In a recent visual from legendary fine-art imagemaker Wolfgang Tillmans, glistening police truncheons and sniffer dogs flash up in time with a jacking electronic pulse. A video for music producer Oscar Powell’s “Freezer”, it’s a punishing audiovisual display, a cascade of beats and batons that stays with you long after the final throb. Taken from Powell’s latest mini-LP New Beta Vol 1, “Freezer” marks the welcome return one of dance music’s pisstaking beatmaster.
Powell has always released music this way, with a bang. Since quitting his job in advertising three years ago to start his full- time music career, the Londoner launched an aggressively backwards PR campaign – posting his XL Records email address on to a Shoreditch billboard and promising to personally respond to every email about his debut full-length, Sport. Other album-promoting stunts included sending journalists a rider-esque list of requirements for “maximising your interview time with Powell”.
Here, meeting the artist at his home, Tillmans reveals it was the hard-edged attitude of Powell’s music – along with underground beatmakers like Total Freedom – that broke his long sabbatical from music-making, a hobby he had last pursued in the 1980s. The photographer even joined Powell on stage in Berlin this summer to debut their collaborative project. “(Powell is) clearly part of a new generation of musicians – it was part of the stimulation for me to make music again,” says Tillmans, who also makes glacial synth-pop as a solo producer. “There was something new happening.”
Catch the duo tonight at Club-to-Club festival in Turin, and read their conversation for Dazed’s autumn/winter issue, below.
Powell: What do you think makes for a good collaboration?
Wolfgang Tillmans: I don’t collaborate with other artists much in the visual field, except for Isa Genzken, the German sculptor. When our works are exhibited together, they look great. They talk to each other, even though we didn’t create them like that. In one way, all my work is by me – but, of course, there is help and dialogue in the making of it. There are friends, there are assistants. The major ideas are all mine – but at the same time, without certain bits, if they hadn’t been contributed by a friend or assistant, I wouldn’t be exactly where I am now. I’m able to acknowledge that now.
P: Your debt to these occurrences?
WT: Yeah. For example, the famous Lutz and Alex pictures, of those two people sitting in the tree. Without their minds, the picture would not have happened. On the one hand, it’s a very solo activity, but at different stages of the process there are collaborative moments. It’s important to listen to others, not only to talk or broadcast. With music, I’ve found that so touching: that, when you’re in a room with others making music, you literally have to listen to them.
P: I think this is what I learned working with you, to be honest. Two years ago I was probably a different person. I was super-arrogant, I had such incredible belief in my own music – which I wish I still had – when we started working together. The first few things we tried were clearly me going, ‘No, this is how it should be done.’ It was only when I really started to listen to your voice... It was amazing just allowing myself to listen for a second, opening up more, changing the direction we took all this music in. It made me feel something totally different about myself and the music we make. I guess that’s when a collaboration is great, when someone can teach you something and you can meet somewhere in the beginning, in the end and in the middle. Because your voice is incredibly beautiful.
P: When we first got together for work, I take it you didn’t know much about what I was doing?
P: Which is the funny thing. Obviously, I knew your work – I’d been to your new exhibition and absolutely loved it – but really we were coming at each other not knowing what the fuck was going to happen. So there was a period of time when you weren’t creating anything musical?
WT: Twenty-eight years... From 1986 to 2014.
P: What triggered you back into it?
WT: I always kept the love for music. Obviously, it’s everywhere in my work. Since ’99 I’ve been DJing occasionally, but always as a rare activity in order to keep it special. I didn’t want a career (in music). But then, in 2014, I felt this need for a different...
WT: Outlet, yeah.
P: How is it going from being one of the most recognised faces in one field to moving into another field entirely? Does that create an unusual sense of pressure for you – like you have something to lose?
WT: Big-time. I find I’m always critical when an actor starts painting or a musician starts acting. Being good in one field boosts your confidence – that’s why people go wrong so many times. So I mistrusted my impulse and wanted to make sure that it wasn’t bullshit. When I released my first record (2016 / 1986) almost a year ago it got attention, but not any kind of surprise. I mean, it was a surprise, but no one said, ‘Where does this come from?’ It felt natural to people.
