Pioneer Producer Mark Reeder’s History of Electronic Music
Mark Reeder is one of those people who can sniff out a scene. Being friends with Joy Division and producing the last East Berlin band before the Wall collapsed is impressive enough, but Reeder has never liked to stay stationary. Finding himself in a united Germany and a new musical world, Reeder moved on to start the influential and prolific Masterminded for Success (MFS) trance imprint before pioneering the Flesh label that focused on “wet and hard” techno of Eastern European electronic music. Today, he’s back to composing.
I was lucky to secure Reeder for an interview, as recently he had gotten hit by a car, requiring doctors to rotate his spinal cord and insert titanium plates into his back. He considers himself fortunate considering the circumstances and is happy to be back creating music for his fans.
Tristan: What about your background in advertising prepared you for Berlin?
Mark: I first learned how to be a graphic designer, but I didn’t really take to it. The things I learned on the job helped me with the record label and promotion. I did all the graphics for the bands I was promoting, like the designs for the record covers. I can see when I look at something whether someone has learned the job or not, or whether they’ve just got the program but not the skills. Back in the day it was of course all by hand, and now it’s computers, but the rules still apply and I can see when someone has the right training.
What about East Berlin told you that there was some scene there?
Living in West Berlin, I knew there were a lot of records I just couldn’t buy in the UK. I would go to Germany to find record shops and was hoping to find electronic music – or any kind of music to be honest – that was a bit avant-garde, since they have their versions of King Crimson and Pink Floyd, so I checked out what they had. I found Karat and Stern-Combo Meissen. One day I saw this kid in the underground [subway] and he looked a bit punky with spiked hair. I thought he might know about some alternative scenes going on. I ran after him when he got off the train and asked him if there were any kind of punk concerts going on, and he said there wasn’t anything like that, as it was all forbidden. I gave him my address and told him to send me a postcard if he heard of anything. He turned out to be a Stasi police officer, so I got put under immediate surveillance as a subversive.
Talk about the types of roles you were expected to have as a producer and the types that you took on because you felt you needed to.
It’s not really that different now than how it was in the eighties. Back then I wanted to make a record but I didn’t know how, so I figured to go into a studio and have the producer help me. I had a kind of rough idea of how I wanted it to sound, and they would show me how to do things, so I’d learn by doing. With each record I had an even better idea of how I wanted it to sound. Of course, they knew all the shortcuts because they knew the equipment inside and out. If you’re only there for a few days, you don’t have the opportunity to get that deep into what the instruments and equipment can do. Going into the studio is all about harmonizing, but you need to know what everything can do. I was just playing around with stuff until it made some kind of weird noise. The producers would be looking over and saying they didn’t really do that, and I said, ‘well why not?’ And they said, ‘okay, we’ll do it.’ That’s how things sort of went from one thing to another, which is why a lot of the eighties records sound so crazy.
You started your label Masterminded for Success (MFS) about a year after the Berlin Wall came down. The label released a ton of records, but what are the seminal releases?
I made an album in East Berlin for the state-run record label. I actually missed the fall of the Berlin Wall; I was in Romania at the time. When I came back nothing was the same. I said to the guys who were running the Communist record label, ‘now that you’re free, you can do what you want, so maybe you can make techno records?’ They said, ‘what the hell is techno?’ They’d never even heard of it. I told them it was the music being played in the clubs, the sound of the future. They had no idea, so they told me to do it. So I did.
The first release I had was Effective Force’s Diamond Bullet which was Johnny Klimek [known today for his soundtrack work on Run Lola Run, Perfume, and Cloud Atlas] and Paul Browse from Clock DVA. Originally I wanted it to be East German artists but no one had any equipment or instruments. The tracks on Diamond Bullet were very hypnotic and paved the way for the label’s sound. Later Effective Force released Complete Mental Breakdown. The releases by Neutron 9000 and Cosmic Baby had some important releases as well, and then he later collaborated with Paul van Dyk for the side project The Visions of Shiva. Paul van Dyk’s remixes of Humate’s “Love Stimulation” were great, as well as later releases by Ellen Allien and Dr. Motte, the guy that started Love Parade.
I didn’t really debate what was going on in the dance scene, I just liked the people and the music they made and I was interested in developing them as artists and seeing how far their creativity could be pushed. It didn’t really matter whether they made club music. It was about making albums that stood the test of time. If you listen to an Effective Force album today, it still sounds as refreshing as it did in 1991. When people would say that I was running a trance label, well, maybe we started off as that. The first compilation we put out would be considered more of a chill out album today. Later on when I tried to experiment with a few different things like with Corvin Dalek with what we called “wet and hard” music, that was more about depicting the sound of Eastern Europe where everyone was going through a different phase. When everybody in Berlin was making more straight techno, we were making wet and hard. People were really hostile to us since the music wasn’t conforming to their ideas of what music should and shouldn’t be.
At what point in the nineties did the music start to go south?
