From Kiel & Berlin to London & San Diego, cool has been re-imagined
“… ‘77’ seems a piece that has a rather elegant flow, something I always appreciated about d&b very much. Although this might not be a d&b release from a ‘genre-stalinist’ perspective, I’d still argue that it at least attempts to relate to that kind of aesthetic …” – Ulrich Schnauss
Leaping in time from the nostalgically distant 1994 and Foul Play to 2012 for the 10th installment of the ‘Tracks I Wish I’d Written’ series. It’s been a rare occasion that two of my all-time favourite electronic music artists have combined their studio wizardry for an exquisite collaboration, which succinctly encapsulates their cinematic aesthetics. Having a visionary and eclectic scope, sophisticated production and composition qualities, as well as enviable back catalogues transcending genres and styles, James Clements and Ulrich Schnauss are purveyors of the finest electronic music.
James Clements, widely known by his primary recording alias ASC, has made his first foray into drum & bass production with Nu Directions in the late 90s. Shortly after, he established his own label Covert Operations to accommodate for his own material, as well as foster a creative space for like-minded artists. Showcasing a forward-thinking take on deep, atmospheric drum & bass the project concluded its cycle in 2009. In the meantime, James had produced a wide array of albums and singles for a plethora of the genre’s most prestigious labels. Being an integral member of the ‘Autonomic’ initiative alongside dBridge and Instra:mental, James widened his repertoire and forged his own musical path, defiant of formulas, stereotypes and genre constraints, re-designing the blueprint. As a natural progression, the vehicle for his new ventures has been his new platform Auxiliary Music. Launched in 2010 in the aftermath of the Autonomic era, ASC created an inner circle with artists who shared his vision and embarked on a mission to explore uncharted sonic territories.
Ulrich started his production career under the aliases View To the Future and Ethereal 77, recording drum & bass and deep electronica. He released his first personal album on the Berlin-based label City Centre Offices (CCO) in 2001. Garnering confidence, the follow-up, the Cocteau Twins-influenced acclaimed album ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’ earned him worldwide recognition and praise. Merging indie songwriting with electronic instrumentation, Ulrich soon became an in-demand cross-genre remixer for numerous electronic music acts as well as indie/pop music outstanding bands such as Coldplay, Pet Shop Boys, Death Cab for Cutie and Depeche Mode, enjoying also remarkable success across the Atlantic. Besides his solo projects, Ulrich has been a member of various electronic music groups (Hair, Beroshima, Police Cars in Headphones etc.) and has also played keyboards for the indie/shoegaze bands Longview and Engineers.
Ulrich Schnauss & ASC – 77 EP (AUX007, Auxiliary Music, 2012)
Their musical paths had crossed in the past (they both had signed tracks with LTJ Bukem’s Looking Good Records in the early 00s) and apparently they were both into each other’s music, so the collaboration seemed inevitable. James and Ulrich reflect on how their partnership came about:
James: “I was into Ulrich since his first album on CCO. That really struck a chord with me, especially ‘Nobody’s Home’ and ‘Molfsee’. He contacted me out of the blue one day on facebook and wanted to buy some spare vinyl I had left over from an old drum & bass label I used to run, called ‘Covert Operations. It turned out he was a fan of my music, which really made me happy and we struck up a good friendship. We kept in touch and decided that we’d work on some music together at some point and that’s how the ‘77’ EP on Auxiliary came about. That EP was so effortless for both of us too. All the tracks just seemed to come together with no problems. Everything we both did worked first time and the tracks that came out are pretty much the first takes, give or take a few arrangement tweaks”.*
Ulrich: “I was into James’ music since his first releases towards the end of the ‘golden age’ of d&b. I kept following his work even after I had temporarily lost interest in d&b ,since his stuff always struck me as timeless and not depending on the rules, ups& downs and trends of a particular genre – like any good music really”.
Their partnership culminated in the stellar ‘77’ EP, published by Auxiliary Music, on November 2012. Beautifully packaged with meticulous attention to detail, as per the label’s usual practice, the record is pressed on forest green vinyl adorned with black smoke swirls. The EP includes four exceptional tracks ‘77’, ‘Pyramids’, ‘Theta’ and ‘Moiré Pattern’. The track titles really intrigued me, looking for abstract connections, as I firmly believe that the true value of an artistic product is to create and convey different emotions, thoughts and interpretations.
