Features I by I 17.05.13

Say it with flowers: Felix K on his killer debut album and the story of drum ‘n bass in Berlin

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Cast your mind back to 2009-11. Drum ‘n bass looked like it might be getting really interesting again, for the first time in over a decade.

Instra:mental had kicked the door down, their ‘Watching You’/’Tramma’ 12” being the most visible and far-reaching, but by no means the first, example of a new wave of minimalism that promised to revitalise and reinvent the genre. But in the end, this wave barely licked the shoreline. Soon Instra:mental’s Damon Kirkham and Al Green had pretty much renounced drum ‘n bass, ultimately parting ways in order to focus on their own robust, but regressive, variants of bass-heavy tech-house, and most of the promising young producers who emerged in their wake – people like Spectra:Soul and Rockwell – either stalled creatively or retreated into bankable, big-room dnb conservatism. I say most, because there are a handful of contemporaneous artists who have continued to innovate, edify and excite. One such artist is Felix K.

Interestingly, Felix is from Berlin; a city that hasn’t really registered on the drum ‘n bass map since the agit-junglism of Alec Empire and his Digital Hardcore label gained some traction in the mid-90s. Though he has been producing since his teenage years, it wasn’t until 2009 and the arrival of a mysterious and short-lived 12” series called QNS, that Felix K’s music entered the public consciousness, or at the least the consciousness of a certain vinyl-buying cognoscenti. The acronym stood for ‘Quantity Not Sufficient’, and Felix and his co-conspirators weren’t lying: each hand-stamped, information-light 12” in the series was limited to 150 copies, with no re-presses, and no digital versions. The music on these records – issued anonymously, but later revealed to be all the work of Felix – smelted jungle down to its purest steppers’ essence, using lessons learned from dubstep and minimal techno to go further into abstraction than even mid-90s reductionist pioneers like Photek or Krust had dreamed possible. The tempo and attitude of the tracks were assuredly drum ‘n bass, but beyond that, all bets were off; these lithe, skeletal, fiendishly complex but soundystem-ready productions were a world away from the Amen rinse-outs or jump-up rollers that characterise jungle/dnb in the popular imagination.

By the time QNS dropped its sixth and final installment, it had helped – briefly – restore drum ‘n bass to the avant-garde of electronic music, its influence spreading far beyond the 150 people who bought each record. Hidden Hawaii, the label that spawned the series, and which Felix had co-founded back in the late 90s, with two fellow Berliners who like to keep a low profile, was suddenly under the spotlight. Having spent years as an outsider trying to penetrate the closed world of drum ‘n bass, Felix was suddenly hot property, his superlative tracks ‘Recognition’ and ‘Ice’ getting signed to Doc Scott’s 31 Records. But by this time he was already beginning to take more of an interest in techno, especially as a fan and record-buyer, resulting in an interesting schism between the music he was DJing out and the music he was making himself.

His debut album, Flowers of Destruction, released earlier this month, explores and goes some way to resolving this tension: Felix himself has described it as a techno album at [drum ‘n bass tempo] 170bpm; but it’s more complicated than that. Serpentine, almost Skull Disco-esque steppers rub shoulders with deftly programmed tracks that feel, broadly speaking, like Metalheadz by way of Rhythm & Sound, while there are also several prolonged passages of oneiric, Isolationist ambience that variously recall Amber-era Autechre, Mick Harris’s dread-infused Lull project and the cold world landscapes of Porter Ricks – these beatless sequences aren’t just there to add balance and atmosphere, they’re among Felix’s most vibrant and vital creations, honed over the course of many years (and on singles like those that made up Hidden Hawaii’s 2011 Solaris Series).

FACT’s Peter Nix met up with Felix at Hard Wax in Berlin to talk about the genesis of Flowers of Destruction, his first teenage forays into production, the chequered history of Hidden Hawaii, and Berlin’s shifting relationship to drum ‘n bass.
 

“In Germany, as a German producer, doing a German drum ‘n bass label – it’s just not possible.”

 
Your recent releases are indelibly associated with Hard Wax, and you’re obviously a regular customer there. But back when you were younger, what was the record store, or stores, that fed your interest in drum ‘n’ bass?

