Techno has for too long clung to its self-mythology: the unshakable idea that it’s a vanguard music, that it’s still some kind of future-rushing phenomenon.
In the past half-decade the hollowness of that claim has become increasingly obvious. Techno today feels like a nostalgia industry, fixated on its own past, and all too eager to operate within established boundaries, not to break any rules. A once fluid and revolutionary sound has become – in the main – polite, toothless, interminably dull.
Shed – real name Rene Pawlowitz – is one of a handful of producers bucking this trend, quietly advancing and enriching techno’s remit by example. Like so many visionaries across the arts, Pawlowitz looks to the past in order to find new paths into the future. While legion DJs, producers and listeners have continued to worship slack-jawed at the altars of classic Chicago house and Detroit techno, Pawlowitz has spent the past five years revisiting the ruffneck UK hardcore, jungle and breakbeat music that made such an impression on him as a teenager. You can hear this music’s influence – as well as that of contemporary dubstep, which he follows religiously – in his own work, which manages to display a guarded respect for techno tradition and an impatience with its more outdated patterns and customs.
Shed manages to display a guarded respect for techno tradition and an impatience with its more outdated patterns and customs.
Self-reliant and uncompromising from the off, Shed debuted with the Red Planet Express EP on his own aptly named Soloaction imprint. After releasing a number of attention-grabbing records on the label, including the Citylicker EP (2005) and ‘Masque’ (2006), Pawlowitz retired it, though its less prolific offshoot, Subsolo, is still extant, providing a home for Pawlowitz’s more experimental and dubwise productions as STP and The Panamax Project, as well as like-minded artists and remixers such as A Made Up Sound, T++ and Peverelist.
Pawlowitz maintains that Detroit techno has never been a direct influence on his work; growing up, the techno he was exposed to and felt a kinship with was predominantly European. Nonetheless, the spirit of Detroit, and explicitly Detroit-influenced labels like Holland’s Djax-Up-Beats, animated much of Shed’s mid-noughties work – the aforementioned Soloaction 12″s and also his breakthrough releases for Delsin and Styrax Leaves (among them the Soloaction and Handle With Care EPs). By 2008 Pawlowitz was already one of the most talked-about producers in the dance music underground, but it was the inclusion of his track ‘Warped Mind’ on Marcel Dettmann’s Berghain 02 mix and the subsequent release on Ostgut Ton of his debut album, Shedding The Past, that pushed him over the barricades.
As its title suggests, Shedding The Past was an elegiac record, reflecting its maker’s disillusionment with the commercial and conservative direction taken by techno in the 2000s. Shed used the album as an arena to reflect on the meaning of “true techno music” (to quote the voice heard on ‘Waved Mind/Archived Document’). Though the centrepiece of the album is a locomotive 4/4 number, ‘That Bears Everything!’, its tracks for the most part explore tricksier steppers’ rhythms, teaming them with melodies evoking both the bug-eyed optimism of the rave at peaktime and the serotonin-sapped melancholy of the morning after.
Shedding The Past‘s melodies evoked both the bug-eyed optimism of the rave at peaktime and the serotonin-sapped melancholy of the morning after.
In the wake of Shedding The Past‘s release, Shed’s stock has deservedly risen, and he has duly become more prolific, if no less exacting. As well as turning out extraordinary remixes of Substance’s ‘Relish’, Radioslave’s ‘Tantakatan’ and Taho’s ‘Energy Fields’, and collaborating with Marcel Dettmann as Deuce, Pawlowitz has founded two “anonymous” white label series, Equalized and WAX, dedicated to new-school club tracks with old-school energy. The popularity of these tracks has come as no surprise: infectiously funky, and cannily engineered for maximum dancefloor impact, they also have real feeling to them – witness the teary-eyed breakbeat reverie that is EQD002B or the muscular but wistful warehouse flex of WAX3003B.
On August 30 Shed will release The Traveller, his second artist album for Ostgut Ton. It’s a more subtle and perhaps more confident record than Shedding The Past, taking in austere dub minimalism (‘The Bot’), gauzy ambient interludes (‘STP 2′), imperious acid techno (‘My R-Class’), and, on closing track ‘Leave Things’, a kind of scuffed, ecstatic jungle reminiscent of Aphex Twin’s ‘Polynomial-C’. FACT’s Kiran Sande called up Pawlowitz in Berlin to discuss the LP, and the unlikely debt it owes to the Pet Shop Boys…
You’ve always said that you are, at heart, a techno guy. Where did it all begin for you?
