VOLTAGE Podcast 14 - Benjamin Damage LIVE
Benjamin Damage’s sound is very easily recognizable : a clear mix of influences stemming from time spent between London and Berlin is dominated by his UK roots that pummel tunneling percussion through astral melodics. Known for his computerless live sets that have been touring the world since 2014, Damage’s releases and performances have maintained a close relationship that are equally impressive.
As an extension of an incredible and exclusive live set he cooked up for us, we also had the pleasure of having a chat with him. Have a read if you want to get in depth information on his machines, how he got the keys to Modeselektor’s studio when they barely knew him, how he started making techno and how he does it now among so many other things.
Your style has evolved since your first release Heliosphere, no doubt. However, the compromise you make between punchier UK techno and the more Berlin-style ambiences has been a signature of yours from your early records to the last. Are there specific artists you feel that have helped shape your style? What do you listen to now?
I think a lot of it comes from going out to clubs and playing live. Just seeing crowd reactions and getting the energy. If you release a record, it’s fixed in time, but if you play live you can update it - you can change how you play it. The more obvious thing is that people like more tempo than before. Also, big breakdowns were very popular years ago, but now crowds get kind of bored of a 2-minute breakdown. You can change the tracks that you’ve done and make them so that they work in the environment you’re playing. It’s a two way thing between you and the crowd; it’s still the same track, the essence is exactly the same. That’s what’s exciting about playing live, you can keep it modernizing it and changing it. You can make it fit the night. And tastes change... my tastes change. When I listen to a track I released 8 years ago, it’s like ‘why is it so slow?’ [laughs].
Yeah, the conversation around techno’s rise in tempo these past years is becoming increasingly relevant. Everything seems to be speeding up no matter where you’re looking - the more industrial stuff in France as well as the funky/deeper techno like Rene Wise, or what the guys in Portugal are doing - it’s all faster.
I think some people do it in a good way, and others do it in a more cheesy way. You mentioned Rene Wise - he can keep the groove. He still keeps the soul in it, even though it’s faster than old techno. That style really appeals to me, I don’t like very mechanical, fast stuff. It’s just my personal opinion.
You have this style sometimes in your music where you alternate between heavy percussive sections and pure melody, and it’s a signature that’s very reflective of your UK upbringing. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that your music had an atmospheric touch to it when considering that you moved to Berlin a while back. Can you credit certain artists or movements with having influenced your style?
Yeah, the dance music I first got into was quite bassy. You would have the drums, they would build, and then you’d have the melody. It would be very jarring. I think that is the UK style, to be quite dramatic and cut everything out to put the melody in, and then you just take the melody out and slam the drums in. That is a part of my sound, but I don’t think you can do that as much through a set anymore. People can kind of switch off after a while. Now, I would do a breakdown and maybe keep the drums in, but take the bass out. Just keep the movement going, the groove going, but then filter it back in. Do that rather than being so stark, as in taking everything out and having the melody. It used to work fantastically well, but it’s the kind of thing you learn from reading a crowd. If you’re in front of a UK crowd that used to like rewinds and jungle, you can do that. Other crowds are used to 12 hour sets that fit together very well. That’s the great thing about playing live, you can adapt to your environment.
When I first started trying to make techno properly, the Modeselektor guys were like ‘make some techno, see how it goes!’. And then I released this track many years ago, Delirium Tremens, and they got Robert Hood to remix it. It was amazing, it was a proper techno lesson, you know? He did it quite quickly, all on hardware. I met him in Paris and he was really charming saying ‘It was such an honor remixing your track’ and I was like ‘What? An honor for you?!’ cause I was such a fanboy [laughs]. But that was a good lesson in how to take your elements and make them work on a dancefloor, because his version was a lot better than mine. It was like ‘This is how to make techno, learn from the master!’ [laughs].
You opened and closed Modeselektor’s cult label concept 50 Weapons, went on to legendary label R&S, two records on Len Faki’s Figure imprint, and a very successful release on ARTS. As mentioned before, we see that you’ve changed your style quite a bit and have been able to make very relevant music. How do you see the evolution of your career since 2010 where are you headed?
