Visionary German producer Henrik Schwarz is something of a musical chameleon – balancing electronica, classical, jazz and a myriad of other genres across a more than 20-year career.
Having started his career playing hip hop, before moving into rare groove, jazz, techno and the house sound he’s become synonymous with, the past decade has seen him collaborate with jazz musicians and orchestras on a variety of projects, such as the Dutch Alma Quartet, with which he recorded 2019 album CCMYK.
Recent productions have included the jazz-infused single Moabit, released alongside Freestyle Man and Jimi Tenor in June, and a reimagining of the Ladysmith Black Mambazo track Ayikh’ Indaw’ Enjengekhaya.
Always pushing boundaries, Schwarz remains one of electronic music’s most enigmatic figures. 909originals’ Emer O’Connor caught up with him.
Wie geht’s Henrik, alles gut? Thanks for finding the time to chat. Looking at your calendar, you’ve had a hectic year touring, how does it feel to be back to the grind and what was your highlight of the year to date?
I’m very thankful to be to be able to travel again. The first year it was really nice to be home after 20 years on the road, but then after one year, I thought, ‘now that’s enough and I want to be back’. I think the lockdown changed my perspective – in a way, I’m even more thankful than before to be able to do this.
Amongst all the touring, you are still squeezing in the time to produce too. We are huge fans of Ladysmith Black Mambazo here at 909originals; I grew up with my parents playing Paul Simon’s Graceland record for me and had the privilege to see them reunited live on stage for their 25th anniversary Graceland Tour a decade ago. Tell us about how you discovered them?
Well for me it’s the same, I listened to Graceland up and down. I was so impressed by this record – I still am – and from there I started to discover more of what they did. I’m super interested in African music of all kinds.
I didn’t have the chance to see them live unfortunately – that would have been lovely as well – but when they sent me this request, I think I listened to, I don’t know, 200 pieces to narrow down the selection of what I would choose, because they said ‘choose whatever you want’.
I mean, that sounds great in the beginning. But then when you see the amount of music they released – and I was listening to everything – I found it very difficult to make a selection and then say ‘OK, so I’m gonna work on this one’.
How did the opportunity to remix their track, Ayikh’ Indaw’ Enjengekhaya come about?
Gallo [Records] has been working with Black Coffee for some time now, and I think they just had the idea of looking at this huge catalogue that they have and interpreting it in a new way, or putting it into a new context, because there’s all this fantastic material. I was so lucky that they asked me to make a remix.
They sent me a track that I really liked, and I was pretty excited about it. I started working on it, but somehow it didn’t all come together the way I had in mind.
That just happens sometimes when you work on remixes, and so instead of doing something not truly perfect, I asked them if we could change the track. They said, ‘yeah, you can choose whatever you like’, and that’s when this huge quest started.
And your take on their track has a sweet groove. Did you ever get the chance to meet or work with the late, great Joseph Shabalala?
No, unfortunately not. It would have been lovely, of course.
Ladysmith Black Mambazo were recently back here in Ireland to perform a celebration of Joseph’s life. Would you like the opportunity to play with them live someday?
Yes, of course! We are, in fact, talking, so let’s see if something happens. I mean, we are far away from each other and sometimes these things take a long time, but then suddenly it happens, and it might be amazing. So, fingers crossed this happens – it would be fantastic.
Have you ever performed in Africa?
Yes, I was there very early in my career. I don’t remember the exact year, but I was super impressed. I had a chance to meet Dizu Plaatjies from Amampondo, which was also a remix I made for Innervisions back then. So they took me there and I talked to him, and we actually ended up in the studio a few years later.
Was this in South Africa?
Yeah, Cape Town. I went to Johannesburg as well, and then I was back there just before the pandemic started – in Durban and Cape Town. It touches me deeply whenever I’m there, there is so much you can experience and learn and feel, and I love it.
One of my favourite videos to play at a party is the set you played at Awakenings in 2011; the atmosphere seemed electric. There was that moment when you played that electric guitar-laden track with an incredible vocal, I can’t think of the name now, but I’ll hum it to you, haha…
Ahhhh Bill Withers, yes of course! I mean Awakenings was always so crazy, but this is what they do there. There are so many of these super large-scale events now and very often it’s all about business, and missing a bit of the soul. But with Awakenings, they put on this super large-scale festival yet still behind the scenes, it’s such a family thing and the vibes are so good.
