As he prowled through gallery after gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, with each passing minute Wolfgang Voigt was becoming visibly agitated. The minimal techno legend and Kompakt label co-founder was looking for something simple but elusive in Midtown Manhattan: silence. A hallway of windows looks out on a majestic snowstorm blanketing the city in a foot of snow, but there are too many tourists chatting for Voigt to do little more than grumble and press on. In a room blasting Delta 5’s femme-furious punk single “Mind Your Own Business,” Voigt paused to remember his days as a young punk growing up in Germany before trying again to find some quiet.
There are at least 80 different aliases under which the Cologne-based producer has released music since the Nineties, but it’s as Gas that Voigt elevated to the ranks of the timeless, with a fandom that verges on reverence. From the late Nineties until 2000’s Pop, the first four Gas albums brought ambient music into the 21st century. Utilizing loops, the ceaseless thump of techno and smears of sound sourced from old Arnold Schoenberg symphonies and Richard Wagner operas, Gas melted them all together into a singular sound that could be harrowing and gorgeous, hypnotic and hypnagogic. Just as it was rising to the upper echelons of electronic music, Voigt dropped the Gas project, seemingly for good. In its wake, the legacy only grew, those sinister and bucolic sounds informing electronic acts like the Orb and the Field but also heavy guitar acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Deafheaven and Sunn O))), not to mention new minimal composers like Max Richter and the late Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Then just as quickly as he disappeared, Voigt revived Gas last year with the opulent Narkopop. It’s no one-off. Voigt’s in the midst of a sold-out string of shows in the States as Gas, previewing for the packed crowds his most tumultuous, foreboding and dynamic album to date, Rausch. Twenty-three years after first donning the moniker, Rausch – intended to be heard as a single 60 minute piece – stands as his most accomplished and heaviest album, proof that rather than being an Old Master reclining on previous peaks, Voigt is instead relentlessly pushing forward. Those expecting something to drift off to sleep to will instead encounter a work that solar-plexus punches old fans and newcomers alike.
Abandoning the MoMA, Voigt forged out into the blizzard, ultimately finding an empty bar in the lobby of the Hilton. Still bristling at all the noise of the city, he announced to Rolling Stone: “My golden rule has always been no alcohol in interviews for 20 years. But today is an exception.” He raised his pint glass to talk about his creative process and how the latest Gas is his version of an opera.
Having just marched through the MoMA looking for a quiet place, how important is silence to you?
Silence is very important. In the case of just being quiet and in the case of coming back to a baseline. To empty all rooms, you know, creative rooms. It’s very important to me. Quiet and to make rooms empty again in this case. The point is I need silence to concentrate on myself. I’m absolutely unable to do any kind of multi-tasking. I’m very sensitive. I hear everything and I can’t fade out surrounding noises, for example. This is why I don’t go out too often to restaurants. You know, you’re with your friends having some drinks and talk, but on the speakers overhead, somebody is crying about their life. I call this music “masochi-pop,” which is you are sitting there trying to enjoy yourself and somebody is crying. In this case, silence is very important for me.
Another very important reason to me why I need silence is I have massive tinnitus as a result of too much techno. And if it’s too loud then I don’t hear it. It has to be very quiet for me to concentrate because of the tinnitus. Which is really hard to find because everywhere now it’s really loud. Even when I find a place in nature, like a friend’s house in the countryside in Eastern Germany, where it’s quiet enough to hear nothing, there’s just wind and tinnitus.
Does your work as Gas only come out of such moments of quiet?
During the years, I found it paradoxical that some of my most interesting and musical results are based on the fact that I cannot really concentrate for very long periods, because I also get periods of ADHD. … And in my experience within the last 20-30 years, for me to work fast brings out better results. Because I can discuss too much with myself about whether it is right or wrong, up or down or whatever. I found that for me sometimes it brings me to more interesting results to fade out concentration. For me the most interesting thing becomes the moment when you forget about these ideas.
You talk about walking away. There’s a 17-year long gap between Pop and last year’s return, Narkopop. Why did you stop and what led you to come back to Gas?
In regarding my daily business, I walked away from it in a certain way. But mentally I was always connected. I’m always Gas, 24 hours a day. … When Narkopop came out last year after 17 years, every second journalists were asking about this. I was wondering about this because – for me – Gas never went away. Apart from the fact that there was no new music, the project was never away from the people, from the fans. Because they used to listen to those older Gas records constantly all over during this time. And within this time, those albums were becoming more and more timeless. I think of it not like a revival, or something that has been ended. It’s endless. … More and more, there’s this special feeling that I need in this situation to work on this project as Gas. And then the kind of inspiration that I needed to work on this project came back within the last few years.
How would you describe this feeling that allowed for Gas to return?
The time had come. Gas was asking for its right to come back out again. It wasn’t really my decision. It was something that I had to do. Looks like a higher order made me do it.
In interviews, you’ve described Gas as having this childhood aspect of wandering in Königsforst as a child and again as a teenager while taking LSD. Did you find that you had to go back to that sort of mind set again?
