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Clueso Interview: Production and songwriting of "Stadtrandlichter"
About DIY, inspiration and finding the right way
(Photo: © bonedo)
A lot has happened at Clueso since the publication of his debut “Text und Ton”: He has had a career with gold and platinum awards and has booked the really big halls for his concerts. His roots are in hip hop, but over the years he has created his own space in terms of style. It's not only been 3 years since the last album “An und für sich”, he has also left his record company Four Music and does everything on his own, except for the booking: Clueso is now independent! We talked to him in detail about the way to the new album, and above all about how music is made with him:
How did you get into music and when did you decide to do it professionally?
CLUESO: Hmm - good question, keeps coming back, but you can't really say that. Somehow my parents sent me to guitar lessons because I was so hyperactive. I had to see a teacher who I didn't think was cool. Then I would always pretend I had a stomach ache and she would always make milk with cookies. But my grandfather lived down the street, and I learned chords from him. So I had a kind of first touch with music. But when I got really interested in music, I slipped into the hip hop scene and the guitar stood in the corner for a while. I wanted to rap, freestyle and go jams. That was during my apprenticeship - and a little before that - I learned a hairdresser.
Great mood despite the promo marathon: OK, the old drum machine in the office also helped a little ... (Photo: © bonedo)
At some point I met Andreas Welskop, my current manager, at a hip hop jam. He gave me the record "Quadratur des Kreises" from Freundeskreis, which showed me that groove songwriting is possible. Then I got the guitar out of the corner again. Of course, everything mixes up a bit in the past: I can no longer tell you EXACTLY, then-and-then this-and-that happened.
I could just get lost in the music, not in any other thing. Everything was a duty for me, except music. Now I'm totally in it. At some point I broke off the apprenticeship - finished, but failed in theory. Together with a friend who lived in the shared apartment and who has learned to cook, we said: We won't do it anymore! I'm becoming a musician now - and he wanted to be a photographer. We have been living together again in a shared apartment for years: He is now doing all the graphics for Clueso and video animation. He also does a lot for other bands. And I became a musician. That was the most blatant step, the most blatant cut, so to speak: I'm going the way now!
And did that work in the same way economically? That's the biggest problem for everyone - how do you get it to work? The dream is one thing ...
CLUESO: I was always dependent on people who also supported me a bit. This of course also includes Andreas Welskop, who saw something ...
Has he already worked for you as a manager?
CLUESO: He tried to manage things, which was difficult because he was based in Cologne and I was in Erfurt. That was still during my apprenticeship and there was no internet in that sense. Telephone only - I didn't have a real connection and was difficult to reach. He then managed through friends to somehow get me to give me an update. He was a supporter and I hadn't given that much feedback. Then there was some gossip. At some point I said: OK, I'm going to Cologne now. I'll go near the guy now and check out what's going on.
Andreas is originally from Berlin and has done a lot on the island for youth culture (editor's note: Insel der Jugend in Berlin). Later he worked for the hip hop label MC Records in Cologne. Then we went there and he was trying to get deals for me. Ultimately, Four Music took a bite, a long history of all of that. That's how I got into music. In the beginning I was more dependent on Andi or others - and I was on the job market in Cologne, where I was trying to get a job. That didn't work because I hadn't finished an apprenticeship, didn't have a driver's license, had never worked in the warehouse ...
That grooves. (Photo: © bonedo)
And were you never desperate or anything?
CLUESO: No, because everything else was a duty and there was such a great love for music - or it represented such a great escape - I was very happy that I had one more excuse to do that. Like a child. I also ran to the employment office more for others: “Didn't work, didn't get anything!” And then I kept making music. But I could really get lost in it! You could lock me up in a room and I would sit there building beats at the MPC. Suddenly people came too: There was a hip hop scene in Cologne, and then suddenly there were rappers in the booth, eight of whom were sitting behind me and smoking up everything while I was building the fat beats.
When I did my first thing, we performed with MPC, ADAT and MiniDisc. Then we were on the Hip Hop Tour 2000 - I remember that very well: these buses were crammed with hip hoppers. Four or five of them, with everyone who was so active at the time. And I was right in the middle of it all and was pretty much the only one who had taken people with me: a bassist and a guitarist from Erfurt. And those were the only ones who had made music like that. Then there was also a group that opposed it: They thought it sucks, crumpled CDs - there was real beef. And there were also people who stood up for me, e.g. Illvibe, a DJ from the Krauts and Joe Rilla, a huge guy from Marzahn. He then also said: “Leave Kleenen alone!” As if in jail: Protection from the one - I was threatened by the other. (Laughs)
But it didn't really go away for you until you went back to Erfurt, around 2002?
