Interview: Iron Curtis
Under the pseudonym Iron Curtis, Johannes Paluka’s minimalist approach masterfully unravels the mysteries lurking deep within the house sound. Danny Turner ventures into the Berlin-based producer’s gear-packed studio
Achild of the ’80s, German producer and DJ Johannes Paluka always drew inspiration from the era’s extravagant blend of pop, funk and electronic sounds. When rave and techno hit the airwaves, he was truly hooked, while teenage curiosity drew him into the leftfield dance world inhabited by Warp Records and bass-heavy techno bands like LFO.
desire to experiment led Paluka to play computers and soft synths, inspiring his debut release on Hamburg’s Mirau label, Solgerhood EP (2009). While his DJ talents indicate a strong focus on bass-heavy grooves, his solo releases radiate with ethereal melodies and a sense of deep, warm, melancholy. Paluka’s latest album, Upstream
Colour, epitomises his impressionistic style. What first appealed to you about dance music? “I’m a kid of the ’80s and early ’90s and listened to all kinds of soul stuff – a lot of which had drum machines, like Temptations records, Chaka Khan and Prince. I was influenced by all of that, but in the early ’90s, rave and techno was all over pop radio and TV as well. The first DJ I recognised was WestBam, the German techno icon, and hip-hop played a role too – it was that whole turntable culture that made me want to be a DJ.” You’ve said that you’d have loved to have gone clubbing in Sheffield in the ’80s – is that true? “When I grew older and got into the depths of house and techno, the UK scene had a huge influence on me, especially Warp Records and electronic bands from Sheffield and Manchester. If I could sum it up, I’d say [I was a fan of] everything that happened at the Haçienda – even though I was never there. I was fascinated by this mixture of bands, electronic music, pop music and the more leftfield sound.” When did you enter the production world? “In terms of tracks you could listen to, it began at 17 or 18 with my first proper computer and software. Before that, it was more about fiddling on an old Casio keyboard with just a tape deck and turntable. It’s not something I produced music with, but I’d create little patterns using the limitations of that keyboard, so it played a role. Later on, I got Propellerhead’s Reason to emulate what I was listening to. There was an intense period in the late ’90s and early ’00s where broken beat and soulful house became big along with a bit of drum ’n’ bass and Detroit techno. We had huge parties that featured these sounds and that made me want to make music.” Did you have any prior knowledge about Reason and whether it could be used to produce the type of music you wanted to make? “I had no idea. I think it was a cracked version that a friend gave to me. Before that I had Sound Forge, which was a plain and simple audio editor that I could record into but wouldn’t generate any sounds. ReBirth helped me to understand the importance of software and Reason became the tool that allowed me to understand you could use a computer to make music. I continued using Reason over the years and purchased Reason 4 because something deep inside me understood that, even though I’d made no money from music at the time, it was something I needed to have and there was a certain value there that I wanted to support. ” What emotions or feelings are you hoping to elicit through your minimalist approach? “My music has a minimal aspect to it, but the overall combination of sounds is driven towards eliciting an emotion. That comes from my experience in clubs or what I listen to at home. The music I liked best always had a melancholic touch to it, subtle or otherwise. When it comes to house music, I discovered that so much of it carried these types of emotions, which are hard to put into words – it’s like there is a kind of sadness and beauty at the same time.” Melancholy music can be dark and depressing to some, and beautiful or uplifting to others… “That’s exactly how I see it. If you reach a certain level of melancholia it can be very sad, and I like to listen to that from time to time, but when it’s subtle and carries a strong harmonic aspect that is neither considered to be happy or sad, then the tension between the two is where it’s really happening for me. I hope my audience can relate to that approach.” Is part of the appeal of having a leftfield approach that it allows you to sit outside of fashion, giving you the freedom to experiment? “I hope so. Although I never really thought about it, my early releases were clearly driven by current trends – in my case, the second round of deep house around 2010. Only a few people over the past 50 years have made music from scratch successfully with their own dedicated sound. That’s true genius.” Did copying records you liked make you into a better producer? “Copying other records that I liked in order to achieve a certain sound played a huge part in my early productions; that approach helped me to understand how chord progressions or drum programming works, or why certain combinations of sounds work together. Ultimately, you have to make the extra effort to create something personalised, even if it’s subtle – because time plays a role in this too. As you get increasingly experienced, the knowledge you gain gives you the freedom to achieve what you want within your own field.” The more you know about production, the more quickly you can arrive at your own sound? “Yes and no, because the other aspect of getting into music is that you don’t have any frame of reference. Being naïve is a great state to be in because you have
