IN CONVERSATION: ROMAN FLÜGEL, THE COLLABORATIVE SPIRIT
Photographed at the MYKITA HAUS, Roman Flügel wears LUND in Champagne Gold.
Summer is arriving in Berlin and with it a genuine renaissance of the city’s legendary club culture. In keeping with that spirit, we catch up with one of the leading figures of the scene for more insight into the craft and artistry that goes into creating that magical pull of the dancefloor: Roman Flügel is one of the biggest names of the German electronic scene, a prolific producer and well-travelled DJ with a hypnotic signature sound, at once understated, eclectic and melodic. Coming up in the pioneering Frankfurt scene of the Nineties with friends and fellow artists, such as Ata Macias and Heiko MSO, he is also known for his role at Playhouse and Ongaku Musik, seminal labels that helped shape the underground club sound of the 1990s.
Now based in Berlin, Flügel joins us in the MYKITA HAUS courtyard on a very hot day in May. Arriving by bike with a busy few weeks behind him that have included getting over a bout of COVID, completing a US tour, and moving into a recently renovated new flat in Berlin, he admits to being “super tired and sleeping a lot” but still lives up to the label of ‘gentle giant of the German electro scene’ by being both notably tall and very easygoing. Over cold, sparkling water, he recalls his time as a young clubber at the much-fabled Dorian Gray and Omen and shares his views on the evolution of DJ craft and artistry. Throughout the conversation he emphasises the value of finding kindred spirits in the scene and the importance of collaborations to his career and creative output – a sentiment that feels particularly refreshing given the competitiveness of the industry. We also chat about his enduring love for panto-style glasses.
MYKITA: Can you fill us in on your origin story – where you’re from and how you got started in electronic music?
Roman Flügel: I was born in Darmstadt, a city near Frankfurt in Hessen. I first started to learn how to play the piano by age six or seven, first just classical music. By age 12 or 13, I had moved onto drums, and then I started to play in bands, obviously. It was early to mid-Eighties, when suddenly acid house and techno started to happen in Germany. The first things I noticed must have been in 1987 to 1988, so right around when I was first allowed to go out on the weekends – it was the perfect timing!
So, I was in clubs, mainly in Frankfurt, and discovered this interesting new music, and that's when I started thinking about and asking myself how is this music made? I was basically a drummer and piano player, and of course I knew about synthesizers and drum machines, but I wanted to understand in detail, because I liked it so much, it felt so perfect. I started to buy instruments, created a little setup in my parents’ basement and started to record some music. At first, I was trying to imitate what I was hearing on records and then eventually creating something on my own.
You went on to study music, right?
Yes, so these first experimentations happened while I was still in high school and when I finished around 1989, I decided to go to university and ended up in this musicology course in Frankfurt. But at that time, the whole wave of electronic music in Germany was so strong that I hardly managed to do my studies.
You got ripped along the electronic current?
Yes, totally. And, because of clubbing and interest in records, and going to record shops in Frankfurt I met and made friends with some people who I would work with for the next few years.
So, these were places in Frankufrt, like the pivotal Delirium?
Delirium record shop, exactly, and there were mainly two guys: Ata, who was one of the founders and Heiko, who was one of the sales guys in the shop. We became friends. I was already working with my studio partner, who I’d met in Darmstadt and who had a more professional studio, so I was not ... I could leave my parent's house for recording basically. Yeah, but from that day on, step by step – out of a passion grew a profession with a lot of passion, I would say.
Did you have heroes in the scene that you looked up to or were these your contemporaries more like?
I was very much into acid house coming from Chicago and techno coming from Detroit, those two arms were most important for me, as well as some music that was then coming from the UK, especially from London, there was a big acid house scene also up north in Manchester. way before Germany, I would say one to two years earlier. So, I was already checking records from the UK and then there was some influential DJs in Frankfurt – Sven Väth, of course. I was also one of the kids who went to the Omen or the Dorian Gray every single weekend.
From the artist's personal archive: summer 1994 wearing his signature panto frame.
Looking back, is there anything that you would do differently now? What advice would you have for someone young starting out like you did?
(laughs) Honestly, I don't know how it feels like today, because the whole thing behind the music is completely different. It's very established and well thought out by some people how to make a career in that field of music. When I started it was not a big business it was basically passion and enthusiasm, well, business and money came later. But what I would still recommend until today is just to keep going and don’t stop trying. Once you feel something deep in yourself, the wish to be part of something, it's not always going to be easy I guess, but you can take part as long as you keep the energy up, and the fun and the passion high, that's the most important thing.
