In a music scene defined by an unforgiving pace and a voracious appetite for new sounds, it’s rare to find a producer who can maintain relevancy for long, let alone for three continuous decades. Roman Flügel is one of those exceptions.
Since his origins in the ’90s Frankfurt techno scene, Flügel’s career has truly run the gamut of electronic music, annexing an extraordinary array of sonic territory in his three decades behind the decks. From the thumping club bangers of his Alter Ego incarnation, to the ambient leanings of his later work, Flügel has demonstrated himself to be a producer who resolutely refuses to rest, and as a musician with his sights firmly fixed on the future.
But, with a forthcoming retrospective, Flashbacks 1992 – 1998, reviving his earlier Acid Jesus incarnation, and an upcoming Fabric Mix taking a broad lens to his DJing career, our encounter catches Flügel at a rare moment of reflection. Here, we take the time to look back at his long and illustrious career in a conversation which touches upon early influences and collaborations, his introduction to techno, and his variously changing roles as a DJ and producer.
Your Fabric Mix is coming out soon. Looking through the track-listing there’s a quite diverse range of sounds on display – ambient, techno, even psych-punk. There’s also an interesting mix of contemporary and older stuff on it. What informed your selection of tracks for the mix?
It’s basically a reflection of my many years of DJing – 20 or 25 years at this point. For me, I try and connect the dots, at least a few of them, by choosing tracks which are pretty old –Psychic TV’s ‘White Sky’ for example– and contrasting them with newer sounds. For me, that track is almost a blueprint – it contains the basic information for what artists like Ricardo Villalobos (a friend of mine) went on to do, only two or three years later. Whether he knew about that track specifically, I don’t know, but I think sounds like that informed our playing.
Then we have another track, ‘Like This’ by Two of a Kind, which introduced me to the rough side of Chicago house and acid house. So, I tried to connect those parts of my musical biography with music which is more or less brand new; stuff like the Larnak Artefax track. I tried to connect the dots basically.
That’s definitely something I thought looking at the track listing. Your career has taken in a broad range of sounds and influences. It does seem like a reflection of that musical orientation.
You’ve previously stated that, in your approach to playing in a club, you’re not particularly trying to educate people, so much as you’re trying to inspire a party, and to get people to dance. Is that a similar orientation you’re taking towards this mix? Or do you feel freer to display your more esoteric influences?
At a party, I might be playing lesser known tracks, and older stuff, but it’s more a spontaneous response to the mood of the night. It’s me being playful. Education is definitely not the main purpose of my sets. The Fabric Mix is similar. It definitely might introduce people to music they might not have heard before, and then inspire them to take a closer look. But, I don’t see myself as a teacher, I don’t see myself in that role. It’s a lot more fun to inspire dancing. It’s more fun than just engaging in an exercise of pointing my fingers to the tracks you need to listen to understand house music. It’s not about that at all.
This is actually one of the first mix CDs I’ve been asked to do. The only other one was for Robert Johnson a few years ago. I view that mix more as a definite look into what I particularly liked at that time. The Fabric Mix is more something I could play as a DJ live, but it’s simultaneously something a bit different. It’s something I could listen to at home, even though it’s pretty fast. I wanted to show something which works beyond the club. So that’s the purpose of the mix. It’s not something I would do every weekend in the club; it’s not particularly reflective of my mind set as a live DJ, it goes beyond that I would say.
You’ve previously spoken about your initial period of getting into house and techno music, and how rooted that was in your attendance of certain clubs – places like the Omen in Frankfurt – and the exposure they gave you to the sounds which would inform your first steps as a producer. Given that, it kind of seems that your approach to music was, at least initially, club orientated. Do you think that a club-centric approach informed your first forays into music?
For some reason, I was always sitting between the chairs in those early years. Because already back then, when techno became popular, and you had the first big wave of acid house in Germany, I was enjoying music coming out of the US, which never got played in European clubs at the time. So, I was taking part in parties, but at the same time I was buying records which were too experimental, or too deep to be played in a club back then. But both worlds finally ended up informing the way I played music and also the way I started to DJ. My sets still have a lot to do with the moment and the feeling at that particular time in the club. It’s not something I have the tendency to plan.
So you talk about the dual influences of the kind of music you were hearing getting played in the clubs in Frankfurt, but then also the stuff which was coming out of America, which you weren’t exposed to in a live setting. Was there a big distinction between the two for you?
