Get Familiar: S-Max
We checked in with a master of electronic funk, to try to unpack the story behind his distinctive style.
Get Familiar: S-Max
We checked in with a master of electronic funk, to try to unpack the story behind his distinctive style.
When Dropping Acid On Your Astro Turf was announced late last year following four years of silence, a gentle hubbub arose from fans of Manfred Koridass (a.k.a. S-Max) in celebration of his return. Whether it be through his label, throwing parties, or even something as rare as being the interviewer in conversation with the late, great James Stinson, Koridass has tried his hand at all sorts. A colorful character and master of quirky productions, he has somehow managed to maintain a relatively low profile—a well-kept secret, for those in the know.
Koridass’ hometown of Wiesbaden is a quiet, not too populous city in the West of Germany, which unlike neighboring Frankfurt offered little club culture, rendering his tastes anomalous amid its population. Rooted in hip-hop and graffiti, he was quick to connect with the physical techno sounds being exported from Detroit in the early 90s, which would become a defining era for his own musical development. Add a splash of UK color, including everything from dub to bleep (he cites LFO and Warp as major influences), and he was soon set on a path that would lead through decades of zany electronics.
Throughout all of this, he reaped the benefits of sticking to his guns, adhering to something along the lines of a D.I.Y. philosophy. During those early days, he realized his desire to hear better music by hosting his own “Superbleep” parties, the likes of which Wiesbaden had never seen before (featuring guest appearances from artists including Zip, Ricardo Villalobos, Boo Williams and Daniel Bell). Fast forward a few years, and Koridass had set up the Boogizm imprint alongside friend and counterpart Manutchehr Ghassemlou (a.k.a. Fym), as a means of ensuring that he would be able to release his unabated musical creations. Today, the back catalog of those releases are still being discovered by new generations, with many being traded for top dollar amongst collectors. Despite having a real self-assuredness in his own productions, he is still delighted and surprised to hear about their popularity, an idea that he seems to feel detached from, floating in a sphere of contemporary dance, much of which he is disillusioned with.
We met with S-Max in his current base of Berlin, to discuss to the possible return of said label, the production techniques behind his distinct style, and what music gets him going today.
There aren’t many producers out there with a discography that sounds like yours, or Fym’s for that matter. How do you consider your musical style?
I think that it’s just a reflection of music that we are into. I just had a discussion with Fym, about how I use very traditional beats, whereas he does stuff that uses strange rock drums. My productions fall much more into a normal house and techno context. You get claps, snares, and 808 hi-hats, whereas he doesn’t use those things. He comes from a totally different background—he was never a DJ, and he never had much to do with that side of the culture. He used to sing in hardcore bands, and play drums. He got into techno through the more interesting things, so to speak. I met him back in 1993, and in the years that followed he became interested in Cristian Vogel and Drexciya. He was different as he looked at things as a musician, rather than DJ. I showed him loads of stuff that he had never come across before.
So, stuff like Neil Landstrumm? Tracks that are a bit more out there.
That kind of stuff drove us crazy, but I have to say, there is nothing experimental about it. It all follows a traditional structure, with a bassline, hi-hats, and some quirky sounds. His early records sounded like DBX, just a bit harder. In my mind, experimental would be Autechre’s grandson! This should just be standard in club music—why are so few people playing this?
Were these the first records that pushed you to become a DJ?
Yes, actually. I also heard some early Carl Craig stuff at a Sven Väth club night, and that blew my mind. So futuristic, and so melancholic too. I love all his stuff up to 1992, and from that point I don’t really get it. It’s pretty solid house music, but it doesn’t give me goosebumps like the earlier stuff as Psyche and BFC, which is both beautiful and danceable. Aphex Twin’s “Digeridoo” blew up for me, and also the second Underground Resistance release, the Sonic EP. I got it off a guy in Hard Wax, and we discussed the idea that you could listen to dance music that sounds like a pretty dystopian soundtrack—it’s very dark, and it sounds like there is an alien lurking round the corner! Nothing like that existed then. I was listening to a lot of industrial music before that, which took up a similar vibe, but wasn’t as dancey as techno. There wasn’t the physical element there, or the funk, but I really liked the atmospheres. Stuff like Test Dept.—I was always into that kind of stuff, that other people considered a bit too dark. Nowadays, I love to play house music with people singing, which I didn’t like back then. I thought it was too traditional, even the UR records with vocals, it just seemed like stuff that my Mum could enjoy.