What about the sound of Frankfurt at the time? How would you describe it?
Yes, very interesting: very mixed, very diverse. House music and techno were just a part of the night. The night would start a bit different, a bit slow, a lot of Balearic stuff and maybe some Belgian electronic body music in between. Then year by year or month by month my favourite DJs would add more and more techno and house music and the nights would become a lot longer.
Also, it was not just music, it was fashion, and it was new substances and whatever. Everything came together everything at once. I remember nights at the Omen for example where in the middle of the night, suddenly out of nowhere you would hear the beginning of Hell's Bells from AC/DC, y’know, the big church bell, then you would get the first 16 bars of the song, but then it would be boom, another record. So, it was really quite crazy sometimes the combination, the mixing.
Having lived in the Frankfurt area for a long time and moving to Berlin some years ago, how do you think the two places compare?
Berlin is such a big city, you can't compare it to any other city in Germany. You can really be on your own here if you want to. I lived in the Frankfurt Bahnhofsviertel for many years, and it was almost like a Lindenstraße (a German soap opera) situation where you had the same 20 people more or less living in the same three houses, and you would see everyone all the time. There was even a bar downstairs in my house where everyone would meet. So, it was kind of a tense situation sometimes, because I never felt like I had time to myself. I managed to get that feeling here in Berlin, finally. I can connect to people when I want because everyone is here, but I can still be on my own which I quite enjoy, especially after long weekends.
And, what is the more intense or outrageous place?
Oh, of course in Berlin. That's for sure. Frankfurt is so different because it is the financial capital of Germany, if not Europe, and so it attracts different people. There's hardly any subculture, which you still have in Berlin, and that makes a big difference.
So, you would have started on analogue equipment, how do you perform these days, or how do you prefer to perform?
My first DJ sets were actually a mix of vinyl and cassettes. But then of course vinyl, two record players and a mixer. No one would have thought about mixing with CDs in beginning, because there were no CDJs invented yet, but suddenly there they were and you thought okay, this is quite comfortable because you can maybe play something before it is released and you don't have to pay for a super expensive DAT player to play your favourite track. So, after CDJs, suddenly you had USB, which is even more comfortable. I have to say these days I still buy records here and there, but mostly play from USB or from a hard drive. I'm not one of these people who thinks that everything was better in the day when everyone played vinyl. I think it depends on who is playing and what kind of music, I still enjoy people who can play vinyl, but for myself, I'm really happy to play digital. I don't have a problem with it. It makes certain things even more enjoyable for me.
What would you then define as the art of DJing, if we get away from the technical ‘craft’ part, what is the art?
The art is to ... before it’s actually happening in the room or in front of people it’s already happening in your brain. You are not thinking about the concept all the time but it's already forming 'up there' and I think if you can create something interesting for yourself it can make sense for people in the room and become something even more powerful. So, that to me is the art of DJing, to present interesting music that creates amazing moments.
What do you consider the biggest milestones or shifts in your career?
I would say when I realised, I was able to actually make a living out of something I was just dreaming about.
How old were you then?
Mid-twenties I would say. I was still at university, but it wasn’t making sense. I was touring a lot and started to meet like-minded people and would go travelling together and play. In the beginning there's a certain amount of fear, to make this jump without knowing, but then you land, and you feel okay, it's actually possible. Besides this of course, it's always important to meet people who you are happy to work with because you can't do it just on your own. It's possible but it's boring and it doesn't make things more interesting, so I was happy to meet some beautiful people in my life.
So, there was more a sense of togetherness rather than competitiveness?
Do you think that has changed?
Well, I think it's very competitive these days because it's very much about presenting yourself as a kind of superhero in that business, you know? Everyone wants to be special and look perfect. Everything is also very visual, it's not just music. Back in the days, it was much more about the music, nobody knew the about the face, nobody cared. These days the visual part of music in general is super important and finally also for DJs and electronic music.
And how has that been for you, as someone coming into the social media landscape as a Generation Xer if we can call it that, how have you adjusted?
