Session Victim take Needledrop out of the sleeve and share the story behind its production
Germany’s laid-back duo on why going for the ‘fattest’ sound isn’t always the best approach.
Matthias Reiling and Hauke Freer have been producing music together for over 12 years, producing four LPs, 28 EPs and over 40 remixes. The pair are known for their funky, intricate sample-based grooves that can be heard on both dancefloors and poolsides. If some of their previous works are designed for the night, Needledrop is surely a soundtrack for the sunset. The sophistication of Session Victim’s sound lives on in this record, but in a new way. Needledrop expertly balances organic and synthetic sounds in a downbeat fashion, which is immediately noticeable from the opening track, Bad Weather Mates.
Recording began in the living room of a friend’s basement in Sydney, where the title track was made. The pair moved around, continuing the LP in Hamburg, San Francisco, and finally back at Hauke’s house. We catch up with Session Victim to find out how the record was produced, how they perform live and what keeps them glued to vinyl records.
MT: There are videos online of you jamming with a Roland Space Echo, TR-909, and a Korg Poly-800. What else was at your disposal for this record?
Matthis Reiling: We used different ones in all the places Needledrop was recorded at. However, the things that ended up on the final songs the most were the Korg Trident, the Korg Minilogue, which is the latest synth addition to our studio and really is a joy to play with. Our friend Eo’s Roland JX-3P has also been quite prominent on our previous albums See You When You Get There and Listen To Your Heart. The only drum machines that we used as far as I remember for Needledrop were the Roland R-8 and a LinnDrum.
As for effects, we love the Moogerfooger delay and the Strymon Big Sky. You can hear them in different settings and amounts all over Needledrop.
Are you using hardware samplers or DAW samplers?
M: Both. We come from software sampling, as neither of us had the money to buy hardware samplers back when we started. For me it was ProTracker on the Amiga A500, sampling through the Techno Sound Turbo cartridge.
These days if we don’t sample with the computer, we use the Akai S612 – several of them actually – as its sampling time is very limited. Although this model is old and basic, it has a very distinct, crunchy sound and a few great controls that for some reason have never been built into any other model. Plus, the pitching sounds very musical for some reason, like it does with a lot of the old Akai, E-mu and Ensoniq samplers. Speaking of, we do have an Ensoniq ASR-10 too which sounds amazing – it didn’t find its way onto the album though.
What plug-ins are you using to create your sound?
Hauke Freer: We have been using Ableton Live for the last 10 years. We simply know it the best and it’s convenient to use the same software in the studio and on stage. There might be sound quality or minor technical differences with the big DAWs, but for us a straightforward workflow is the most important feature.
Years ago, we got rid of most plug-ins as the amount we had was more distracting than helpful. Instead, we focused on hardware and kept only a few software plug-ins and learnt to use them well, instead of spending time scrolling through lists.
We’ve got some great software synth emulations and delays from TAL, the ARP Solina clone from Arturia and the Waves Diamond Bundle; used mainly for restoration tools and EQs. The ones we use most are Ableton’s stock plug-ins. We aim to get a good sound right away and use as little processing as possible.
There’s a lot of different drum kits being used on this album. How much of is it sample-based, drum machine-based and live recorded?
H: It’s a mixture of sampling drums, drum machines and actually hardly any live drums. So, buying records with great drums on them, as we don’t have any drum kits. We always start from scratch when putting the drums together. We sometimes use compression on the drum bus, but we use little processing. Also, we avoid digital drum libraries which anyone could use.
I feel we got better at getting the mix right in Needledrop, spotting good sounds and bringing things to life through the right timing and groove, which I consider more important than striving for the ‘fattest’ sound.
You bring out the bass guitar when performing live, how much is it used in the studio?
M: I only have one bass guitar myself, an ESP Precision model from the late 80s. It has quite a character – I’d call it a blues attitude with a certain punk rock charm – simple, straightforward and not very interesting or fancy on its own. It does sit well in a lot of mixing situations though.
I don’t work on its sound much; a bit of EQing and compression, sometimes some reverb or delay if I play only high notes. We do layer it with synth bass occasionally, but usually if it feels right for the track, I go for it. If not, it stays in the case.
For live shows, I play it on just over half the songs. It’s great to have that extra grit and looseness in a live show and we just feel very comfortable improvising between the bass guitar, the drum machines and the Roland SE-02, which has been the most recent addition to the live setup.
Made Me Fly features Air collaborator Beth Hirsch. Did you only ever want one vocal track on the album?
M: We knew we wanted to work with vocals but didn’t expect anything to work out for the final record at all, to be honest. We tried several vocal tracks in the past, and most of them went to the trash before the song was done.
With Beth, we just got really lucky. She is a skilled singer, a great writer and a total team player all at the same time. When she sent over her first ideas, which she just sang into the internal mic of her computer, we already knew that this was going to work out and were jumping around happily in a hotel room in Beirut. We are obviously very happy with the song and hope to get the chance to work together again!
What’s your workflow as a duo? Are you jamming out together or combining your separate ideas?
H: We don’t have set roles in the studio, often one of us works the DAW while the other is trying something on synth or looking for samples. Then we switch around. Yes, often we just jam – playing stuff live before settling on a recording. Nowadays we prefer to have things off-the-grid and only fixed when really needed.
Besides very few exceptions, our music starts with us together in a room and a blank screen, with only the mixdown and a few final stage details sometimes being done individually.
