Dive Into a Musical Opium Den With Wolfgang Voigt's New GAS Album
We sat down with the master of minimalism to blow the fog out of his ambient techno forest for a moment.
This article originally appeared on THUMP Germany.
"This room needs an absorber." In his distinct Cologne accent, Wolfgang Voigt's voice echoes off the walls of the Catalonia Hotel conference hall in Berlin-Mitte. First things first, the co-owner of the Kompakt label checks the acoustics. Outside the spring sun is blazing, only hours after Voigt performed his beat-free abstract composition "Rückverzauberung" live at Kraftwerk Berlin. But today, we must talk about a project of his: GAS.
Seventeen years after his last full-length album Pop, and nine years after releasing a box set featuring remastered recordings, the Cologne native has revived his most famous musical alias. You can once again find the techno goblin strolling through his magical ambient forest, ready to save you from sleepless nights. There's scarcely any music that enchants the hours between the blue twilight and dawn as beautifully as GAS does. His tracks do something to you, and the new ones from Narkopop, his latest release, are no exception.
"I believe one can age very well in electronic music," Voigt says. He says he usually has "too much artistic energy and [gets] bored very quickly." His cravat sits in place flawlessly. His hands underline his words, and then always return to their basic position: opposite to one another, the fingertips pressed against each other in an almost statesmanlike fashion.
But our conversation revolves around subjects for which big politics have no time, like hiking through a misty fog, opium dens, buildings that emerge suddenly—and why Wolfgang Voigt always resurrects himself as GAS, right when you need him and his music the most.
THUMP: Wolfgang, in 2008, when you revived GAS for the Nah und Fern box set, there was a rampant, formal-minimalist techno epidemic going on.
Wolfgang Voigt: Yes, you can say that.
At that time, you positioned yourself against that trend through GAS. Is it a coincidence that you're reviving the project once again, at a time when tech-house is so dominant?
This has nothing to do with my artistic perspective. I am—especially because of my own artistic creation, too—extremely under-informed about other music. However, I'm involved in our Kompakt label, and sometimes I find out about such trends through other [people]. I don't have an aversion to that sound. GAS, in turn, always has a discursive aspect. I can't do it differently, even if it's unintentional in some cases. To this day, it's also an ambient byproduct of techno, in which 4/4 kicks only appear now and then as an element.
This is happening during a time when ambient is once again a hot topic for many people. Just think of Huerco S., who you'll be performing with in London, and whose recent 2016 LP sparked a big discussion on whether it could still be considered ambient music or not. In the end, it was everybody's favorite "ambient album of the year"…
People need headlines. And the good old pigeon-hole. I won't argue against that since it's a form of guidance after all. Just like when we brought the GAS back catalog to iTunes and had to choose a genre for it.
"The revival of GAS is also a way of acknowledging the timeless value of this music. Over the years, it has simply proven that [it has] a large, stable and renewable fanbase."
Which did you go for?
Something between "ambient" and "electronica"—definitely not "techno." I could still find a lot of other terms to describe the GAS sound, but that's not really important.
You have over 30 aliases now. Not too shabby at picking names.
Yes, the constant inventing of new project names and concepts was (and is) my undeniable passion. So I find it very exciting that I—as a restless spirit—for once can make GAS abide within certain closed stylistic limits. GAS stands for a certain audiovisual cosmos, for a certain music—and it has to be. I'm trying to tell a story that began over 20 years ago, and I hope that people will recognize this direct reference through the years.
Wasn't the 2008 incarnation of GAS a big challenge, too?
No, it was just time to get back into this sphere—to reconnect with this world without having to ask so many new questions. The revival of GAS is also a way to acknowledge the timeless value of this [type of] music. Over the years, it's simply proven that it has a large, stable, and renewable fan base for itself. This is an interesting challenge for me because I prefer open ends to specifications.
Does that mean that GAS 2017 is mainly concerned with GAS itself?
GAS is a very personal musical diary that has always been very self-consumed. Due to the perception of fans and the media, though, specific interpretations are automatically perceived. I used to look for outside links. Today, I've made peace with it and can finally say for the first time: GAS is GAS.
You just talked about a diary. How can I imagine a typical GAS day?
A certain aura—a feeling is reproduced. Today, a sunny Monday morning in Berlin: this is the classic "non-GAS-day" because GAS is gloomy, like November—like a rainy, nebulous, gray, overcast walk through a forest of unknown origin. Even if, here and there, we find a clearing.
"The classic 'GAS day' is gloomy, like November—like a rainy, nebulous, gray, overcast walk through a forest of unknown origin. Even if, here and there, we find a clearing."
Nevertheless, it's an abstract forest we're talking about, right?
Exactly. The forest's 'sound' in GAS is the visual transmission of a musical idea, and refers only to the structure and surface consideration. I'm not interested in an entranced romanticizing of nature, as was the case in historical Romanticism in art, for example. This forest isn't a personal destination with a fixed address—it can also be on another planet or under a huge concrete sky. That's what we need to explore.
