Paul Birken is a true champion of the techno scene. Ever since I first stumbled across a live mix of his years ago I’ve been hooked on all his stuff. Having been on the scene for over 15 years, the Minneapolis producer has a body of work behind him that’s most producers on the scene would kill for. Never compromising, he’s been consistently releasing tune after tune of no nonsense techno on labels such as Communique, his own Tonewrecker imprint and Don’t Records. Next month also sees Birken and fellow Minnesotian Freddy Fresh release their split E.P. Midwestern Whippersnappers on Irish label Earwiggle, run by Sunil Sharpe. It’s four glorious tracks of belting electronic noodlings.
This Friday the 26th, Birken makes his debut UK appearance at the Don’t Halloween party. Always armed with a case of hardware, he’s sure to deliver a full on live techno assault on the 512 Bar in Dalston. Having never thought I’d catch him live, I’m very excited for what’s in store and with the likes of Lukes Anger, Jerome Hill, Uberdog and Ireland’s very own P-Hocto (also making his Don’t debut!) also on the line up, nothing can go wrong. All for only £7 as well!! We are very privileged and delighted to have an exclusive interview with the producer ahead of the gig to discuss the past, present and future.
The Don’t gig on the 26th will be your first time in the UK and with a full live hardware set no less. What can people expect from it? Why has it taken you so long to come over?
I’ve been creating sounds and beats for this show the past week or so. I generally delete everything after I perform so I can put together fresh things for upcoming performances. People should expect a runaway train that is (hopefully) staying on the rails long enough to get people to the end of the set. Analog noises, other bits of classic tracks I love that I pull from to rework into something new for a show. I try to leave myself open and not focus specifically on one concrete style. If something starts getting people going on the floor, then I can expand on that with the gear and keep it morphing into a direction that might not have initially been aiming for.
Concerning the delay in getting over the UK, I think I needed to get my Fun-In-the-Murky hat from Trevor Wilkes. I’ve got the hat now, so plane tickets followed. Things just lined up right finally.
How did you get interested in making music?
Always been drawn to sounds, noises, beats, rhythm. Commodore-64 was used for school work in the eighties, but at night while the world slept I was sequencing stuff and enjoying being able to create things on my own terms. You suddenly realise that machines are around that allow you to create what you are hearing in productions you like. Then after learning how to emulate you get into the fun uncharted territory…. Sonic Adventureland. I think music making is part of my general outlook..I started skateboarding when I was in 1st grade and then snowboarding around 87’ (had to hike up the hills back then), but always building what I wanted to launch off of. Writing electronic music falls right in with that whole “express yourself through creation / no rules” aspect. The biggest hurdle as a young novice was that it took me a long time to save up money to buy gear over the years working after-school jobs.
Your gigs are different in the sense that you don’t DJ records and only play out live. I’ve read you own a lot of vinyl but are DJ sets something that don’t appeal to you? Do you prefer the live aspect?
I never learned how to mix records so I think it would have dire consequences for keeping a party going. Have just owned a single turntable so I can listen to records and piles of CD’s that inspire, frustrate, amuse and challenge me. Playing live is a way to challenge myself as well. Things never go as planned so I enjoy seeing what can be made from it. This probably makes it sound more scary than it actually is. I had a person pull the wires out from a piece of gear once so I was trying to reconnect things while keeping the set going. Just stuff like that.
What gear will you bringing with you on the night to perform live?
Flight restrictions concerning luggage mean I have to keep the grand piano with the trained mice dancing on the wires at home. I’ll need to track down a suitable replacement or two.
You’ve been putting out quality techno records for over 15 years. What big changes have you noticed in the scene in that time?
First release was in 95’ and it was such a great feeling to be at a party and hear someone play your track and get to experience the crowd reaction. Still satisfying to this day. I think the vast feedback posted online is a big change. You’re able to connect to so many interesting people. The plus side is also getting to follow links to releases you would never have tracked down, or even discovered these days. I find it very inspiring to get into people’s postings to find new things to listen to. My friends have great taste in music which I get to dig through.
What is the most important element to you when putting a tune together?
Generally, I would say that you need to feel what the groove of the track is with whatever the first part you work on. I generally split my studio time into different modes. Some nights it is just sound creation. Letting the machines stream to disk for hours while creating sounds, beats, noises, etc. Then I’ll have “seek and edit some interesting bits” time another night where I just listen back through and find something that jumps out at me. No regard for tempo. I make bundles of audio goodies. Lots of things get deleted though. If I’m not feeling it, then goodbye. Another day I’ll start working through the goody bag and see where the track leads itself.
