Roman Flugel spoke to John Thorp about audience expectations, revisiting old releases and his difficult to explain production process.
Last updated: 11th Nov 2016
It’s difficult to know where to begin with Roman Flugel. Twenty five years into his career, the veteran German producer has an enviable back catalogue that spans several celebrated aliases - Acid Test, Eight Miles High, Soylent Green, Roman IV et al - but until recently, he was probably best known for his delirious, excessive electro smash, ‘Geht’s Noch?’.
Originally released on Cocoon, a dance music institution at the centre of his home city of Frankfurt, Flugel has kept on swimming since it’s massive success. These days, he is as prolific as usual only under his own name, and a fixture at some of the world’s most influential clubs. He joins Maceo Plex at The Warehouse Project later this month for the trendsetting DJ’s Mosaic party, alongside Tale Of Us, Trevino and Carl Craig.
Despite his ability to enthrall huge crowds when needed, few producers and or DJs are truly as esoteric as Flugel. New LP All The Right Noises, his third on Dial, eschews the dancefloor almost entirely in order to explore the smudged edges of melancholy, respite and uncertainty that permeate the other side of Flugel’s life and constant creativity.
In an extensive discussion with John Thorp, Flugel opens up in straightforward but reflective style, reflecting on matters of audience expectation, finding everyday happiness and why it’s surprisingly beneficial to head straight from the club to the nature reserve.
This is the third LP in five years released under your own name. You seem to have given up on your vast catalogue of different aliases after twenty years, and now release everything as Roman Flugel. What had changed?
It all became a bit too complicated at a certain point. So I’d put out albums as, for example, Soylent Green or Eight Miles High. And as well as this, I had different aliases for different twelve inches for example, but I think people didn’t get the idea of who was behind them, and I found it annoying after a while.
I also thought that regardless of style or project, it’s all on me. So why shouldn’t I let people know that it’s me behind it? And also, I think that in the past, it used to give me a certain freedom, but then I felt trapped. I just thought it was the right time.
Nowadays, I feel people value sincerity in music, above all things. And at least with a name like ‘Soylent Green’, there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek irony, whereas nowadays, DJs and producers are expected to present themselves more authentically.
Yeah, I guess you’re right, and I think that wasn’t the case in the beginning as I was starting to make music. Because back then, in the nineties, the idea was that people who didn’t want to show their faces, like Underground Resistance for example, and it wasn’t about presenting yourself in a certain way. Except a few bigger DJs, who already did that.
But for most producers, you would feed the club by giving twelve inches to the scene. But I think things developed differently and the idea of presenting yourself as an artist has changed a lot, I think.
Is that something you have managed to adjust to? You’ve always seemed comfortable talking and theorising about music, but do you ever wish you still had the ability to just anonymously deliver faceless club records, or do you prefer your situation as it is nowadays?
I think I actually enjoy it more these days. At a certain point, when the record ‘Geht’s Noch?’ came out, which was a huge hit, that was the first record under my own name. And then, I got into trouble. People thought I was doing another ‘Geht’s Noch?’ every couple of months, you know? Which I didn’t, and I couldn’t.
So that was when the point I put out the Dial album under my own name, which was the complete opposite. And since that, I’ve had a certain freedom to do whatever I want to do with my given name.
It’s so strange talking to you about this new album in relation to ‘Geht’s Noch?’, which I vividly remember people having as their ringtone while I was still in college. It was somewhat inescapable.
There was this two years - the year before, ‘Rocker’ came out - and then a couple of months later, Gehts Noch. And that was like two big tunes within fourteen months. But then again, those big tunes do something positive at the same time. But you can feel trapped, and my way out was to do the opposite, and not fulfill some people’s expectations.
When I think about 'Geht’s Noch?', it came across before that electro sound perhaps started to get a bit rotten. But now I know how versatile you are, I sort of see it as a very knowing, ironic but fun record. A loving parody…
It was a little bit like this... I was in the studio, and I was asked by Sven Vath to do a track for the Cocoon compilation. And I thought, “What the hell should I do for Cocoon?” So I thought that maybe I should do something a little funny. And I ended up with this track. And he called me the next day and told me it was going to be huge. But it wasn’t planned like this. It was a little experiment in the studio that turned out to be huge.
