For an emerging artist, Munich-raised Sophie Schnell’s identity as PYUR is remarkably lucid.
With music playing a crucial part in her upbringing and formative years, Schnell cut her teeth in songwriting and vocal work for producers such as Scuba. Her love of club culture and dance music, as well as her artistic sensibility, led her to lock down a design position with Hotflush Recordings, where she forged supportive relationships and found space to grow and develop as a producer.
For two years she honed her technique, taking compositional inspiration from classical music and conceptional influence from her ever-growing relationship with spirituality. Although it wasn’t until a weekend spent with friends in her hometown Munich, that she reached a point of emotional and creative clarity which fuelled the album. The result is debut LP Epoch Sinus, a record which straddles the seemingly separate spheres of club culture, nature and spirituality, and which centralises the notion of harnessing the power inside each of us.
With a formidable entry into the electronic music sphere behind her and a budding career ahead, I called Sophie Schnell to talk interning at Hotflush, Shamanism and the island of Fuerteventura.
This is quite an exciting time to speak with you – this is your second interview ever, and you’ve just put out your first release on Hotflush. How did you arrive at this point?
I got in touch with Paul (Scuba) about three years ago, and I just wrote to him asking whether he needed vocals. He got back to me saying he’d been planning to use vocals for some of his tracks anyway, so I got him to send me something to sing to, and that’s when we started working together. Then, I sent over some of the stuff I was producing, which he was into and so he said, “yeah if you want to, we can do a release on Hotflush whenever you’re ready”.
Paul took the time to give great feedback, without trying to change anything. But I didn’t feel like I had found my voice yet. I was caught up in hoping that people would like it, it felt like there was a thousand people sitting next to me at my desk. So I said, “yeah, fuck that, I’ll just retreat and make music the way I like it”. I did that for a year, without sending anything to anyone and continued with studies in design, and that’s when I met (Hotflush label manager) Jack. As part of my studies I had to do an internship, which is how I got into working for Hotflush, and I liked it a lot. Aside from being responsible for all design matters, it taught me a huge amount about the music industry. Then I was finally able to finish my album – it came together quite naturally when I took a focused, playful approach, without any thoughts about anything else. I sent it to them and they really liked it.
Hotflush has always been known for quite a diverse canon of artists, and in later years it’s been quite dance-floor focused. That’s obviously not the sound you’re going for. Were you worried about how people would receive your work?
It was a factor. I was a bit nervous about that part, but I think the more crazy or sensitive people are reacting to the music, which is great. Hotflush was quite important to me when I started listening to electronica, they are a big influential imprint, so it felt great to be releasing there. And having worked with Paul and Jack before, I knew they were great guys – they’re really professional and creative. I also knew I’d be able to have a lot more say in things, [Laughs] like having control over the design side and the whole strategy, so that was also a big pulling factor. In terms of sound, because I felt there wasn’t so much on the label in my style of music, I felt I had more space, in contrast to an electronic label that puts out pure IDM or electronica releases. I felt like I had a lot of space and that this time around, for my debut, that would really benefit me.
You mentioned wanting to have this control over your output. Despite the fact this is your first release, we already get quite a strong impression of what you’re about. I guess putting out a full LP with visuals is not the typical initial foray into electronic music. Can you tell me more about your decision to do things this way?
I think it was mainly about wanting to create a world. I had a really amazing childhood with my cousin. We could play for days and weeks in the forest and make up adventure stories with dragons and fantasy creatures. And that world was real for us – stable, changing and full. That’s still in my music, the mystic side – the magic is really important to me, that inner universe. With the visuals, I wanted to create as much of a round world as possible. I was thinking about what I see when I make the music internally, you know, I have very strong visions when I hear music. I see them as little figures and dots and lines and colours and so on… And feelings. I just wanted to translate them into visuals and tell a story.
And so in that decision to visualise the sounds, was it about wanting to guide the listener through their listening experience?
A little bit. Especially for those who are very distracted, who have not yet tested their own waters of creativity. I think many people also get on fine in a dark room, and they see their own images too and I don’t want to undermine that at all, because the idea of all these different interpretations coming across really excites me.
