Name: Samuel Rohrer
Occupation: Drummer, composer, improviser, sound artist
Current Release: Kave on Arjunamusic
Recommendations: The Final Interview with Terrence McKenna (YouTube), any book or interview with Gabor Maté or the album "Spirit of Eden" by Talk Talk.
If you enjoyed this interview with Samuel Rohrer, visit his excellent personal website. Or stay up to date on his music and activities through his Facebook account or Soundcloud profile.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I wrote my first songs in my teenage years, writing lead sheets with melodies and chord progressions. I grew up in a house filled with music and I knew from a very early age that I wanted to take this direction.
Growing up with jazz, my early influences where Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Carla Bley or Wayne Shorter. My father was listening to these records at that time. I was fascinated by the energy and the freedom of this music from the very beginning. I then studied jazz and only maybe 12 years ago I started to experiment with electronic elements. Later on, I combined acoustic drums and synths to finally experience a scene shift, from being a jazz musician to becoming part of the electronic music scene in Berlin.
What originally drew me to music was the adventure, the unknown element, the surprises and the empowering spirit which grows out of improvisation. Improvised music is about freedom and is not linked to any style. The music I play today is still influenced by all the qualities which originally drew me towards Jazz, just on a less obvious level maybe.
The fine line between composed/fixed material and total improvised/instantly composed material still fascinates me. To create the space where total freedom can unfold is an experience which is much more than just a way to approach music, but rather life itself.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Of course it is a natural learning process to first imitate and learn through copying others, to then slowly grow into your own understanding and expanding what you learned from others. After all, when you study any art form, the biggest obstacle is to let go of what you learned about what is right or wrong. Only when you can leave this behind, I think it starts to get really interesting.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As mentioned before, I was used to writing music on paper to then work it out with other musicians. To be able to immediately hear what you create, without making the detour of writing it all down first, this is still extremely inspiring. Since the process is so fast, it´s possible to generate much more ideas in a shorter time.
When I started to work on combining modular synths and drums and experimenting on ways on how to play them simultaneously, I was struggling because there were not many working on the same kind of idea. It felt like I had to discover everything by myself. Which, of course, is exciting but, without much of a guidance and knowledge, also kind of borderless.
A big challenge today is how to bring some complex ideas, which were created in the studio, finally to the stage, to keep the freedom I need to get inspired, without being lost in too much of it. It´s mostly about finding the right balance.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
During live performances with different ensembles, I started to experiment while treating parts of my instruments electronically with a few contact microphones, using delays and other effects. It took me a long time until I started to create my own small recording setup in a studio situation.
Initially I wanted to create long ringing sounds, in comparison to all the short bell-like drum sounds, plus I wanted to have different qualities of sounds, which can not be created with purely acoustic instruments. With a chain of delays, I was suddenly able to create long lasting sounds, which I then could overlap with more percussive staccato sounds and interact with.
Today an important tool is my modular synth and a Moog Mother 32, which I both trigger with my drumming. I recently started to work with a software called Bitwig, where I can create a hybrid setup of analog and digital synths and control them digitally. This makes it easier to recall setups and to switch faster between sounds during a performance.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
What drives me the most, while working with machines, is the diversity you can create out of an idea of a sound for example. While treating and manipulating acoustic and electronic sounds, my goal often is to glue them together and to blend them into each other, like musicians do in an ensemble. And since the synths are trigged by my drumming, this immediately feeds back into and influences my playing.
So there is an immediate reaction on what comes from the synths which let me interact with them. It´s a constant back and forth of events. Similarities in the quality of sounds as well as a certain friction I look for in electronic sounds, a certain human feel close to what is familiar to our ears. Also the fact that modular synths can create a life of their own is an inspiring tool to work with and gives me the possibility to have a dialogue rooted in a single idea.
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?