It has been quite tough during the whole COVID thing, because I did get a lot of inspiration from playing out and going out… It has been a little bit depressing, the whole thing. This year we’re only starting to starting to get back out and get to making music again. I think I’m going to continue with Figure and I still have a good relationship with ARTS. I think it’s really important to have trust in the people you’re working with. That they get you and you get them, which is not always the case - sometimes people are always fighting, which is not a good thing. It’s better to work with people than against them. Obviously, I could say my dream label or collaborators, but I think a personal connection is very important. I had a good relationship with the Modeselektor guys. It’s just nice to have that kind of atmosphere.
That’s the atmosphere that a lot of us felt around the 50Weapons label. It was this random bar idea to run an imprint for 50 releases and call it quits that they actually went through with... and it ended up acquiring a cult following, as a result. There’s a funny moment in Modeselektor’s Snacks and Tracks episode where Szary refers to you as his son. How did you guys get to know each other?
A long time ago, they were playing an early demo I had at Fabric when I was living in London. They actually made it a part of their live show, they really loved that thing. So I went, and I saw them outside the club and went up to them. I think I was a little bit drunk, I don’t know [laughs], but they looked a little bit worried as I came up. They probably thought I was some crazed fan or something - Gernot gave me a really weird look. I told them I had made that track and then they understood, gave me their email and told me to send them some music. Nothing happened for a few years after that. I sent music, but there was no contact, no ‘thanks’ or ‘I’ll listen to it’. Suddenly, out of the blue, it’s like ‘Oh yeah, we want to put this out - we’ll sign it, here’s the contract!’. I didn’t understand at the time how many emails you get when you’re a DJ or anything. For them, it must have been email overload, which is why I understand why they ignored everything until they found something that they liked. So that’s really how I started releasing with them. They were great, very helpful. They helped me move to Berlin and let me and Doc Daneeka use their studio when they were touring. They were super open and trusting and had this amazing studio right by Alexanderplatz. They had all their 303’s and synths, and they said ‘Yeah, just have it! Here are the keys!’. They didn’t know who we were particularly, but they were really trusting… [laughs]
Did you end up recording much over there?
Yeah, the first record with Doc Daneeka - the collaborative album ‘They Live!’ was mostly recorded in that studio. They had this mini studio next door which we were in when they were in the big studio.
Were any solo records made there? No Heliosphere or Obsidian?
No, I had my own studio when I was doing my solo stuff.
They have always been about pushing forward other artists and now Szary’s got the new rehashed label [Seilscheibenpfeiler Schallplatten] with crazy releases by Dettmann and Fadi Mohem among others.. Do you see yourself continuing to work with those two or has that page turned?
What’s the new label called? [laughs]
Don’t ask me.. I can’t pronounce it!
Apparently even in German it’s quite hard to pronounce!
I’m not even going to try… but it definitely matches their universe to name a label like that! Would you be interested in releasing there? It sounds like your music could be a good fit.
Yeah! I’m definitely up to working with them again. I had a great time working with them before. I didn’t want 50Weapons to end. It got really big right before it closed. We had some wonderful nights and the atmosphere was great… and then it was all over. The decision was made.
They considered to keep it going right?
They did, yeah. But they both have kids and their families, they have the Monkeytown label, Modeselektor, and Moderat… so it’s a lot. It’s a lot to juggle.
How do you choose to do a live set as opposed to a DJ set and what do they bring to you?
It’s not always my choice. Sometimes I’m redoing the live set so I only want to do DJ gigs for a while. But if there’s space for it and it works, I’m always happy to play live. DJing is so different for me. It pushes you to keep looking for new material. When you’re actually DJing, it’s quite relaxing. Playing live, and maybe it’s different with a computer setup, with the way it’s set up there’s no recorded structure. If I stop touching things, it would be on an endless bar loop. You don’t want it to get boring, so you have to keep moving. It’s quite an intense experience, it feels more like a performance. It’s more difficult to perform than a DJ set. I quite often find that when I finish doing a live set I just have so much energy running through my body, I can’t just go back and sleep. I have to sort of decompress - there’s just so much energy, so much adrenaline.
