Filed under: Interview
Over twenty years in the business have taught Maximilian Lenz one thing – every artist, no matter how famous, at some point has to come to terms with the reality that, in his own words, “most of the planet doesn’t care about you”. A vaguely fatalistic view for one of the frontrunners of the German techno movement, a phenomenon that for many was to fill the void left by its precursor and musical cousin, Rock and Roll. So Westbam was born, a moniker that merged the name of his birthplace (Westphalia) with his favourite musical influence (Afrika Bambaataa), in a bygone age when the letters ‘DJ’ conjured images for most people of prematurely balding men playing Duran Duran at a school disco, usually lifting the stylus mid-track to announce down the PA ‘thanks for coming, drive safely’. How the world changed, and Max is certainly one to have charted this course.
From the founding of Low Spirit Recordings in 1988, and his first single “Monkey Say Monkey Do”, to infamous classics like “No More Fucking Rock and Roll”, Max has been nothing short of an inspiration and a mentor to generations of artists, but perhaps his greatest legacy will be the founding of Berlin techno Mecca and sweatfest Love Parade. The release of his latest album “Do You Believe In The Westworld?” joins a long list of acclaimed production work, and continues to push the creative envelope, with one foot still firmly in the rock camp, as envisaged on tracks like Velvet Underground’s “Sunday Morning”. We chatted to Max at ageHa last month, where it quickly became apparent that twenty years of spinning goes a long way, and the self-confessed ‘old-fashioned geezer who still buys vinyl’ can still rock a club of ageHa’s stature to the ground.
Interview by Matt Cotterill
HigherFrequency (HRFQ) : Well thanks for talking to us Max. It has been 5 months since you were last in Japan, at ‘Wire’ I think. How have you been since then ?
Westbam : It has been quite a busy year, done an album, you know, been doing a lot of recording, the usual routine, you know, making records and playing them.
HRFQ : How many ‘Wire’s’ has it been ?
Westbam : Well I think I am the only guy from Europe that has played at every ‘Wire’…..How many years has it been ?
HRFQ : Seven, I think. If you have done every ‘Wire’ then it is seven.
Westbam : Ok, I have done seven.
HRFQ : Are you going to do eight ?
Westbam : Yeah, for sure! If they ask me, sure. In fact even if they don’t ask me I might just turn up ! Ha ha! “Excuse me I’m on next” [ironic]
HRFQ : With the album ‘Do You Believe In The Westworld’ there is quite a ‘Rock’ angle on it, with the song ‘Sunday Morning’, Velvet Underground, can you tell us the kind of influence ‘Rock’ gave you for this piece of work ?
Westbam : Yeah, well to some extent you could see it that techno culture has ended ‘rock and roll’. Or you could say, the other way round, that it took over from where ‘Rock’ left off. I always felt there was something whereby the basic meaning of ‘Rock and Roll’ culture and the basic meaning of ‘Techno’ culture were the same – energy and the feeling of ecstasy. Mick Jagger said it about the sixties, ‘if it is about one thing then it is the feeling of ecstasy’, and in a way techno culture took over form there, with a few new meanings. But again to some extent for a long time ‘Rock and Roll’ was obviously the anti-idea to electronic music. And after all these years recently I have felt a kind of clicking together again you know.
HRFQ : Great. We have Westbam, Westworld, now we had an idea, that with ‘Do You Believe In The Westworld’, there was a double meaning ?
Westbam : Actually when I started DJing in ’83, there was a record out called ‘Do You Believe In The Westworld’ from a group called ‘Theatre of Hate’ from England, and I used to play this record, and over the years I had forgotten about it, I guess to some extent it came up again in my mind due to all the recent discussion about Western values. Basically through the political situation I guess. Whereas I didn’t really want to make a political statement I just thought that being Western and with all the discussion going on I thought it was a great album title for myself.
HRFQ : Do you believe in it yourself ?
Westbam : Yes I do. To some extent. But the double meaning for me was also there, ‘Do you believe in my own personal sound/world’, and my ideas about where electronic music is going, and so on. I don’t really want to elaborate so much on it because as the cover shows, I would like it to be kind of surrealistic title rather than making a strong, simple, political statement, that is why it was a question. It is meant in a more psychedelic way, somewhere between Westbam and Westworld, flashing different things, something that people can associate a lot of different things with, you know.
HRFQ : I thought it was some kind of rhetorical question, on a personal level. I mean there are fans of yours who will be buying this anyway and then the title is ‘Do You Believe In The West-world’ and that could be on a personal level [The West-Bam world], so we thought it could be a kind of rhetorical question.
Westbam : Well as far as the question ‘Do You Believe In The Westworld ?’ and the Westbam’ sound/world, then you know there are about six billion people on the planet, and most of them don’t take any interest in my songs, and the same with most artists, most of the planet doesn’t care about you. So I mean that is something every artist has to cope with, because most artists want to speak to the world to some extent and want to excite everybody about their work. And I’m sure there are a lot of people out there who actually don’t believe in the WestBam world. So in that way I don’t even think it is a rhetorical question because I know there are people out there who take an interest in a million other things, not my music.
HRFQ : You have had a career which spans a very long time, and looking at when you began in the early eighties we have seen tremendous changes in technology, we have seen tremendous changes in the attitude, the journalistic attitude, the going back to ‘news of the superstar DJ’ kind of thing, what is your take on the ‘then’ and the ‘now’ in a nutshell, the pro’s and cons’ ?
