If Franz Ferdinand are doing rock music that make people dance, Digitalism are making dance music that make people rock. There are loads of rock bands making music for the dancefloor. Digitalism make electronic music that everyone can rock to. For the past two years, they have been the go-to men for indie remixes, having reworked the Klaxons, The Test Icicles, Cut Copy and The Futureheads.
Digitalism is Jens Moelle & Ismail Tuefekci from Hamburg. They met at the city’s Underground Solution record store, soon bonding over their shared love of dance and rock records. When the store’s owner, Ollie Grabowski, began casting around for a couple of fresh, young DJs to play at party, he suggested that Isi and Jens team up. “We were of the same generation,” says Isi, “we liked the same records, so we were put in one room together.”
Digitalism initial release on the French label remains their best known: ‘Zdarlight’. The boys chose this peculiar spelling to distinguish the record from other ‘Starlight’ titled tunes by everyone from Muse to Model 500. They shouldn’t have worried. The heavy dance tune, with its acidic undercarriage, lilting guitar line and stratospheric climax, is distinctive enough. It received strong support in 2005 from many including Soulwax, Tiga, Laurent Garnier, Blackstrobe, Tiefschwarz and The Glimmers, and remains a reliable club staple to this day.
I was lucky to be able to take some time out to speak to the duo during the release of the new EP 5KY11GHT.
Thanks a lot! We had lots of fun and actually started early because we couldn’t wait.
You both met in a record store in Hamburg in your teen years, long before the advent of online music shopping, do you still find time to hunt down the odd treasure, is there a particular store you find yourself drawn to?
We love record shops, but there’s no particular one that we go back to every week. Instead we hunt down releases around the globe with the help of the internet. When we’re on tour we try to browse in local shops if time allows it. There’s a lot of really good tracks you cannot get digitally. It’s still great to put newly acquired vinyl on the turntable and turn it up loud. They’re the secret weapons.
It has been 10 years since your album “Idealism” and I heard you use a former WW2 bunker to record, how do you approach recording that differs from back then, is there a routine you hit the studio with or is the process more fluid?
We’re still in that WWII bunker. Of course, the place looks a bit nicer now than back then, but it’s essentially still the same. Even our first PC that we used for “Idealism” is still in the room next door, by the foosball table. It was hard to produce on it back then because we built it from a couple of bits of junk, and it really had its limits. Sometimes we’d pray that a mixdown would go through without it crashing. But problems stimulate your creativity, and we had to come up with workarounds a lot of times, which taught us to use the few basics that we had properly.
Over the years we bought more gear and new computers, but even now we still find ourselves almost producing in the same way as before. If a synthesizer has a fancy button that automatically does a lot of things, we usually don’t press it. We like to build things from scratch, still. It’s still very DIY… We just spend a bit more time on the mixing now.
When we go to the studio to write and produce we usually already have a few ideas that we wanted to take a look at. We both collect lots and lots of them, a lot of loops, moods and also a lot of “combos” — that’s when we think one piece could work well with another. Then we pick up those ideas in the studio and see where they take us. Music almost always comes first for us. When we think the song deserves a vocal, we see what the music is kind of telling us, and we just describe those things. Like a painting, with the instrumental being our muse. The whole process is very in the moment and free-flow.
You have said in previous interviews, that you are influenced by film soundtracks and your music has been used in countless shows and games, have you ever considered writing for film before, what sort of film would you like to score?
We keep on thinking about this, but we also learned that scoring films is really hard work. It might not go well with our DIY mentality, which doesn’t go by the book really. But when you have to go by the book, it can get tough. One time in LA a few years back, we met Trevor Horn, and he warned us about the needs of the scoring industry. Just a bit of advise. Not that we deleted the idea of making soundtracks afterwards, but it wasn’t anything urgent for us.