I think the first record store I bought my records from was New Noise – it was the record store for drum ‘n bass and UK imports…they got all the new stuff. I got my first Certificate 18 records there…a lot of stuff.

So this was early-mid ’90s?

Yeah, exactly. New Noise was really an institution. When I first went there I was very young, and I was afraid of the people – first time in a record store with all these adults in it, you know?  I knew one of the clerks in the store though, from a radio show I used to listen to

Is radio how you heard this music for the first time?

Yeah..I don’t know where to start. There was the record store, and there was the radio show – on Kiss FM [not to be confused with the UK dance station of the same name]. At this time it was a DJ station with just DJs playing their records, no interruptions. The show was called Radio Massive. There were mainly two guys doing the show, Bassdee and Thaddeus Hermann – I got a lot of knowledge off them, I listened religiously. One day I went there to the studio, with a tape, and he played it loud on the radio, then I started to give him more tapes – first every eight weeks, then every four weeks, then two weeks…

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These were your own productions?

Yeah, they never came out. They were just played on the radio. I don’t have the tracks anymore, or even tapes of the radio shows; I don’t have any idea how they would sound now…maybe they were great, maybe they were shit, I really don’t know [laughs].

Presumably you were too young to be going clubbing at this point?

When I started to go out to drum ‘n bass clubs I was too young to get in, but I managed to get on the guestlist and then sometimes they’d make an exception and say OK, you can come in but be careful, don’t drink hard stuff or whatever…

What was the drum ‘n bass scene like in Berlin at this time? Was it a big thing, or was it just a tight-knit crew of people that was into it?

From my point of view drum ‘n bass really took over the city. This was a time where…people listened to music with a guitar and singers, and techno was big, and house; and I think drum ‘n bass came out of nowhere and it suddenly took over. Within two or three years, every big club had drum ‘n bass nights – not every one had a regular night, but many did. The WMF, for example. For us young kids it was the music. Some clubs played only reggae and drum ‘n bass, and we went there every week, even if just to be in front of the club. If we didn’t get in, we were happy just to hang out outside the club [laughs]. It was really something.

There were a lot of different styles represented. At this time there were the guys who liked the jump-up sound, and the guys who liked the Metalheadz sound, but there was room for both. Just hard to believe it was all 15 years ago [laughs]. I saw a YouTube video recently of Shy FX playing a club called WTF, in Berlin, and it’s half an hour long…it could be three years ago, but it’s from ’96 or ’97.

You had MTV and Viva and things too, so you had access to ‘Inner City Life’ and stuff like that, and sometimes there were shows playing more experimental, Warp Records-type stuff – some of which was kind of drum ‘n bass too, though not for the dancefloors. For us, it was the same. Germany also had some early drum ‘n bass movements – Position Chrome or Digital Hardcore, for example. They weren’t pioneers of drum ‘n bass, but there was some good stuff.

So was it mainly tracks from the UK that you heard on the radio and in the clubs?

Definitely. There were hardly any German drum ‘n bass records. There were some labels, as I said, and some distributors; but generally the German drum ‘n bass wasn’t as successful, so everyone looked to the UK and what was happening over there. Next to an Ed Rush or a Goldie or whoever, German producers didn’t do at all well [laughs].

How did you get into making drum ‘n bass yourself?

Going further back, to when I was 10, 11, 12 – I used to rent video games out of the video store. They also had CDs. They didn’t have any drum ‘n bass, because at this time there wasn’t any drum ‘n bass; so we would rent a video game for fun with a techno compilation, I don’t know, stuff like Westbam and some German big names…and other weirder stuff. You’d listen to this music, and sometimes they’d have breakbeats too. I mean, it would be a straight 4/4 beat, but sometimes they had some breakbeat-like elements – so when I first heard drum ‘n bass it sounded to me like this music, just without the four-to-the-floor kickdrum.

One day I got a computer and the first thing I did was install Cubase, get the sound card to work, and start to produce. A lot of it was simply the kind of music that kids make when they’re trying out new equipment; but I also made a lot of drum ‘n bass. I tried to reproduce the sounds I’d been hearing on the radio show and elsewhere, and I don’t know… if I listened to these tunes today, I wonder whether they were drum ‘n bass at all. But at the time I thought they were. [laughs]

When did you start DJIng?

