After-dark inquiry: Monolake

The electronic-music master performs at the Unsound Festival.



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Robert Henke

Robert Henke Photograph: Robert Henke

Berlin’s Robert Henke is something of an electronic-music polymath: He’s a veteran composer, software developer (of the now-ubiquitous Ableton Live), installation artist and sound designer, among other job titles. But he’s best known for his sweeping, unearthly and transcendent work as Monolake, under which name he’s just released a new album of dark-hued cuts called Ghosts. Henke will perform as Monolake for the Unsound Festival at the Bunker on Friday, April 20.

The press release for Ghosts refers to your previous album, 2010’s Silence, as a comeback record. I’m guessing that you don’t think of it in quite that way.
No, actually, I didn’t think about it that way at all. I never felt that I wasn’t here. But I can see that since I stopped release 12-inches in between my albums, it may have felt like there was something and then there was nothing. Both Silence and Ghosts are part of a bigger picture that I have in mind, which will hopefully at some point reveal itself.

Those are the first two entries in a trilogy, correct? Is there a thematic connection between Silence, Ghosts and your next album, Escape?
Absolutely. The story is that I started writing a science-fiction story. It’s something that I started on three or four years ago in a very fragmentary way, and its been growing from something small into something big into something bigger. When I made Silence, I wasn’t yet aware I was doing a trilogy, but I included a short fragment I had written with the album, to help set the mood. Then, when I was working on Ghosts, I was also working on another fragment, and I realized that, hey, these two fragments kind of work together. So I came up with the idea to connect those two fragments, and I realized that this could end up being a nice big thing. So my plan for the future is to release the last part of the trilogy and also—maybe, if it works out the way I want it to—release the whole long story. Ideally it would be a three-CD box set, plus a huge booklet—and if that’s too expensive, I will simply publish the whole story online.

The text that accompanies Ghosts, which includes lines such as “How I hate those dirty little flies,” seems a bit more ominous than the text that accompanies Silence, and the albums’ artwork reflects that as well. Were you consciously aiming for a darker feel on this one?
Yes, that’s certainly intentional. And this all fits in with what I would like to do with the third one as well. I have the feeling that the trilogy will end up in a much more cozy place, actually. Much more mellow, probably, but with a few disturbing elements, which can be seen as reflections from the past. Silence is a very fractured record, but very atmospheric; Ghosts is a very machine-driven thing. The title doesn’t refer to the white kind of ghosts, but to the ghosts in the machines.

Some of the song titles on Ghosts—“Unstable Matter,” “Afterglow,” Discontinuity” and “The Existence of Time,” to name a few—seem to refer to physics, or even metaphysics.
Exactly. Those are the kinds of topics that I wanted to play around with on this record.

But having said that, a few of the tracks are actually quite clubby. The title track, for instance, is almost a straight-up drum ’n’ bass cut, albeit a gloomy one.
I know! I don’t know how that happened, really. That’s a very personal track for me; I was in a very bad situation with a lot of anger involved, and I somehow managed to transform this anger into a really dark track. I never thought about it as a club track, or a track that would work when played loud. But then I played it for a friend of mine, and he was completely amazed. “I need this on a dubplate right away,” he said. “I want to play this!” I asked, “Are you sure?” I mean, the tempo is neither techno nor dubstep.… How are you going to mix it? He said, “I don’t care about the tempo. I just want to play it.”

You can definitely tell it comes from an angry place—it includes a repeated sample of a processed voice saying, “You do not exist anymore.”
Which I added at the very, very last moment. I was rolling it around in my head for awhile, but I thought I should not do this—adding those kinds of texts can go terribly wrong. It can easily turn into a classic cliché. But then I tried it; I added those vocals and told myself, “I will listen to this in a week and decide.” Obviously, I found it to be okay.

