IN THE STUDIO WITH: Steve Bug & Langenburg
A meeting of minds, as the techno supremo tells us more about his longtime-coming collaboration with German house don Langenburg
Co-founder of Essen-based label Mild Pitch, Langenberg (Max Heesen) began his production career in 2007 with numerous self-penned releases, including the debut album Central Heated
House on Steve Bug’s Dessous label. Collaborations with Manuel Tur under the name Ribn also attracted the attention of Bug, resulting in his remix of the track This Feeling in 2009.
Bug and Langenberg continued to cross paths over the next decade, although it wasn’t until last year that the duo decided to actively work on music together. The result was the two-track EP Chord
Cluster, released last year on Bug’s Poker Flat Recordings. However, with further unreleased recordings also penned, they decided to extend their partnership and create the full-length house album, Paradise Sold.
How do you think your respective genres have changed from the eras you grew up in?
Steve Bug: “I got into dance music in the late ’80s with Chicago house, New York house and Detroit techno. Everything was a part of the whole movement. I’ve never seen it as a single genre but a big tree of electronic dance music all belonging together. I think it’s quite stupid for DJs to simply play one style and move to the next hip thing that comes up. Of course, things are popping up and disappearing all the time, but the basic rules of house and techno are still there, especially these days with young producers going back to their roots and lots of vinyl-only stuff being released.”
Max Heesen: “I’m a bit younger, so maybe it was different for me. Back in 2000, I used to live in the Ruhr district, so my realisation of techno and house music started by going to the Kompakt store in Cologne. When I dived into these electronic music worlds, I mostly listened to harder techno. It took a while for me to detect the soul of electronic music and those older Chicago and Detroit sounds. I grew up in an alternative scene where there were no clear borders, so found it more natural to crossover and make the music I like.”
If producers are looking backwards, is that because the old technology has been recreated or they’ve rediscovered the original ethos?
SB: “To be honest, I think the movement started before and then companies started to rebuild or reissue all the machines. A lot of early house was basically just sampling stuff from records and putting disco loops together. That part’s always been around and people are still trying to find disco samples that haven’t been done a thousand times already. When the tree grows too big and there are too many arms and leaves, people struggle to find their own sound and start looking back to the roots to build something up from the beginning again. In rock ’n’ roll and hip-hop, the roots are strong so they stay popular, but when you move too far from the source you miss that original feeling or the edge that was there at the start.”
Technology, like Roland grooveboxes helped create the house and techno movement, but that doesn’t happen today does it?
SB: “No, I totally agree. House music wouldn’t exist without the 909 or the 303 and all these kinds of instruments. The problem for all musicians these days is that there is no new technology that creates something that hasn’t been heard of before. Maybe that’s another reason to look back.”
MH: “I still think people need to exercise their imagination and experiment more. If you look back at the typical 303 sound, the machine was not designed for that. In fact, it was not actually a very good-sounding bass synthesiser but people used it to create something totally different to shape those music styles.”
SB: “Music is soundwaves and we’ve been listening to the same soundwaves since the ’70s when synthesisers were popularised. When people started to use computers and software, there were a few experimental techniques, like bitcrushing, but nothing we haven’t heard before. I read this article many years ago suggesting that we’re going to run out of harmonies at some point. I think we’re pretty much at that point now, where everything has been produced already. Every bassline and chord progression has been laid down, so it’s definitely difficult to create something unheard of. In the end, it’s about the story you have to tell and that’s how I’m buying music – based on whether something is able to take me on a journey.”
You both prefer using hardware. Does having that physical contact with a machine allow you to bring that personality through?
MH: “It depends on the studio environment I’m working in. I’m used to working with a sequencer, but also hardware synthesisers. When I’m in the studio with Steve, we play our synths at the same time, cultivate ideas and try to discover where we can take the track. As Steve says, we’re literally building up a story. So I know both worlds, and the music we do is connected to both of these worlds, which includes clicking the mouse, mixing and all that technical stuff, but also jamming like a band.”
When did you both decide to team up and start working on a recording?
MH: “We met at a party called Socialism in Essen. It was a festival for electronic music, and Steve was DJing. I was working with Manuel Tur on the Ribn project and Steve was a big fan of the records we released. I also did a remix of Steve’s track Tunnelof Light in 2009.” SB: “When Max moved back to Berlin and started working more on his own stuff, we released a lot of it on my label Dessous Recordings. In 2016, I hadn’t been working on a lot of music and thought it would be a good idea to work with people in the
studio, because that sometimes helps to get over writer’s block. Since I loved his music, I asked Max if he wanted to work together and we decided to do a session to see what we could come up with.”
