Errorsmith: The cult Berlin favorite talks 21 years in club music, designing synths and his incredible new album
With a career that stretches back to 1996 and some of the best club records ever made to his name, Errorsmith counts Ben UFO, Optimo and The Black Madonna among his fans. But this quiet Berlin producer has spent most of his career outside of the limelight, spending almost as much time creating synthesizers as music. Scott Wilson talks to the veteran artist about 21 years in club music, working for Native Instruments and the struggle to finish his remarkable new album Superlative Fatigue.
Erik Wiegand discovered his love for exuberant, ravey club music in 1991. He was 22, and had just moved to Berlin from the small German town of Kassel. The Berlin Wall had fallen just two years earlier and illegal parties were popping up in abandoned buildings across the city; it was from these parties that Berlin’s techno culture would grow. At this point in its history though, the music had more of an anything-goes attitude: here Wiegand regularly tuned in to the Steve Mason Experience, a show on the British Forces Broadcasting Service that played happy hardcore, jungle and rave to the troops. “What I really liked was the ravey sound or when the club music was really… ‘rocking’ somehow,” he remembers from his studio in the German capital. “Euphoric, not reserved.”
Wiegand, who is better known as Errorsmith, makes future-facing club music that defies easy classification. His new album on PAN, Superlative Fatigue – his first in 13 years – is the culmination of over 21 years of experimentation, crafted with his own self-developed synthesizer, Razor. In it you can hear echoes of the blockbuster sound design of Berlin’s Janus crew, the frenetic African-inspired rhythms of Lisbon’s Principe label and the neon aesthetic of the early Night Slugs records. His music though, operates in its own sphere: crisp, lean and euphoric; it imagines a world where the hoover sound from Second Phase’s 1991 classic ‘Mentasm’ spawned as much experimentation as the acidic squelch of the TB-303. He takes the syncopation of dancehall, soca and UK funky and fashions his own oblique take: an unfussy, malleable sound that squeals like worn-out brake pads and stretches like a rubber band.
“I often feel estranged by the default sound in most clubs here – the never ending house or techno party”
Errorsmith may be an unfamiliar name to a lot of clubgoers, but Wiegand has been releasing records since 1996. ‘Donna’, a collaboration with his friend Michael Fiedler under the name MMM, became one of the first anthems at Glasgow’s Optimo party when it was released in 1997, and the city’s Rubadub store recently revealed that it was the biggest selling record in its 25-year history. He also has a close relationship with Berlin producer Frank Timm aka Sound Stream/Soundhack, who he collaborated with on a number of out-there records as Smith N Hack in the ‘00s; their trumpet flip of Matthew Herbert’s ‘Movin Like A Train’ is probably one of the most underrated remixes ever made. He’s also admired by synth nerds for his Razor instrument, released by Native Instruments in 2011. By rights, Wiegand should be one of Berlin’s most revered figures, but he’s always been more of a cult hero than a headline act, even in his native country.
“Even though I remember nice moments when our [MMM] music was played in Berlin and there are great parties [here], I would say that I often feel estranged by the default sound in most clubs here, which is the never ending house or techno party,” he says. “There is great house and techno, but most of the time the variety played here is pretty uniform and boring. We didn’t cater for the sound that Berlin is famous for so much. I mean, our stuff got played, but probably not that often. I think I played more often in Glasgow or Paris with all the aforementioned projects and solo than in Berlin. We had the most enthusiastic responses to our live sets when we played in Glasgow.”
It’s not surprising that Wiegand’s exuberant music, both solo and as MMM, is such a hit in Scotland; its high energy reflects the country’s ‘taps off’ attitude to clubbing, fuelled by Buckfast and licensing laws that demand clubs close at 3am. But his popularity with tastemaker DJs such as Ben UFO, Midland and The Black Madonna is probably the result of a career that’s found Wiegand consistently going against the grain to make adventurous tracks that work up a crowd. While minimal techno dominated German clubs in the early ‘00s, he was going maximal with live sets of processed digital beats; as Berghain established a dark, austere sound at the end of the last decade, Wiegand and Fiedler instead made colorful tracks with rhythms cribbed from UK funky. Wiegand does play at Berghain occasionally (last month he, Fiedler and Timm celebrated 20 years in the game with a night at Panorama Bar), but his music still operates on a different frequency from most of his peers in the city.
