Thomas Fehlmann: Beyond The Orb

Thomas Fehlmann has a musical CV that most people can only dream of. Producer, musician, DJ, composer and more, his career has spanned many years. We caught up with him for a chat.

In an industry with a voracious appetite for fresh talent, decades of relevance are hard to come by. With an impressive discography featuring hundreds of credits, Thomas Fehlmann is one of those rare souls whose balance of talent and perspective has blessed him with consistent quality throughout a stunning array of projects.

Producing classic albums as one half of the Orb, collaborating with legends such as Juan Atkins and Mortiz Von Oswald, scoring feature-length films, holding a DJ residency at seminal nightclub Tresor, and releasing solo records on R&S and Kompakt, Thomas has found a multitude of outlets for his considerable skills.

We caught up with him in the spacious yet cozy Berlin apartment he shares with Gudrun Gut to discuss his musical history, his approach to live performance, the joy of sampling, and so much more. 

 

AA: So you essentially started producing the 1980s?

TF: Yeah, the year ‘79 was crucial, because that’s when I met two major figures who kind of, without really intending to, inspired me to switch my theme in art school from fine arts to music.

In January of ‘79 I had my first brush with Robert Fripp, from King Crimson. At that time he had disbanded King Crimson, had done the Fripp and Eno record, and started touring record shops worldwide with the Frippertronics set up, which consisted of the two Revox tape recorders, his guitar, and some effects. And he did that specifically to go back to the roots, meet the people who are buying the records, and he did a free concert in Hamburg at a record shop. 

So I went there and chatted with him about my art school and stuff and that we had this room where it would be great for him to have a concert, and he said, “So when shall I come?” I said, “Thursday afternoon,” and he turned up. So it was not only the chance for me to see him working, but I also had the chance to talk with him. I was kind of starstruck and all that, but after a few days he had gotten a bit looser, and after this week without him intending anything like it, I cancelled a planned holiday and bought my first synthesizer instead: a Korg MS-20. It was so serious how he took those free gigs, I was impressed the way a guy who was like, my teenage hero, guitar hero type-guy, would scale down so much, and do it small and mobile – not knowing how true that term would become.

I cancelled a planned holiday and bought my first synthesizer instead: a Korg MS-20.

So the air of Eno was around him in one way – you know he’s a serious guitarist – but he was also talking about how you have to forget all the things you learned when you go and perform. I came from the conceptual side to the music-making. I wasn’t training my chops to be a performer on the piano. But I was more interested in this monophonic synthesizer sort of thing, where you can make installation type-sounds and it’s a different quality than being fancy with your fingers. 

AA: So the MS-20 was your first synthesizer. What were you sequencing with?

TF: Well, by hand – I got the QS-10 only 10 years later. I was in a band called Palais Schaumburg with a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. It wasn’t so much about sequencing, but about getting an organic groove going and finding funky noises.

But before getting too much into that, I want to mention this important second meeting around that time. The Hamburg art academy itself invited Conrad Schnitzler to be a guest lecturer for two months. He was the guy who co-founded Kluster, and he was a very pure historical figure and activist from the Krautrock scene. And he really went for the electronic approach. So he set up a little studio in his room with a Revox, a Space Echo, and an MS-20 among other things. And I had my MS-20 brand new, so he invited me to bring it, to patch them together and show me some things. Basically I was hanging out for two months in this room which was his experimental studio, and soaked it all in.

We recorded stuff, and some of it even got released – it was my first record: Das Ist Schönheit (This Is Beauty). It was a compilation of different students making tracks during this period. And from there I realized, it wasn’t only having a synth – I wanted to do something seriously with it. So I focused on the music making, got a 1/4”-tape in, where I could overdub – not a four-track, but a bouncing system. So these were my first recording experiences. Later that year I met Holger Hiller and we founded Palais Schaumburg. 

AA: Do you remember what you were using for drums in the studio back then? 

TF: My first drum machine was a Boss Dr. Rhythm – the first one. Like the MS-20, it was the cheapest at the time. I loved sending a trigger from the Boss to the external in of the MS-20 as a trigger machine. The results were quite random but super funky and we used it live too, even though it was a bitch to patch. But we also had a live drummer, Ralf Hertwig, who was great. 

AA: So you were in art school, and went from fine arts to music – did you have any musical experience before then?