“When I started the parties in my hometown Wiesbaden, I wasn’t so naive to think that we were enlightening people, but I did feel like it was a wake up call that was absolutely needed. There were no established ways back then for how clubs should be.”
So the kind of sounds that were going on at the Superbleep nights must have been pretty dark?
The stuff that I played, yes, but then again I was also playing Irdial Discs records—some of those were even pretty funny. In the beginning it was just me, and then a few others joined. Losoul was Don Disco back then, and that summed up his approach. He had come to me with a tape recording of a mix in 1992, after he had just moved to the area, saying that apparently there was no house music in the area, just me. Then there was Moritz too (a.k.a. Mo Reece), who was probably the most talented of all of us. When I started the parties in my hometown Wiesbaden, I wasn’t so naive to think that we were enlightening people, but I did feel like it was a wake up call that was absolutely needed. There were no established ways back then for how clubs should be.
How did Superbleep actually begin? Was it a popular event?
There were usually about 250 to 300 people, in a venue that did punk and indie events. At that point I was pretty insecure and shy, but I felt like since I had all those records, which I had started buying as far back as 1989, I just wanted to hear them played loud. I lived in a place where there was just nothing else going on. Eventually, when it happened, I got punched in the face for not playing indie music! Some women grabbed me by my dreadlocks, and attacked me for it. People didn’t really understand what I was doing—only a handful of devoted folks, who would come regularly, every week, which meant that I was able to continue with it. It was originally on the Tuesdays, but then it switched to Wednesdays, and I would mostly play electronic music, but also things like A Tribe Called Quest, and other hip-hop stuff. One funny thing was that we had a percussionist called Max, who came every week with an African drum to play beats over the tracks. Sometimes it would fit in, and other times not so much! Anyway, he did manage to make the whole thing very popular somehow—he was a very good looking guy, and the girls loved him. I still meet women who talk about him today.
You had some pretty important DJs playing as guests, too?
Yeah. It all happened through the Delirium guys, Ata and Heiko MSO, who had a thing prior to Robert Johnson which ran on Thursdays, booking international acts. Their agents would often convince those artists to play at our party the night before, even though we couldn’t pay them well—it would only ever be a maximum of about €150, but we managed to host international acts every second week, including Matthew Herbert, Daniel Bell, Johnny Fiasco, Terrence Parker and Chris Duckenfield of Swag. It was a pretty serious program, which never happened in Wiesbaden. We just had really good luck! The second time that Matthew Herbert came, he said that he got the impression that he could just play whatever he liked. He heard us doing our stuff, which the crowd did understand, and so he ended up playing some really weird, rough and noisy music.
So you talk about all this variety in your influences, but when it comes to your productions, there is definitely a consistent thread that runs through them all.
I guess so, because it’s me. I’d love to reinvent myself, but no artist really can. I don’t know what records you mean though, because there are some old ones that sound pretty different.
Well, for example, the 10 inch Bleep EP—it definitely shares some of the same characteristics as your more recent output.
OK that’s true, because it’s got that sub-bass thing in it. I did it all with a tiny mixer, a TR- 808 and a sampler. I never even had proper speakers, I just made that music with a hi-fi!
Was that some of the first music that you had ever made?
No, I started in 1993. I’ve got millions of tapes that I don’t know what to do with—there are loads of tracks that I’ve completely forgotten about. It was Losoul that taught me how to make music, and I just bought the same sampler that he had, as well as an Atari and a TR-505 drum machine. The first stuff I actually released was in 1996, on a vinyl compilation. The Bleep EP gives a good idea of my sort of sound, but I was also making lots of electro too. There’s a remix I did of Ectomorph (which is on the same record as remixes by DJ Pete and Move D too). Some East German guys contacted me to ask whether I wanted to do the remix, and at that point I’d only released one track, which they had heard and thought sounded like the right style. Funnily enough, at that time I had an answering machine, onto which I had recorded a locked groove from that very Ectomorph record, with me speaking over it. The whole remix project that I was involved in was about that locked groove, which I had always loved. If the guy had have called me an hour earlier, he would have been greeted by the same locked groove loop that he was about to ask me to remix! In my immediate surroundings, nobody would have known the significance of those Detroit guys, but to me it was massive.
Did you always work with a pretty similar setup?
