Wolfgang Tillmans has been very busy lately. A survey of his work has just opened at the Carré d’Art museum in Nîmes, France, and two solo shows, in two different continents, just closed last week: one in Hong Kong, at the recently inaugurated David Zwirner gallery in H Queen’s Central, and one in Nairobi, Kenya. Which is, of course, expected from the Turner Prize-winning photographer.
However, for the last two years Tillmans has also been working in a different kind of studio and exploring a somewhat unexpected medium: electronic music. His latest single, “Source,” is out now on vinyl, and available to download or stream, under his own label “Fragile,” with remixes by the legendary German electronic music producer Roman Flügel.
Tillmans’s career as a music producer is more of a return to an original passion, rather than an artistic reinvention. In 1985, two years before he bought his first camera, Tillmans started experimenting with music, which he probably would’ve pursued if it weren’t for fate: “My collaborator Bert [Leßman] left town and I never found the courage to find another. Then I discovered my visual side and began making work with a black and white photocopier. Somehow that took over,” he told me over the phone.
Music has always been present in the artist’s visual work: from his early days documenting club culture in Berlin and London, to spaces that he dedicated entirely to sounds, such as exhibitions at his nonprofit gallery in Berlin and at Tate Modern’s South Tank. But it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that his desire for making music would resurface in a gradual process that started taking form in 2014, when he worked on a video called “Instrument.” “It was a split screen where I’m dancing, playing and making noises with my steps, which creates the rhythm to which I dance to. I manipulated the stepping noises into electronic sound, sort of me being my own instrument.” Through “Instrument” he also met the music producer Tim Knapp, with whom he’s still working today. “It was such a lucky coincidence [to have met]; our studios were literally on the same street. I took him the cassette recordings I’d made in 1986, digitized them and we tried to restore them as well as possible. He replayed the instruments and layered them under the original recording. Those are the songs on my first release, 2016/1986 EP,” which came out in the summer of 2016.
Just a few months later, Tillmans announced on Instagram that he was “enormously proud and happy” to have his song “Device Control” included in Frank Ocean’s visual album Endless. According to Tillmans, after he sent the rapper the songs he’d written and produced, Ocean “replied ‘Device Control is brilliant. Love. Can I sample it for the intro of my album?’” Since then, Tillmans has had four new musical releases.
Tillmans lives between Berlin and London, but likes to spend his summers in the Pines section of Fire Island, a thin strip of sand off the coast of Long Island, New York, where he has a “modest recording studio.” No cars are allowed in the hamlet, which has about 600 houses. “It’s such a super productive environment,” he said. “Living and working there is good for me, making room for the music, but also for the photography.”
Tillmanns’s music is a fascinating mixture of ’80s synth pop, druggy trance, and minimal techno. Singing in English and German, he tackles themes such as queerness, homophobia, and anti-Brexit activism, while experimenting with sounds as diverse as violins, trains, and a dying car alarm. I asked him about his musical reawakening, how music has influenced his photography, and how Chris Lowe from the Pet Shop Boys became a major catalyst to his music career — without even noticing.
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Muri Assunção: Why did you get back into music after almost 30 years?
Wolfgang Tillmans: Music has always been with me. I have photographed lots of musicians, clubs, and nightlife, and I would occasionally DJ. I also explored a project of exhibiting music in my Berlin nonprofit exhibition space Between Bridges in 2014 with a series of three exhibitions called Playback Room. My intention was to explore the potential of exhibiting recorded music, which came for my long-term observations that there’s really no public space where you can listen to recorded music with perfect sound quality. There are tons of venues for live music, but in terms of the cultural value of studio albums and recordings, there’s no space that is catered to that. And why is that? Is it arrogance that there is space for expensive art but there’s no space for a $10 album? [The song] “Blue Monday” by New Order, for example, is one of the greatest works of art of the late 20th century. But you cannot go anywhere and listen to it with perfect sound quality. The Playback Room was an exploration of music as an art form. It preceded me actively going back into music. And I think it was all connected.
MA: How did the Playback Room work?
