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Rocket Man

Console's Martin Gretschmann talks about bringing fun to German electronic pop and composing on the run.

By Marc Weidenbaum

On the phone from his studio in Weilheim, a Bavarian city about 40 minutes outside Munich, Martin Gretschmann is happy to share what he’s learned about personal technology. At a moment when electronic music is largely preoccupied with abstraction, Gretschmann is something of a populist.

“Too many people, and actually too many German musicians, take themselves too seriously,” he says. “I just try not to be like this. I try to be more funny. When we play live, we have a lot of fun on stage, because life is much easier if you laugh a lot.”

Gretschmann was 26 years old when Console’s album, Rocket in the Pocket, was picked up for distribution in spring 2000 by Matador Records. From the marimba-matic groove of the album’s opening track, “My Dog Eats Beats,” to the glitchy rhythms of “Dolphin Dos,” he recorded the entire album by himself with a small battery of electronic equipment, digital and analog.

Despite the solitary nature of Console’s output, Gretschmann is a social beast. When he tours, he brings along a small crew of musicians. He’s also the electronic participant in a quartet called Notwist.

This sociability is no more evident than on the phone, when he talked at length about how technology freed him to make music on his own, and about how his live band adapts his electronic experiments for performance.


 

Weidenbaum: The record Rocket in the Pocket has a lot of sounds from early electronic pop music, the early 1980s.

Gretschmann: I definitely have a favor for the music of the ’80s. When I grew up, and started to listen to music, I liked Trio.

Weidenbaum: Best known for that “da da da” song. The title track on your album has a definite Trio moment.

Gretschmann: It’s actually not a sample. I have the same keyboard Trio used, and so I just sampled the keyboard. Everyone thinks it’s a Trio sample.

Weidenbaum: That further confuses the idea of what a sample is; I wonder about the law in such a situation. Anyhow, do you mostly listen to electronic music?

Gretschmann: No, not really. I just listen to Autechre’s album Tri Repetae++, almost every day. It is the most amazing electronic music record I ever heard.

Weidenbaum: The last 17 tracks on your record are all six seconds long, and they seem to be parts of a single composition that could be played in any order.

Gretschmann: It was kind of a joke. If you play the CD in random mode then you have these random bits between songs.

Weidenbaum: Autechre did it under the Gescom pseudonym, though their tracks weren’t explicitly in the form of a song; they were just random, ambient-ish sound clips on a Minidisc that fit together in interesting patterns.

Gretschmann: Yeah, that’s what I heard. On Minidisc you don’t have the gaps you have between songs that you play on random mode. That was an idea I had, to separate parts of a song on a Minidisc, and have self-arranging or randomly arranged songs. It’s not possible with CD, so I thought of doing a Minidisc but somebody told me Autechre did the same. Maybe I’ll do it one day.

Weidenbaum: There’s only one vocal cut on the record: “14 Zero Zero,” which was added for the U.S. release. Did you treat the vocals to make them fit in more with the electronics.

Gretschmann: Actually, this is a computer voice, with nothing to do with any human except the humans who wrote the program. I always wanted to do lyrics with vocals, but Console is a solo project and I didn’t want to do recordings with other people, because I like the idea of being on my own, and not — how do you say? — not having to ask people for their time.

Weidenbaum: And to see how much you can do by yourself?

Gretschmann: I always wanted to work with vocals, but I can’t sing, and I don’t want to sing, and I was lucky when I found this program that lets the computer sing. You type in some words and you type in a melody.

Weidenbaum: It could speak your email to you.

Gretschmann: Yeah, that’s right, but reading is a bit faster.

Weidenbaum: Your CD’s liner notes lists four musicians besides you.

Gretschmann: They didn’t perform on the record. It’s just a live band: a drummer, who plays a mixture between acoustic and electric drum set, then two guys who are doing keyboards, and sometimes they play bass guitar and guitar as well. And what I’m doing is playing on a keyboard as well, but I am mainly arranging the song, switching on and off the tracks via the keyboard. And there’s another guy who is like a mixer, the sound engineer, and we also have a guy who does visuals, some lo-fi Super-8 loops and such. We asked him to travel with us on the first tour we did, two and a half years ago, and it was a lot of fun. The things he does are really good, so since the first date he’s with us, already some kind of member of the band. We always travel with six people.

Weidenbaum: Are you concerned about the live performance of Console sounding different from the record?

Gretschmann: It’s more “rock” live, not rock in the guitar-band manner, but rock in a manner of, let’s say, feeling. It’s quite loud. It’s very energetic. Definitely much more energetic than the record.

Weidenbaum: I love the fax sound on the song “Gulls Galore.” You use the sound like a guitar solo.

Gretschmann: That’s good to hear. I just wanted to use that noisy thing. The song is very distorted and I thought, let’s try the fax machine.

Weidenbaum: Did you edit the sample?

Gretschmann: It’s pretty much a straight recording. I remember that when I started doing the song, I wanted to use this telephone beeping, like the bass of the song [imitates the sound that one hears on the phone after a hang up].

Weidenbaum: There’s a soda machine at an office where I sometimes work whose air-conditioning unit has a great sound, a weird rhythm that isn’t in any strict time signature.