There’s definitely a difference between them. I get inspired by music which doesn’t have to be functional, to work in a club for instance, but it’s still electronic music, or you could still call it techno.
Stuff coming out of Detroit at the time, things like the early Carl Craig records, were never being played in clubs back then. But it was still a huge influence for me sitting in front of my three instruments at home, in my little studio. But, at the same time, going out on weekends was another inspiration. So there were definitely two main environments and types of music which were shaping my interest in music back then.
You’re also re-releasing some of your earlier Acid Jesus material. You already put out the Interstate EP earlier this year, and you have the retrospective compilation ‘Flashbacks 1992 – 1998’ forthcoming. Why are you choosing to look back on this project in particular?
Because this is the foundation of everything which came afterwards .Earlier versions of these tracks were some of the first demos I ever put out. The earlier incarnations of those songs were recorded very basically, on a four-track cassette player. Later, I went to a more professional studio with these demos to meet my studio partner, Jorn Wuttke, and re-recorded them.
These are some of the tracks you’ll hear on the retrospective; the earliest Acid Jesus recordings. So these tracks are basically the foundation for my subsequent career. It’s the first stuff I was really happy with back then, and tells a lot about why I am still doing what I’m doing and what my influences are.
You’ve released music under various different monikers with Jorn.
Yes, but Acid Jesus was the first project we ever had together. That is the foundation.
You’ve done less collaborative work as of late, producing more music as a solo artist, and releasing stuff under your own name. How do you feel those earlier collaborations impacted you as a producer? Did it require a particularly different approach to music?
That collaboration was important for my development as a producer. The main difference it had from my earliest stages, when I would record on my own was that it allowed me access to a much more professional studio environment and equipment. So that meant a greater degree of control over what I was producing. Those tracks which were initially written on an eight track sequencer were then put onto an Atari computer, enabling me to edit them a lot more. This facilitated better arrangements, and enabled a better sound.
That was the beginning of our work, which continued for about 15 years from that starting point. We later did Sensorama, Alter Ego and a lot of remixes after that starting point. But Acid Jesus for both of us was the starting point, and really was a learning experience, it was all new back then.
Thematically, there seems to be a big emphasis in your forthcoming projects – the Fabric Mix, the Acid Jesus retrospective in particular– of drawing out connections, ‘connecting the dots’ as you say, between different stages and influences from your career. Is there a reason you’re looking back?
I refuse to look back too often to be honest. But with the catalogue I have with Jorn there’s another story. We released most of our music at the time through the labels Playhouse and Klang Elektronik, but those don’t exist anymore. So finally, we have complete control over our catalogue again; it’s basically ours again.
We’ve already put out a few twelve inches, and released some stuff digitally, which was previously inaccessible. We now own the rights completely and can do whatever we want to do with it. And that presents a big opportunity to reprise that music, and create a new perspective on it. Listening to it in a modern context, people will think about it differently of course. And that is quite interesting.
Why do you think perspectives will have changed on it?
Because the genre has a history now. Back then, when this music first came out, it was all new. Nobody knew what the future would bring, whether that kind of music would even survive for the next twelve months. Now, listening in the present day, this isn’t the case. Techno and house music actually have a history.
So you think that informs a different kind of appreciation?
Totally, totally. Back then we thought it was just a trend and that it was all going to be over soon, like within the next one or two years. We were always surprised that its appeal continued, that it just went on and on and on. Now we can listen to it with the knowledge of what it would eventually become.
You’ve stated previously that the process of music production for you is quite a solitary, even introspective endeavour. You’ve even stated that that was part of your initial attraction towards electronic music. Given that, how did you feel about letting someone in on that process as you did with Jorn Wuttke on Acid Jesus?
It feels very different. I started to produce electronic music, basically because I liked the solitary aspect so much. I used to play in bands before that, as a drummer. At a certain point, I found out how to create music with machines. And this kind of approach to music was fundamentally different.
It’s basically like looking in the mirror. When you create something on your very own you find out a lot of things about yourself. It’s a bit like a painter in front of a canvas. There’s usually the artist present in the process of creation and nobody else. And I think electronic music is the same, it’s not a group thing, it’s not a band thing. There have been people who have managed to do something collaboratively, but it’s only a few people who have really managed it. Even then, it is rarely more than two people who manage to sustain a creative project together, and hardly ever a larger group.