You know, I learned a lot during those days. And recently, I was playing with Mano Le Tough in Ibiza, and he forced me to play the track again! I hadn’t played it in so many years, and he said, “Come on, you’ve got to play this now, we have to experience it!” And I played it and had so much fun experiencing the whole situation again.
I hadn’t intended to get on the subject of that record so quickly! Now it’s out of the way, what other records or aliases from your back catalogue do you find yourself going back to, that you hope might get rediscovered?
Once you’ve finished a record, you’d rather go back to the old ones than the new one, because you’ve already heard it too much. Recently, I’ve thought about re-releasing some of my own music, because I own the rights, and the labels, like Playhouse, don’t exist anymore. Or even David Moufang’s (Move D) label, Source, where I did an album as Ro70. Those things haven’t been out for many years now, and I could think about releasing them again.
Move D is perhaps one of the figures on the German electronic scene who’s been around as long and has remained as prolific as you. How did you guys meets and do you stay in touch?
We are still friends, we see each other from time to time at parties or whatever. But, talking about the nineties, he listened to a few records I did at the start, found my telephone number, and gave me a call. He told me that he really liked what I do, and invited me to his studio in Heidelberg. I liked him immediately, things got a little messed up, and after some studio sessions, he asked me to do an album on Source.
It feels like there a good crew of German ‘men of a certain age’ from the rave scene - yourself, Move D, Gerd Janson, Michael Mayer - who have all remained friends and collaborators. What binds you together in terms of attitude?
Back then, it was very easy to go with the flow and become the average techno head. But we always - David, Michael, Ricardo Villalobos and some other people - were always looking to reach different levels and experiment a little bit more with the equipment that we’ve got.
At a certain point, you find that the people you like make the tracks you like most for some reason. Then you start to meet them, and you collaborate with them. And I would say friendship, finally. And sympathy, for the same thing. And I think people don’t change too much during their lives, so that’s the reason we still like each other.
Nonetheless, you’ve certainly had records out and moments pass where you could have easily gone down the more commercial, shall we say, ‘big room’ route, but you tend to have resisted unless it’s happened by mistake. Was that ever tempting, or did it just not feel natural?
I think that’s exactly the point, it didn’t feel natural. I think certain people are natural born big room DJs. For myself, I had to experience, for example, when 'Gets Nocht?' came out, I went to pay big room shows in Italy. And people were just waiting for that one big tune, and you feel like the promoter is breathing down your neck in the booth with you. And that was never the idea that I had about a good night out. But at the same time, it was very interesting.
You’re certainly favoured by some of the best big room DJs. For example, you are playing The Warehouse Project, one of the biggest rooms around, for Maceo Plex’s ‘Mosaic’ night.
Being a big room DJ or something else, there are steps in between. For example, when it comes to Maceo, I realised when I played for him in Ibiza, he booked some very good stuff. And it’s not like I am trying to ‘educate’ people by playing the most weird stuff when I end up playing at Pacha. It doesn’t make sense, I still want to have a good party.
That’s what keeps me going in the week. I mean there’s lack of sleep, there’s lots of travelling, and then you end up in a club, and what I really want to have is some fun! I really don’t want to be there and teach people certain lessons. That’s not my intention.
But I think as a music producer who puts out albums, I feel the freedom to do something different than in my DJ sets. But I still love club music, and I really, really enjoy playing as a DJ. It’s the biggest thing to have happened to me, to finally have the freedom to do both. To put out my albums and play at a club and play banging techno if I want to.
There’s a certain risk involved in releasing records that some people might be completely annoyed about. It doesn’t make sense for some people. But at the same time, you find someone else who likes it and is willing to accept both.
I think I’m interviewing you at an interesting point in your long career. You’re probably more popular as a DJ now than you’ve been in over a decade. You’re playing big clubs, interesting festivals and B2B with people like Daniel Avery. And you’ve gone and produced a record that’s perhaps the furthest you’ve ever moved from the dancefloor.
Yes, but it’s still there, it resonates with the club, on certain tracks.
Sure. And the press release accompanying it talks of hotel beds and airport transfers. But this isn’t a record about how hard it is to be an international DJ! You still like that life, right?
No! It’s not about being a DJ at the point you can’t stand it any more, or you need to go to the studio or to do something else to feel better. It’s just a certain part of my personality, I would say. It takes both.
If I start talking about my perspective, then there has always been a wide range of electronic music that ends up in clubs, and at home. That was always important to me, even back in the nineties. For example, the album I made for Move D’s Source, was very quiet. That was back in 1996 or 1997.
