The Perennial Outsider: Electronic veteran Cristian Vogel looks back on a life less ordinary
Cristian Vogel has a lot to say.
Full disclosure: I’ve known Cristian for many years – since we were at university together in the early ’90s in fact, as is touched on in my ‘Rubbish Raver’ memoir – and though we were never super-close mates as such, our paths have criss-crossed to the point where I ended up doing cat impersonations on his Specific Momentific album, and he played Salsa records at my cabaret club, and I’ve interviewed him a few times, including this epic one for my own site.
But I’m not interested in him and his new record out of tribalism or nostalgia for the old days. I’m interested because every record he makes – more than two decades into his career – sounds strikingly different to what’s come before, never repeats itself from one second to the next, and is full of detail that keeps giving up new experiences weeks, months and years after you first hear it. And his new one, Polyphonic Beings, is definitely full of detail: it’s a bizarre, dreamy, dubby affair that surprisingly, given how punk and spiky a lot of Cristian’s attitudes are, seems to hark back to some very hippy-trippy mid-nineties reference points.
I’m also interested because Cristian is never boring to talk to. He’s the perpetual outsider who could easily have been huge – though completely ignored in the UK where he grew up, he was a techno superstar in Germany, and his Super_Collider project with Jamie Lidell was also, briefly, signed to Sony – but with his extraordinarily low boredom threshold, was never going to play the game adequately to consolidate this.
Instead he shifted back and forth between experimental club music, entirely abstract contemporary dance soundtracks, generative synth albums and intense academic study, bouncing from Brighton to Berlin to Barcelona and back to Berlin – with brief sojourns in Geneva and Copenhagen for good measure – and never settling on a sound or method. Like, say, Matthew Herbert or Terre Thaemlitz, he’s been driven by intellectual dissatisfaction and a restless spirit, and though as I spoke to him on Skype he seems quite settled and happy in Berlin now, there’s no sign that this is going to stop any time soon.
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So what are you up to Cris?
What, right now at this second?
Ah OK [laughs]. So my new album is released officially this week, and I’m kind of in that waiting-for-that-event-to-happen mode. Then there’ll be a presentation type event that I’ve been organising for the 22 November here in Berlin, at the Rote Salon which is a nice room in the Volksbühne theatre. And I’ve just done a remix for this track on one of Rob Booth’s labels, by Alec Storey, I forget which pseudonym of his it is… Second Storey, that’s the name. I’m working on an artist pack of composition tools and that kind of stuff for Symbolic Sound, for Kyma which is the hardware system I use – so I’m working on that every day – and I think that’s about it, for now.
What about the promotional flurry that accompanies an album release?
Not so much of that. These days I try not to do all the standard, generic stuff, the lists and the blogs and the stuff with the copy-and-pasted questions…
Yeah, because you always played it standard and generic before this point.
[snickers] Yeah, right. I mean, I’ve done a few things. There’s a stream on Crack magazine, or website, or whatever. And it’s nice of you to ask to do something. But otherwise not a lot.
And how do you feel about the album at this point? Do you detach yourself from it a bit once the recording process is through?
That’s a good question: it’s funny when you have to move it into the status of being finished – and even in the cutting room, which is your last point of decision making as a composer, I was reshuffling the track order. It wasn’t even fixed what would be the side A and side B, but the cutting engineer has to know that – once the lathe is started you can’t jiggle it around afterwards – so I had to really make that decision at the end. It’s a really challenging one, and I was really exhausted by all the millions of decisions you have to do to get to that point.
I didn’t even really have it clear then – but that’s the good thing about the mastering session, it’s one of the compelling reasons that mastering exists: it’s to help you go through that transition into “it’s done, it’s completed, I can’t change anything any more.” The final edit. Then after that, there’s this waiting period for the music to go out and connect to other minds – and I don’t know what to expect people to make of it. I’m curious. I’m open and receptive to response, whatever it might be.
Are you able to judge how different it is as a project from your previous techno-type albums?
Well, I take all my releases as sequential, even though stylistically they might not seem so – like the Eselsbrücke one was much more conceptual and with no beats in it, and that was the album previously to this one [on Sub Rosa in 2013].
So you don’t separate the beat-driven, club-sounding albums from the abstracted ones, the Gilles Jobin soundtracks and whatever?