I have been always there at a certain part. A very important part of my artistic personality was born in this very early period you mentioned. It has never gone away, even if I don’t have to show it all the time. I didn’t have to visit certain places, or go get reconnected with some kind of spirit in the forest. I don’t need that. Because it’s always right there. This is my life. This is what I do.
How has the technology and the tools changed over the years?
The technical side in the Nineties was very different, but in the end it’s still the same, it’s built up the same way. It’s sample-based music. Creating the sound of Gas in the Nineties had always been very inert. I never ever gave a shit about proper sound! Objectively, the sound of those Nineties Gas records are – in a very special way – horrible. But at the same moment, it’s wonderful. Because what people like about it is some simultaneous thing: between terrible and fascinating sound, between abstract and concrete sound, nostalgic and up-to-date sound. But to be honest, ears, times, technical aspects, sound scenario, that has all changed today. And for the new albums, I want it to make it understandable for the people. If I would have been searching for the same kind of sound I did in the Nineties, it wouldn’t have the same powerful effect. It would sound terrible.
And, as far as I can see, hopefully, that the latest recordings sound much better. Which does not mean it has lost its special spirit. Rausch too is also made out of ignoring or avoiding proper perfect sound, because in the best moments, it’s very intense, very disturbing. And it still hurts my ears.
Previous Gas records felt like distinct pieces that hover in space.
Yeah, there’s pieces on earlier Gas albums. And with Rausch, it is very much one statement.
Yeah. The reason is because Rausch an opera. It is. It’s made in one go, in a way. From the very beginning, it was meant to be something like opera. … I made it in one go, following a script where I go to this point and I go here and then bring it all together. … And I brought it through in a really short time, in one rush, one Rausch if you like. Without any doubt at any time, I’m happy to say it worked.
Would you say Rausch came faster than other Gas recordings?
It’s faster, though that might sound a bit of a boast. The older I get, the more I know what I want. … The thing is, the process for this kind of music is very long, theoretically, in the back of your head, sometimes for 20 years. But when it came out, it’s like a flush. It’s like, whew. My experience is that most of the time – apart from some technical mistakes I might make when I’m improvising – the faster I play, the better the end results. Because that’s my personality. Or it’s my own psychological analysis.
In the museum you talked about your days as a punk, so maybe it’s that?
I used to be into punk in the late Seventies, yes. But, for me this Gas thing has to do … Let’s use the museum as an example: Even if I haven’t time to look at pictures, Gas is always something between Jackson Pollock and Gerhard Richter. It’s very ambient and very impressive at the same, expressive and aggressive and of course, it’s also psychedelic.
At times in Rausch, it’s the most aggressive I’ve heard Gas.
For me, that’s a compliment. It has been too soft. It has to do with a lifetime search that’s about contradictions because as an artist, I’m full of contradictions. I’m always working on a concept as well as a psychological reason to go over a contradiction. But, I’m looking for a simultaneous work where opposite aspects happen at the same time: loud and quiet, beat and beatless, abstract and concrete. It has to do with something where you want this and you want this at the same time. I want everything at the same time. And I want to surround the world in one little result.
I found out that the more I play, one half of my brain is thinking about Arnold Schoenberg and the other half is playing beautiful pop ambient music. With Rausch, I want to bring this together somewhere in-between to where a third aspect comes up, a third ear or third eye if you will. Something happening in this really represents my inner soul or really what I’m looking for. For me, it leads to the music I want to make.
Are you a fan of opera in general?
Ugh, no. Yuck! … When I go to an opera, I’m there to just listen to the music. I don’t have to talk or concentrate, and I might be okay. Of course, I like the power of a Wagner opera, but Mozart is not really my thing. My wife is a fan though and she presented me with tickets for Don Giovanni in Cologne, in our hometown, a few weeks ago. And it was great! I never thought I could make it through the whole three hours but I did!
If somebody would call some of the Gas music opera, it’s absolutely okay. That said, opera remains the most stressful kind of music for me. There’s an additional message, because vocals always want to tell you something about the world, which I don’t want to hear. It’s always about explanation. On the other hand, the human voice gives it the strongest personal connection. I used to work with voices in Gas, but in an abstract way, by playing clusters and put them far away in the mix. The music of Gas is very packed and dense and it’s full of certain kinds of ghosts. There are a lot of people who think they might hear voices and they’re not wrong. I just try to create the world with these massive layers and bring out my inner world, which might be full of these ghosts or voices or faces or whatever.
The new album moves and changes very fast, like storm clouds coming at you.
Yeah. It’s a trip. It’s like traveling through certain periods and places but it’s all in one trip. The process made for darker places and it’s for people to now light their own way. At the end, there’s also a certain perspective of saying that Gas is not really a forest. The loop was so important to the first Gas records, but its dominance and magic is not the same now. The loop is not king anymore. Gas music feels more free now.
The test that accompanies Rausch references Pink Floyd’s “Careful With That Axe, Eugene” and Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus.” Are they used as references on the album?
We’ve been talking about voices and opera. This is the verbal, unsung libretto of the Gas opera. In this case, it’s written. If you want, you can sing this part on the album. There’s the music, the visual and this makes the third part of the opera. Sing it with any kind of key change you want.