30.01.2020 | Words by: Bram Barentsen
While Phase Fatale and his partner Florian constantly give other artists the chance to stretch the EBM/industrial side of techno (through their BITE label
), the Berghain and Khidi resident broadens his own sound through his second album ‘Scanning Backwards’
. In Phase Fatale’s newest project, which just released on Ostgut Ton, the DJ and producer dives into sub frequencies and how they can have an impact on the human body. His productions which are known for its defining riffs, are now refined to music where he creates space for the individual tones, without leaving out his characteristic guitar strings.
The release of his brand new album seemed like a good moment to talk to Hayden over email about growing up in NYC, sound design, why he wants to emphasize military aesthetics, and what queer spaces means to him. Q: In earlier interviews you mentioned your father, who was working in the music industry himself, as the person who got you into music. What did your father do and in what way did he involve you in it?
A: My dad dropped out of high school and skipped town to go join my aunt in New York City in the late 70s who was playing in punk bands then. He also started in her band playing bass and then moved to others, but really settled into doing sound engineering both in the studio and in clubs. In Philadelphia in the 80s, he was the head engineer at some places like the East Side Club where a lot of major post-punk, industrial and new wave bands came through and was in a goth band himself. There my uncle was also in the industrial band Executive Slacks. That’s where the main influences started to creep in. But by the time I was born, my dad already quit the music industry. Since I was a kid, he always encouraged me to do music, and I picked up the guitar quite early on. When he had an opportunity to do sound or something, he would take me with (like when he had a gig with C+C Music Factory) or would help record my bands, etc. I can confidently say I learned the majority of my sound engineering skills from him rather than the four years I spent studying at university. Q: How did you look at your father in relationship to the musical spectrum you were discovering yourself?
A: Most kids are supposed to hate the music their parents listen to and to rebel with the opposite. But luckily, I appreciated the records he showed me or maybe I was just brainwashed. They even played me The Stooges while I was still in the womb when most parents would play Mozart or something. So, since I was literally a baby, I was brought up on a healthy dose of Sisters of Mercy, The Chameleons, or Killing Joke. Most of the times it was amazing to hear these stories of back in the day with awesome bands and cool parties with cool haircuts, but as I was getting into this stuff, it was way past its heyday. It was frustrating that I couldn’t actually experience this myself and going to see reunion shows was usually a huge disappointment. At the same time, it was amazing to have this huge resource of cool music history, especially when it wasn’t easily accessible via the internet and before any sort of big reissue culture. When I was a teenager, I finally was able to meet some people also into the same music as me (like Shari from Void Vision which I used to also be a part of early on). Then we were able to make our own music and create a group of people around that. When I first started going to the Wierd Records parties in the Lower East Side did I really feel like being part of something in real time with cool contemporary music. The same feeling happened again moving to Berlin and with Berghain. Q: I can imagine playing in bands while being a teenager released all sorts of energies within you. What was it like and how did you get from there to listening and experiencing a broader side of music? Was this something you already did or did the one trigger the other?
A: I had many different ideas, did I want to play in some kind of punk band, goth, something more minimal synth and wavey? It was exciting, but also spread everywhere and maybe not so focused when I was really young. When I started going to Wierd and met the whole crew there, they exposed me to this whole obscure cold wave and synth world that was mostly coming over from small goth parties in Europe. I think they were excited to poison my mind with all this stuff. And from there it just snowballed, I was hooked and obsessed, researching and finding all these records that now maybe are a little more commonly known like from Asylum Party to Zwischenfall. I always had a few wild cards up my sleeves from my dad, but this opened up a whole world of a scene, new and old that had this distinct and cold style to which I was attracted. From here, I also started getting into techno that crossovered like Silent Servant or Vatican Shadow. Q: What made you switch to DJ’ing and producing after years of creating instrumental music? Did this happen simultaenously with discovering music as EBM, industrial and techno you play?
A: I started DJing at Wierd not too long after first going there. There was always a live act at midnight, but the rest of the time revolved around the DJs. I was mostly spinning minimal synth and post-punk records, but a lot also related with dance music like electro, new beat, italo, early techno, so that’s where I started practicing a lot and even got inspired to do some regular nights with friends in other places as well. I always was working with electronic music as my bands were incorporating drum machines, synths, and heavy sequencing alongside guitars, and I also started trying out stuff for a solo electronic venture. My parents had a good CD collection full of stuff like (Front) 242 or Ministry too, so I was exposed to that early on still. When I moved to Berlin, I think was when I decided to put techno first and make Phase Fatale my main project. I saw electronic music and techno music as an open door with much more to be explored and lots that still hasn’t been done before, while I had grown a little tired of the nostalgia and repetition of the wave scene which felt a little like a dead end. I’m still constantly discovering more and more in terms of sound design and also many different niches of electronic music. Q: I assume you started performing (almost) earlier than experiencing (club) music as part of the crowd. How is the way you experience music when you’re not performing or playing different from when you are?
