A Guide to Atom™

May 26, 2015

Uwe Schmidt – also known as Lassigue Bendthaus, Atom Heart, Atom™, and literally dozens of other pseudonyms – has been producing music at a breakneck pace since his first album was released in 1991. Schmidt is one of electronic music’s most prolific and idiosyncratic producers, releasing at least one album per month (not counting singles and EPs) for most of the 1990s, each record sounding completely unlike the next. He’s dabbled in almost every sub-genre of electronic music imaginable, and has invented a few of his own.

Having been an avid fan of Schmidt’s music since the ’90s, I have on various occasions attempted to introduce his music to others. Each time I’m met with the following response: “Where do I even begin?” This interview is an attempt to answer that question – I selected 12 albums from Schmidt’s discography, across many styles and genres, all of which are standouts in different ways, and chatted with Schmidt about how they came to be. In so doing, he revealed much about his working processes and also about why he is such a singular producer.

Lassigue Bendthaus - Matter (1991)

Lassigue Bendthaus - Automotive

Where did the name Lassigue Bendthaus come from?

That was an amalgamation, I think, from different sources. I just liked the sound and the look of it. I don’t remember where it came from. The whole project took a very long time to manifest. That album in particular took a very long time to make; I didn’t have a lot of equipment, or a studio, so we had to find somebody to produce it, to finance it. It took me three years or so to make it.

When did you first start making music?

Well, I started to play drums when I was around 14, I think. I never had the plan to make music, it was just a hobby. Then I heard a drum machine on the radio, and I was really impressed. I sold the drum kit, bought a little drum machine. Eventually, I met some people who were already making music. That was more or less when it started to come together. But I really never had the plan to make an album, or record music. That was an idea a friend of mine had. He listened to some demos of mine, and said we should record it.

Is this how you started recording Matter? It just came together?

Yeah, exactly. I was recording cassettes at first. Recording ideas, making a cassette album. Then this friend of mine said we should record those tracks professionally. I had no idea about any of that. Because there was no budget and no concrete plan, it took a really long time to do it. After Matter came out, it worked really well for the record company, and at that moment in Frankfurt, it was a really exciting time, when techno [in Frankfurt] started. At that time, it was quite easy to have music released, because there was a lot of energy and people interested in the scene. I was at the right place at the right time, I think.

Other kinds of music had happened – acid house, techno – so when Matter was released, I was already somewhere else mentally.

When you were making this record, were you listening to lots of EBM?

Yes, actually. Up until this point, around 15 or so, I was listening to the radio, mostly. There was only commercial radio. So my musical input, until that point, was very commercial, but always on the electronic side. Then these new friends I made were coming from a more alternative school and were listening to electronic underground music, like EBM or post-industrial. Until this point, I hadn’t realized there was something like an underground at all. It was like a revelation for me. When Matter was about to be finished, other kinds of music had happened – acid house, techno, so when that album was released, I was already somewhere else mentally, much more interested in techno.

It has almost an ’80s pop sort of feel to it. Once you had finished Matter, what did you think afterward? What did you think when it was released?

I learned a lot, in terms of technique, mixing, everything. And from the little bit of money I made off Matter, I started to buy equipment, and borrowed equipment from friends, and started to develop a working routine. I tried to make it a daily activity, which wasn’t the case before. I was working at a record shop back then, one of the first techno record shops in Frankfurt. Another guy at the record shop was working on a small label, and he could release everything I was interested in, everything I was doing. So that’s where it all started to flow for me.

Datacide ‎– Datacide II (1994)

Datacide - Head Dance

Datacide is you and Tetsu Inoue. When did you start working with him?

Tetsu’s wife is Austrian, and I think that may have been the connection. I was making music with his friends from Austria, and one day I was recording with them, and asked if I could bring a friend over. We got along really well. He lived in New York back then, and at some point I stayed a week with him in New York, and recorded the first Datacide album. The second, we recorded in Frankfurt, I think.

The first Datacide album was pretty much hard techno. What made you switch into the ambient zone so completely?