That’s the platform where you can create a performance like that because you feel good when you go on stage, and everything is in the right place and people are happy.
You recently played DGTL Tel Aviv – how was that?
Super nice. I came from freezing cold Berlin to 29 degrees sunshine. It was really good, I loved it. Also, with DGTL, it’s similar, they manage to keep the family vibe and that’s something I really enjoy. I have known these people for a really long time, and they export this idea of being together and sharing thoughts and ideas. I really like that.
Your introduction to one of the best ever BBC Essential Mixes of all time – in my humble opinion – back in 2017, was that ‘electronic music is an open platform, you can connect to anything or anyone and in today’s time it’s important to stay open and connected’. On that note, do you have any thoughts on campaigns like the DJs for Palestine movement that’s rising in Berlin, or do you prefer to stay apolitical?
Umm, that’s very difficult, because I think you can’t not be political. But it’s dangerous, because it can happen so quickly that people get you wrong. That’s why I find it pretty dangerous to say something because you don’t know if people will get you wrong or not.
I mean you can have the best intentions and maybe use the wrong word for something, and the thing explodes. So, I think that’s why people are a bit shy.
I think it’s very important to have an opinion or a position – I mean, that’s what I try to do. I travel, I talk to people, I’m trying to share my ideas through my music. Hopefully it’s not just entertainment, it should be more than that.
Of course, that’s where we come from – dancefloors, from my perspective, have always been a place for freaks. Everybody can go there and meet other freaks, and feel at home. It doesn’t matter what your background is, or anything like that. That’s still something I find very, very important.
Absolutely. I just listened to a documentary on BBC Radio 4 called Techno: A Social History, and I learned about DJ Sama Abdulhadi, known as the West Bank’s greatest techno export. Also I know that in Ramallah, they’re trying to rebuild their club scene there after recent bombings. If you had the opportunity to go and play there, would you go?
Yeah of course, I would never say no. You would have to talk first, and if the situation is difficult, then maybe you have to talk a bit more than normal. But that’s exactly what I mean, we need to be super open. That’s the core of what we do – to connect and talk and exchange, because that’s what electronic music is. It’s a global thing; it’s connecting people all over the world.
I mean, even if you have countries who are fighting each other, you play in one country and then you also play the other country, and you talk to the people there. Then you realise, ‘oh, ok, they want peace as well’. We’re all the same, and that….
Music can bring people together?
Yes… but it’s very complicated in those situations. Maybe even people like us – DJs – because we are talking to both sides, we could in a way, share those thoughts.
I hope so. You seem to be forever casting your musical net further afield shifting from techno (A Third Place) to classical (Gymnopédie) to house (Moabit). What prompts your shift in styles or genres?
Well, I’m just learning, I guess. I feel like I never learned to play an instrument and I think that was a big mistake.
Could you learn now?
I do learn now. I have been learning the piano over the last few years but I’m too slow and maybe too old, because it’s difficult to get it into my body. I need to rehearse a lot to make tiny little improvements. That’s my quest for myself – when I’m interested in something, I look at it and try to find out what’s going on.
So, when I dived into classical music, even if I had no clue about all these harmony things and music theory in the beginning, I was interested in it, so I started trying to learn and find out what’s going on. How is Maurice Ravel doing those colours? How does it work? I want to know, because this is genius.
Then, maybe, you find a few things. You learn how something is made. I find that very inspiring. It could be anything, rhythms, harmonies, instruments, technology.
It’s great to have that learning mindset. You developed a musical partnership with Frank Wiedemann under the name Schwarzmann, having first partnered together with Dixon on a minimal mix album called the Grandfather Paradox back in 2009. How have your performances progressed and intertwined since then?
It was just very natural. He was playing live, I was playing live and then at some point we said should we play back-to-back and see what happens. DJs do back-to-back performances, so we did a live back-to-back. That went well, and we said ‘maybe we should just keep it even more open and improvise, and not prepare at all’.
