Jan Wagner: The Studio Is My Sanctuary

There’s an interview with Stevie Wonder – from way way back – where he is being asked about what it means to be a soul artist; Bobbito and Spinna used it as an intro to one of their mixtapes. And Stevie basically says something to the effect of: “soul is not a genre – I’m heavily paraphrasing here, BTW – but the ability to transport emotions using music.” This an idea that I hold very dear. I don’t care how you made your record, i.e. what instruments you used, whether it’s all analog or digital, new or old. If the production is all gloss or hissy lo-fi. I don’t care where you come from, nor what your influences are – but you better give me something that I can feel! Give me a piece of yourself!

Jan Wagner’s debut full-length entitled Nummern (Klangbad Records / Quiet Love Records), which will be dropping October 26th, is a piece of music that shook me to my very core! It’s a sparse affair that marries minimal piano playing with all types of synthesised wonders – textures, arpeggios and synthetic stand-ins for strings. For our readers, I would say that it’s sort of like Robot Koch, but minus the beats or club leanings. It’s also way more humble in spirit, and I think that that’s exactly where its strength lies. The LP feels like it consumes you. You feel like you’re underwater from track one, till basically when the music stops. At times, I really caught myself holding my breath while listening to it.

To get to know more about this record I reached out to Jan Wagner and producer / label owner James Varghese (Quiet Love Records), who helped Jan turn a series of sonic diary entries into a perfect, full-length record.

I thought it would be great to interview the both of you together, because in many ways this record is a proper collaboration. The press sheet also alludes to the fact that maybe if not for the two of you having a serendipitous meeting, this record would have never seen the light of day – is that right?

Jan: Absolutely, a mutual friend introduced us to each other. We spoke about our ongoing projects. I showed James some of my sketches, he liked what he heard, and we started working together.

James: The first time I heard the sketches something immediately resonated with me. Due to the nature of Jan’s process there was something very pure about the recordings. Jan didn’t have any intention of releasing this music. He made it solely for himself. I thought it’s too precious for it to get lost on some hard drive.

Jan, can you tell me about the process of recording the solo piano; the ritual, the story behind it?

Jan: 2016 was an intense year for me. There were a lot of ups and downs in my personal life. The studio was always my sanctuary. I would close the doors and just start playing and recording whatever came out. I can’t really say that I had a ritual. I never really thought about what or how to play. The piano attracted me and I unburdened myself by playing it.

How different is the finished record from the original recordings, and what was the process of making a full-length out of a sonic diary?

James: (to Jan) Maybe someday we should release your original, untouched recordings? There was something special about them…

Jan: We didn’t have one particular approach. Usually, I recorded the piano and some synths, sent them to James and he added what was necessary, or took out what wasn’t. Some tracks were left as they were originally recorded because they felt finished. After a while, it became clear which songs we wanted to continue working on and which songs just didn’t work for the album. For me the song selection and sequencing was a natural process. It just felt right this way.

James: We talked about what the songs could or should feel like. Since I live in Zurich, a part of the collaboration happened over the internet. But we also worked on it whenever I was in Berlin. To finish the album, Jan came to Zurich and spent a couple of days with me. For the sequencing, I always start with the first or last song. Some Songs are perfect openers or closers. For the rest, we just tried to create a good flow.

Jan, this record is quite literally your diary, or at least some excerpts that were taken from it – how does it feel to share something so private with the world?

Jan: It feels good! I’m happy if people listen to the album and feel something. Everybody listens to music differently. Especially with instrumental music, you have a feeling, you can’t really translate it into words or share it with someone else. It’s your personal feeling and the music somehow becomes „your” music.

Could it be that not having descriptive song titles was a way of protecting yourself and the content that informed the music?

Jan: Not really. While recording the first track (which was Nummer A) I had no idea what to name it. I didn’t want to give the music a name which implies a specific feeling. I wanted the listener to decide how to feel the music. That’s why I simply named them Nummern (Numbers).

This is something that I think about a lot, and I guess you guys are the right people to ask: what makes for honest music?

Jan: For me improvisation is the most honest and pure music. The less time you have to think, the more comes out. I don’t think you need many preconditions, listen to your heart and your soul and try to translate it into your fingers.

James: I think about this a lot, as well, and I think intent has a lot to do with it. Do I want to impress people? Do I have a “hidden agenda”? Or are the intentions… let’s call it: „pure”? The place the music comes from is key, in my opinion. The deeper from within that it comes from, the deeper the music turns out to be. For some people it happens instinctively, while others spend a lot of time thinking about it. I’m somewhere in the middle, but I tend to spend a lot of time thinking about music. Probably, Jan is more instinctive in this respect.

Jan: There is always something special in the very first recordings or „demos” because your brain isn’t involved yet. Most of the piano tracks are recorded in this „zone”.

James: I am always fascinated by the demo-versions. As I mentioned before, maybe we should really release them?

I would definitely be curious to hear those! Maybe just cut a limited cassette tape for freaks like me? I’m assuming that you will play this music live, correct?

Jan: Yes, the first show will be on October 27th at the Faust studio

As a duo?

Jan: I will play solo.

James: I tried to sneak myself into the live band. (laughs)

Will you really bring the piano and all the analog synths with you? Because it would be a pity to reduce this record to samples or a laptop setup. Even a plastic electric piano wouldn’t really cut it.

Jan: Absolutely, for me the music only works with a real piano. I have to feel the tiny vibrations while playing, all the frequencies have to merge. An electric piano won’t do that. the live set won’t be an exact replica of the album. I’ll barely use samples or a laptop because I want to have the freedom of playing these tracks as I feel them in the moment. It will be softer than the album.

James: Even softer? (laughs)

Techno is somehow a huge influence on this record, even though it might not be that obvious at first. What is your relationship with it?

Jan: I’m inspired by the simplicity of techno. Small changes in the music can have a huge effect. Kobosil is a close friend of mine and introduced me to the Berghain scene.

James: I discovered techno really late because I was a hip hop kid, and the two didn’t mix well. (laughs) I’m still trying to figure techno out, I can’t quite grasp it. There’s something ethereal and magical about it. It sounds so simple, and you could think there’s nothing to it, until you try making it.

And what was the craziest techno party you’ve ever been to?

Jan: I like the Berghain a lot, the energy inside this temple thrills me every single time! I think Max Kobosil’s album release party was one of the craziest parties! Lets just say that it was quite intense.

James: I don’t have any special stories, I think. Or at least I can’t remember any…

This one is for James. Nummern is coming out as a cooperation between Hans Joachim Irmler’s (legendary band Faust) Klangbad Records and your new label called Quiet Love Records. Can you tell me about what we can expect from your label and why you decided to start one in the first place?

James: There’s a long and a short answer. The short one is: I think there is music that is really valuable and needs to be released. A lot of artists don’t have the knowledge or the resources to do that themselves, and a lot of labels aren’t interested in music they can’t sell. If the music is precious to me, I’m sure there are other people out there who will feel the same. So my job is to get this music to those people. I know it doesn’t sound like the best idea to start a record label in 2018. (laughs) But I’m willing to take the risk.

After Jan’s album comes out, which well be October 26th, we will be releasing an EP by «Diskret», a duo consisting of myself and Ramon Ziegler. This will be in November. It’s instrumental and ambient, as well, but more electronic. More releases by other acts are lined up for 2019, so stay tuned.

I know that it might be too early to ask, but can we expect more collaborative work from the two of you?

James: Definitely! We’ve worked on new stuff together already.

Jan: Yes, absolutely, we are back in the studio.

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