Playhouse: An Interview With Ricardo Villalobos
Ricardo Villalobos is his own genre. Categories like minimal, techno, house or experimental are insufficient to describe the miraculous world of the German-Chilean DJ/producer whose genesis is connected to places like Frankfurt’s Dorian Gray, bands like Depeche Mode and the very first techno records from Detroit. Villalobos’s career is intertwined with the rise of labels like Playhouse and Perlon, clicks and cuts, modular systems, club tool tracks and loops versus avant-garde jazz, samba magic paired with low frequency control and an inseparable kick drum. His often marathon-like DJ sets at clubs like Robert Johnson in Offenbach or London’s Fabric are the stuff of legend. RBMA team member Gerd Janson spoke with Villalobos in advance of his ten year anniversary at fabric on November 24th.
We talked about your initiation points…
We moved from Chile when I was three years old. I was born in Chile and moved to Germany, and my parents were listening to South American music all the time in the kitchen and the living room, and I was listening to it. And then later, they always brought me to the South American concerts. And they were friends with the promoter, so we were at aftershow parties, like at the house of the promoter. And long, whole night sessions of percussion, especially – which was the easiest to approach. I learned that if they bring the percussion instruments and the voice, that this is enough to have a party the whole night. Then at ten, I started to play percussion, too. That means I could participate in these sessions, also. And one of them gave me a little conga, and the different musicians were leaving me some percussion instruments.
And then, of course when I was ten/11, I was a big Kiss fan, but then I switched a little bit more to wave music and the early post-disco music, early electronic disco music, which we named house now. There were these mixtapes from older DJs and things like that, and I started to make mixtapes, too, and sell them in school to buy records when I was 12 or something like that. When I was 15, they asked me if I could play at the school party, and this was my first moment when I started to DJ.
And at 18 I was going to Darmstadt, which is [close to] Frankfurt and my hometown, and I started to play at a discotheque there at 18. And of course, I finished school, and I started to study. At 23, 24 I quit my studies and became a DJ, and tried to afford to live out of it. And also producing: at 17, I started to make the first Depeche Mode-like pop music – a little bit – from tape to tape, mixing the voice and mixing the bassline, and all hand-played with a Roland drum machine and a synthesizer, a SH101. They were synchronised. With that, I was doing something like pop music.
The motivation of doing music is an emotional motivation. It’s an emotional intelligence caused by these sensations.
Were you singing?
Also, yeah. I was singing, but the lyrics were quite ridiculous. But I have a friend now, an English friend, who is helping me to make the lyrics better and I will re-record this, perhaps, also. And it’s nice, but very innocent, in a way.
Would you say innocence is important for you?
Yeah, I think for me, since I started until now, nothing changed, really. I have the same innocence approaching music, because for me, music is something; you collect sensations, emotional reactions to the music. And it has nothing to do with an intellectual process with thinking in itself. It’s a language, like something is talking to you and approaching you, and in one moment you have an emotional reaction to that. And when you’re listening to some other music, this emotional remembrance is coming back.
But it’s nothing beyond all intellectual processes, it’s something, yeah, innocent. It’s something completely, perhaps, observed by your subconsciousness, but it’s an emotional reaction happening. And also the motivation of doing music is an emotional motivation. It’s an emotional intelligence caused by these sensations. That’s for me, music and all what I do is a completely unserious thing, completely innocent approach. The more you think about music, the more complicated it is becoming. The more you write about music – as a writer, you are helping the music as an infrastructure to approach people, but music speaks for itself, and I think if you have something to write about music to help the people to understand the music, then it’s good. But if you have something bad to write about music, you shouldn’t do it. I think music doesn’t need any other infrastructure, normally, but I think it’s not necessary to have an intellectual approach to music. Then it’s getting complicated, then you start to decide if it’s good or bad music, and things like that.
And I think music is a language, like someone talking to you, and I prefer a clear, understandable, calm voice as music. For example, in classic music, I don’t like fortissimos in recordings because it’s too much information. Or like big bands in jazz, for example, I prefer little trios or four musicians. When it’s a clear, understandable voice with all necessary components and frequencies which are necessary for the music. And nothing more than this. Of course, I like rock music and techno music, music which is transporting also aggression. And, of course, I like sometimes screaming on dancefloors and having a conversation and screaming loud, but not for a long time. And this is the music I do, also.
