Name: Stephan Bodzin
Occupation: Producer, live performer, DJ
Current release: Stephan Bodzin's new full-length album Boavista is out on 8th October via Herzblut.
One of the key questions of this interview – or rather, of digital music production in general – is about how to deal with the vast archives of sounds, sketches and demos that infallibly build up on every electronic music producer's hard drives. For Stephan Bodzin, that question turned into a dilemma that almost paralysed him for seven years.
Back in 2015, I visited him in his Bremen studio, located in the basement of an empty theatre, to talk about his latest full-length Powers of Ten. We chatted for over two hours, Stephan extracting one coffee after another from what I remember to be a tiny machine, going deep into the process behind these pieces which defined a new space between the fiercely intense and the relentlessly sensitive. What I took away from the conversation is this: Bodzin had discovered the beauty of one-take-production and in-the-momentness, he no longer wanted to lock himself up in the studio for entire nights and finetune the reverb on a clap for hours. The pieces on Powers of Ten were live performances and they fed from the adrenalin, excitement and risk that came with that. It sounded like he had found a method to churn out one incredible record after another.
As it turned out, he did – only, no one ever got to hear them. As the press release explains, he instead gathered a seemingly infinite collection of tracks but did not finish them. It wasn't that this music wasn't good. Rather, it was that it was all good and there was no entry point.
Things changed on a visit to Brazil, where he went for a brute force approach. Selecting 25 pieces that felt closely related, he set about editing and sculpting them. In the end, 17 made it to the final record, now titled Boavista – still a vast ocean of beats, soundscapes and heavenly themes that ebbs and flows, pushes and soothes, for two full hours or eight tightly packed sides of vinyl.
Compared to Powers of Ten, the music seems even less pondered-over, even more direct and immediate. But it retains the blend of mood and melody that has become Bodzin's trademark. He may have become associated with state of the art technology and his production chops. But they're just means to an end. Unless you at least shed a tear listening and dancing to Boavista, his mission could never be completed.
If you enjoyed this interview with Stephan Bodzin and would like to stay up to date on his output and activities, visit his official homepage. You can also find him on Facebook, Instagram, twitter, and Soundcloud.
What was your first studio like?
Ha. I grew up in a studio that held all analogue gear you want to name here. From ppg waveterminal to moog sound sytem. From arp2600 to jupiter8. From syncussion to 303. While my buds were kicking football in the garden I was resonating on the modular. But … that was my father's studio.
[Read our feature on the Roland TB-303]
My first own one was actually a Korg M1 which I squeezed out until it sounded like a full orchestra. Day and night and day and night. Does anyone remember that signature organ, saxophone (omg) and the legendary piano???
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?
My live-gear came up back in 2015 with the idea to show people that something's really happening in real time when I'm playing live. That's why I designed those see-through plexiglas cases which are led-reactive to when I'm turning knobs.
This eyes-to-ear connection makes the crowd experience intuitively that I'm not just spinning records but creating music in real time.
The digital studio promises endless possibilities at every step of the process. What is it that you actually need from these potentials and how do go about you selecting it? How do you keep control over the wealth of options at the production stage?
Reduce, reduce, reduce. Only when I was out of my studio, on a beachside somewhere in Bahia, Brazil I could finally focus on the true musical content and realized what's hot and what's not, in my opinion.
Just some good headphones, a few vst, maybe one or 2 pieces of hardware and everyone should be able to produce fine music.
A studio can be as minimal as a laptop with headphones and as expansive as a multi-room recording facility. Which studio situation do you personally prefer – and why?
Ah yeh, that’s what I was talking about. Actually … I looove my full analogue collection being connected and fully working. But, it's not productive for me. It leads to amazing sessions, but to be honest never to final results. I'm much more focussed and precise when on a minimal setup.
That said, I'd rather sell my (name it) than my gear. (laughs)
From traditional keyboards to microtonal ones, from re-configured instruments (like drums or guitars) to customised devices, what are your preferred controllers and interfaces? What role does the tactile element play in your production process?
The tactile element is very important. Even when working with that super minimalized setup in Brazil I had this Korg nano controller, which was essential as I definitely can't draw automations at all.
The custom device I'm using for my live show is a result of dreaming to make the laptop an instrument. This controller is - and I'm aware of each and every controller existing out there - by far the one with best and most flexible workflow. It allows me to access by far more parameters I could ever control at the same time and resets back to any self-defined state just by hitting a button. Or even by changing the Ableton scene. Or both. Or wherever I want to take it.
Yes, that's love.
How would you describe the relationship between technology and creativity for your work? Using a recent piece as an example, how do you work with your production tools to achieve specific artistic results?
This connection is a strong and very present one. I'm absolutely always looking out for new gear, new sounds, new technology hitting the market. Tech development has always been defining music. From the piano to the electric guitar to the synthesizer, the computer. And it still does.
For example I'm a big fan of the digital hardware drum machine modor dr-2. It really does some damage and still sound super fragile and precise. I just added it to my live show to work that thing on stage soon.
Within a digital working environment, it is possible to compile huge archives of ideas for later use. Tell me a bit about your strategies of building such an archive and how you put these ideas and sketches to use.
Puuuhhh …. I’ve been asking myself that question now for many years, tried many different folder hierarchies to get control over it … it's still a mess here. And took me too long to find something specific. I also lost stuff due to it by deleting it accidentally. Better to ask someone else. (laughs)
Production tools can already suggest compositional ideas on their own. How much of your music is based on concepts and ideas you had before entering the studio, how much of it is triggered by equipment, software and apps?
For me mostly the melody or harmonics go hand in hand with the sound designing. A good melody is only half as good with the wrong sounds. Those piano sequences of great movie scores I love are so super simple but set in scene with great sound designs / orchestras. With the right sound that stupid little 3-tone thing becomes a powerful enduring end evolving part with character.
So yes, it's a back and forward. I'm having melodies in my head by waking up sometimes, running to the studio to capture them, and ending up by only keeping the beats which resulted accidentally out of it.
How important is it for you that you personally create or participate in the creation of every element of a piece – from sound synthesis via rhythm programming to mixing?
I'm into everything. But gave up doing the final mixdown on my own. For the Boavista album I did the finetuning of levelling and equalizing with Hannes Bieger in Berlin.
[Read our Hannes Bieger interview]
Some tracks need a lot of adjustment, some were just fine as they were. It was important for me to have a profound feedback form someone like Hannes on the stuff as everything came up very quickly from Brazil to just 3 weeks fixing it in my studio back home and I was simply not entirely certain about the result.
All composing, programming, sound designing and raw mixing is coming from my side and yes, it's important for me and no I couldn't accept anyone jumping in here. (laughs)
Have there been technologies which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
The computer, back in 1989 > being independent from that horrible timing of my former bandmembers. Then Arturia's minimoog in 2001 or -2 made me cry as it reminded me of my father's real setup which I grew up with. Ableton’s live / session mode which is essential for the way I perform music in real time. This isn’t possible with any other DAW.
To some, the advent of AI and ‘intelligent’ composing tools offers potential for machines to contribute to the creative roves. Do you feel as though technology can develop a form of creativity itself? Is there possibly a sense of co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
Let me think and feel about that for a while.
Do you personally see a potential for deeper forms of Artificial Intelligence in your music?
What tools/instruments do you feel could have a deeper impact on creativity but need to still be invented or developed?
Pfff no idea on that one, too. But I like the way you're gearing up for the future.