Roman Flügel's Record Collection Is a Shapeshifting Tour Through the History of House and Techno
Following the release of his stunning new album, the legendary German producer and DJ invited us into his Frankfurt flat for a memorable morning.
This article ran originally on THUMP Germany.
There are very few electronic music producers that are still active in their third decade and haven't lost any of their original spirit and drive. Roman Flügel—who was born and still lives in the German city of Frankfurt (when he's not jetting around the globe DJing)—simply must gain a spot into this coveted hall of fame. Neither the music industry's many unforgiving moments—like trying to sell records after your distributor files for bankruptcy—or his many moments of success, have changed the ultimate trajectory of his prolific career.
Flügel landed his über-hit, "Rocker," in 2004, together with Jörn Elling Wuttke, under the collaborative moniker, Alter Ego. It's a track for techno eternity: brutal and abusive, but simultaneously hitting all the right pop-spots. While Alter Ego, which was founded in 1993, had and still has immense meaning for Roman Flügel's career, it's still only one of many chapters that is the novel of Flügel. There's been his fruitful collaborations with Wuttke, Acid Jesus, and Sensorama, as well as his many solo projects released under a number of pseudonyms like Eight Miles High, and Soylent Green. Many of these timeless productions were released between the early 90s and 2012 on famed labels Playhouse, Ongaku, and Klang Elektronik, which Flügel ran together with M/S/O, Ata, and Wuttke. After those labels eventually shuttered, Flügel began looking for new and familial relations. What he eventually got was a healthy and prolific relationship with Hamburg label, Dial, where he's released three albums to date: Fatty Folders, Happiness is Happening, and All The Right Noises, which just dropped last month.
So what does a guy like this have in his record collection—one that's no less sprawling than his decade-spanning discography? To find out, Flügel was kind enough to let us inside his Frankfurt apartment for a special installment of Crate Expectations.
THUMP: Roman, how is it that you still live in Frankfurt?
Roman Flügel: It's because I'm a little stubborn and I don't really like change enough to spontaneously decide to move somewhere else. But the main reason is that when everyone moved to Berlin, four of us were still [in Frankfurt] running the labels Playhouse, Ongaku, and Klang Elektronik. We didn't have the idea of moving collectively; we saw ourselves as a company based in Frankfurt and felt fine staying here.
It all started for you with Chicago house, right? Is there an album here that encapsulated that early passion?
There's a compilation that really did change everything for me: Chicago Trax on Street Sounds, which my brother gave me for Christmas in 1987. That's how I initially came in contact with the different genres. [The album] had Chicago house on it, with tracks like "Rhythm is Rhythm," but it also had Detroit techno. That was the initial spark for me. But, before that, there was the track "Jack Your Body" by Steve "Silk" Hurley, which got played in the clubs and at parties [I was going to]. We're talking now about New Year's 1986-87, which is when you started to hear that kind of music in clubs [in Germany]. Sven Väth was already playing it back then. I still had a foot in Belgian electronic music and New Beat in those days: Nitzer Ebb, Front 242, and many weird Belgian projects. And Skinny Puppy from Canada. But all of the sudden you could feel a new vibe. "Jack Your Body" was an abstract, strange number that pulled you to the dance floor.
You started going clubbing a lot later? I've heard that you used party every week in Sven Väth's Omen.
First of all, I even went to [Omen's] predecessor club, Dorian Gray. But since I was only 16, I had to sneak in with two older girlfriends. And I had to clean my shoes before at the Frankfurt airport to make sure I got in, since everything was a bit more chic then. Sven opened Omen in downtown Frankfurt, taking the knowhow he had from Dorian Gray. It was relatively quickly clear that house and techno would play big roles in the club, which made a lot of things easier. Back then, I wasn't living in Frankfurt yet, but I'd always come in a car with friends from Darmstadt. I was so taken by the music, that there was no going back. We focused everything on the weekends. On Friday, that was the day when you could let go—at some point, the nights started getting longer. This all started already in 1987-88.
