Name: Julian Sartorius
Occupation: Drummer, percussionist, composer
Current release: Julian Sartorius's Locked Grooves is out July 9, 2021 on -OUS.
Recommendations: The paintings of Max Ernst. The music of Harry Partch.
If you enjoyed this Julian Sartorius interview, visit his excellent website for more information. Current updates and music can be found on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and bandcamp. To support him directly, visit his Patreon profile.
Julian Sartorius is part of the artist collective around the formidable -OUS imprint. For more information, take a look at our IOKOI interview, our Noémi Büchi interview and our Sara Oswald + Feldermelder interview.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I first wanted to play drums as a small child and had my first drum lesson as a five year old. I don’t remember a time when drumming was not a part of my being.
I can’t tell where this attraction is coming from, it’s something instinctive to me.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
At first, I emulated some sort of ‘super-drummer’ that I had constructed in my imagination by combining different elements of various drummers that impressed me. One would fascinate me with his sound, another would impress me through the dynamics, and another through the groove. By doing this, I formed a kind of an ideal drummer, whom I wanted to become.
On the other hand, I’m influenced enormously by electronic music. For example, I transcribed countless electronic beats and tried to reconstruct them on my drum kit - this had a huge influence on the way I play.
I also often listen to a lot of music without drums, through which my listening habits changed and made me think more freely about my instrument. Sometimes I intend to produce a sound that resembles a synthesizer, which is barely achievable - this is where it becomes interesting to me: I have to find a solution of my own with the means I have at hand.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
When playing, I wish to be as free as possible, including being free of what I perceive to be my identity. It shouldn’t matter who I am when I’m playing or producing. I want to create - who or what I am becomes irrelevant.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenge was and still is to forget all the things that are ‘right’. There is no right or wrong (in music), only one’s own decisions. Nobody can tell you how something ‘works’ and how it has to be. One can invent anything.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/ first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I have various approaches: Sometimes I have a particular sound in my mind and then I search for the fitting instrument to create this sound as close to my imagination as possible.
But I also like to work the other way round: by selecting an instrument or an object and searching for its musical potential. This way I often ‘find’ sounds that I couldn’t have imagined.
Many of my beats are inspired by certain sounds. I enjoy working with limits, to create as much as possible from limited means. This evokes a sense of freedom in me. My ideal state is to be able to do something with anything - not to be dependent on certain pieces of equipment or instruments.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
When I started using all sorts of objects as percussive instruments - street lanterns, sign posts, tree trunks, etc - I realised that there are no rules on how to play these objects. No one can say how to play on a bench to make it sound ‘good’.
With the drum set as an instrument there are rules and traditions. The experience of playing on objects that are literally without ‘musical rules’ has inspired and expanded my approach to the drum kit. Drums are resonant bodies, nothing more. You can work with them as you wish.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
The more direct the contact in a collaboration is, the better. What I enjoy the most is when every idea gets explored, no matter how absurd it may seem. One should never judge an idea before it’s been tried out.
My former instructor and fabulous musician Fabian Kuratli brought this approach to me, and I try to put it into practice in every collaboration, and also in my own work: no judgement on an idea without having tried it out. Every idea gets a chance.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I don’t have a fixed daily routine because I work in various realities of a musician’s life and travel very much. A day on tour is different from a studio day, and when I’m recording ‘out in the world’, it’s something different again. I like this variety. Sometimes three days feel like two weeks, because so many different things are happening - I really enjoy this state of mind.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
One of the most important moments in my artistic career was when I realised that there are no ‘important’ and ‘less important’ concerts. Every concert is equally important, no matter who is in the audience, or how big it might be. It shouldn’t make a difference if two people came or a thousand. I try to give my performance the same weight, regardless of the context.
My piano and composition teacher Roberto Domeniconi brought me to this way of thinking. I consider those moments as ‘breakthrough events’ when I learned the most or when I had important ideas.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I want to be able to be creative in any state of mind. I don’t really believe in an ‘ideal’ state of mind. Quite to the contrary, I find the moments when the work routines don’t flow so freely more interesting. Every state leads to another result, and this is something I’m interested in. I would like to be surprised constantly, so I try to embrace my work in any given state.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Within music, one can feel carried and music can provide strength. This is just about the most beautiful thing about playing and listening to music.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
This is a huge topic. It is fundamental to honour the people that you’re inspired by. If there is a direct inspiration to a piece of work, the source should be credited consciously. I find it enormously important to give credit for inspiration. When people let themselves be inspired but don’t admit to it or don’t disclose the context, I find it to be lacking respect and a sort of theft.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
As a teenager I visited a museum in Berlin, where I noticed that seeing the works of Paul Klee evoked music and sounds inside me. To me, his art works were ‘musical’ paintings, so to speak. This didn’t happen to me with other works of other artists in the same exhibition - they’ve rather touched me on a visual level. Later I found out that Paul Klee almost became a musician before deciding to work as a visual artist, which blew me away. I still don’t know how exactly he transformed musicality into his paintings.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Similar to other answers I gave to prior questions, it is essential to me to be as free as possible. I can’t and don’t want to control what my music evokes in other people. It’s possible that someone might be inspired directly by my work, but I really don’t know. Every person reacts differently to my music, and I enjoy the broad range of feedback and am often surprised by it.
I’ve been told that someone learned to listen to everyday sounds and their environment more closely through my music, which I find a beautiful and fulfilling reaction, that can also have a direct social impact.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
If I could answer this question in words, it wouldn’t be something that only music can express.