Interview: Markus Guentner

Photo by Franziska Holten

1. According to you, has ambient changed since the Pop Ambient 2003 label compilation got released on Kompakt 18 years ago? If so, are those good changes?

Well, it began much earlier with Gas and so on... Ambient music became much more deeper and more complex than before. It opened the way to neo-classic and modern classic, I think. But on the other side (with Pop Ambient), it was a step out to niche into the pop and club context. That change was indeed very good, because it was no longer labelled with just chill-out, it took everything to a much higher and serious level.

2. How much have your music creation methods changed during this period of time?

Not that much, to be honest! Of course, during the last 20 years the technology in music changed immensely. But when I started composing and producing, back in 1997, I used a lot of software (and still using it). Well, sure, now there is better software, better hardware etc. And together with all the experience, you get better results faster.

But, I'm still taking my time to compose and produce. I don't want to make music, just because it's easy and fast to do. I'm searching for sounds, I want to experiment with them. And I'm doing a lot of field recordings.Things like that take a lot of time. And in the end, I want to make music that lasts longer and is not just a quick trend or something.

I think 90% of the time I start making music just out of nothing, if there's the feeling for creating something, I'll sit in front of my equipment and start doing some stuff. Everything just comes out of my mind in that moment. For me, it's not about pushing an idea forward and forward with a specific ending that has to be like I thought about it. Just going with the flow. And it can be so special, when something's happening and you never thought about it before. Well, of course, after some days in progress, there will be things you're putting in or throw in the trash. And it's crazy, that everything always comes together and makes sense in the end.

3. You live in Regensburg, Bavaria. Tell us, what does your normal day look like?

With my self-employed job as a graphic designer, my normal day is quite uninteresting (laughs).

4. You have only had two releases on the Kompakt label: In Moll, and in 2005, an album called 1981. What do you think stopped you from working with this label any further?

In 2008/2009 there was a small personal crisis, that was the time, when music business crashed a bit and it was about making music to release it, making money etc. For me it already began in 2007 after success from my Lovely Society album on Ware Records. I was completely busy, travelled around, played a lot of dj-gigs etc. And after that I was like: OK, most of the experience was really not that good. It was all about consuming music and drinks. I felt some changes, clubs were booking only big names. It was not about the music anymore. And for me it was too much. Do I really want to make and play music just to make money? The answer was "NO!". So I started getting more into graphic design (what I have been doing since that time until now) to pay my rent, my food and only make the music I want to. Getting away from the "business" absolutely opened my mind to new things.

And I think, that was the time, when my musical direction went more towards drone and deeper ambient. I also quit the djing and focused more on playing live. Getting away from the club into a more "concert" situation gave me a good push for my music. Because people don't dance and drink, they just sit and listen to your music. A completely different appreciation of what you are doing.

So, all of that was definitely a reason why there were no new things on Kompakt and so on anymore. But we connected last year for the 20th anniversary for Pop Ambient, that I made a piece of music for.

5. Could you tell us more about your album, 1981? What is the story of its creation, what were you feeling about it back then and what was it inspired by?

The album 1981 was during the time when I was starting with the first releases on Kompakt and Ware. It was after the first wave of success, a lot of bookings etc. I've been in contact and interaction with other artists and labels a lot. I think that was the biggest inspiration and influence on composing and producing this release. When you're on the road and meet a lot of different people and see different places, that inspires you, both consciously and unconsciously. And as I said before, when I'm doing my music, it just comes out of my mind, so everything a result of what I was experiencing during that time.

6. Has your experience as a graphic designer helped you see music and sound from a different angle? Which aspects of your philosophy have changed?

The visual aspect of music, especially artwork on vinyls/CD's and also video clips has always been very important to me! Of course, music works without any visual input, for example when you just close your eyes and listen to music. But when you go shopping for records or play them in clubs, it's such a good thing to have a visual connection to the music. Also when I'm working for clients as a graphic designer, in music business it really needs to fit the music. You can get an idea of the music when you see the artwork. But on the other side the music can give you the pictures for that. But that was always my philosophy and my idea of that. It didn't change that much throughout the years.

7. You've mentioned that working with other artists and labels has left an impression on you. What qualities do you value in people the most?

For me, the most important part is, when artists and labels do their work with love and have fun, and don't just make money or do that because it's "cool". Of course, labels need to make money for their releases, promotion and other things, but you find out pretty quickly, if it's about music or not. I don't do a lot of collaborations, but when I do, there is always a good connection with the artists. And I respect people for their music and artistic creations.

For example, I met Julia Kent a few years ago in Seattle when we played there at the Substrata Festival. I saw her playing and was really impressed with the music and show she did. We had a very good connection right from the start. And on the Empire, we did the track Refraction together.

8. We heard that you haven't been playing live shows since 2017. Why is that? What kind of set-up do you have at the moment?

