Anyone wanting to understand Julian Muller should first know that he was one half of 90 Process. Working alongside his friend, Hadone, the group carved out a sound that’s become vital for techno heads hoping to hear something new: a trance alteration to the Berlin norm.
As the wider electronic scene seeks fresh ideas by harkening back to the 90s through ‘hard dance’ – a catch-all term for genres including rave, hardcore and gabba – Muller can claim to have made some of the records that cemented trance as a touchstone for this movement. Since then the 90 Process project has given way to Muller’s solo work and a run of EPs. Now he’s taken another big step in his career, winning the backing for his first solo album, ‘Playing With The Devil’, which came out in September on Lobster Theremin.
The 10-track, double-disc record is a stomping parade through some of Muller’s most forceful work, while equally stretching his range in the other direction, toward quieter, reflective moments. Following the release we spoke over Skype, with Muller calling from his current home in Brussels, talking his new LP, Berlin’s cultural legacy, and how lockdown has altered him personally and professionally.
“It wasn’t originally meant to be an album,” Julian explains. “I sent a bunch of tracks to Jimmy [Asquith, label boss at Lobster Theremin], hoping to put out an EP. But Jimmy said he wanted all the tracks and suggested an album.” Muller was hesitant at first: “I thought that an album had to be a different process, that I should spend a year shaping a tracklist to follow a story. But I slept on it, and I realised that there’s more than one way to do an album. Now the record’s in my hands, I’m really happy with how it turned out.”
Throughout the interview, Muller comes across as a thinking individual, not one to rush out an album of isolated bangers. Lighting a cigarette, then later pulling pensively on a vape, he takes care to explain how his process has developed, and how he’s constantly improving his sound, viewing “Youtube videos of tips and tricks to adapt ideas from different genres: drum and bass, dubstep and even super commercial EDM.”
Muller’s lack of pretense around his artistic process is endearing. The record, he says, was made entirely with Ableton. “When I first started producing in Berlin I bought all of this hardware, but I didn’t really know how to use it. Now I’m pretty proud that I can make my music with Ableton, because I don’t think it sounds as clean as the usual Ableton sound. If gigs return then maybe I will be able to buy more synths and build a studio to go deeper into my taste for music.”
For now he’s able to craft his music from his kitchen. “A coffee and a cigarette is all I need. I have my feet up on the table, and my headphones on so that I don’t disturb the neighbours. I’m a morning guy: when I wake up and the sun is shining my head is full of ideas. Everyone is taking brunch outside and I say: “No, I want to make music.” You can hear the sun in my music. On a Monday morning after playing gigs, this is when I make most of my non-techno songs. I feel smooth, happy from the weekend, and my body is relieved – then I just want to dig into a deeper, slower sound.”
Julian’s music is not, for the most part, slow. His modern techno-trance sound is knowingly reverent of the speeding 90s scene, but Muller chats enthusiastically about his broader influences. He singles out the innovation of trap artists, telling me this trumps techno in his everyday listening. Travis Scott, in particular, is a role-model for his creative ambition. “But when I’m creating the drums for my tracks I am digging a lot into the 90s UK electronic scene, like Stay Up Forever, RAW (Raw Analogue Waveforms) and Guy Mcaffer. And when I’m looking for inspiration for melody, I’m looking at things that are even more trancey than me, such as the Bonzai and Nukleuz labels.”
Though a wave of producers now follow similar influences, it was not always so. “I’ve been making music like this for six years now, and a few years ago I was kind of an alien with this sound. I remember sending it to many labels, and always getting the same feedback: ‘Way too cheesy for us.’ Now most of these labels are trying to get into this sound.”
90 Process’ work was a genuine deviation from the trademark, dark German techno Julian heard when, aged 19, he moved from France to Berlin. While there, he spent six years learning to DJ, starting Insert (his own label), and eventually trying his hand at producing. He saw first-hand what he calls “the techno mafia,” an insider culture of producers, DJs, promoters and agents. Instead of tagging along, he stumbled upon a connection to Berlin’s radical cultural history. “When I started I was playing top techno, Berghain-friendly, deep stuff. Then my friend told me about a party called Back To Basics, which previously ran from the late eighties to the early nineties. You realise, if you dig a little bit into the history, that the line-up at this party were all really important in the Berlin scene at the time, but they stopped because they weren’t so focused on being famous.”
That night was a defining moment for Muller. “Around that time I was reading a book called Der Klang, Der Familie – it looks at the time the Wall fell, the clash of two sounds, and the new empty spaces that were used to start clubs. The book is full of interviews with people from the scene. At Back to Basics that night I met two of those people: one was just known for being a beautiful gay guy in the scene, and the other was Disko, a DJ. We got talking about the book, kept in touch, and they became my spiritual dads. I lived with them for over a year, and they really helped me shape my taste by helping me to free my mind of any restrictions.”
He counts himself lucky to have avoided “the new club scene. Instead I met the old DJs who are pretty pissed off with what the scene became.” Muller harbors plenty of concerns himself, specifically with the image people have to foster to DJ these days. “Many artists are only good at creating, not at marketing themselves, posting videos or memes. Without luck or a smaller label helping you, it is hard. I know a lot of talented people who deserve to be in the spotlight of labels and agencies, and they are just not good at selling themselves, so they have no opportunity. I don’t believe using social media should be the focus.”
Muller sees lockdown as a time of change in that respect. With less gigs, and an interruption of the social media content that flows from it, he feels people are spending more time exploring new music. In a wider context, he believes lockdown has gifted people the time to commit their attention to serious issues, such as racism and gender inequality.
Muller has picked up projects tackling both, helping with two compilations: one for United For Equity, raising money for BLM and The Bail Fund, the other in conjunction with Turkish collective Primus Recordings, to tackle femicide in the country. “Once you have an audience, you have to use it for a good cause,” says Julian. “Some people I know say there is no obligation, that people are not following you for your political views, but my perspective is that you have a duty. You have to make a stand for the scene because it is not healthy anymore.”
His latest project, a new label, aims to back up this sentiment. “The name’s a secret, but it’s coming early next year. It’s going to be an exciting opportunity for me to manage artists and support new producers.” The label launch is keeping him busy right now, but, like so many in creative professions, Julian tells me finances are tough. “Because of a pre-existing health condition I’m unable to work in restaurants or bars, so it’s pushing me to come up with new ideas to pay the rent. I’m usually in the red zone but I always find a way!”
Muller seems both optimistic and creatively motivated. Despite admitting he can be “grumpy” about the scene he hopes the lockdown will “refresh things. We were just turning around with the same artists, the same music. Artists should make a stand, and support smaller names. At the end it is about using your audience in the right way.”
Julian Muller’s ‘Playing With The Devil’ LP is out now via Lobster Theremin.
Grab it here.
Words: Thomas Lewis