In The Studio: Christian Löffler
With an alluring new album on the shelves, XLR8R sits down with the German artist to chat on the processes and theories behind his work.
Nestled amongst a beautiful forest in an idyllic corner of Germany on the Baltic Sea, Christian Löffler’s calm demeanor and openly playful nature personify his home region. It’s an area in which Löffler has lived his whole life, soaking up its sounds and images and reinterpreting them, along with parts of himself, across a range of artistic mediums including music, painting, and photography. That art, however, paints a slightly different picture as to what’s on the surface; it’s drenched in hazy melancholia with subtle, gloomy-yet-euphoric undertones—a probable reflection of the tranquil solitude of the region.
The first taste of Löffler’s cloudy sonics arrived in the form of the Heights EP, released in 2009 on Ki Records, the label Löffler co-founded with his childhood best friend. Other than three EPs on c.sides, Just This, and 20:20 Vision, all Löffler’s work has been released via his own label—in the years since the 2009 debut, there have been four EPs, four singles, and a full-length album, A Forest. This tightly held release schedule—not to mention the family-focused network and undisturbed living—points to an artist whose single intention is the outpouring of art; the latest piece of which is Mare, the alluring A Forest’s much anticipated follow-up album.
Once the framework for the new album was set, Löffler retreated to a secluded cabin by the sea with a modest setup to mold it into a finished piece. The album would also be the first time Löffler would use his own vocals on a record, sitting alongside his longtime vocal collaborator Mohna, all of which points to an artist completely confident with his craft. Arguably, it’s his best work yet, a 17-track odyssey of endearing beauty and haunting soundscapes.
With Mare now on the shelves, we took a trip to Löffler’s hometown to visit his studio and chat on the processes and theories behind his work.
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You started learning and playing music at 14, right? Was that with instruments?
From the beginning it was electronic music. I think the catalyst was a really good friend of mine who was a guitar player—I was always with him watching videos and listening to a lot of music. I was really into that sort of stuff, guitar music and synths and stuff like that. But I never managed to learn guitar, it wasn’t something that I was really interested in learning, to be honest. I was 14 and really into computers and programming, and finding out about music programs was how it all started. It was hard for me because I was thinking it was not real music—but it was still fascinating.
Do you remember what program you were using?
At first—for a couple of weeks—it was Music Maker, but I had also Rebirth from Propellerhead and Reason. Then, after that, I moved on to Logic, and now it’s Ableton. Sometimes I still use Logic, Reason, and Rewire, but mostly Ableton.
Had you ever had formal music training?
No never. I was completely self-trained.
Your music has a lot of melodic content and musicality, though.
Yeah, I practiced a lot and was always a fan of early trance music, so I was trying to figure out how those melodies go and where it was coming from—all the changes and stuff like that—so maybe that’s the reason. Also, around 17 or 18 years old, I was really interested in piano music, so I was practicing that a lot—but never in a school or something, all on my own. It was always just for fun, I did it for purely for myself. I didn’t want to have to be somewhere at a certain time for someone to teach me. I’d prefer to just do it whenever I felt the urge and see what would happen, and it’s still like that—all for fun. It’s just what I like to do.
When did you start introducing gear and instruments?
I was always collecting and selling things. New synths or drum machines, anything. The first was the Korg PolySix, and I just recently checked the price—because I got it for €300 when I was 18—and now it’s worth over a€1000. I still have it which is pretty cool.
I’m mainly still working in the box, though.
Were you living in this area at the time?
One hour from here, yeah. The same type of area, a small town.
I can imagine at that time there wouldn’t have been much electronic music happening in the area, or people interested in it. Were you using the internet to connect with like-minded people?
Yeah, it was mainly on the internet—production forums and things like that for the technical side. All my inspiration from the music side came from concerts.
Were you traveling a lot to see concerts?
Sometimes, yes, for some festivals and some concerts. It was mostly to see bands and stuff like that; it wasn’t so much electronic at that time.
At what age did you think you wanted to release something, or really work towards releasing something?
I think it was 2008 or 2009. It was mainly due to my best friend who always had an idea to start a label. He knew I was making music, so he got his first job and saved some money and then we did a record. That was how our label Ki started, with an EP, so that was it.
When did you start recording, or thinking about, your first album, A Forest?