What was a major thing you learned while creating this record?
H: We learned to trust our instincts and be guided by the musical flow and not cater the music to work in a specific environment. This was a process over the last four LPs, though. Having a bit more confidence – that when we like something others might too – definitely helped.
What was the biggest challenge in creating Needledrop?
M: Every album that we wrote together turned out to be challenging at some point, both musically and personally. You work on something specific for quite a long time and put so much work and energy into it over time, that you always pass certain phases of confidence and insecurity, of being focused and disoriented. Or at least, we do.
What made the whole Needledrop process relatively easy was the fact that we had a pretty good idea what we wanted to achieve almost right from the start and that helped a lot in staying on target. Also, we could both free ourselves from the feeling of having to prove anything to anyone, to make any kind of hit song or anything like that. Our most important goal was to create a single-piece vinyl album that provides a good listening experience from start to finish.
Onstage, you opt for a Volca Beats and TR-707. It’s a great combo – but why did you decide on these?
H: Their cheap price and size – the 707 was cheaper when we got ours. It gets rowdy on stage, so stuff needs to be rugged, quickly replaceable and we need the live setup to fit in one Peli Case because many weekends we travel with two bags of records as well.
What steps do you take to transform the album and your other works into a live performance?
M: First, we break the arrangement down into little loops and one-shot sounds and find a good way to spread them over our 12 channels and pads. Then we start jamming with that and figure out how we could go through and build up a live arrangement. Back when we started playing live, we more or less tried to practice the original song arrangement, but that approach faded away over time, as some things are just difficult and not interesting enough to recreate live. There are other things that make more sense and have a better effect on a live performance than they do while arranging a track for a record.
So, we experiment with those twelve tracks and then see if – and how – the drum machines, the synth and the bass can come into play. Rehearsing a lot definitely makes us much better with every song, but we also have to play things out to people to learn about their strengths and weaknesses.
Giving ourselves room to improvise and approach that with joy and confidence is another very important thing we learned over time, especially through our trio performances with Erobique. He’s insanely good with it and has the amazing ability to bring it out in the people he plays with, so we learned a lot through the shows and rehearsals with him.
Your DJ sets are often vinyl-heavy. What kind of a relationship do you have with records that you can’t get from digital formats?
H: We only play vinyl. We are looking at screens all day, I definitely don’t want to do that in a club as well. For me it starts with the experience of going to a record shop digging for music, having something tangible and I really like the technical aspect of mixing records. All the imperfections make it more human.
Do you see vinyl continuing to gain popularity?
H: Well, for the streamlined business world of nightlife there is simply no need for anyone to play vinyl. The young generation is luckily appreciating the appeal of DJs playing records and not taking shortcuts. So, a certain niche will remain.
Do you ever get enticed by some of the digital DJ gear that’s out there, that features on-the-fly editing and remixing?
M: I think there are great possibilities with all these inventions. Unfortunately, I rarely see anyone really making use of that, I feel a lot of people just seem to be lazy with it. Well, I certainly hope that changes and I get to experience more creativity with those fancy USB players soon!
I myself am not interested in learning to work with those things – at least not yet. I’d rather spend my time practicing bass, finding good sounds to sample, and work on my vinyl mixing; there are so many things I can work on that I already have.
H: Recently we caught an hour of Theo Parrish, he had a good night and was basically just playing one great song after the other. That can be all you need for a great night of music. I’m into technology, but for rare exceptions in the DJ booth, it’s unfortunately only used to do less than more.
What’s your favourite or most prized record in your collection?
M: A lot of my favourite records are actually fairly cheap ones. An all-time favourite one is Bo Hansson’s Sagan Om Ringen (or Music Inspired by Lord of the Rings). There seems to be a copy on every flea market I go to and I recommend it to everyone – I keep coming back to it again and again and it’s never lost its magic.
H: It’s so hard to pick one. A record we have been closing quite a few parties with and which is very dear to me is Tennessee Ernie Fords’ version of Sixteen Tons. I found it for $3 at Revolve Records, Sydney, in a huge stack of 7-inches from a radio station archive. The notes on it said it was played 6 times in the last 50 years at that station, but it definitely got way more plays by me.
Who are your favourites artists right now?
M: The Heliocentrics – to my ears, they seem to somehow get better and better with every album. I listen to their stuff a lot.
Do you feel any challenges with your own label, Pen and Paper? What advice would you give to people wanting to start their own label?
H: The pressing reason to start a label should be that the music is so good that it needs a home and a platform to be heard. If you are starting your label to get gigs, famous or rich… Well, then you are one of those people…
What do you look for when you go record shopping for samples?
M: It’s hard to say. Definitely not just certain genres or something like that. Maybe recordings with not too much going on, but also with interesting textures – stuff that has a good potential to be redeveloped into something else… that sounds super vague, right? It’s hard to really nail it down. One thing I do collect is percussion and drums-only records, so if I find one that’s at least a tiny bit interesting I usually buy it.
Lastly, you’ve just released Gheister in a compilation album, can we expect more music in the near future?
H: Of course, making music is something that we just have to do. We have a remix EP for our album Needledrop coming soon. We really hit the jackpot with this as we got some crazy good reinterpretations from people we deeply respect and look up to. I feel we have the urge to make something more for the dancefloor again, let’s see what happens.
Listen to Session Victim’s Needledrop here.
Read more artist interviews here.