Gretschmann: I love that sort of thing. One of the guys replaces the fax sound from the record with guitar. “Gulls Galore” is very rock-like when we play live.

Weidenbaum: Is he triggering something or imitating the sound?

Gretschmann: He’s just playing a distorted guitar.

Weidenbaum: Are you intrigued by that idea of people imitating machines?

Gretschmann: I think it’s funny. I like the idea of human beings imitating machines. The drummer is playing those machine beats, like a human drum machine. It has human feel, but it’s a bit strange. Very interesting and funny.

Weidenbaum: When you say “funny,” do you mean “funny” as in “making fun of it,” or “funny” as in “giving you an odd but warm feeling”?

Gretschmann: Just having fun — smiling. I take myself seriously, and the things that I do in my music, but somehow I always try to see the funny side as well. I like doing jokes. You can see, when you read the titles of the songs.

Weidenbaum: It’s all playful.

Gretschmann: Playful?

Weidenbaum: Playful: what children are.

Gretschmann: Too many people, and actually too many German musicians and German electronic musicians, take themselves too seriously, are too serious in what they do. I just try not to be like this. I try to be more funny. Also, when we play live, we have a lot of fun and laugh on the stage, because life is much easier if it’s fun and you laugh a lot.

Weidenbaum: You use the names of animals a lot in your song titles. Do you have a pet?

Gretschmann: No, we always had a cat when I grew up. I don’t have a pet right now. We have some mice here in the studio.


 

Console’s Console: Martin Gretschmann on getting accustomed to electronic music-making.

Weidenbaum: How did you first learn to use electronic equipment?

Gretschmann: I taught myself. I started, seven years ago, by buying a sampler. Then I bought a keyboard. Then I sold it and bought a new sampler, the Kurzweil. I needed some time to find the right instrument for me.

Weidenbaum: To enjoy a sampler, you need a sequencer as well. Did you enjoy the sampler for a while before you had to sequence the material?

Gretschmann: Yeah, it was fun for, like, two days maybe. The reason why I started doing electronic music was because I wanted to do music on my own. I always played in bands, but it’s not possible to preserve it because everyone has school and work and other things. I just wanted to write and produce songs.

Weidenbaum: People often buy a lot of equipment and subsequently get lost.

Gretschmann: That’s a problem I had. I don’t have that much equipment. I didn’t feel confident with all those keyboards and stuff. Everything I do is just a lot of coincidence, just playing around with some equipment and coincidentally dropping sequencer tracks to the wrong instrument, and then having the wrong instrument playing with the track. You think it’s a mistake, but it sounds really cool.

Weidenbaum: That’s something surprising for people who are new to the music: the role that chance and play serve.

Gretschmann: Yes, what I really did a lot for Rocket in the Pocket was I had some old analog foot pedals, ElectroHarmonics for example, and sometimes if you work with one signal going into another effect unit and then from the second one you sent it back to the first one, and you get a feedback loop, kind of. Sometimes the sound changes within minutes or hours, not because the machines are sounding different, but it’s a bit strange.

Weidenbaum: What’s the most recent tool that you’ve become dependent on?

Gretschmann: Actually, a new laptop I bought, because the old one was stolen. The new one, a Macintosh, is so powerful — you can do everything on a Powerbook. I did two remixes using just the Powerbook. You can go anywhere and work.

Weidenbaum: You don’t need a sampler any more?

Gretschmann: No, I just use the Powerbook.

Weidenbaum: What sampler software do you use?

Gretschmann: Mainly AudioLogic, but there’s a new AudioLogic sampler coming out from the Emagic guys. It’s a plug in for AudioLogic, and this is software I’m definitely going to buy.

Weidenbaum: Do you change equipment a lot?

Gretschmann: Yeah, I have like the base set up, which is the computer and the sampler and then one or two analog synthesizer, but I always try new equipment, and then sometimes I use it just for a few months, and if it’s really a good effects unit or synthesizer or whatever, I use it all the time.


 

Later, after the phone conversation is over, an email arrives from Gretschmann, clarifying his tool set:

    For the Rocket in the Pocket album, I used: one Kurzweil K2000R sampler, one Apple Mac 8200 with Digidesign Pro Tools Project and with Audio Logic, one Doepfer 404 [analog synthesizer], one Soundcraft Spirit Mixer, some guitar foot pedals (for example: Electro-Harmonix Microsynth, and some Boss or Ibanez pedals), one Korg MS10 [analog synthesizer], some cheap “yard sale” organs, one Waldorf 4 Pole, one Sherman Filterbank. The album took about two months; I was working quite a lot at this time, like 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week. On the road, I use: one Kurzweil K2000R sampler, one Roland PC200 MIDI keyboard, one Nord Modular, one Apple Powerbook with Audio Logic, and one Korg KaossPad. Axel uses: one Korg MS10, one Moog Liberation and one guitar. Michael uses: one Nord Lead and one bass guitar with two foot pedals (distortion and phaser). Kasper uses: Roland SPD20 (Octapad) with external pedal, some cymbals and hi-hats and two kinds of snare drums, plus one JoMoX AiRBase. Christian (the sound engineer) uses one Microsynth. Anton (the visuals guy) uses: some Super-8 projectors and, sometimes, some self-constructed strange things, making a short “movie” out of two slides. I don’t really know.
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