CLUESO: For me personally it went when I released my album “Text und Ton” in 2001 on Four Music. Because I had a deal that I could live on - and making music as my main calling. That was a really, really big step!
That's also something that I really like as a system: that you support a band by giving a little bit of money and letting them do something. When someone doesn't have to work, so to speak, and can just make music. Because you notice: He has a tit and can get lost in it. Then that is very beneficial! And that's why we founded a small studio with a few others, ten to ten in Cologne. And that's where we made music.
I saw that you describe yourself as an autodidact? OK, you can't go to school to program to beats yet ...
CLUESO: No, but of course you can learn something about rhythm or an instrument and understand that about it. For example, it took me a while to use 6/8 time for my art - because I hadn't learned the drums. That came through the band afterwards.
I learned guitar from Frau Dietze, where I didn't go, and then from my grandpa I learned the proper chords because I didn't feel like studying. And that's about it - I can move the basic grips and that. I use what I hear - even more complicated chords, but most of the time I don't know what their names are. That goes through hearing.
But I can remember melodies incredibly well, especially my own (laughs). I'm currently on the road with the musician Tim Neuhaus. Before that, we hadn't seen each other for a long time and unpacked a sketch from three or four years ago, and he said: Krass, you know the melody right away - you know where to go, the chords. I can seem to remember that quite well. I forget other things very quickly (grins).
Always on the hunt for sounds: "Be quiet for a moment, please." (Photo: © bonedo)
We come to the new album "Stadtrandlichter" ...
CLUESO: ... I produced it myself for the first time. I've always produced, even in hip hop back then for artists like Afu-Ra, Grand Agent and various others - also unknown ones. But I never really knew what I was doing. I didn't know how a compressor works, how a Buss compressor works, how an EQ is built, how to stagger instruments - and what would be cool for the music I make. And then I thought: I want to learn that myself now. I no longer want to sit behind someone and explain what I want, but rather speak that language. That when we record something on the radio, for example, I can say: You, that's a bit much in the depths at 200 Hertz - do less. And that works, you can teach yourself that. That's a difference to the other albums. I didn't produce and mix it entirely on my own: I pre-produced and mixed it and then gave it to someone who made candy out of shit and then raised it to the right level. As a basis, I gave him bounced tracks.
What kind of DAW did you use? Pro Tools, Logic ...?
CLUESO: I used Logic and we bought an analog summer to bring things together. I used a lot of plug-ins, a lot of waves. I am totally fascinated by the MAQ EQ and the Fab filter. I think it's really, really cool! I have found many new heroes in mixing and recording, such as Michael Brauer. We drew Buss compression from that, he has a great system for getting more bass. I learned a lot from Dave Pensado's YouTube films.
When you started production, were the songs already finished or were they just emerging?
CLUESO: Totally different! I have the studio with me and I live there too. My bedroom is right next to the studio. Musicians are always guests, and then someone has an idea. Now I like to take on with the simplest means so that you don't get screwed.
That's what I meant: You find something interesting, learn something about it and instinctively defend yourself against systems as an autodidact. Doesn't think it's cool when it's too regulated because you're afraid that the “mojo” will be lost. But there are certain rules that cannot be avoided. You need an order, for example how you name things. I learned that with a guy who is a few years younger than me and who is very interested in music. He also brought in all the tutorials and things and newspapers and looked at how to create directories and sort material. And the organization of the sound flowed seamlessly into the music.
I provoked, so to speak, that the red button is not on with the band, but that we are recording with the cheapest of all means. We did band camps in different places and at the beginning only recorded with a laptop. It was about collecting ideas. I already had a lot of ideas as chords on the guitar. I'm very quick at writing, so sometimes the band can't keep up (laughs).
A lot is about mimesis and imitation, but I don't think it's great when you imitate things completely. So styles, for example - I always like when there's a break in there. When you try something and find out why something is done this way, and prefer to only take the color with you. The band has its own style and there was no ONE way. For me, a lot comes from an idea, chords for example, which then tickle a melody out of me. I always have melodies right away. Today we played on the radio, I wiggled out the iPhone and asked Tim: “What are you playing?” He said: “Uhh ... came straight‘ now! ”That is perhaps the difference to musicians. They always play something and don't have that 'red lamp' that you could use it. But I feel the same way when I fumble with something. In any case, I hold onto it, sing something on it in a kind of “shower English” so that I have the first idea, a first impulse. And then try to incorporate my lyrics and stick to it. The German language is difficult. I am glad that I come from Hip Hop, that I can bend and shape it, because in the German language there is always one word too many to sing well. You just have to have a different style when it comes to singing - that doesn't sound too great. But I'm not such a 'beautiful singer' either.