I mean, we prepare of course, we rehearse – but don’t know what we’re gonna play. That’s basically the concept. While we’re on stage, it puts us under extreme pressure to work fast and effectively and that was the thing that pushed us.
So yes, every show is very different – we don’t know what’s gonna happen – but it works really well. We got more experienced at doing that, so it’s constantly evolving, in a way.
Have you any further plans for Schwarzmann?
We kind of lost it a bit with the pandemic but now things are just opening up again. We did two versions of what we call the Schwartzman Soirée, where we invite people – last time, I think, we had 17 musicians on stage to play the music that we have been involved in.
We have had Pat Thomas from Ghana, or Bugge Wesseltoft from Norway, or Omo Ladé from Nigeria, and brought them all on stage. We could only do two of these nights and they were just absolutely incredible, and we want to do that again. Of course the logistics are completely insane, but this would be lovely to do again.
Your long-time collaborator Bugge Wesseltoft recently said that with every collaboration he does, he learns something – that, collaborations are always an educational process. As an avid collaborator yourself, what are your thoughts on the process?
That’s of course very true, and in the case of Bugge, he has been very important for me, because when I started all this in the basement of my parents’ house, I think it was 35 years ago, I wasn’t confident at all. I was very insecure, and there were many people around me who said ‘What is this crap? You call this music? You can’t play an instrument? Nobody’s ever gonna listen to this!’
So, I became a DJ. If you play to your friends, they say ‘yeah this is great’, but they’re your friends, they will always tell you that. You need other people to tell you if something is good or not.
Bugge took me seriously, and that was something that shocked me, because I was this laptop guy, and I looked up to him as being one of the greatest piano players I can think of. I remember saying to him, ‘I want to be able to do it like you do it’, and his response was ‘Oh, that’s interesting’. That was very important for me – that this super musician was telling me that what I was doing was interesting to him.
From there, we started playing and it went really well. You can wake me up in the middle of the night and put me on stage with Bugge and it’s gonna be fun.
A few years ago, you played at Hamburg’s famous Elbphilharmonie, performing a ‘Plunderphonia’ set with the Alma String Quartet, in which you sampled around 70 motifs from over 700 string quartets from the last 250 years. Can you tell us a bit about that?
That was one of my best and one of my worst ideas, I would say. I really like the idea of looking at classical music from a DJ perspective, mixing all those parts. Then you realise, when you start listening, how many fantastic string quartets are written, and this just became an endless quest.
I listened and was fascinated by so much that I found it very difficult to get everything under control because it’s extremely complex. All this written music is already super elaborate and there’s so much in it and then I come along and cut it into pieces and put it together again.
It was probably a bit too much, it would have been enough to take only one composer. Take Bartok, for example – his string quartets would be enough to work on.
The Alma Quartet though helped me a lot because it’s all in their heads! So, you might say ‘bar 25, from movement three’ of some piece, and they play it. That’s insane! The level of musicianship they have – it’s a very different perspective on music than what I have, or what electronic musicians have.
That was something I found incredibly interesting, to be in the studio with them. Also I had them in my home studio, where there’s not so much space. So there was the string quartet and tonnes of microphones and myself, it really was packed.
This was when you created the CCMYK album – one of the standout tracks for us was Happy Hipster. Was that about anyone in particular, or was it autobiographical?
Not autobiographical I would say, at least not me. One of the players came up with that name. I think it was a picture that raised in our minds when he said it, because it’s joyful. That’s what we had in mind – someone that is really happy, and he or she doesn’t care too much about serious things. It’s the vibe that this piece creates.
You developed a live show together around the CCMYK project. Can you describe what the live synthesis feels like when you perform with the Alma String Quartet?
I previously did projects with big orchestras, where I wrote music for them, and joined them on stage. That was great, but it’s also very complex. I realised that you don’t stand a chance with a computer or synthesiser to really play a balanced role within an orchestra because they are so huge and are blasting you away. You could play a kick drum, yeah, but that’s not very interesting.
I thought it would be far more interesting for me to start with a smaller setup and see how we can work together. I think with this project, it’s a lot about finding out how we can work together because their musical perspective is so different. I come from improvisation and looping and am very much in the moment.