Without getting too philosophical, people often say “never explain your art”, but more often than not, this happens via press releases and interviews. Do you think that having insight into an artist’s intention helps to drive the experience?
I love philosophical! [Laughs] That’s a good one. It depends on how open people are. If the listener can let multiple interpretations co-exist, then it doesn’t matter. You know what I mean? Like, OK, for example, I think this, this and this when I listen to the music, and then PYUR says that it’s about this… So it’s about both of these things. When people take either one understanding or the other, they might have trouble. But if it’s going into more directions, then it’s just a bigger vision – yours, mine, and so on. And I love that, because sometimes I’m not really sure myself what the music is about. I keep finding out more and more, but I’m never entirely sure.
That’s the interesting thing. And you often hear novelists saying something similar, in that they don’t know how their characters are going to develop, or where the novel will take them, but they find out along the way. I guess that’s similar to storytelling through music.
Yeah, I think so. And I hope that the world just keeps on expanding. With new music that just shows more and more corners and caves and mountains of a landscape. That’s also the reason behind the track titles, like ‘Epoch Sinus I’ and ‘II’. There’s also going to be 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, like in classical music when you have a fugue or variations of themes, which carry on through a whole Gesamtkunstwerk.
I want to talk about your live show, which you’ve just performed in Berlin for the first time. How did that go?
That was really fun. It wasn’t so much about pushing many buttons for each thing, but what I want to do is create as much space as possible for me to be expressive during the show, so I produced different dimensions to one track, like different colours of it. Then what I do is swim and fly between those, so it’s a more feminine approach rather than “dum dum dum” – it’s more like, “wooh”. It’s super fun and it sounds different every time, that’s what I love about it.
There’s visuals to accompany the music there too, right?
Yeah, the visuals work in the same way, with different dimensions. So, when I move to different dimensions in the music, the visuals do the same. I control both at the same time with my controller. So that’s handy, it’s not too complicated actually.
Your references to spirituality in this body of work are hard to miss. Can you tell me more about your own relationship with spirituality and what effect this has had on your output?
Well, I’ve always been close to spirituality, which is, for me, the natural science and knowledge about life. My whole family is quite receptive to energies and noticing patterns behind the “seen” world. At the beginning, it interested me a lot and my mum started working as a full-time Shaman, and then my aunt and my cousin did too. My mum encouraged me to try it, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to have clients – something that I’m not opposed to these days. But it just naturally came, suddenly it was just there, it was like two, three years ago, something went “bloop”, and it was like an alien landed in my brain and everything was different from then on.
I felt and saw things that I had never seen and felt before, like a connection to a source or to nature or to people. Before that, I felt very limited and confused, even though I was always very curious. But it just started to happen and suddenly I started to learn tools, I went to seminars, I was eating it, sucking it all in, reading loads of books, having lots of talks and meetings with Shamans. It was super exciting. With the album, especially, over the last two years, I transformed a lot of my life and my belief systems that were keeping me from being happy and keeping me from being relaxed and free, and it helped me with that a lot. I was making a bit of music and felt like it was teaching me something, and then I would live it. For example, ‘A Tree’, with that track I really started to think about trees, and to communicate with them on some level. I would climb on the trees by the canal in Berlin. I’d also just watch them, noticing how they’re always moving but so slowly that we don’t see it, and how the tree is completely connected to the surroundings and everything is working together. Trees are always growing to their full potential and they have roots and a crown, basically like humans. I would only get that through the music. So the music met me and I met the music, and it was like a loop of communication, sometimes I really got goosebumps.
Wow, OK. So the music really made you see these things about nature for the first time?
Yeah, it was mainly a realisation about life mechanisms and how it all fits together.
Going back to where you mentioned having experienced this change. When did this happen exactly? Was there a pivotal event that lead up to this?
February 2014. It happened after a weekend where I was just hanging out with my best friends in Munich and we just had the most amazing time at their place. They’re both super amazing, creative people and we had such a loving friendship that it just melted away some of the borders that I had around my heart. And after that, when I was alone in my grandmother’s flat, I had this moment where I really realised that I was alive. And as a result, I became conscious of the fact that I am the creator of my life and I have power over how I live every day; how I perceive things, it’s completely my choice. By internalising that responsibility and taking it away from other things and other people, I felt as though I got more of my essence back, and then naturally, more things would come through life to help me grow more into my spirit.
