It’s April in Berlin and I find myself exiting Pankstraße U Bahn station in Wedding. The seasons are changing as is the mood of the city. The sun is out and people are enjoying the respite from the bitter cold and dreadnaught grey skies that have loomed over the city throughout the winter months. I check my phone and begin to walk towards the location. Within minutes I’m standing outside an unassuming concrete box-shaped building strutted upon steel supports. At first it has the appearance of a small chapel, but upon closer inspection it didn’t have the right demeanour for such an institution. A scruffy driveway welcomed me as I walked through the gate, trying to locate the house number plaque to confirm the address.
A door to the building had been left ajar, so I ventured in and instinctively started to climb the twisting staircase. I found myself on the first floor where there are four doors and a small kitchen. It’s 10:30 am on a Tuesday morning and there was no sign of anyone else in the building. Moments later a friendly character appears from one of the four doors, enters the kitchen whilst introducing himself and offers to brew a pot of tea. We exchange niceties and I explain my reasons for being there. Ten minutes pass by and I start to ponder where my subject might be…
24 hours prior to this, Phillip Sollmann aka Efdemin, had been playing a 4-hour set at Berghain taking over from Function. I was beginning to think that my plans for a meet up so early in the day were not going to formulate. To keep me entertained, I was welcomed into a vast yet comfortable studio where I discussed music with the man from the kitchen, whilst sipping on my cup of tea. We also talk about the building we are in and he tells me that “a friend of ours bought this place years ago and set out to keep it as a creative space and music studio” – In fact, this particular studio is used to compose music for films and was home to a grand piano and an array of synthesisers and other enticing instruments.
Half an hour passes. Next to arrive is techno producer Ed Davenport aka Inland – he walks into the studio, introduces himself and tells me that he also has a studio in the building – I ask him “have you seen or heard from Phillip today?” – he laughs replying “Is he out of Berghain yet?” – Amused yet somewhat disheartened, the feeling is quickly diminished by the echo in the hallway of someone climbing the stairs. Phillip strolls into the room wearing spectacles and a hooded black winter coat. He apologises for being late, opens the door and invites me into his studio.
Interview & Photography by Tom Durston
"There are ups and downs and there have been many times when I thought to myself "What am I doing here?"
It’s been a while since we last heard music from you – What have you been up to since this Naïf mix CD project began? DJing, playing gigs, honing the mind perhaps?
After I released my album ‘Decay‘ via Dial in 2014 I felt for a long time that I wanted to explore different territories and I was hoping that I could realise this project, Monophonie, which was premiered last year in February as I got this grant from Berlin so that I could put together this ensemble.
This whole project was very complex because for the first time in my life I was writing music for an ensemble to play it, writing a score and writing without any forms of electronic music, also the instruments have their own rules as they are microtonal, so I had to get into the mind frame of Harry Partch’s microtonality which is quite complex.
I went on this two-week trip to a little beach house in Australia to read his book called ‘Genesis Of A Music‘ and my brain was smoking afterwards, it was super complex. He built his own instruments and developed a unique tuning system that I explored for this project.
Working with a Ensemble that plays ‘Neue Musik‘ like Stockhausen or Kagel was extremely fantastic and intense. I’m happy I did it but it meant that I had to slow down on gigging, traveling and producing electronic music. I didn’t use any of my analog equipment in my studio for two years, I didn’t even switch it on! But now it’s all back and I love it.
There was also this Sollmann & Gürtler project, which for me was great and meant I was doing something completely different – escaping the DJ circus for a while and playing improvised music with a guitar.
Besides that I built an instrument last year with Konrad Sprenger. It’s a midi-controlled Organ and is called Modular Organ System. We did several performances on it in Museums and Galleries until now. Also became a father, so this has all changed my life. Now I enjoy life even more.
The DJ circuit for you must be knackering, three gigs a weekend, loneliness, self-reflection. Do you ever think that you should stop?
There are ups and downs and there have been many times when I thought to myself “What am I doing here?”… I never set out to be a DJ in the first place, but there are great gigs to play, such as Berghain on a Monday. It feels so good that I would not want to miss out on that. I feel honoured to have this chance to play there.
"First of all I wanted to just do a mix. I should have just done that because it involves so much work. I am not doing this ever again!"
Do you still get an adrenaline rush when you step up at the booth in Berghain?
Absolutely. Since I released my album ‘Decay‘ my profile has been adjusted as for how people perceive me. For my first two albums ‘Efdemin‘ and ‘Chicago‘ I was booked mostly to play house parties. ‘Decay‘ seemed to be a correction for me, nearly every gig since was great because it was the perfect place to be.
The release of this Naïf mix CD helps me expressing and showing what I am into now. So it helps me getting even better bookings in. I’m not earning all of this big money like other DJs do. I am still playing small clubs that have dedicated crowds. That’s why I’m doing it.
Was the mix arranged with turntables or on a computer?