Yes, but back then, maybe you partied harder so you needed a softer record?
Actually, back then, it was a lot quieter, as there wasn’t much travelling, or as much playing. It was a different life.
Still, I read you telling Michael Mayer that you like to follow a night at a club with a visit to a gallery?
Yes, I was always open to going to do something completely different following a visit to a club on a Friday night. Museums, galleries or even nature, gives you something, maybe a new idea for music or whatever. It was always two sides of the same coin. The contrast of it.
What potentially makes you slightly difficult to interview is your understandable reluctance to talk about your music making processes. Not out of secrecy, but just as, in your own words, you just know when something is done and ready to go. And yet, your music over the years has reflected such a wide and complex palate of emotions. Is being in the studio simply meditative for you? As in, do you overthink other areas of your life?
I think so. There’s nothing particular I can tell you, because it’s the subconscious where it all happens. In the studio, it’s just fifteen square metres, and there’s nothing to see when I look outside. There’s just a concrete hotel. I’m basically on my own there, and there’s nothing that keeps me away from what I’m doing.
It all happens basically within you, and then, such is the good thing about electronic music, once you press start then it keeps on going. There’s no reason, apart from pressing stop, why it couldn’t go on forever. So there’s the constant process of deciding what to keep and what to leave behind. It’s like a conversation with yourself without saying anything. Your decisions, they all happen for a reason.
Similarly, you’ve described your process as having a brilliant idea one day, then realising the next that it was terrible, then trying to make it work. Does that process get any easier?
Absolutely, that has always been a big part of making music, the frustration. I learned to play an instrument as a child, and you have to learn to deal with frustration, otherwise there’s no way to get better. And I think that is just part of life.
Some people have the tendency to stop too early, I guess. They have to keep on trying. And sometimes, something won’t happen, but it’s not the end of your life. You can start something new anytime. There are quite a few ideas that I have never finished, but I’ll come back to them and I can see their potential, whereas once I might have thought they were quite rubbish.
I look at your vast back catalogue, and your ability to be willfully experimental, and i wonder if there’s still a part of 47 year old you rebelling against the much younger Roman Flugel who learned classical music?
Yes, I think that’s true, but it took me a while to have to the courage to be like this. In the beginning, you always see yourself as a part of something, and you don’t want to be out that circle or whatever. But I realised, that there are opinions that keep you away from doing something you should do. You need to reach a certain level and you just do it, it gives you a better feeling, so why stop? That’s the process I’ve been through over the past twenty years.
Your friend Gerd Janson has previously identified you as having a “consciousness of indie culture’. The word indie seems dreadfully unfashionable these days. The label you’re on, Dial, is traditionally ‘indie’ to me, but what does that term mean to you?
To me, it would be pretty much the same as it was back in the day. Because it’s a certain perspective and a certain way to release records. First of all, you make a 50/50 split, you don’t make any contracts, but at the same way, you’re very open about what you do. The artists and the label will know it’s an indie deal as soon as they have one! There are not too many lawyers involved.
OK, these days, it’s a bit different as the whole marketing of music has changed. But there’s still a big difference between a small label, or an independent label, and let’s say, Universal. Nothing is really independent, but the state of mind is more independent. You release records on a much lower level, but it gives you a large amount of freedom. It’s not about the marketing, it’s more about the heart.
And I think the big labels are still not capable of handling what we do. Still, after all these years! Warp has managed to do it on a much bigger scale, but there’s not too many. The whole scene lives because of a thousand smaller labels, still.
Your last record was called ‘Happiness is Happening’. You’ve previously been somewhat critical of the constant desire people have for happiness. What else do you think exists in between? When you’re in clubs, you live on the fringes of people’s heightened euphoria, and presumably happiness. Is the drive for the happiness in between what drives you in between ‘moments’ if you will?
Yes, I would say so. I mean, what is happiness anyway? There are so many different forms of happiness, and at the same time, it can be like this extreme excitement, or something quiet. Then you have these big moments, that pop up maybe five times in your life. But I’m not looking for those moments. I don’t need to feel that something super special is happening all the time. But in my average life, if you’re happy, you can live as such.
The work I’m doing in the week, besides the excitement of DJing at the weekend, is doing something creative. The process makes me very content, very satisfied. That’s something you can be really thankful for besides all the shit that is happening around yourself.