Ulrich Schnauss ups the ante for blissful pop.
Thu Jul 5 2007
Photo: Jason Evans
Talking to Ulrich Schnauss, it’s impossible to forget that he’s German. There’s the soft-spoken musician’s accent, of course, in addition to his über-Teutonic name. Perhaps dutifully, he even cites German proto-synth legends Tangerine Dream as an early influence. Ask him about the music that changed his life, however, and the 30-year-old turns Anglophile, rhapsodizing about the shoegazer guitar bands that emerged from Britain in the late ’80s and early ’90s, like Ride, Chapterhouse and Slowdive. But he breaks out the big hosanna for My Bloody Valentine—specifically the cult band’s 1991 masterpiece, Loveless. “It sounds very rough and droney at first,” Schnauss explains over chai at Teany on Rivington Street. “But listen carefully and you hear very bright and positive songs underneath everything.” He smiles. “I always liked that.”
It’s clear that this contrast has had a profound impact on Schnauss: He’s made a vocation out of synthesizing a Loveless-caliber level of noise pop. Even the staunchest MBV fan would be impressed by his new offering, Goodbye (Domino), an album defined by any number of contradictions. Though the music is epic and orchestral, Schnauss multitracked nearly all of the record at his home studio. Goodbye deploys seemingly infinite layers of dreamy guitar racket and reverb-drowned keyboards to carry out the simplest of chord changes and to create winsome pop hooks. Lush and largely instrumental, it’s the sort of CD that makes you feel like you’re getting high, even if you haven’t taken drugs in years.
As with most ambient-style music, Goodbye also works fine drifting into the background. But don’t be surprised if the melodies of cuts like “Stars” stick in your head. “My belief is, there should be a song at the core of everything I do,” Schnauss says. “A lot of electronic musicians compose by playing around with their gear and seeing what noises come of it. But I don’t want to reduce everything to soundscaping; I want to communicate something emotionally. I like to think the melodies I make can be stripped down and played on a piano, not just on electronic instruments.”
Given his adoration for pop songs, one wonders why Schnauss didn’t start a band. But growing up in Kiel, Germany, a dirty, concrete harbor town surrounded by a scenic landscape, he didn’t have many options. “I could never find anyone who was into the same music I was,” he recalls. “There was no one to form a band with, so I started playing electronic music almost by accident.”
At 19, Schnauss hightailed it to Berlin, and quickly fell in with the city’s purist techno scene. He began working as a studio engineer, and soon released a series of breakbeat tracks under monikers such as Ethereal 77 and Hexaquart (records he now dismisses as “pretty crappy techno-dance stuff”). Hard-pressed even in mid-’90s Berlin to find fellow fans of My Bloody Valentine—and tired of kowtowing to the narrow-minded club scene—Schnauss started making the kind of music he wanted to hear: sublime tracks glistening with warmth, beauty and hooks.
“I was instantly spellbound,” says respected British DJ-producer Tom Middleton, who soon incorporated “As If You’ve Never Been Away,” an early Schnauss single, into his sets. “It had this overwhelming sense of innocence, hope and optimism—sort of like your first kiss, or a train journey to a big city. It’s just timeless, pure emotion.”
After assembling those initial singles into 2001’s Far Away Trains Passing By, Schnauss resurfaced two years later with the mesmerizing A Strangely Isolated Place, an album that helped inspire the dubious term nu gaze. Nevertheless, the record earned kudos from many of Schnauss’s old heroes. Mojave 3 and Longview hired him for remix work, while Robin Guthrie of Cocteau Twins remixed two tracks. Schnauss even had a brief encounter with MBV mastermind Kevin Shields. “He bought me a beer!” Schnauss blurts out. Alas, he was starstruck. “I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say. I made a complete fool of myself.”
As the title indicates, Goodbye is a farewell of sorts. For his next project, Schnauss is aiming for something less structured and song-based, though thankfully, not less melodic. “I want to give the sounds more room to breathe,” he explains. As for his career so far, he assesses it concisely: “These three albums belong together. They were about trying to merge indie songwriting and electronic music. I feel Goodbye is the maximum I can achieve with that idea, so it’s time to move on.”
Goodbye comes out Tue 10 on Domino. Ulrich Schnauss plays Bowery Ballroom Sept 21 and Joe’s Pub Sept 22.