Transcription: 0342 - Stefan Betke (POLE)

Released: November 8, 2020

Darwin: All right. Today, I have the great pleasure of speaking to someone for whom I'm a great fan. His name is Stefan Betke, and he is most widely known as the artist named Pole. He's got an album coming out. Mute Records reached out to me, asked me if I wanted to do an interview with Stefan. I just about fell over saying "Yes!" I wanted to have a chat. And so that is what we get today. So with no further ado, let me say hello to Stefan. Hey man, how's it going?

Stefan Betke: Hello. I'm doing really good. Sitting in Berlin and being excited to talk to you.

Darwin: Well, and believe me, I am very excited to talk to you as well. So you have a new album coming out. Congratulations and thank you. The album is called Fading, and it is out as of November 6th. Why don't you tell us a little bit about the development of this album and why you decided to put out an album now?

Stefan: Why I decided to put an album out now is because I usually take between five and seven years to make a new one. I'm a very, very slow worker. And the five years are over, or nearly six, when it comes out, actually. That is the first thing. And how I came to this album is kind of... First of all, it is the same procedure as always. After making an album like the last one, Wald, then I go playing live shows for certain time. And then after a while, I get head space back and time back to go into the studio again and design something new.

In this case, it took a little bit long, but I just started over doing something and in... Especially with this Fading album, it was a very specific situation, because I moved studio. I had a new room existing, which I had to learn. And I was really excited to go into this new workspace. First of all times in my musical work with a view out of a proper window. And that was really, really lovely. And I enjoyed sitting just in there and say, "Okay, here I want to work."

Darwin: Yeah, I have to admit that very seldom do I even think about the space that I'm working from, except for a while I lived up in the mountains of Colorado. And the place where I worked looked out onto a mountainside. And the quality of my work changed because my environment changed, and it was a very particular change in my own attitude, I guess, which just translated into the music. So that makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense.

Now, in the notes that I got from Mute, it gave some background to your development of the album. And one of the things you talk about is the name Fading representing a connection to memory and the memory of the print that people leave on the world, right?

Stefan: Yeah. Yeah. While I was trying to set up my new studio and doing new work in there, this is kind of like a side story. So it's not the main reason why I made this album, but it was influencing the beginning of this album. My mom got dementia... which is... It's an interesting disease actually, because you see somebody, or if you look at the lifespan of somebody, you get born with kind of like a naive, empty brain or box, you can say.

And then you have to fill that up during your lifetime with knowledge, information, whatever gets into this hard drive in your head. And then if you get this disease, you start losing all this information again, and you kind of... It looks from the outside perspective, it looks a little bit like everything is fading away, and only the very early memories of your lifespan stay in there and that made me... It was not the reason why I made this album. Fading is not supposed to be a self-healing album to get over the death of my mom or whatever.

It was more like I found it interesting. You created something and you built something up, and in the worst case, you're going to lose it again during a full lifespan. And Fading is this fading out of memory, fading away of things, and only the most important parts that you have in your head might stay. That was kind of like the inspiration for this album, without being, as I say, it's not the memorial for my mom.

Darwin: Right, right. Understood. But it does seem to echo a number of different things. This story of your mother and dementia, that is one aspect of it. It also though seems to have a connection to the original trilogy of your Pole work, the albums 1, 2 and 3, because those were just released in a 20th anniversary edition. And so there was that, and now a subsequent album.

And in it, you mentioned this again in the notes, but as I listened to it, I was really taken by your occasional use of the vocabulary of 1, 2 and 3 as sort of a call-out. And to me, it had kind of a visceral response in that it felt familiar and new at the same time. It was interesting to me to see how you just very carefully wove that in in a few places.

Stefan: One of the ideas was with Fading and the idea of lifespan, keeping that as kind of like an umbrella over the whole album. Drifting, for example, the first title on the album in the original was called Drifting/Lifespan.

I wanted actually to reconnect to my own history in certain parts without repeating it. And that was the most complicated part for me. I wanted to connect to it and allow little bits and pieces to pop through Fading that refers to the trilogy, but as well, as always, and you mentioned it before, developing my own vocabulary in my musical language.

Usually I try to develop the vocabulary and try to go the next step and not really focusing on what I did before. It wasn't necessary to have a reference to this kind of recordings before. But here in this case, I thought it is worth reconnecting to it and in a very subtle way, bring it back in. If it worked, I would be happy.