a plain canvas. When I was young, of course I’d listen to records and question how they were made. Most of it I didn’t understand because I had no technical knowledge, but the feelings I got stayed with me. Later I remember finding sounds that were close to what a particular producer used and then I’d give them a try. I remember a Kerry Chandler track called BarAThym, which was a huge hit in the mid-’00s. I didn’t realise he used a preset for the synth line from the Korg Polysix or the Mono/Poly, and he didn’t even alter the preset.” Did that make you feel disappointed? “I was disappointed, but then again when I see other producers using a preset, the better question might be, well, why am I not brave enough to use something so simple and effective myself? Sometimes I think I can’t compete with other producers in terms of my technique, but actually, I probably could.” Is the compositional process a fixed event or different every time you sit down? “The first important thing is that I constantly make music. Of course, there are times when I’m not in the studio as much as others, but I try to have a certain routine. I need to go to the studio as much as I need to meditate – I feel it’s a habit and I need to do it in order to survive. Sometimes my approach gets a bit maniacal and intense, for example, the new album was completed over a period of three or fourth months where I was pretty much in the studio all the time. During this intense period, I lack sleep and go from work to the studio and back again – so it’s a bit of an unhealthy lifestyle, but I know during this period that something will happen and try to use that time to hammer out ideas as much as I can. Then, after a few weeks, I’ll sit down and listen to all these ideas that I’ve collected.” Do the ideas that you get ever derive from a particular device? “The overall starting point is the sample, which is one thing that has not changed over the years, whether it’s something I recorded myself previously from an archive, like a synth line, pad or chord progression, or classic sampling from records, movies, a TV series, radio, or whatever. It’s a bit stressful at times, because I’m always thinking about potential samples or inspirations. I’ll use a notebook or my phone to write down notes, like “Episode 5, minute 52, when he walks into the room – sample that”. Then at a later date, I’ll try to collect all these samples, make a folder out of them and browse through looking for inspiration.” Does the tendency to be analytical spoil your ability to immerse yourself in art? “Thankfully, when a movie or piece of music is really good, I forget about the potential for sampling. I sometimes try to avoid this analytical approach because it makes it hard to enjoy art, but I also accept the fact that I have it within me and often profit highly from it in the studio.” Are the ideas you have driven conceptually or by finding different ways to produce or mix? “It’s always about the mood and the atmosphere. As long as I feel that, it’s music to me; whether it’s taken from an ambient track, techno record or deep house tune. Sometimes I’ll find a sample that resonates with me, maybe something I wouldn’t necessarily use. In the end, that initial sample won’t always make it onto the finished track, but it was necessary because it triggered the whole process. I also love certain words and texts; not that they could be a perfect track title, but how that word might sound. It’s like how people smell colour or hear touch – a form of synaesthesia. It sounds a bit esoteric, but works for me on a philosophical level.” Does technology also help you originate ideas? “Yes, certainly. I totally see that if you get a new synth or plugin and you browse through the presets or get to know the instrument, it triggers so many ideas. I experience that all the time. For the album
UpstreamColour, I got a Casio CZ-3000, which is a phase distortion synth and pretty cheap and underrated. It played a huge role in the album process because its sounds and presets were the basis for at least two or three tracks. This is an easy approach but it can be dangerous because you can get lost using all these machines. To overcome writers’ block, I’d use other approaches rather than just buying new gear – if I buy it, it’s usually because I heard it in a friends’ studio or I’m super-fascinated by something about it.” So would you deliberately constrict yourself? “I do for the purpose of not getting lost and stimulating the creative process by limitation. I can install all these live sample packs that are available in my Ableton DAW, but a better example would be to just use a couple of plugins that, even though I have a license for, I’ll still use in demo mode because I know they will shut down after 30 minutes. That’s the sort of limitation I’m talking about. I go through my libraries at least twice a year and throw stuff out. If I haven’t touched a plugin for a year, it gets kicked out. But for me, every piece of hardware I purchased has a certain value. The first synth I bought was the microKorg, but I’ll still use a couple of sounds off it from time to time and it’s become a big part of my personal history.” We read that you went through difficulties that led to the creation of Upstream Colour? “Every artist goes through phases where it’s not easy and you express that through music. I had a break-up that led to depression, and I have to say that during that period I wasn’t able to write music. It was too severe and so I had to concentrate on getting better. One could say you’re depressed so you should make music - and I can totally see that, but it’s a topic for fantasists. When I did make music, it was more as a therapy or meditation and I didn’t release it. Depression is an illness and you have to get professional help. When it hits you, all the experience you have of it doesn’t actually help.”