I prefer music which you can listen to it, you can dance to it, but it’s not forcing you. This is also what’s happening when someone is telling a joke. As DJ, for example, you are in front of completely unprepared or prepared people, or a mixture between cultivated and uncultivated persons, but you always have to convince them. It’s like the guy who’s telling the joke, he is coming into a room and he is telling a joke and the people laugh or they are not laughing. If they are not laughing, perhaps someone else should tell the joke, but it’s a natural given order of who is telling the joke. And it’s always the guy who has the biggest collection of jokes in his mind. And he has the biggest experience of telling the jokes. I think with music, it’s like that. It has to be, it’s a language, and it has to be clearly understandable and not aggressive. Not too calm, of course, but it’s something like that. It doesn’t need anything else. [laughs]
So, is this still how you also approach your DJ sets?
Yes, absolutely. For me, the DJ sets or being here in the studio is more or less the same situation. And it has to be a completely emotional, free of every thought situation. Then, if I start to think about my next record as DJ, these thoughts have to be very short or better not happen. And it has to be a completely innocent, emotional approach to the DJ set.
But this is, of course, not happening every time. Sometimes, you are under pressure, or someone is telling you, “No, you have to rock the house,” or things like that, and then you are really under pressure. And people under pressure don’t work properly. Humans or animals under pressure are getting into a stressful situation, and then they’re becoming not good artists, not good hunters or not good lovers, whatever you do.
It’s better to be guarded by the subconscious, and the conscious is like a little old friend who is always criticising, always telling you not very elaborated thoughts, not very intelligent thoughts. And so I really believe and trust much more my subconscious and information recorded in my subconscious, and then my spontaneous conscious decisions and information are always not very reliable, I have to say. And then, of course, with this approach to music, for me, it’s like a game. It’s not a job, it’s the same approach I had as a child and it doesn’t have to do anything with money or anything like that. It’s really like a situation of joy.
With this approach to music, for me, it’s like a game. It’s really like a situation of joy.
And would you say your way of working on music has changed with your tools over the years?
Yes, well, since the beginning of the 80s we are listening to drum machines instead of drummers and listening to synthesizer basslines instead of real bass players. And there was a definition in frequencies. Of course, I like and prefer some frequencies, like the bass drum frequencies, and the difference from before to now is I have the tools to create, or I know better the tools to create these frequencies I like. This is the only difference. I know how to work, to handle a drum machine and create this and this frequency, and how to mix it and this and that. But it’s only to like it at the end, and if I don’t like it, I’m not recording it. But this is the only difference, that I have a better approach to generate frequencies.
Something like Alcachofa, your album debut [on Playhouse in 2003], is very different to your latest one on Perlon. So, there’s definitely a journey.
Yeah, of course. Like if you listen to the second album and the album now, the two albums on Perlon are a little more the same approach – an approach in soundscapes and frequencies. And to try out the combination of frequencies and put it together to a danceable construction, or listenable construction, without having necessarily the obvious elements Alcachofa had.
But Alcachofa was my first album, and it was also like this album, a collection of just recorded sessions in the studio. You’re recording sessions and later you are editing the things. In the initial, for the first album, you’re always influenced by other people, and you are asking many other people – the girls, especially. I think that the selection of what is coming on an album is something you share with as many people as possible. Then the album is formed by the opinion of many, many people.
My wife, for example, she heard “Easy Lee” for years, and she said, “But there is something missing, so I have to come with you to the studio and we have to put the bassline.” “Really?” “Yes.” “Okay.” And then she came with me to the studio, and she’s a girl and has a completely different approach or sensation, I don’t know, and she made me make a melody bassline, which is more or less not really my style. And it’s often, for me, considered as cheesy, but she gave me this impulse and it was perfect for “Easy Lee” to have this bassline coming after one-third of the track. Without the influence of my wife, it would have been without the bassline. It would have have been only the drums and the voice, you know. So, I think it’s important to be influenced and to have the opinion of the people you really consider as important, and you are influenced from also.
So, you need a community.
Always. To take decisions by your own is something very complicated. I think you are never wrong when you are taking a collective decision, which is made by many people.
And after all of these years of playing in clubs and raves, what keeps you inspired in those situations?
For me, the development of the whole thing, many people are asking me if it’s really motivating me still. And I have to say, of course it’s motivating me still. The reasons why I’m doing it are still there. You still have the music, you still have the rhythm, you have the guarantee for having transmitted very low and loud frequencies and the room. You still have people coming together and doing something because of the same reason, because of the same language, because of the music. And having people together, be with your friends and having a good party, for me, is the biggest target in what I’m doing. And this is still happening. So, for me, the motivation is as fresh as at the beginning. Otherwise, I couldn’t do this job. It’s a very, very exhausting thing.