Darwin: Oh, well I think it works phenomenally. Each listener will have their own connection to that. But from my perspective, it was great because it made it feel like it had a connection to those things. And again, especially since there was a recent re-release, it kind of had brought the 1/2/3 trilogy back into focus for me anyway. And so that was still relatively fresh in my experience. And having this come and just sort of make slight echoes to it, was really powerful and really effective. I thought that worked really, really fantastically.

Now you talk about a song, a track, like Drifting is kind of like describing your own history. One of the things I like doing in my podcast is talking to people about their personal history and their background and how they got to be the artists that they are.

And I'm just wondering, what's your story? How did you get where you are today? I mean, one of the things we didn't even mention that we, hopefully, are going to talk about is that you're a very dedicated mastering engineer. You've been doing that for a long, long time. Your musical work is heavily influenced by dub. It's got these glitch tastes to it, but it's also very sound-designerly, right? There's a lot of sound design that's woven into the creation of your compositions. And so there's sort of like this really interesting milieu of interests and capabilities that are you. And I'm wondering where that came from. What is it that got you there?

Stefan: I try to keep a long story short. I got musically socialized in the early '80s. I listened a lot to music like New York avant-garde jazz, Drone Zone, Arto Lindsey, Fred Frith, these kind of people. I listened a lot to experimental stuff and I was playing in bands as a normal keyboard player for a long time, trying to make this kind of avant-garde jazz stuff. And then I developed, or I got into all this hip-hop development end of the '80s, early '90s that influenced my work a lot as well. And playing in bands for such a long time and being the keyboardist in bands and, for a short time as well, an MC in my hip-hop projects and all this, turned me into something like, okay... I found out about the 808. I found out about sample technology. I found out about Minimoogs and synthesizer technology more than just playing a Fender Rhodes e-piano, an organ or something like this.

And I thought like, okay, my role in synthesizer doesn't actually really complain about what I'm doing that much as my guitar player, Christian, did every day. He was more friendly to me actually. And I started music as well. And I was really into jazz and classic and all this kind of stuff. And one day, end of '80s, I think it was '89 or '90 or something, I was still in Dusseldorf with the background of Kraftwerk and DAF and all the people that were in Dusseldorf during that time.

I simply decided, okay, you can stay playing in the band. It's easier to get girlfriends if you play in the band than if you are solo artist. But at the same time, I started making music my own and compose stuff my own. And then it was kind of like a hybrid. For a few years, it was I composed everything on my synthesizers and we tried to play it with the band. And it took me a while to understand it is surely not necessary to compose on a computer or on a synthesizer or a sampler and reproduce it with a band. You can do it with the electronic equipment that you have available.

So it took me a few years to understand that. But then beginning of the '90s, I suddenly had that in my hat. And aside being really shy, going onstage on my own with just a Minimoog and an 808 and a sampler. I mean, sampler technology back in the days it hasn't... Hit about maybe 20, 30 second sample time or something. You couldn't do much about it. Right?

Other bands used tape machines on stage. Now, it must be possible that I do it just on my own, not simulating a band with a tape or whatever. And I think, looking back to these days, this was the time when I decided to... A track has to work with most minimal amount of elements in it. If it doesn't work then, and if I can't play it myself, then it is not well-composed. I don't know who it was, maybe it was Bob Dylan or something. Somebody mentioned back in the days that if you can't play a good song on just acoustic guitar, it's not a good song.

So this reduction became really important for me.

Darwin: That is interesting. The one thing that doesn't connect for me is... So you have this background, and I can understand where once you start working with the technology, you have a lot of fairly open doors. You can go down a hip-hop path or a techno-y path or something like that.

But particularly your use of dub flavors, right? The way that your bass lines work, the way that you have kind of the hypnotic rhythms and stuff like that. Where did you get keyed into that as a sound? Because a lot of your sound design and a lot of the either melodic or harmonic elements, they make sense coming from an avant-garde background. But where did the dub influence come from?

Stefan: Actually, I got aware of the dub influence much, much later. I got aware of this much later. In the beginning, I didn't listen to dub at all. I was really mostly into jazz and avant-garde jazz and hip-hop. But I was always absolutely into bass frequencies, because in my understanding the bass part is the fundamental architectural part in music at all.

I mean, if you talk about house or techno or hip hop or whatever, you always have this structure: bass, then the middle range, snare and chords, and then the top range, cymbals, high hats, whatever you talk about, boom. So this structure is always exactly the same, but in different genres, you use these elements in different functionality. I mean, that comes out of the musical history in general. If composers wanted to simulate a singing bird, they would never use an upright bass to do that, because a singing bird is not like an upright bass, right?