TF: I was your typical self-taught acoustic guitar cohort, and I tried piano for half a year as a teenager, but I didn’t like the teacher. The guitar was always with me, but my abilities were average.

AA: That’s interesting, as I find at least a lot of your later work has quite a striking musicality to it. 

TF: Well, that developed organically over the years.

 

AA: So you talk about improvisation in your process back then, and I’m quite curious about the relationship between live performance and your studio work. Are you improvising and jamming in the studio or are you more methodical? Where do those disciplines meet for you?

TF: I mean there are so many storylines in the whole development, but I’d like to talk about a more recent thing, which is that I’ve almost completely gotten away from playing the keys. I’m doing almost entirely sample-based work nowadays, where a sample for me is kind of a springboard. I make a habit of going through my favorite records, just straight in.

Alex doesn’t tell me what to do with the sample. Sometimes I radically twist and turn it to where he doesn’t necessarily recognize it.

When I work with Alex (Patterson, as The Orb), he constantly feeds me samples. And I stick it together, what he throws at me. You know, that’s kind of how we worked from the beginning as well, but these days, with technology – Ableton Live mainly – I’m able to sync it and tune it within seconds, as opposed to with, say, the Akai S900 – or even up until the S6000 that I used – by the time I got the sample configured, the idea had usually lost its momentum due to all the preparation time required, just dragging. 

Fehlmann's Korg MS-20 

Nowadays it’s almost live – Alex throws something at me and within a minute it’s in there. And so we can build on that very easily. He doesn’t tell me what to do with the sample. Sometimes I radically twist and turn it to where he doesn’t necessarily recognize it – which is not his concern. His concern is to get material going. I throw it up in the air, play with the material, and he reacts to it.

So this is how we meet and exchange our ideas. How we fold our two individual states of mind together to be like one. Sometimes he’ll bring a sample where at first I’m like, “Ahh, nahh,” - but I know from past experience unexpected things can happen, so I give it a try anyway. I have to force myself not to be lazy, and always record the stuff. The “difficult” ones often turn out to be killer. The next golden moment is always around the corner: when the sample comes in and you say, “Yes!” 

A classic cut from the Orb circa 1990 

AA: So how recent a development is this for you, the shift to sample-based production?  

TF: It happened gradually and became very clear with Moonbuilding (the Orb album from 2014). That process reaffirmed not only the focus on samples, but also the realization that we have a cool working system. The seed was planted when we worked with Lee “Scratch” Perry in 2011 – we were forced to be quick in the studio. From there we went on to finish Moonbuilding and saw that, yeah, this process can bring us to new places.

AA: So Ableton Live is your main DAW that you’re using, and it’s also where you’re processing the samples primarily?

TF: Oh yeah. No fussing with that.

AA: Are you using samples just as audio clips, or putting them into the Simpler or Sampler instruments?

TF: Sometimes – it depends.

AA: When did you switch to Ableton Live as your main DAW? 

TF: Around version 2 or 3 maybe. In the beginning I used Live and Logic, but I’m a lazy cunt – so it was hard to continue with Logic. It also persuaded me to start performing Live, in the late ‘90s. Then more and more I figured, you know, this is the platform I feel really comfortable with. So Logic just became an editing tool that I now use fairly rarely.  

AA: Interesting. So you’ve got The Orb and other collaborations, as well as an impressive discography of additional production credits – do you have a preference for working solo, or in collaboration? Maybe that’s not an entirely fair comparison, but maybe you could talk about the different processes involved in these different approaches? 

TF: I really went through a very intense Orb phase in the last 5 or 6 years, and the reason for that is it really just clicked for Alex and me. There were no “no go” areas, and I could do whatever I wanted to do, so there was simply no need for me to do solo things. Alex now has a kind of new plan, and there might be some changes. So that for me seems like a natural moment to shift again to more of my own stuff – even though I’m involved in a new Orb album which I just worked on a few days ago. I’m feeling very energetic and pumped by that switch. I wasn’t unhappy at all – but I now feel excited by the new perspective.

I also did a collaboration with Terence Dixon earlier this year in Detroit, and I’m finishing up those tracks as we speak, a collaboration that Tresor set up for us.

AA: So mostly you’re working with Kompakt and Tresor these days? 

TF: The Orb and my solo stuff is mostly on Kompakt, but I still have a strong connection with Tresor, not so much on their release schedule now, but from the early days.

