Today's podcast is with a good friend of mine, Christian Kleine. Christian works for Ableton. He and I got to know each other when we were working together on preparing for the Live 9 release. But subsequently to that we've just gotten to chat an awful lot - it's been really cool. In this podcast we talk a little bit about his background, how he decides to go through the music making process and what kind of tools and what kind of perspectives he takes when he's trying to make a release. I hope you enjoy this, I found it really interesting myself - enjoy!
Darwin: Okay. Today I'm going to be talking to Christian Kleine - a person who I consider a friend. We've had a lot of interaction in working with the Max for Live product. But he's also a really experienced and very talented musician. I was enjoying, this morning on Spotify, listening to some of his old albums; but he's got a new one that came out recently as well.
Hi Christian! How are you?
Christian: Hi Darwin. I'm fine, thank you. And, thanks for the honor of letting me taking part in this interview.
Darwin: Oh it's my pleasure. I don't know how much of an honor it is, but we'll see. So let's get started right away by talking a little bit about your background. One of the interesting thing when I listen to your music, whether it's the new Shipbuilding album or some of your older stuff like the Real Ghosts album, it's an interesting mix of styles. I mean, you hear in hip hop influences, different techno and house influences, kind of indie rock stuff. You play a fair amount of guitar, I notice. And it seems like you pulled together influences from all over the place. What your background and what led you to that?
Christian: I think the story goes something... in a short version. It goes something like this: when I was really young boy I was forced to learn classical trumpet, which was okay for a couple of years. But of course when you get a little bit older, like at the age of 12 or so, you get more interested in something more Rock-y, more subversive. So I taught myself the electric bass and then switched over to electric guitar eventually. And we had a room where we made a lot of noise, and there was also a drum kit. So I taught myself a bit of drum kit and I was starting to get really into punky new ways, noise, rock stuff, like when I was 15, 16 or so - I was really into that.
And later on when I was moving - at the age of, what was that, 20 or so, I was already quite familiar with all music styles. So basically I was, deejaying techno music to my punk friends and they hated it, of course. So I was really interested in all kinds of music all the time. So there was not such a thing as "I'm only interested in us certain style of music." So to me it was not really the style of music but what the music has to offer in energy and in message and in whatnot. It totally was independent from the music style. And of course when I moved to Berlin, I did not have any room anymore to practice my noise, drumming and guitar playing and so on.
So I bought an Atari computer and started to make electronic music actually. And I taught that myself to certain degree because then it was like in the mid-90's or something like that. And there I found it pretty difficult to find a good starting point for electronic music, because I didn't know many people in Berlin. So I just tinkered around with all that stuff. And I eventually found a very early version of Cubase, which what was called Steinberg 12. It was a very early version of Cubase, as I said, which ran on the Atari, right? So I started programming beats on the Atari, and synthy bass sounds and so on. But all the time, there's still this guitar-band-playing stuff in my mind, and I also missed it to a certain degree. And so I tried somehow to combine all these things. I do this whatever music I do - I'm really bad at just being a purist, because I just can't stand to just stick to a certain format, to stick to a certain style or something.
Darwin: Sure. I understand that. Let me ask a question. Going back to that statement, you said that growing up you had a room with where you could make a lot of noise and like you had a drum kit. It sounds to me like... I mean, was this something your parents set up for you?
Christian: Not at all - there was kind of really the anti- thing. My parents also hated it, you know, but it was like, like a youth center or something in that area. And basically a bunch of people that could use this room for creative things. Some people just hung out there. This wasn't this very South Germany at the border to Switzerland and very small town, it's called Lindau, which is, it's an island in a lake. It's very nice actually to be there. But, of course, if you're a young person, you're not so much interested in how nice the nature is - that comes later in the life. But you're more interested in like, I don't know, in influences and in absorbing all kinds of underground stuff and exploring whatever you consider as something which is more interesting than just ordinary smaller city life, so to speak.