At the beginning, techno was all about the spirit of being liberated from the shackles of rock and roll. The music was mostly instrumental. It was all about nuances in the music, about how the hi-hat opened at one moment or when a particular instrument appeared in the track. It was about tools for DJs to create musical pictures with. It was the mentality of how people lived their lifestyles, which also included the types of drugs they were taking. All of a sudden all those rules and regulations of the last 40 years had been thrown out the window with the fall of the Wall. The place where the techno parties were happening were in the ‘death strip,’ the no-man’s land between the Wall.
Everyone felt this initial feeling of freedom, but by about 1996, things started to change. People started to become aware that techno, big parties and dance music could be a money-maker, so greed and conformity started to take over. The kind of music I was making with, say, Paul van Dyk, became what they thought of as ideal for this kind of moneymaking. Trance started to become used to make money, this commercialized, technoized pop music. Even people like Mark O. and Westbam started to make very commercialized versions of techno. You also had people trying to make harder versions of dark, deep techno which kind of fell by the wayside as people became interested in the stuff with commercial appeal. It became a bastardization of what the ideal originally was.
That petered itself out by the end of the 90s when it became trashy and cheap. It was like trance and techno by numbers which was very boring. People began to lose interest. The second generation who had been born in the late eighties or nineties didn’t associate with the scene and began to get more involved with rock-based music in bands like Placebo, and rediscovered bands like Joy Division. People also started to listen to music in different ways with the dawn of the iPod and other MP3 players. They started to discover music that their parents used to listen to, which I would never have dreamed of doing. Things started to change very rapidly in the early part of the 21st century.
People started to revisit the ideas of how music is created. The instrumentation for the typical “laptop studio” is all reinterpreted plugin versions of old synthesizers. Young kids started looking toward the 80s as this creative, avant-garde, wild period. I’m not talking about Abba, I’m talking about bands like Throbbing Gristle, really off-the-wall kind of music. That’s why you have something like the Atonal festival.
Give us some context for some of the venues in Berlin that were the absolute best. You seemed to know the people at the door. Did you also know the organizers? Specifically speak about Tresor and Berghain.
Berghain is quite a new club. You have the traditional techno at places like there and Renate which play quite a selection of different techno music. There are events happening everywhere in the city though in one-night locations, so it’s not like there’s a club night every night in one place. Just nearby where I live was a place called West Germany. It was in the basement carpark of a supermarket. We made a club out of it for a couple of months and it’s only recently closed down.
That’s how things are here; places stick around for a couple of months until they get discovered and closed down (laughs). That’s the same way things were in the 80s with places like Intensiv Stazion which had gynecological chairs in a cage that you could get locked up in. Everything had a Red Cross hospital theme. Then there was a place called Mink which looked like a slaughterhouse with brilliant white shiny tiles everywhere. It was totally bright, contrary to the typical dark, gloomy clubs. They became legendary even though they only lasted for a couple of months – maybe because of that.
Dimitri Hegemann had done the Atonal festival in the 80s and had become disillusioned by it, that it wasn’t going to go anywhere. When he got the new building I said it was the perfect place to restart the Atonal festival. It took Dimitri two years before he even got around to doing it, but when he did about 2,000 people came. He was still unsure about it, but I said it was good that that many people came out for a pretty niche kind of music. When he decided to try it again, almost triple the amount of people came. People liked the idea that it was a bit off the wall, that it wasn’t commercial, that it was experimental and artistic, and you could do whatever you wanted, which makes it more attractive. A lot of people find it very refreshing. It combines the familiar techno beats with the experimental.
Talk about your relationship with Dimitri.
I’ve known Dimitri since he moved to Berlin, I was here before him. He used to play in a band called Leningrad Sandwich and we used to share a practice space together. I was in a band called die Unbekannten [the Unknown]. If Dimitri had events my band would play there. I’ve always been involved in the things he’s done. Dimitri started the Tresor club, and on the first Tresor compilation, there were about 9 MFS artists on there.
Check out the feature-length documentary on the legendary Tresor club and continue reading below.
Can you comment on the electronic music scene in America and how that differs from Germany?
There’s always been a kind of animosity to electronic music since America’s a very traditional rock and roll and jazz kind of place. When Walter Carlos released Switch On Bach trying to introduce the synthesizer as a diverse instrument, he wasn’t trying to replace an orchestra by any means. That was hounded on in America. Most people thought it was horrific and atrocious.
You still have massive events like Ultra in Miami which obviously has a following, but it’s never been anything like in Berlin. The fall of the Berlin Wall is what really made this thing happen. Before the fall of the Wall, the techno scene in Berlin was just a handful of people. We had one club, UFO, and that was it. There was nowhere else to go. The minute the Wall came down, all these kids in East Germany, who for over 40 years had been force-fed music by the Communist state, could decide what kind of music they wanted to listen to.
They had secretly been listening to Western radio programs like SFB (Radio Free Berlin) which played club music on the weekend. So obviously these kids wanted to have the feeling of West Berlin nightlife, but the radio was the only way they could access it, so they would record the music on cassettes and take it to private parties. If you went to a club in East Berlin – if you could actually get in – you’d be listening to stuff like Lionel Ritchie and Phil Collins. You’d never hear the deep underground music. You couldn’t even buy it. You could only hear it on the radio.