So I build my lyrics in there and then already have a basic framework. But sometimes I keep producing forever - the most difficult task is to do justice to the first idea. That you have, so to speak, a vision of a song or an idea of what it “comes” as. Then I am rigorous, sometimes swap drum tracks or let someone else play something and try to achieve something - but I don't know exactly what it is.
"... and recording." The good old Casio 8Bit Sampling Keyboard ... (Photo: © bonedo)
So just experiment and see what happens - that's what makes it interesting, I think. There is also music that is specifically "planned" for a certain effect - or, as Stock Aitken Waterman back then, is almost produced "off the assembly line" ...
CLUESO: That is not objectionable. It's OK that there is this kind of music and art that people hear - in the end, people decide that. That you meet and think about what people need: "Aah - everyone is currently very afraid of money - Greece and what-I-know - let's write a text about it!" That is not my approach, but I do think that there is someone at the end who has to understand it. Then that's the “pop”: I don't want people to be thrown out of the curve, but I just lie in there sometimes. Waiting and listening to what comes out of you is a different kind of music, and that's why I like to make music at night! The journalist in me is, so to speak, prohibited from writing. I have to look at what has accumulated and sort it.
I read in your press release that since Four Music left you had collected material for two albums in a drawer. Are there any of these songs on the new album, or are they just experiments that are just waiting to fit at some point?
CLUESO: There are even more, I write a lot of songs and sort an album according to a kind of “column” of “inspired” works. There are songs where you immediately know: “I don't have to do anything anymore.” The music was your friend that day. The "muse", EVERYTHING was somehow perfect. An album is then based on these songs and a kind of mixtape is created. They then attract others; big songs - like a kind of pillar for an album - attract others. They then stand together and “fight” with one another, and some simply fall away. That's why a lot of the songs are dropped.
But I had a different set of songs, from a travel album, which has a completely different style. And there songs were found in a pool, around 20 songs that I recorded between the door and the hinge: on Udo tour, on trips, on Fuerteventura ... and it has a different style. "Stadtrandlichter" was stronger then, the first songs that came. I didn't want to cook on two hotplates and have turned one off first - I'll look at that again. It's a nice collection of songs and hopefully - speaking of it - it won't be long before I get this out. (laughs)
... and I recorded an album for my grandfather. He's 84 years old and has a voice like Johnny Cash, sounds great. He always sings old workers' songs with a funny twist and sometimes a Mike Krüger song - something - on birthdays. It's crazy to see my grandfather in the studio. If he had been born during this time, he would be exactly the same type: He would sometimes sit there for hours and not eat anything. We had to say: “So grandpa, now eat an apple” after six to seven hours. Because he just got really excited to sing second voices and try something out - he got really hot. To build an intro: “There has to be a whistle in there”, and here and there. (grins) That was such a "hang" with grandpa and something else to do with it! (laughs)
So basically you have hidden the other "pillars" and the songs have all been created after the other one was finished - so relatively "fresh"? And then everything fit and became "outskirts"?
CLUESO: “Stadtrandlichter” was the first song that said to me: Something is happening there, there is an energy there, there is something new.It's a song that sounds “international” to me in a way, and I don't hear the individual tracks. That means I don't hear a production process - and that's always a good sign if you only hear the song. But it doesn't have anything completely new either, some wild modern synths or something. The funny thing is that I took a sketch on the iPhone beforehand, and that became the verse. And the next day I collected a few other chords with Christoph the guitarist, that became the chorus. Then I put that together in Logic to write. And the chorus - because it was a different day - was a little slower. But I thought that was great for “suburban lights”: Because when it comes into town, it goes down the mountain. I then tried to implement that with the musicians, and we recorded it without a click: In the chorus it is 3 BPM slower than in the verse. Is a funny twist in a song. And then I found that somehow NEW: If chance comes back into play - and here we go!
Yes, and then I was missing something modern. I thought, where am I at the moment - what interests me, which sounds interest me. And I still tried to "sprinkle it" with. That's why the song “Still” has such a synth that reminds me a bit of Radiohead. You tinker around in order to create something modern, something up-to-date, so to speak, without destroying anything at the same time. What happens, what sounds the way it sounds.
It all sounds extremely organic to me. The album has such a “band sound”, such a “real instrument feel”. So you recorded the song as a band, completely tracked it?
CLUESO: “Stadtrandlichter” is completely the song, the take - there's an acoustic guitar at the back. The funny thing about the song is: I was out in Berlin because I thought I would sing much, much later. Everyone said: "Make a sketch". Voice was broken, sleepy. Then I only sang it with an SM58, and everyone like this: “Hey! You are not allowed to do anything to it! That's totally cool. ”Oh - OK, good! (laughs) That's why the SM58 is on the recording - and that's what I mean by coincidence. Then chance comes and things come together, and maybe that's the long thought process sometimes. So that you send something, philosophically speaking. And hopes that you look for something like a gold digger that you will then find. That you hold the nuggets in your hand. Yes, “Stadtrandlichter” is one of those songs.