Darwin: That makes sense. So now, when you moved to Berlin and you got the Atari and stuff... I'm curious to talk to people and find out when they made a switch. I know for myself if I - and occasionally I'll do this - if I go back and listen to things that I did long, long ago and there was a time where I was trying really hard to sound like somebody, I was trying to sound like certain jazz player or then I moved on and I was trying to sound like the band Talk Talk or whatever. Then all of a sudden something happened and the music switched and everything started to sound not like someone else's work but like my work. When I listened to your music it doesn't really sound like someone else's thing. It sounds like you have a voice and the things that you do carry that voice. When do you think that that happened for you?
Christian: Oh, that was super clear-cut actually. I mean, when I started making electronic music with the Atari, I was desperately trying to make breakbeat drum and bass sounds, because in the early/mid-nineties, that was really exciting to me because when I heard it for the first time, I was completely blown away by what kind of drum programming - or what, how does this happen? So I was completely mesmerized by the energy it had at this time, right? And then I tried to do this, to recreate this, spending nights on the drum roll editor to make this happen. And the first attempts were really bad, of course. Then I got better and I really realized how all this works, because there's also the process where you try to cover a certain artist or a certain genre because it's much easier to learn.
Then of course the technology and so on. But then there was a time where I was really understanding how this works. And I was also thinking this is leading me nowhere. It's not my music, actually, it's just music. I participate in a genre which I partly like and partly not like. But I really was interested more in what else can I do with the the whole thing. And so there was a clear switch, really, which was almost within a week or so. I would say that after this, after two and a half years or so of programming breakbeats, I was thinking "No, that it can't be it."" I mean, that's not what is fulfilling me for the rest of my life to program breakbeats.
So I want to have something where I can draw my own picture, where I can just walk around and take whatever image I have in mind or whatever feeling I want to culminate into music and, and to make this happen. The only way to get there is really to find whatever your own style, your own voice, your own technique and so on. To me that was quite soon made clear that just by closing your eyes, literally speaking and just doing it - without thinking about what would others say, does this fit to a certain job or does this fit into a certain niche or whatnot? I don't care. I just make things which make me happy. And if by coincidence others will like this stuff, then it's cool. But if others wouldn't like it, I still think I would continue doing that because the main reason to make music to me is not for others' sake, but just to express something where I don't have actually words for it.
Darwin: Right. It's all pure emotion instead of thoughtfulness. Well that's interesting that this break for you came out of a drum and bass because I would say that for me that was about the same thing. When I jumped into drum and bass and started playing around with what happened, you know, with manipulation of samples and really frantic programming. It was really an interesting technical puzzle. Once I sort of cracked the puzzle, then all of a sudden I realized that this isn't my voice. This is a voice of someone 5,000 miles away who really feels this stuff. And I don't feel this stuff in the same way
Christian: Exactly like me. And I think it's very functional in music. It has really clear principles and, as you say, if you solve the puzzle and you know the principles... of course you can lose yourself completely in this game of programming. And it's also very rewarding, but at the same time, it misses many, many other colors and you never get to these colors. So basically that's why I try to no use genres. But then I have the feeling that I might want to make a jazzy tune because this, this particular of way of music delivers a certain aspect which I enjoyed and I just integrate into my music as good as I can. But I'm not a jazz player, so...
Darwin: Right. I hear you. Yeah. so one of the things I'm curious about is when you're doing this stuff, how do you decide when the work is done? How do you decide when, "Alright - this sounds the way I wanted it to sound." Because again, when I listened to the music that's available to me, which is your current album on band camp and some of your older stuff on Spotify, there's some really beautiful music in there. But one of the things that I struggle with sometimes is deciding that a piece of work is done. How do you, since you have a lot of complexity but also a lot of variety in the work that you make, how do you decide when something's done?
Christian: That's a very good question. And there are some some points where I can never come to a decision - and of course then it will never be released. But since I see music as something like a short story or a snapshot, more or less, because I really enjoy finishing songs. I spoke with many other people who have problems finishing stuff because they keep on developing, they keep on making loops or sounds or fragments. What I really like is when everything comes together and falls into one place and you can just then somehow round it off and make it done. And what I find interesting that over the many years that I make music, I find it very hard to make really long pieces.
So when I started making or finding my own voice, the pieces were eight, 10 minutes long. And I just can't do it. So basically, nowadays, I can say everything I want to say - like this a desert song or a track - within like four to five minutes maximum.