No, because I never had any money, and I just used to borrow stuff. People would give me a synthesizer, and then ask for it back after a year. I had a Roland sampler, and that was the core thing for me. The maximum memory on it was only 14 seconds! Fortunately percussion only lasts a fraction of a second normally. Making music was much more complicated back then. For the recent Dropping Acid On Your Astro Turf release, I used a laptop and recorded the hardware into it. I programmed hi-hat patterns on a TR-909 and recorded it, which means that it doesn’t sound like it was made by a computer.
Have you got anything concrete planned for the future?
Yeah, I think that we are actually going to continue with Boogizm. I’ve just contacted the pressing plant about conditions, and it would be completely cool for us, as we used to work with them. It seems pretty mind-blowing to me, because I never thought it would happen again. We are considering repressing some of the old records too. It’s still a big maybe though!
“I don’t consider my music to be funny, which is a basic misunderstanding that’s happened in the past. There’s nothing funny about it! My own music really touches me.”
Do you think Boogizm was as popular when it was active as it is today?
It’s difficult for me to say! Maybe I’m the last to understand to what degree people are interested. Discogs is one thing, but it remains pretty abstract for me. I am getting quite a lot of requests off current labels, which only ever used to happen once in awhile. The records did always sell very, very well. In Germany they did OK, but everywhere else they sold great, and we often had to repress straight away. We were always pretty lazy guys though, and we never cared for advertising or marketing. Maybe we should have! Kompakt would quite often pester us to change the whole Boogizm style, to try to improve sales. That just wasn’t me—why would I make music that is boring to me, just so that other people could follow? I’m not part of that game. I get an arrogant thing when I listen to my music, and I think that it’s got a different atmosphere, even though it’s made of the same parts. That’s another thing—I don’t consider my music to be funny, which is a basic misunderstanding that’s happened in the past. There’s nothing funny about it! My own music really touches me, and I work on these tracks for weeks on end. I’m really nerdy, and always focus on tiny details that most people won’t even recognise. There’s a lot of music that I would accuse of being done without enough love for detail, or without care. Maybe I’m being arrogant, but it feels that way.
How did Boogizm actually begin?
At that point, I had already done a few records, and there were a few tracks on them that I found more interesting than others. All the people that I knew at that point who ran labels, didn’t agree with me on those. So, Fym and I were sitting there one day, and decided to just do it ourselves! It was strange that we ended up with Kompakt, because our music didn’t really fit their niche, but we thought “why not?” I don’t understand their approach — white German techno. Techno is not from Germany, and the physical aspect lacks. It is machine music, but it lacks that electronic funk. I came from breakdance and hip-hop, which was always my other love. My name, S-Max, is actually just a graffiti tag that I had back then. Just a couple of days ago, my first graffiti piece turned 30, and it’s still on the wall in Wiesbaden. Anyway, that background that I came from made me process techno as being electronic funk — I don’t like this white trance that you get here.
So, who is doing it for you these days?
Skratch, who is part of the Version label — he just put a record out with Orson. He is amazing! I heard him playing at OHM, moving through party hip-hop, electro and even The Ragga Twins! He plays lots of UK stuff, and it all makes sense. I just want stuff that is danceable, and not boring. It’s the same with DJ Rashad’s stuff, which I’m crazy about at the moment. Lots of music I just find too formulaic.
Contrast is always going to be an important thing for a DJ.
Yeah, a bit. I don’t play AC/DC, I just play dance music! It’s still a small sphere. I’ve never been to Detroit, but I did play with Daniel Bell a few times. He told me that what I do is totally normal, which I was quite surprised by! I don’t know what happens over there, but that night I started from hip-hop and worked through all sorts of genres. I imagine that the scene is completely different, and maybe they can even understand something like a change in tempo!
Theo Parrish also springs to mind.
Yeah, he plays some stuff that I am not particularly into, mainly funk and soul things that don’t drive me wild, but his whole approach is absolutely spot on. One night Fym and I went to Robert Johnson to see him play, and at this point we would often get there and leave after half an hour because it was so dull. With Theo Parrish we totally freaked out, because we didn’t know what he was going to play like. I found the reaction of other Frankfurt DJs pretty disappointing — it was the only cool set for about a year, but nobody appreciated it. It got to the point with one evening in particular, that we thought we were living in something like the Truman Show, because we just couldn’t believe that people could seriously like the rubbish music that was getting played. We aren’t cynical bastards, but that was another level! It was all so linear, and all the tracks sounded the same.