So they use a flute. So the functionality was predesigned. Yeah? It was there. It was manifested like this. And my idea was, okay, what is the most important part if you are not interested in a normal pop song structure, like intro, verses, chorus, verse, chorus, outro, done. Yeah? And melodies? What is then the most important part? The most important part is then a basement you can stand on, then something that creates the atmosphere that you would like to represent in the track. And then you have to do something around it that holds it all together for eight minutes.

So it's the same idea as in techno, it's just the idea that I didn't want to become a techno artist.

Darwin: Right. Right.

Stefan: And then my history drops in again. Yeah? So I was more on the jazz side. And if you listen to the blue album, there are a lot of jazz chords in it or on the yellow one, there are a lot of jazz chords, but they are so stripped down, the melody is never, ever fulfilled. It's enough to just point into the direction, then you can hear it.

Darwin: Yeah. Well, where I notice it especially is your use of the fourth interval and how you do that jazz thing of stacking fourths to make really complex chords out of simple elements. And it's really effective, but it also is largely effective because you have that foundational bass that just so much locks a groove in, that you can throw these complexities in and it's more of a spice than something that has to try and hold the whole track together.

Stefan: That is the dub element. I never tried to make reggae or original dub tracks. I used the method of dub. And what is the method of dub? The method of dub is the idea to use something which is coming out of whatever genre to reduce it to the key elements. And leave these key elements running as long as possible. And in dub music, the bass part and the rhythm is the most important element ever. If that rolls and if that is funky and groovy, it leaves enough space all over the whole thing to do whatever you want. And you can put a reggae chord on it. You can put a singer on it, but you can do as well a jazz chord on it. Why not?

And that is what happened after a while in my compositions, even though I only understood that in around '96 or something, when I started working at Dubplates and Mastering here in Berlin, when one of the guys there said, do you know that you're really dubby on this? And I was like, what do you mean dubby on this?

Stefan: And they say "You are close to making dub music." And I was like, "I never really heard it." I'm aware of The Clash and all this, Bob Marley, of course, all the successful artists I was knowing, but I never heard of Scientist or whatever. I was not really into that. Yeah. And then from '96 on, I started learning about this and listening a lot and then I understood. Yeah, it's true. But what drove me there is I think simply the same idea. Create a basement where you can put other things on top with not interfering, but they work together.

That was my hope.

Darwin: Well, and then also this idea, and I think it's actually very rare in people doing electronic music to be doing things that have, that have that song-like thing of being able to be pared down. It's really significant if I listened to a lot of current, either dubstep type music or trap music or whatever, it seems crammed full of stuff. It reminds me of, say, a birthday cake that has all frosting and all candles, but there's not actually very much cake in it.

Stefan: I hear you.

Darwin: Yeah. And so I really appreciate that. Now, when you're actually developing a track, how do you start? Because when I listened to your music, the melodic line that's made up of the bass seems so important, except also the rhythmic character seems so important, but also the sound designs of those special things and the timing seems important. And for me, it's hard to even imagine how you get started on a track.

Stefan: To be honest, I have no idea how I do that.

Darwin: Oh, really?

Stefan: It's a little bit over-judgement. It's always slightly different. Sometimes it can really be a rhythmical structure that I hear in my studio by accident.

Accidents are a big factor in how I work. I have everything running, I do something, I reconnect a cable or whatever, and suddenly something happens. And I hear something in the background where like, okay, this might be interesting to put the chord like this on top of it. Or sometimes I'm just playing around on my keyboards and have a chord first, put a delay on it and the reverb and try to position it in the room a little bit. And then I hear something. And then I said, if I now do rhythmical part that focuses on this one, that might be helpful.

But in general, it is in 99% of the cases in my production time, the case that I do delete what I did in the first roll. So while I'm working on stuff and adding stuff on the mixing board, it gets complex and more and more and more. And then at a certain point, I'm like, now the kick drum, leave that out. Now the snare, we don't need this anymore. The delay on this chord is too much. It's enough if it's just a flanger or something like this. So it is a back and forth permanently. And maybe that's the reason why I need so much fucking time to actually really get ready.

Darwin: Well, yeah. But that actually makes a lot of sense, because really to have that subtractive element to your music, you have to spend the time to generate a lot of stuff. You generate a lot of stuff just so you can decide what you don't need. Right?

Stefan: That's true. Yeah, I think I said that in earlier interviews as well. The most intense work for me is to find the elements which are necessary to keep a loop running. Doesn't matter if it's a eight bar or 16 or 64 bar loop and make the right decision to throw things away, which are just filling up but don't have a real function in it. That's the most complicated part for me.