I suppose when I got my first turntables and my records I started to try to train myself how to beatmatch and so on. Now [with a computer] it’s easy: I could teach someone else how to do it in two or three days. But back then it took me at least one year to make it happen. I think in 1997 I got my first gig as a DJ – underaged, of course – and I played a great Metalheadz-sounding set at a jump-up night.

You’ve already mentioned Metalheadz and Certificate 18. Were there any other labels or producers that you particularly admired and aspired to match with your own work?

I guess there were several tunes that I really liked…the first that comes to mind now is by Dom & Roland – ‘Prisms’, on 31. That was 1997, I think. I think I learned a lot from Source Direct and Photek. I think those records were just… they used so many different names, and only later did I discover that they were all by the same guys…[laughs].

Bassdee, the guy who worked at New Noise and who also did the radio show – he helped me to pick the right ones. When I came up to the counter with, I don’t know, some boring record that’s maybe great for one or two days, and then in the other hand, I don’t know, a Nasty Habits or something, he’d say, “Come on, take the Nasty Habits, forget the other one, you won’t need it. [laughs]

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How would you describe the drum ‘n bass scene, or the general attitudes towards the music, in Berlin today?

I think it’s still there. It’s not an industry. It maybe never was. It started to become one…but there was never the investors or the big money. Some guys are doing an amazing job with their nights – situated more in smaller clubs. It’s a network of nights, but with different crews, different views, and offering a big variety within drum ‘n bass. I was at a night recently where they put on Freddie Dixon (FD), and it was a hell of a set, it was really great. I was just there to dance for a few hours. So yeah, it’s still there. I don’t go out very much any more, but it’s still there.

Is there a record store that’s a present-day hub for drum ‘n bass?

Difficult. There’s no drum ‘n bass record store really. Of course there are some record stores where you can buy drum ‘n bass records, I think you have a certain selection you find at Hard Wax, you have a big selection at Spacehall, and you have also smaller record stores in Friedrichshain and even maybe Prenzlauer Berg where you can still get drum ‘n bass records.

So when you New Noise shut down, you started shopping at Hard Wax?

There was one record store in between. It was called Dig A Little Deeper. It was great – it was run by a woman named Dagmar who had moved from Cologne to Berlin, I think she worked at one of the biggest distributors before. She moved to Berlin and opened up this store and it was like the natural follow-up to the New Noise store, so the people from New Noise went there, and when she closed, I think I just went to Hard Wax, and that’s the end of the story… [laughs].

This was around 2006-7. I completely changed – I wasn’t finding much drum ‘n bass that I liked. I didn’t want to spend so much money on drum ‘n bass records anymore because it just wasn’t satisfying. I’d been hearing the same stuff for too long. And then… at Hard Wax you buy techno, but they also had a big dubstep selection, then they started to sell drum ‘n bass again. They have a strong pre-selection, they don’t take every label, but for me that works, they hit my taste and they have more than I can afford [laughs].
 

“I can’t make my living from music, and I probably don’t want to.”

Having been immersed in drum ‘n bass for so long, what made you gravitate towards techno? Not only as a listener, but as a producer and DJ. Was it simply boredom?”
 
I don’t know…I don’t follow a plan. It just happened somehow, I didn’t give it much thought. Maybe the influences changed a little. Although I liked some house and techno stuff, before, say, 2005, I wasn’t so open to it. Techno didn’t sound right to me, apart from some exceptions. I liked the stuff by Function or Regis, when I got to know it, because it’s not the kind of techno I heard when I grew up; it was different, there was something else to it. It wasn’t like the mid-90s German techno – I mean, do you know Marusha? She did techno that combines with singing elements? She had a remix of ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ [laughs], it was a big thing in Germany [laughs]. That was the idea of techno that I grew up with, and I didn’t know what real techno was, I had no access to it, it was a small hardcore scene. So when I first got into techno it was some Regis stuff, it sounded…different. I could live with it, it was…very good. [laughs]

Do you think of Hidden Hawaii as a drum ‘n bass label at heart?

