Journey in Sound, a conversation with Vainqueur

photo: Mea Kusma

Vainqueur (René Löwe) is an important figure in the past twenty years of electronic music, and someone who has made a significant contribution to the sonic landscape of Berlin. His piece 'Lyot' released in 1992 and remixed by Maurizio is now a classic of the techno canon. 'Lyot' and his subsequent recordings on the Chain Reaction label in 1996 and 1997 introduced a sound that transcends genre conventions, and presents something textural, dense yet spacious. There is something almost topographic about Vainqueur's music, the signature ebbing rhythms seem to be outlining forms that become palpable to the ear, mapping a terrain discovered in time. His compositions incorporate dub production styles and subtle hints of house and disco while pushing the techno palette into new shapes. His early music helped to define what has become known as 'dub techno', yet René resists this narrow classification of his work, pointing towards his many musical inspirations.

He works closely with long time collaborator Peter Kuschnereit (Substance) both under the Substance and Vainqueur moniker, and as Scion. In 2006 they founded the label Scion Versions for their own productions. They perform live sets internationally, often featuring vocalist Paul St. Hilaire (Tikiman). In the fall of 2010 René released his first solo Vainqueur 12" since 1997 on Scion Versions, entitled Ranges, a release that maps out a natural continuity from his previous work.

I had the opportunity to speak with René before a Scion performance with Tikiman at the Club Transmediale (CTM) festival in Berlin in February.

CM: What were some of the things that inspired you when you started producing music?

RL: Well we're talking then about the late 80's and very early 90's, and the main thing at that time was definitely Detroit and Chicago sounds. So I was into that around 1987. The Berlin wall was still here, I was living in the East. At that time there was a radio show from West Berlin during the week sometime in the middle of the night and they played new music, like early hip hop, house, and Detroit sounds. I managed to figure out their playlists even though they didn't announce any of the titles and sometimes it was even a DJ mixing. So when the wall came down I already knew who the right people were.

Before the wall came down I had to send my grandmother to buy records for me in the West because at that time older people were allowed to travel. The first day the wall came down I went to a record store, I bought a record and I started talking with the people there and they figured out that I was the guy whose grandma was buying records.

CM: Can you tell me about the beginning of the Detroit – Berlin connection?

RL: In 1991 I started working at Hard Wax. At that time Mark Ernestus already had some connections to Detroit, and soon after UR came over the first time, and Carl Craig of course which was a big deal. I met all these people whose records I owned...that was really great.

Then outside of Berlin we occupied an empty building that later became an official nightclub, it's called the Waschhaus. That was the first residency that Peter and I had. It was early 1992 or so. For about a year and a half I was organizing the parties and booking people. We had a lot of big names. Carl Craig DJ’ed for the first time in Germany there, then there were Derrick May and Juan Atkins. Basic Channel did their 3 live performances there, of the 6 in total that they ever did. It was a great time.

CM: When did the dub influence in Berlin first appear?

RL: The dub influence came pretty late, in the middle of the 90s, like 1996-97. Mark had these Saturdays after the store closed where he presented the reggae he had found in New York in a basement somewhere. It was a bit similar to when he went first to Detroit and Chicago and came back with a lot of big boxes of classic 12”s and other stuff he found somewhere, also in a basement!

That was my introduction to reggae, and my first reggae record was a 12” with mixes of tracks from a Congos album. I realized that these sounds, or at least the way the sounds were treated, had a lot in common with how I use sounds. That's why I bought that record - I thought, “hey man, this is like 30 years before you did it! But it sounds really familiar.” So that was how it started, and after that I bought a lot of reggae.

In a way it’s kind of funny because nowadays we are related to dub so much, and for me it’s just one influence. Music these days has bass anyway, so it’s not something unique that only dub techno or dubstep has. Bass is everywhere.

CM: But dub is also about studio technique, versioning etc....

