Pin It
Wolfgang Tillmans Device Control Video
Still from Wolfgang Tillmans’ “Device Control” videoPhoto courtesy of Maureen Paley, London

Watch Wolfgang Tillmans at the controls in his new video

The photographer, musician and visual artist drops an official video for the techno track that unexpectedly bookended Frank Ocean’s new album Endless

When Frank Ocean dropped his visual album Endless two weeks ago, listeners were greeted by the sound of a robotic voice that spoke with a slight accent: “With this Apple appliance / You can capture live videos / Still motion pictures shot at high frequency / Blurring, blurring the line.” It soon became clear that the voice belonged to German photographer, visual artist, and musician Wolfgang Tillmans and was taken from his track “Device Control”, a high octane piece of techno that reappears somewhat unexpectedly at Endless’s finale.

Tillmans has been active as a photographer and visual artist for three decades now, but this year brought a renewed attention to his work thanks in part to his campaigning on the EU referendum as well as the release of his 2016/1986 EP. The EP featured two new tracks from Tillmans that channelled his longstanding love of house and techno (the ‘2016’ side) and a handful of synth punk tracks recorded in his teenage years (the ‘1986’ side). Its follow-up, the Device Control EP, is more locked in the present, with two new songs appearing alongside remixes from 2016/1986, including a spooky new remix from the dormant Salem.

The two EPs mark the first time that Tillmans had made music in almost 30 years – but that’s not to say that music ever left him. His photography is often concerned with club culture and musicians, and he creates music himself, with studio collaborators, and with his band Fragile. “For years I took notes of lyric ideas and voice memos for melodies that came into my head,” Tillmans tells us over email, “The strange thing with melodies is that they come from nowhere and are just there. This summer I’ve been working with musicians and a number of melodies used in the process stem from back 30 years ago – they were still in my mind.”

Tillmans has created an official video for “Device Control” that takes a dive into his studio sessions. As Tillmans explains, it was filmed between two studios (Trixx in Berlin, where he worked on the music, and Studio G in New York, where he added live drums, additional keyboards, and mixing) and exaggarates the role of hardware devices in making the song. “My best friend Anders Clausen and I filmed a third element on a stay in Memphis this summer, of two smartphones making a kind of intercourse by filming each other’s screen in an endless feedback loop,” he says, “This is indeed a recourse to the first video I made in 1987 called Video Feedback of a video camera pointed at a TV set which shows the image that the camera was filming in real time.”

“The whole video is deliberately lo-fi, yet not trashy,” he continues, “It is a bit tongue-in-cheek, yet not ironic. I wanted it to be light-hearted, yet employing long standing visual interests of mine.”

Watch the video below, and read on for a Q&A with Tillmans about the track, his approach to making music, and the way that music factors into his life and his art.

You took a 29 year break from music and only recently returned to it. What drew you back?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I occasionally, over the years, have taken singing lessons, knowing how good singing is for body and mind. In 2003 I made a 50-minute film called Film with music, words and singing to be screened as part of a series of live events at Tate Britain. In it, I filmed Marc Almond singing and warming up, Princess Julia’s needle in the groove of a record at The Ghetto and all sorts of other music-related scenes, as well as a five-minute piece of me taking a singing lesson. So the desire and passion was clearly there. A little less than two years ago, Chris Lowe (of the Pet Shop Boys) and I were talking at a dinner party about music gadgets and apps, and he joked how much fun they are. Later in the conversation he seriously encouraged me: ‘You really love music, you always have – you should get yourself a keyboard and computer program and try it out.’

Why did you take a break in the first place?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I was in a synth duo for a short year with my friend Bert Leßmann, but he had to move away from our hometown Remscheid, making meeting up very difficult. I didn’t muster up the courage to find someone else, and soon my excitement making pictures with a newly arrived digital photocopier in the local copy shop took over, and I moved towards art. Music stayed with me through the nightlife photography that I took of the burgeoning acid house scene in Hamburg. Those photographs led to more music portraiture, and that’s a connection I kept all my life. 

“Over the last couple of years I felt an urgency to express myself more directly though voice and music” – Wolfgang Tillmans

Much has been made about Frank Ocean’s use of ‘Device Control’ on Endless, but what does the song means to you?

Wolfgang Tillmans: What we experience right now is of incredible fascination on so many levels. What has changed in the microchip hardware, that allowed us to move from grainy low-res stills from phones ten years ago to HD movies streamed today. How can that be squeezed down the airwaves, and how does each device know that that byte of signal is directed towards it and not to any other in the neighbourhood? I don’t want to sound like some dad – ‘Oh, do you remember how clunky mobiles used to be?’ – but what’s happening now poses deep philiosphical questions about producing more content than can ever be consumed or digested. In light of the impossibility of complete digestion, this renders the question of choosing what to depict pointless.

I’m ultimately a believer in globablisation, because it’s democracy in the way that inhabitants of the developed world have to grant other people the same rights to own a car, and to consume stuff the way we do. To say ‘It’s not good for you’ may be right in some way, but it is undemocratic, in the same way to say ‘Your endless pictures and selfies are useless’ would be censorship and undemocratic. It’s so powerful that it touches me emotionally, all the hopes and dreams, the emotion invested in it. Also the fun had from it, but also the anxiety. It may have unforseen powers over mankind that we don’t even know about. Streaming while Rome is burning. I made up the lyrics in the style of adverts that I’ve come across, yet they don’t mock what is going on, because ultimately I’m part of it.