No I don’t. No. I don’t. I find it difficult to see that they are not connected. But I can also see how this one is more a sequel to The Inertials [released in 2012]: for starters it’s on the same label, Shitkatapult, and perhaps I started off like that record. In respects it’s not so different to The Inertials, but… [lost in thought]
Well, what did differ in your approach as you planned and went into it?
Ah well, yes, it was quite difficult to start – to come from that Eselsbrücke mode which is pure composition, which I enjoy very much – but the label did request to have something they could work with, and they are a club label, so I had to really bring myself around again to the repetitions, the beat structures, whatever they’re called, whatever you want to call them, sequences of short sounds put together in a line that seem to repeat themselves [laughs]. And that was quite challenging to begin with, then I found on a compositional level I felt I had to create a system for programming the sequences, the elements that create beats.
So I spent a long time creating a type of algorithm built on the Euclidean algorithm that distributes a certain amount of pulses along an amount of possible places where they can be on the timeline in the most optimum possible fashion, and I invented a way of sequencing that algorithm so it’s generating all of the hits and the pulses and everything, and I’m just altering the variables going into the algorithm. I don’t have to press any buttons on any drum machines is what I’m trying to say. There was none of that stuff, and once that was rolling I was quite happy with that and took it from there.
So you’ve invented Euclidian funk?
Yeah. It was very funky actually, a lot of the results. I think that track ‘How Many Grapes Went Into That Wine’ is a great showcase of that polyrhythmic approach, when you layer it all up – if you check that one out, all of those beats were created using this ancient algorithm from Euclid.
This is something you’ve done in various ways before, right? The Never Engine [Tresor, 2007] was themed around, more or less, teaching the machines how to do techno, wasn’t it?
[laughs] Something like that, yeah.
But you feel like you won’t use a programming method you’ve used before? You need to build it up from, umm, raw digits each time?
Uhhh… I will refine previous methods sometimes, and as you do you discover new things. I’m in a wave with many other composers who do generative music, and prefer to work at the realtime edge of this stuff – so to do that you have to create algorithms that can generate music, and the results are on the scale of noise and chaos and randomness, to sometimes structuring and filtering or sifting this noise – this sieve idea I like – and quantising it. So this is actually quite a good way of steering this process, so you go from this generative raw material and try and shape it into something that is familiar rhythmically.
That’s on one level – then the other level is about melodic structures, harmony, polyphony in the traditional sense of scales and so on. Essentially this comes from avoiding the situation where I’m sitting with a keyboard, with my monophonic keyboard and my one finger, trying to write another amazing bassline with these black and white keys [he says the word as if it is alien]. I just can’t relate to that any more, I can’t relate to black and white keys in front of me or on the screen, it’s just so schizophrenic. I’ve never been a pianist anyway – how many of us actually know how to play the piano when they’re using this stupid interface?
So I’m much more natural working with the abstraction of algorithms and so on, and letting the machines help do the “playing”, let’s say. But they can’t learn, I can’t teach them yet – that’s too smart for them now, but maybe that’s the next stage, to go into what Matt Yee King at Goldsmiths College was studying with learning algorithms and neural networks, all this stuff. All, in the end, just to make another 808 boom-kick [laughs]. Ten years of research to make a “Burrmmmm… burmburmburm burmmmm”.
Well, it’s a valuable part of society; people will dedicate their entire lives to chasing that perfect kickdrum.
Yeah. There’s a lot of hours in the day. We can, uhh, do this. [gathers self] But yes, on the one level, the technical compositional level there was a lot of this going on. But also once the stuff is flowing in real time and it’s generating and I’m doing a lot of listening to the results – well, look, you don’t just input a load of numbers then print, or dump a load of stuff out. It’s actually generating in real time, and there’s a lot of direct listening and direct connection with the output from the algorithmic stuff. And then you do some recordings, once you’re happy with the parameters, and then you edit the recordings.
But there’s that moment of the listening and the interacting with the complexity of the variables and the patterns, and I think I was trying to keep that stage really open, to stop trying to achieve something and allow other experiences and my context – where I was listening to that stuff and where I was engaging with it – in to the process, trying to be open to the setting, and let in some other input that’s perhaps not from the computer and the algorithms, to let that in and really sort things out the actual cellular level. So to do that I thought travelling would be the thing to do.
