This week I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing the extraordinarily talented Powel, a personal favourite and author of one of my all time favourite deep house tracks 'Crash Landing on Laputa'.
An expert at creating harmonious illusions of sound, the Berlin-based producer has released tracks on a number of labels including Lee Buridges' All Day I Dream, Fina Recordings, Egoplanet, Das Sind Wir and Common Labour. He has also released remixes on Anjuna Deep, Traum Recordings, BMG Rights and Délicieuse Musique.
It’s rare to hear an artist so intimately blur the line between uplifting pieces of music and raw, emotive records that exude the soul of deep house in some of its purest forms. A true artist in every sense of the word, Powel's genius for storytelling is always a special affair for the enthusiast.
How did you first get into electronic music production?
My first steps into electronic music were when I was around 14/15 years old. Next to my school there was my music school where I went to learn to play the piano and the drums. They had a small studio with some basic equipment there which nobody was really using so they gave my a key and I spent a lot of time in that room trying to figure out how all that stuff works.
Unfortunately, there wasn't anybody around who could show me anything beyond the very basics and it was the time before Youtube tutorials. It's no surprise that my first productions sounded – retrospectively speaking - not very good. But it also had its benefits: Without anybody looking over my shoulder or showing me how to use a daw properly, I had to go my own unique way from the very beginning.
The music I was trying to create at that time was very far away from the dance floor. I was more interested in IDM or Trip Hop. After finishing school, I moved to Berlin and stopped producing for a while focusing on other stuff. It was around 2008 when I started to make my way back towards producing and discovered the danceable side of electronic music for myself.
Did it take some time to develop into your current deep melodic style of electronic music or was this always what you intended to make?
It took some time, indeed. At the time I was getting back into producing electronic music, I was also playing in two bands. One band was called 'well done, jackson pollock'. I played drums there and was writing the string arrangements. We were making dreamy sound landscape post-rock à la 'Sigur Rós'. The other one was called 'The Mouse Folk', in which I've played keys in. That sound was more like some sort of indie-folk music with a little electronic touch. Both bands where making really nice music, so I wanted to create a counter part, for the balance you could say. That's why my first productions as Powel where quite rough and also much faster then they are now.
It was a long process to finally realise and accept that it might be a good thing to combine the stuff I'm good at, which is creating seemingly simple but thoughtful harmonic melodies, with the sounds I might've struggled with and had just started to discover again. As a producer this turned out to be just the perfect way for me.
Some of your records have very unusual names – do you come up with them at random or are there stories behind them?
To be honest there are usually no stories behind the track names. My tracks usually have really weird working titles like 'Hey Desktop pr3'. Those names describe small details in the track, so that I can remember which track it is but they obviously don't make a good track name. At the end, usually the same day I send them out for mastering, I try to find names for them which capture their overall feeling.
A lot of times it's a reference to Michael Ende, a German author which I'm still very fascinated with. Other times I just randomly google words that come to my mind while listening to the tracks and see if anything interesting pops up. I like to not have to follow a specific storyline or emotion with an electronic track, unlike a love-themed song by a band for instance. You get a blank cheque as a listener and you can make up your own story if some elements are triggering you to do so. If not it's also fine, you can just dance to it.
I’ve always admired your ability to construct melodies – I’d say it’s one of the strongest aspects of your music, is this something you spend the most time focusing on when producing?
I guess, I always had a little talent for that and I've managed to work on and improve that talent over the years, also while and even because I've played in those bands I mentioned. I've actually tried to make tracks without any harmonies or melodies but they always come back to me so I eventually gave up on trying to create something that's just not me I suppose. I did realise that I've tried this just for the sake of making something different than I usual do, not because I was feeling it. So yes, it's a key element of my music, but I don't spend that much time on finding the right chords or notes. It takes much more time for me to make them sound good as a whole.
On that topic – how do you create your melodies – what does your studio setup look like?
Right now my setup is really stripped down to just an electronic piano, my field recorder and a laptop. Because I had to move out of a shared studio a few months back, I'm working from home right now and there's not much room for all my gear. So most of it is packed up in the basement or at friends' places where I can at least put it to good use for the time being. I'm in the middle of finding a new room to build a proper studio again but in a city like Berlin, packed with ambitious producers and Djs, the market for those kind of rooms is quite competitive and good spaces are rare. Lack of room has forced me to make it work with just a few essentials and it does work pretty well.