“There’s not that much to say about it [laughs]…Where should I start? I’ve been into techno since 1991. It’s hard to talk about, because at the time I wasn’t so interested in where the music was coming from or what it was actually about, I just wanted to go out and experience something new. I was young, only 16, and so I didn’t want to know who was making these records; I wanted only to listen to them.
“I was a pop child. My biggest influence is, I think, the Pet Shop Boys. Hard to say exactly why. Up to the Behaviour album it was all good, and then it started to get boring. But yeah, that was my starting point in electronic music, and I’ve been into UK music ever since the Pet Shop Boys. I don’t know if that’s exactly a cool starting point, but I really did love their records [laughs].
“After that I was into the kind of techno compilations that were available in every store here – not particularly cool stuff at all. Like – actually, I can’t tell you, because you’ll write it down and I don’t want people to know! [laughs] You know the track, ‘Who Is Elvis?’ by Interactive? Cheesy stuff like that at the beginning. That was it for me. I sometimes would read Bravo, the German magazine for young people, and they would write about this scene, this acid stuff, the acid parties. But it was cheap, cheesy news and interviews, every guy in there had a smiley on their shirt…”
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Shed – Estrange [from Shedding The Past, Ostgut Ton 2008]
How and when did you become conscious of techno as a diverse and international force?
“Around 1992 I first started going to Hard Wax because of Fiedel [one half of production duo MMM; resident DJ at Berghain]. We grew up in Schwedt, it’s another city in East Germany, north-east of Berlin, maybe 80km away. And he was the big influence. He always had these cool records from Chicago and Detroit; I was more into the European techno then, and he was my mentor in a way, he always had this cool, hard stuff from the US.
“I was always trying to find records like these, but he [Fiedel] was always the first person to get hold of them. At the time I only knew that the US was famous for house music, and I really wasn’t into house music then. But Fiedel had this techno stuff, like Probe records, and Plus8, and this Wink stuff, early Wink stuff. Then Dancemania, these hard Chicago things. Fiedel was always the person who introduced me to new music, at a time when I was only into cheap techno from Germany and Holland. That’s it.”
“The only stuff from the 90s that I can still listen to is my hardcore and early jungle records.”
Do you ever revisit that “cheap techno” you were into back then? Does it sound less or more cheesy to you now?
“Oh, it’s still cheesy. When I go through my record collection and I try to listen to something from the 90s, it’s impossible, I can’t hear it anymore [laughs]. The only stuff from that time that I can still listen to is my hardcore and early jungle records.”
How did UK hardcore and jungle first enter your life?
“It was Fiedel again. Whenever he went to Hard Wax he’d buy, I don’t know, ten techno records and then maybe two jungle or hardcore white labels. For me it was too stressful to go to Hardwax and listen to all these white labels, and it’s only recently that I’ve realised how important that music was to me. That’s why five years ago I started buying all these records which I heard on the radio then. It’s very expensive, but I still try to collect these old records that made an impression on me.”
Did you ever feel any affection for the later, more minimal Photek and Metalheadz-style drum ‘n bass?
“No. By that time it was over for me [laughs]. It’s the same thing with gabba or UK hardcore – it was getting faster and faster, and I was getting bored of hearing the same sounds again and again.
Ah yes, gabba. Tell me about your gabba phase…
“Well, at this time everyone wanted to listen to harder and harder music – it was like a contest. Everbody, especially in the east of Germany, wanted to make and listen to harder music than the next guy. We started with 125bpm and in the end it was nearly 200bpm – the point where things had become too fast arrived very quickly [laughs]. It was boring, because it was all about the hardness, and nothing else – no fun anymore. Here in Berlin we called that music hardcore, not to be confused with the hardcore from the UK. To begin with it was enjoyable though, because of the sampling – in Holland they were sampling every piece of film music, every piece of dialogue – like, you know, Freddie Krueger for instance. It was funny, and interesting in the beginning. But it was over very quickly; there was no groove anymore. I feel the same about jungle and drum ‘n bass – at 170bpm there is no groove anymore.”
“At 170bpm there is no groove anymore.”
Was there much of a club culture in Schwedt in the early 90s?
“In our city there was no scene. If we wanted to go to a party or a club we had to do it ourselves, and our scene was maybe ten or fifteen people. that’s all. But Berlin was very near, so went there almost every weekend – to Tresor, Bunker, E-Werk. In the early days there were so many clubs. And there was a time when big events were OK – there was a big hall in the North East of Berlin, called Die Halle, and the first Mayday was there. These were the first big parties that I was going to with the guys from Schwedt.”
Were any of the parties you were going to at the time playing any breakbeat-oriented material?
“No, not at all! [laughs] Unfortunately not. There was only techno. The hardcore scene wasn’t that big in Berlin. There was a bigger jungle scene in the mid-90s, but by that time it wasn’t my music anymore. I was more into the earlier, cheesy Mickey Mouse stuff. ”
Do you find Berlin dancefloors are resistant to breakbeats? How easy is it to work those kind of rhythms into your sets?
“It’s not easy. The techno audience would like to hear techno. They want to have the straight bass drum. It’s virtually impossible to play breakbeats – not just in Berlin, but across Germany. It’s more music to listen to at home.”
A hallmark of your own productions is the use of breakbeats, or at least broken rhythms that deviate from a conventional 4/4 pulse. What prompted you to begin incorporating these kind of rhythms into your work?
“When I started to do music, the first instrument I bought in 1998 was a techno instrument: the Roland TR-606. I think that’s one of the reasons I made techno music at first, with a straight drum. I had no sampler or anything, so it was simply easier to start with techno music. But the point where I started to make breakbeats? I think it was around 2000. It was a hard time for me, because I was getting bored of techno music. I’d reached the point where I was looking back to the early days, listening to old mixtapes and recordings from parties. I realized then that was breakbeat was my music. That was the music that reminded me of the good times.”
Was it a challenge to create your own breakbeats without reverting to 90s pastiche? How did you set about making this sound your own?
“It was not too difficult – I quickly found out that it was quite easy to make breakbeats [laughs]. The breaks were easy to do, but it was always the hook line – the piano, the organ, or whatever – that made those [early 90s tracks] it special. And that’s a hard thing to get right. As for the way I do things, well…it’s just my music. This is what I want to listen to. I’m sure there are a lot of people doing cool breakbeats these days, but often it is just the same as the 90s stuff, and so it’s boring. I don’t want to do this. I always have to do things my own way.”
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Substance – Relish (Shed Remix) [Scion Versions, 2009]
As you’ve already touched upon, one of the things that gave hardcore of both the UK and German variety its wildness and its energy was the use of samples. Does sampling appeal to you as a producer? How do you introduce melody and harmonic structure into your productions?
“In a way. I only use samples which are from the early days. For breakbeats it’s still one record from the Knite Force label – there are 50 drum loops on it or something, I don’t know which Knite Force it was exactly. But yeah, I’m still working with that…[laughs]
“As I said, I try not to sound like old breakbeat records, I try to alter the structure. The same is true of techno. These days techno from Germany it’s very, very structured, rigid – I’m getting bored of it, because it’s always the same structure. The tracks are always sounding like a bad live act, if you know what I mean? No? It’s techno that sounds a little too German, if I can say that [laughs]. Very organised.”
“There are two ways that I begin making tracks – sometimes it’s with the rhythm, sometimes it’s with something harmonic, a synth line or whatever. When I start with a rhythm section it’s always a very dance music kind of track, but when I start out with a hookline, it’s always possible that it will head more into the area of listening [as opposed to dancing] music. But I always want to have something melodic in my tracks; I don’t want to do this purely rhythmic stuff, it’s not interesting for me. Sometimes it’s OK, but I always want to have a melodic side to my tracks.”
“These days techno from Germany is very, very structured, rigid – I’m getting bored of it.”
I think that’s true of the Equalized and WAX records, there are strong melodies in those, even though they’re intensely stripped and clipped.
“Sure, but really those tracks are just for the ‘floor.”
Shedding The Past felt very much like an exorcism, a clearing of the decks. Is that fair to say, or am I just letting its title colour my judgement?
“There was no grand reason for the name Shedding The Past. I was looking for an artist name; I didn’t have one at that point. My first release, the Red Planet Express 12″ for my own label, there was no artist name on it. When it came to the second record, someone at Hard Wax was asking about an artist name, and suddenly my name is Shed – simply because I had that phrase in my mind, ‘shedding the past’. That’s why my artist name is Shed. And that’s why the album is called Shedding The Past. Then I went to the UK and soon realised that the name Shed is a bit ridiculous there [laughs]. Calling myself that was not the best idea.”
There are worse names than Shed…
“Yeah, but I have to live with this one now…that’s why I’ve started to do other things like WAX and Equalized [laughs]. I wanted to drop the name Shed, but I decided to give it a chance by calling the album Shedding The Past, and so at least explaining the context that the word came from.”
Why exactly did the phrase ‘shedding the past’ take hold of you? And how did we get from there to The Traveller?
“The phrase ‘shedding the past’ had to do with me being very sad that [the quality of] techno music was going down, that everybody was listening to it. It was very special to me, but I didn’t want to think about it anymore because the whole scene had gone down. It was boring and I wanted to get over it. The Traveller? That was quite a quick decision. It was the name of a track on the album, and that’s it, I thought it was a good name for an album [laughs].”
It’s no secret that dubstep is a big influence on you as a DJ and producer; what about Jamaican dub and dancehall?
“It’s all because of working at Hardwax. I’m not into reggae, I’m really not. But being at Hard Wax eight hours a day, one day I couldn’t help but here this stuff. It was always when new reggae records came in, the guys would be listening to them, and sometimes there would be a particular record which I was interested in. That’s it.
“Three years ago I was not into dubstep at all, only into the Burial, really But as a result of working at Hard Wax, I’m into much more now. It’s something fresh for me. And since I began seriously buying dubstep records, I’m not so into techno anymore. When I buy ten records these days, nine are dubstep and one – maybe one – is techno. Which is why it’s always difficult to play as a DJ – because you’re from Berghain, everyone thinks you have to play hard techno music, but I can’t [laughs]. I really can’t. That’s why I did the Panamax Project – it isn’t very successful, but I do try to bring it forward.
“I went to the UK and soon realised that the name Shed is a bit ridiculous there [laughs]. Calling myself that was not the best idea.”
Will you release more Panamax Project records?
“The last one wasn’t that big a record. It’s hard to break even. Also because of the pound and Euro exchange. The last record is not going very well, so I have to think it over.
What about Soloaction?
“Soloaction’s time is over. I don’t do any more records there, it’s history.”
But Subsolo will continue?
“Yeah, hopefully. I’ve got two new remixes coming, I don’t know exactly when, maybe in September. But I honestly don’t know if I’ll do any more Panamax records [pause]…actually I will, of course I will. Because there I can do bass music. When I do a WAX or an Equalized record I can’t do this deep sound, because of the bad PAs over the world.”
Does the dubstep you’re into now in any way remind you of the early jungle that you were digging back in the 90s?
“It’s the same thing for me. When I think about it, I’ve always been into the dubstep which has some breakbeats in it; that’s why it’s interesting for me. I’m not so into the full-on ravey, wobbly dubstep stuff, that’s not for me at all.”
There was always that breakbeat element to the best UK techno as well…
“That was a big influence, yes, up till 1998 it was all the Birmingham techno – Surgeon, Regis. I also like that Blueprint stuff, James Ruskin and so on.”
How have your live sets been going? Are you happy with your set-up at present?
“Well, I was – up until last week. I was at a festival and it was raining, and there was no roof on the stage – and that’s why I lost my 909. Before then I was very happy with my set-up but now it’s over and I have to find something new – I can’t justify repair because it’s more expensive than starting fresh. I reached a point where I was very happy with it. But I have to change it anyway because when I do live sets supporting the new album I don’t just want to do gigs at clubs. It’s always a problem when I play in clubs, because people are there to dance, understandably, and they always want the straight bass-drum. I want to bring in more effects, I want it to be possible to play a track without a drum or bassline for fifteen or twenty minutes, and I just can’t do this in a club. Hopefully with this album I’ll be able to do some shows in contexts where I can better explain my music.
“Clubs are better for DJs. Some live acts – a lot of them in fact – use only a laptop, but it’s hard for me to find enough space on the stage, and sometimes it’s not even possible to put all my equipment on the desk. Venues aren’t set up for that because all the other guys are only using a computer with Ableton or whatever; I really play live, while some other people just press a button and that’s it. So it’s hard work, and anyway, techno is better suited to DJ sets. In a club people just want to see you put your hands in the air. It’s ridiculous. I want to play [laughs].”