AA: I remember catching you play live at the 10th edition of the MUTEK Festival in Montreal – you performed quite a spellbinding set outdoors for the Picnik Electronik. If I recall, it was a pretty stripped-down set up – just your laptop and a controller if I’m not mistaken. How has your live set changed over the years?  

TF: Well, the only thing I really added is some outboard effects, which I feed directly into the audio interface. It’s still a very stripped down set-up. I have all the tracks broken into stems and use an outboard controller as a mixer, for effects, and all that. 

Fehlmann live at MUTEK 10 

AA: So is it mostly improvised, or do you have a particular flow you’re aiming to work through in a live set?  

TF: It goes both ways: there’s a flow, and there’s an improvisational aspect. When I play with Alex, he gives me unexpected loops and stuff, so that requires improvisation. We basically continue the creative process as we do in the studio, and I often don’t know what’s coming next. So I grew to like it – at first I wasn’t sure if it would work long-term, but over time it grew to work better and better, and I’m just quickly reacting to his actions, stripping things down, removing harmonics – and I do enjoy these challenges. But when I’m playing on my own, the challenges are more in fleshing out the detail of what’s already there. Not so much adding new stuff – on stage I experiment with what’s already in the tracks, so I’m basically doing versions.

I turn down projects where I don’t feel like there’s a way for me to connect in a healthy way.

AA: Going through your extensive catalog of various production credits on Discogs.com, what’s the common thread for you? How have you been able to fit into all these diverse projects with so many different roles? 

TF: Honestly they don’t seem so diverse to me. Often people are coming to me, and it’s a positive challenge. Say when Erasure is coming to me to produce their album, I feel honored to work with Vince in his synth dungeon, and I try to bring in some different viewpoints, you know. With him, it was much more of a talking process than a hands-on thing, as an example of extremes. There are also things I turn down, projects where I don’t feel like there’s a way for me to connect in a healthy way, where I’m not sure if I could add something to the horizon.

AA: For me it’s usually exciting to work with other people – getting pulled out of my comfort zone a bit and seeing new ways of working. I know for myself, working alone I definitely fall into old habits a little too easily sometimes.

TF: Same here. I mentioned Frank Wiedemann from Amê, we did a project where I had to rewire the studio – which I rarely do. But it helps keep you fresh on your toes. 

Thomas in the studio  

AA: Can you talk about how your studio evolved over the years? Was there any sort of guiding philosophy to how you built it up over time?

TF: Well, the philosophy which is dominant is that it’s not in the gear, it’s in your head. And it took me years to realize that fully. In the early days, I was stuck in the trap of thinking the next gadget would solve my problems. So my gear lust was focused on the next featured item in Keyboard Magazine or something. This has died down in I think maybe an almost over-healthy way, where I don’t spend much time with new gear. I’m happy if I have a functioning Ableton Live version on my computer. That’s basically what I need these days.  

But I still have some of my older synths, including my very first, the MS-20, which I’ve been coming back to again more and more lately. I have some Nords which I always go back to – but the bigger synths I brought out to the countryside. I might just go there to do some special sessions with say, the Fender Rhodes, the Oberheim OB8, or the DX7. 

AA: So you kind of have a Studio A and a Studio B? There’s a whole second studio in the countryside?

TF: Yeah, I share with Gudrun and sometimes we both have to work. It’s kind of more spacious and has some of the gear that’s not necessarily used every day. You know, even here what’s used everyday is the computer.

AA: So when you sit down to start a new track, can you describe a general process? If you start with a sample, how do you transform it from there?

TF: It boils down to the situation. What I also do in the studio is listen to records. Each time something tickles me, I grab it, and so I have a little collection going. I can’t always remember what the source was.

For the next stuff I definitely want to go back to the Korg MS-20.

AA: Are they usually short samples? Longer samples?

TF: Totally open. For the next stuff I definitely want to go back to the Korg MS-20 and record good sections. I had it MIDI’d up for awhile, but I took it out again. I actually want to set it up with a Dr. Rhythm as the trigger again, just sit down for an afternoon with it and record a little bit here and there and put it on the shelf. 

So more and more when I say I would start a record today, I could be going to a collection that I’ve been building over time. I don’t actually like that situation of the blank canvas so much. I like the situation where I have something to sink my teeth into – not even necessarily use it in the end, but just to not start blank. That’s why I enjoy remixes so much, you have a starting point – not just emptiness.

AA: So are there discrete phases to your production process? Like a creative part, then arranging and editing, then mixing? Or is it all kind of happening simultaneously?

TF: It’s the structured way you described, which is also a headache, because the development and creation phase is always the best. I still struggle to make the other phases as interesting as the first one after all these years.

AA: I think this is common – almost like they require different parts of your brain.

TF: Right – so I try to trick myself. One thing which helped me quite a bit is staying away from the keyboard, avoiding themes I seemed to keep coming back to. I now often convert Audio to MIDI in Ableton Live to arrive at an unexpected starting point and work from there. It feeds me things I wouldn’t do.

AA: Yeah – Audio to MIDI is a great tool for coming up with ideas that wouldn’t arrive any other way; it might not work perfectly, but that’s part of the beauty of it.

TF: Yeah, especially if you start making melodies out of drums, stuff like that. 

Thomas Fehlmann live and direct

Thomas Fehlmann live and direct

AA: Is there any hardware you’ve recently found particularly inspiring or useful?

TF: I like those Eventide effects, the Time Factor and Space Factor. But again, you know, the main thing is to make music. I’m not so knowledgeable in-depth about the gear these days. This is something which, I just go in there as much as I need to get something going.

AA: I think that’s a healthy approach. You talk about how you used to see the gear as a solution to your problems. And now you see so many people spending so much money on gear and not producing any music at all – which is fine as a hobby. As long as you’re enjoying it, you don’t have to be producing records. But a lot of people seem trapped in this idea of the gear being the answer. 

TF: It’s a model train situation. Where people used to have this hobby in the cellar. It’s a very in-depth hobby – but nowadays, as opposed to buying a model train, people buy a modular system. But who am I to judge? It’s all about openness and diversity.

AA: Well, I think that’s an apt metaphor, actually. And just because someone has a nice modular rig shouldn’t mean they necessarily have pressure to make records – it can be for its own enjoyment. So you’re not spending a lot of money on gear these days, but it sounds like you’re getting a lot of inspiration from records. Would you still consider yourself an avid record collector?

TF: Oh yeah, I go out to record stores often. Finding things I haven’t noticed.

Fehlmann at the record shop  

AA: You mentioned finding an incredible jazz record store the other day. Do you often find inspiration outside of electronic genres these days?

TF: For me, listening to jazz is a free space. I know I can’t do it – so it’s not competitive. I’m not comparing myself with it. I’m not analyzing. I just listen.

AA: Would you say you have any non-music-related habits or routines that have helped you stay creative over the years?

TF: Working in the garden or cleaning the dishes before starting in the studio. Doing a bit of household work beforehand.

AA: Clean house, clean mind – I think that’s a Zen saying or something.

TF: It grounds you in something totally profane to begin with, but also allows your mind to start to wander.

AA: So what new music are you excited about these days?

TF: I like Huerco S, I like the new Actress record. I love Teebs! I always enjoy my Stones Throw, Brainfeeder, West Coast hip-hop beats. 

Alice Springs from Thomas’ solo album, Lowflow  

AA: So is there anything you’re excited about technologically? Any particular direction you’d like to see music technology head towards? 

TF: I trust the new Live version, whenever it comes, will be as handy as the old one, and to be honest with you, that’s my main concern – I’m not even that bothered about it anymore. Because I do so much with Live you know, and I spend half the year on the road, and it just hasn’t let me down.

We try and bring as much passion and love into (the productions) as we can, so it translates to the vibe in the room.

AA: So how do you see your role as a music producer and artist in the midst of a turbulent society?

TF: Well, going out to play live is always very gratifying because you get to see what it means to people. How they’re ready for inspiration. Mainly talking about the Orb in recent years, we try and bring as much passion and love into it as we can, so it translates to the vibe in the room.

Having a chat with someone from the audience after the gig, we usually feel as though it does come across. Our dedication does bring something to the people, helping take them out of their rut for a bit, and I think this is a valuable contribution these days – being able to take people out of their train of thought, give them some movement, widen their horizon, bring some colors. And I feel this is very gratifying. I’m happy to see that happening – that there are still people who feel we have something to contribute to their life, to their happiness. This feeds back to us, and helps make the hassle of touring worthwhile.  

AA: Well put. Any last tips for aspiring musicians and producers? 

TF: Don’t believe the hype.

For more information on Thomas and his work, visit: http://www.thomasfehlmann.com 
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