That definitely comes down to the financial aspect. After Theia release there were some good bookings for live shows. But after Empire there were just 2 or 3 booking requests. The reason for that is quite simple: I've seen that my music is much more popular and sold in the USA and Eastern Europe, and over the last years it became so hard for promoters and organizers to bring artists to their countries, especially when the shows came down to maybe 150-200 people, because ambient is still not really a huge thing for thousands of people. The costs for travelling, hotels, hospitality, fees, visa are immense for a small concert. And for me it would be a lot of work to prepare a live set-up for some kind of tour. It really not worth it to put so much energy and time in it for just 1 or 2 shows. And there was literally no requests from Germany in the last few years. It's really sad, but true. I don't have a booking agency, I do everything on my own. With a booking agency it would be easier, I think. They have all the contacts and can arrange things with the organizers to maybe share costs, but I have no idea about it (laughs).

At the moment there is no specific set-up, but last year I bought some new hardware to use for production and maybe some live stuff.

9. Your latest album came out came out 2 years ago. You've undergone a rather interesting transformation: In your 1981 album the rhythm is present, yet in the last release, Empire, there is no rhythm. What is the reason for that?

Back in the days it was quite interesting to experiment with beats on ambient music. The contrast between the atmospheric lovely sounds and some typical beats and rhythms you know from techno, house and minimal. But now I'm focusing more on the flow of a track, without any limitations from beats or rhythms. Some of my tracks don't even have a specific tempo or time-clock. I did similar stuff like this for the first record, Regensburg 20 years ago. Also, when Heiko Badje and I recorded the Stareaway album, on two tracks we worked on completely different timings and beats in the beginning without even knowing it. The result was surprising and unexpected. So, I definitely want to be more open on that, without restrictions in time and rhythm. But hey, who knows, maybe beats are getting interesting again for me to use some day.

10. Let's talk about field recordings! What kind of devices do you use for recording and what kind of sounds interest you the most?

I've been using Roland R-05 for many years now. It's such a small device with a very good recording quality. The recorder is always in my bag when I leave the house. So when there is an interesting place or a situation, I can record immediately. A nice situation I remember was when I picked up a good friend of mine, just driving around in my car, getting ice cream somewhere and sitting around. We went to a place where trains were passing by. And then there was a train attached to the high-voltage-power line. The train passed by and after that, there was this clear whip/laser sound from the power-line! That was so surprising and amazing for us, so we waited for the next train to record that sound. So, specific sounds you can assign to something are very interesting to me. But also stuff you record and when you listen to it you hear some background things you haven't heard or realized before. You can discover so many interesting sounds while just listening (laughs).

11. Could you tell us if you're working on any new music?

Yes, I'm working on a new album now. I started last year in November and I'm on a good path already. And now there will be a lot of time to work on it. Right now, things are getting crazy.

On one side it's horrible, because my normal job completely broke down, I'm doing the graphics for some local clubs and bars. But with the shutdown, there's nothing to do and of course no income. On the other side there's finally some time for things you haven't been able to do because there was no time. So there will be definitely some new things in the future.

12. We are curious to know, what kind of sound are you planning to give to your new release, and have you come up with a title for it?

Well, there is not that much to say about it yet. I started working on it last year and we will see, where the journey goes. It will connect to the last album in order to continue the story of Theia and Empire. There are already some thoughts and plans about it, but no idea if everything is going to work out in the end.

13. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, the world is on lockdown at the moment. Does self-isolation increase your level of creativity as an artist? What is it like to realize you mustn't meet people in person?

It's definitely a big change... I'm quite and sociable person. I like to invite friends, have a good dinner and some drinks with them. The freedom to do that is not there at the moment. But I can also be perfectly on my own. I never get bored. It is a good time to be creative because there is a lot of time without any hurry. You can try things and play around. I can completely focus on what I'm doing without interruptions or without keeping in mind, that I need to get up early tomorrow, because there's an appointment with a client.

Photo by Franziska Holten

14. Tell us about the live you've recorded for the Data.Wave webzine. If it's not too much of a secret, how is it set up from the technical point of view, and what is the baseline idea behind it? 

For the live improvisation I took some sounds and parts from older set-ups. Most of the time, all the sounds are quiet raw and when I'm playing live I work with a lot of effects and bring everything together and arrange that live. I use Ableton, some effects and controllers (2x Akai Midimix, 1x Akai APC Key 25, 2x Korg NanoKONTOL and 1x Korg Nanopad). It's not a huge set-up, but I think that's because of the travel aspect from back in the days. The idea behind it was to give a good overview of what I'm doing right now, and what I did back in the day. It took about 3 run-ups to get the result we have now. I think it came out quite good.

15. If Kompakt made a proposition for you to come back, would you accept? Or are you one of the people who strictly adhere to the principle of  "there is no way back"?

I need to say, that I'm really happy and thankful to be part of A Strangely Isolated Place. Ryan Griffin gives so much love and energy into the label.and all the other projects. It became such a nice community and family. I think, it's a perfect home for my music. Theia and Empire wouldn't fit that perfectly on Kompakt for example...but yes, sure, why not? When there is the right music for that, I would work with Kompakt, no problem with that. I've been to Cologne last November after a very long time. I met the whole Kompakt crew again. We had a really nice and long talk and of course there is still a connection from our shared history.

Markus Guentner official website
Markus Guentner on Bandcamp
Markus Guentner on Soundcloud
Markus Guentner on Discogs

Questions: Ilya Kudrin