Our latest Carhartt WIP Radio episode features Workshop, the German electronic label known for enchantingly leftfield house, techno, and other esoteric, analogue-influenced sounds.
Founded in 2006 by producers and DJs Jens Kuhn aka Lowtec and Paul-David Rollmann aka Even Tuell, the label has established itself as a globally-treasured platform, creating music for intimate, offbeat dancefloors, with a drip-feed of vinyl releases every year. Each one carries the label’s ever-evolving and instantly-recognizable Workshop stamp motif.
In addition to releasing their own music on Workshop, Lowtec and Even Tuell have put out work from the likes of Leipzig’s Kassem Mosse, German electronic music veteran Move D, Madteo from New York, and Detroit producer Whodat, as well as Japanese artists such as Kiki Kudo and Iku Sakan. Considered as a whole, Workshop’s sound is not one that offers peak party euphoria, but rather a more subtle, cerebral experience.
This approach is perhaps illustrated by this month’s show, which spans almost three hours, bringing together the various elements of the duo’s own work, as well as music from the likes of UK producer Tapes, Frankfurt’s 808 Mate, and Ital from New York. Equally extensive is the accompanying interview for this show, as Even Tuell and Lowtec, two figures who rarely give interviews, offer up an elaborate insight into their background and work. Together we discussed the origins of their label, raving after the Wall came down, and their own careers as solo artists.
Growing up, what music were you exposed to and what influenced you?
Lowtec: When I was younger, I was really into Depeche Mode, wave, synth pop and EBM. That was around the mid-1980s and I was still in school at the time. We formed a huge fan base in the former eastern part of Germany, especially in the big cities. In the countryside, where I grew up, hard rock and heavy metal were quite common, along with getting together in a mosh pit and just getting crushed. I‘ve always thought there was something odd about it and that made me kind of an outsider.
At the beginning of the 90s I discovered techno and house music via the radio station DT64. I also started to study in Schmalkalden. Here I met Gunnar (aka The Unknown & Lynx, now the co-owner of the R.A.N.D. Muzik pressing plant) who came from Leipzig to Schmalkalden, also to study. This was shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany. Suddenly anything seemed possible for us, despite not having a lot of money. I started to buy records and we went to techno parties quite often, where we once bumped into Ronald (later known as Marvin Dash).
During this time Gunnar, Marco (aka Krok & Bannlust) and I shared a flat, where we built our first studio together with Ronald, consisting of an Atari as a sequencer and some drum machines and synths. We called it “cool room” because it was the only room without a heater – it was heated by our equipment. I also started DJing around this time.
It was quite clear from the beginning, that we (Gunnar, Marco, Ronald, Torsten and me) wouldn’t be only consumers, but producers. Why shouldn’t we publish our own music, too? So we gradually started our labels USM, Science City, Out To Lunch, and 3B under the roof of R.A.N.D. Muzik – once an organization by music lovers and now a pressing plant. However, one day we sent a demo to Source Records and to our surprise we got a positive answer.
To cut a long story short: Paul-David and I used to knock around in the same group of mates and we recognized each other as kindred spirits. Before Workshop we had already collaborated on my other label Out To Lunch.
Even Tuell: I remember, as a kid, I was sitting quite close to the huge organ pipes, when my father, the church’s organist, would blast massive chords and baselines in that spiritual setting. At home, my parents´ shelves were filled with classical music. Also, my older brothers and their motorcycle friends had a rock band called HARDWARE. They would jam loud on Saturdays until late at night in the boiler room in our basement. The room was sound-proofed with sleeping mattresses.
When I was a young teenager, breakdance-fever took over: everything “breakdanceable” and funky quickly became important. From there on, [my] growing selectiveness about what music is good-to-dance-to initiated endless research. My friends and I were always trying to find parties with cool music in the Frankfurt area. That brought us to clubbing and raving.
After finishing high school, I lived in Paris for half a year, training in fashion and design. During my stay, became fully infected by house music. Master Laurent Garnier’s Thursday night "Wake Up" sets at the Rex Club, Derrick May. The Black Dog, live. It all heavily influenced me and I brought those impressions back home.
At that time, I was running my own underground club-slash-cave called “Bunka” in the old village schoolhouse where my family lived. Our “club” was a complex little dream dungeon with a kind of Blade Runner (1982), Delicatessen (1991) aesthetic. The sound system was big, but improvised. There weren't even two pitch-adjustable record players in the beginning.
I spent most of my time practicing skateboard stunts, and initially, I didn’t feel like playing in front of people. So I invited DJs from Darmstadt, Frankfurt, and then Leipzig instead. Visitors from the latter, like Matthias “Mattscher” Görig (aka Matthew Garage) and Jan Freund (aka Da Halz) – who would go on to co-found the famous R.A.N.D. Muzik pressing plant – connected our local scene with Leipzig’s underground house music scene. Through Jan and the Leipzig connection, I later met Jens (Lowtec) and other members of the R.A.N.D. Muzik and Science City Posse.
A little bit later, I was asked to play parties and clubs in Darmstadt and Frankfurt, like XS/The Box and Ata, Heiko M/S/O, and ND_Baumecker’s famous Wild Pitch club night, before Robert Johnson made me an early resident DJ in 1999.
Three years after Jens had started his own label Out To Lunch, we first worked together on The Airbag Craftworks Compilation, a record merging our musical worlds. Several release parties at various clubs and with different line-ups took place. We toured all regions. Jens and I became friends and we jammed a bit in the Cool Room Studio in Schmalkalden, which resulted in a co-produced track on his Lowtec album, released on Move D’s Source Records label in 2002.
The label seems to publish music with a lot of care. Can you tell us about its philosophy?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: If there is a philosophy, it is constantly evolving. It is very unruly. Workshop, looking back, has opened up some doors to different kinds of music in some parts, by doing things differently. There´s the most common ground in an optimistic leftfield house atmosphere that we both enjoy a lot. Workshop is rather an instinct than concept. A lot of things don’t make sense at the time, but like a jigsaw puzzle you gradually are able to piece it together. We basically see the label as a nicely grown tree that has many branches and quite healthy roots.
How do you find new artists for Workshop?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: With our ears more than with our eyes.
Do you have a wish list of musicians you'd like to release on Workshop?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: Not really. Well, there are quite a few artists we adore and deeply respect but it feels weird to write them down here or to contact them.
What does a track or an artist need to have for you in order to work with them or release their work?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: We don’t have a checklist with boxes to tick. There's a certain Workshop feeling. You know, there’s that initial moment and you suddenly find this connection. A strong personal resonance is needed with music that we release. The more the catalogue grows, we feel there's a natural expansion in sound, variety, and style.
What future projects are you working on right now?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: Some new solo EPs and albums are lined up. The live session-oriented Workshop XX series is developing further and more experimental and “radical” releases are scheduled for this branch. A few upcoming projects are also featured in our mix. You know, we always take our time and in general we’re only releasing a few catalogue numbers a year.
Do you think there’s still a need for labels as institutions in today’s music market?
Even Tuell: Yes. There are new labels constantly coming up that do an amazing job of creating a specialized resort and fitting platform for a certain setting. Some labels only pop up for a while, and tell their story with only a handful of releases, which can be really cool, too. Not every label aims to become the next Strictly Rhythm, in terms of release dynamics. Some label’s cover artwork concepts also make a big difference in the crate. A label’s visual language can also convey so much extra emotional content and attitude.
Lowtec: Rightly or wrongly, in our own idiosyncratic way, we have been releasing a few records each year since 2006. Maybe the only reason was to meet our own needs [laughs].
You run Workshop from two different rural locations, Kleestadt and Schmalkalden. Do these locations play a part in the label’s history or could you operate from any place in the world?
Even Tuell: We both live in rather remote places with hard-to-bike distances to bigger cities like Darmstadt, Frankfurt, or Erfurt and Leipzig. That really helps us to be more in the middle of nowhere. There was a time when we sent CDs back and forth at least every fortnight. You need good music even more in the middle of nowhere.
Lowtec: I can’t estimate what impact my place of residence has on my work. But I think working together remotely is much easier nowadays and it doesn’t matter where you live. To come back to your question, I moved to a new flat together with my girlfriend and we had a baby shortly before Workshop was set up. This apartment had a small workshop belonging to it, where glass artists worked before, and I decided to build my music studio there. And while others plant a tree for their newborn Paul-David and I planted this “Workshop tree” together.
Music-streaming sites and blogs, as well as a flood of releases in general, are presenting both listeners and artists with challenging questions. What's your view on the value of music today?
Even Tuell: Music is nutrition. I would not like to let computer algorithms completely take control of it. Passionate music selectors often do a great job, which sometimes is not valued enough. There´s exciting “radio” shows everywhere in the world on many channels (NTS.live, Rinse.fm, LYL Radio, eosradio.de). Recently, with a nice way of pointing to amazing new and old music of all genres, we'd like to mention www.commontime.club run by Georgia’s Justin Tripp & DJ/writer Matt McDermott. A lot of inspiring and entertaining under the radar music can be discovered here.
How did you select the tracks for your Carhartt WIP Workshop Radio show?
Even Tuell/Lowtec: We took a little ride through the Workshop catalogue, our own releases on other labels, as well as rediscovered some old stuff and unreleased tracks and baked a pizza that hopefully tastes ok.
Can you remember the first time you realized the power of music, and what were you listening to?
Even Tuell: As I said, I was influenced by a lot of classic music as a child. My mother loved Bach a lot, my father Haydn, Mozart & Beethoven. I could take a lot out of their compositions but often found it draining, distracting, and very intense after listening for a while. Funk and some early hip hop was important to me in the 1980s. Repetitive music patterns and stripped down to the essence beats, as well rather monotonous vocals and low-key samples got my attention. My sister had a mixtape called the “WASA-A-MAN-MIX”. I had to borrow it forever. Our little crew practiced breakdance and Mr. Robot moves to this mix a lot.
