German electronic musician and producer looks up from the shoegazing towards a timeless present
From his beginnings as a drum and bass DJ to his membership of Tangerine Dream, Ulrich Schnauss has always been a mercurial and restless musician, dropping the stereotype of the cerebral German electronic composer for a wide range of projects that have included remixes for guitar and pop outfits, and even a reworking of a Bach prelude. With a mini-tour of the UK beginning at Glasgow's Art School, Schnauss is taking the opportunity to revisit his career, and perform some of his older numbers – something he hasn't had the chance to do in previous live outings.
'A bit more than a year ago, I got a call from my management,' he says. 'And he said that the label that owned the rights to my catalogue had forgot to extend the rights, which is obviously very lucky, especially since this really doesn't happen very often!' Deciding to reissue the entire catalogue, and arranging UK dates to promote and celebrate the release of a box-set, Schnauss is excited about revisiting his past.
'With the more recent stuff, I was very happy to have this opportunity.' he continues. 'For instance, I released an album a couple of years ago, A Long Way to Fall, which I always thought, musically, had a lot of interesting ideas but I had some health problems which had a severe impact on the way that I mixed it: not, unfortunately, in a positive way. So I basically used this chance to re-mix it.' But aside from correcting recordings, Schnauss' reclamation of his earliest works has been revelatory.
'One reason why I never played stuff live from the early records is that my live set-up is such that once I finish a song, I am breaking it down into its individual elements, so I can do a live restructuring – or even deconstruction of the finished piece. However, at the time when I recorded albums like Faraway Trains, I was just using an atari for sequencing and recorded it straight to DAT so I never had access to the individual elements. So for these gigs, I have actually had to re-record these songs. And that has also been an interesting experience – once I switched to modern equipment, you have all these possibilities, tracks that you can layer. It is quite educating to see how little gear I was using: and this is a lesson I am going to use in future recordings.'
Although Schnauss has engaged with a wide range of electronic styles across his career, he recognises his roots in 'Acid house, IDM, ambient, shoegaze: these were the soundtrack of my youth,' while still forging a distinctive musical identity. Discovering a niche that is informed by both the intelligent dance music of the 1990s and the guitar bands of the same period who tried to integrate the exciting advances being made beyond the rock genre, Schnauss became a member of Tangerine Dream in 2014, the contemporary incarnation of a band who have been at the forefront of experimental electronica since the late 1960s. Schnauss remains excited by both traditional musical values and the continuing development of technology.
'One concept I found interesting in shoegaze, I read in an interview that Chapterhouse said they were trying to make guitars sound like synths,' he recalls. 'In around 2000, 2001 I thought I might as well try to reverse that principle and see what the outcome is!' The fascination with experimental sound, of engaging 'sonic manipulation' and an attention to the timbre of sound, however, is balanced by his belief that 'I want to make music in an unashamedly traditional sense that has a compositional quality as well. I always try to stick to that formula, when I make a piece that works as well when I play the elemental chords on the piano as it does when it is arranged as an electronic piece.'
Although he admits a preference for working in the studio over performing live – ' if you gave me a free choice, I would not play live at all,' he says – Schnauss finds that contemporary technology has, at least, made gigs more intriguing. 'Even with electronic music which is notoriously difficult to perform live, you can change and be creative with the material in a way that it is actually fun. Fifteen years ago, I was literally just playing a backing track with a keyboard on top: I felt pretty bad after playing gigs, even if the crowd was affirming. But nowadays I can do stuff that I find worthwhile and have changed that situation around.'
Schnauss' career has followed the maturation of electronic music – his own path from DJ to composer echoes the increasing sophistication of its associated genres and its evolution from club music to something between classical experimentation. The association with minimalism and acid house has been well-established, and Schnauss' own albums fit into that particular space where formal exploration and musicality compete and collaborate, and these live gigs offer him a chance to forge new connections between the erudite and contemplative nature of his albums and the more visceral experience of the gig. It might have been a lucky circumstance that encouraged him to go on this mini-tour, but his attitude suggests that he's willing to make the most of the opportunity and keep pushing the boundaries of his sound.