RL: Well that’s another interesting thing – most of the pieces that I put out on Chain Reaction, I mixed them live right on the board, with no edits, it’s on the record exactly as I did it on the mixing board. There was no computer hardware, just a drum sampler and some synths and effects and my board. So they are basically just synthesizer and effects and the board. And the way I treated the sounds and introduced them into the track has a lot of similarities to the way people did it in dub music, but I wasn’t aware of that connection at the time. Reggae was not on my map. It came in the end of the 90s.

CM: As you say a lot of people associate Berlin with the dub techno sound...

RL: The dub aspect is just one; I wouldn't really separate the music into categories so much. In my music I think if you want you can hear similarities to disco, or sci-fi jazz stuff from the early 70s.

In recent years I've been buying a lot of music from that era because I realized that there are many productions similar to what I've done. Of course its a different time and sound, but it's interesting because the way the tracks are arranged and mixed is similar. There are similarities for example between people like Lee Perry or Dexter Wansel, an early 70s Philadelphia producer, they both made music that is very complex in a way. They create a very dense musical atmosphere, and it's like a journey where a lot of new things happen, it's a sci-fi type of approach. I think some of my pieces are not so far from that approach.

People tend to reduce it to the dub comparison. Actually I think that the music I've made in recent years, especially with Tikiman, or the 12” I put out in October 2010, is all quite different from a lot of dub techno. My pieces would work without the bass and the beats, without them you still would get the idea of the track. In most cases I think that if you leave that out then there's not much left, there isn't anything that holds the piece together without the bass and beats.

CM: What do you find inspiring or influential now?

RL: At the moment I am searching for interesting music from the end of the 60's to the end of the 70's. I'm a bit disappointed about the current situation in terms of sound, which is probably why I'm into this old stuff. It's not because I only like real instruments, it’s because of the way those pieces were produced back then – they're so rich, there are so many sounds, so many people involved, and you can hear that a lot of time went into it to make it sound a certain way, it's not like it was done in just one night. It's a piece, it's not just another track…

CM: With computers now, everybody's just throwing out tracks I guess...

RL: But isn't it bizarre, that everyone now has a supercomputer essentially where you can run 30 or more stereo tracks in CD quality in parallel on it without crashing. All the technology is available to make really great, precious recordings, and yet we are shrinking everything down to mp3. I'm not really interested at all in that kind of sound quality, but it's an interesting time to see how things will develop.

I'm not really that optimistic about music at all at the moment, it's a question of the way society in general uses music. If it's going to be like wallpaper in your life then of course mp3 is the right format. I think surround sound has the potential to be the sound format of the century, but it will not become that sound format because there is no interest in rich audio in society.

The other aspect of electronic music right now is that everyone that makes music has to make music that functions well in a live situation, in a club or a concert.

CM: That's an interesting point given that the theme of this festival is 'live'... there's often a tension between producing and presenting work live.

RL: Well the question is - what would you appreciate more in the end - an unexpected, interesting live performance that might sound like crap but is kind of unique, or a decent composition on a recording format? That's the main question. In the end the quality of music in general will go down if you can only do music that works in a live situation if you want to make your living out of it. People like Perry and Wansel who I mentioned earlier relied on a functional record industry that could provide the money required to spend time in the studio. But who has the time and the resources these days?

CM: What makes up the Scion live show?

RL: We have a set of sound bits we took from several releases of Tikiman with Rhythm and Sound, but we're not playing the instrumentals, it's a very freestyle way of getting little bits of several tracks together into one new piece. If you know the originals you will hear familiar bits, it’s like a live reinterpretation.

The performance that night was short but sweet – an immersive experience with Tikiman’s voice reverbing in and out of the mix and a special floor synced to bass frequencies that made the music an animate presence in the space. A spacious and textural sonic fiction enjoyed through the mind and body alike.

To find out more about Scion / Substance & Vainqueur, stream music and find out about upcoming shows check out their website at: scionversions.de