Watch the recordings of our Dekmantel broadcast here.
Nobody likes to be misunderstood. Some are just better at shrugging it off than others. René Pawlowitz, otherwise known as Shed, is one of the best. Pulling a no-show for our first scheduled interview played directly into a reputation that has followed him since the release of his agenda-setting debut album, Shedding The Past, in 2008. He is regularly cast as a saviour of modern techno, whose compulsive, obsessive riffs on 1990s breakbeats are precisely the thing needed to propel the genre forward. He’s also been lumped with the mantle of techno’s grumpy uncle: a potentially uncooperative interview subject with a bit of a loose mouth, a contrarian antagoniser to those who support him, possibly reclusive, certainly evasive.
It turns out that Pawlowitz is really none of these things. It already has been explained, several times. “I don’t take my music very seriously,” he has quipped, “this whole music business is not that serious for me.” It echoes a similarly repeated sentiment: “I am not a visionary – the visions were already had by other people 20 years ago”. And as for his most frequent assertion? “Techno is dead.”
“It’s been the same since 20 years now; there is no progress anymore. But that’s OK. It’s techno.”
When we do finally meet for our rescheduled appointment, I mention the concerned condescension of a particular commenter in 2012 who suggested that Pawlowitz doesn’t do himself any favours “by being so frank about today’s scene/music. He possibly should of [sic] taken the Basic Channel route of PR anonymity”. He’s aghast. “It’s a misunderstanding, totally!” he exclaims. “Underground Resistance-style anonymity, it’s not my thing. I try to do my thing.”
His ‘thing’ is the sound of his youth. Pawlowitz was a young teen when the Iron Curtain collapsed, and towns like the one he grew up in – Schwedt, East Germany – began opening up to Western influence for the first time in decades. He was on the cusp of his twenties when the sound of UK rave – house, techno and acid – began to splinter and harden into the breakbeats of hardcore and jungle, forcing artists like Surgeon, Regis and James Ruskin to negotiate the new space created at the intersecting points of all these influences. This sound in particular imprinted itself onto Pawlowitz’ psyche from the other side of the continent.
The complete constellation of Pawlowitz monikers has absorbed a variety of other influences as well: STP and The Panamax Project are grounded by heavyweight dub; the super-charged 90s house of US pioneers DJ Duke and Kevin Saunderson acts as a spirit guide for Pawlowitz’ Power House label and, while the love affair has since cooled, Shed has been celebrated for his overt flirtations with UK dubstep. For all of the tangents and mutations, though, everything is still identifiable as the work of Pawlowitz; it is all tethered to the hallmarks of those seminal years.
The problem, if you’d dare call it that, seems to be that people other than Pawlowitz also like his music, and therefore form an attachment to it. His first record famously languished rejected in a basement until Berlin record store Hardwax rescued it and him from obscurity in 2004. Shedding The Past struck a feverish album-of-the-year chord. Its release on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton imprint catapulted Pawlowitz into a level of exposure that eclipsed his previous nerdy acclaim garnered with records for Delsin, Styrax and his own first pair of labels, Solo Action and Subsolo. Despite this ascent, Pawlowitz genuinely doesn’t want to be anybody’s techno demi-god, presumably in part because his techno tributes are all written in memoriam; he can’t be the saviour of something he feels he witnessed the burial of 20 years, no matter how unwilling or unable he is to stop lingering, morbidly, by its grave.
It is a curious contradiction, especially in view of the sheer volume of music that he releases each year. He appears to have a bottomless source of new ideas to help recalibrate the same formula each time, and even though the lifespan of certain labels and pseudonyms can end abruptly (RIP: Wax, EQD), new personas are leaking out of his consciousness all the time (willkommen Stable Mates and PCK). There is a sense that he couldn’t possibly turn that tap off, even if he wanted to. But that’s something of a misconception as well.
He is prolific for sure, but he doesn’t indulge in the process. The journey from inspiration to execution is short and direct. “The last album was really quick,” he says, of his LP The Killer, “a month I think.” I wonder: does he approach it as ‘work’? Like, getting up and going in at a set time every day? “Yeah. Sometimes three tracks per day.” Once a project is complete, his studio computer is switched off, until a need for the next exorcism arises. His computer is off right now, and has been for about six months. “I’m not in the mood for making music right now,” he continues, “there’s so much other stuff to do and there’s no passion right now to be creative, so I’m not interested. There’s no energy.”
This is Pawlowitz’ paradox: that utopian promise of techno’s earnest moments and shared nostalgia can never really be fulfilled because they exist in his isolated idealism.