That must be a part of the appeal of doing live sets. The constant interaction and pressure.
Yeah, I think it’s also that with a DJ set, the worst thing you can do is trainwreck then fade it down [laughs] and it’s not the end of the world. Whereas with a live set, anything can go wrong at any moment. The whole thing can just fall apart, so it’s kind of more precious somehow, but that gives you more energy. It’s more exciting in some ways.
The set up and travelling must be the toughest part.
The set up is normally the more difficult part, because you really have to make friends with the sound guy… [pauses] for some reason I’ve never had a woman sound engineer.. It’s always men for some reason. Why is that? I don’t know! Anyway, you have to make friends with the sound engineer and hope to god they care about their work. Most of the time they do, but sometimes you get someone who just… doesn’t care, you know? They’re just hungover, like whatever, just plug it in. And that’s the worst, because you don’t know the room and you’re trying to get the best out of the [sound] system and they’re not helping. If you get a good relationship with the sound engineer and the sound is good, it’s quite easy to play the set. That’s the most stress - will everything work properly?
I think all artists say or should be saying you shouldn’t mess with the sound guy.
[laughs] Yes, because they can ruin you! Everyone thinks you’re terrible because they’ve done little EQ tweaks that make you sound bad!
Having played in techno’s most reputed clubs, is there a single moment or gig that was particularly special?
I think the last gig I did in Berghain was the most special, because I had redone the whole live set. I sort of modernized it I suppose, I put a lot of energy into it. I was hunkered down in the Berlin studio. I was in there from noon until one o’clock in the morning every day, just changing everything thinking is it going to work, are people going to like it? And then there was this added complication. Lady Starlight was doing a live set and they only had space for one, so I had to disassemble the set and put it in the back room, then bring it back out while everything was still going to put it all together. So I had done the sound check before, but I had to take the cables out, split the tables… I was so scared that something was going to go wrong. It was a Figure night, it was so busy, there were people everywhere - even on the stairs that go up to Panorama Bar. It just went so well, the people were just so warm. I got so much warmth from the crowd. At the end they turned the lights on, really bright, and for some reason - I don’t know why - that moment, after all the pressure and buildup, it just felt like such a relief. That was one of my favorite moments of recent times.
How do your live sets and productions interact between themselves? What’s the process like?
It depends. Some tracks that I make are totally on the laptop. For some reason I love working on planes, I just love getting the laptop out and working on headphones. I got quite good at doing the melodies on the little computer keyboard [laughs]. I like to work in different ways, sometimes I’ll do a track where it’s all hardware and I’ll record it, cut it up, and finish it. Sometimes I use track programs, which is a completely different and crazy way of working. I think it was stared as a computer programing tool for game music. Now there’s one called Renoise now that looks like a big spreadsheet. It’s interesting because you don’t have visual information about the structure of your track and you don’t see things coming. I think it’s nice to use different methods to make tracks; normally I use Ableton or Bitwig, but sometimes I use the tracker as well. If you do the same thing all of the time you can get stuck in a rut. For lives, normally I will mostly do it on the computer and transfer the samples. Like for some of the tracks in this mix, I was just making drum patterns back in Wales.. just down at the beach making drum loops and I recorded it and threw them In a sampler. I played that live an came up with melodies on the synths. Generally I do one or the other and I move it to the other side.
So you sometimes get track ideas from things that happen in your live sets that can be developed into tracks?
Yeah, a lot. Playing stuff live, using the Cirklon, it just makes your mind work in a different way. It’s kind of like an interaction between the people who made the hardware and the interface. If you just have a blank page on a DAW, it can be daunting. When you have a synth, you already have all this visual information and it makes your mind go through different paths.
So the idea is to change up the workflow and production techniques to stay freshly inspired?