I think it was 2011. Right after the first EP, I was more into painting and stuff like that. I nearly stopped making music altogether at the time as I was really focusing on painting and trying to get into art schools in Berlin, Hamburg, and Düsseldorf—but I never managed. So, at some point, I slowed down with the painting and went back to music and that’s when I started making A Forest. I came back to music and it was fresh again—and I stopped everything else. That’s how my first album came out.
Was the intention to produce an album?
I think it was all just new again and I had so much fun making music, so many tracks came out of that time—so it made sense to do an album.
So how long did you step away for before that?
I think it was about three years. It was 2009 when I pulled back, right after the EP.
Do you get the same feeling and the same release when you’re painting as you do when making music?
The reason is the same: what I want to express, or why I feel I want to create—it’s the same state of mind. It’s only in the moment I might feel like I wanna do something by hands and create a picture, it’s just a choice—what I feel at that moment. But the intention is the same, yeah. In the beginning, music was just a more obvious way for me to express myself—for a young boy it just makes more sense.
The majority of your music has melancholic beauty instilled in it. Do you think that the area you grew up in and live in now has had a major influence on that?
I have been thinking about that lately, actually. Sometimes it’s really inspiring to be in the city as well, you know? I remember on my first US tour I had some days off in New York and I wasn’t staying in the nicest hotel. It was a dark kind of area and it was exciting and very inspiring. It really depends, I think I just focus on the darker, more melancholic side of things in my art. I do think that I need this area, it definitely plays a big role in my work. It wouldn’t be possible for me to be in the city for half a year, or something like that, it would be too much. But sometimes it’s good to do it for a bit to break out and get some new inspiration.
What are the differences in processes and techniques from A Forest to Mare?
I’d say A Forest was more loop-based. I’d go into, say, 10 seconds of a loop and build a track from there. Now, it’s more like a jam session I have with myself. I’ll have the drum machine running, the synthesizer, and also a microphone when I’m jamming—the microphone acts as a second recorder. For example, if I’m playing a line on my synth, it’s not just directly recording from the mixer but also what comes from the speakers. Sometimes I set up some gear on the balcony, for example, or when I was at the cabin I would always have an outdoor space where I could make music so I was always recording some sounds from the environment as well—the trees and stuff like that. The main thing is the jam format, it’s much different to before. I’ll do sessions, say for one hour, and then I go through and look for interesting parts and think about where I could go from there. There might be a good idea for something, or a good line I can use.
So you recorded the majority of the new album in the cabin?
Just a part of it. For a while, there wasn’t an intention to do another album. At some point, though, I thought I wanted to do an album. Making music is a routine for me, I do something everyday—even just for one hour. I have many loops and sketches but at some point I recognized that I had 20 really good ideas—stuff that worked really good together—so I thought I would take the time to focus on an album. I had the idea to go to that cabin and really focus on the album, because, for me, the problem is that I sometimes just create and create and I lose track of everything.
Field recordings obviously play a major role in your work. The area around here looks like it lends itself really well to collecting interesting recordings.
Yeah, I have a huge collection of recordings. I really like to photograph as well, so nearly every day I am out there collecting sounds or taking photos. Mainly photographs, but I always have my audio recorder with my in case I catch a nice sound and moment. It’s nearly on a daily basis.
Both albums featured vocalists throughout. When did you first think to work with a vocalist, and was it daunting for someone who is completely self taught to be recording with a vocalist?
I always knew I wanted to work with a vocalist because it really made sense for some of the tracks to have vocals, but for most of my career I wasn’t ready to use my own vocals. I knew Mohna from her band [Lust For Youth] already and we were in contact for some time so I asked her to send me some recordings that she didn’t use anymore and I just experimented. There was no real plan behind it—it was just another instrument and project for me. The focus has always been on atmospheres and pads. I didn’t want too many vocals on the albums, but it definitely made sense for some tracks.
In regards to being self taught, it’s really complicated because you always have a finished idea of how things sound in your head and I’m not so good with teamwork. So, eventually, it made sense to sing myself.
Had you ever done singing lessons?
No, not at all. I was always singing along while making music, finding melodies and stuff like that. I think years ago I did some recordings, but I never felt like I wanted to put it out. Now it totally makes sense and I’m happy I took that step.
What were the main hardware pieces that you used on Mare?