The ‘77’ EP is an electronic reverie; a straight forward narrative injected into a short story riddled with imaginary metaphors. The title refers to another thing James and Ulrich have in common, their year of birth. I like every track of the EP, however the one that has resonated with me and will be presented here is the lead track. James and Ulrich agree that the selection of the theme track came quite naturally:
Ulrich: “I can’t even remember whether we actually had any discussions about this – it must’ve just seemed obvious to both of us that this should be the lead track. From my point of view it seems a piece that has a rather elegant flow, something I always appreciated about d&b very much. Although this might not be a d&b release from a “genre-stalinist” perspective, I’d still argue that it at least attempts to relate to that kind of aesthetic”.
James: “There were never any real discussions about it. We kinda just wrote all the tracks for the EP in a relatively short time and the title track seemed to be the strongest in both of our minds, so it was just the obvious fit to lead the EP with”.
Beyond the confines of drum & bass, despite being written within the 85/170 framework, ‘77’ is an elegant and adept study of modern electronica. James’ and Ulrich’s long-term dalliance with vintage synths is omnipresent, evoking IDM memories of times past. The poignant, bitter-sweet melodies and sweeping widescreen vistas, as well as the vocal snippets on the breakdown, echo long after the track’s conclusion, creating a feeling of choked melancholy; a transient visit to that delicate and elusive place between sadness and hope. The subdued dynamics of the half-time percussion gracefully complete a modern classic.
After ’77’ and fast forward to the present:
James carried on ever so prolific, recording almost a dozen exceptional albums (for the Canadian concept label Silent Season, Samurai Music and his own Auxiliary), as well as numerous singles and EPs for a variety of labels. In the meantime, he also launched the experimental outlets Veil and Diode and astonished the underground music world with the ‘Grey Area’ project/initiative in association with Presha’s Samurai Music.
James has recently channeled his everlasting passion for cinema and all things sc-fi to music composition for the films: ‘Bottom Of The World’ and ‘Yesterday Last year’ (2017), the documentary: ‘The Blackout Experiments’ (2016) and the video game: ‘Near Death’ (2016).
In 2012 Ulrich introduced his own label Scripted Realities and a few months later published the label’s inaugural album ‘A Long Way to Fall’. I love that album so much, that I used the track ‘Her And The Sea’ from the album for my daughter’s 2nd birthday video. He followed up with another album last year on Scripted Realities as well two LPs with Jonas Munk and Quaeschning respectively.
In 2014 Schnauss added another achievement in his illustrious career, when he officially joined the latest incarnation of electronic music luminaries Tangerine Dream. Tangerine Dream celebrate the band’s 50th anniversary with the release of ‘Quantum Gate’ at the end of this month.
What the future holds:
When asked if there will be any follow-up in the foreseeable future, both artists seem adamant:
Ulrich: “We’ve both agreed that we’d definitely like to work on another project again eventually – when the right moment occurs we’ll get on it I’m sure”.
James: “Totally. We’ve been talking for a while about doing more work together, but it’s just a matter of timing. It will happen though at some stage, I’m pretty sure of that!”.
‘77’ has also featured on the blog’s podcast for another favourite label of mine Modern Urban Jazz (MPOD 043). I’ve been intending to present ‘77’ since the day of the series’ conception three years ago, however now seems to be a good timing, as both James (under his exclusive alias Comit) and Ulrich have forthcoming music on the beautiful ambient electronica label Short Trips. The label’s profile, reviews and discography highlights are available in the blog’s archive here.
Every track that is presented here has been hand-picked from my personal record collection and has had a profound impact on my musical taste. Featuring a variety of tracks across the electronic music spectrum, emphasizing mainly on drum and bass, from undisputed classics to underrated gems, all are tracks I wish I’d written, as the title of the series suggests.
Visit the blog’s archive for the previous installments of the “Tracks I Wish I’d Written” series here.
*ASC interview excerpt for ‘A Strangely Isolated Place’, full interview here
ASC studio photo courtesy of James Clements
Ulrich Schnauss studio photo by visual artist Nat Urazmetova, London 2011
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