Darwin: So I was going to actually ask you about that because I was looking at the track list of Shipbuilding and I noticed that every song is five minutes and 20 seconds (plus or minus 15 seconds) except for the first song. But everything is just like, like within this very short version of five minutes and 20 seconds.
Christian: I don't choose that - it just happens. So I don't know why, but as I said, I find it very difficult now to make eight minute pieces. I find it easier, of course, to make two minutes songs, which are kind of interludes or something like that. But I find it very difficult to make long, epic pieces because it has also to do with the fact that I naturally have the time available to make music that is somewhat limited. I mean, I worked full time and therefore I want to have a piece of music finished maybe within two days or something like that. So basically, if I start Saturday to work on a piece of music, I would love to have it finished by Sunday evening.
You know, because of the fact that I can listen to it during the week, it's also as simple as that, to some degree. Also, when I look back to certain music pieces to make revisions and to make some more adjustments or to make other parts different... every time I tried that, I fail. I mean that the way I work just happens within a certain timeframe. And if I don't get it done in this timeframe - well, I'll probably never finished this piece of music.
So I don't know. It's kind of a struggle between making it happen within a certain given time frame and of course beginning happy with what I have. And saying, "Well that's what I have and I'm happy with it." And of course they are always little details I want to change or the mix could be like that or this could be another sound or whatnot, but that's probably not so important in the end for me. Then when I'm happy with the overall atmosphere, the overall result, if that draws the picture what I want to draw then I'm happy.
Darwin: Well, I just respect your ability to call something complete. I find it really frustrating as soon as I get more than two minutes long, as soon as it's more than an interlude, my brain starts working overtime and telling me what I did wrong. Right? It's like, "Oh man, the mix is terrible." Or, "Oh, if you would've had a better bass or more active bass or less active bass or whatever." And I can talk myself into a swirl, so I really appreciate your ability to keep that in. For me, one of the things that I do to change that perspective as I do a lot of collaborations, and I know in the past that you've done some collaborations as well. There was a Thaddeus Herman, Herman and Kleine [release]. And you've produced peoples albums and stuff like that. Do you find working with a collaborator useful or, is it just too time consuming?
Christian: I find it useful, but it is too time consuming. I mean, that's really also like this... you saw my studio earlier. Of course it has a lot of equipment and I have to realize so much - so many things at the same time. So, I dunno, I bought a marimbaphone and I want to really record it excessively, but it's very difficult because it takes a lot of time and so on. But I totally enjoyed collaborating, but I also find that extremely time consuming. And I had very good and also bad experience with collaborators. So yeah, it's a time thing for me. If I would have the time, I would collaborate much more. I must also say that a priority is really for me to get my little short stories - AKA songs - done because that's what's most important for me.
The experience to have played in a band was very good for me because it was a completely different thing; because of course you're not so egomaniac and you can not only realize your own visions and dreams, but you have to hear and listen it's more like a conversation. But, yeah, in the end I just care about whatever is there is to listen to. And that can be a collaboration or solo work. But of course, as I said earlier, the collaborations take so much more time and I just can't afford it right now.
Darwin: Sure, that makes sense. So with your your most recent album, when did that come out? That was like in May, right?
Christian: It was end of May.
Darwin: What was the process that you went through? Did you make a large number of tracks and then pick your favorites, or did you have a plan that you wanted to approach and did you made 10 tracks specifically related to that plan? How did that process go
Christian: More or less? It was like this: the end of last year I knew that I had two weeks off during Christmas and I knew I would like to do nothing else but work on music. And also I knew that I would like to work not only with another plan for music, but to have a - not really a goal (that would be too far fetched) - but something like a sum of tracks which I can somehow use for a certain purpose, in this case the purpose was to make an album. And so I produced something like, within these two weeks, something like eight tracks. And then I had some time after and before that vacation time where I had some other tracks. So I just ended up with something like 14 tracks and 10 of them I just used for this album.