So I took my Pacarana hardware machine – this thing [holds a small box up to the webcam] – which is a sound computation engine, very powerful, and allows this generative work to happen, but you can put it in your backpack with the computer. And I travelled on very cheap budgets, studio- and couch-surfing style, all the while aware that I was creating the composition of the new album, but being open ended and trying to be open to this new stimulation.
So I went to Los Angeles, where I was allowed some “down time” in this very expensive studio in West Hollywood where all the hip hop guys like to go. It’s a thousand-dollar-a-day studio with these amazing SSL desks, I worked on Stevie Wonder’s SSL G-Series console…they had two Fairchild compressors I could use, all the outboard you’ve ever dreamed of they owned, and I could just patch it in. I could jack into huge film sound mixing desks with 192 channels, it was one of those studios.
And I was on down time, which meant working through the night mostly, hearing the music and sounds through this context of this high-end engineering – which I saw as really influencing the sound, because those compressors and limiters and pre-amps, the analogue audio engineering, that stuff is designed by great minds and great ears as well, who’ve spent their lives doing a lot of close listening to these machines. So I thought I should go through these machines, put the generative sounds through these machines and leave them open to the esoteric input of these machines – which is what they sell it on, right? Like that Fairchild compressor from the fifties, which is really famous, and you might be able to buy one now for about €35,000, €40,000 – I was allowed to use one of these to run my hi-hats through. [laughs heartily] It was like, “what… wait… where’s the…..?”
It was magic, it was such a wonderful experience to hear some of my crazy material through this machine that I started to get imagery in my mind. On the second track in the album, it was steering me – I started to feel like, woah, I can see skulls, and bones, I can see skulls and bones but, like, beautiful dancing skeleton type stuff, really tripping out over this hi-hat going through this beautiful piece of audio engineering.
So from one extreme, I went from ten days, or nights, working in this amazing place, this incredible once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – normally you have to work yourself up there, you have to have worked on projects and projects and projects and have signed a big deal and that’s the top of the music industry, though I was let in through the back door. It’s such a high level studio and so Hollywood, and of course they have lots of interns working there through the night, and they make sure every Hershey bar or whatever they’re called, and every spoon, are all in exactly their right places every morning, then they have a quality control check of “is the chair at the right angle” and “are the coffee spoons in the right cup”, and they sweep everything.
And the guy who got me in there just said to them [Californian drawl] “guys, this is Cristian, he’s going to be rooound here for a while” – and of course they’re taught not to ask any questions of anybody about anything and not to even register this music that’s booming out of the studio, so I could’ve been anyone. So I really enjoyed that – I could’ve been Daft Punk for all they knew. Nobody could ask questions, so I liked to think of them whispering, “maybe it’s the guy from Daft Punk, the European guy”. I really enjoyed being in a place I wasn’t supposed to be, I didn’t belong and hadn’t really got there in any conventional way.
So, yes, I went from that extreme, to doing a residency in a little hut. A shed. A wooden shed on the edge of the forest in the middle of the winter in the southernmost part of the Japanese archipelago, in Kawakami – which is one of the most beautiful parts of Japan, and people from Tokyo will fly over there to go to the islands, to go to Okinawa for holiday. It’s very rural, you eat oranges from the trees. I just ate oranges, and the local villagers would bring sausages as gifts, and we would eat soup, and sausages… and oranges. I had no need for any money, I had no money in my pockets the entire time. I had to put other objects in my pocket because it felt so weird to have empty pockets. So I had shells and acorns in my pocket, and I was walking around with shells and acorns, in this little hut with all my clothes on because it’s the middle of winter, and a pair of Genelec speakers – and I made a lot of the sounds there.
Then I spent a some time in Copenhagen, in my girlfriend’s little studio there, which is like a small rehearsal space type of studio, much more rough and ready – then also in Berlin here in my home set-up – but the whole time, which was about six or seven months of creation, I just tried to keep open and versatile and flexible and let the music transform in these contexts. Some guys, I guess, spend the winter in Berlin, making techno, in one place, in the winter in Berlin – and this infuses into the sound, doesn’t it? So I just tried to open up the sound as wide as possible, given my financial means, and it was basically using networks, calling up, saying “hey, is it OK if I come over,” or “is there any opportunity to…?” or whatever.