For many years it was the immediate musical exchange in an ensemble that made the most sense for me. In that situation, for me music was always about interaction and creating a blend of sounds with other minds and instruments. During a solo performance I still look for the same qualities. Lately I discovered the fruitful work when exchanging files and sharing ideas through already recorded material.
In production in general, I like the capability to go into details and designing sounds as much as I like the immediate response with other musicians on stage.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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?
If I am at home, I do have a morning ritual to get the energy to be able to do all the work that needs to be done and to cope with all the challenges we face. Then I do some office work for the label and look into travels for upcoming concerts or other logistics. The afternoon/evening I spend mostly in the studio, recording music, working on the instrument or working with other musicians.
Of course anything I do blends into each other and creates a whole. I am the most inspired and productive when I manage to keep the balance in all aspects. Touring and traveling can be extremely tiring mostly because of the lack of daily routine and the risk to fall out of balance.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
My last solo album CONTINUAL DECENTERING came together while working on the concept to trigger synths with my drums. It was and still is an extremely inspiring way of working, since I discover new ways of creating combinations of sounds every day.
The fact that my playing is actually influencing the way the synths are played are very much leading my drumming as well. My playing changed a lot since I started to work like this and it helped me to figure out a personal way to feel rhythms and meters.
Often ideas develop out of a spontaneous combination of sounds, from there I develop a form. I´m slowly able to hold a moment longer, since the parameters often change and disappear quickly, a big part of the work is to hold on to something which is promising in that moment, and not overanalyse your playing too soon and constantly look for new 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 basically just need to dive into it and get a process going. Ideas then come by themselves If I create the space for them. Of course this is easier if you have several uninterrupted weeks to work on a project. The difficulty today is that I still have to be involved in many projects to make a living, and this keeps me often away from focusing on one idea for a longer period of time.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
For me these are two complete different worlds which in the end very much benefit from each other.
Playing live and improvising on stage means to really create out of this moment while trying to accept whatever comes to you. The state of mind in that moment I would describe as very alert and awake while being deeply aware that the mind is often more of an obstacle in that moment. A good balance of the rational and irrational mind.
While working in the studio is much more of a mediative process where you let yourself sink into an idea and dig deeper into that thought or feeling you want to bring out.
Both are extremely meditative moments which are hard to accomplish if you are not able to create the space which is needed, equally in the studio or on stage.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I think both parts are equally important.
I have the impression that very often, electronic music is mainly built on sound, and little on compositional ideas. And on the other hand, composed music often concentrates too much on complexity instead of working with the complexity of sounds and their diverse qualities.
Often simple ideas with complex sound images and some forward moving energy in the sense of a smart arrangement are the pieces which stay with me.
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? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
From a very early stage, I've tried to find a world ín between broken rhythm and groove. Similar to how you can find harmony in disharmony. I guess I was looking for the way to bend rhythms and create a motion, a feeling, but still keep the rhythm dancing and the body moving.
It also simply has to do with energy, tension and release. Music can happen the most, if you approach it without conceptual ideas, but rather a feeling, an energy without a preoccupied mind.
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?
For me making music is an expression of life and part of the art of living itself. I experience creation as a holistic approach. Since all of a sudden the world changed drastically and seems to speed up towards a direction we never wanted to take so seriously, it becomes even more existential to express something personal.
In life in general, when I am forced to look closer, when I´m forced to answer existential questions, the more I feel I come closer to the purpose of anything I do and its intention. No matter if the confrontation is consciously chosen or the patterns I am following unconsciously lead me to confronting myself.
The closer I come to the point where I create out of this very personal understanding, the more meaning it has and powerful it is.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music is language and as long as we use our physical body to speak, music will coexist as a form of expression. I would even say that the basic rules of all musical branches in its core are and always were the same.
What has been happening to music for a while, is that it is turning more and more into a monopolised industry, which destroys diversity and the actual quality of music. Like anywhere else, very few people wrestle the last drops out of a very diverse living organism.
On the other hand, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean the end is near. Very often new things are created out of a crisis.