It was all done using a computer because I didn’t have the vinyl. Before that I recorded all of my podcasts with turntables. I was thinking about doing it with vinyl but then I would have had to make fifteen dub plates and it would have been too much work. I wanted to have really complex layering of the tracks and this is not possible with vinyl. In the end it does not matter how it is done, it’s all about the selection and how I put it together.
I was really happy when Tom, the label boss of Curle, told me that he was still listening to my first mix CD ‘Carry On, Pretend We’re Not In The Room‘ (Curle, 2008). He said that it was quite timeless. I listened to it myself, and except for one track, which I thought was a little lame, I thought the mix was pretty good. That’s what I am hoping for with this one too, that it will stand the test of time.
Are there any specific tracks that you are particularly happy for including into the mix CD?
Well first of all I didn’t intend, but there are these ten tracks that I was involved with or produced myself, because I have all of these aliases. I think the track I am most proud of is ‘Move Your Head‘. This is the central track for me and it goes very well with this Steve Bicknell track, who is one of my heroes; he is such a gentleman, a great minimalist and a great deejay.
Recently we played together in Berghain and I told him that we were the first two guys there ever standing next to each other with button-down shirts on in the booth!
What’s up with this black on black uniform that everyone wears at Berghain?
I don’t know… I go blue… I sometimes even wear green. I really do not care. I always say to my friends that if I was not playing there then I would never be let in by the bouncers. I have no idea about all of this stuff, I just want to play my music and it is fucking fantastic.
I enter from the back side entrance, walk up the stairs and enter the booth and it is totally overwhelming. You’re like “fuck yeah I have four hours or sometimes more to do this now” and it is fantastic, honestly it is one of the best things that I have ever done. I feel now that I have matured and reached a point where I am not looking for the perfect next record, but to stop thinking and play. That’s what happened on Monday morning and it was so much fun.
"I feel now that I have matured and reached a point where I am not looking for the perfect next record, but to stop thinking and play."
Who was playing before you at Berghain?
Function was – another hero and good friend of mine. It was perfect to take over from him.
When it comes to starting off your set – do you begin with some weird sounding textural ambient record to set the mood and atmosphere or do you go full 4/4 from the off?
Sometimes I just bang it out, but this time I played some Timothy Leary monologue and then it took off. I got it from a friend, and he’s talking about tripping of course.
What about the artwork for the CD – who is behind this?
Yes, this was done by my partner. She also did the cover for my self-titled album (2007) and the artwork for the first mix CD (‘Carry On, Pretend We’re Not In The Room‘), so I asked her if she wanted to do another mix CD cover and she came up with this amazing artwork. I like the artwork a lot because it deals with the leftovers from the night.
Is this a section of a bigger picture?
Yes, it is a work-in-progress composition. She puts it all into this see-through plastic in the end so you can see all the pills and things. This is just a cut out from the whole thing.
I am also an ex-smoker. When you travel and play everything is always around you. You get offered everything. It is funny because I realised from time to time that I play without drinking and I always have the feeling that even if I play the best set and everyone is dancing, the promoter still thinks I did not play as well as the last time because I didn’t drink with them.
Some people feel like you are cheating if you are completely sober, treating it as a professional job. I get the feeling after playing all of these parties that I play better sets if I am in full control and am sober. I stopped smoking cigarettes eight years ago, but before that I could not play or make music without smoking.
Alongside the CD mix you are also releasing seven EP’s to revive your record label Naïf.
Yes, it is a selection of different tracks. They are the ones that Tom wanted to have for his label, Curle. I said that he was free to choose. He wanted the Steve Bicknell track but I said nope, this one is for my label… sorry! In total there are two records on Curle and five on Naïf, there is also a limited edition cassette.
The ones on Curle are out now and I’ll spread the release of the five records on Naïf over a few months. I think by Autumn we will have released all of them. I like all of the tracks so much that I could not throw any of them away, having them on vinyl is special.
Was the mix CD the initial idea, and the release of the records secondary? When did this concept first spring?
Tom asked me two years ago. I liked the idea of doing a mix but I totally underestimated the effort that it would require. I just thought I’d have to write each person an email and ask them for unreleased tracks.
First of all I wanted to just do a mix. I should have just done that because it involves so much work – I am not doing this ever again! Dealing with so many people is a lot of work. It took me months to get into the groove. Slowly it evolves and you know what direction the mix will take. Then I felt that in the end it will all be unreleased exclusive tracks, so it is the perfect time to revive my label, as I hadn’t released anything for a year.
Now I have five new super cool techno EPs on my own label, which I think is great. You could say that I am hijacking Curle by calling it Naïf, the name of my label. They are doing the CD and I am doing the vinyl. It’s perfect.
The correspondence with all of these people was great and I met a lot of new faces, eating and talking and listening to a lot of music. It was funny with Ed Davenport aka Inland, because he has a studio next to mine that he shares with Patrik Skoog as well as John Gürtler who is my other neighbour and they are all on the mix. It’s quite a personal project. In the end it felt like half of a new album, as there’s ten of my tracks on there. I didn’t intend it to be as such, it just happened.