I rather go and say like, okay, I like this chord or this melody or whatever I put on there and I keep it in memory to start a new track with this, instead of just saying like, "Oh, this gives another twist to the track. I leave it there, blah, blah, blah." And then it gets fuller and fuller and fuller.

I always believed in the idea, if it doesn't work with eight tracks on the mixing board, it will never work. And I have a lot of tracks where I actually really go back and redo it, redo it, redo it and change this and that. And you never get any better. It's just a different version, but it's not a better version. Either it goes or it doesn't go.

Darwin: A well-known story is that a lot of your early sound came from you dropping a Waldorf 4-Pole Filter and it kind of hissing and crackling, and that became a signature part of your sound. And I'm curious, again, kind of like delving into your background, but how you think... When that happens to me, when I get a piece of gear and it stops working right, all I can do is obsess about how this thing is broken. I have to take it out of the stream because it's messed up. How did you allow yourself to basically say this is a weird sound and I'm going to embrace it? Was there something sonically that actually was really speaking to you or did it... I don't know. How did you just not immediately reject that?

Stefan: Basically this is the idea that I said before as well. Accidents are a very important element in my work. Something which is not foreseeable. I always used all my equipment without reading the manual. Turning it on, see what it does. And then only if you get really into trouble, then I started reading the manual, how to save a song, sound or whatever. Make a sound was always intuitive.

When, when I got this broken filter, it was connected to my mixing board. First of all I thought yeah, okay, shit, it's not working. It does weird stuff. Leave it there. And then I forgot about it. And I was working on rhythmical parts with my 808 and other rhythm machines. And then by accident, I un-muted the channel where this machine was connected to. And I heard it and I thought like, "Fuck, this is much better than every rhythmical thing I programmed in my 808." It does it so perfectly. It was just working with what I had on the other channels.

And I think Brian Eno said something else in his diary that it is so important to listen to what is not intended to see if there's a bigger image in it. That is what I heard when I un-muted this channel. I was like, this is much bigger than every 808 programming that I can do here. And from there on, I was like, "Okay, play with this machine and leave the rhythm machine out." That was the beginning. It was simple as that.

Darwin: That's interesting because it is a sound that kind of permeates the history of your work. But again, not in necessarily a slavish way. I mean, in some cases, people who sort of self-identified as glitch artists, the glitch became the work. In your case, I always felt like the music was really the heart of the work. And that was just part of the sonic flavor that you had chosen for yourself. And I thought it was really great. Now, one thing you do perform a fair amount, right?

Stefan: Right.

Darwin: Do you take new tracks and try them out in performance? Do you test drive your work or is it always something that you kind of mold before you're willing to take it out and share it?

Stefan: Yes. I'm mainly producing albums, which are following a conceptual idea. I barely test any tracks in clubs before or in concert situations just to play it in between my oldest stuff or whatever, because very often they would not fit sonically to the other stuff which I did before and musically, even less than sonically actually.

What I do is, I finish the conceptual work and then I say that, okay, this is what I would like to perform. And then I prepare live sets. And then very often I go into a club in Berlin or whatever, and rent it for half a day and give it a try there. Yes. But I always jump into the cold water and play it in front of the audience. And if it works, it works. If not, if not. So I would never perform a track without knowing it is worth being performed. So the most negative part that can happen is that I play it wrong, but it would be still the same track. So even me, I get better from time to time I play it.

Darwin: Well that makes me wonder then too, a lot of people that are in your position, when they're asked to perform, do maybe an augmented DJ'ing. They'll kind of play along with their tracks. But given your background, given what you talked about doing your one man, obsessive electronic music work back in Dusseldorf, what does your live performance look like now? How do you perform in a way that is performative without just pressing "Play"?

Stefan: Well, it is kind of still exactly the same as it always was. Back in the days, I had maybe two synthesizers with me or three synthesizers and two effect units and 16-channel mixing boards where everything was connected to. And I was playing with sequences and every synthesizer played the sequence back that I wanted it to play. And I did the overdubbing on the mixing board.

So basically I created the space live on the mixing board while the sequencers were playing the synthesizers. Now, the only difference nowadays is basically that we don't have to carry around heavy synthesizers anymore and sequencers, we can have that in the computer.

But it's still the same thing. I have a bunch of effect units. I have a 16-channel mixing board and I have two audio interfaces with 16 outs. And I run everything in the mixing board and I do it in "the dub way". Everything is playing same time and I decide what comes through and what not. And if a delay comes on top of it or not, and then sometimes if it's the right location, I have a little keyboard with me where I can overdub and play chords on top of it. So the method is still exactly the same, just the footage comes now from the computer instead of the synthesizers.