Finished. Another inspiration collected ... (Photo: © bonedo)
With “Nebenbei”, the last song on the album, it was a completely different approach. It was so that a colleague was sitting in the studio. He played this lick on the guitar where I thought: "Hey, I know that from somewhere". And then I asked him: “Hey, what's that?” And he said: “No, that just came.” And then we took it up immediately, rearranged it a bit. I was inspired by another song by Crowded House, I had made a cover version. And then I played chords that I just thought were cool, new combinations - and then the song was there. There wasn't a drummer in the studio, so the guitarist, Alex, sat down at the drums, and I recorded the drums with just one mic - what I learned from the “New Heroes”: Oh, a little bit bogged down, ok them Hihat was too loud, so a little way back - like back then. (laughs) Then he recorded it, sort of like that, then the guitar, and suddenly there was a song. Then I had no text and locked myself in a colleague's apartment because I wanted to get out of the studio. I wrote a text together with Baris Aladag and I didn't have a microphone. I then sang it in via the laptop microphone, the Mac even has noise suppression on it - and that's it! He said, "leave it like that". And Alex, who, so to speak, brought the song along that day, also said: "Please, do me a favor and leave it that way!"
Of course, if a microphone was twisted under the pop screen and it sounds dull - then it doesn't make sense, even if it's a supertake. But if everything is "there" and it serves the song, then you should just leave it. Recognizing that is also a kind of exercise (laughs). That's what it's about: When does emotion work? That's the big question in making music.
As a musician, especially when you write the songs yourself, you are always very close to the wall. If you then also produce yourself, you are even closer to the wall. How did you make the selection for the album?
CLUESO: Well, I had Yngwie, the colleague who, as I said, is a few years younger, is interested in music, but can also play an instrument - and has good taste. You need a kind of "sideman", a kind of "wingman" to help you. I also live in a shared apartment with six or seven other artists: everyone enters the room and adds their mustard. I also think like this: “How do you like that?” I really play it for a while, it's also very important to me. I still make my decision in the end, and maybe that's the difference from then. That I then look for my own moment to the songs, and also go against all opinions. Not necessarily, but that's just important. That is why it is also called “city edge lights”: look at this city from the outside, take a break and drive and listen to it. For example, I made an order for the album that I thought was very clever. Then I went fishing with Grandpa to the lake in the morning and I almost fell asleep. And thought: “No, I don't want you to listen to the CD and fall asleep in the morning. I want to have a BIG, strong setlist and prefer to get "private" later. So I went against the original concept, and also against recommendations, and thought: Now I have to stop at full throttle! That was almost a "boys setlist". All the guys around us thought they were cool straight away. But I also liked the fact that this is basically like a specification for a live setlist, because I also think a bit of live there.
Did you use the American method when compiling the songs: wrote 40 songs and then the best were chosen with the manager "tough"?
CLUESO: (laughs) It would be nice! In the end, 15 had been made, and I wanted to have 12 on it. Now I've got 14 on it, one of them didn't make it: “No space in your boat”. And there were a few more contenders. Most of them immediately “put on” another song from our pool while producing. It's such a momentum that develops such an album.
What makes a good song for you? Do you have an antenna to know when you have "what"? How do you deal with the pressure to write the next “Clueso hit”? There are also expectations of you - do you completely ignore them?
CLUESO: Yes, partly! That's why I had put a public ban, no more interviews - and that's why I brought Grandpa a bit forward. On the one hand, I really wanted to do it now, also because he is already 84 years old, on the other hand, to get somewhere else and "dock" again.
I also found it cool to move around and hang out in the city and let myself go through playing - like children who play for themselves. At the same time, it was difficult because I was also a producer. But that's a natural phenomenon: things don't let go of me when I've touched them and they somehow touch me. And that's what good songs do!
I am also someone who tries to translate energy. That means I might listen to the chorus often if I succeeded in it. But I don't get down on it all day, instead I use the energy for the second verse. Which I can also get first. What I write are just parts at first. I don't say: “That's the chorus!” Because Clueso songs often don't even have this ... (thinks) ... my choruses always sound like a pre-hook. Because I can't stand this theatricality - and I don't have the right voice for it either. A B part could become a verse, all of that can be changed - brutally. That's why I just listen to parts that give me energy and then they won't let me go!
He's done! Thanks for stopping by, Clueso - it was fun! (Photo: © bonedo)
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