Ricardo Villalobos: Sacred Art
London’s world-renowned Fabric nightclub is a juicy peach, a crisp apple… No, an onion: it has many layers, and a soundsystem of such clarity that it’s been known to bring people to tears. Renovated catacombs that were once a Victorian meat cellar, Fabric still bleeds, only now it is the bass that soaks into the floors. When the fusillade of bodies and beats achieves maximum synergy, the impact is profound, flooding the senses with a holographic spectrum of stimuli. Amidst it all Ricardo Villalobos sees white.
Not the literal white of a snowstorm, or even of tensed flesh on a heaving British dancefloor (a familiar sight to the indefatigable DJ); rather, this is a rush of anthropomorphized sound, an aggregate of met potential. As the Chilean-born, Berlin-based producer releases Fabric36– a 15-track mix of all-original productions intended as “present to,” and inspired by Room 1 of Fabric– he comes across as part conceptual artist and part cultural anthropologist in the blossom of this incandescent abstraction. He is a mystic and rationalist concerned with encapsulating, delivering, and evolving the full spectrum of modulation.
Press-shy Villalobos uses his increasingly lengthy compositions to distend and perpetuate rumpled hollows of such shifting detail that they defy the label of “minimal” even as journalists claim his tracks define the genre. Releasing productions for over 15 years (the last four of which have been scrutinized), Villalobos eyes less the snowblink of the spotlight and more the flare of fully realized sound.
Below is the full transcript from Tony Ware's September 2007 interview with Ricardo Villalobos. To read the Villalobos feature from XLR8R 112 (November 2007), download the pdf of that issue.
XLR8R: So, what is sacred?
Ricardo Villalobos: What is sacred? I don’t know if there is something sacred [laughs]. I always try to fight against sacred things in a way, with innovation and things like that. In my life not so many things are sacred; I would say nearly nothing. Was this the right answer to your question? [laughs]
There’s no right answer, I just wondered if there was anything you considered indispensable.
No. Of course, there I things I love–my family, my wife, my friends, music, I love life. Of course, we are constantly suiciding slowly, though in a way these things are in a way sacred. But it’s very real, concrete. And sacred is a thing that is unchangeable in a way and that is something I am fighting against constantly, these definitions, religious and so forth. And it’s leading us to complete chaos at the moment worldwide. So I fight against all these kinds of sacred things.
I was listening to a track earlier and it seems when you establish a melody it could be a conversation or it could be a march… Is everything around it going towards it or away from it?
The melody, in a way, is a feeling injection, and in pop music you use it very often and it is expected. But in jazz, classical, in the club context it’s more or less like a feeling injection, something coming from time to time but the most important thing is the rhythm trip.
In terms of jazz, since I believe you’re a fan, do you look at what you’re doing from the perspective of spatial imaging or the endurance of the player and longevity of the track more?
I appreciate especially the spaces and recordings with microphones. And what I try to do with electronic music is try to sound as good and free and as spacey as an acoustic recording. This is the big reference for me, but it’s nearly impossible. Because the electronic frequencies are more defined and the rooms, you have to create rooms with spaces and reverbs. All the other effects you can use as something abstract, but the reverbs… Humans are experts in reverbs, it is the one thing we are really experts in; we know if we’re in a kitchen, an elevator, a big hall. Microphone recording lets in this space where the sound was recorded, but with electronic music, it is an effect that is light years behind. You can’t betray the human ear, which is why dry recordings can be timeless and reverb recordings are always fixed to the time of a technology. It’s impossible to bring into electronic music the space existing in acoustic recording, but we can make field recordings and mix electronic and acoustic music. This is what I try to do constantly.
This makes me think of two different things. One, when you talk about the room … All the pictures I see of your apartment, everything is very white. And I wonder if you intentionally surround yourself with this neutral spectrum to project things into it and not have it take away from what you have at hand.
Of course I have an intention. I’ve learned a lot about space in dub music, the music of Basic Channel, and other electronic musicians, that you can create this room; this possibility to interpret or feel music in a way. It is not a thing exactly suggested, like in pop music. So the room… you’re letting make some little blueprint, put some little color effect sometimes. But the room has to be there, and it has to be white, meaning it has all frequencies possible from 20 Hz to 20,000–everything the human body can hear, and sometimes even more information we’re not hearing but still feeling.