For me, having a family and being here as a producer, and being in the clubs scene – from outside, someone is saying, “How are you doing it?” And for me, it’s fun. It’s absolutely an emotional motivation which is making you the biggest efforts in life without even noticing it. And this is what’s happening. And when someone is reminding you, “You’re taking too many drugs, you are not sleeping, you are blah blah blah,” and this, you are, “But I’m having the best time of my life all the time, and this is absolutely no problem.” It’s the motivation of a little kid who is playing in the sand and for hours and hours or playing soccer for ten hours with other kids. And you are asking, from where is the person taking their energy? It’s because of emotional motivation.
So, you would say it’s a direct translation from the percussion session to kitchen parties with your parents to Boo Williams playing in your basement?
[laughs] Yeah, we had like this. My parents were absolutely up for it, for letting me make parties in the basement, so we had really amazing people, like Carl Craig was 22 years old, playing for 12 hours on his first ecstasy. [laughs] No, it was not his first ecstasy, but he’s a calm guy, really. [laughs] But this moment, it was amazing. We had so much fun, but we still have so much fun. We still have wonderful situations. We still have the friends after it, since 20 years, we still like having them play, still doing it since 20 years. And it’s getting better and better. The more music we have collected, experienced, the better the surprise it is to listen to it, after 15 years, “Yeah! I know this record,” and you are sitting all together listening to this record, it’s amazing. And this is what’s still happening. And as long as you are still playing the music you like when you are doing it, then you can’t go wrong. Going on, and it doesn’t matter if it’s two hours or three hours or five or 20 hours playing.
And how hard is it not to change that? Because you mentioned pressure?
It’s hard to protect this world. It’s hard for me to guarantee my three days here in this studio, besides being a father and things like that. For me, it’s hard to justify that I’m not only partying. That I’m working. Like I’m bringing money home, my wife is asking me that, “But you’re always only partying,” but it’s not true. It’s part of my work. It’s hard to defend it, and there is the normal, bourgeois form of life – you are getting older, you have to have kids, and then you have to be a reliable person, a responsible person. And what we do is to be as irresponsible as possible, so it’s hard to protect this irresponsibility. [laughs]
I always find it on the one hand surprising, on the other I think, now it should be enough, but finding music to play at clubs.
Well, the club music, the house music, as a definition of what we play is in all forms of directions, is something which is based on certain frequencies. Based on certain codes, which didn’t change for thousands of years, I would say. The rhythmical codes, the rhythmical formulas didn’t change for thousands of years, and there was never the point where someone was saying, “OK, we already have done it, let’s stop and do something else.” The rhythmical formulas are going on since millions of years, and if you see this as a base, as the ground of the whole thing, the ground construction, I would say that it’s impossible to get bored of it. It’s impossible to think, “This is old, we should do something new.” It’s always based on a static rhythmical construction. What happens in between is something else, but it has to be static rhythmic construction you can dance to.
You can recognise, and four to the floor is quite practical, it’s quite easy to understand. And also the trio things, the fast waltz rhythms, I think the people are not prepared for that yet, but also the Arab music, with 5/4ths or 7/4ths or 7/8ths or 6/8ths or 9/7ths or something, their culture is already developed in this direction, so they can dance to it. Our European culture is not able to dance to it. But for millions of years, we have this four/four rhythms, or 6/8ths rhythms, which are a little bit more developed, but also very danceable, and it will never stop to exist. And it never stopped to exist in the past. And so this is the motivation all the time.
And what’s surrounding this rhythm is our remembrance – the different melodies, this synthesizer, this voice coming. And if you’re not listening to a track for ten years, and you’re listening to it again, it’s a treasure of emotions coming in this moment, when you’re listening to it again. So, for me, this will never stop. Especially if you have a big record collection like you or like me, or like many of our friends, to rediscover tracks is the most beautiful thing in the world. And it’s like, yeah, I think it will never stop.
From the SH101 to a modular system...
No, well the modular system is a big SH101. You have the oscillator, then you have the envelopes, the filters – this is what a modular system is also doing. It’s like you have the different modules, and you have the modulators, who are modulating the envelopes, or the filters, or the tuning of the oscillator, and then you put one thing into another. And the modular system is only that you have the possibility to have different oscillators, different LFOs, modulators and different filters and envelopes. But it’s the same idea, it’s the same thing. And it’s like playing with the train, but for grown-ups. Playing with this model train. But it’s really like a big game for grown-ups. Connect and see what’s coming out. And it’s the best thing you can do instead of going [with an] intellectual approach, to have an intellectual approach to modular, is just to approach it, without even thinking about it, and see what comes out. So, for me, the best thing is to stay as innocent as possible. Well, of course, try to be not disappointed in life. Try to get a level where nothing can disappoint you anymore. [laughs] And this is what children are doing with innocence. You don’t have to learn as much as possible. You have to forget as much as possible, perhaps. [laughs]