P: Because you’d been engaged with music throughout that time anyway – it wasn’t like you were jumping into something.
WT: Yes. It felt more natural than I ever would have anticipated.
P: Well, let’s see how our gig goes.
WT: It’s in Berlin, which is kind of a home for me. It could be hugely embarrassing. Because it’s full of musicians there – they’re highly critical.
P: There are a lot of shit ones there, as well.
WT: I personally don’t like London and Berlin comparisons, but since you are a specialist – and we’re talking about a field – it’d be interesting to hear your take. I think London has a diversity in music that no other city in Europe has.
P: I think that’s definitely true. My experience is that the problem with London is that diversity. It feels like there’s so much of everything, you can see it whenever you want – so people end up going to nothing, because they can always go to something the next day. It feels very splintered to me. Also, I find with London – and all I can do is speak from my own experience – that it’s almost as if, rather than wanting people to succeed, everyone wants everyone else to fail.
WT: But is that true? From travelling and from working in different cultures, I find people say that a lot about their own cultures.
“I’m not listening that much to other contemporary music. I don’t see myself as part of anything” - Powell
P: I have anxiety, like any artist – that feeling that it’s not turning out like you desperately want it to. Maybe that’s what makes me think that’s how the city is, when actually it’s not. Berlin is just totally different, isn’t it? I go to Berlin, do a gig. My experience is then: see all my friends, go to a great place, go to a great club, get totally wrecked, think everything’s amazing, go home. But the thing about Berlin is it’s very easy to end up doing nothing – because you don’t have to fight to stay alive quite like you do in London. Suddenly you’ve spent two years there and what have you got to show for it? I’ve always quite liked that about London, that frantic pace.
WT: So we’ve ended up generalising again and reaffirming all the stereotypes about these two cities, because it can’t be true. Berlin is obviously more than just doing nothing – people are working and making things there. And London is also about much more than just work, even if that’s what it’s now most famous for – being a pleasureless city.
P: Still, I think it’s an incredible city for working hard. Every time when I come home on a plane from a show and I’m flying over it, I feel so happy to live here – and fortunate as well.
WT: How do you arrive at the complexity of your tracks?
P: I think it’s (to do with) the way I started making music. Growing up in the late 90s, early 00s, listening to jungle and drum and bass, everyone had a computer. Just a shitty old PC with a cracked copy of Cubase, illegally downloaded off whatever fucking applications we used to use for stealing things. We should have bought it. But my experience is that, if you go to Italy or America, everyone grew up with machines or guitars. Whereas in London you’d grab a computer and anything was possible. Starting with a computer as a primary tool affords you a degree of complexity which you don’t get with machines. You can focus on minute, granular detail. With the computer-based approach, that’s where my interest in edits and focusing on the tiniest little details comes from.
WT: When you say ‘machines’, you mean synthesisers – instruments.
P: Yeah. It becomes loose. You can’t have the same degree of complexity.
WT: I’m trying to figure out the appeal of this extremely edited type of music.
P: Is that what it sounds like to you? For instance, is your impression of New Beta Vol 1 that it’s a complex record – or is that something you think comes with later listens? ’Cos the intention for me is never to create complex music.
WT: No, it’s just a sense that a lot of the traction of your music – and your contemporaries’ music – comes from this detailed or fractured approach. As opposed to in the 80s, when there would be long synth carpets and layers. In and out.
P: Now it’s all very tight. For me, there’s so much music out there; you can create these synth carpets – just put some plug-ins on a channel, put a reverb on it, a delay and suddenly you’ve got something really deep, beautiful and organic. Whereas if you decide as an artist that you’re really into detail, then that is your way of distinguishing yourself. To do that in a way that’s interesting clearly requires time.
WT: That’s what I want to get at. Why are artists and musicians moving in this direction? On the one hand, you are clearly unique, but on the other, you’re part of a new generation of musicians. Total Freedom is another one. I got really excited in 2014. It was part of the stimulation for me to make music again. There was something new happening.