For the drums, I mainly used the Analog Rytm from Elektron; for synths, it would have been the Nord Lead 2X, which is actually a pretty basic synth, but it does everything quite well. I do a lot of effects on the synths lines so it’s always changing and being resampled.
So would you do these hour-long recordings and then work on effects? Or do you have a few chains that you run them through straight away?
Sometimes right at the moment and sometimes after. If I have that long recording, I go into it and take a part, pitch it down, put some reverb on it, and then play that on a sampler—just some notes from it. I like to experiment and keep it interesting each time. What I end up using in the track is always quite far from the original recording.
Are there particular inspirations behind each of the tracks? Or is it a case of going into the studio and just messing around?
It can be many things: a movie, an exhibition, anything really. Last time I was touring I was in Mexico city and I went to a museum—I don’t remember the name—but it was a really interesting exhibition. I remember after that I did nearly three tracks. It’s always the moment for me, it could be a book, anything.
And how do you treat the recording process—do you try to go in the studio each day?
Yeah, my studio is in my home so it’s really easy. I always want it close and in my place where I live so I can just go straight in there if I feel like I want to create—even for 30 minutes. When that moment comes, I want to be able to dig straight in. That’s the way I work, really quickly. I finish lots of sketches with not too much detail, it’s a rough way of working.
So you don’t have a set time period? Like a 9-5?
No. Bt usually, it’s around 9am—in the day works better for me.
Do you write and produce many sketches on the road?
Yeah, in the hotel I do if I have time, but never on the plane—it doesn’t work for me. And I use my phone for field recordings as well.
When you have tracks or sketches that aren’t finished yet, are you always thinking about these and how to move forward?
Sometimes I will go back but not all the time. I have a private SoundCloud account with all my sketches in there and I put a picture on all of the tracks so I can remember them. I just label the tracks as a number with a picture. I think there are currently 150 or more on there. So sometimes I will be walking on the beach, or in the forest, and I will go through the SoundCloud with my headphones on and maybe a melody will come to mind or an idea and I will go back and get to work on the track. If I have an idea that I really feel like could be something strong, I try to finish it as quickly as possible in the moment because it is hard for me to go back. Every time I go back to a track after a long time, it rarely works out. Let’s say, for example, I have 20 sketches from the album and one really inspires me, I will focus on that and finish that particular track.
Is there a cut off point where after a certain amount of time you know to move on and forget it?
Yeah, definitely. Also, sometimes I’ll feel like I want to go back to a track and record some vocals or new instruments, but it doesn’t feel finished at all and I’ll realize that everything could always be better and that it’s good to just leave it how it is.
So you struggle to know when a track is done? Do you show it to people for input?
I used to do that—I would show them to many people. But now, not so much, maybe like three people: myself, a good friend of mine, and maybe my girlfriend.
On the new album, I read that you used a few antique instruments, like the kalimba.
Yeah, I always try to pick up instruments when I’m on tour, or at least keep an eye out for things. I think I got the kalimba in Miami—it’s nothing special, I got it from a flea market to try something different and get some different sounds. I love the contrast of having instruments in electronic music, working them into the structure of the beats and stuff like that.
“I’m not someone who will study a synth inside and out—it’s more on feeling.”
And you also customized some synths that you used?
That’s mainly my father. He also makes music and is a working electrician, so he is really good at rewiring things and experimenting. For example, if something is broken, we try to change things up a little bit on the inside of the machine. He also has a studio in his garage, so we experiment a bit musically as well. It’s all about attempting to find something different and you can find interesting sounds by accident. It’s the same as with the computer: there isn’t a big plan and I’m not someone who will study a synth inside and out—it’s more on feeling.
Is there a particular instrument that you start with all the time?
Most of the time it’s an atmosphere or a piano loop or something that will give a good base for the track, or a melody. Then I would move to the bass and find something that works off the melody. The rest is pretty simple for me, I try to keep it like this all the time, it’s all about the harmonies. That’s why I start with an atmosphere and go from there. It’s also why it makes sense to use field recordings because you already have something that is constantly changing and it makes for a really good base for the track. There will always be changes and things coming in and out keeping it interesting.
And you have a big collection to pull from there.
Yeah I do, lots. And that’s actually a lot of my drums sounds as well. The snares, for example, are mostly cut out of the recordings and layered.