Tetsu has never been a techno guy, I would say. It was very intuitive to make this first album. And as time progressed, I lost a bit of interest in techno and acid and that kind of stuff. Tetsu had always been more interested in ambient music, psychedelic music. His background has always been different from mine. We also started working with Pete Namlook at that point, and there was a little shift in my personal interest in music, and also within electronic music; the whole spectrum kind of opened up and different styles appeared. I think everybody got a little tired of hard techno and acid and that kind of stuff.

What were you thinking about when you made it? It’s a very psychedelic album.

I don’t know if we were thinking much, actually. Working with Tetsu was very intuitive, very quick. With almost everyone I have collaborated with, the interesting moment comes when you meet, you’re resonating, you’re in the same zone, and you don’t have to talk about anything. It’s obvious what you’re both going to do, and with Tetsu, it was always like that.

How did your recording process work? One of you would develop a sketch, and you’d play off that, and build?

Technically, we were still quite limited in the studio, very far from what you can do nowadays. We had lots of machines, but no multitrack recorder, no editing abilities. So what we had to do was lay out ideas and then basically play them, improvise them, and jam them, and record them onto stereo DAT. Usually we’d do one or two or three takes, and that was it. No possibility to edit or change it.

+N - ex.s (1993)

+N - Heidegger

This is a really interesting album because it was one of your first really experimental works. Working with Cosey Fanni Tutti and Chris Carter, right?

Yes. That project was a project with Victor Sol, a friend of mine from the early Frankfurt industrial days. The experimental side basically came from him. When I make music with somebody, I’m always interested in absorbing other ideas from people. I’m not very rigid with my ideas. He had just sent a letter to Chris & Cosey – way before the internet, before the days when you could just go to a website and get in touch – and they were interested in collaborating. We sent them some demos we had, some outlines, and they recorded stuff on top and we mixed it together.

On this album there’s a lot of short tracks. Were those quick sketches, or, did you divide the tracks arbitrarily?

I think you’re referring to the tracks which have names of philosophers. That was a kind of joke, I think. We were basically jamming for weeks. That album – it’s quite long, almost 80 minutes – we had ten times that amount of material. At some point, Victor came up with an idea to make small sketches of short ideas, and to name them after philosophers. But they were all made like that, they’re not excerpts.

Atom Heart ‎– Morphogenetic Fields (1994)

Atom Heart - Milagro

You started out recording quite a few techno albums, and then started making ambient and experimental, and then started coming back to techno from a different angle.

Looking back, I would define my development a bit differently. I was still interested in techno, but I was getting bored with the scene. Between ‘92 and ‘94, everything I released was still kind of techno, but already moving toward something else. But I didn’t have the infrastructure to really detach myself. Morphogenetic Fields was the last album I released on an external label, before I started Rather Interesting [a Fax Records sub-label dedicated exclusively to Schmidt’s work].

There was always feedback you’d get from the record company about what to do or what not to do, and that influenced me to a certain degree. I was, at that point, interested in things that had less to do with techno. I felt very limited by the dancefloor as the decisive parameter for my music. Morphogenetic Fields was kind of an in-between. I had to deal with record companies, to please them to a certain degree, but I didn’t really want to, at the same time. I wouldn’t say it was a compromise or anything – it was intuitive and I wanted to make it [the way I made it] – but it reflected the limbo state I was in.

So this album was about a shift for you.

Yes. I never made an album, or anything else, that was a compromise involving what a record company wanted me to do. Maybe there were internal, personal compromises happening that I didn’t know about. [laughs]

So how did Rather Interesting start? You were working with Pete Namlook?

Yeah. I had recorded a lot with Pete for [Fax Records], and we were following each other a bit, looking at each other’s work. He realized I was really creative, and had the “administrative power” to get things done, that I was focused and reliable. He was a really strict and rigid person.

He wouldn’t work with someone he couldn’t rely on. If he told you he needed a master on the 2nd of August, you had to have it. At that time, there were loads of creative people who were really crazy as well. You just couldn’t work with them, they were totally all over the place.

When we started Rather Interesting, I was basically producing one album per month.

When he saw everything I was working on – I offered him one album, then another – he saw that I produced more than I could actually release. So he said, “Let’s make a label together and you can release anything you want – I won’t give you orders.” He outlined the business side of it and he basically gave me free reign, with templates and a timeline. That was really liberating, something I really appreciated.