The minute the Wall came down, there was an opportunity to go out and hear this music in the clubs. Since there weren’t that many clubs, people decided to make their own parties in any of the empty buildings that were around. All you needed was a generator for smoke and strobe machines and the music they wanted to hear. That’s how it got so popular. The techno establishment is so ingrained in German youth culture simply because of that.
How do we get back to having proper music scenes like what was happening in Berlin? What things would need to be in place?
It nearly always has to do with the technology and the way things develop. This includes the reintroduction of easily accessible, affordable machines that create the sound in the first place. Roland just released a new version of the 909, the iconic drum machine of the 90s that everybody had to have. An authentic 909 costs horrendous amounts of money, so Roland decided to release a machine that does exactly the same thing since they already know how to make it, so they just reintroduced it and give it new features. It’ll sound exactly the same but can do much more than the old 909. At the end of the year they’re releasing an even better machine which incorporates the Jupiter 8, the Juno 106 and the SH-101 all in one machine. So if you never had access to those expensive machines, now you can, and that will flavor the music for the next generation of kids, which is what the future will be – a reintroduction of the 90s sound in a modern context.
People listen to music in different ways and their tastes are quite eclectic. Back in the 80s and 90s people only liked one thing. If you were into techno you never listened to rock. People would say they weren’t into it. If you bought an album you’d listen to it constantly for days on end, back to back, every day, just that one record. Today if you’re adept at the guitar you might want to be a singer-songwriter, but if you can’t do that and you’re good at computers instead, you might want to make some sort of electronic music. People forget the official reunification of Germany was all happening in clubs. In the end, the music has to be danceable to bring people together.
What are some examples of techno and trance that you think are exemplars of the sound? Is there anything like that today? Has the sound moved on?
It’s a bit of everything nowadays. You have labels like 777 which is quite eclectic. People have to be careful that they don’t get too eclectic nor too serious. Club music is for fun and enjoyment; it shouldn’t be brain music. At the same time, people want to be enlightened when they go out. They want to hear new sounds. It also has to have some sexual energy to it. It has to be groovy and pulsating in some way so people will feel the energy. A lot of that early 90s stuff got stuff up its own ass with the ‘clicky clacky’ sound, which is why the sound had to go wet and hard.
Was this a reaction to the IDM stuff?
Yeah, definitely. The whole reason that people would go out is to be together and connect. Dancing is a sexual ritual. The clicky clacky stuff was interesting to listen to at home, but in a club setting it didn’t really do it for me. It has something to do with the kinds of drugs people were taking as well.
Talk about how the Flesh label is different than MFS.
Flesh was created entirely for the wet and hard style. MFS got labelled as a trance label even though we were releasing other stuff. Effective Force and Dr. Motte was definitely not trance, but I felt more put into a corner and I didn’t want to just do one kind of thing, so I decided to create a new label which gave me the opportunity to be more experimental and shock people. Since we all have flesh on our bodies, my idea was to strip all the rubbish off our flesh and go back to the beginning.
The standardized techno DJs hated the idea of something like wet and hard happening which was beyond their imagination. They could get their head around the normal straight techno, and when we came up with a new idea they didn’t want anything to do with it. They wrote it off as porno techno, but it wasn’t anything like that at all. The music was about embracing sexuality and the club environment, where people go to meet each other. If the music is too clicky clacky, it’s a bit anticlimactic. Outside of Germany it was quite successful. We played in places like China, South America, Miami, Ireland, and all over East and West Europe. Germans were very anti-wet and hard because it went against their ideas of techno, and they never really gave us the opportunity to branch out.
What in your mind are the key differences between Detroit and Berlin techno?
They’re kind of parallel styles where one thing fuels the other. When we heard an Underground Resistance record it just blew our minds. You might have some jazz element but it wasn’t obvious that it was at first, it was that kind of mixture that made it so special. Also Detroit being a kind of fucked up city like Berlin that helped to understand the inspiration in the music.
You’re back into making music now. What history of making music for yourself did you have? It seemed like you were pretty inundated with producing records for others without much time to devote to music making yourself, is that accurate?
In the 90s I certainly didn’t have time since I was running a record label, having never run one before. I was just learning as I was going along, so it took a lot of work. I’d go into the studio with the artist and give him my impression and ideas and suggestions, and use my production skills to make the music sound alright. It was only in the early part of the 2000s that I went back into the studio to make music.
I’d love to hear about what you’re working on now.
I’m working on a new album which I just started. The accident curtailed it but I’m back on track now. That’s something I’ve been working on for the better part of a year with different people. I’ve got 2 tracks by New Order on there, and a band from Manchester called Modern Family Unit, and 2 tracks from a band called Ekkoes. I’m hoping that will come out early next year if I’m lucky.
Keep up to date with Mark Reeder by visiting his website, or listen to his 2009 release, Reordered, below: