Interview: Monolake on the Importance of Making Mistakes

As a founding member of Berlin duo Monolake alongside Gerhard Behles, Robert Henke has been shaping the off-worlds of dub, techno and surround sound ambience since 1996. Across a revered discography, Henke has pushed a sound that is as forward-thinking as it is body-shaking. He’s perhaps better known, however, as the co-founder of audio software Ableton Live – a program that helps producers record, perform and sequence their ideas in a non-linear way.  

A restless thinker and tinkerer, Henke is no longer involved with the company, but life has been no less busy. In 2003 Henke designed the Monodeck MIDI controller, a device that allows him the freedom to perform his music outside of the traditional laptop and mouse combination. As a professor of Sound Design, meanwhile, Henke teaches and lectures about audio engineering and synthesis at schools around the globe. Meanwhile, his works as Monolake continues: His latest project is Lumière, an audio-visual performance that pairs music and laser projections. In this edited and condensed version of his recent interview with RBMA Radio, he takes us through his lengthy discography.

Robert Henke - Piercing Music (1993)

“Piercing Music” came to life as a sound installation where I just used transformed water sounds. The problem with installations is you spend a lot of time on things, then you show it for two weeks and then it’s done. I decided to record the installation just to have documentation for myself.

It just happened that at this time a friend of mine decided to get several piercings in a more ritualistic situation, because at this time, this was not the thing everyone did. He wanted to have this recording as background music for this ritual, and I said, “Yeah, sure, why not?” Afterwards I got a few comments from people saying, “Hey, what kind of strange music is this? We liked it.” On the way back I thought maybe I should make a CD out of the music, and sell it in fetish shops and stuff like that.

I like parts of a more gothic culture and style of living. I’m dressed in black, I have piercings, I have a few tattoos.

The sound itself is not piercing at all. It’s just very calm, but there are some irritating moments in there, some tiny little sharp edges; especially when I transposed the water samples up so it then can be like a mix of water and fire, electrical discharges and things like that. The idea was just to create an interesting dark background; more in the tradition of droney industrial music than anything else.

I like parts of a more gothic culture and style of living. I’m dressed in black, I have piercings, I have a few tattoos. All things which in the year 2014 are like a big yawn. But if you consider the same thing in the really early 1990s, it was still a big thing. I went to San Francisco and was blown away by the amount of people with body modifications and piercings I saw there and I immediately decided, “Okay, I need to explore this world further by myself.”

Helical Scan - Index I (1996)

Monolake was a duo project at the beginning, and since I did the Helical Scan stuff by myself, I just decided to give it a different project name. This was the time when everyone had tons of pseudonyms. Not a lot of thought went into creating this alias. I just decided, here are two tracks which I would like to release, and it can’t be Monolake because it has been done without Gerhard (Behles).

Every single time I listen to my own music, I find it highly embarrassing.

I think at that time I still was very much driven by straight bass drums and Gerhard was already departing more towards breakbeats and drum & bass. Whenever Gerhard was programming a beat, it had a tendency to become more broken. My beats had a tendency to be more straight at this time, which nowadays is not true anymore.

I made them either on a Friday or Saturday night, and half-an-hour after it was recorded, I already heard it in a club. This was pretty much how the scene worked at this time. This was very beautiful, to have this immediate comparison between doing something at home quietly (because it was at night) and then going to the club and listening to it loud. Every single time I listen to my own music, I find it highly embarrassing. There are always elements which are wrong: too loud, not loud enough, too short, too long. As a matter of fact I find it really difficult to listen to my music when somewhere else. I have a tendency to see more problems than anything else.

Monolake - Cyan (1996)

“Cyan” was the very first Monolake track ever. In retrospect, what’s funny about it is the complete innocence we had. A lot of things in this track are wrong by any kind of normative standards of the club police. It started with the fact that we didn’t have any of the classic drum computers. Partly because I didn’t have money, partly because I felt that creating my own drum sounds was more interesting and partly also because I didn’t understand why it could be cool to use a drum computer. I have a computer and I have synthesizers, so I can do all the things by myself.

A lot of things in this track are wrong by any kind of normative standards of the club police.

As a matter of fact, when I finally for the first time discovered those sounds, I was completely blown away. I thought, now I know why everyone is using them; that’s really cool. But this was embarrassingly late. The drums on “Cyan” are just a strange synthesis of things we did. That’s why everything sounds so odd but at the same time it sounds in retrospect, nicely odd because it sounds very unique. For instance, there is a bassline in it, kind of a humming bass line going “mmm”; that’s just a mosquito flying by the microphone that we just slowed down a lot. Then there is a recording of birds and crickets in the forest. Then there is the Juno 6, which is where Gerhard was playing the arpeggio. But it was not synced, so the tempo of the arpeggio is kind of manually trying to match the tempo of the rest, which creates this kind of interesting tension.

All the things, which in retrospect, are unique and beautiful and special about this track are actually the result of technical shortcomings and complete inexperience. To me, this is something always to remember.

Monolake - Tangent I (1999)

The reason why I like this track is that it’s a massive FM synthesis fest. Every single drum sound there comes from an FM synthesizer. I think this is one of the tracks where I’m really still very, very happy with it. Interstate was a clear departure from the more Chain Reaction-focused aesthetics to something more breakbeat, drum & bass. “Tangent I” is an example of something which is more on the techno side of things, but I think the overall sound aesthetics of this album already point towards a different sonic landscape.

For us, it was an interesting time of departure from old things towards new things. It’s a bit of an irony, then, that this was also the last album which I did with Gerhard, because this was also the time where the Ableton story began. It was very clear that Gerhard and his role as the CEO and driving force behind the company, would not have time anymore for making music.

Monolake - Static (2001)

Gravity, the album this track is on, was a tough fight because it put me in the position of suddenly being responsible for the music by myself. I found Gerhard’s contribution in the past extremely important and, at the same time, I decided that I didn’t want to have the Monolake project die.

I thought, “Okay, I have no idea how, but I’m going to transform this project into my solo project and it has to work out. There is just no other option.” On Gravity, there are a few tracks where Gerhard contributed but on most of the tracks he didn’t. I was very, very insecure at this time. At points, even devastated about my future as a composer or music producer because I couldn’t imagine doing all these things alone.

Very often the meaning of things only shines through much later.

I just, step-by-step, gained confidence. It’s a general feeling that I’m skeptical, I’m shy, I’m insecure. Let’s put it this way, I know what I’m good at, I know my strengths, but I also know the things I’m not so good at. I have a tendency to be more worried about the things I’m not good at.

In a funny way, those categories seem to change. Musically I feel that what I can always do is create an atmosphere. Creating sounds which are more than just reverb. Sounds which have character. I’m very good at communicating with my synthesizers. At the beginning of the Monolake project, I was very happy that Gerhard took care of the rhythmical sound mostly and I could focus on the sound design. In a way, I always felt that I’m not good when it comes to rhythm. The funny thing is that I still think this is true, but a lot of people tell me, “Actually what you’re doing rhythmically is quite cool and is quite interesting.”

Very often the meaning of things only shines through much later. I listen to a song five, ten years later and think, “Oh, actually this part where I was so full of doubt is actually really good and this part, which I was raving about, isn’t.”

Monolake - Cern (2003)

I think the most remarkable track for me on Momentum is “Cern,” which is a typical example of a track which I reworked forever. It started as a remix for another artist, then I changed the tempo, then I threw out all the original material from the other artist. Cern is named for the Conseil Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire in Geneva because I’m totally fascinated by technology, research and science. I come from an engineering background and I like to understand how the world works.

Usually my track names are associations. Every single track name means something to me and sometimes the connection is obvious, sometimes the connection is really hidden, sometimes it doesn’t matter. Some track names are not so strong as others, but I felt that this track had this kind of interesting futuristic feeling and it also had power. If you think about a particle accelerator, that’s about power. You throw a lot of energy for a few seconds in such a machine in order to get those super small particles to accelerate to enormous speeds. For me, “Cern,” just radiates the power of operating this large machine.

Robert Henke – Layer 001 (2006)

I got much more streamlined in the last few years. Nowadays it’s just all individual tracks. I take great care in keeping everything separated so that I can – at a later stage – do a different mix or remix. It’s much more bureaucratic in a good way, because I finally feel I’m in control of my material.

Layering Buddha was made with a very different process. The story behind Layering Buddha is, I went to Mutek and there were these two guys showing these little toys with a built-in speaker. They played back these really lo-fi loops of their own music. I was immediately intrigued about the lo-fi sound quality. The grittiness sounded really appealing to me. I also immediately noticed that if you played the same loops in two machines at different speeds, you get all these kinds of fancy chorusing effects and overlays. I saw this fantastic contradiction between the low quality approach on one side and the incredible richness, the low quality creates. I think probably after five minutes of playing with those machines, I told Christian, one of the guys, “You know what. I’m going to do a remix CD.”

It freed me up because it offered a sound aesthetic, which was so far away from what I was doing usually. As a matter of fact, the process and techniques that I developed for Layering Buddha are something that I am still using today.

Monolake - Silence (2009)

Most of the time, things grow simultaneously. I work on music, I get visual ideas for the artwork and something a theme forms by itself. It’s not that I put a mark on my board and say, “OK: Silence,” then I make bullet points and then start working. I had this concept, which I took from Silence over to Ghosts, of an album which is a window into a larger story and where the larger story is hidden, discoverable with just a few hints to it.

There are hints in the music itself. Hints in the additional text which is there. It includes a short excerpt of something, which seems to be some kind of sci-fi story. With the story, it’s the same as with the music: I try to create an atmosphere. To me, Silence is a very successful attempt to create an album where there’s a color shining through and a certain atmosphere which points beyond the music. A film without being a film.

Monolake - Phenomenon (2012)

I think the most difficult question to ask an artist is: Can we get better? What is good art in general? There is of course a transformation process driven by experience. By being exposed to different types of art, as you grow older. But at the same time there’s also a loss of innocence.

You need to allow yourself to make mistakes.

If I had known how many computer music records were dealing with the topic of water, I would never have even started doing “Piercing Music.” I just had no idea. So, not knowing about what happens outside your little world is very helpful when creating art. On the other hand, knowing about what has been done in the past, or what is done currently, is also inspiring.

The best thing that can happen is that the transformation keeps it interesting. So it doesn’t feel like I’m stuck in a loop and there is just one idea at the beginning and nothing else anymore. That’s all you can ask for. Getting better at the details, and trying to stay curious and develop new things.

A really big factor is that you need to allow yourself to make mistakes. Because that’s the only way to figure out something new. When I started, I made a lot of mistakes because I had no idea. At some point you have lots of ideas and lots of knowledge and you become really careful to avoid the mistakes. Like: “Ah, no. Wrong tempo, DJs don’t play this.” Or: “Ah, no, wrong key. Too long, too short.” You put all these constraints on yourself, which are the result of experience. At the same time, those restraints can keep you from exploring something new.

The cool aspect of it is that I feel I’m just opening a very small door towards something potentially much larger.

So how can you manage, after more than 20 years, to keep making mistakes? I guess actually collaborating with other people is a helpful thing in this regard, because suddenly you’re confronted with a different working style, with a different set of challenges. The funny thing is that currently I feel that there’s enough to discover within myself again, that I don’t feel the need to collaborate. I take a lot of risks currently, with my laser project, which turned out to be much, much more work than I thought. I was very naïve when I started it, in a way.

The cool aspect of it is that I feel I’m just opening a very small door towards something potentially much larger. I built this framework technically which allows me to do really cool stuff. My intention for the next few years is actually to work within this framework and figure out what I can do. I don’t know yet, but I have a strong belief that there’s a lot to discover which I have no clue about yet.

The discovery is not in a technical sense but aesthetic discoveries. What can I actually do with what I created there? Which shapes can I come up with? How can I synchronize those shapes? What kinds of musical structure? What kind of dialog can happen?

By Red Bull Music Academy on February 24, 2014