On a practical level, it was difficult, it was demanding. When we started Rather Interesting, I was basically producing one album per month – in addition to all these other projects I was doing, like maybe two or three 12-inches somewhere else at the same time. But I could do that. I was doing nothing else at the time. It was really important for him that he could rely on my output. Because I was making so much music, it pulled me into a production flow, where I got up in the morning and I was making music, and in the evening [that track] was finished. I did this for a couple of years, you know.

So music was every single moment.

Yeah. I did very, very few other things. [laughs]

That’s an interesting relationship that you had. It sounds like a symbiotic relationship.

With all the people I’ve worked with over the past 20 or 25 years, Pete was one of the very few, perhaps the only person I had total trust in. With everything he was doing, I didn’t question any of it. And I think on the musical level, it was the same for him [with me].

Jet Chamber ‎- Jet Chamber III (1997)

Jet Chamber - Rub Out

You and Pete made five Jet Chamber albums. But my favorite is the third one. It’s an interesting album to me because it has a lot of drum & bass elements and a lot of jazz elements. I imagine the jazz stuff came from Pete.

I don’t quite remember. These albums, we recorded them at Pete’s place. And like I said, he was a very rigid guy. So the way we recorded – it had to be his way. I’d come with my stuff over to his studio, and he’d ask me to prepare something while he did something else. I’d lay out rhythms and sequences, and he’d say, “Yeah, I like this, or that, let’s use those.” Then we’d jam on top of those sketches for a couple hours, and at some point, he’d say, “Let’s record it.” Everything was jammed. He was very interested in improvisation; he wasn’t quite interested in editing or refining. I had to insist on that a lot. He had me do all of that in the end.

Masters Of Psychedelic Ambiance ‎- Mu (1995)

Masters Of Psychedelic Ambiance - Sequence Gardening

I feel like this is one of your most spiritual albums. Where did the concept come from?

Normally “concept” refers to something abstract, but that was not how it was when I worked with Tetsu. Tetsu would say, “I am tired of music with reverb. Let’s do something dry. Something that’s not voluptuous, that doesn’t have pathos. Let’s do something dry, more abstract, more trippy.”

We are both very interested in psychedelics in general, and had listened to a lot of music from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and were very inspired by psychedelic musical ideas. So we became very interested in how, in an ambient kind of way, can we make psychedelic music? How can ambient music be psychedelic?

So that’s where all the stereo panning comes from.

Exactly. That’s a very psychedelic experience, an extreme audio sensation where the left and the right channel are totally separate, but happening at the same time. [laughs]

“Backwards Journey / Magic Display” must have been based on the idea of reversing music and sound to create a psychedelic effect.

One of them, yeah. That suddenly things would inverse. Time, the relativity of time, in a psychedelic experience, is also present, losing the perception of time.

Lassigue Bendthaus - Pop Artificielle (1998)

Lassigue Bendthaus - Be Near Me

This was an interesting shift for you.

Yeah, it was kind of natural. From ‘92 onwards, I was listening to lots of different music: Jazz, psychedelic rock, and a lot of pop music, as well. This idea for Pop Artificielle was born around ‘94 or so, and that was when I started to collect the bits and pieces for that album. It took a long time to produce for various reasons – it was a very complex production with very simple equipment. I had to work on each song by itself, in one block, because I didn’t have a multitrack recorder.

I had to program my entire studio [to play that one song] and it would come out in real-time. I would hit “play” on the sequencer and the whole track would play, as you hear it on the album. From the layout to the final product, I had to do everything in one go – so a single track would take me over a month to complete, from the first idea to the final version. And I couldn’t be interrupted – it was impossible to do something else in between.

How did you do the vocal effect? [Pop Artificielle] was the first time I heard that kind of vocal glitch effect.

I didn’t have a lot of equipment early on, so I kind of had to invent that vocal effect. I had it in my head and knew what I wanted, but there was no equipment that would do it – nowadays you can buy a plugin to do it – but there was no pitch correction, no “glitch effect” on anything I had. So I sang my own vocals, treated them with a couple of effects, and then cut them apart and programmed them back together.

The main thing about those vocals is that they had to be very rigid, very robotic, so I would record the vocals and then cut every single word into syllables and consonants, and program them back together in the sampler, into a word. Manually. All by hand. It took me over a week just for the vocals for each track.

The whole album sounds like it’s about to fall apart at any moment.

Yes. The level of detail, especially with the vocals, at some point I couldn’t [record] any more precisely than was possible with MIDI and so forth. It was all shifting MIDI notes, step editing, looping vowels into tones. Lots of micro-editing. So every now and then, it just turned out slightly imperfect, and that was that. And that was part of the charm, as well.

Señor Coconut ‎- Gran Baile Con... (1997)

Señor Coconut - Supertropical

Was this the first album that you recorded when you moved to Santiago?

No, this was an album I had already started in Germany. The idea was to complete it before moving, but there were a couple songs missing, so I finished it in Chile.

Where did your interest in Latin music come from?

I had traveled to Costa Rica in ‘93 and ‘94, for three months each time. Up until then, I hadn’t liked Latin music very much, because in Frankfurt, it was consumed in a scene I didn’t like very much – world music, and all that, you know. I found that false and uninspiring. But in Costa Rica, people are listening to music everywhere, and I started paying attention to the music, and I was very impressed by it. I realized how limited my musical language was in comparison to other kinds of music.

When I came back from Costa Rica, I really wanted to incorporate that language – not so much the music, but the elements of the music, into what I was doing. A couple of things I did from ‘93 to ‘95, there is the occasional Latin element creeping in. But it didn’t quite work how I wanted it to. I had an idea, which ended up manifesting as the first Señor Coconut album, and suddenly in ‘96, I started to cut up Latin albums, and the idea I had had two years before finally came together, and it turned into an album.

Was it based on loops taken from Latin records?

I had listened to a lot of Latin music and done a lot of research – and when we say Latin music, I’m speaking generally, of course – and after coming back from Costa Rica I really started to explore what Latin music actually is. I discovered styles, textures, and sounds that really inspired me. Naturally, they ended up in my sampler. [laughs]

I had a strange fever dream. I saw the curved typography, with a Latin guy underneath, and it said Señor Coconut.

I started to cut them up, put them back together, play around with them, and all of a sudden it started to come together. The combination of this cut-and-paste aesthetic and the Latin rhythms – I knew that this would become an album, and not just a sketch or two. Then, one day when I was in bed with a fever, I had a strange fever dream, and it was the cover of the first Señor Coconut album. I saw the curved typography, with a Latin guy underneath, and it said Señor Coconut. I woke up, I saw it, and I tried to keep it in my head, so I wouldn’t forget it. I found a photographer, found a friend to pose, and recreated it.

This album signified a shift in your work. After this, you started producing a lot more Latin-influenced work. Is this because you had moved to Santiago?

Well, no, actually, [the main] reason I moved to Chile was focus, concentration. I wanted to move somewhere where I could just be on my own, and let the ideas happen. That Chile was a Latin country, I would say was a coincidence, actually. I was – and still am – very isolated here. I’m not paying a lot of attention to what’s happening musically in Chile.

Dropshadow Disease ‎- Dropshadow Disease (1998)

Dropshadow Disease - Push The Little Daisies

This record combines several concepts you had been working with. There’s a lot of Latin sounds; there’s a lot of glitchy, experimental sounds as well. Where did the concept come from?

I don’t know. [laughs] The thing is, many of my albums, especially those for Rather Interesting, where I was working on a monthly [schedule] for releasing, I was gathering plenty of ideas at the same time. Musical ideas, samples, sketches, as well as typography, graphics, or pictures. Many of those ideas, not just musical ideas but general concepts, I don’t know exactly what they mean, or where they come from, or if they make sense. But I tend to collect them together, write them down, or otherwise just try not to forget them.