A: When I’m in the club listening to music (on a good soundsystem), I want to be right in the middle in the sweet spot. Many of my ideas come from the way the music itself is transformed by the sound system and acoustics of the space, making it something different than if you just listen to it at home or on headphones. Even a seemingly banal track can sound ten times more extreme just because of its amplification. By taking my own interpretation of hearing it in that moment, I can come up with a new original idea unattached from anything. Even listening to the music from sitting downstairs and hearing bottles smash down the stairs on top of the sound is like creating a new track. When I’m performing, I’m thinking more about the moment and what to do immediately next, trying to connect with the crowd and read what would be the next track to dictate where the energy goes or how I should mix it in. So, in that way, it is a bit less conceptual in that moment and more creative, technical and hands-on. But when playing, I try to weave a narrative that connects the tracks from different genres or times to kind of subliminally give to listeners hopefully insight that reflects a true music lineage from industrial through techno. That lineage is what gave techno originally its power and energy so without that we would just be left with a commercialized parody of itself. Q: Growing up and eventually performing regularly (as a DJ) in New York sounds, to me, different as DJ’ing in Europe. Can you talk a little about your first experiences in Europe? How does Berlin differ from New York?
A: The first time I came to Berlin was almost 10 years ago for a semester exchange from my university. Already then, I knew as soon as I was out of school that I wanted to move here. Berlin is much more focused towards the music I want to do than New York is, especially back then. I toured a couple times with my band throughout Europe before making the final move, and it was nice to finally see for myself how there are small pockets of vibrant music scenes throughout lots of European cities. Meanwhile in the US, these are far and few between, very long drives apart and usually only in the bigger cities. In New York, I only DJed at small basement clubs and also had a small radio show on WNYU. In Berlin, when I started playing out more, it was a different game, and I approached DJing more as a performance treating it like an instrument. Curating and mixing music together to create something new and form my own sound. Q: While having residencies at Berghain and Khidi as well as regularly playing all over Europe and beyond, you experienced many crowds as well through short slamming sets or extended 8+ hours sets. What influence did your experience as a DJ have on your newest album ‘Scanning Backwards’?
A: Given the slower, broken rhythm pace of the record, I’d say my extended closing sets as well as opening sets and another time playing this 4 hour hybrid dj/live set in the Berghain Halle last summer for Ostgut Ton Nacht which was more rhythmically slow and pulsing ambient all had some sort of impact on how the record came out. I like to move between many different genres and draw connections between tracks in a more subconscious, subtler way. So, longer sets are definitely better opportunity for this. Otherwise in a short set, it would sound too sloppy and all over the place. Even last weekend for the release party at Berghain, I played the opening, which is perfect to reflect back on this record. I can start from 0, and by the time a couple hours go by, it’s already turning into a proper night of techno. As I’ve been DJing out more over the years, one thing I really picked on was inserting more groove and different rhythms into the music, whether it’s a slow 110bpm electro track or a 4 on the floor banger even at 120. And another thing was to strip the tracks down to be barer and more minimal. Giving strength and space for the instruments to really grow and underscore their extremity. So, I tried to put more focus on rhythm and structure for sure and somehow tailor each track to still work for different moments on the dancefloor. Q: You approached the making of this album very much through sound design and the way the human body reacts to this: you’re using aspects as sound and psychological manipulation to explore the ways in which music and sub frequencies influence thinking and synchronize emotions and behaviour. To me, it touches my imagination. So, can you talk a bit about how you ended up producing this way?
A: This idea came from many hours on the Berghain dancefloor watching certain residents play that really had in tune which kind of tracks to play, especially revolving around certain fundamental frequencies of kick drums or basslines that really accentuate the subwoofers. For me personally, it is always the bass that I follow first when dancing or deciding if I really like this track or valuing its powerfulness. Always when I am working on my music, I try to design the bass frequencies around these certain notes to have maximum effect, and this also generally translates well to most clubs with a decent rig. As well, I began to research the use sound for control in more insidious ways by organizations such as the CIA. Through experiments under MKUltra after WWII, they, for example, tried to use extremely high amplitude blasts of low frequencies and also high frequencies to try to cause damage to the brain and destroy the memory of someone or rewire them and called it “Perfect Concussion”. I tried to relate this in a more constructive way to how these extreme sounds are used in a dance context dictating how someone moves or also ingraining memories in their mind that can always be recalled when hearing a certain sound or melody for example. I also used more high frequency sounds than I normally do to penetrate the brain for more effect and to give more space for the lower frequencies to have a stronger impact. Q: What are your thoughts behind ‘Scanning Backwards’?