I mean, Hidden Hawaii is supposed to be more an electronic label… we want to go away from being told “You are a drum ‘n bass label”, because that’s only part of the truth. Though it is part of the truth, yes. I think it’s also important for us that are roots are in drum ‘n bass and jungle. And maybe that’s more interesting than being just a techno label. Drum ‘n bass, or the speed, or something that has to do with drum ‘n bass, will always be there in what Hidden Hawaii does.

When did you start the label?

Ever since I started making music I wanted to do a label, of course. But in Germany, as a German producer, doing a German drum ‘n bass label – it’s just not possible. I mean, it is, but you have to know the distributor in person if you want to make it happen; otherwise you have no chance. We tried a couple of times in the past but it wasn’t really successful.

Then in 2008, we – Hidden Hawaii – started. It’s the two Philips – and me. One of them is also known as Wan.2. We were a DJ team for a long time and one day we decided to stop doing clubnights, because you just lose money, and in two years nobody remembers what you did. So we thought OK, let’s put the same effort, and the same money, into a record label. Let’s just do it, and even if it’s a digital label at first, you have something that keeps in the world. That’s how it started.

The QNS records were quite a breakthrough for you; it was towards the end of that series, the fifth or sixth 12”, that suddenly Hidden Hawaii became this much talked-about label…

Yeah, I was really surprised that there was feedback [laughs]. I think the first records that we did on Hidden Hawaii, they were all completely different – sometimes a 10″, sometimes a 12″, sometimes this design, sometimes that design – and it was because we’d never done records before. We didn’t quite know what we wanted or how to achieve it. And when we did the first record, it was quite an overwhelming experience.

Before we did it we were afraid to do it – you know, it’s so much money, then how do you find a distributor and reach anyone with the records? But anyway, we just went for it, and it was a learning process. One record – the Double O one – we had to do twice, because there were mistakes in the first pressing and we couldn’t sell it. That’s why there were only 100 – because that was all we could afford! I don’t think the pressing plant we used exists anymore, and we don’t have the mother plate, so we can’t do a re-press, so it will just be 100 forever. This was the way learned, a little bit more from each record we did.

I think the QNS series was the first thing we started with a concept. The vinyl had a certain colour, a grey-to-white, and we thought about a theme that we could put into the stamps, like a picture story, a small comic strip, and yeah… we did it. I think we made them all at once, we had all six of them at home; we went to Hard Wax, the distributor, and asked them, are you interested in doing them? We have 150 of each, except for the first one. Torsten [Pröfrock] there said OK, we’ll try it…

The rest is history.

When we were discussing the price we would get from him, we suggested a number, and he was like, “No, make it €1 more; I did the math and you lose money otherwise.” So we did, and it was great; because before Hard Wax we worked with another distributor and we never got paid, they lost half the records, it was all very strange. The fourth or fifth record of the QNS series, and Hard Wax: that’s when Hidden Hawaii really started.

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Are you the only one of the three label-owners to make music?

Yeah, the Phlilips don’t make music really, but then maybe that’s changing. One of the guys, Wan.2, has now finished his university thing and has a job and maybe some time, and he’s really into getting all the knowledge of how to make tunes. I think he’ll be one to look out for in the future. But up til now it’s just me, within the three label guys anyway.

Why did you decide to put together an album now?

I think it was two years ago that it came together. I already had this dilemma that as a DJ I was more into techno and four-to-the-floor stuff, but as a producer I was only just starting to get recognition for my drum ‘n bass tunes. It was strange: I wasn’t really buying drum ‘n bass records anymore but suddenly at this moment the people got to know my work. For 15 years I tried really hard, sent my tunes to big names in the drum ‘n bass business and never got an answer, and suddenly when I say to myself, fuck it, I’ll move on, then it appears that people are interested in my work [laughs].

