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

Future Music - - CONTENTS -

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 face­­cur­tismu­sic

“If I haven’t touched a plugin for a year, it gets kicked out”

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