I find it always very hard to make a decision which track I use on an album and which I shouldn't use and what I do in order to find those; I make something like beta versions or whatever you might call them and I give them to close friends - or even not always close friends - also sometimes to random people I run into and just want to have their opinion. And it's very interesting what the feedback is from those hearings actually. And I take that as an influence to make the final decision which track I use on the album because, if I only have my own thinking, sometimes it's not right in the end because I'm too close to the whole thing. And it's very hard to get this distance, like the distant perspective because some tracks I'm really attached to and I want to really want to get them out into the open. But if they don't fit on the album for whatever reason, than it's really pointless to do it. And for example, on Real Ghosts, I have this very harsh guitar track, which almost sounds like Shellac or Big Black or something, right? That and many people are really not so happy about this track because all the time when it comes they completely shriek and..., I mean it wasn't deliberate decision by me, but just to point out that this is kind of an important thing.
Darwin: Right. So you actually use listeners is kind of a collaboration then as well?
Christian: True. Yes, I do.
Darwin: For those of you who are listening, Christian took me on a Skype tour of his little studio room and it is just awesome the amount of gear he has. But one of the things that, with the Shipbuilding album, it provides access to a Max for Live device that you created called a Tide Synthesizer. Did you use that in the making of the album?
Christian: Actually, no, I didn't, which might sound strange, but it was like this: the Tide Synthesizer was programmed after the tracks were finished. So, sure, I did the tracks first and the Tide synthesizer. And to me that was, you know, A) a nice gimmick, because I love to program these things. And B), it was just so right. It felt so right to just include it into the album as an add-on or something like that - as a bonus tracks, so to speak.
Darwin: I'm surprised that more people don't do this, especially people that are developing their own tools. I always thought that that would be an exceptional add-on for a release to be able to say, well, here's not only a view into the music that I make, but here's a view into the process that I use as well.
Christian: Right? I mean, either that or be it just as an... I don't know. I remember in the late nineties, there were some multimedia CDs which had, apart from music and the tracks, they had some video or some kind of program which did some nice things. And I always appreciated this because it was more value to what you have bought, somehow. And if you don't need it, well who cares? I don't care. And if somebody wants it, I mean probably some people bought my album because they wanted to have the synthesizer, which is of course a nice side effect. So, you tricked him into listening to your music! Probably they don't want to, but now they had to - well, they didn't have to. But I think it's just a nice gesture.
And I think also it could be, as you said, I was curious because there are not so many people doing that. And I think there are so many ways you can combine these things. I mean, of course there are so many people who are not interested in software but just want to have some music. And then there are others who are like interested in both and so on. But generally I think if you program Max stuff and so on, it's really nice to combine this with whatever other arts you're doing. Like, because I use a lot of Max for Live - or also Max - for making music. I mean lots of granular effects and these kinds of things. I like to use and program them myself for my music.
But I don't make a secret out of that. I mean, when I play life, for example, I love to show whatever I have on my screen to the public because I'm just not interested in keeping that secret. Because people are always interested in what you do and how you do it. And, of course, I don't explain everything in detail, but I just make it available to see so that people can see the process. It's like a piano player where I can see the piano and the keys moving and the piano player does not hide this usually from the public. You can just look at it and you can ask him afterwards probably about some details. If he's willing to answer that, sure. But you have the same interest. I see it.
Darwin: That's an interesting perspective, because, you know, initially when people were using laptops on gigs, they would kind of hide what they're doing because they didn't necessarily want to give away the fact they were using a sequencer or something. And people fairly quickly made the assumption that, "Oh, they're just checking their email and playing back a music track." This sounds like what some people do, but this sounds like an interesting alternative to that, which is instead of like either hiding the computer or, or using it for some kind of visual process, you just literally say, "Hey, I'll let you look over my shoulders while I'm working by letting you see what it is that I'm working with." That's a really interesting approach. So I'm talking about the Tide Synthesizer actually allows us to talk a little bit about some of your other work with Max for Live. You are the person - the very large brain - behind the creation of all of the drum synthesis tools that that came out with [Ableton] Live 9 suite, correct?