"The impact the internet has on how we perceive music, the distribution and value of music has changed so drastically. There are no real albums anymore because streaming has destroyed that format. At the same time some records have become totally overpriced."
Why are there none of the Dial crew featured on the mix CD?
In the end Pete aka Lawrence did not send me anything. Oliver aka RNDM was also not able to do anything. Of course I asked them to. We also discussed making some Pigon tracks, but then we did not find time to work together. Oliver lives on the other side of Berlin and he has two kids so he’s busy.
I’ve always loved Pigon tracks as they are on the edge of house and techno. I love producing as Pigon because usually it was always me doing everything, but in this particular project Oliver actually tells me what to do. He is the producer and I’m the studio assistant. We should definitely try to revive Pigon and I also miss him personally. We are not that young anymore and don’t have endless time.
This is the one thing that I do not like about being a DJ – the anti-social time schedule. I rarely see friends who are visual artists or so because they have exhibitions on Thursdays and Fridays and I am usually touring. I have to recover on Mondays and have two or three days to see people, play some sport, go to the studio and make some music. Then I have to take care of the kid. It’s crazy! It is so time-consuming. I guess being a DJ is only for young and single people.
You also go to all of these great places in the world, but you cannot experience them. You arrive at your hotel and then return back to it afterwards. It’s sad, I don’t see so much of all the great places.
Where have you been over the past month?
England, Poland, Sweden, Germany, Netherlands, Turkey, Paris, Sao Paulo… I keep on forgetting where I’ve been, they just blur into one. I have a trip coming up in Japan soon. There I always stay longer and travel together with friends.
Do you take records or USB’s?
It depends. If I don’t have to travel far then I take records, because I love records. I play half of my sets at Berghain using vinyl. I’d love to take records to Japan as everything there is set up so well. But as I am traveling to the countryside quite a bit, I’ll just take my USB. For festivals it is not possible to take vinyl, so I just use USB. Especially if there is a sand storm, all of your records are ruined.
"You could say that I am hijacking Curle by calling it Naïf, the name of my label. They are doing the CD and I am doing the vinyl. It's perfect."
I once played in London in this old tunnel and the bass was shaking the roof and all of these tiny particles of sand were falling down and nobody realised. In the morning I woke up to head to another gig in Manchester, and when I pulled out a record from my bag it made a huge scratching noise. I then realised that half of my records were ruined as they were all covered in this dust. So I got them all out and showered them in the hotel room, then I put them all over the room to dry them out! They are so fragile, it’s crazy.
Yeah it still boggles me how records work… it’s witchcraft! Tell me about your early days starting off with playing records out in a club, where did it all begin?
Pudel club in Hamburg. It was when the whole Dial thing started – their night was called ‘Changing Weather‘ and I was making music with a friend as Tobin. We had one record out before Dial started, this was the kick-off for Peter (Lawrence) and David (Carsten Jost). They asked us if we wanted to get involved with the label and we were like “yeah, sure“. We hated doing the label work so if they were up to do it, fine.
That was around 1998/99. I mostly DJed at Pudel Club playing different styles, including hip-hop and early Moodymann records. I completely fell in love with that music and started to buy records more and more. I spent all my money on vinyl rather than food.
Do you still have all of these records?
What do you think about the role Discogs makes on the price of old records?
The impact the internet has on how we perceive music, the distribution and value of music has changed so drastically. There are no real albums anymore because streaming has destroyed that format. At the same time some records have become totally overpriced.
Sometimes I buy a new record and I take it to play at a party and while taking it out I think “Oh my god this is so limited… maybe it’s already worth something on Discogs. I should not play it“. Is this real… am I thinking about things like this. Half of the vinyl that is pressed nowadays is unplayed. It’s kept in the shrink wrap in mint condition waiting for the Discogs price to rise. It’s mental. It’s the same as synthesizers, I’m so glad I got my gear ages ago.
Yeah the going price for an original TR 808 is $2500 on Ebay!
Yeah but it’s the best drum machine ever built. I still love it.
What do you think about the new Roland Boutique series?
I’ve never used them – I think it’s a joke… but I have the originals so I can say that. But I went to Jeroen Search’s studio in the Netherlands and he has all of the originals and the new boutiques, because he takes them for his live set and the old ones are too heavy and expensive.
He says that the new ones are fine, they don’t sound as good as the originals but they are super solid, reliable and you can play them. He’s a real analogue head so if he’s into them then they must be good. First world problems.
In the end I don’t care if you do music with a computer or a machine (original or clone), as long as it sounds good then I don’t care. But I can’t wait to get my hands on the Yamaha CS-80 Clone called ‘Deckard’s Dream‘. It should arrive any day now.
Naïf is out now on CD, cassette and digital formats, order a copy here.