“It’s a huge struggle to get from the initial sketches to a full, finished track – that’s the hardest part for me”
Wiegand’s first experience of making music was less auspicious. As a teenager in the 1980s, he took up the drums and learned from notes given to him by the drummer at Kassel’s local theatre. However, he got the bug for production at an early age, long before computers were widely available: Wiegand’s father was in a wedding band and had a home studio with a drum computer, samplers and multi-track tape recorders, which he experimented on while playing in what he describes as “indie bands” with friends. When he got to Berlin in 1991, he started collecting gear for his own studio: an analog synthesizer, an Atari computer running sequencer software and a few drum machines. When he and Fiedler made their first tracks as MMM in the mid-90s, they jammed with hardware and edited the recordings in software. However, Wiegand quickly discovered that he found it easier to make music with just a computer.
“For me it was instantly clear that it’s much better to work for me in the box than with hardware,” he says. “Maybe for some people it’s better to be forced to finish something quickly when using hardware, since there is no total recall, but for me there’s no way around it – I want to be able to pick up an old idea and have all the synthesizers at the right place within the project.”
By 1999, Wiegand’s interest in software synthesizers had opened up a new career path. He was an early user of Generator, the programmable software instrument now known as Reaktor, and got to know the small team that made up the fledging music software company Native Instruments via a friend who programmed sampler modules for it. Eventually, he got a job with the company as their first beta tester, using his degree-level experience in communication and computer science to help him identify software bugs. By 2004, he was working as a freelance Reaktor builder, developing tools for the Reaktor Library so that owners could have new things to play around with when the new version launched.
In amongst his work at NI he found time to release his first solo material in 1999 and 2002 through Berlin’s Hard Wax store: two self-titled LPs of experimental club music whose glitchy, digital texture prefigured the compressed electro of the Ed Banger label (he even collaborated with Mr. Oizo on the label in 2008). He followed these up in 2004 with Near Disco Dawn, a collection of live recordings. However, in 2009 he diverted his attention into the creation of his own standalone synthesizer: Razor. His creation is unusual in that it uses additive synthesis technology; early analog synths involve “subtracting” elements of the sound to shape the patch with things like filters, but an additive synth creates timbre by adding sound waves together. In a market full of virtual analog synths, Razor’s uncanny tones offered something radically different, and it’s largely responsible for the sound of Superlative Fatigue.
“I feel that with an additive approach you can change the spectrum in a very precise way – like with a razor”
“A lot of my taste went into Razor,” he says. “What I usually like is to have a big value range, so the pitch knob has a range of 10 octaves. It’s these kinds of simple preferences that went into it. It was interesting to make the reverb in a different way so it becomes more a part of the sound and not so much like an add-on to the sound source. I think that’s an idea that’s reflected in Razor: I always like to get the best out of the source and not rely so much on effects that are added afterwards. For me it’s a much more powerful thing if you can change the sound at the source.”
“I like to explore spectral changes, timbral changes,” he continues. “I do this in Razor by having this kind of fake pitch bend – it’s similar to acid house where you the turn the filter knob. It’s quite often the case that [in my music] the song tells the story with these kind of timbral changes. As it’s an additive synthesizer, there’s much more control over the timbre because I can change the frequency and amplitude of every single partial that goes to make the final sound. So that’s why it’s called Razor, because I feel that with an additive approach you can change the spectrum in a very precise way – like with a razor.”