And all this time, then, given that you’d promised this album to a techno label, did you think about clubs, or other possible reception it might get?
No. I didn’t. As I say, I was trying to maintain this openness, to allow some kind of magic to happen in the music in a very pure way – so any kind of thinking like that would have weighed it down. Any thinking like “is this beat mixable?” or “is this sounding like my contemporaries?” or “what style is it?” – any kind of thing like that, you could almost feel it if the thought started to arise, starting to reduce possibilities. So no, I didn’t really even think about whether the label would be able to handle it, or I certainly tried not to.
Now, you got sober a while back after a life of techno excess, right? Did this have anything to do with the choice of processes?
[chuckles] Um, yeah. I sort of took a lifestyle choice 13, 14 months ago, and that was nice. I suppose in some way that yeah, it added some clarity. If you don’t get drunk every weekend it’s easier to keep flowing in some way – you have more mental capacity and physical capacity, and you don’t have to keep on breaking off because you have a hangover and you can’t think. So in some sense, yes, it’s been more flowing and relaxing and less anxiety involved in the whole process. That’s not to say it’s been easy because it hasn’t – it’s still challenging, if nothing else because of the length of my career and everything I’ve tried before in the last 20, 22 years or whatever. Your own level of “what can I achieve next” gets more difficult – I always feel like it’s got to be a bigger or better achievement.
So talking of your career, with the natural way of cycles of fashion and influence, it seems like your early days are in vogue, a lot of younger producers reference or just sound like you – people are interested in hearing about ‘the old days’…
Around the fire?
Yeah, “Dad what did you do in the techno wars?” – and of course you’re talking about remastering old stuff. Are you feeling the weight of your legacy?
Well it was more just my mum found this box of DAT tapes. [laughs] That’s one thing, then also the YouTube rips that I keep seeing, I don’t think that’s a fair presentation of how much effort I put in to trying to keep the quality of production high. Now we’re living in the future, but somehow that quality of production has been reduced… So I just want to bring it up, to make those things available at the quality it should be at. Not much more complicated than that.
But even now, there’s a lot of difficult decision making about buying equipment, and listening to things, there is still very much a higher production value rather than a lo-fi aesthetic, so in that regard the restoration process is expensive. I will be working with mastering engineers, it’s not going to be a DIY job, and their time is expensive because of the dedication they’ve put into their setups technically. So it’s about 50 DAT tapes, and maybe 80 to 100 tracks that were released – the Tresor catalogue alone is 50-60 tracks – so it’s quite a big project.
But I’ve started to go through them, and there are some interesting qualities of the time which I’m going to try and keep; like, because DAT tapes were expensive – they were about £10 a go – you’ll have a great take going on, which’ll be the take that was released, then it’ll stop and there’ll be another slightly different take still carrying on. Because what I was doing was obviously doing a take, then rewinding to save tape and doing another one over the top of it, which you never do any more because you have endless hard drive so you can do as many takes as you like. So the sense you get from these DATs is someone working very hard with quite limited resources – or sometimes there’s a take where one channel drops out completely and the jam keeps going on one channel. So I think I’m going to try and keep this, in the way that Can did – they’d release a track that gets cut into a different take, or things drop out or whatever. So maybe I do it this way, not really for a nostalgic buzz but…
…a documentary buzz?
Yeahhhh, maybe – I mean I just try to follow the natural flow that’s on these digital cassettes. I haven’t found the alternative takes of the classic albums yet, and this is what I’m quite interested in looking at – because I had no real means of editing back then, it was just jamming really.
How do you feel as a listener, detaching yourself from the mechanics of them? Do you feel differently about the value of them listening back?
[very long pause, various “hrmmm”s and exhalations] I… I just feel grateful that they don’t sound so primitive actually. So… I think this is good because the quality of them will get over with less noise when it goes out and reaches the ears – you talked about the young generation that are hearing this stuff fresh, it’ll be out there for them hearing like a fresh track, a new track, not like something on YouTube that is being presented as “old school”. And I think it does sound fresh, even if it is 18 years out and was jammed out in a shoe cupboard. So I’m approaching it as a lot of new music myself – it’s challenging for me compositionally how I should put it together again in an interesting way. You’re working with… well, I guess it’s like working with vintage wine or something, you’re working with something that has this very difficult variable, which is time. It’s been waiting a long time. It is a thing from the past.