How do you know when a piece is done?
It depends very much on the piece itself. Sometimes the core of a piece will be done in a very short time; that was the case with “Ghosts” and also with “Discontinuity.” They both got worked out in one afternoon, and the rest was just tinkering for a week. But there were other tracks that I was working on forever. I’ve found that the tracks where the essence was finished very quickly are better than a track that takes forever, where I’m changing it and changing it. Ralf Hütter from Kraftwerk said, “A track is finished when we don’t feel we can add anything.” It’s true: If you are in a studio, and you find that you are adding layers and it doesn’t sound any better, it’s finished. Then the only question is: Is it good or is it bad?

Which is a whole different issue.
Exactly. For a lot of people, the working method is simply to finish tracks and not to judge them. You end up with this huge pool of tracks, and afterwards you decide which ones are good. I’m trying to employ that method more and more myself—just quickly make things, explore a lot of different ideas, and if something doesn’t work out, just move on.

So 50 years from now, when someone is working on the big Monolake box-set retrospective, they’ll have lots of unreleased tracks to dig through.
Which, from an historical perspective, is quite acceptable. Of course, in retrospectives, your perspective changes. You can start liking things that you didn’t like when they first were made; you can acknowledge that they have elements that are nice. I guess it depends on how you present your own work. If you present it as, “This is the best thing the music world has ever seen,” then the expectations will be very high. If you present it as, “Here’s some music that I was playing in Barcelona in 1995 when I was completely wasted,” then it doesn’t matter so much.

Do you judge the music that’s being made for club play differently than something that’s being made, for instance, as part of an installation?
Absolutely. The big question is, what is the aim and what is the audience? That’s why when I play as Monolake, I insist that it’s in an environment where people can move around, so it’s like a club or festival environment. On the other side, when I do Robert Henke stuff, I insist that people can sit down and be comfortable. But it would make no sense for people to sit down when I play Ghosts. I had a bizarre experience once in the mid ’90s: Autechre was playing in the Akademie der Künste in Berlin which is a very serious listening place. The auditorium was filled with music kids in their twenties, and there were all these seats! So we all are sitting there and Autechre was playing their music, and at some point, people were trying to dance in their seats and others moved to the area between the front row and the stage. Finally, the night got somewhere. But it really showed how having the wrong environment for music can really kill it. The absolute best scenario is one where the audience members can decide for themselves how much to immerse themselves.

For your upcoming Unsound Festival gig, will you be mainly playing songs from Ghosts, or will it be music from the entire Monolake discography?
For this tour, I’m doing something that I’ve never done before: I’m having a really predefined set list. I’m basically doing the rock thing! I’ll be playing exclusively material from the current album. However, there is a lot of room for improvisation. I’ve learned this from the more convincing electronic-music concerts I’ve seen in the past: It’s good to have enough elements that people are able to recognize the pieces, and you can be happy that you do recognize them. At the same time, you can also be happy that there are enough new things going on to make them different.

You’re bringing your 3-D Surround Sound set-up with you?
Yes, and that will be a lot of fun. And there is a strong visual component, which for me is 50 percent of the show. Tarik Barri is the name of the visual artist. My idea is to present a real concert, where afterwards you can say, “Well, I’ve had an experience.” At that point, you can start discussing if it was a good or bad experience.

You’ve played a few shows since releasing Ghosts, right?
Yes, and there is one thing I’ve already noticed after playing five or six shows: Since we are now playing basically the same show every night, I have a lot of fun by focusing on details. Since so many elements are predefined, I’m beginning to feel like a theater actor. I worked as a sound person for theater in my earlier days, and I was always amazed how over the course of a few evenings after the premiere, the actors would get better and better. They know how things go together; they know how the audience reacts to things. I feel very much the same now. I’m learning the specific moments in a track where I can make things slower or louder or change things, and really grab the audience. It’s a very interesting process. For instance, on “Ghosts,” the “You do not exist anymore” text is repeated only four times; but for the last few performances, I repeated it again and again and again. It becomes almost like a prayer. This is something I would never do on a record, because it would get on your nerves. But in a concert situation, it’s extremely powerful. This is the kind of thing you learn by performing the same thing every night.

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