In 200- you had a record come out on [Doc Scott’s label] 31 – that must’ve felt like acceptance…

Yeah, Doc Scott was the first big name who actually got back to me and said he really likes the tune, which of course made me really happy, because for – I don’t know, thousands of years – I’d been hoping for some kind of reaction [laughs]. When I moved on, it suddenly happened. I was in an awkward situation – I didn’t want to change now, because as an artist you do like it when people are into the stuff you do, but at the same time I felt I was developing as Felix K with the 12”s, and there was some sound I was driving towards, but it wasn’t very well-defined on the 12”s. And I thought, I need another medium to make the point.

I think that’s why I started to keep tracks, I didn’t send them around really, and started to work on them – in some cases for years. Some of the tracks on the album are 10 years old, but 10 years ago they didn’t sound like this. I felt I had to give some sense of of completion – you know, this is the idea was the tunes that came before, this was the project. I also had some tracks that didn’t really work on a 12”, ambient scapes and all the stuff I like to listen to, but were not really suitable for 12.

The album’s been finished for, I think, one year and two months; I didn’t speak about it, I didn’t listen to it a lot, then suddenly I listened to it again and thought OK, maybe that’s it, that’s the album.

Do you make your music at home? Do you work on it constantly?

I think I work on music maybe every month, one weekend, and everything at home.
 

“For 15 years I tried really hard…and suddenly when I say to myself, fuck it, I’ll move on, then it appears that people are interested in my work”

 
So you have a life outside of music then? 

I work on a lot of different things. Everyday stuff. I can’t make my living from music, and I probably don’t want to.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’ve not had much time to make music in the past year or so. I recently finished some tracks that are more in the realm of techno, traditional techno, for some friends; and there’s not been much time to make drum ‘n bass stuff at the moment. I think perhaps I’ll wait until the album’s out and then see what happens –  maybe I’ll start something completely new, I have no idea. I just wanted to use this [album] like a plot-point in a movie; to say OK, that’s a point, and where can I go from this? I don’t know. Maybe that was it! The end [laughs]. We have a lot of plans for the label, but for me as a producer things are quite vague.

In recent years Hidden Hawaii has been synonymous with a rarified way of doing things…limited runs, conceptual series, and so on. Is this likely to continue?

Yes it is. When you start doing a label you have to make a decision on whether or not you want to release a certain tune. And the decision is different from being a DJ and deciding what tunes you buy. As a DJ you play more dancefloor stuff, and you have to deliver something; as a label I think you have to be something more special. I mean, OK, you can start a label that’s just like another, and try to be, I don’t know, cheaper, or have better artwork, or more expensive remixers, or something, but that’s not the real deal. When you start to put out music you have different thoughts; you’re contributing to a bigger cultural thing. And when you think ahead to the next 10 years, will you be the guy who just released tons of dancefloor stuff that sounded like everything else? Or will you try to experiment?  Maybe you’ll lose everything after five years and no one will buy your records but at least you’ll have had five years where you delivered something special, some artifacts that are somehow more interesting in the history of the music, maybe. That sounds like quite a lofty point of view [laughs] but you know what I mean… you just don’t want to bore yourself.

Where did the title of the album, Flowers of Destruction, come from?

I thought about the title a year after the tracks were finished. I wanted to give it a name that’s not too, I don’t know, philosophical but also not too obvious. And now I think the title is too philosophical [laughs].

It’s a good title. It doesn’t sound like the title of a techno album.

At first I wanted to call it Flowers of Deconstruction, but that was a bit too metaphysical, so we decided OK, ‘destruction’ is a more accessible idea. I suppose it is a bit of a techy title, but i know what you mean, it’s a techno album but it’s not named after a machine or something…

Like everything I do – be it a tune, or a title, or an idea – I have to present it to the Philips, and they sit there and think about it. And they’re always like….hmmm…[strokes chin, angles head]. I mean, they gave me more freedom with the album because they know it’s quite a personal thing, and of course they trust me. They didn’t even see the artwork actually, they saw it for the first time when the records were delivered to my place last week. And they were like, ‘Oh, OK, that looks good…’

How do you feel about the current trends in house and techno music? There seems to be a particular fixation on retro Chicago house sounds… 

There are a lot of people who really hate everything that’s retro, and what’s happening to house at the moment. But i think it could be worse – I mean, it’s better to walk down the street and hear Chicago tunes coming from the boutiques rather than, I don’t know, something shit. [laughs]

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