Henrik Schwarz has grown used to keeping late hours. Over the last five years, the soft-spoken German producer has seen his stock slowly rise; nowadays his unique, improvised approach to laptop performance is winning him fans even outside of traditional dance circles. And with deep house once again en vogue, especially the German variety peddled by Schwarz and pals Âme and Dixon, the call for Schwarz’s live wizardry has grown even louder.
It wasn’t always so. Schwarz first began dabbling in music just as a hobby between graphic design jobs, even naming his label Sunday Music in line with his plan to only write tunes on Sundays. Although his first tracks arrived on b-sides known to only the most dedicated house heads, it wasn’t long before broader audiences took note, perhaps first when M.A.N.D.Y. capped off their 2005 mix ‘Body Language’ with his remix of Wei Chi’s ‘Faces and Places’. Schwarz followed it up with a handful of rated singles and remixes, including a bona fide smash in the form of ‘Where We At’, made together with Âme, Dixon and Derrick Carter, a track which practically defined the sound of summer clubbing in 2006.
But Schwarz’s growing reputation for quality productions and live shows soon caught the eye of a bigger fish. In 2006, German giant !K7 selected him to mix a volume of the closely watched ‘DJ-Kicks‘ series, which made waves both in the dance scene and also amongst a broader audience, largely thanks to his capability of making ass-shaking sense of non-electronic musicians such as Moondog, Cymande, D’Angelo and Arthur Russell in the context of a club mix.
You’ve just released your ‘live’ album: is there still an artist album in the works?
Oh yes, it’s been ‘in the works’ for 3 years now. But for the last two months I’ve really been working on it, so hopefully everything will be finished by end of next year.
Recently Frank (from Ame) was talking about a new project involving yourself and Dixon as the ‘Innervisions Orchestra…’ What musical direction is this heading in?
Well, since we did our first single Where We At together, we had the idea of doing something more as an ensemble where each of us adds our special influences and roots. We have realised that we can work together quite well, so for the Innervisions Orchestra project we want both to produce a CD and put together an accompanying live show where we’d both appear on stage.
Jazz is known for its free form improvisational stylings. How does this relate to your live show armed with a laptop and various controllers?
There has always been quite a lot of confusion when it comes to the combination of techno/house and jazz. From my point of view there are two possible directions. The first one means you just add some ‘jazzy’ solos or elements to a house or techno track. The second one is more an attitude of how you play things. Jazz for me means everything is possible at any time and also it is a spontaneous reaction to your fellow musicians and/or the audience – no more or less than that. So for me and my laptop this means I am starting at one point but I don’t know where the journey goes, like jumping in at the deep end. I find that quite exciting.
What is the creative process like? I heard you work heavily in Ableton Live, is all your work done through plugins, or do you use the best of both worlds?
I am using plugins on one hand and also a lot of real instruments like Rhodes or piano or percussion or bass. I use the computer to extract and process interesting melodies and sounds from those real instruments. I believe that there are a lot of interesting things to discover if you combine both worlds.
Have you thought about losing the machines and going into a totally ‘live’ mode with acoustic instruments?
Yes. I am working on a project that is exactly that but it seems that it will take a while to set everything up properly. You need to find the right musicians for that.
To me, your remix for Coldcut Walk A Mile In My Shoes represents a significant shift towards ‘song-orientated’ house music. Is this something we can expect more of for your artist album?
Well, yes, I am trying to do that yes. I am trying to find a balance between club tracks and songs. Let’s see if it works…
How is your label ‘Sunday Music’ going? I noticed that SMR003 contained a link to download tracks in MP3 format, did you get many downloads? And as a relatively small independent label, what changes are you making to adapt to the new digital era?
There was a code on the vinyl because I was interested in how many people would download, and how much interest there was. I was quite surprised how many people downloaded. That means, of course, that there is a lot of interest in digital formats and of course as a label, you feel that there is a lot of change happening. Vinyl seems to get less important – sadly. For my label it is still quite OK to do vinyl, but I know many other small labels that are no longer able to do vinyl. It is getting too expensive to press records because you have to sell more than 800 copies to pay the pressing. It seems to be important to stay flexible. I don’t know what the future brings, but too much music is getting copied: that’s a problem for small and big labels. But I believe that people need music for their lives, so there is a need for new music that is going to stay and that’s the most important thing.
What new bands/producers are you digging at the moment? Are you being influenced by the modern sounds coming through in house music?
I am always trying to keep my eyes open in many directions: not only in house music. Many inspirations come from outside the club scene. I listen to a lot of old and new music. At the moment I love last.fm where you type one artist in and get a lot of other stuff out. If I find an interesting track I order the whole CD and see if there is more to explore.