Where do you do most of your production?
Mostly home, or, once I finally find a new room for my studio, I'm going to do it there. I sometimes start ideas when I'm on the road but there's always something missing I can't quite put my finger on. I have tons of unfinished tracks I started while I was touring but when I'm at home again I just don't feel most of them anymore. One exception was when I was in Cape Town for the first time – about two years ago. I started some tracks there that I ended up being really happy with. I'm actually about to finalize and put them into a release as we speak. I guess it just takes a very quiet and calm surrounding to produce music and you won't find that everywhere or anytime.
Do you ever get out and do any field recording or anything like that?
Oh definitely! Field recordings are actually going to be one of the major elements in my productions right now. I always was using them for percussion sounds or running them through a vocoder to generate pads with interesting textures. But I've come to realise what amazing melodies and harmonies nature and the city has to offer, if you just look or listen close enough. Sometimes it only takes a few little adjustments and the sounds are far beyond the stuff I could've come up sitting in front of my piano. So I always have my little zoom h2 with me and it became the MVP in my studio.
Do you have any unusual instruments/pieces of kit?
Not really, but I can't wait to have a studio room again. Then I will finally get a vibraphone. I always wanted to have one of those because it's like the case for almost every natural instrument, there is absolutely no plug-in around that can even get close to the real thing. Unfortunately they are super expensive, so even if I find a new room soon, I'll have to wait till I find a good second hand deal.
Do you have any unusual traditions for producing?
Not particularly. Most of the time, I get up, make some coffee, play piano for half an hour to get me in the mood and just get started.
Over the years have you changed the way you produce and write your music?
I don't think so. It all is a very big playground for me and there are still a lot of things for me to discover. But I think my overall workflow is still very similar to the way it used to be. I have to admit that my understanding of the technical side behind it all is very basic at times. I couldn't explain what FM-synthesis is for instance. What I do know is that my dx7 sounds awesome and how to tweak its sounds - that's all I need to know. So my way of producing is still and always has been trial and error till it fits.
What about your inspiration where does the normally come from?
The music I make is just a reflection of what i've experienced and what I feel and therefore every little detail in my life can be an inspiration. I usually just dive in when I'm making music trying not to think too much about what I'm doing. Making music just makes me happy. That's it.
Do you have any favorite tracks that you’ve produced over the years?
At first, I tend to hate every track I've just released because in the final process I spend so much time listening to them over and over again that I develop some sort of love-hate relationship towards them. It's a relief once they're out but it usually takes a lot of time for me to grow fond of them again. That's also the reason why I usually don't play current releases in my DJ sets, which I got some complaints about. The problem for me is that I've played them in sets long before they came out to test them with an audience and obviously people don't know that those are my own tracks so by the time the record is out they want to hear more of it when I'm usually tired of playing it. I definitely have to develop a method to improve that. But anyway my favourite releases of mine are: “Perelin, der Nachtwald“, “Kalophain“ and “Cloud City“.
Are there any tracks that took a considerable amount of time or were particularly challenging to finish?
There are. Right now, I'm working on a new “All Day I Dream” release, and I have been for a while now, changing things up, going back and forth..it's a process. There's one track for the B-side, which I just know is going to be a good track but it's not there yet, so that can be very frustrating. But it's getting there.
So tell me what’s on the cards for you in terms of releases?
I've just finished the tracks for an EP on "Do Not Sit On The Furniture“, a new label founded by my good friend Behrouz from Miami. As I mentioned the next All Day I Dream release is in the pipeline as well, and besides all that I'm working on my first full album right now which I plan to have ready to be released next autumn/winter.
What about touring?
Not much set yet, as I was playing quite a lot during the last few months and I definitely need some studio time to work on music. But we have some interesting plans coming up. There a lot of places out there I haven't visited yet.
Do you have any favourite tracks at the moment?
Albrecht La'Brooy – Memories
Phasen - Lola Dub (Ivan Garci Remix)
Algorythm - Bird Cage
RNR - Moments
Hekkla - Visions of NY
Do you have any records that stay with you in your bag every time you DJ?
Not really, sometimes I rediscover tracks, which I then start to play again but there hasn't been a track so far that has stayed with me all the time.