Music & clubs

Thomas Fehlmann: Working with humans

From Tresor to The Orb, Thomas Fehlmann has played a key role in Berlin's electronic music scene – but still champions the soul and human touch. In the wake of their new album, Fehlmann and Alex Paterson bring The Orb to Gretchen on Oct 18.

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Photo by Constantin Falk

Thomas Fehlmann of The Orb may not be the face of electronic music in Berlin, but he surely is one of its fathers.

Formerly of the Hamburg NDW band Palais Schaumburg, Fehlmann moved to Berlin in 1984 and began releasing music from his home studio as Ready Made in 1985. With the fall of the Wall, Fehlmann found himself at the heart of a cultural revolution. Ever the collaborator, he worked with other influential artists like Jörg Burger, Moritz von Oswald and English musician Alex Paterson. As The Orb, he and the latter invented ambient house, a genre that gave ravers reason to come down again. A founding member of 3MB and Tresor resident in the 1990s, Fehlmann wasn’t all mellow: he cultivated the Berlin-Detroit techno connection while refining this city’s crisp and specific, underground sound. The Orb rolls down to Gretchen on Sunday, October 18.

Why did you and Alex Paterson get together? 

Alex had a soft spot for German music and was interested in what the younger generation of Germans could contribute to the techno-house ‘revolution’ of the late 1980s, early 1990s.

Do you two produce The Orb’s music independently or together?

We decided a long time ago that we’re not going to work with file sharing principles. So we make The Orb music when we sit together in the studio. We don’t work every day, but we set aside time for Alex to come over to Berlin for a week or so. We sit together and pretty much exclude the outside world from what we do. We don’t want to get distracted. We have some tea and some good food and make some music. As much as we like the technical development and digital possibilities, we still like to keep the human element. Each minute we exchange ourselves: not so much with words, but with different angles on how to treat a sample or how we’d like to add a groove. There’s a different tempo when we’re together.

Your most recent album Moonbuilding 2703 AD (Kompakt) begins with some philosophical commentary.

Well what’s important is the “building”. We’re doing something, creating something. This is what we’d like to impart on all interested people: The creation [of music] is as important as its consumption. It’s easier to create and share music now than it’s ever been – does more music mean better music? Not only positive things come from these technological developments, these Fortschritte. Today a lot of music clutters the pipelines. Many artists seem to be recreating sounds, not creating something new. Alex and I were always interested in roots and inventors. Hence our collaboration with Lee “Scratch” Perry.

Will human musicians ever have to compete with music-making AI?

Not for the moment. There are characters like Alex who are just an endless source of inspiration. It’s great to work with humans. Still, I do like happy accidents when a machine starts doing things that we don’t expect it to do. Look at Brian Eno’s technique of music that recreates itself after a certain framework that the creative programmer has given the instruments. It’s interesting, but it comes down the person who actually programmed the parameters in which the instrument is creating sounds.

Is Berlin the mecca of electronic music? Was it ever? And do you get sick of this question?

Yes! I do get sick of being asked this question. I’ve been in Berlin since 1984 and it certainly wasn’t the mecca of electronic music then. But this crucial factor of the fall of the Wall and the social revolution that met two sides of the city – these laid the hotbed of interesting musical developments. To be honest, I’m surprised to see that it is still growing, but I won’t complain since a lot of great music is being made in Berlin. There are many areas where this music can be presented and shared with an audience. I think this makes Berlin especially unique. The policies of how to open a venue to share culture seems to be far more reasonable in Berlin than in other cities. We have space, and the government has sort of accepted that the culture helps Berlin’s position in the world.

You’re more optimistic than those who see Berlin as a burst techno bubble.

Because I know so many people who make music, and many don’t make electronic music. They’re part of the Berlin scene as much as anything that’s plugged in. I was at this Atonal festival and the opening act was a choir of 40 singers and they made perfectly atonal music. It’s the creative scene and spirit that makes Berlin special. It’s been influxed by so many travellers and people from around the world. People here understand culture and its value better. They give it more space, and more possibilities to grow.

And more patience.


Are Berlin’s non-electronic artists under appreciated? 

Any recommendations? I wouldn’t complain about something being not appreciated. But when we did our radio show, for example… It was called Ocean Club Radio and it was two hours every week and we focused quite a bit on local talent. In the zero years there was a scene in Berlin called Wohnzimmer-Szene [living room scene], and people sort of used their living room as their stage. Out of that came this lo-fi attitude with some acoustic guitars, a couple of  bongos, sometimes not even a microphone…  It was a matter of being inventive and working with the options you had, and not only dreaming about expensive technology. You make something out of nothing. You work with what’s within you.

What is your impression of the electronic music courses here exporting the Berlin sound?

Well, it’s better for students to take a course and focus on serious issues in electronic music than to just hang out and get pissed in cafés. It’s good to relate to your own creativity. There might be one or two students out of each course who will make some valuable work. For others it might be good therapy – they’ll find out more about themselves through their creativity, which helps develop interests outside of the pure hedonism. I don’t know anything about the actual quality of the courses or the teachers. I don’t think that’s important. What’s important is to expose oneself to one’s creative juices.

Has Berlin become more hedonistic or more timid since you moved here?

So many aspects are changing in Berlin. The hedonistic aspect I’m referring to is sometimes overpowering. Certain clubs don’t seem to care what DJ they put on as long as it makes ‘boom boom’ music and people buy a lot of drinks. The super strong club scene is not all positive. With this size and this many years of growth, there’s bound to be bizarre developments. Human nature isn’t as perfect as people want it to be. Still, if you look at Berlin as a whole, it has a lot to offer in terms of inspiration. In terms of making something out of your life.

THE ORB, Sun, Oct 18, 19:30 | Gretchen, Obentrautstr. 19-21, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Hallesches Tor

Originally published in issue #142, October 2015.