Despite being more personable than is expected, it’s not easy to imagine how that energy would transform him, if at all. Where the joy of the process resides for him is still a mystery. Even as the conversation steers towards topics that have him more engaged and animated, he tends to stop short now and then, folding himself back into a bluntly rounded off point of view. Take for instance, an exchange about Monika Dietl, aka Moni D, host of the Big Beat show for Berlin’s Radio 4U in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and a figure of particular importance to him and Berlin’s early techno protagonists.
“I always mention radio DJs like Monika when I talk about these times,” he says, “I still have some tapes at home. It was a long time ago, I really can’t remember the station, but it’s all about the feeling. You want to go back to this point where there was something that was really special to you, and it’s still in me when I’m listening to these old recordings. I still have these feelings.” Almost immediately, he backtracks. “I was on a really cool blog by this Berlin DJ named Tanith. There was a set he uploaded from 1991, and there are tracks you could play today, 24 years later. It’s still the same. It’s been the same since 20 years now. There is no progress anymore. But that’s OK. It’s techno. [Laughs]”
There is one moment in his back catalogue that stands in opposition to this, though. Scope the spoken word latter half of “Waved Mind Archived Document” from Shedding The Past: “Calling it shedding the past seemed to be a mere paradox / It feels so much the emotional feeling of the intensity and purity of club and rave in the early days without resembling those gone moments / Rather it creates a new moment in us / Built upon and leaving our past at the very same time… It led us back to where we all are coming from / True techno music”
These aren’t the words or sentiments of a person mourning techno’s long-past demise, and this is where Pawlowitz’ own paradox occurs: the utopian promise of this incredibly earnest moment, and promises of other productions that appeal to a sense of shared nostalgia, can never really be fulfilled because they exist in his isolated idealism. By the time you’re falling head over heels for the the next hand-stamped Shed white label, or double-fist pumping to a Head High/WK7 at stupid o’clock in the morning, Pawlowitz has already moved on to the next thing. As for his spiky reputation – should you really be considered as out of step with the greater techno community, when you have no interest in aligning your rhythm with it in the first place?
With his music being so specifically autobiographical about a particular period of his life, I posit that it must be incredibly frustrating having to bat away the misrepresentations or misinterpretations of others, again and again (even in asking this question, the irony wasn’t lost). Nobody wants to be misunderstood, right?
“Not at all! Because I don’t think about what people think about what I do. I’m not interested in interpretation. I don’t care.”
We sit in silence for what feels like an age.
“It’s not that I don’t like to do interviews. That’s not the point. I always think about what they will ask me. It’s the same thing that other interviewers ask. Sometimes they’re not really that into what I’m doing, or they’re not prepared. I don’t know. Sometimes I think it’s OK to do one or two interviews a year. After this the story has already been said.” So, then: is there a question he wishes that somebody would ask him in an interview?
“This one. [Laughs]”
“Some day it will be over. But I will not stop making music.”
Before we part ways, I mention the Reminiscence Bump hypothesis, as it should have particular resonance. Buttressed by a formative period of semi-amnesia, and a decline post-thirties in the ability to accurately record experiences, there are 10-20 core years in life sealed in a kind of high definition. It seems to jibe with him.
“I don’t know how I can say it in English,” he starts, “but I try to tell something about my life with music. I’m not that old, I’m turning 40, but you start to realise that half of your life is over. This [90s techno] is my music, and my time. I can’t do something different. When I started to make music it was for me, for listening, and actually it’s the same today, but today I have the chance to release it, and it’s selling really good, so why shouldn’t I sell it? Some day it will be over. But I will not stop making music. It’s all about me in this music. The music is it.”
He is apologetic for missing our first meeting, and the cause is easy to accept: as Berlin’s temperatures crept up towards 40°C over a particularly uncomfortable three-day stretch, and as the father of two tiny kids, his priority was to get himself and his family out of the land-locked city centre until the heatwave passed. Incidentally, enquiring about whether he plays his music to his children, or if he has an opinion on whether they grow up having an opinion about techno one way of the other elicits the same tone of responses as our entire conversation (“no”, and “I don’t care”, respectively).
I suspect that no matter how intimate to or removed from his life they are, the opinions of others about his music will forever remain external to him. There is a purity in the relationship that he maintains with his 1990s techno memories, and perhaps more specifically, with the feelings that they planted in him in those formative years. His periodic attempts to verbalise this relationship will probably continue to fall flat on the page, but while his words are stark and stripped of romanticism, there’s no question that his is a techno love story.
And if you’re still seeking subtlety, eloquence or coherence from René Pawlowitz, you just need listen to his music again.
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