It sounds like there’s a continual search for unique sounds and unique textures.
Yeah, it’s never like I feel, “Oh I need that sound,” or that I hear a track and want to use a sound from that.
I find it interesting that even though you are using all these different sources and different instruments, you still have a very distinct sound signature that is quite recognizable. Do you think this is through your sound processing?
Yeah, one of the things I use quite a lot is Native Instruments’ FM8 as an effect. That’s the main thing I would use, actually. I also think it’s how I choose the sounds and the things I gravitate towards. I always have a very finished idea of how something should sound and so I choose things to fit that.
Can you see similarities between your music and your painting and photographs?
Yes, I would say so. Especially the photographs; they are really hazy, not too direct, and a little bit foggy, with a wide landscape—it’s very spacious. So I guess that’s the same as my music.
Do you get production blocks at all? How do you combat them?
It’s actually quite often for me. To get around it I just do something totally different, or I stop music altogether. I used to just push on and come out the other end but it never worked for me. So now I just stop and have a break and it will come back. A lot of the time there will be gigs to play too, so that is an easy way to have a break and still stay busy and use my music for inspiration.
How did you develop your live set?
That was really complicated for me because before that it was only about producing. I never had the intention to present it to people like that. Of course, I wanted to release it and see how people would react, but there was no intention to play somewhere. So it was really hard in the beginning to get it into a certain structure. It was a big mess, basically, 16 channels on Ableton and really complicated. It was stressful to get everything together and sounding right. At the time, I found some strategies to make it more simple and to focus on the main elements.
What was your setup then?
It was Ableton and MIDI controllers. It was quite simple but with all the loops and stems it was a big mess. It was just divided into so many parts, it was too much.
So how has that evolved into your live set now?
I realized that it doesn’t make too much sense to have that much going on. It’s better to keep it simple and focus on the key elements that everyone recognizes, and to make a good transfer from track to track and go quickly to the point. I managed to reduce the stems and also to be more flexible; to play a loop or element or, for example, I have a wood block with a mic on it, so if I have a break down I can make some recordings at the moment and have a live element.
What’s the current setup, gear-wise?
MIDI controllers and a drum machine—I’m also experimenting with the Nord Lead to get that on stage and make it even more improvisational. I want to make it more open and free.
Are you practicing the live set quite often?
Yeah, at the moment my main focus is the live set. I practice it a lot, experimenting with how to run the synth lines and things like that.
And you will be presenting this live set at ADE?
Yes, one show will be with Mohna and then the other a solo show.
There are a lot of effects and chopped vocals on the tracks with Mohna. How will this work live?
She will be doing a lot of it, handling a loop station with her vocals to affect it and layer it live in real time.
Do you get to practice much with her?
Yeah, a bit. We have also done some shows together already: one at Watergate in Berlin, one in the Ukraine, one in Georgia, and one in Hamburg at the airport, it was a special one. They were closing the flights and we had a stage down at the train station and they had like 300-400 people and the trains were running and we had music for four hours.
But, yeah, we still practice a lot as it is still evolving; and with visuals now, we have to set that up with the music. We’ll have a visual artist doing live visuals, which I film a lot myself and then pass on to him to perform—I give him the material and he works it live. I did the master edit for 90 minutes so he could see how I want it and then he takes it from there and runs with it.
Are you DJing as well?
No, I never DJ. I’ve done podcasts, so I mix tracks, but it’s just in Ableton. I really enjoy it so I would like to get into it but I have never done it. It would be good I think, I would like to play some stuff I like from others as well.
Are there any pieces of equipment you feel like you’re missing?
I’m always looking for something new. For starters, I really want to have the old Prophet. I tried it at a friend DJ Tennis’ studio in Miami and I really liked it. I did one track with it on the new album—I really want to get that one. I really like to focus on just a few things, though, so I don’t have too many options. I try to keep it minimal and constantly evolving and changing. Whenever I’m not using something, I will swap it out. Or if I’m using something too much and the sounds are becoming tired, then I will move on and try something new. I swapped the Machinedrum for the Analog Rytm, for example. I also really like the Teenage Engineering OP-1 lately, it’s very portable. I was playing with Stimming and he recommended it, it’s really cool. The sounds are huge and different and it’s very easy and handy to have.