Which record is representative to you this early era of Frankfurt and Flügelian techno?
There's this one early-techno single, which definitely did reach a whole new level in the club: "The Punisher" by Underground Resistance.
You mentioned that, in addition to Chicago, that the music from Detroit had a big influence on you. You only have to pull one of the old Acid Jesus recordings by Wuttke and yourself off the shelf to have an early indicator of this. What in the Detroit productions particularly fascinated you?
Acid Jesus' first album is a sample album. We fit in an insane amount of samples from predominately Chicago records. They weren't necessarily reproduced in facsimile, but we were definitely using certain loops and sounds. Back then, sampling wasn't something forbidden or disreputable. Everyone did it, whether you were a techno or hip-hop producer. People sampled without having a bad conscience about it. That's not possible today.
You're brushing up against an interesting point. Retrospectively, people attribute sampling originally to hip-hop. But it also played a very important role in house and techno.
Definitely. Take a track like "Strings of Life" by Derrick May. There's this famous orchestral sample in it, which originally came from a classical record from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. So they also just took something from someone else while in the studio.
House Hallucinates - Pump Up Europe
People differentiate Chicago and Detroit a lot these days. Did you consider the difference back then?
Certainly not in the very beginning. There was just this bizarre sound from America. Initial reports in magazines like i-D led you to Chicago. For Detroit, two compilations played an important role, which clearly marked and marketed the city as the sound's place of origin, and made sure that producers like Carl Craig and Derrick May got name recognition. [The compilation] was called Techno! The New Dance Sound of Detroit and Retro Techno. Back then, before the internet and playlists, compilations were a chance to get a lot of tracks for little money.
Looking back, can you remember what made you decide to start trying to produce music? Was there a trigger that got you to sit down at the computer?
I didn't even have a computer back then. In the beginning, I bought a drum machine, a synthesizer, and a four-channel cassette player and first produced a rhythm. Then I played the basslines by hand and finally added a few strings or chords. Then there was a super cheap sampler from Casio that had a sample time of two seconds and space for four samples that you played in through a little microphone. That was the germ cell for my of producing.
What was the first record that you sampled?
The first sample was for the Acid Jesus record and came from the compilation, house hallucinates—pump up europe. In terms of sampling, the first Mr. Fingers CDs were very important, which were then released on the album Amnesia. The cover was done with a fountain pen, the kind you can do calligraphy with, amusingly. For us, sampling was a very playful way of dealing with the hottest contemporary culture.
Your new album is called All The Right Noises. That sounds extremely confident, as if you're saying, everything here is in the right place. Is that what you mean?
First of all, noise doesn't have to be music, it can also refer to sounds. I say that because the album contains elements, where structures are broken open, so it comes across as less melodic than the previous two albums.
At some point during the making of the album, I has this sentence in my head, just because I sometimes produce with imaginary song lyrics that will never actually appear in the tracks. So that was a textual building part for me. And, in the end, I thought it was a fitting title for the album, since it nicely expresses the feeling of being finished with a record and wanting to release it just the way it is.
You only brush up against the club on this album. To me, there's a little bit of Brian Eno in All The Right Noises, but also experimental soundtrack work. Was that the way of working that you defined when you started recording?
Well, I wanted to get even further away from the club and be even more abstract [with this record]. I wanted to push the limits, broaden the spectrum. The club plays such an important role for me. Weekends dominate my life. But the studio is dominated by other rules. As much as I love the club, I would go crazy if I were forced to produced club tracks all week.
You've been touring with your music for 25 years. Other people would have long ago raised the white flag because of the stress of travel. Is there a special record that you never leave home without, in the truest sense of the saying?
Such artists definitely exist for me. I'd more have to look in my phone than on the shelf but maybe I'll find a record of something that I have on my phone and listen to.
