robert henke monolake

Chance Elements: Monolake

Entering Fabric in daylight when London’s most notorious late night dancing spot isn’t packed with sweat and jostling is a weird experience akin to walking in on a naked parent. Everything just looks so… different.

The club’s main room, where many hours have been dedicated to the noble art of shape throwing, certainly appears stark and tame when fully lit – but don’t be deceived by the wooden floors and decor. In the buff, this cathedral of dark rave may seem innocent, but when the huge speakers in each corner of the room start to rumble, it’s obvious this is a club designed for serious electronic work outs.

If this is a cathedral, then the gangly form of Robert Henke (aka Monolake) scurrying over the equipment and tuning his numerous machines and boxes, must be its high priest. Amid the grand library of IDM intellects, Monolake is perhaps one of the deepest thinkers lurking with his head in digital books. In this current guise, he’s crafted a series of beautiful electronic records – the previously adored ‘Silence’ and latest release ‘Ghosts’ – Both are subtle and absorbing, at times warm yet also dense and unsettling – as a creator of such aural artistry, it’s perhaps a surprise to find that in person, Henke is a charming chatterbox.

Monolake, fabric, London, March 1.

While his gangly form is subject to photos, his brain and mouth are constantly whirring away – the vibe and vibrancy of Berlin, Skrillex’s productions, the genesis of Love Parade and the power of coffee and cigarettes are all tossed around before we even sit down in a dark corner of the club and begin our natter. He maybe a boffin but he’s much more than just a talented technician.

‘Ghosts’, the follow up album to ‘Silence’, was completed in November 2011 and took two years to finish – it’s heavy computer music but as he states “conceived on the edge of the dance floor” – you can lose your shit to his electronics but there’s also a whole otherworld bubbling around it. The album arrives accompanied by a disarming piece of short fiction (sample line: “hi Sharif, please get in touch with me as soon as you can. Things got a bit out of hand here and I need to talk”) while the live show promises even fuller immersion in his techno soup. The ‘Ghosts in Sound’ tour is a full on sensory experience – which is unsurprising for one of the innovators behind the much-lauded Ableton Live and a professor at the University of Arts in Berlin (the day after his Fabric show he is due back in Berlin to give a lecture). Henke’s rhythms and dub-inflicted wall of sound come galvanised by the computer dreams of visual artist Tarik Barri – the pair have worked together for the last three years, but on this release, independently of the other until less than a month before the tour.

“When I work on music I often have pictures in my mind – but these aren’t the pictures which make up the visuals now,” Henke reveals. “Instead these are pictures I often take when I’m travelling. And the records I have made in the last few years have always had a story. The story does not need to be in the foreground for someone listening to the music – but the story helps me find a pathway through all the musical possibilities.”

The relationship between the pair unlocks new realms to their live experience. Henke called on the creative juices of his touring partner Tarik as he wanted to “avoid some random VJ just playing along with me or the alternative which is playing in complete darkness in a way similar to Autechre”. Instead, the pair offer live “immersion” in their artistic friction. Both self-confessed geeks, the duo admit to being in love with technology and stretching its possibilities to the limit. By virtually arm wrestling over their machines, they pursue a new audio dialect underpinned by the rhythms and layers of Monolake‘s computers.

“There are certain things which are possible and certain things which might be possible if I push him [Tarik] further – so we developed this visual language for this tour,” says Henke.

Tarik picks up the thread: “It is to do with the fact it’s a live, real time performance – all the visuals are generated by the computer on the spot. I can morph any image into any other image as every pixel is programmed by me – so the images can be manipulated in a much freer way than when exclusively working with video material. If he goes freaking out on me on stage, then I can freak out at him back, “ he promises threateningly.

H – “This is especially important as it allows for little mistakes – if I make a sound which wasn’t there before because I pressed the wrong button, then Tariq can react by making the appropriate adjustment in the visual side.”

T – “This keeps it very interesting for us as it means we are still constantly surprised by what we do. Then we go along with it and include the mistake over and over again. It’s always a work in progress – I don’t think it’s ever finished as it’s continues to evolve as every night as we discuss and tweak it.”

It is the chance elements of the live experience which excites Henke and his partner – but despite this thirst for the new, he admits to turning into a bag of nerves before a set – feelings which cigarettes help to quell. Both are keen to point out that while they are in love with their gadgets, they are not slaves to their wires or circuit boards…

“Historically electronic music is music where you have to fight against the limitations of tech – and a lot of creativity has previously emerged from this fight. By abusing tech, artists were forced to dream up tricky ways in which to combine simple sounds – and now five to ten years later, we have a completely opposite issue. The challenge is now that all tools are available for everyone in millions of forms for almost no money. If you want to be creative which tools do you ignore and which directions do you not go in? In order to do something really creative, you need to define your own framework and topics which you are interested in. To me the challenge is, figure out the interesting topics content wise – then as a second step, think about what are the possible tools I need to make this. Then I need to stick to this and ignore the rest.”

So what, other than refusing to become a performing monkey to the organs he grinds, does the future hold for this sonic scientist? There is talk of a sound installation exhibition in the latter half of the year – but if that doesn’t come off, then a new record is mooted. A story already exists and some sounds are already in the locker.

But for the minute, Henke seems to be flattered by the respect with which his experiments have brought him. He talks fondly of playing at Bloc for the first time – He took his sound off the stage and performed amid the ravers next to the mixing desk with nothing separating him from the dance. More importantly for him, is this sense of being part of a new wave of innovators and experimenters looking to craft the perfect beat.

He explains: “Since I moved to Berlin, I’ve been in an environment where a lot of my friends made music and some of them have become quite famous with it. There was always this moment of a mutual exchange of ideas. I see myself as part of a community of people trying to figure out what’s possible with computers on stage, electronic sounds, rhythm and music and how to combine all these elements.”

“I guess everyone is listening to what everyone is listening to and this mutual influence is vital. I listen to a record by Sam Shackleton or the Peverelist and think ’wow’ this is wicked what he’s doing. I’d do it in a similar way but never do it like this. And for Sam it’s the other way around. It’s not competitive but inspirational, which is such a beautiful situation to be in.”

Interview: Jim Ottewill
Photography: Jimmy Mould

‘Ghosts’ is out now/ For more information on all of Robert’s projects and for a full list of the ‘Ghosts in Sound’, head to www.monolake.de