I’ve not read much about your music-making process before. How do you typically write?

Wolfgang Tillmans: The real revelation for me was not to only work electronically, but jamming with live musicans. There are subtle movements in the room, and an initial short melody creates a cue for others to tune in and build a pattern. I felt it’s about listening and giving in and trusting that the words and tones find their place. If they don’t, one can move on elsewhere.

What’s your connection with your regular studio collaborators?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Two of my Berlin studio assistants also have a background in music. Armin Lorenz Gerold and Konstantin Gebser helped with the initial first steps of getting me going and are still accompanying the process. Then I discovered that in my street there’s a great recording studio, Trixx Studios, where I’ve been going to with my ideas and sketches. Tim Knapp who works there brings things into shape like I never could. He pulled the vocals of ‘Device Control’, which I wrote and recorded in one take one morning, into a beat grid, and told me ‘Your melody is in, let’s say, E-minor, and a harmony that could fit this could sound like this.’ I’m the producer, as in I describe what sounds and beats I would like and what eventually goes into the finished song, but Tim actually creates them and adds so much more than I could ask for with my words. He’s a drummer, and at the same time an extremely good studio engineer and a musician on all instruments. His father, Klaus Knapp, who owns the studio, does the mastering of the finished tracks on site.

“The night holds a secret that is deep and profound” – Wolfgang Tillmans

Then there are other collaborators, on Device Control – for example Kyle Combs and Rosie Slater. How did they get involved?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Kyle is trained as a visual artist but really now works in sound and sound installation. He works at my New York gallery David Zwirner, where I also met Jay Pluck, who heads the band New York band George Sands. Last summer my assistant, Colombian artist Juan Pablo Echeverri, and myself jammed with the two during the install period of my exhibition. On a later visit to New York I showed Kyle the rough version of ‘Device Control’ and he spontaneously asked for the recordings. A few weeks later I had a surprise in my inbox in the shape of this incredible intro he made. This summer Jay, Kyle, Juan Pablo and Tom Roach and Daniel Pearce met regularly on Fire Island to work on band music under the name of Fragile, which I chose 33 years ago. During this time I wanted to also complete work on ‘Device Control’, and Jay suggested to record live drums and brought Rosie Slater from the band New Myths to the mixing session. Little did she, or I, know that all this would soon end up on Frank Ocean’s Endless album.

How do you approach your solo electronic music differently to the music you make with Fragile?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Until this year I never thought I would be playing with a live drummer and bassist and guitarist. This came about during the installation of a museum exhibition at Serralves museum in Porto in January. In a chain of lucky coincidences Juan Pablo Echeverri and I ended up with a band of session musicians. They said ‘Okay, you are the producer,’ but all I had was the raw version of ‘Make It Up As You Go Along’ on a (USB) stick. We used that as the backing track to jam on and soon a new song emerged, ‘Warm Star’. I would never have mustered up the courage to compose a band setup in London or Berlin, but because it happened through friends unexpectadly in Porto, I experienced the power of this, being in the same room with five people making music in real time. I see it as something that will develop over time and in different places and in shifting configurations. 

You were active during the original ‘ecstasy generation’, but why do you feel that house and techno remain relevant today?

Wolfgang Tillmans: Because the night holds a secret that is deep and profound. Fun and bliss and making-out are connected to that, but not the only aspect. The ‘repetitive beats’ of house and techno are a bed that allow for all sorts of emotions to be laid into it. This music is still fit to describe the contempory state we are in. And the repetitivness and long duration makes you listen carefully to the changes, just as one should be alert to what goes on in the real world. 

Your 2017 exhibition at Tate Modern next year will feature a Playback Room dedicated to the music of Colourbox. Why did you choose that band?

Wolfgang Tillmans: I’ve often felt that certain songs that I loved deeply are perfect works of art, in exactly the way they were recorded in, and no other way. There is no place in the cultural landscape that does justice to these works of art. There are places for live music, but no places for listening to recorded music in high-end quality. Playback Room is a model that I developed for that purpose, which I hope will adopted by other institutions. Because of my initiative the tender papers to architects for the new building of the extension of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin include a room devoted to recorded music. Colourbox were active in London in the mid-80s and they never perfromed live, because they felt their music couldn’t be replicated in that context. They’ve been very influential to me because of their techniques of eclectic collage – how the seemingly unconnected is connected, and how completely disparate musical styles can sit together on a record by the same band. Sadly Steven Young, who together with his brother Martyn formed the core of Colourbox, died this year. 4AD will release a gatefold double LP at the occasion of the Tate Modern exhibition.

What else are you working on?

Wolfgang Tillmans: This year has been unusual and a total roller coaster as in that while having a busy exhibition schedule, I spent most time working on other projects. First running a weekly program of political events called ‘Meeting Place’ at my non-profit space Between Bridges in Berlin, then parallel to that my campaign to avert Brexit, unsuccessfully so, yet hopefully not in vain. And third is the music, which so far culminated in ‘Device Control’ being described yesterday in the New York Times by Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic Wesley Morris as ‘a dreamy electro-poetic position paper and best song on Frank Ocean’s Endless’. All this will hopefully filter back in some way into my upcoming exhibtion at Regen Projects in Los Angeles, which opens three days before the presidential elections in November. LA has, despite prejudices of superficiality, a visually incredibly sophisticated audience. I now focus all my energy on that exhibition, which will be my eighth solo show in the city since 1995.