Westbam : Obviously it is a completely different situation, when I started, the concept of a DJ being taken seriously as an artist was quite unheard of. I mean it started in the eighties, although in the seventies DJ’s started doing the first remixes of records and stuff, so the early eighties is when this whole culture developed and found itself. Now twenty years later, obviously these days you don’t have to explain to so many people anymore, that a DJ can actually be an artist and all of that. That’s a good thing. And when people talk about DJ stardom, I always kind of try to make the point that a DJ should be taken seriously as an artist. Not every DJ, but the DJ who tries to be an artist. And stardom comes with that to some extent. And that part for me is like a dream come true, but then again the way that this kind of thing has been invented and created…[is not good] You now, some DJ’s are doing their boring routine, playing records for 30 minutes and getting like a million dollars for it and playing predictable records, so obviously there is a lot of hype around a lot of things, but I personally don’t chase it, my ideas about music just don’t agree with that you know. But I can see it on an an abstract level as a sign of the quality and the size of the culture. You know it can be seen from so many different angles, even with the stuff I disagreed upon, personally, or on a taste level, is still appreciated as a sign of the extent of the variety there is in this whole new created world.
HRFQ : Excellent. As a pioneer of the German dance music scene, recent years have seen quite a lot of interest in Germany, quite a lot of DJ’s are looking there for inspiration and ideas, what is your take on the current wave of younger German DJ’s coming through ?
Westbam : Well you know coming from the city of Berlin it is even sometimes hard to keep up, because every week when I go to a record shop I can see flyers of DJ so-and-so and DJ so-and-so, and I am like, I have never heard of these DJ’s before you know! But again for me this is a good sign, there are always new people reinventing things for themselves, and wannabe DJ’s who want to record stuff and try a new style and whatever. And that’s a good thing. I can’t really fathom it all because there is so much going on and when you DJ yourself on the weekend – like I do most of the time – sometimes it is a bit difficult [to catch what else is going on], sometimes I think I am missing out, like sometimes I think I should take a weekend off and just listen to other people rather than just spinning myself all the time you know. That might be a good plan for next year.
HRFQ : That might be good preparation for ‘Wire 8’.
Westbam : Yeah, take some time out and listen to some other people for a change, rather than just listening to myself all the time you know.
HRFQ : Max, your friend Takkyu Ishino, you have known for a long time, and in the Japanese techno scene he has almost been untouchable for a lot of other producers who want to follow him. What do you think has been his big appeal, not just in Japan – what’s the magic ?
Westbam : Well I think that is true of most personality DJ’s that they manage to get across their own personality in their music, whether they are playing their own records or other people’s records, they can manage to get their own personality across, and that is true for Takkyu. He is just a guy, but he lets you know how he feels about things by playing music. And when I listen to him I recognize him all the time. He will always be special and will always be recognizable and I think if you manage to make your own personal statement by playing other people’s records, that’s…[great]. I think that is true of all the great DJ’s.
HRFQ : Is that the advice you would give to any up and coming DJ’s ?
Westbam : Well that would be it, and then again, I guess it is hard to give advice because people have to find their own thing anyway . To some extent the advice is ‘don’t take advice’. But I think in the end – and I could say this thinking about most people, I can’t think of an example where it is not true – to feel feel the personality of that person is what makes it special. Because a lot of people can play this great tune or that great tune, a DJ is somebody who plays it in a different way and makes you feel something about it which you might not have felt before.
HRFQ : Excellent. Ok last question – the MP3 download situation has hit the market, what is your take on this, and do you still buy vinyl ?
Westbam : Well I am that old-fashioned geezer who still buys vinyl you know. And for me I have been asked this question a lot of times, and I must admit I was thinking ‘shall I get into all this Final Scratch thing’, and I said, well for me, I could do it, but then again, I think the quality of somebody spinning for twenty years, is his record collection and his knowledge that is there. So for me to change my format would probably not make my possibilities in anyway richer, and would in some sense cut me off from my own history you know. And so I decided not to get into that. But then again, it’s a different story for younger DJ’s. If I was a teenage DJ then it would be a different story, and I would do exactly that. Get in to Final Scratch and stuff, be wise on the internet, they should be downloading records as they are playing records from the comfort of your own home, playing to twenty clubs at the same time, or whatever. There are a lot of things I think about that are going to happen in the future you know, I always think there is something very interesting and special about the art of Djing as it has been developing from vinyl. As vinyl becomes an obscure sound source I think it will still be something real and something interesting for people to follow. So actually I don’t see vinyl going completely away because, in a similar sense great classic things don’t go away you know. Just like you want to see a legendary blues musician playing his guitar, you wouldn’t want him to get into the internet or start using a synthesizer or whatever, you know, or to say ‘I am taking blues to the next level’. Ha ha! But you know I see this in other art forms, there are still great painters around you know, now obviously new technology always opens that window for new things, but it doesn’t mean that a painter would necessarily now have to get into computer painting to do art you know. Then again new technology brings new artists. It is not a question of the artists already there now having to change to this form or that form in order to be ‘state of the art’.
HRFQ : Well Max, that is a very endearing philosophy, and we also support that. It has been really good talking to you, we want to wish you the best for your future career, and thank you very much !
Westbam : Thank you.
End of the interview
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