Your remix for Mari Boine was one of my favourite records of the year. You’re known for remixing some quite obscure names, how do these remix projects come along?
To be honest, I don’t know how it works. At some point my phone rings and somebody has something to remix. If I like it and have time I do it. Of course if it is something from outside the dance scene, like Mari Boine, I find it especially interesting as there is a lot of potential to create something new.
The liner notes for ‘Live’ say that it was recorded around the world and then assembled in the studio. How exactly does that work?
When I travel and play in Rome, for example, I record what I’m playing, so that I have a huge pool of source material. And I jam around with these different sound sources and it’s all recorded, so that it’s not just an audio file, it’s a recording of what I do live – the movement of my hands on the controls. I record every show I play so that the improvisation comes through in the recording. And I think the reaction of the audience and the atmosphere of the club or city is integrated into the recording as well. For the live album I took a few of the best moments from the different cities and tried to bring them together in one thing in hopes that the listener can feel what happened in all these places.
Are you still collaborating with the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble?
Yes, we’re still working on the album.
How’s that going? Do you come to Chicago often?
Not at the moment because of the small ones. We definitely plan to do more recording and work on the stuff we’ve already recorded in Chicago. I was there quite a while ago now, but we spent a few days in the studio and recorded some really interesting stuff from my point of view. It feels like it has a lot of potential to be something good. The next time I’m in Chicago I’m sure we will perform together again.
Who are some contemporary musicians whose music you both enjoy and respect? More than just your collaborators like Dixon and Âme.
Ah, the usual suspects. (Laughs) There is a group, the Esbjörn Svensson Trio (E.S.T.), they are a jazz trio from Sweden. What they do is really amazing because they’re always doing something new. Hmm… see, I’m really bad with names. I should write something down, because I never remember any names when I get asked this question.
I don’t suppose you’re near your record collection…
Well yeah, let me go in here. (Moves to a different room.) DeepChord, Mike Huckabee, LCD Soundsystem and Terre Thaemlitz.
You’ve said before that jazz has had perhaps the largest influence on your music, in particular the improvisational aspect. How have you integrated that into your own work?
Most of the tracks that I’ve done or am working on, even if it is remixes or my own productions, start out in a live setting. In a way I’m preparing a few things when I go out, but I’m trying not to prepare too much so I can really play instead of just playing the same
Do you feel inspired in the same way by traditional African music?
No. Maybe the African part isn’t so much about inspiration. I think the African part is very close to the source of where music comes from – it brings us all together. I have a feeling that if you hit the drum in a certain rhythm, you touch a certain group of people in the same way; and I think these African roots bring people together, because it’s where we all come from in a way.
It’s an innate experience.
Yeah. I don’t know the proper word in English, but it’s something that comes from very deep inside.
Now are you more influenced by American or German/European jazz?
Definitely the American stuff. I have a feeling that when most of Germans play jazz, they play more with their head than their heart. I mean, it’s just a feeling I have, I don’t know if it’s true, but I think the German jazz musicians are very head-driven and also German improvisation is more head-driven than how Americans play it.
You also release multiple versions of your own songs, such as ‘Leave My Head Alone, Brain’, for example.
In a way that’s a result of that improvisational process. Because there might be a first, early version that I integrate into my live set, and then after several gigs playing here and there and I start to know the files better and better. I’m also learning how to play with and use them, so the result changes more and more. So after one or two years, the version I play with the same source material might be quite different from the version I played before.
Do you still do graphic design work?
Yes. I’m doing a little bit less graphic work than in the last few years; and in the next few months I’m going to do more music than graphic design for the first time in my life.
You’ve said in previous interviews that you truly need to do both graphic design and music. What about that combination is so essential to you?
I have a feeling that the two disciplines help each other in development. I wouldn’t say that making music or graphic design is a problem, but creating a track is like a solution, or creating visuals is a solution. If I want to create something acoustic and I cannot finish it, sometimes the graphic view of some abstract problem is the solution to something acoustic; sometimes I get stuck with my ears so I use my eyes. The working process is very similar. Let’s say you wanted to make something dramatic. If you were making it in graphics, you would use this or that element. You could translate the visual elements directly into tones or sounds to make it dramatic.
Have you considered making music that’s not specifically dance-oriented?
Well I was planning to do that, but it seems to be very hard for me to get rid of the straight bass drum. (Laughs) In a way I’m addicted to it. (Laughs) I’m trying hard to get rid of it, to make music that’s rooted in dance music but is not dance music. It might take a while because I haven’t found the solution acoustically. Maybe I’ll find it visually at some point.
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