But for the string quartet, they can only play when they know what they play, because they need a guide to follow. Improvising for them is very difficult, it can become noise very quickly. It’s not their fault, of course, because they are they are the most incredible musicians, I’ve ever met, I think.
We tried to find a balance. We wanted to improvise but also gave them the chance to know what to play – to keep it open but still not know where we’re going. I find that very interesting as well because it’s very complex – there’s technology involved and there’s musicianship involved. There are a lot of elements that need to be balanced out, and I like that part of the of that project.
We’re going to the studio again in two months and see if we can take it further. I worked on some AI-based compositions for the string quartet and I think that’s gonna be very promising, because if they can bring those computer compositions to life, it’s going be interesting.
I spotted some of your upcoming shows in London with the string quartet were unfortunately cancelled, have any plans to reschedule?
They have been rescheduled, because we’re going play in the Jazz Café in Spring. I’m really happy they are still on board, because it was very complicated – we had to reschedule three times and for the audience as well, that have tickets. So I’m looking forward to that.
Brilliant. It’s now 20 years we believe, since your first releases on Moodmusic, such as the Supravision EP. How has your approach to production changed in that time and what is your plan for the next twenty years?
I was actually super shocked this year, because I turned 50, and I realised ‘hey, I’m doing this for 20 years on a professional level’. Even going back 30 years, I was DJing and working on productions and stuff – that’s a long time, but it went really quick, shockingly quick.
Also with the pandemic, we had two years of stopping. That’s interesting because when you move fast you might not realise what’s going on, or not so much as you should. I could take it easy and work on new things, but taking it easy is difficult for me.
I have never managed to do it – I should take it easy but I just I can’t. There are still so many ideas. I hope that I still get invited to perform, and the ideas keep coming.
I mean, I was lucky, I would say, because when I started 20 years ago, Ableton Live had just been released, so being able to play live with a laptop was the newest, hottest thing you could do, and I was one of the first ones who could do that. Over the following ten years – let’s say from 2000 to 2010, maybe even a little bit more – there was so much technical development that it was easy for me to experiment with all those new possibilities.
In the last couple of years, there has been less technological development – software companies are copying the same old vintage synths again and again, and the same old plug-ins, emulating sounds from the 70s or 80s. I’m waiting for a radical technological change… or maybe it’s not technology that’s going to change, I don’t know.
Yes, I saw a gifted classical performer, Marco Mezquida from Menorca, play at Sonár Lisboa last April and it was incredible. He played a beautiful piece of music where the AI responded to him and played along with him. Where do you see the future of DJing, if AI is going to take over?
There have been two or three decades of DJs being curators – with all this music coming out, you need someone that makes a selection. That’s why many DJs are even more successful than the actual musicians; they don’t write the music, but they make the selection.
Their job will get even tougher in the years to come, because AI is going to produce so much music, and 99.9% of it will be complete sh*t. It used to be the case that you went to a record store, and you listened to 100 records, say, and ten of them were good. Now, with streaming, you have to listen to 1,000 files to get ten that you like, and with AI you will probably have to listen to 10,000 or 100,000 files to get ten that are strong.
You will still need the DJ to make the selection, AI won’t be able to do that. I think that’s the thing in the end, that the AI cannot make art, but as a human being, I can say ‘this is art’. I think DJs, or even teams of DJs that curate music, will continue to be very strong in the future because they make the selection that you trust as a listener.
So if you were to create your super DJ team, who would you choose?
OK, that’s an interesting question. I know many DJs, of course, and they are great, and I respect them for their taste. It would be super interesting to get other music lovers on board. Music enthusiasts are everywhere.
Great, I’ll be on your team so. 🙂
Yes exactly. I think that’s going make it even more interesting, because then you start discussing ‘is this actually good’ or ‘let’s take a minute or two and combine it with something else’. It’s like when you listen to Ravel, you can feel he has put all these decades of musical heritage into his music, and maybe with AI we will be able to do something like that. I find it exciting.
Words by Emer O’Connor. Catch up to date with Henrik Schwarz’s latest releases and tour news at www.henrikschwarz.com