If we were to make a soundtrack, we’d rather approach it the other way round, like Ennio Morricone did it with Sergio Leone for his Spaghetti Westerns: He wrote and recorded all the music first, and then they would shoot the film — to the music! A certain genre wouldn’t really matter to us — you can lift anything to a different space with the right music on top.
Your sound is quite hard to pigeon hole, with it encompassing elements of rock, punk, big beat and house, yet your single “HighSpeed Sunrise” reminds me slightly of the lo-fi guitar of The Cure and recently various pop artists taking a nod to 80’s drum patterns using the gated reverb, do you think your sound and electronic music is looking back, to move forward?
Around the release of our second album, we felt like we were making music that was somehow a bit “80s” — but more “2080s”! We’re definitely fans of that era, being kids of the 80s. We grew up with cassette tapes, video games, first home computers and synthesizers. It was a whole new world that was opening in front of us. And of course, the beginnings again were quite basic — and very DIY. People didn’t know what to do with these things at first. That’s where we pick up, using basic elements to form our music. For instance, we still use a lot of 1-oscillator monophonic synthesizers. You just got to know what you want from something, and then you can make it. The path to your goal doesn’t matter.
Music in general tends to go in big cycles. It’s always absorbing things, recycling, evolving, translating and connecting stuff. It’s a bit like The Blockchain: It keeps on mutating, but you cannot delete the old entries.
Your LIVE sets have been forever etched into electronic music folklore, with the demands of touring schedules, is this something you would love to continue? Can you walk us through what it takes to prepare for a live show?
Of course! We’ve only played a very few shows this year, but that got us hungry for more again. Playing live for us is like unleashing the dragon, everyone in our team goes nuts on a showday. We’ve done it since 2005, and next year we’ll be back on the touring circus.
At the beginning it was hard for us to translate our music into something we could play live. We came from DJing originally and then mutated into studio producers… until our record label asked us if we could play live. We had to come up with an idea. It was a basic setup of a few synths, a computer and our friend on guitars. Our first live show was really bad. We emptied the whole backstage fridge before we even went on stage because we got so nervous. But it felt great nonetheless.
Over time now we’ve found a good system for us; we bring lots of synths, samplers, microphones and other gear that we can mess with. Different years had different stage lights, visuals and other production, but the core of a bunch of channels that go out to the PA from our stage is always there. At one point it got out of hand and we almost couldn’t mix everything at the sound desk because we had too many! Of course preparing all the gear and tuning it takes time, so we usually a few weeks tweaking sounds and patterns. But then we’re ready.
In a conversation with Paul Oakenfold last year, he was dismayed at the lack of live acts within the electronic music scene, in previous years from Daft Punk, Underworld, Chemical Brothers and of course yourself, what do you think is holding back the scene to break out new acts?
We see it differently. It seems like actually there’s a lot of live acts out there now, and many of them are electronic — it’s almost the new gateway to music! Of course the line between DJing and playing live is very blurry and worlds cross over a lot… But production has become so much more affordable and gear smaller; you can even take it and play live on the subway. So it might not just be as visible as back then when acts brought truckloads of stuff and 20 people crew with them.
The other thing is that artists nowadays try to keep a live production more compact so it’s easier to fly everywhere. With the scenes becoming more and more globally connected, the demand for being in Berlin today and in New York tomorrow has grown too.
Since your debut release to now, you have toured constantly around the world, is there any funny moments you can share with our readers?
We had tons of funny moments, but picking particular ones would lead too far now. But yeah we had everything, from crazy fans, gear failure in front of 30k people, earthquakes, to a jet skiing afternoon with Flava Flav, kicking Paris Hilton off stage, … everything. People can check out our socials for more in-depth coverage.
Lastly, thank you for taking time out to speak to us today, what can we expect from you both in 2018?
We’ve had a lot of time in the studio this year, so our current EP is just the tip of the iceberg. We’re back on tour in 2018, and it’s gonna get hot.
Digitalism’s new EP ‘5KY11GHT EP’ is out now https://digitalism.lnk.to/5Ky11ght