If you browse through Razor’s presets, you can hear clear echoes of Wiegand’s music: the staccato hoovers of MMM’s 2010 track ‘Nous Sommes MMM’, the strange android voices of Superlative Fatigue closer ‘My Party’ and elastic laser blasts of album highlight ‘Centroid’ are all there to use in your own tracks. Wiegand though, isn’t worried about setting free something that’s so personal to him for everyone to use. “If people copy you then it’s a form of appreciation or respect,” he believes. “I don’t worry about it at all. I wouldn’t have made the synth if I had a problem with people using its features to the fullest. People can use it in so many different ways: I’m not such so much into pad sounds for instance, but I bet Razor can make wonderful pads, so why not use it in that way?”
You might assume that building your own synthesizer would make the music-making process easier, but for Wiegand, it was the opposite. He spent six arduous years working on Superlative Fatigue, despite putting all his creative energy into music shortly after the release of Razor in 2011. Instead of starting from scratch, he searched his folders of sketches and recordings to find eight ideas he could develop into full tracks and restricted himself mainly to working on these. “If I was without a focus, I would get lost and I would come up with different material,” he says. “It’s a huge struggle for me to get from the initial sketches or short tracks to a full, finished track – that’s the hardest part for me. It had been a long time since I last released under the Errorsmith name [apart from an EP with Mark Fell in 2015] so it was very important for me to get something done solo and not just in collaboration.”
“I’m really triggered by music that’s interesting or has a certain twist of its own. That’s what gives me energy”
Spending that much time on an album can result in an overcooked end product, but Superlative Fatigue is a remarkable record that redefines what club music can be while capturing the rave spirit of the early ‘90s. It’s a feeling that Wiegand suggests is missing from a lot of today’s dance music. “It was definitely more ravey back then, and the kind of techno that was produced back then in Berlin was much weirder,” he says. “In the beginning it wasn’t so clear what the rules were – everybody was trying to do it and was more playful. They didn’t think too much about what they were doing. Nowadays people think ‘what makes a techno track? OK, we need this, this and this’. It’s much more according to a rulebook.”
Part of the album’s inspiration comes from the music Wiegand consumes and plays in his DJ sets and regular radio appearances. He cites Jlin as one of his favourite artists right now, and talks enthusiastically about the collision of grime, ballroom, Jersey club and ghetto house. However, he prefers not to limit himself at all. “My album is very much related to this meltdown of genres,” he says. “If I had unlimited time I would go through all the genres in the online shops to check if there’s something interesting. So I really cannot say ‘this music is very interesting right now’. I can find interesting bits in almost every genre.”
At 48 years old, Wiegand isn’t a young man. But his appetite for unusual sounds is as voracious as many DJs half his age, and his pursuit of innovation puts many of his peers to shame. Whether Superlative Fatigue gets him the recognition he deserves remains to be seen, but there’s no indication that he’s made the record on anything other than his own terms. “I’m very relieved,” he says of finishing the record after so long. “I’m very happy with the outcome of the music, even though I worked so much on it. There’s always a danger that you can overproduce and make the wrong decisions because you’re not objective enough, but it seems I succeeded in not falling into that trap.” Bill Kouligas’s PAN label, which has pushed bold, experimental club music for several years, is a logical home for the record, even if Kouligas did have to spend five years coaxing it out of him after their first meeting in 2012.
More than anything though, Superlative Fatigue is a really weird record. Beyond the meshing of genres and nods to rave music, it’s a record whose heartfelt vocoder moments give it a strange robotic soul and a sense of humor that’s all too rare in contemporary electronic music. He describes the vibe as “a little bit funny and a little bit ridiculous but still seriously felt,” qualities not often seen together in the club. “I would say there’s too much [in music] in general that’s already been done,” he says. “Quite often you hear something and you can’t really tell when it was made, because it could have been made now or five years ago – or even 10, 15 years ago.
“I’m really triggered by music that’s interesting or has a certain twist of its own,” he says. “That’s what gives me energy.”
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