Well, this is endlessly fascinating, yes; we’ve reached this thing where the past is almost no longer a foreign country. Or there’s the illusion that it’s not, because it seems so available. But then these things will come up, whether it’s your DATs or some mildewed stack of 7”s of ’70s funk in a humid Nigerian warehouse, that will have been heard by so few people, and that are so relevant to now, that they do feel new and strange and alien.
Yeah, that’s what I hope for. So this is where I am at the moment with it. Then, the fundraising, I’m crowdsourcing the project – so I’m actually not going to do it unless the funds are raised because it’s a massive job. The restoration might have to wait until it’s feasible economically, but hopefully it will be happening. Yeah… yeah it is interesting – I certainly don’t have a nostalgic experience hearing this stuff. I can’t even remember where I was and what I was doing when I made them, and it’s irrelevant. It’s a very pure experience hearing these tapes.
Do you listen to any new club producers, of the sort who might be influenced by you?
No, very rarely. I’m still of that radio listener generation. Sit around the wireless, with a pipe – that’s how I tend to connect with things. I’m not active any more going to the record store. In Berlin, you might suddenly hear some techno sounds here and there…
In Berlin you just turn the tap on and techno comes out!
Yeah, totally. [laughs] So I’m definitely more exposed to the contemporary sounds here in Berlin than I was in Barcelona, but no, I’m not active in any scene or checking out what’s going on.
If you pass a bar that’s playing techno, do you ever get a ripple of thinking, “oh, we did that 20 years ago?”
Yes, yes I do. I do. But that was expected, you know. I was at the Boiler Room this week because SØS was playing, and I heard Objekt DJing, and some of that sounded… Well, I thought he was playing one of my tracks, actually, for a minute – I actually turned to my mate and said “THAT’S ONE OF MY TUNES” but… [suddenly crestfallen] it wasn’t. It had exactly the same sound that was on one of my Dungeon Master [2002 Tresor album] tracks, but maybe more refined, with snappier production or something.
Techno back then had a very explicit futurist ethic. Obviously the fact that something made now sounds very close to your old work suggests that isn’t so much the case now.
Well, now it’s future-past, time tunnel stuff, the past becomes the now, becomes the now twice… it’s all great fun now! Music by its nature has these completely free temporal structures and periodicity that happens on many levels in an abstract way: it can happen in terms of a beat, it can happen inside the sounds that make the elements of the beat, it can happen in the scene that it’s involved in and in the cultural movements, it can happen in the technological advances when music gets tangled up in the referentiality of the internet age. And, of course you’ve got these huge internet companies like Google and Apple investing massive amounts of money in music – not literature or painting or whatever – and this opens up all of the time-locks, and we get [whooshing noise] this wonderful non-linearity of time through music. It’s really exciting!
I guess with the techno of that time we had a bit of this feeling, but it was much more like a clean slate at the beginning. It was much more a revolution against the romanticism of the existing music industry, plus a little of the post-war rhetoric of us needing a new language to avoid the atrocities of war and conflict and romanticism… I had that as a historical perspective anyway, because I was studying 20th century music and composers like Stockhausen and Boulez were about the new language. For them, it was a much more historical context: we’ve just been through hell, and we need a new language to start again. That was the rhetoric of those composers, it was very pro-construction. And yes we had that in techno because of the technological shifts that we tried to keep up with, but it was much more linked to partying and hedonism and lifestyles too.
And now ordinary life has become as bafflingly technological as any music you could hope to make… maybe techno now can serve the purpose of being an interface with this weird world we’ve created.
It’s totally weird, right? It’s great fun. When you go to sleep and dream, it’s very merged. I’m not sure sometimes when I wake up if I’ve dreamed some new weirdness or if I saw it in my Facebook feed.
You’ve always had a strong thing for retaining autonomy from scenes, labels, whatever; do you still feel that strongly? Do you think we need that kind of urge to stay semi-detached from tech companies too as they increasingly buy up our culture?
I’m still highly ambivalent about a lot of aspects of the music industry. I still haven’t really found a comfortable way of balancing my personal ideologies and personal beliefs about the transformative power of music with effective distribution channels. Music is outward, it needs to reach and connect, and I still can’t find a way of doing that without having to get involved with industry structures. I’ve tried cassette labels in the late eighties, white labels in the early nineties – going round shops trying to sell them by hand – I’ve tried all kinds of things.