In the beginning, I really didn't like it at all. I even had a person who helped me to handle Facebook, because it felt so wrong for me to do this self-promotion all the time. I was not used to it. After a while I learned how to use it and started to somehow enjoy it. Especially when Facebook was not that important anymore and Instagram took over, I felt a kind of relief. These days it's just a part of my life, but it took some time. If you are young today, I guess you don't even think about it.
From the artist's personal archive: early live show and studio in Darmstadt in the Nineties.
What about your life in the studio – how do you weight it actually, do you see yourself more as a DJ or more as a producer?
I think it's two sides of the same coin and I enjoyed DJing from the start. I just wasn't touring that much as a DJ in the beginning, so I thought more of myself as a producer. Over the years it became clear that both things are equally important to me and, if I'm honest, you won't make a proper living from music sales these days. Even a great selling techno record won't pay your rent. So, you have to be onstage as a live act or as a DJ, but to me DJing feels very similar to producing.
Being in your music studio: is it like you go there for 'work' or does it feel more like a natural creative process?
It's definitely work, a work I've chosen, and a beautiful work to do. Of course, sometimes there's a lot of pressure, deadlines. When you do remixes for example – depending on who the client is – you have to go back to something that you yourself thought was perfect, but the singer maybe thinks, well, my voice is not the way I would like to have it – it's always interesting what the singer thinks about the song (laughs). Anyway, if it comes to my own music it's as you said, more natural and not really 'working' because I want to do it all the time. Remixing can be a different story.
What about equipment and machines and so on, what is your relationship to that? Is less more, do you ever feel overwhelmed by choices in your own studio?
I’m not super geeky about instruments to be honest. I think there are far too many choices generally and there are far too many choices in my studio already because I never sold anything.
Are you nostalgic about them?
Kind of maybe, but after all these years software has become so powerful that people can easily make a fantastic record on their laptop. So sometimes I wonder, 'What is all this stuff around me?' and I just keep it because it's part of my living and, it's something I would like to be able to use when I want.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the relationship between creative vision and craft – where ideas stem from, is it for you something that starts in the head or does it start with a sound from an instrument or machine?
Electronic music the way that I produce it very much starts when I turn on the power and pressing some knobs. I don't have a theory, or concept before I start normally. I would say I'm very playful. I start on something, interesting things happen, and it starts to come together. Creating a track, is an improvisation. For an album, there are always more tracks than are on the album, so there's always someone involved in the listening process, and you choose the way the tracks are arranged. Again, it’s about collaboration, and I think if you have people to work with who really know what you're doing, sometimes they have the best ideas.
So, being here at MYKITA, I have to ask – what role does design play in your life?
Well, I just moved house, and I have to say, planning the new apartment was really the first time that I was able to decide what I wanted to have. So, creating an environment became very important suddenly, deciding about proportions, what to keep and what to get rid of, materials, colours, all that.
And what has emerged as important to you in this process?
The most important has been to make this plan with the architect, thinking about what you really want to have and what not, and then watching it take shape in front of your eyes and becoming reality. I think that is the most amazing thing about being able to build something on your own, again the idea of collaboration, with someone who knows best or better. It's a very beautiful thing.
What about design items – is there anything you can't live without or just really appreciate?
Well, I have just bought a new bookshelf, which is amazing, an absolute classic by Dieter Rams. It's the best-thought bookshelf I've ever had. The material … just everything.
Lovely glasses you are wearing by the way – which frame is it?
Oh, I should know now, shouldn't I?
Haha, I think it’s LUND, but any reason you picked this model? I think this shape on you is quite familiar from past photos.
I have been wearing glasses since I was 12 and I think even my first glasses looked, not the same obviously, but very similar, the Harry Potter thing, gold and round-ish. I think my style of glasses has stayed the same for the past 30 years.
So, no experiments?
Once! I experimented with this heavy black frame, very big, around mid-2000s. First it was really shocking with people asking, ‘What is this, what are you wearing?’ and about five years later everyone including the news presenter was wearing the same, it just took some time.
Finally, what about your plans for 2022? What are you most looking forward to?
I'm super happy to be able to tour again, so a lot of shows lined up for the next months and in general I'm just happy that things have changed again because for two years with the pandemic; it was not the nicest time of my life, but it's good to see nightlife has a comeback with people enjoying themselves on the dancefloor.
Photographed at the MYKITA HAUS in Berlin, May 2022.
We couldn't agree more – thank you for the music and thank you for this conversation!
For more on the artist, visit http://romanfluegel.de/