You mentioned using Ableton as your DAW. Do you also use hardware for audio processing? “I don’t have a mixing desk, I prefer to use outboard effects to process sounds and collaborate with mix engineers to help do the final mixdowns. Production-wise, I’d say 50% is done in the box and the rest out of it. I use the Alesis 3630 compressor, which gives you that classic Daft Punk French house sound. It’s great to send stuff through, but I won’t over-compress a lot. ” Do you find it quicker to run sounds through hardware than trying to shape them in the box? “It’s a bit easier to understand within the box because you can see the changing parameters of any given device and compare them to the outgoing sound – that whole process can make it easier for beginners to understand how processing works, and how the presets are built. Reason played a huge role in my understanding of synthesis and sound processing. I also love my Tascam Portastudio 246. This tape machine has quite nice meters on top, so I’ll send stuff through that and rerecord it to add some nice tape saturation. Sometimes I’ll use the Space Echo from Roland – not the original one, but the RE20.” What about hardware synthesisers? “That’s easy: I like the Korg Minilogue a lot and the Juno-106 for pads and basslines, but I also love the Yamaha DXII, the bigger version. I can’t live without it. FM synthesis resonates so much with me and I can’t help adding at least one FM element to a track, even though you may not hear it because it might be filtered. Sometimes I have to step back and say, you can’t use that square bassline again.” How would you differentiate FM synthesis from other forms of audio synthesis? “It’s so difficult to explain it; it’s more like a feeling that I get from that combination of harsh, edgy sounds and it adds a warmth and depth that’s also super clean and distorted at the same time. You have that full spectrum and there is always a contrast and tension so to speak. When I use some of the DXII’s string presets I can never reproduce them in the box. You can try to use Ableton Operator, but there is some magic happening with the hardware that’s hard to describe – and because I don’t understand it, it’s all the more interesting to me.” What about beat creation? “I do use drum machines. I have a Korg ElecTribe MX that I use for drum programming and the Roland 606 and 707 because I always wanted to have them. The sounds are classic and have been used trillions of times, but I like processing them. I like to put 808 kicks through a Reason effect device called the Pulveriser, which is super underrated. It’s a filter, saturation and distortion unit, similar to the Analog Heat but it’s way more brutal. If the 808 kicks are tuned down with a super low attack and put through the Pulveriser, they start to distort and crunch. On the album, I used that a lot in order to generate these noise bursts and background sounds.” Presumably you also compose with software? “For plugins, I’m a big fan of the Korg Legacy Collection series because I like their classic synths, and some of the NI stuff like FM8 and Massive. I also use u-he plugins quite a lot, especially Diva and their latest one, Repro 5. The Arturia Collection is also really good at replicating the sound of the classic machines. For processing and effects, I use a couple of Waves plugins, but for compression it’s mostly Eventide stuff and Ableton 10’s built-in Drum Buss device.” Are software effects something you only use when finalising in post-production? “I create a lot of software effects chains in Reason and process classic sounds through them before mixing and finalising a track, but these are often created by accident. In the beginning, I had no idea about mixdowns, I just thought my track needed to sound a certain way and tried to achieve it. Now, it’s a definitive stage of the production. I’m a bit braver now than I was a couple of years back – maybe that’s because I’m more confident and feel I can achieve a certain sound if I really want to.”
want to know more?
Upstream Colour is out 24 Sept on Tamed Musiq. For more info, head to facebook.com/ironcurtismusic
“If I haven’t touched a plugin for a year, it gets kicked out”