I’ve got my Bandcamp going now, I sell a download a month for five Euros, but whatever I do I can’t quite get it to work sustainably. I’m considering opening a vinyl label again now, next year… talking of the weirdness factor, vinyl is now as successful as it was back then. That’s a very weird phenomenon, I can still go to record shops and browse these heavy things from the past, these objects. So I definitely see a viable place for many more physical media alternatives to music – it seems weird that we’ve only got three, in cassette, vinyl and CDs…
You briefly experimented with one-off, live-cut vinyl discs…
Yeah, and I also released a book, or something disguised as a book, which was actually a collection of digital files – that was a worthwhile experiment, but like so much it seemed to fall through the structures of the industry. This was before the crowdfunding thing, which is extremely promising: you have the option of raising some money to experiment with things. So I’d like to experiment with new formats. I think it would be quite interesting to have this… cake or something, and you buy it, and it has music that when you eat the cake the music goes into your head in high fidelity, and directly connects with your neurons for a week. [double takes] They have those actually, in Amsterdam, I think I had one when I went there as a student. [chuckles… then thoughtful] Mmm, maybe that’s where that idea came from… But why can’t we have a hundred different physical formats for music?
I actually had this conversation with Grischa Lichtenberger – he started the conversation in fact… at the Boiler Room the other night. We had the same feeling that the time is right for us to have a multiplicity of different music formats, suddenly schtoooooom [hands mime explosion]. I’ve got back into cassettes recently. Just to listen to things, normal things. [picks one up] This is a German version of The Alchemist, a German language Paulo Coelho tape, it’s very comforting to listen to – I don’t understand the words, thank god, but the tone is really nice. So… yeah… we’ll invent something. Next year.
Back to your album, what are your plans for the presentation? I guess from the venue it’s not going to be a rave…?
No. It’s going to be a sit-down concert, and I’m actually going to… well, it’s been a little controversial, because I’m not going to perform it live in the sense of deconstructing the album and remaking all of those really difficult decisions over again live on stage with a set of crappy monitors. I decided that I’d worked so hard making all of those decisions right up to the mastering stage that I wanted to perform the music as it sounds. So I’m going to play the vinyl versions. But to connect my energy with the music somehow, I shall be there performing a realtime visual element.
I’ve coded my own realtime visual thing that will be projected, and it contains many iPhone images that have been taken while I’m traveling so it’s like a slideshow – but of course not at all like a slideshow – and I will be performing that visual with a very intimate connection to the structures of the music. I’ve practiced it a few times, and I feel it’s a really good expression of the music, it keeps the fidelity of the music and the mix up very high, and I also feel like I’m connecting my energies into it – and people will see me up on stage operating a computer. Which is the way that we do it normally anyway, right?
So there’s a slight shift in what I’m controlling and touching going on, it’s going to be doing the visuals. That’s my idea for the programme. And it’s going to be seated. The support act will be SØS – Gunver Ryberg – who’ll be doing a more hands-on performance for the warm-up, so there’s that. There’ll be two performances, then that’s it – maybe a little record spinning afterwards, but it’s not a rave. It should all be wrapped up by midnight. Anyway, it’s Saturday night in Berlin, so people should have plenty of opportunities to go and do the rest of it after the show. And I’m not going to present it in any other club context or party context.
Has anyone, though? Shitkatapult are a techno label, they send their records to DJs…have you had any feedback from DJs?
I haven’t, no. I don’t know if anyone has. I’m not sure if anyone’s even played the promo.
I played a track in a hotel lobby in Shoreditch. A Japanese man with a very expensive parka zipped right up to his chin bopped along in his seat.
Ahh, well that’s all we can hope for in life. Oh actually – I saw you did that 100 Most Underrated DJs list, and you had Hardy Spymania on it! I approve of that. And you know, it’s DJs like that, doing those sorts of shows, that my albums are for. They’re the ones that are going to play it. You’re not going to hear it at the Berghain. I really have to support those guys, the ones out doing their own thing, or the residents who have the hard job of setting the tone for the night, of reminding people that this is actually a music event they’re coming to. That’s it!
A few hours after the interview, Cristian messages me simply “new physical format?” and a link to his labelmate’s release: