Interview: ORIGINALS… Chris Liebing
Welcome to ORIGINALS, 909originals’ series of interviews with leading DJs and producers, examining their early careers, the tracks and clubs that influenced their sound, and the individuals that helped them on their journey.
Radio host, DJ, label owner, promoter… German techno powerhouse Chris Liebing has done it all, and then some.
Some 25 years on from his first techno ‘eureka’ moment (in a record shop in his hometown of Gießen), Chris remains one of the most consistent, boundary-pushing names in electronic music, and his latest album, Burn Slow (released today, 7 September), finds him in ebullient form, working alongside artists such as Polly Scattergood, Cooper Seaton and the legendary Gary Numan.
He’s also got a barrel-load of headline gigs coming up, heading up HYTE events at Amsterdam Dance Event in October (alongside Loco Dice, Pan-Pot and others) and We Are Electric in Eindhoven, as well as what promises to be a storming set at District 8 in Dublin on Friday 21 September, to name but a few.
Ladies and gentlemen, Chris Liebing…
Growing up in Gießen as a teenager, what was it like? Was there much in the way of nightclubs or music venues?
Gießen is quite a big student town, about 80 kilometers north of Frankfurt. In the 80s it had an extremely vivid and pretty amazing nightlife. There were loads of little clubs, discotheques and bars. To be honest, the end of the 80s was a great time to be in your teenage years and to live in Gießen.
You started your DJ career in the Red Brick (a notorious Gießen nightspot), playing hip hop, soul and early house music. How did that come about?
I had always been DJing at parties and little private get-togethers, and my older sister was working at the bar in the club and noticed that they were looking for a DJ to fill in on Thursday nights. She told them that her brother was a DJ, so I basically went there and they gave me Thursday night to play.
The good thing was that the Thursday night in Gießen was always a good night to go out, so I started to have a bigger crowd every Thursday and eventually moved up to also play on Fridays and Saturdays. That was basically my first DJ residency, back in 1991.
Before getting into electronic music, were there any artists (pop, rock or otherwise) that you were really into?
Oh, of course, there were many – obviously starting off with Depeche Mode and bands from the more industrial side of things, like Front 242 and Nitzer Ebb. I was also listening a lot to the really good 80s and early 90s music, including grunge, Soundgarden, Nirvana and all that stuff, but also Heaven 17, Howard Jones and artists like that.
My music taste has always been quite all over the place.
What was the ‘turning point’ that made you get into electronic music – was it a particular record, or a night out?
Actually, if I think back many many years, there was this very special ‘one night out’.
I went to a club in Heidelberg called Normal – it must have been around 1992 – and I heard Jaydee Plastic Dreams, which had just been released on R & S Records. Listening to this track in a club where they usually just played chart music totally blew my mind.
I loved it and for some reason I knew that this was the type of music I wanted to DJ as well. So, from then on, I incorporated this kind of music more and more into my regular sets, which was not really the what owner of the club had in mind. But, ultimately, people really enjoyed that I started mixing in some tracks that you would nowadays call ‘techno classics’.
In the early 90s you opened Spinclub – what was the response like? Were there any particularly memorable nights?
I opened Spinclub in January ’94, and the main reason to do so was that I only wanted to play techno and house sets and there was no club around Gießen that would offer this.
Opening Spinclub gave me the opportunity to do this, even though I had never been a businessman. This eventually led to the closure of the club around a year and a half later, when we did not have any money left to pay the banks! But we definitely did have some great nights.
I remember having the Delirium guys from Frankfurt over, with Ata and Pascal FEOS. I had Mate Galic play and there was always quite a nice vibe around the place. The Thursday nights were almost as successful as the Saturday nights, but after one and a half years I just ran out of cash.
I gave out too many beers for free and I let too many people in for free, but ultimately I would say that we had a good time. And I would actually say that the most memorable night was the closing of the club. Spinclub only held like 250 people and on the closing night almost 1,000 people came, so they even had to close the street outside. It definitely was one of the most memorable nights I had in Spinclub.
You were developing quite a name as a DJ at this stage. At what point did you think – ‘hey, I can make a career out of this?’
That was shortly after I had to close down Spinclub. I had to make a decision as to whether I would go back to university and re-commence the studies I had started before I opened the club, but after a day at the university I realised that this is probably not going to be my life’s path.
I started working for the Eye Q label in Frankfurt and I guess that was the moment I chose my current direction. The next step was around 1997 / 1998, when I stopped working for labels at all. At that time I was working for various labels and I just stopped it and completely concentrated on my DJing and my own productions. And, luckily, I have been able to do so until the present day.
Around the mid-90s you also co-launched Soap Records (alongside Toni Rios, André Walter and Thomas Bingel), which got you into production for the first time. What was this experience like – opening a record label?
Well I opened the record label together with some friends and I was also part-time working for a distribution company called Discomania. We already had some quite good connections and it was kind of a logical next step, apart from sending your stuff to other labels, to open your own label.
I think we started in early ’95, and at the start it was received quite well. Our first three releases were pretty well received, you should check them out online. They were released under our project name, E.H.R.
One of the biggest tunes on Soap Records was Marshall Jefferson’s Mushrooms – how did you end up working with this house music legend?
At the time, around 1996/97, I was working at a bigger record company. Marshall Jefferson was visiting and believe it or not, he really did not have a place to stay. So I offered him to crash on my couch, and one night I took him to the studio.
We got along really well, he was sitting in my studio and at some point I just gave him the mic and said something like “why don’t you tell us a story, we’ll record it and we’ll make a track out of it”. And for whatever reason he started to tell us all about his experiences in Miami, down in Florida, when he took mushrooms and met someone.
