Many get a chance behind the DJ booth, but few have what it takes to achieve real longevity. In this regard, Tobi Neumann has been exemplary, contributing to German music culture through audio engineering, film composition and production, and of course his techno laced shuffle-house DJ sets, since the late 1980’s.
Collaborating with German house and techno kingpins like “Papa” Sven Väth, the ever present Villalobos, and ultra-durable labels like Cocoon and Playhouse, Tobi fast-forwarded through his experimental phases straight to a successful career with the industry’s top musicians and venues: those who’ve been setting the standard in dance music over the past two decades.
“Ultraschall 2, where I started, was one of the top five techno clubs of the nineties in Germany.”
On the coldest of Berlin spring afternoons, I pile into Tobi Neumann’s studio at Riverside, one of the music industry’s main nerve centers these days, to chat with the polymath about his music history and armoury of sound equipment. This collection of weighty electronic instruments is awe-inspiring “in the flesh”, and a reminder that this is the technology, that provided the basis for the endless supply of virtual music plugins used in modern studios.
Tobi is happy, obviously still in love with the creative process, and talks easily about his own history. “It was in ’88 that I started to have my own studio with Tommi Eckart [later to form 2RaumWohnung] in Munich. At this time I had already started to work with samplers and synthesizers, though.” The studio with Eckart progressed, and Neumann gained sound mixing experience supported by his education and film composition for the well-known film camera company Arri Munchen.
This meant he had almost a decade of studio work under his belt when in ’96 Munich’s techno club Ultraschall 2 opened in Kunstpark Ost, “a ghetto for clubs”, Tobi had already formed a professional production relationship with one of its founders: the label owner Peter Wacha. “Together with the Tresor in Berlin, E-Werk, the Stammheim in Kasel, and the Omen in Frankfurt, it was one of the top five techno clubs of the nineties in Germany.” At that time, Wacha’s own labels were pioneering too, with releases by DJ Hell, Patrick Pulsinger, Electric Indigo and bands with huge potential like Chicks On Speed.
Already inspired by the electronic music of the Love Parade of ’95, Tobi’s interests were tilting towards techno, and he inquired about a DJ slot at Ultraschall 2, where Wacha instead offered him a Friday night residency. Launching in ’98, the Flokati house night would last for over three years; with Neumann inviting Steve Bug, Ricardo Villalobos, HeikoMSO, Luke Solomon, Derrick Carter and other musicians sharpening the edges of music in the house-techno interzone, each marking their first-ever appearances in Munich. “And with this night, I learned everything,” he says simply.
“I was playing Cocoon from the beginning, with Sven, with Ricardo, with Roman, with Heiko.”
By 2000, Flokati’s reputation was ensured, and even Sven Väth took note, swinging Neumann over to Ibiza’s formative Cocoon parties on the summer terrace, which were just beginning their explosion into the position of dominance they have now. “I was playing from the beginning,” says Neumann proudly, “with Ricardo, with Roman [Flügel], with Heiko.”
Of course in techno, all roads lead to Berlin, and Neumann landed in 2001, maintaining a hectic production schedule while mixing down for Chicks on Speed, Miss Kittin, Mr. Oizo, and bigger commercial clients. The 60 hour studio work week proved too much, though, and in 2004, Tobi slipped almost exclusively into his DJ identity. Smaller releases followed with tours and residencies, as in the Gucci alias with Villalobos, Sensitiva with Onur Özer, and several more recent 12”s with Masomenos.
He relocated his growing studio to Riverside several years ago, and lately Tobi has shifted again, into production mode. “It’s not so much about putting little blocks together on the computer any more. For a while I was totally blocked, because this method didn’t give me any inspiration anymore. Too much staring at the screen and trying to look at how things sound. But since I started with the modular synth, I’ve really rediscovered the process of making a session into a proper jam session.”
I ask him what he’s making these days, and he points to the massive modular synthesizer wall, “We have a project called Glove. Tomorrow, I’m just about to put my modules into their flight case, because I go tomorrow to Hamburg to record the pianos.” Glove is Tobi’s production partnership with the very active contemporary composer Thies Münther, whose alternative life revolves around musical theatre, as well as several experimental bands including Phantom/Ghost.
“Sometimes nothing rocks like the 909!”
The second project Neumann mentions is ToCo with Marco “Unzip” Ligurgo, curator of the digital music festival Robot in Bologna – something Neumann says reminds him of the virgin days of Sónar Festival. “We started to do music together for a birthday present to Sven Väth: we wanted to do a track to give him. Now we finally found a label, the label Haunt (Music) from Mike Shannon, who is also running Cynosure, which is a bit more open minded in music. And we have our first release this year on that label.”
Talking me through the tools and the recording process, Tobi pauses as we pass what he calls “the heart of the mix-down,” or to use its official name, the Zähl AM1. It’s the mixing desk invention of Mark Ernestus (Basic Channel, Rhythm & Sound etc) together with the West-German electro-engineer Michael Zähl. known for his custom-made mixing desks for the German krautrock producer Conny Plank who mixed Kraftwerk and Neu!, and was even formerly the sound-man for Marlene Dietrich. “This changed my life, this mixing desk. It is very compact, it is very powerful. It has the most amazing filter design and sound.” Tobi is one of just six people privileged enough to have ordered one to his own specifications.
I ask about allegiances to his other machinery, and Tobi laughs,“the most favourite city, the most favourite club, the most favourite gear, it’s so hard! I definitely love the synthesisers, the Jupiter 8, and the Prophet 8, the Prophet 5 – but sometimes…” and here he pauses; “nothing rocks like the 909,” referring to of course the TR-909, Roland’s techno souled drum-machine, sitting high priority above his keys and synths rack.
“I’m a vinyl DJ, I was always a vinyl DJ, I will be always a vinyl DJ!”
In all, Tobi has spent decades playing for both teams, never neglecting his DJ cred for the production room, and I wonder if there’s any gigs he still looks forward to after 15 years of touring. “I think a proper DJ has to go through all the stages,” he says and smiles, “next week after many years, I’m finally playing for Boiler Room.” And what can we expect there? He’s not giving a lot away, except to say “I’m a vinyl DJ, I was always a vinyl DJ, I will be always a vinyl DJ!” From some that might seem like a pose – but from a man with such obvious understanding of musical tools, we can take it very, very seriously.
Tobi Neumann will be joined in the Boiler Room by Akufen, Dewalta & Shannon and Jeff Milligan this Wednesday. For more information, head here.
All Photos by Lisa Khanna
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