Lowtec: As mentioned before, Depeche Mode, with their LPs up until 1988, I rinsed to death in school and in terms of early electronic music “Into the Dragon” by Bomb the Bass ,“What’s That Noise?” by Coldcut, 808 State and MARRS “Pump up the Volume” come to mind. Coil’s album Love's Secret Domain – I really loved that one too.
Can you send us a picture that best illustrates your current state of mind to post along with your answers?
I stopped thinking too much about making music, I just let it happen and afterwards I decide if it's good or not - Lowtec
Lowtec, you have released your own productions since 1997, what is the driving force behind your creativity?
Lowtec: I think I draw my inspiration from traveling, reading books and listening to other music, there is plenty to discover out there. Quite new and very inspiring for me is the uncompromising free approach of the recent collaboration with Gunnar Wendel (Kassem Mosse). We are really enjoying our extended live jams for our side project Kolorit. In general, I stopped thinking too much about making music, I just let it happen and afterwards I decide if it's good or not. I am next to Henry Miller’s quote: ”Work on one thing at a time until finished”. I really love to go into the studio with a special idea, and after some hours of work the outcome is a totally different, unexpected result. I think a lot of artists know what I mean.
Lowtec: There is a new Avenue 66 record coming soon, titled “easy to heal cuts”. Furthermore, a new “Kolorit” EP on Berceuse Heroique, but due to the continued pressing plant delays it's hard to pinpoint a proper release date nowadays.
As a producer, what's your perspective on the relationship between music and technology?
Lowtec: Nomen est omen [the name is an omen]. A huge amount of music gear is not too important for me, you know the best music has been made with cheap equipment. I think mastering and effects are important for your trademark. But sometimes it is very helpful to discover a new piece of gear in order to kick off a new production phase, or to overcome the writer's block. Once you establish your own “sound” it doesn't matter what gear you are using, it always will sound like you.
Can you still identify with the music you released two decades ago?
Lowtec: Yes, I can. Except maybe some remixes I did under time pressure.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Lowtec: To get 20-year-old music software running on my Pizmo.
Since 1996 you have run your own label Out To Lunch, which last released a record by German producer AM Kinem in 2018. Are there any new releases planned?
Lowtec: The label is sleeping at the moment.
Learning to listen deeper and discover your very own “inner music” is the biggest goal and challenge - Even Tuell
Even Tuell, you have released your own productions since 2002, what is the driving force behind your creativity?
Even Tuell: I don't want to go too deep, but learning to listen deeper and discover your very own “inner music” is the biggest goal and challenge. If it works it can be quite an experience and yes, a force. Regular spontaneous sessions and steady experimenting maintain a playful and not overly-focused energy that has always been very important to me. I occasionally travel to a special volcanic island with a compact production set-up and get a completely different kind of inspiration from the intense vibrations there. One track for Workshop 07 and all 4 of Workshop 27 were recorded there.
Is there any new Even Tuell material coming out in the near future?
Even Tuell: Yes. A track is coming on Night Defined Recordings, a label from Salzburg. Julian (aka Midnightopera) and I are working on a new record project. This has been quite a recording season. Some of this music has to lay a bit in the sun before an eventual publishing.
As a producer, what's your perspective on the relationship between music and technology?
Even Tuell: I’m more emotionally than technologically-minded when it comes to music production gear. But sometimes I see a machine or synth that talks to me, like a Yamaha synthesizer I accidentally discovered at ECHIGOYA MUSIC. It looked so weird and good, it just had to be a cool device. And it is… a Yamaha TQ5 (interface designed by the mighty Frog Design Inc.) Right now, I enjoy connecting very old gear like a Vermona DRM 1 with contemporary sequencing hardware. That clash of old and modern times, a cranky sound design and digital control options through Midi is very comforting and reliable.
Can you still identify with the music you released a decade ago?
Even Tuell: Yes. Most of it… Some tracks are really “Baustellenmusik” and have an unfinished feel, which I can still appreciate.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Even Tuell: Learning to hear better and how to grow two extra arms.
You also run the clothing and bag company Airbag Craftworks. Can you tell us a bit about it and what are you currently working on?
Even Tuell: Airbag Craftworks was founded in the mid 90s and became quite well known for durable record bags made from recycled cotton air mattresses at first. Old air mattresses are a cool source for naive, weird, and beautiful textile design prints. All airbag craftworks bags are made in Kleestadt, Germany in our own factory with a great team. Sustainable design and eco-friendly rules of production are more important than ever. Fashion in general needs to slow down and adapt, take a deep breath and become more responsible on many levels. Creativity can reach other levels – sometimes not using the most modern, edgy techniques and fibers. To use almost every little leftover and give it a new life is a daily task in our production. Repairing stuff, investing some labor and extending a product's lifetime should not be refused because it's “not worth it.” It should be very much welcomed and appreciated when asked for.
Currently, we’re trying to organize our annual summer event. Every season the so-called Lagerverkauf [warehouse sale] turns the site into a compact music and design festival slash event ground, where some great talents and solid music acts perform live or as a DJ. It’s a gathering and exchange of great minds here in the greater Frankfurt area, close to the Odenwald, where our company is located. You should come visit.