MH: “We hadn’t worked together in a private space before, so had to find out if it could work, but we found a way to communicate musically quite quickly. Steve came up with the idea to do an album after we’d finished two or three tracks.”
SB: “Before long, we had four tracks and thought they were too good to put out as an EP. So instead of splitting the tracks up, why not just make an album? We had a great workflow and the results were amazing from the beginning. It was so much fun to work together that it totally made sense to continue, and I’m sure the album is not going to be the end of our collaboration.”
Coming from different, but related, genres, did you feel a need to discuss the direction you wanted these recordings to take?
MH: “I’ve followed Steve for quite a long time, so I already had knowledge of what his idea of electronic music is. When we were in the studio space, we remembered certainly melodies or drum sounds from records we’d released ten years ago and let each other know that a picture was slowly coming together. It was this process that brought us closer together musically.”
SB: “We definitely did not sit down and decide what direction we wanted to go. I’ve never written music that way, although I know some people can do that. For me, it has to happen in the moment. I need to sit in the studio with a synth and play melodies, harmonies and basslines until suddenly it clicks and I get a feeling that it’s worth working with. With Max, one of us would play a synth line and the other would say whoa, hold on, this is great, let’s record it – and then the track starts to build.”
Was there ever any friction?
SB: “There was a fun part when Max said that I always say no to his ideas [laughs], which I didn’t think I did, but maybe he was right. It’s not in our makeup to fight over things, and I don’t think it would be helpful. The very first track was an idea I had lying around that I couldn’t get my head around. It was a very hypnotic line with a kick drum, but not much more, so Max brought in some chord lines and we built the track around that. The more we worked together, the more we started creating tracks from scratch and everything melted together much more easily. Our musical minds are quite similar. We don’t have super big egos where we’re not able to open up to each other’s ideas, and it’s not about genres – it’s about a feeling.”
MH: “We were not fighting each other but sometimes fighting for the sounds. We know exactly how far we can go to convince the other person to use this or that sound or direction. Subtle manipulation would be the right description.”
You have your own studios, so why not work remotely and combine at a later stage?
SB: “A few ideas were laid down before we even started together, but that was very rare. Even on those tracks where the ideas were conceived beforehand, we sat together and worked on them together. I’ve never liked working by sending tracks back and forth; for me it’s better to be with the person in the studio. I also have quite a nice workspace for two people. I’ve been here 12 years and have built the room up. I have big loud speakers, so it’s enjoyable to be able to jam and not have to think about disturbing the neighbours.”
Was it easier to separate your roles? For example, one works on beats, the other bass lines or melodies?
SB: “When it comes to writing melodies, Max is more educated. I’m good at bass ines, beats and harmonies, but Max is better at keyboarding. He can play really good synth lines on-the-fly, whereas I’ll tend to play more simple basslines. I suppose if we were both playing complex keyboard parts, it wouldn’t be very good for jamming.”
MH: “Sometimes when you’re jamming it’s really necessary for one person to tell the other to relax and not overcomplicated things. This is where Steve’s knowledge of DJing for so many years comes into play, because he’s able to invent time and intervene to create a more… not functional, but a much more simple workflow.”
SB: “What’s important when writing electronic music is to keep it as simple as possible and get the most out of that rather than putting too many things on top of each other. That way you can keep that hypnotic feeling. If the sound is too complicated, you can lose the repetitive element that you need in a club track.”
What tips would you give aspiring producers on how to write a house or techno track? You mentioned simplicity, is that the key?
SB: “If you look at the history of house and techno, the tracks that stand out the most are the old ones and they’re pretty simple. I don’t want to say this is right or that is wrong, what’s really important when writing music is to come up with your own style and character instead of trying to make a copy of something else. When you look at some producers these days, it’s just a copy of a copy of a copy because a sound is popular at the moment.”
MH: “If you feel you’ve started working on a track and are getting to a point where it’s maybe 30% complete, the tracks starts floating and it’s working for you, that’s when you’ll be able to write your story, because it turns into a feeling-driven production rather than your mind acting as the driving force.”
SB: “It’s like when a DJ is playing a great set and doesn’t have to think about the next track because it happens naturally in the moment. That’s the same kind of energy you’re looking for in the studio. You suddenly have a clear picture and it becomes quite easy to add what’s necessary. I don’t want to use the word ‘magic’, but you have a sudden connection with the track and it takes over.”
MH: “What I’d also recommend is to be able to kill your darling. If it doesn’t sound right or you can’t catch the feeling quickly then start something else