Brian Eno accompanies me with all his records; he's a trade companion. Another Green World, for example, or Before and After Science. These records work well when traveling because you have a lot of time to listen to them. Then I can pay attention to how they were produced. I try to figure out what the artist was thinking about when making it.
By now you're a role model for many people. Nevertheless, I'd like to ask who your role models are andwhat the most important records for you in terms of your socialization in music.
Two of my biggest heroes died recently: Prince and David Bowie. I already had contact to Bowie when I was still in kindergarten, through the albums Young Americans and Lodger—he's been with me from that moment up till today. Both records aren't easy to consume, especially for children. But I was only a Bowie fan into the mid-80s, then my enthusiasm subsided a bit. Prince took on his role for the rest of the 80s. With him, it was also the case that he really went downhill in the 90s, but I was totally into everything he produced prior to Lovesexy, and I still listen to it a lot when traveling today. There's so much to discover in both of their work. It's the most rich pop music I know. If I had to choose two records, I would choose Prince's Parade from 1986—everyone knows the song, "Kiss," but the whole album is a masterpiece of production. For Bowie, it's Lodger from 1979. Just the way both of these albums look: A bizarre fantasy world that seems to be on another planet.
You released other people's music for many years on your labels Ongaku, Klang Electronic, and Playhouse. I know this question is an absolute no-go, that's impossible to answer, but can you choose one record that represents what you as a label head saw in them?
For Klang, I have to choose Farben's Starbox. It's a grandiose release. There's also this record by Jan Jelinek that he took on another identity for (Editor's note: Ursula Bogner). That was a super story, perfectly visualized in pictures, which supposedly were found in an attic and originally came from an experimental movie from the 60s. He tried to plan it so that his identity would never be revealed, but eventually it was.
For Playhouse, it's an obvious choice: Alcachofa by Ricardo Villalobos. It came out in 2003 and was one of the most important releases on that label.
For Ongaku, I'll take the catalogue number 10: "Make You Move / Our Music" by Roman vs. M/S/O as well as F.E.O.S. vs. M/S/O. It represents the vice of the 90s. Not every album stands the test of time obviously, but that's how it is.
Was the demise of the labels, caused by a variety of failures in distribution, the personal low point of your artistic career up to now?
Yes, that was definitely one of the most uncomfortable experiences I've ever had. We could see the impending downfall coming and there was nothing we could do. The problem was that we constantly had to plug holes, for example with the money Jörn and I made from "Rocker." This hit at hand, but a not inconsequential sum had to flow into the labels, and we couldn't save them in the end anyways. You learn to give up if you're not going to get your money back. But it was really hard to get to the point where we said: "We're pulling out."
Which of your own albums means the most to you and why?
Obviously the new one.
Can you listen to your own records after they get released?
It's easier with some more than others, depending on how the process of production went down. Weirdly enough, I like to listen to the new one.
Maybe it has something to do with the mood of the album. It has something pulsating to it, but not too much—because otherwise, as you mentioned, it wouldn't work after a weekend in the club. It has something soothing to it, and is simultaneously very focused in the sense that a lot happens, which pulls you in.
It functions as a whole, it's not too long and not too short. It has a nice arch. It has a coherent sound because of the way it was produced. You can tell I'm happy with the album.
Today you're playing such a broad range of dance floors, from sweaty, little clubs to mega clubs on Ibiza and big festivals. How does that relate to the records you choose to play? And is it true with all the various needs of each party something like "the record that always works," as Michael Mayer expressed so nicely in the leitmotif of his "Immer" (Always) series?
Yes, that exists. I have to dig deep into the early UK rave history. "Chime" by Orbital is that kind of track for me. It's a number that I've been playing for my whole life and there are still moments coming up when I play it, because it has something very enthusiastic, deep and it's also totally raved out—it's a combination of emotion and body that makes a rave. I played it as the last song at Dimension Festival years ago at a boat party. The boat almost tipped over.
What is the most beautiful last record for a night?
"My Secret Europe" by Phantom/Ghost.