Even though collaboration can be fun, most people work on their own, because it’s really a different experience. The machines give you the opportunity to do something very different, to connect with your own feelings, as opposed to expressing the dynamics of the group.
So, how do you reconcile that kind of orientation towards your music with another person in a collaborative setting?
Jorn and me, already back then, were taking on different roles within the studio. I was basically playing all the instruments and programming, and doing everything with the computer; while he was more into mixing, and we both ended up finally doing the arrangements together. But my part was always the part of making and playing the music basically. And this distinction in roles was something we had to find out.
Towards the end, there wasn’t anything which we were both putting in which we were really happy with. So that necessitated another solution, another way to work. At a point, you have to start working on your own again, and that’s what we did. From that point on, it took me quite some time before I was truly happy with what I was doing. But now, I’m feeling quite good about what I’m doing. It’s nice to look back, but it’s not the starting point of another collaboration.
Do you think it’s something inherent to the music itself, something integral to techno, house and other electronic genres, which lends itself to solitary expression?
I think so. But it was particularly the case back then, in the early stages of house and techno. The solitary aspect was, to some extent, a response to technological limitations. Nowadays, you have a lot more opportunities to collaborate, facilitated by the available technology. The connection between devices is a lot more playful, and the available software opens up new opportunities for collaboration. Back then it wasn’t so easy. So the solitary aspect is, to some extent, a result of the technology available.
Are you interested in pursuing more collaborative projects in the future? Or do you more see that as a feature of your past?
I don’t know, it’s always about the right chemistry and the right people. If I find the right people, I definitely could see myself collaborating again. But, at the same time, I’m not actively looking for it.
Do you have any plans to re-release other parts of your discography? Or is it exclusive to Acid Jesus?
As I said, I don’t look back too often. It’s not something I enjoy too much: I’d rather create something new, something current. But we are thinking of putting out the Sensorama albums again in the future, and things that are not easy to find at the moment. But there aren’t any concrete plans at the moment.
Another part of your history I wanted to touch on was your roots in classical music. You studied music at Darmstadt.
Yes, but more musicology, so the analysis and history of music, more stuff like that.
Darmstadt occupies an important place in music history, as a place of central importance for the European avant-garde in the post-war period. A lot of composers and musicians gravitated there during ’50s and ’60s, and crucially, ones who actually pioneered elements of music practice which would go on to provide the basis for electronic genres: things like synthesis, sampling, and sequencing techniques. I wondered whether your background there had any influence on your approach to music production?
Not the avant-garde side in particular. Not music concrete, or that which came out of the Cologne studios in the ’50s, stuff like this. Honestly, I didn’t know too much about this stuff when I was going to University, I found out about it later. For me, learning to play an instrument, and learning classical music, in particular, was very important, but not especially in terms of informing the actual type of music I was playing.
Rather, it was important because it taught me how to stay focused, to continue with something even if you are disappointed for a while. It gave me the strength to be focused, and concentrate on what I was trying to find out, and to at least generate a feeling. But, if it comes to electronic music, and techno music, and dance music, you better forget about classical music itself, because you’ll probably end up with something which is too overcomplicated.
So you still perceive there to be a disjuncture between the two fields of music?
Yes, definitely. The great thing about dance music, about acid house and techno, was that the feeling behind it was so immediate. And that feeling is achievable by people who don’t know anything about the theoretical aspects of music. It’s just something which works in that particular moment, which makes people dance, and makes them feel themselves on the dance floor. That isn’t something you create by writing notes, or by knowing the right chord patterns or something like that, it is something you do because you feel it in your heart. You have a feeling, you put it through the machines and there it is.
Do you think this applies to your recorded output too? A lot of your more recent productions seem to be moving away from that kind of club-centric sensibility. For instance, one of your last full-length projects – 2016’s All the Right Noises – is very ambient, and not particularly suited to a club environment.
I think it is still generally true of my albums. I don’t pretend to know too much about the avant-garde, or the more serious aspects of music. My production work still comes out of a feeling, something I feel in the studio at the time. But, it’s just something I’d rather listen to at home or take with me somewhere. It doesn’t have to be club music to express that feeling.
Words: Franklin Dawson
Featured Images: Nadine Fraczkowski
Fabric 95: Roman Flügel launch takes place on Oct 28. More info and tickets here.