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Music & clubs

“We felt so free”: Thomas Fehlmann on 30 years of Berlin techno

We catch up with the pioneering producer about his early days connecting our city’s fledging scene with the otherworldly sounds of Detroit.

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Juan Atkins, Thomas Fehlmann and Moritz von Oswald, the pioneering producers behind the the 3MB record reissued by Tresor. Photo: Camille Blake

When it comes to Berlin techno history, no club has left a legacy like Tresor. Thomas Fehlmman, a Swiss producer who’s called our city home since the early 1980s, has been there the entire time. Together with lifelong friend and collaborator Moritz von Oswald, best known as one half of Basic Channel, Fehlmman’s catalogue contains some of Berlin techno’s key moments, such as the 1992 3MB collaboration with Detroit’s Juan Atkins, reissued this week as part of Tresor’s 30th-anniversary series. It’s one of the earliest records that paired Detroit techno pioneers with emergent producers in Berlin, a transatlantic connection that changed the course of music history.

We caught up with Fehlmman for a chat about how the record came together.

I’m sure you didn’t expect to be reissuing the 3MB record with Juan and Moritz three decades after its release. What do you remember about making the tunes?

It was hands-on with no expectations. It was made in Moritz’s first studio, in Steglitz. The Detroit guys always had downtime during the week, so we figured we had to find a way to make good use of that time. Moritz and I were big jazz fans and knew that, when big musicians from the US came to visit Europe in the 1960s, they rarely had the budget to bring the whole band. So they would search for good, local bass players and drummers. We wanted to suggest that to Juan Atkins or Blake Baxter, or the other Detroit guys touring. They say that you should never meet your heroes, but working with them can be good. We learnt that sitting in the studio in front of a blank computer is the same for everyone.

What was life like for you back then?  

I lived in a Wohngemeinschaft in Charlottenburg, which I moved into in 1984 – I’m still in that flat now. It’s a lot different with my partner in there these days. But at that time, Moritz and I were certain that we wanted to make music professionally – not just as a hobby.

When did you realise you could make music a career?

There wasn’t a definite moment. Even if you decide to do it professionally, the work still comes and goes in waves. You could have one intention, but it’s a question of cash flow. I knew it was an art form and, as an artist, I’ve been told I have to suffer. It wasn’t always glorious.

What do you remember about the early days of Tresor?

The idea of going to a club was pretty new again. It wasn’t anonymous anymore. You knew the guy who ran the place and the guys behind the bar. And you knew what was going to happen next week. The dedicated group really into it was quite small, so it only took a few weeks until you knew each other. Afterhours didn’t exist in the sense they do today, so we did them at home. There was a huge social aspect and Berlin had effectively doubled in size due to the Wall coming down, so you would meet even more interesting, lovely people. And the good mood wasn’t just for two days, but two years. 

How far into the future did you look ahead? Your living situation was secure, but what did you think about having money, a career and things like that?

I was around 23 or 24, so I wasn’t thinking far ahead, especially given the mood in the city with music. It wasn’t about control or making lists, but being quick and spontaneous. That’s what made it incomparable with the previous waves, where we just noodled along with the music. Techno had a far stronger statement, and kind of divided my career.

We could sense something coming, but didn’t know how big. We loved this “bad” sound of house and techno.

Before, it was about renting studios, so you needed a label with money. With techno, all the time was yours, and it wasn’t about the gear – it was about your soul and spirit. We felt so much freer. We had our apartments and just used public transport, so we spent all our money on gear.

You’d been involved in a lot of breakout music before, with Neue Deutsche Welle and Palais Schaumburg. Did something about the early days of techno seem different to the other styles of music you’d seen develop?

When Moritz and I listened to the first house records from Chicago at Pinky, one of the first record shops in Berlin and a predecessor of Hard Wax, we were totally fascinated. Not because it was the best music in the world, but because it sounded so different – comparatively bad. That was an important thing, because we realised that new sounds can come with a shock. Records from producers like Farley “Jackmaster” Funk sounded so different. We could sense something coming, but didn’t know how big. We loved this “bad” sound.

When did you start trying those styles out for yourself?

Moritz and I worked a lot together, and we were invited to do something in Seoul for the Olympics in ’88. Goethe-Institut built a club, designed by a German architect, that they left for the Koreans afterwards. We were asked to make music for it amongst others, and that was the first time we decided to make tracks with a beginning and end. Before, they were just experiments. 

Then the Wall came down, so everyone was especially excited. Then Tresor opened, and that was sensational. I would go out to clubs here and there before, but Tresor was something else. I loved its improvised style, with cheap furniture and only what was really necessary inside. No mirrors, no decorations. But no one knew what kind of impact that place would have. That’s probably for the best, otherwise we might’ve been too nervous. Nobody controlled us and we could do what we wanted. The weirder something was, the more we liked it. It was a dream situation where the pressure only came from within yourself. 

Your early music with the band Palais Schaumburg  was very experimental, with plenty of tempo changes, strange beats and oddball sounds. House and techno seems more straightforward, with a four-on-the-floor beat and steady progressions. How would you describe the differences between those styles?

Palais Schaumburg was already about breaking up existing aesthetics, but in the course of the 1980s we were more attracted by what I call the “Trevor Horn trap” of production. It became complicated. House and techno showed us a way out and brought us back on track, and that we didn’t need to have the best gear in the world, or to hire the best producer, for a good tune. It’s more about following your instincts and having fun with what you have and where you are, not bowing to perfection.

So sound quality was much more important, pre-techno?

Oh, yes. To give you an idea of the expectations in terms of sound, we worked with the Depeche Mode producer Gareth Jones for the third Schaumburg record. There might’ve been different schools of sound aesthetics, but there was always a search for perfection. Techno told us we could abandon the fear of not being perfect.

Before techno came along, what was the atmosphere like at Neue Deutsche Welle and progressive rock concerts?

The rave aspect only came with techno. They were concerts before, but at clubs. So instead of an opening time of midnight, they opened at 8pm. By midnight, the whole thing was over. This wonderful idea of having a DJ before and after wasn’t yet invented. There might’ve been a support band. In fact, Palais Schaumburg brought the first rapper to Germany for our support band in 1982: Kurtis Blow.

How did the 3MB record, which is being reissued, fit into the techno sound at that time? 

It wasn’t a hit back then, because it was to the left of what was coming out. We didn’t really have a plan, but Moritz, Juan and I really bonded over our love of jazz. That was a good base. I don’t think it would’ve worked out if we made too many plans. We just felt it out.

Do you miss anything about those days?

It was a very positive experience, but I’d be lying if I said I daydreamed about those days. There was so much insecurity and so many questions. I still feel very connected to the city and sound of Detroit, though.