You and Stella were inspired by certain artists? Something like Kraftwerk?
Yes, we listened to Mensch Maschine probably 1’000 times, it was a revelation. We also loved „Green“ by Steve Hillage, I still like it a lot. Earlier I had mainly been inspired by The Beatles, Blues, Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. Basically I was guitarist who got sucked into electronics, and psychedelics certainly played a big role in this process.
6) Have you ever got in contact with Italian scene? Some references in the album sounds familiar to me (as in “Love In Space”), not too far from cosmic and italo (space) disco, like Donna Laser, Doris Norton, Sergio Ferraresi or Automat.
Not really. Of course we knew Italo Disco but there was no contact, unfortunately. We were pretty much hermits, living in our studio. During the weeks we worked for soundtracks and jingles, on the weekends we dropped LSD and did Schaltkreis. “Love In Space“ (around 1986) was our attempt at the perfect electronic pop single but we had problems with our limited equipment. Actually this song gave us a deal with WEA (Wraner Brothers) and they gave us studio time with Conny Plank but it didn’t work out.
7) “Hyperspace” sounds very close to a “techno prototype”: do you agree? I don’t like the conventional idea that techno was created “only” in Detroit. Perhaps also in Basel 🙂
Sure, I fully agree. Also the third part of PSYCHOTRON (the song, not the album) was complete techno, even psyTrance. You just had to turn up the volume of the kick drum and there you are. I mean even Moroder’s „Love to Love You, Baby“ is kind of techno. This Detroit-Techno myth is crap, anybody who had an analog synth, an 8 or 16-step sequencer, a drum machine and some psychedelics would come to the same conclusion. What’s true about Detroit is that it’s the place where the whole thing really took off.
8) Are there any anecdotes (perhaps happened in studio) about some tracks on this album? Maybe troubles with some instruments or something like this…You can describe also the process you followed to make a track, the recording mode, the vocals…you already used MIDI for these albums?
We had trouble with instruments and the equipment all the time, it was really difficult. We didn’t have the money for professional stuff so we had to work with semipro gear and it was a constant battle against distortion, noise, hiss and hum. I took a lot of care when recording and today I’m surprised how good most of this tracks sound.
We worked with CV (control voltage) and this was a very precise system in terms of rhythmic timing. MIDI came later and I never liked it. The MIDI protocol is crap from the very beginning – what a stupid idea to transmit a chord serially, the notes don’t arrive at the same time but after each other. Probably it wasn’t possible technically at the time but it’s a shame that it’s still being used. When I started working again with the old synths in the last couple of years I first used MIDI and then MIDItoCV-interfaces but the timing was so terrible I just had to go back to CV. Now I use expertSleepers interfaces without MIDI and the timing is perfect again.
We had only 4 tracks on the MC-4 so we put vocals and effects onto tape (first 4track, then 8track) and for mixdown we would sync the MC-4 to tape. So we had the tape tracks plus the additional analog live tracks on the mixing desk. We also had only one compressor and very limited EQ so everything went into the mix quite roughly.
It was difficult to mix as we had no automation. Sometimes I had to wait 2 or 3 minutes into the mix to do some manual tasks at a certain time in the song and I fell asleep at the desk before that moment came…
9) Are you planning to release more music in the near future as Schaltkreis Wassermann? Have you other unreleased tracks produced in the past?
I have a lot of old fragments and sketches that just wait to be remixed. Sometimes we would just improvise in the studio and keep the tape running, so there’s a lot of material.
When Janis re-released PSYCHOTRON in 2012 we talked about making and releasing new Schaltkreis music, made with the same old instruments that I still have. Only the Prophet V seems beyond repair but who knows, maybe I’ll get it going again, too. I have spent a lot of time to make my old setup work again, and I’ve made it. So now I have all the tools again.
I composed a lot of new Schaltkreis music in the last years (2 or 3 albums worth) but I found it quite difficult to define a convincing contemporary sound concept. I don’t just want to recreate what we did in the 80ies, it’s impossible, too, because Stella sadly died five years ago. But I’m getting closer to it, currently I’m preparing a new Schaltkreis live set that will premiere in April in Switzerland. I use a playback of old songs (slightly prepared and altered) and new songs, playing along with the new Boss SY-300 git synth, a vocoder and some other instruments.
One has to bear in mind that in the last ten years I had worked mostly in the fields of psyTrance and psyChill, and I have two successful live acts in these styles. So it’s not so easy to add another quite different style to my mindset in the studio. I think Schaltkreis will have to fuse the old synths with the new plugin technologies and keep the spirit of psychedelics and experimentation alive.
From 2008 to 2010 Stella and I did a couple of live gigs with new Schaltkreis material, some of them triumphantly successful. But Stella didn’t really like the material I had composed for this, she alway said „This isn’t really Schaltkreis“. She didn’t like my electric guitar work which was painful for me because I love to play guitar and it’s the instrument I can express myself most fluently, especially in a live situation. So this is another album waiting to be released, it’s one hour of music and I made synced visuals for the whole show.
10) How you imagined electronic music of 3rd millennium when started to produce at the end of 70s?
We didn’t really think about that in the 80ies, we were so enthusiastic about all the sonic possibilities of tripping with analog synths…