To this day, I cannot tell you if that was a true story or if he just came up with it while he was talking, but it was definitely one of my most memorable times in the studio… with a legend like him.
When you were at Eye Q alongside Sven Väth, you had the chance to play Omen in Frankfurt for the first time – one of the all time great techno clubs. Do you think playing venues like that helped usher in the ‘next phase’ in your career?
Most definitely. I started playing as a resident at Omen from mid ’95 until it closed in October 1998, and to this day I consider it my ‘techno DJ school’.
The things that I learned there, I’m still feeding off today. I learned to play opening sets, I learned to play closing sets, I learned to play long sets, I learned to play with various other artists.
Also, since we had an amazing line-up of guests, I got to know loads of other artists. Usually I was warming up or closing down for them, so it was in many ways a very important step in my life. Having a residency in a place like this was extremely helpful and so much fun.
As well as being a DJ and producer, you’ve had a longstanding love for radio (and now podcasts) – how did this come about? Were there any radio DJs or stations that you were particularly influenced by?
I can’t really say that I was influenced by anything specific. We had a great radio show that was called the HRC Clubnight, where famous DJs had residencies on Saturday nights from 9pm to midnight. There was always a live show with DJs. Maybe that influenced me a bit.
From 1997 on, there was a satellite radio station, which was only featuring electronic music – one of the first of its kind. It was called Evosonic Radio and I had a show there, every Friday night for four hours. I did this over a period of two years and just fell in love with doing radio.
I have always loved to do radio. I just love to play music for other people and if it’s over the radio, you can potentially reach even more people. So that has always been a lot of fun.
CLR records celebrates its 20th anniversary next year – when you founded it, did you ever think it would still be going two decades later?
Ha! With anything that you started twenty years ago, you wouldn’t have thought it would even last five years.
I mean, if someone would have asked any techno DJ twenty years ago, how long you think you would be DJing for, you probably would have told them something like: ‘well I’m not sure, maybe I will be doing this for another ten years’.
And here we are… still. Of course this is partly surprising, but we can also be proud of what we have achieved in the whole techno scene and in the music scene. To still be able to do what we love.
You have cited Mute Records as being one of your favourite labels, and indeed the new album is your first release on Mute. Was it your intention (with any of the labels you operated) to seek to push new boundaries in the same way Mute has done?
My intention was really to release house and techno music that I enjoyed myself, and that really had its own way of working.
I don’t think you can imitate a label like Mute Records at all. It is way too unique. The way it started in the late 70s, the way it became world famous in the early and mid 80s because of Depeche Mode and Yazoo and all the other big bands on there.
The groundbreaking thing of a label like Mute was that they were releasing all kinds of music they believed in and they enjoyed, which was sometimes more experimental and sometimes more accessible.
There were hits, but there was also very underground and crazy electronic music, so I still don’t think that there is another label like Mute at all these days.
Why did you take the decision in 2010 to redefine what the letters ‘CLR’ stood for – was it an attempt to distance yourself from the ego-driven DJ scene?
You could say it that way. It was an attempt, yes.
I was never extremely happy with my name in the label name of CLR. My first label was called ‘Audio’, Fine Audio Recordings to be precise, but I ran this together with a record company, and when I left the company in the mid-90s I wasn’t allowed to take the name with me.
But I already had my next release ready to go and the distributor needed a label name and the only thing I was able to come up with on a short notice was ‘CLR’. It somehow bugged me, all the time.
Then one night I woke up and I thought, “let me redefine those letters”, because I wanted to have my ego out of that very ego-driven DJ scene. It’s still something I am working on, but I guess that’s what we are here for.
You’ve long been inspired by philosophers like Alan Watts and scientists like Professor Stephen Hawking. Have these become more influencing factors on your career as you have got older?
I wouldn’t say ‘more influencing’, I am just as interested as always in all of these, let’s say ‘spiritual things’, things related to evolution and scientific stuff. I just love the fact that I can explore with music and share that passion with other people out there.
On the new album, you had the chance to work with Gary Numan, and you recently also worked with Depeche Mode. What was it like to work with musical heroes like these?
It is in a way still mind-blowing for me, because as I told you in the beginning of the interview, I grew up in Gießen, where you had a little record store and that was your window to the music world.
You grew up with names like Depeche Mode – I am one of the biggest Depeche Mode fans out there – and, of course, Gary Numan, and they influenced your musical taste. And then at some time into your career you get to the point, where you are maybe able to work with some of these legends that inspired you so much.
In the case of Gary Numan I was just very lucky that I had written some lyrics and that I knew his manager. I asked if he could be taking part in my album and he basically just said ‘yes’ and did it. This really meant a lot to me.
In the case of Depeche Mode, they asked me to do a remix for their latest album, Spirit. I ended up doing two remixes, which they both loved. So both were released, which made me of course very very happy.
I have met all of them briefly, but I guess everyone knows how you feel if you meet someone whose music you adore so much. You can’t really get a straight word out. It’s definitely an interesting experience, to put it that way.
Is there an overarching ‘theme’ for the new album, Burn Slow?
Yeah, I would say that the overarching theme for the new album is the present moment, which is, very simply put, the moment when it’s all happening. The moment when you are listening to the album, the moment anything is happening, since everything else is either only a memory or an idea in your head. This album is all about that.
It’s all about getting into the present moment, because everything that happens is coming out of the present moment.
Also, this album was produced out of the present moment, very deliberately, with not much planning and operating more or less ‘with the flow’.
Last question.. every time you play, you always have a huge smile on your face. Do you think that other DJs/producers take techno too seriously?
No I don’t think so. Maybe some do, but no more or less seriously than I do.
I very much enjoy what I do, and I think the smile just comes along with it.