P: There must be some sort of bigger reason why there is this kind of trend that you’ve observed among musicians, but the strange thing is that I’m almost not aware. I’m not listening that much to other contemporary music. I don’t see myself as part of anything – simply because I haven’t got the time, really. I’m always making music.
WT: So, New Beta – is that tongue-in-cheek called Volume 1, or are you setting it up for a sequel?
P: It’s indefinite, really. New Beta was just a way of me forgetting what I’d done and trying to start again and explore. Like, ‘What does Powell look like after he’s done everything Powell was meant to do?’ I love that feeling with art where you break through to that point of, ‘OK, now I feel like I’m seeing something different again.’ That was really what New Beta was about – creating a way for me to do new stuff.
WT: Since the (EU) referendum, have you often found yourself in the uncomfortable position of defending something that your country voted for but you didn’t?
P: Generally, within the artistic community, I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t believe in being together and creating ventures between people, not putting a wall up around everything. I never had to defend myself within the context of music. But (among) people I grew up with, sure. People I went to school with who are completely different from me. What about your school friends? Did they have similar beliefs to you?
WT: I went to this school graduation anniversary – 30 years on from leaving high school – and, yeah, you don’t really talk intensely about politics. There was a sense that they were all fairly centrist. That is a specificity of German society, that it is central – not polarised.
P: But right now you’re working on a campaign that is designed to restrict the influence of the (German far-right) party called –
WT: Alternative für Deutschland.
P: You obviously did the (pro-remain Brexit poster campaign, emblazoned with phrases like ‘What is lost is lost forever’), and were heavily involved in (the EU referendum) last year. Was your work always political? Did you always feel that kind of responsibility as an artist?
WT: I felt a responsibility to the society that I live in and enjoy – and the freedoms I enjoy that had been fought for by people in the past. Clearly, they were not always there. The arts and pop culture have a direct connection to politics (through things like) sexual liberation, women’s rights and drugs, which are all directly rooted in political attitudes.
P: They’re dependent, in a way.
“(Powell is) part of a new generation of musicians. It was part of the stimulation for me to make music again. There was something new happening” - Wolfgang Tillmans
WT: Yes – and very connected. Which doesn’t mean that art has to campaign. I think art is probably best when it doesn’t campaign, so I haven’t really done that – even though I have gotten involved in journalism. That was an act of choice as an artist, (because) I wanted to talk about club music and the freedom that acid house and all of that brought to me and to other people’s lives. That was something I could talk about in magazines much more directly than in an art gallery. In a way, the journalist in me was always political, but I was not a full-blown speaker in supporting causes over the years. But Brexit was different, because it was basically a full-on attack on the model that I based my life on – a postwar, pan-European life. I moved to Britain in 1990 and, even though there was a war in former Yugoslavia, the rest of the European nations realised, ‘Yes, we are all together here and going for a better, brighter future.’ Twenty-five years onwards, that was 100 per cent under attack – I just couldn’t stay neutral. Nobody in the UK was prepared to speak positively about this vision, this European idea. No one here felt prepared to say, ‘I like it, actually – it’s a good thing.’
P: You’ve done so many of these magazine things over the years, you probably have a slight aversion to them now.
WT: I just have a realistic take on them – it is what it is. I don’t have an aversion to it, because that’s the journalistic side of me. Wanting to publish something in order to amplify an idea. Or, if I’m the subject in the same medium, I can use it to say something. But the dynamics of it are sometimes painful when you hear yourself repeating the same things. Because you get a sense of self-disgust hearing yourself as a third person. Those alterations to the mind are not positive. In a way, one has to say ‘What do I care?’ and really take charge of the interviews – because you are a vocal person, you are speaking about things and have ideas about the world.
P: I actually quite enjoy the process of doing interviews and being asked to talk about things. It can make you try and put into words things that you don’t necessarily (think about) all the time. I like talking about art and things that people care about, you know? I always enjoy it when people are willing to engage. It’s about choosing your moments, I suppose. Where’s your t-shirt from?