What do you make of the current state of the electronic music scene in the U.S.? With people like Deadmaus playing residencies in Las Vegas it seems to be taking over the mainstream. Is the underground scene still alive and well?
Some people seem to be cashing in. I don’t follow it very closely so I don’t have too much to say about it. I prefer to be down in the dark where you find more interesting things happening. There are a lot of dwellers in this cellar and in that regards the underground scene will always be thriving.
You’ve been running Tonewrecker Recordings since 2001. What was the ethos when you started it? What’s on the horizon for the label?
It was started with an opportunity to put out some of the musical ideas I had and get the cool demos I was receiving from my contemporaries out. Dietrich at Complete Distribution in NYC handled the early releases and then it moved over to the VETO crew with Harvey Lane. That was followed by Cynthia Stern now offering to host the digital catalog and make it available to people through the input/output site. They are all top notch guys and put a lot of work in with getting the releases out to people. I’ve been fortunate to be able to work with them. It was really an interesting run and I’m thankful to them for that opportunity to give it a go. Tonewrecker as a label is shelved for any future releases now. I prefer to focus on creating music and collaborating with others on projects.. I am comfortable admitting I am not a businessman.
Is this your full time job? How hard is it to sustain a career off making truly underground music?
I’ve never looked at music as a way to sustain myself or my family. Occasional opportunities to travel and meet interesting people while sharing a performance or studio collaboration is a great bonus round when it occurs.
What advice would you have for budding producers?
1. Learn a single machine, or focus on a specific software plugin at a time. It can be easy to keep going “I need this now, Whoa..what’s that new thing that just came out..If I just get that piece of kit then I’ll be set..” It is a cycle that will kill the creation process since new stuff will continually be coming out.
2. The owners manual is your friend and delete all the presets so you learn how to create a sound from scratch.
3. Program lots of patch changes as part of your synth lines. Some machines can handle them and some can’t, but you’ll at least get some interesting things occurring. Advice always feels odd. I don’t want to kill anyone’s mistakes. Some of the best things come about because an idea doesn’t work out as planned.
How do you approach a remix?
I like to listen to the original track on a variety of speakers/locations and at different levels. Try to get a feel for what aspect of the track pops out at me.
How do you feel you’ve evolved as a producer over the years? Where do you think you fit into the whole techno movement?
I’m faster at throwing out my projects/ideas that aren’t forming into something. I’m out in La La Land, but I do have a day pass to visit other areas of the amusement park freely.
What producers/labels could you recommend?
I recommend listening to as much as you can of everything.
What’s in the pipeline for the next while?
Decent chunk of vinyl releases all just out or coming out soon with digital following for those who prefer it.
Clemens Neufeld “Acid Is” remix
Freddy Fresh and I have a release on Sunil Sharpe’s Earwiggle label called Midwest Whippersnappers out soon.
Various artist EP on Flatlife Records offshoot Basement.
Axel Sohn is running a new project/label call Mind Cut which has a double 12” of various artists.
Some other remixes that recently came my way too which I’m excited about and collaborations with friends.
Surfin’ Superior Volume 2 double pack which is nearly completed.
Really just enjoying life with my amazing family and seeing where the next round of music leads to.
Earwiggle’s a great label to be releasing on. How did this come about and what can people expect from it?
Sunil and I have been in contact for many years. He’s just one of those people you enjoy getting to work with in the scene. Complete heart in the music and doing things properly and treating other artists well. He provided a killer track for one of the previous Tonewrecker compilations and would occasionally send me other stuff to check out.
A few years back he and I started a conversation about doing a release on his label and Freddy and I were starting to finally get our schedules sorted to work out studio time together. I was submitting some of the things to Sunil who provided some feedback about which ones may work for release on the label. I think it turned into a cool mix of tracks since Freddy and I both do such varied music at times. We both are serious gear heads and enjoy working hands on with the machines in the early stages and then moving it into software for editing. People should expect wild sounds and interesting edits within the tracks. I had posted a message to Fred about finding “loose change in the couch cushions” going through our stuff. This Earwiggle release kicking off more joint techno projects for Freddy and I. It is just fun since it has really lit a fire in myself and Freddy to push the gear into new areas between our studio setups.
Finally, what are you most looking forward to about visiting London and why should people come and see you play?
I’m psyched to get to attend one of the Don’t parties. People shouldn’t come see me play, they should help keep the train from derailing by dancing on the tracks to avert disaster. If it completely falls apart I will try out some stand up comedy floating on a bed of bass.
Big up to Paul Birken for the interview and make sure to come down to the 512 Bar in Dalston on Friday night. You can buy tickets here and click the poster below for more information!!