Did that make you feel more empowered to make music?
Yeah, that too. I felt clearer.
How did your parents get into that sort of thing? Was there a Shamanic crowd in Munich at the time? How did that come about?
No, not really. My mum got into it a really long time ago actually. She was always incredibly perceptive, she was very interested and searched for answers in all sorts of places. She was interested by the mystics and by Buddhism, for example. When I was a child we travelled to America, through Utah where my mum met a couple of indigenous people who showed her her potential, which got her even more interested. Then about ten years ago she decided she wanted to work as a Shaman, so took some courses and now she is one of the teachers, which is great. So that’s where it all started, and slowly, I couldn’t help but be part of it too.
I noticed in the visuals there’s this recurring motif of what looks like a foetus in the womb to me. Is this something that’s central to the record?
Yeah, it kind of is. It was super weird. Basically, the whole film there’s no special effects, I just layered it and cut it. I filmed everything through stones and crystals and the colours came out naturally. They’re all natural effects, which I was really excited about because I don’t know how to program that sort of stuff. I was so drawn to that oval shape thing – I didn’t know what it was but I had a really strong feeling about it, like it was telling me something.
Then I was reading this book by Drunvalo Melchizedek – one of the best Shamans in the world in my opinion – I read something that really gave me goosebumps. He had written about special carvings in pyramids and I suddenly found this egg thing. [Shows book] Apparently there were these gods called Neters with animal-shaped heads, that stand for different stages of transformation. Funnily enough there were seven, like seven tracks in the album. I found this out after having written the record. Each of the seven animal gods has that oval-shaped egg above the head, it’s also the same colour as the one in my video. It’s called the “egg of metamorphosis”. It’s mad, that mystic stuff is exactly what I was feeling when I was making the egg things. and then I read about it and I was like, “Wow!”
You’ve now moved to Berlin, so I guess we’ve got to touch upon how Berlin has influenced you as an artist. You know, people often cite Berlin and Berghain as a point of reference in their sound. Your sound isn’t typically Berghain-inspired techno. But there are clear nods to club culture in your work. How do you think these things work together?
Well, I guess I always just really loved dancing and going out. I don’t go as much anymore because I’m working on music so much, but I’ve always loved going out. I also love the grounding effect of clubs, you know, some people seem more free in clubs compared with when you meet them for coffee. I like the darkness, I like going from wide to narrow. The clubs, for me, are more narrow and more compact and like a clear form. I have a lot of respect for club culture, which is why I also like to DJ and why I want to find my own language in DJing.
You hear people ironically, or maybe not, referring to Berghain as “church”. I guess there is this idea of this connection between dance music and communion, and people coming together as well.
Yeah, I think so too. It’s just a great way of bringing people together. In Shamanism, when you have a group session, the potential to heal grows because everyone brings their own experiences and energies into one group. It all becomes connected and this sharing process actually makes it far more effective than a solo session. The way I see it, that’s how it works in clubs too, because person A has experienced something that person B hasn’t, and that gets shared energetically and it balances both systems.
I think you’re right. A lot of people almost see clubbing as a form of therapy. A way of working out daily tensions and problems in their everyday life.
Yeah, completely. I do think there is a flip side, though, which is the seeing and being seen in clubs. You know, like people going to a club and playing a role. That’s something that I would like to see loosen up a little bit.
Do you see much of that in Berlin?
Munich probably more so, but yes, in Berlin a bit too. But it’s normal, it’s not necessarily a really negative thing. I just mean that it would be super great if one day you could see that everyone feels like they can behave in a way that’s more natural and true to themselves. [Laughs]
We can live in hope. People largely see music as a form of escapism. But it also plays a key role in forging new connections, whether that’s to the world around you or to other people. I guess that’s more likely to increase awareness and compassion for things around you. Is that something that was considered on this record?
Sure. I mean with music, if you like the same artists or genres, you immediately have something to talk about with someone, it’s like common ground. Compassion is the basis for human connection, that’s definitely one of the things I want to express. But, also one of the nicest compliments I’ve received was at the release party for Epoch Sinus. My friend turned to me and told me he “felt powerful”. He felt powerful. And I thought, “Wow, that’s exactly what I want to show”. I want to show people that they are powerful.