WT: I had a high-end Hi-Fi system and three different setups, in terms of interior design. One was more loungey, with a mixture of comfortable chairs, one had a theater-like seating, and one was just a carpet where you were invited to take your shoes off. Curatorially, I had three different approaches, because when you make this sort of listening room, the question is: Who curates it and what is being played? One approach was the solo exhibition of the 1980s electronic band Colourbox, a British drum-and-bass band that I was extremely influenced and inspired by, but who never really exploded. They were an ideal case to show because they never played live. They couldn’t play live because they used tape machines and early sampling techniques, so their recorded music was the work. The second show was called American Producers (Playback Room part II) and it worked like an essay. It was an attempt to explore why American music production is so special. The American Top 10, for example, is very popular but at the same time very advanced and avant-garde in its production, be it Michael Jackson or Beyoncé. The third exhibition was entitled Bring Your Own (Playback Room part III) and we invited people to listen to their own music at the highest sound quality.
MA: Was there a turning point that made you decide to start making music again?
WT: In 2014, I was having dinner with the Pet Shop Boys, whom I’m friends with, and Chris Lowe was enthusiastically showing me these musical toys and gadgets on his iPhone. We were talking about all the possibilities that you now had on these simple devices, and I told him I would really love to play with that as well. He said, “You really should get yourself a MIDI keyboard and give it a go. You’ve always loved music, so you should really try.” He didn’t know that I had some history with it, but the way he said it was so persuasive, and that was the moment when I thought, “I’ll do it!” I then got myself a keyboard, took some singing lessons, and went into my sound archives.
MA: What did you find in your sound archives?
WT: I’d been field-recording with a voice recorder for years. In 2011 I was at the printing factory for the printing of my book Abstract Pictures and I recorded the printing press because I thought the super rhythmic sounds of this rotation press were a good techno soundtrack. I never did anything much with it then, but the first track that I did, 2016’s “Make It Up As You Go Along” was based on those recordings. From there, I developed the idea of making music out of my field recordings. “On My Own” uses the screeching noises from New York subway trains. That’s a very important part of how I work because I can’t play [instruments] myself, but I have a very clear idea for sounds and melodies, for the recordings that I bring to Tim. He modulates, modifies them and builds them into their tracks as we produce them. Field recording sounds are, of course, a kind of audio photography. So there is also that connection to my visual art practice.
MA: Tell me about your new single, “Source.”
WT: The origin of “Source” was a solo exhibition at Kunstverein in Hamburg last year, where I played the vocals when I created for the first time a soundtrack for one of my exhibitions. I then took this one step further, weaving these vocals into a 16-minute track. One night, I thought “maybe I’ll just send them to Roman [Flügel, a music producer]” with whom I’ve been exchanging records over the last few years. We weren’t close, but we appreciated each other. He said “yes, I’d love to do it,” and he came back with these amazing results.
MA: How is performing live for you?
WT: I had this traumatic experience in college in England for the graduation ceremony of film school. They were looking for a singer for their band and I volunteered. We were really under-rehearsed and I completely fucked up that night. The monitor speakers didn’t work, I couldn’t hear myself, it was a total disaster. People were not even patting me on the shoulder and saying “it was all right.” No, it was really shit! And so it was clear for me that I wouldn’t do this ever again. It wasn’t until 2016, when I was asked to perform at the BOFFO Festival on Fire Island. The other musicians thought that I could do it and helped me through it. In the end it completely worked out. It felt completely natural.
MA: Do you have any gigs coming up soon?
WT: I think I’ll be at the BOFFO Festival again this summer. I can’t really have a regular live practice because of all the other work that I do. It’s more sporadic work that I do with Tim in the studio and on the side. Also, for the exhibition at David Zwirner in New York in September there will be a sound component to the show.
MA: How do you like the process of making music?
WT: I love the collaborative aspect of it. It’s been a completely eye-opening experience for me. My visual art practice is always a one-man show. Even though I work with assistants, I photograph completely on my own, and of course all the decision making is ultimately always with me. With music, I experience this: when you’re in a rehearsal room with others it’s like holding up a ball that only stays in the air if you listen to the others. And if everyone listens to each other, you are making something together. I enjoy it very much.
I guess photography is also receiving contributions of others. The sitter of a portrait is also giving me his or her portrait. Or when I stage scenarios, the people are in a way acting. In music production one has to be open to receive them, and that is very liberating because that is more of what I alone could do.
Wolfgag Tillman’s latest single “Source” is now out on vinyl and available to download or stream.