A veteran and a newcomer all at once, the Poker Flat regular talks us through his career to date, his latest EP and his plans for the future
If your interest in electronic music dates back only a few years, you could be forgiven for thinking Hannes Bieger was something of a newcomer to the scene himself. After all, he didn't put out a record under his own name until 2017, when he debuted on Poker Flat with the Strato EP, the first in a string of 12-inches for Poker Flat, Bedrock, Flying Circus and other labels.
If you've been around the industry for a little longer, though, you'll know he's been a mainstay of the Berlin scene for a lot longer than that. He's the mix engineer of choice for techno heavyweights like Ben Klock, Marcel Dettman and Ellen Allien, not to mention Poker Flat boss Steve Bug, as well as offering production and mixing tuition at his studio, and writing technical articles for mags like Sound On Sound.
But what you might not realiseis that Bieger didn't, in fact, "make the move into production" in 2017 at all. Instead, as he explains below, he was simply picking up the threads of a production career that had begun nearly 20 years before, with a series of deep house, broken beat and nu-jazz releases – as Airmate, with Ralph Lock as 75 Moods, and with Dexter Porter as Llava.
That longevity and experience no doubt goes a long way to explain the sheer lavish quality we've come to expect from Bieger's productions. Productions such as The Heart and Santorin, the two tracks which make up The Heart EP, which is out tomorrow – which is why we're talking to him today…
Firstly, as you haven't appeared in iDJ before, can you tell us a bit about your background, and how you got into making electronic music – and pursuing music as a career – in the first place?
“I started playing in bands many years ago, first as a guitarist, and later on synthesizers too. In the 90s I got into electronic music via acid jazz and trip hop, but I didn’t pick up the straight bass drum before I moved to Berlin towards the end of the decade. Here it was inevitable – and still is!”
Yours is a somewhat unusual path, in that you were well known as a mix engineer before you stepped out as an artist in your own right. What was the impetus for finally 'stepping out of the shadows', as it were?
“Well, I actually had a career as a musician and as a producer even before I got into mixing – in the early 2000s I released a bunch of 12-inches and two full albums, some of it deep house but most of it broken beat and what was called 'nu jazz' at the time, so the techno crowd wouldn’t even have me on their radar. I started to build my studio and practise my mixing skills then, because in my view at the time this was well within the job description of a 'producer', and it was always important to me to have a set-up that would help me to get the job done in the best possible way. Mixing for other people was never a career path I had planned, it was just something that happened naturally, when people listened to the records I put out and started to send me inquiries about who mixed it and whether I could get them in touch with the same person.
“Then, in 2006, I decided I needed a break from producing, and I got really busy mixing other people's records. I never planned for that production break to last well over a decade but it did, until I released my debut record after the break on Poker Flat in 2017. To cut a long story short – it may have looked like I 'finally stepped out of the shadows', but in fact I simply – finally! – resumed my producer career.”
We're talking today because The Heart is about to drop on Poker Flat. If you had to review the two tracks on there for iDJ readers, how would you describe them?
“These two tracks are revealing a side of me that may not have been so present lately. Most of the music I have released in the past years is somewhere between progressive house and melodic techno, a bit tougher and faster. These two tracks are deep and slow, and much closer to what I did in the early 2000s – deep house was how I got into working with a straight bass drum, after all.
"The Heart features the voice of the wonderful Ursula Rucker again, with whom I worked previously on last year’s Poem For The Planet on Awesome Soundwave, and the track itself has a bit of a dub vibe to it. The other track, Santorin, is a stripped-down, minimalistic cut, inspired a bit by Steve Bug’s recent incredibly beautiful album. I think this track is classic Poker Flat material: deep and rolling and minimalistic, and a bit melancholic, too."
What do you enjoy about working with Ursula?
“She is an incredible person and an incredible artist, and working with her was a dream of mine since the 90s, when I first heard her voice on 4hero’s Loveless. What she does is truly one of a kind, and her lyrics are wise, beautiful and haunting, and always on point. A true artist!”
Flicking though releases on your Soundcloud I'm struck by the sheer variety – it's quite a long way from the deep dubby house of The Heart to the full-on techno of The Arc, and then a track like Vent is different again. Is it a deliberate move on your part, to cover as much ground as possible, or is that just what comes out in the studio?
“I don’t like strategic thinking when it comes to starting a new track. I simply make music, and it comes in different shapes and forms. I have played and produced so many different genres in my career, and I've mixed productions of an even greater variety – and I enjoy listening to so many different things, Americana, bossa nova, my collection of jazz records, roots reggae... I love electronic music and club music, and it plays a huge role in my life, but certainly not the only one.
“Maybe it would be commercially more viable to narrow the spectrum down a bit, but that’s simply not who I am. To me it’s just music, and the genre tags are something other people put on the tracks later on. I am happy that most of my listeners seem to enjoy the variety, though, and I also like to think that there’s some of my personal handwriting in tracks as different from each other than Arc or The Heart or Vent, which, between themselves, pretty much define the whole gamut of my recent work.
“However, within this range there is a certain 'mainstream' and this is what my live set is always centered on. I always conceive of the live show as a fluid and coherent journey which is aimed at taking the people on a trip without confusing them. The tracks I am working on right now, and which I will release next, are much closer to that 'personal mainstream' than the two most recent EPs on Tronic and now Poker Flat.”