Darwin: Instead of from synthesizers, right. Well, it probably is also easier then to save and switch stuff. I mean, I come from a background where I was doing live electronic music back in the days where you'd have to like take a floppy disc and switch floppies and stuff like that. It was a little ugly trying to pull off a gig that way, so I can imagine this is a lot more convenient.

Now, I love hearing that you work the mixing board in that dub style. That's really cool. You said you came to dub music sort of late, and I hate to obsess about it, except I'm just fascinated by people who take on a stylistic thing like that. Subsequent to that, you say that you studied the dub world and started listening to it more. Who were some of the dub artists that you found most interesting or that you could learn from the most?

Stefan: Ah, there are so many. So it's really tough to say. I mean, I think when I got aware of the fact that my music is dub-influenced for some reason, with knowledge or without knowledge, or it was connected to dub, as far as I remember the first biggest influences were people like Prince Far I or Scientist. I was really, really inspired by the very early work of Lee Perry with the seven inches that he released, all these weird skank stuff that he did. Later on, I turned a bit more into the dance hall direction as well, but that was not really that often so inspiring. It was too one-dimensional, functional. It was made for the dance floor.

Darwin: It was made for a specific thing. Right. Yeah.

Stefan: Yeah. And I was always interested in the space that certain people were able to create. Augustus Pablo, for example. What he did with just a super simple beat structure and just playing the melodica on top of it. That was mind blowing. I mean, most people would not even be able to listen to these kind of records because they are so simple, but they are not minimal. Certainly a big difference. It's not minimal music. It is simple music, but very effective.

Darwin: That's an interesting identifier you put there, because I think a lot of people, when you talk about your process of taking things out until you get to the focused pieces that have to be there, most people then immediately jumped to the idea that's minimalist. That a minimalist aesthetic, but I don't think of your work as being minimalist at all. And so it's interesting that there is that comparison with... I loved some of the Augustus Pablo stuff. But that's a great touch point as something that is not minimalist, but is maybe like highly focused or I don't know, I don't know what the right word is, but I see what you're saying.

Stefan: I think highly focused is the right word for it, but how can you get highly focused to a point? The only way to get to the possibility to focus on something is if you take everything out of the way that blocks the perspective.

But minimalism is a totally different discussion. Minimalism just leaves out everything and just works with one thing. And there are, even in minimalism, there are totally big differences. If you talk about John Cage or whatever, it is a different minimalism than if you talk about minimal techno.

We should learn, again, to be very precise with the genre names that we, that we put on. I mean, nowadays everything is electronic music, right? Because I mean, you are recording through a microphone. This is an electronic interview. The microphone is electronic driven. I use electronic instruments. Yes. But I'm way beyond being only electronic music, even though I use electronic equipment. Jimi Hendrix, was he in electronic artists only because he used the electric guitar? You see what I mean?

Darwin: I do. Yeah. Right.

Stefan: And then coming back to the point where you want to focus on, take everything out, the names, the description, everything, and just point to the focus and say this is what I would like to express. And then we can say simplicity is the way to reach that point, in my case, how I work. Yeah. Every artist is totally different.

Darwin: Amazing and really thought-provoking. That's got my brains churning, so that's awesome. Thank you. Well, unfortunately our time is up, but before I let you go, first of all, again, the album is Fading. It's out on Mute Records, available as of November 6th. And then I don't know... My understanding is that the 20th anniversary edition of the vinyl of 1, 2 and 3 is long sold out. But I think you still can get digital versions of that easily enough. For people who want to follow your every five or six year release schedule, what is your home base for information?

Stefan: Mute is a very connected label that I work with for long time. Mute publishing as well. My own websites, my Bandcamp account, you can easily get information. But if people are interested and would like to follow me directly, it's best to go to the Pole artist site (https://pole-music.com/) or the label site or whatever. There are really tons of possibilities, but I'm already working on a follow-up 12-inch to the album, with Mute. And I hope that I can get a little bit faster during the corona times because I'm not traveling at all.

Darwin: Yeah, right. Sure. Of course, of course.

Stefan: So I'm trying to catch up with new things and yeah, my Pole websites or the Scape mastering website or whatever, it's pretty easy to find me. But if you type in Pole, don't be surprised to get about 50 links to pole dances and then I pop up.

Darwin: Okay, well, I'll make sure that I don't have the kids in the room when I'm... Awesome. Well, Stefan, I want to thank you so much for the time. Thank you so much for that call.

Stefan: Thank you so much.

Darwin: All right. So with that though, we will say goodbye to the listeners. Thank you.

Stefan: Goodbye. Thanks a lot.

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