Christian: Correct. And some of the modulation devices, it was like, I don't know, Envelope, MIDI LFO, LFO. Of course we were like a team and we created them on a team basis, but a bunch of those I did on my own. The drums I did almost completely on my own with, of course, help from people. But it was mainly my brainchild. It started actually out because I always am very interested in Synthetic Drums. So it started out as I wanted to make an analog Impulse, like one device, which made eight sounds something similar to what you have in Pluggo, but a bit more advanced. But then immediately my colleagues said, well, just make individual cells, because then you can combine it in a drum rack. So this whole project started. And I was really deep into drums synthesis to a certain degree, which was kind of interesting.
Darwin: So what kind of synthetic drum tools have you used in the past? For myself, I went through a period where not only did I have a standard analog drum machines, like the 808, and the CR-78, but I also went out and I bought a lot of drum brains. I had like the brain part of a Simmons Drum, and Pearl made one. I actually had a number of different Simmons units and I had the old Tama series. I really loved those things. But they kind of hard to interface with anything.
Christian: Yeah, sure. I mean, same here actually. I also, I have an SDS-7 from Simmons, which is really interesting. Beautiful. And then the Syncussion from Pearl, which is really, really nice. And then of course a bunch of drum computers, the analog drum computers. I will say that many of these things I somehow learn to program on the Nord Modular, actually. Because there, it was pretty easy to make these kinds of sounds because they just have ready-made modules for it. So that was kind of a starting point in the early days. Actually, the early Nord Modular for this kind of stuff. But I really thought that this is kind of missing in Ableton. I mean they, you can program with any synthesizer [to make] drum sounds.
And there's Operator, which you can use to program drums sounds. But that takes a lot of time. And if you change one parameter you end up with just a wide farting sound, white noise fart sounds or something like that. So that was kind of the reason why I wanted to have a dedicated drum synth module in Ableton Live and Max for Live. And I'm quite happy with the result. And we all learned a lot on the way about... it's was a big project because this are certain instruments actually. And if you stick them all into one track and to one drum rack, it's takes up a little bit of CPU. And when I started it, it was really bad - and now it's really good. So a lot of effort was made to make this really nicely working and now you can really work with that stuff. And also if you attach a drum kit to it, and you play it as a drum like a Simmons - that you can do. Because it's also a lot of fun, actually. And I did do that and [it was a] really nice project.
Darwin: Okay. So, before we go further on that track, I have to say another thing that the listeners won't actually see that I'm looking at right now is your avatar on Skype, which is a really large bear playing drums. Is there a story behind that?
Christian: I will say there's no story behind that. It's just a random picture I found on my completely messed up computer desktop.
Darwin: Yeah. Well I have to tell you that if there is, if you have a picture of a bear behind a drum kit and there's not a story behind it, that's almost as scary as if you had a real story about that.
Christian: I don't know. I just, I mean, I don't know. Most people have their own picture on Skype like you do, but you have also the kind of a white on white picture. And I don't know, it was really just a coincidence that I find this picture.
Darwin: Okay, because I saw that, so I thought maybe you were like part of a band that had to dress up like animals or something and I was sure there was going to be a great story behind that.
Christian: Yeah, yeah. Could be. Maybe I forgot about it!
Darwin: There you go. So getting back to Max for Live - to that development, would you say that working with the Nord Modular was actually a precursor to working with Max? Did you use that before you started getting into Max?
Christian: No, I didn't. I started with Max actually pretty early, like something like early 1999 or something like that. And I tried out, before that. I tried the early Native [Instruments] stuff. It was Generator before it was Reaktor
Darwin: Generator, yes.
Christian: Yeah, exactly. And I tried a Supercollider diversion. And so on. But then I came to Max just because it was really nice and I found it super interesting. And, all these... I mean the early stuff was to make crazy FM sounds. So that was kind of how I started to work with Max and, in those days I was just beginning learning Max and so on. Also just with the purpose to make my own effects and stuff too, to add to my music. Actually to add as an individual note to my personal music, that was the main purpose for me to learn that. And but it took me quite a while and in those days I was not really able to make it convincing bass drums or something like that. It was too hard for me, and the Nord Modular, I mean, as I said, it has these ready-made modules and for these kinds of things, it was super easy to make. And, of course Max has offered many more possibilities, but you have to learn to deal with those.
