It’s hard to talk about Berlin’s love affair with EBM-infused Techno without mentioning Phase Fatale, aka Hayden Payne. Originally from New York, Payne’s catalogue tells a transatlantic story. With releases on Hospital Productions, Silent Servant, Regis and James Ruskin’s Jealous God, aufnahme + wiedergabe and Ostgut Ton, his sound is rooted in the rich heritage of NY industrial but furnished with the technoid hedonism of Berlin.
The expansive, textural mixdowns he’s become well known for also set him apart from the most EBM-Techno mutations. Residencies at Berghain and Tbilisi’s Khidi have honed Phase Fatale’s sound, which hammers you into bacchic ritualism with its militaristic sameness, delighting in its own contradictions: somehow repetitive without being monotonous, an authoritarian aesthetic calling for sexual liberation.
It’s off the back of the release of his second full-length album, Scanning Backwards, via Berghain’s in-house label, Ostgut Ton that we sit down with the man.
How have the last few months been on the run-up to this release?
Very busy, the mixing and mastering process was only finished in October/November as there were a lot of details to go over. At the same time, I was working with my own label BITE on putting out an album from Sarin and getting ready for our showcase at Khidi in December. Albums, whether your own or someone else’s, are quite a bit of work to say the least. But since it’s been done, I’ve finally gotten the time to reflect on its concepts and processes to fully realize the breadth of the project. When you are in the middle of working on it and running through stuff, you don’t get so much time to look back.
How did this album come together and what was your process in creating it?
After finishing my last EP Reverse Fall during summer 2018, I already had the idea to start working on my next album, and I dedicated all my time since then on it. The most challenging part was how not to repeat myself after already releasing stuff for 5 years, but also still keep the project’s identity I had built up. There was some trial and error, but the best conclusion was to slow everything down, way down. Not in an ambient way, but in a very heavy, churning, doomy method. I used more intensively digital synths and effects (not soft but mostly hardware) that greatly increased the sound palette and allowed me to achieve these more metallic and cold futuristic sounds I imagined.
Most songs began with a foundation I wrote in my head, rhythm and sound design and all, then I may work for hours, days, or weeks trying to realize that until I’m satisfied. After a year of the production process, I couldn’t listen to it anymore and my ears grew tired. So it was really important that I was able to mix it with Martin in his studio. His set of ears and years of experience helped put the finishing touches and picked out things I wouldn’t have caught. That’s the classic way of making a record; one person doesn’t do everything. There are producers, engineers, and musicians and usually with their input, you get ideas you never would’ve thought of and learn some new tricks. That’s what I always liked about playing in bands and working with others.
Scanning Backwards is your first full-length since Redeemer, released on Hospital Recordings in 2017 – how has Phase Fatale’s sound changed since then?
The sound has become more electronic. Of course it was always an electronic project, but it definitely progressed to a more minimal sound with less song-based structure. I focused on more electro and broken rhythms where in the past everything was quite 4 on the floor. There’s definitely more groove on this record. Something I picked up from working with Silent Servant and also from listening to a lot more New York electro, Detroit techno and acid house. I also dived more into wavetable and fm synthesis which lended itself to fresher sounds like cold metal and less classic. I wanted to show how heavy or hard it can be at such a relatively low bpm range. It gives you much more space to insert more expression and details into the music.
As a Berghain resident and regular contributor to the label, how would you say your relationship to the club has altered your approach as a musician and as a DJ?
Having a residency there and playing regularly has helped me figure out what works best in that club and generally translates well to most other places. Whether that’s technically in what fits the acoustics of the space and specs of the sound system or what best fits the vibe of the crowd. When I’m djing there, I can definitely feel and hear which tracks are working the best to my vision. Also, on the other side, being on the dancefloor with my ears linked to the speakers or even on the ground floor hearing bottles smash down the stairs and listening to some of your favourite djs play is influencing my sound. Because the room has such a huge reverb and certain acoustics, it can warp a track that may sound a little banal if listening at home into something much more. This is magic. I can take my own interpretation of that and turn it into something else back in the studio. Because the sound is so clear, I can also try out new djing techniques and practice and always improve.
You’ve mentioned your experience as a guitarist and sound engineer in previous interviews – how has this background influenced Phase Fatale’s sound?
When I’m working on music, I’m imagining the notes laid out on the neck of a guitar rather than a keyboard or otherwise. What instrument you are using definitely lends itself to certain techniques and ways to approach melodies and rhythm. I’m also a guitar pedal freak and deeply into shoegaze, dream pop, post-punk that heavily relies on effects, and I can apply those same techniques to synths and drum machines.
There are a couple tracks on the album where guitar is actually used either as a main instrument or for atmospheric noises. My favourite instrument though is the bass guitar, which is the foundation between the rhythm and melody. I think that’s why my music is generally very baseline focused. I studied music technology for 4 years, everything from studio recording to electrical engineering, so I also am approaching it from a technical perspective, but not only. I see the music in layers of different frequencies and only so much information can fit into each group, trying to give everything a balanced sound but not flat either.
Scanning Backwards has a lot of chuggier tracks on it, which feels transgressive given the scene’s recent obsession with skyrocketing tempos. How do slower tracks help you shape your aesthetic?
One of the main points of the album was to showcase the power of music even at slower BPMs, when nowadays there is only an acceptable linkage of “fast = hard,” which is obviously banal and often used as a cheap trick to make up for the fact not much interesting is happening. I also only a few times explored this tempo and opening up to it now allowed me to expand my sound and continue to work on something new. It also gives way more space for extremeness to the music, every beat lasts longer and is quite heavy, rather than a bunch of short jabs. For example, I think Godflesh is one of the heaviest metal bands, and their music is actually super slow. The slower tempo definitely allows for a charged vibe and lets the frequencies expand to create this psychedelic, rewiring effect.
There seems to be a broader thematic focus on Scanning Backwards than on previous Phase Fatale releases, from sinister drone atmospherics to garbled radio chatter. How did this come together?
I knew from the beginning I wanted the music to be about control, almost cultish. My music always contained elements of cold atmospheres and weird voices, but it had to be more focused this time. Also after some long conversations with my dear friend Vatican Shadow about mind control experiments, it was clear to go in this direction: the CIA, which started doing this shortly after WWII in the panic of the Cold War. How they and other militaries were experimenting with certain frequencies as uses of control or weapons got into my own obsession of sound (albeit in a much less violent nature). Music has a controlling way on humans, whether dictating them into subcultures or how they move and interact in a club. Even inserting subliminal messages and samples from forgotten crimes of humanity can maybe make one think what they were even hearing when they wake up on their hangover the next day. While I heavily rely on basslines and generally lower frequencies in my music, this time I wanted to also incorporate higher, scratching tones to have a full frequency weaponised approach.
Club music or otherwise, any albums / releases you’ve had on heavy rotation recently?
The latest albums I’ve been digging have been from Traversable Wormhole, Rrose, E.R.P., and Sarin. Also the last EPs from TV Out and Reka x Imperial Black Unit. I’ve also been having a rekindling obsession with DAF and anything Robert Görl related.
What’s next on the horizon for Phase Fatale’s sound?
The next thing I want to do is make a hard dancefloor record. Applying the concepts I’ve fostered during the process of the album to a completely techno focused EP.
Scanning Backwards is out now on Ostgut Ton.
Words: Alex Davidson
Featured Image: Sven-Marquardt