The funny thing for me is those moments when all those isolated ideas come together and just happen to become something bigger. I’ve been dragging around ideas for 20 years now – fragments that have been laying around that don’t make any sense by themselves. An album like Dropshadow Disease is kind of like that. I don’t know what it means, or why I made it, but all of these isolated ideas came together. That process is a very intuitive process, and very often I don’t know what any of it means. In the process itself, sometimes, or maybe very many years later, the meaning becomes clear.

A lot of albums on Rather Interesting, the concept was not to think about the concept. A set of parameters about what not to do. And then I start doing things. I might say, “I want to make a track which isn’t funny, which has no melody, and has no drums.” That’s all there is, and in the process, I would constantly be thinking about those three things. And whenever I came to a place where I would want to insert a melody, I would say, “No!” It’s a very intuitive and very fluid process, which produces a certain result because of what I don’t want to do. But the meaning? There is no meaning. It’s about a feeling, or a mood, and I want to be surprised by myself.

That’s a very interesting process. It reminds me of the surrealists. Trying to push away intentional ideas and just let yourself “flow.”

It has a lot to do with that, actually. Automatic writing. Don’t think about a concept, just let words pour out. There is the intellectual tendency to make sense of it, to control it, but you have to fight that. Or you could see it in a Freudian way, unconscious versus conscious, and there is no sense at all – just feeling. And in my opinion, neither way is more valid. It’s just a different mode.

Atom™ feat. Tea Time ‎– XXX (2000)

Atom™ feat. Tea Time - Perra Mojada

How did you hook up with Tea Time?

He’s kind of a well-known figure in the Chilean local hip hop and funk scene. I met him during my first trip to Chile – it’s a very small scene, you meet everyone within a week or so – and I had an idea of making a hip hop influenced album. Naively, I invited him to work with me on it. Up until this point, I was making music with people who were very much … in the same resonance, the same world, like Tetsu. So, naively, I thought that everyone would be like that. [laughs] It was a bit silly.

I invited him over, and outlined a track within a day, and he was totally overwhelmed with my workflow. He just couldn’t understand that I wanted to record his vocals that evening. He totally collapsed under, you know, a whole album of lyrics. Which I hadn’t even considered – it was a bit stupid on my part. So he pulled the handbrake and said, “Okay, this isn’t working. I can’t write lyrics like this, a track per day.” It took quite awhile for us to record it, then. So it was … a bit bumpy to work with him. He wasn’t quite as aligned with collaboration as other people I’ve worked with. It wasn’t the easiest recording I’ve done. Not in a negative way, but just not as fluid, so it holds a special place in my discography.

It has a different feeling. It’s very funny, very playful, and very dirty. Very filthy lyrics.

Exactly. With many of my albums … one method of creating an album is to put yourself in a kind of role – you have to convert yourself into somebody else, for a moment, to be able to conceive a different set of ideas. With XXX, I definitely had to do that. I had expected the same thing from him as well. It’s kind of like acting. Adopting a character. Tuning in and out of a persona. When I’m doing this – I don’t really do this anymore, this process has changed a lot for me in the past ten years – when I was doing this a lot, it was kind of a method of production, switching in and out of character. Normally it takes me about a few hours, or a day, to switch into that persona.

How can a dinosaur be trademarked because he is purple?

With [Tea Time,] the hope was that I would be able to switch into this persona with him. But because he was so overwhelmed, it took him a lot of time to actually write the lyrics. It stretched out a little bit too much, for me. I couldn’t be in that character for like a month, you know. So I had to tune in and out of this production, with him, whenever he felt he was ready for it. It was a challenge for both of us.

This was the first time you used [the production moniker] Atom™, right?

I think so. I had made another album in 1995 called Mono™, because I think the whole trademark concept is quite ridiculous – ethically questionable to boot – and certain things have always puzzled me. How [certain things] can be so normal and accepted, but when you think about it, they make no sense at all. How can a dinosaur be trademarked because he is purple? [laughs] So I thought it was funny to trademark something that wasn’t an entity itself. Over the years, I grew a little bit tired of Atom Heart, and wanted to shrink it to Atom. Which in itself, I didn’t find interesting enough. So the trademark is just a little joke.

