Since the release of his first track on the legendary Chain Reaction label in 1995, Robert Henke has been making cerebral textured music that has appealed to both the feet and the mind. His first LP, ‘Interstate’, on the Imbalance label, was the sign of things to come from Robert, accuentating the mood rather than the rhythm, but last year’s Momentum LP was a different take altogether, being much darker, intense and more rhythmically diverse than anything he had produced before. His work is made all the more interesting by the fact that he sees himself more as a programmer than a musician. Whilst still based in Berlin and a central part of the Hardwax scene, the Monolake sound has matured into something unique, being an exploration of texture and rhythm, constantly mutating with successive releases.
Robert is also an integral part of the Ableton LIve! production team, helping to create a piece of sequencing software that is central to much of the laptop electronica being produced today. This has also helped him to set up his Atlantic Waves project with Scott Monreith aka Deadbeat, both of them getting together to create music simultaneously whilst 4,000 kilometers apart.
With Ableton 4 hitting the streets, are you particularly excited by this version that is being released? Are there any major improvements to the software at all?
I am always excited by a new version. The main thing we did for Live 4 was the integration of MIDI, which a lot of people wanted to have. Personally, I am also very happy with a lot of small improvements that have enhanced the workflow without being so obvious.
You occupy an unusual role, in being both a programmer and a musician. I understand that this question could take forever to reply to, but put simply, what does being a programmer give you when making music? Is it always in the back of your mind when you are composing music?
The ability to create my own instruments is quite ambiguous. On one hand, it gives me the freedom to create whatever I need on the other hand this keeps me effectively from using what I already have, since I can always improve it. My work at Ableton is very different from my muscial work. At Ableton I am part of a team and there is a solution for every problem. This can be quite relaxing in comparison to creating art where you are often enough very alone and no rational decision can be used to solve a problem. But creating art is very pleasing, once it is done. I enjoy both worlds. Do you ever have the wish to make music without computers or is it an inseparable ethic of Monolake? I would like to be a good piano player. I just love the instrument. But I never had a musical education and I am a lousy player…
I feel that there’s a very primal textured feel to your music that evolves on a linear scale, but at the same time an intensity that only can come with the human touch. Your last LP Momentum, was unusual in many respects, for one that it was rhythmically different to previous work, and was a lot darker. What made you go off in a different direction? The fact that I wanted to be different. I wanted to create this darker more industrial atmosphere and I am still thinking this area is worth exploring further. Atmosphere is the keyword. I want to create atmosphere with my music. What kind of atmosphere is not as important as the fact that each release has to have ‘something’.I am always intrigued as to how musicians decide that’s what they want to do. I did, unfortunately, not study music. I spend some time studying the principles of composition but as I said before I do not really play an instrument.
Was there a particular record or composer that you felt inspired enough to think “I want to make music” or was it a more gradual process?
Actually, Jean Michel Jarre’s ‘Oxygene’ record had a massive impact on me when I first heard it as a child. Apart from that, I am generally interested in technology and art. Making electronic music seemed to be a pretty logical step to me, in retrospect.
Do you continue to use old equipment that you have in the studio, or is it a case of constantly renewing and updating? I believe in instruments and I believe in mastering them. I still use almost all of the instruments I’ve ever bought. The others I sold very shortly after getting them. I am not a software junkie and I am not a hardware junkie anymore since the tools I have got offer me already way more possibilites then I can use in the next 1,000 years. However I have to admit that I recently bought a very special instrument just because I admire it technically, the NED Synclavier II, a very early music computer system.
Being familiar with Berlin, I’m intrigued by how atmospheric the city is, both historically through the large amount of change it has experienced, and that it has been split in two, creating two dynamic forces. Whilst it’s easy to say that there is a distinct Berlin sound, has living there influenced the music you make in any way? There’s a term in english - psychogeography - that perhaps best describes this. The whole techno and party thing definitely has had an impact on me, as well as the experience of academic computer music at the Technical University. This was in the nineties, now i just live in Berlin and enjoy its diversity. The music you make in my opinion is quite unique. Do you seal yourself off in your studio for long periods, not being open to any exterior influences at all?
While creating a new CD, I am rarely listening to other related music. Then there are periods where I try to catch as much input as possible.
What interests you musically at this time? Are there any particular composers or musicians that you keep a track of? I am listening to a lot of non-club-non-techno music these days. Classical minimal music of Steve Reich, Computer music, 20th century chamber music, things like that.
The visual aspect of your music, especially within a live context seems to be a central part of what you are trying to achieve.
I believe in experiences. A concert should be more then just someone sitting behind a laptop. There is a room which needs to be filled with sound and emotion. Visuals, or the way the room is illuminated, are an important part of this experience. That’s why I enjoy performing in non club spaces. If you listen to music at a very moderate level whilst sitting in a Japanese temple in Kyoto, you will discover different aspects of it. And if you listen to the same work in a club at seven at the morning, it is again very different. Your Atlantic Waves project with Deadbeat is potentially very exciting. How did this come about and what are your plans for it?
This is a long story. I plan to put up a lot of stuff on my website soon since I plan to make this an ongoing project. There will be more concerts in the future.Tell me a bit more about your upcoming CD ‘Signal to Noise’.
‘Signal to Noise’ came to life during a session with one of my favorite instruments, the Yamaha SY77. The SY77 can produce timbres that slowly change and mutate via FM synthesis, and recordings of these sounds formed the basis for what was to evolve into ‘Signal to Noise.’ The recordings mainly consisted of harmonic droning, so I found them to be a bit boring after extensive listening. I began filtering, pitch-shifting and processing the material using granular resynthesis, aiming to achieve erosion and diffusion of the sound while preserving some of the original movements. The signal became the noise.
For further info on Atlantic Waves, a discography and his Monodeck, see www.monolake.de ‘Signal to Noise’ is released on Imbalance later this month.
Thanks to Robert and Heike.