By the way, now I can spot parts of a house facade on the Narkopop cover. Has the Concrete Jungle got hold of you?
Even if the former GAS covers were often supposedly purely forest photographs, there was still something else in the background. I've always proclaimed the association between forest and disco, between morning walks through the brush and dancing to a strobe light. The GAS forest always had a secular, architectural aspect to it that seems to come through more now—don't ask me why or how that came about. These elements became suddenly apparent, as if the forest was about to say…
Wait, is the forest is talking to you?
Of course not. I am far from any esotericism. But the whole project has always had something very ecstatic and imaginative about it. In the dense undergrowth of this "forest," many people see things in these pictures and music, and they're not sure what they're seeing really exists or not.
"The whole project has always had something very ecstatic and imaginative about it. In the dense undergrowth of this 'forest,' many people see things in these pictures and music, and they're not sure what they're seeing really exists or not."
How important are references to classical music for GAS today? I must confess: I have no idea about this music...
I think that's [a] very good [thing]. Much has already been said about this. I used to point out the references to Wagner and Schönberg because I wanted to demonstrate my experimental connectivity, but that was often overvalued by some people or overwhelming as an intellectual background for others. I come from pop music, and it's all pop culture to me.
And the samples?
In this regard, they no longer play a role. This sonic universe of violins, brass, and horns is much more based on a certain kind of self-construction. I've created a mixture by accessing any number of abstract sources of unknown origins and auras, which I then modified and blended like a painter who mixes his colors before he paints the painting.
The crackling noises of those samples were a characteristic part of the GAS sound. That's gone now.
It's because I sampled them from vinyls with miserable [audio] quality. Today I have a more modern and technologically different sound image, but I'd argue that the [characteristic] noise is still there nevertheless, if not superficially. GAS always rustles. It's in the nature of the thing.
In your mother language, German, these noises—"das Rauschen"—and ecstasy—"der Rausch"—share a common etymology. Speaking about the latter and intoxication, how does all of this pair with drugs?
I think it depends on the drug. Personally for me, the music is the drug, even though my psychedelic self-experiments from my youth have certainly influenced my later musical work. I definitely believe very much in the consciousness-expanding effects of LSD and [the impact of] spending three days awake. But I don't need drugs to make this music. Having said that, I certainly have a profound understanding of the painter Jackson Pollock, who created great works of art after [drinking] two bottles of whiskey.
"I definitely believe very much in the consciousness-expanding effects of LSD and [the impact of] spending three days awake. But I don't need drugs to make this music."
Can GAS' music be considered a drug? One can spend quite a long time in the forest now, with the five albums in total.
Everyone needs to decide that for themselves. I've been receiving a lot of feedback over the years, where people often describe robust, ecstatic experiences. Listening to the music on heavy rotation can help you dive into a musical opium den, which is fine by me. It's part of the music, even if I don't talk about it in the accompanying text.
Going back to your references: it's always been important to you that GAS formulates a positive image of German pop music. As a result of the emergence of the AfD (Alternative for Germany; right-wing populist and Eurosceptic political party) there's a lot of discussion happening about German culture and identity currently. Is it just a coincidence that you've produced a new GAS album around the same time?
GAS is a counter-project to reality and is by no means related to day-to-day politics. It always offers an escape for yourself, by yourself—an invitation to another world. As a young person, I enjoyed taking part in discourses on German cultural myths and stereotypes. But I always approached these from the perspective of Western pop subculture, which shaped me. For GAS again, the overall "question" has always been: how can I get Wagner into the disco?, to put it casually. [It's kind of] like Andy Warhol's [connection to] Marilyn Monroe in the visual arts. Political commentary is the last thing GAS could possibly be. As its most basic level, it's just nice music with a high ability to let you drift away when you listen to it.
I'd even say "cosmic." Ever since these architectural elements appeared on the cover, I feel more like it comes from another planet. The GAS balcony has flown off into a nebulous forest that exists somewhere unknown to me.
By the way, now I'm wondering if one is allowed to laugh listening to this music, too?
Humor often plays a role in my artistic work, but it's not preferred for this particular project. GAS has more to do with abysses, with depth and gloom. Pathological aspects, fear, and the dark side of intoxication, are relevant inspirations as well. Everyone knows what a horror trip is like.
"GAS has more to do with abysses, with depth and gloom. Pathological aspects, fear, and the dark side of intoxication are relevant inspirations as well. Everyone knows what a horrible trip is like."
Is Narkopop your horror album?
No. GAS is always concerned with the juxtaposition of gloom and optimism, heavy and light, harmony and discord, near and far...
One last question for you: as a passionate name finder, what comes to mind when you think about GAS' music?
GAS Narkopop is now available on Kompakt.