In my music, I have a lot of stories and a fantasy world going on. There’s this one character, who is probably the little girl on the cover, and she is powerful and strong through her love. She can look demons in the eye and go, “Wachow”, you know? There’s this powerful feeling like I mentioned before, when I realised I am the creator of my life. I decide how I feel and whether I want to get stuck in patterns or not. I think that’s what I want to show the most in my music. I don’t want to put the focus on me, I don’t want to be the one in the spotlight saying, “I’m amazing”, and so on. I want people to feel amazing when they listen to the music, not projected on me, but on themselves.
I think that’s important. I told you that when I first heard the album I sat and listened to it multiple times, headphones on. I can really hear that sound design is a strong point for you. Is this going to remain a focus? Would you consider taking it into a different discipline like filmmaking?
That’s like, my biggest dream. [Nods enthusiastically] I want to do music for a Sci-Fi James Cameron movie, then I would be the happiest person! [Laughs]
The next Terminator maybe? I know that you’re an accomplished musician and you also have a great voice. In fact, you’re the voice behind Scuba’s ‘All I Think About Is Death’. Can we expect to hear vocals on future release?
I will definitely shift back towards vocals some more. One of the reasons I went away from it a bit, is that it didn’t really fit this album. There are some vocals, but not many. In fact, I used to make quite poppy music before Epoch Sinus. Proper song songs. I love to do that. I love to play guitar and to sing. I want to go back to that one day, because I think pop music still has a lot of potential to be explored, and I like to think I can contribute something to that scene in the future. With Epoch Sinus, I didn’t want it to be attached to one human character. I wanted it to be more universal, rather than being limited to one voice.
With the new music I’m working on, there’s going be more vocals, but classic, rather than song-like. I want to get more into storytelling, like a classical piece. Like vocals and returning patterns, where every character has a certain theme. I’m really into that. I want to get my mum to sing on the record too, she’s a really great singer. Yeah, I want to sing again! I sang a lot in Fuerteventura last month and it was amazing. We had a jam session and suddenly I felt like I could let go and do things that I didn’t feel I could do before. That opened that area up again, whereas before I think it was a bit just closed to me.
So what’s coming up for you now? What have you got lined up post-album release?
I’m going to continue working on a new album. I have a remix in the pipeline for Robot Koch. I’m going to work on a collaboration album with my boyfriend – Fis is his artist name. I’m moving to Spain with him in January for half a year to work on music and other projects. And one day, I’ll hopefully move to Fuerteventura. It’s so relaxed there and it’s so empty. I was super lucky to get to see these places that you only normally see when you’ve lived there. I had the most amazing, intimate time with the island. The sea is so wild there, the light made the sand all purple and the sea was like silver-blue and then orange clouds. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before, the energy was enormous. It has so much potential. It’s like a blank canvas. I’m serious about moving there, I love it so much.
Can you speak Spanish?
Not yet. But I can say “Tu eres una persona mui bonita” – you are a beautiful person.
Thank you. Do you think island life would be an isolated experience?
No, I think I will move there with people that I met there last month, when I was giving a sound workshop with Fis. I want to be involved in more future projects with them. They’re super intelligent and ambitious people. Their project goes by the name Clean Perspectives, something interesting to watch and support in the future.
One friend, for example, is a great physicist and he’s working on sustainable energy sources which will eventually be included in the project. My boyfriend is trained in permaculture design. The soil is super fertile there, it’s just dry because there’s no water. But with permaculture you can be really clever and lead the water a certain way and then gain water in other, so that you have a microcosm climate within the climate and he could totally nail that. There’s so many YouTube videos out there on this, with guys in sandals talking about little trees as if they’re their babies. I want to go out there and have a meditation centre and a fucking amazing house with a pool. Those are the plans for the future, first I’d love to score a film, and then I will buy land on Fuerteventura.
Sophie, great speaking with you.
Thank you, you too.
Epoch Sinus is out now on Hotflush Recordings. Order it here.
Featured image: Elisabeth Pacho Daller
Artwork: Sophie Schnell
Words: Ciara Quinn