Yeah, I think it’s always nice to change the workflow. If your workflow stays the same, it gets easy. After it gets easy, it gets boring, and then you start losing passion for it. If you’re losing the passion for what you’re doing, then it very quickly comes out in the music. You can always tell when someone was bored making a track. It’s in all the little decisions you make, you know? [laughs]
I think it’s also the case of being comfortable. I think being comfortable is never really a good thing for creativity. When you’re learning something you’re struggling to do, that’s when your best work comes out because your mind is engaged. It’s always more interesting than when you know something inside out, because you can just it with your mind switched off and not be emotionally engaged. Somehow, some energy comes out of it.. for me, anyway.
To come back to your live sets - you start your full hardware gigs at Fabric in 2014, your well known contribution to the Against the Clock series for Fact Magazine comes out in 2015, and you continued doing lives throughout the pandemic - we’ve been able to see the evolution of your setup for quite some time. There are a few additions to your collection and it seems to be getting a little smaller, a personal favorite being the Jomox Alpha Base. What exactly does your setup look like now and how do you use it?
Yeah, I also have the SP16 sampler from Pioneer. I put things, drums or stabs, into that. The good thing about the SP16 it will automatically time your loop and pitch shift it when you change your tempo. The main thing is the Cirklon sequencer, the brain of the whole operation. It’s just a MIDI sequencer and it’s still in development, it’s a Scottish guy who makes it who’s based in Berlin and he still puts out updates with new features on it. It’s very powerful and it’s super accurate, I think it’s down to 3 samples accuracy. It has about 5 MIDI ports, because if you chain too many devices it loses MIDI timing. The guy knows his stuff to an insane level. I got the Alpha Base, fantastic analog drum machine. It’s got an FM part as well and you can play samples on it. I’ve got the Pioneer AS1, it’s like a monophonic Prophet 6 - it’s got the Daysmith analog filter, but not exactly the same synth engine. There’s so much… I got thee Mackie 8-bus (mixer), it’s almost like an instrument in it’s own right. It’s not very well respected in engineering circles, but it’s got a good sound for electronic music - it’s got a good, sort of dirty character. You can really drive the channels. It was big in the 90s. Prodigy used it a lot, a lot of drum and bass guys as well.. it’s got a harsh sound and I like it. There’s the 303 as well, which I think is the only thing that is proper vintage in the live set.
I’m not sure when you added the Moog Matriarch to your setup but it was pretty recent right? You seem to really like it. How have you been using it?
It was quite recent, yeah. It’s a paraphons synth, so a cross between monophonic and polyphonic. You can get your 4 VCOs on different notes, but there’s only one audio path, so there’s only one filter and envelope section. You can’t really play a melody with different notes at the same time, but you can make stabs and chords. Obviously, it’s a compromise between the two, but it’s great fun and the stereo filter is really cool, it’s just really got a beautiful sound. The filter is very different from the Japanese filters that, like Roland, have a bubblier sound. The American filters are thicker and richer. Having both together gives you a large palette of sounds.
You’ve revamped some of your older tracks for us in your mix. Is this something you’ve been doing regularly? How did you decide what tracks to play in your?
Yeah, I normally do revamps of certain tracks. A lot of the tracks are new things I’ve done, I think it’s always nice to bring something new that no one’s heard before. Like I’ve never had 010x in my live set before, because I could never make it sound good through the machines. But now, I’ve told myself that it’s been so many years and why not dig up the old samples and make it sound ok? I managed to find the old samples! I searched my hard drive for the samples and there they were. I put the samples in the Pioneer sampler and basically rewrote the track with the machines. A few of the drum loops are still there, but most of the bass and kicks and stuff are all new. Which is why I could speed it up, because if you speed up a drum loop that much, then it will sound terrible, but if you recreate the drums and speed up the melodies then you can manage to make it sound okay.
What’s next for you? Can we expect a release or project soon?
I’m working on the live show, I'm thinking about doing an album soon and I’ll continue sending things to Figure and ARTS, but I’m open to doing other collaborations as well. I’m just curious to see what the vibe is now. It somehow felt pretty useless. It felt useless to make dance music when the dancefloors were closed. I feel happy now because things are opening now. I just can’t find the energy unless I can see the path to it meaning something. So, yeah I’m feeling happy and creative, but it hasn’t been that way the whole time. I think it’s been like that for a lot of people.