With your studio boffin head on, you've worked with a wide range of artists/producers in a wide range of genres – how has that influenced the sound of the music YOU make (if at all), do you think?
“I would probably tell you a lie if I said it hasn't had any effect on me at all, but there is so much more which inspires me than just the electronic music I listen to at my studio. That said, I am fortunate to work with a variety of extremely gifted artists and musicians on a regular basis, and it is a great feeling when producers I admire a lot come to me to have me work on their mixes. It’s a dream come true – albeit a dream I have worked on over countless hours refining my studio skills.”
They say that “the more you know, the more you realise how little you know”. You're clearly a man who knows his way around a mixing desk – but who are you still in awe of, either historically or among your contemporaries?
“There are many, but mentioning names would probably be unfair, because I would miss out a couple of persons which are absolutely dear to me. I have to say though that I am totally in awe about Stephan Bodzin’s work. He is such a complete artist, and watching him create, or simply jam on a couple of machines, is simply mindblowing.”
Your website talks a lot about the warmth and depth using analogue equipment can add to a production… I'm guessing this is a bit of a personal crusade?
“No, not at all! Quite the contrary, actually – the days of making a crusade of these questions have passed long ago. We live in fortunate times where we can just pick the best of both worlds – and this is what I do all the time. I love my digital tools, and I would not want to work without them. I grew up with analogue, and it’s still a huge part of what I am doing, but if you can’t manage to get something decent done with digital tools these days, it’s definitely not the tools' fault.
“The longer I am in this, the more of an agnostic I become. The result matters, and how inspired you have felt getting there. Still, there is something where analog has an edge, but you really need to set up the studio with painstaking focus on details like mains power and the likes to let the gear shine in the best possible way. It’s sometimes not the shiny rack fronts, but what happens beneath and behind them that does the magic. And in the end it’s about what you hear, about your vision, experience and skills. I love creating with analog instruments, and a great monitoring set-up and room acoustic is crucial, too. The rest doesn’t matter as much, at the end of the day."
I was also looking at the pictures of your studio and its racks and racks of outboard. If push came to shove – if the studio was on fire and you had time to grab just a few pieces of kit, what would they be and why?
“If I could take only two pieces it would probably be my Minimoog and my 1971 Fender Precision bass – and then probably my Hello Kitty piano! Kidding aside, there are of course some really special outboard units, too. An original Universal Audio 1176LN Blackface Revision F compressor, my Rockruepel Comp.One, the API EQs, the Pultecs, the API 2500, my Tonus ARP 2600, which was owned by Ken Bichel who played it on some Aretha Franklin record… and the list grows longer and longer!"
Am I right in thinking you don't DJ? During lockdown, many producers have spoken of their frustration at not being able to 'road-test' tracks in progress – presumably you never do! Do you have a workaround for that – perhaps a circle of trusted DJs who can do that for you?
“I did DJ a lot at one time, but I never played electronic music. Mostly it was what was called 'rare groove' at the time – soul, jazz, bossa nova, weird groovy soundtracks. But I do play my live set, and of course sometimes I road-test tracks this way, although I tend to add them to my live set only after they are finished. I sometimes send stuff to friends, too. But a huge part of my client work at the studio is that I am the one in charge: the person who has to say, 'We push it this far but no further'. It seems this is rubbing off on my own work which is very convenient, to say the least. My aim is always to try and listen to what the music tells me what it needs, and that is the best guide at the end of the day.”
How come you've never pursued DJing, then – do you just have no interest, or is it a case of specialising in what you're best at?
“Ultimately I am a musician, so playing a live set is just the natural thing for me to do. I admire the skill of great DJs, but personally – and please don’t take this the wrong way – I’d find it boring to listen to tons of stuff to find the tracks I’d like to play as a DJ. I’d much rather use that time make the tracks I’d like to play as a part of my live set. This is just what I am and what I do. I’m not saying I would never even consider to play DJ sets too, but it’s certainly not something I’d feel comfortable with from the start, and probably it would be pointless to start doing something where I have the feeling I’d never be able to deliver on the level of the people I look up to. I much prefer to play live, as this simply feels natural to me."
You released a mini-album on Awesome Soundwave last year but we've yet to hear a full-length from you… any plans in that direction?
“Well, it may look like a mini-album, but the main tracks are all 12 to 15 minutes long, so technically it is a full length album! The label asked for long pieces of music and I found this a very interesting challenge. Beyond that, I have a new project in the works which is due for release in early 2022, but it’s way too early yet to talk about the details!”
Finally, what else is going on for you right now that iDJ readers need to know about?
“We are all still coping with the fallout and the consequences of the corona pandemic, but after a year that was nothing short of a rollercoaster ride, building a new studio in the midst of it all, and having been confronted with many of the existential questions our whole industry has been having to deal with, I have the feeling I am in a pretty good place now. I've fully regained my inner strength after the absolutely exhausting studio building and moving.”
“Even though the next months will probably still be sort of a rough patch, I remain optimistic about the mid- and long-term prospects, and I am sure events and live music and everything else will come back stronger than ever. So please, hang in there, we will bounce back, and it will be even better than before!"
Words: Russell Deeks Pics: AK Berlin
The Heart is out now on Poker Flat Recordings