The Stereonerds - HD Endless (2003)

The Stereonerds - HD Endless

This, I feel, signals a new phase for you. You had the whole Rather Interesting phase, where you would perform automatically, letting the ideas flow through you. But Stereonerds, to me, feels much more composed, much more prepared. When you were writing this album, was it the same process, or a more prepared album?

Much more prepared, yes. My idea was to create characters, The Stereonerds, and I imagined them being two white guys, from Australia that really like Kraftwerk, and want to sound like them, but they can’t. Because they are not. Very simple. [laughs] That was my mindset. Make Kraftwerk-inspired tracks, which are kind of … Anglo-Saxon, still, because they’re not German. It was a two-step process – myself, thinking like somebody else, thinking like somebody else. It was like triple schizophrenia, kind of. So, how would somebody else, that was not me, imagine Kraftwerk’s music? I think what the “techno” world has seen of Kraftwerk is not actually what Kraftwerk intended.

Why do you think that is so?

I think 80% of what Kraftwerk is about has a lot to do with a part of European history which is impossible to understand for the techno world. The techno world has interpreted Kraftwerk on a very surface level, [with regard to] its technological [aspect] – the repetitiveness, the sound design – but nothing else. It hasn’t understood everything else that is in there, many things which are not fashionable or famous.

I think there’s a lot more classical music [in Kraftwerk], and a lot more historical references, which outside of Germany, or a certain part of Europe, may be difficult to understand. There’s Paul Hindemith in there, a lot of Oskar Sala. And a lot of pre-20th century electronic experiments. A lot of Schubert. That kind of stuff. A lot of that kind of stuff is hidden in a very, very clever way, and dressed up with electronic sound design, which kind of takes over. You’re so impressed by the sound and by how everything comes together, that you don’t see what’s actually in there. [The world of techno] has been “dazzled” by that surface layer. That’s what I tried to interpret with The Stereonerds.

Atom™ ‎- Winterreise (2011)

Atom™ - Winterreise

This is interesting for me because it came out in 2011, and when I heard this, I hadn’t heard an ambient album from you in a long time.

When I started to go through my archives, I realized I had kind of forgotten about the whole ambient phase. After the whole ambient thing, when I switched over to poppier music, like Señor Coconut or Pop Artificielle, I had seen [ambient music] as a phase that was valuable, but I felt no connection to it. It just wasn’t interesting as a genre to me anymore.

But listening back to it, I really liked a lot of it. I was really impressed with myself. [laughs] And I could really relate to the mood and spirit of it, and I was inspired to do it again. It felt fresh again. I finally felt like I could go back to [ambient music] without rehashing myself. I had different technology, different ways of hearing music. And Winterreise I finished in about five days or something like that. It came together really quickly.

This was based on classical music, right?

What I wanted to achieve was ambient music, but with a romantic mood. Which was very different from what I was doing in the ‘90s. Before I did Winterreise, I had listened to a lot of classical music that had a little bit of a melancholic feel to it. That was the inspiration for the album.

I’ve been following your music for a long time, and we’ve been talking about your different processes of working. Separating yourself from your work, and even using a character to interpret your own work, and I feel like in the past five or six years, you’ve really settled into yourself as your own producer. Does that make sense?

The poles, the extremes, I still use them, but I don’t make them public.

[laughs] Well, let’s say, after having done this in a particular manner for 15 years or so, I think I grew a bit tired of the process. I grew tired of the different personas. So it was quite a conscious decision to re-direct that energy into “one thing,” rather than “many things.”

I’m more interested in a concrete series of productions, rather than a series of productions that oscillate too much. In the past, I really needed to follow one production with another that was kind of an antipode of what I had done before. If I had done a funny album, I really needed to do something dry, cold, and hostile, even. I needed to do that in order to keep myself inspired. So if you look at my productions in the past as a sequence, they’re almost pushing each other away. Like a spiral. One extreme to the other, with some kind of synthesis happening in between. And in that process, progress occurs.

The poles, the extremes, I still use them, but I don’t make them public. [laughs] In the past, I found it interesting, and entertaining, to be up-front about the process itself. Nowadays, I’m much more interested in productions that don’t reveal where they come from. Right now, it’s much more interesting to try and distill those same ideas into something more coherent.

On a different note