Darwin: Well, and at the time in the 1990's or 2000's the speed of computers was such that you wouldn't have been able to generate an awful lot of sound out of MSP in comparison to a Nord modular.
Christian: Exactly. I mean this had this DSP thing inside and I mean, they did nothing else and you always had to do, with the computer, other things like running your DAW, and stuff like that. So that's very true. So it wasn't really a precursor, but it was kind of also to learn basic principles of synthesis was really a very, very nice system, the Nord Modular system.
Darwin: I have to admit that I kind of miss it being part of the landscape. I wish that they had continued with that because I thought it was a really powerful, a powerful paradigm. And it was different from what everyone else was doing. And so I thought it was interesting.
Christian: I agree. Yeah. I mean there was nothing like it, actually, as far as I remember. Of course there were things like Creamware, so, but they A) too expensive, and B) too alien or something.
Darwin: Yeah. I had some really bad experiences with the Creamware stuff, so, I did not get along with it very well, unfortunately. So where do you think you're going to be taking stuff in the future? Are you already planning another release or was that a big shot and you're going to take a break? What do you think? What's on the horizon for you?
Christian: The next thing, which is actually in the making, is something which leads us back again to the 1999-2000 years. I'm releasing some unreleased stuff, which I just take through all my dad's tapes - and I have tons of those tape. I found many, many really nice tracks which I never released because they didn't fit onto the first hour, went to second, but they are looking back and hearing them now again after 10 or 12 of 13 years, I think they're really, really nice. So I released them like in November on my Bandcamp thing because I completely believe in this Do It Yourself approach. I don't use music labels anymore. I though I would like to have, of course, a vinyl record because I'm total, I know lover. But I'm still, I completely think that Bandcamp and things like that are really nice.
Of course you have to make a lot of promotion work in order to get yourself somehow heard in these very noisy times. So yeah, that's the next project. And then of course, I have some new material which I composed during the summer, but I don't think I would release that this year. So it will be something like, I don't know, early next year, maybe March or something where I will have another LP ready. Hopefully - they're not sure yet - but at least an EP, which is also nice. But, yeah, I mean I'm more or less productive because I'm really disciplined. So every weekend I really spend producing music; not only producing music but really writing songs actually. And I really enjoy writing songs more; that's why I don't have a modular system, a pure modular system, because it just would keep me from really writing music!
Darwin: Oh, we're good. We're going to get you, don't worry. We're going to get you for sure.
Christian: That's why I have semi-modulars.
Darwin: Right. I mean there is, there is something with a modular system that, the joy of patching is so great that actually taking that material and turning it into song is somehow, unsatisfying in comparison to just making a new patch. And that's my fear and that's why it's a good fear to have, frankly. And as far as programming, have you been doing anything particular or peculiar with Max for Live development that we might be able to see?
Christian: Also yes. Some new approaches in how you can control things in Ableton, for example, some kind of gesture device which uses gestures in order to translate them into control data, which is kind of fun and interesting to use. And then, of course, I'm really into these crazy pitch, shifting, noisy, whatever effects, which just make strange sounds, I'm really into whatever other worlds and strange science you can somehow produce. Cause that always keeps my imagination to a certain level and I need that somehow.
So, yeah. I have a bunch of those devices ready. Actually what I need to have... I mean I'm reluctant a little bit to just throw them on maxforlive.com because, I want also to kind of promote them, not for money or so, but... to maybe draw again attention to my music a little bit in the world because, I think as a single doing it yourself releasing artists more or less hard to get attention in the media. I was actually in magazines and stuff, so if you have something to carry that which is software or something else - or be it a good story or whatnot - it's way easier. So I'm kind of using that as a vehicle or a Trojan horse.
Darwin: Oh, it makes sense. It makes perfect sense. Well Christian, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate you talking to me. This was really fun. It's really interesting to see how much of our background actually aligns. I'm always interested to hear that as well. Any last words?
Christian: Ah, last words. No last words.
Darwin: It's interesting. Almost everyone I ask when I say any last words, they're like, "No." So there you go. Another chalkmark on the blackboard. All right. Thanks a lot. I really appreciate it. Have a great day.
Copyright 2013-2019 by Darwin Grosse. All right reserved.