A: The album title partly comes from a scene in the first Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995. In it, they capture a garbageman believed to have a connection to the antagonist, the Puppet Master. However, he only has been “ghost hacked” and realises all his memories have been fake and that he’s without identity. This idea of scanning backwards through one’s memories or life and questioning them is central. Could they have been reprogrammed or reinterpreted or simply inserted and to what extent? Q: Especially the tempo of the tracks on ‘Scanning Backwards’ is something noticeable which differs from the tracks of your latest solo project ‘Reverse Fall’. To me it seems almost as if you want to give the music more space. What’s your take on this?
A: Yes, exactly. One of the main points was to give more space for each beat or note to expand making the music even heavier or harder than just increasing the tempo, especially in today’s trends of ever-increasing speed in music and dj sets. And even though the album is quite heavy because of the slower pace, it is counterbalanced because of it as well adding more depth and expression to the music. I hadn’t explored too much in the slower bpm range before, and a full album was a perfect opportunity to do so. By cranking everything down, it really expanded the possibilities of what I could do with my music and evolve my sound another few steps. When I have more time within the beats of the music, I can insert more details and movement without it sounding chaotic or hysteric. Instead, I find the sound much more forward and sensual. Q: In 2018 you launched your own label BITE with your partner Florian where you already got several releases on by friends as REKA, Silent Servant, Unhuman, Vulkanski, Adam X and Unhuman. Nevertheless, your album is released via Ostgut Ton. Can you talk a little what Ostgut Ton means to you and why your follow up album needed to be released through them?
A: For me Berghain is a very important place for my music development in an environment that is unique to itself and was definitely not existent when I was growing up stateside. As well, the label released some music that was also influential to me finding my sound in techno. As a resident, I wanted to craft a record that fit to that space (not only there of course) and in different ways: to the acoustics but also to how the crowd is and to the many different spaces it has, not just the dancefloor. So, it’s important of course that a record like this is released on the club’s label to have its fullest effect. With our label BITE, the focus is more on releasing and supporting artists, other than myself, that are attempting to push the boundaries of the common preconceptions of techno. We can try to form a forward sound for the dancefloor along with different, cutting artwork which puts the music in a fresher perspective. Q: While describing your new album in your own words you talk about Berghain being a space where ‘gay and fetish roots combine music in unexpected ways, almost resulting in a cultish manner’. These words cover Berghain and the compelling music scene as more as it’s stately architecture, but also as it’s about Laboratory and Snax. Why do you find it important to emphasize this?
A: I found it important as someone who grew up gay and had to deal with this shit in my life to emphasize spaces like this where people can feel less pressured or insecure. Especially now, when aspects of this culture are commodified and commercialized to the point where people don’t even understand their original meaning. It can be just used purely as a fashion statement or advertisement and shock value or for normal people to appropriate it to feel “edgy” or “alternative” when in fact they are just boring as fuck and should just leave it alone. I wanted to look into how this music is important to subcultures like these, and how people can unite around having a common love for it and also how it dictates the outside attitude of a real underground scene. The artwork from the album is even from an early Snax made by one of the owners of Berghain, which is partially pointing towards a time when this was really an underground party, pre-internet, and the only place where someone could experience this kind of thing if they knew where to look for it even. Q: As someone who identifies as queer yourself, what does the existence of these spaces mean to you?
A: The first time I went to Berghain or Laboratory coming from the States, I realized there was finally a free space that played the music, I’d always imagined should be played in a gay club; not some shitty commercial pop music. So I think the first time seeing all the concrete and metal and hearing hard techno being played and sweaty bodies everywhere, it made sense to me to want to get into making more music fitting this and also feel more comfortable with myself knowing that I wasn’t crazy all along and that a place like this actually exists, not just in my fantasy. How much more EBM could it get really? For me, the history of industrial music always fucked with the idea of sexuality and people’s stereotypes of what is masculine/feminine and what isn’t, pointing out the inherent homoeroticism of military aesthetics for example. While mainstream culture wants to put everything into boxes, I wasn’t comfortable with. So now being able to be part of something that still can bend these rules and make heavy industrial techno for it is an honour and hopefully I can inspire someone’s life one day in the same way it did to me.Phase Fatale plays this Saturday in our basement alongside Relaxer, who plays live, and Job Sifre. Tickets are still available here and at the door.