How do you compensate for other environments, when in a club without that white, open feeling?
It’s possible to have this white open thing in a club, where the soundsystem is extremely good, where the system can reproduce all the frequencies, but in all the clubs are lots of limitations. First of all the club owner, who is trying to protect his bass bins, so he is filtering all the bass frequencies, or the club owner who doesn’t want to pay too much for the soundsystem. And this is really, really cutting the possibilities and the music, and it’s the opposite of the place you said. But we are fighting for the best possible sounding productions, fighting the club owners who don’t want to spend so much on the soundsystems. Because it’s the main thing for a party, it’s the main thing for me; the main factor which defines if the party is good or not is the sound quality. Even if it is compressed and dramatic, it can sometimes be a good party, but the freedom of the DJ is only really established if you have a good soundsystem. Most of the clubs in the world, besides the English and Japanese and some others, the standard is awful; clubs in Germany are awful; there is no freedom.
So when you close your eyes you can imagine Fabric to be an all white room?
It’s possible, because the idea of high fidelity is to transport, of course, a classical concert, a symphony that you can’t transport to your home. But you try by buying the best speakers possible, to put the concert feeling into your living room. And the better the speaker is the more live feeling you get. And if you are playing in Fabric you have the possibility to play all kinds of music and it’s coming, reproducing the recording as it was, and this is not happening very often. At Fabric there are sound technicians that run around finding the frequency of the night and deleting feedback, dedicating their time to the music and nothing else. You have to have a lot of people behind it, how to make the room acoustic, put speakers, handle the night, handle the different ears and different destruction of ears. There is so much love in this club.
When you composed your mix did you compose for specific rooms or frequencies?
They are all dedicated to Room One, as I always play there.
Did you produce them in pieces and then put them together or did you compose them together and then cut them up?
In my mind I put them together. I was producing for one and a half years until I had all the tracks that fit as a sound journey and not as tracks in themselves. But in my mind it was always a composition. When I had three, I knew I needed 10 more. And when I had them I knew it, it just took one year and a half.
Thinking back to the potential of reverb–a lot of clubs can try to make things dry–but reverb itself is a concept of displacement. And I was wondering, does your interest in reverb reflect any cultural heritage, because in both Germany and Chile there have been periods of displacement of people, things that move and represent other places. Does your interest in these musical concepts stem from cultural sources?
Absolutely. As I see it, the folk music of Germany is viewed by a 60-year-old bad consciousness of being German, so it is really hated and not represented by the young people. And in South America, in almost all the other countries in the world, it is different. I don’t know how it is in America, but I can see in the independent scene there is a lot of country music influences and things like that. But in Germany there is no influence of folk music in the music we are doing and loving. So I take what is now a music in Germany loved by the young people and put in the influences coming from the South American music. Am I answering the question right?
I do notice you like to work with acoustic guitar tones, and I wonder what reverberates in that palette of sounds, so to speak, for you.
Of course, what’s always new is the experience of listening to a recorded instrument with a good microphone. So this is like the guitars I was using three or four years ago completely played by me. The tones are sampled, not the melody, so it’s not coming from any other room. But the thing where I’m absolutely impressed is the power and beauty of the acoustic recordings. Absolutely the most surprising and interesting thing about an individual recording …? But I really have to confess I don’t know if I am answering this question right. Is it more abstract, the question?
More abstract, yes. I’m trying to look at the cross of cultures and how folk music is also often the people’s protest music and how dance music can be that to you.
The dance music, of course, is part of the culture of the folk music. For me to discover other cultures and marry their melodies with the club context is the biggest challenge in the future. To discover other, strange instruments and mix them with our club music is to give the people in a certain music a feeling injection while they are dancing, strange feelings they didn’t know before because they didn’t listen to this melody. Music can transport the feelings, the thing that the person inventing the melody was feeling. This mixture, the challenge to find which moments are the right moments to put them on the dancefloor, this is the biggest challenge for me in the future. All different cultures in the world are having their own injections of feeling. This is not happening to the rhythm. The rhythm is universal language; everyone understands drums and is starting to dance. But the melody is much more linked to the culture of a specific culture and is the injection of another world. This is really something to present to the people in a club as an interesting exploration.
What moment of culture do you feel is most important to you on the Fabric mix?
There are two. One is the power of the Japanese drums in the middle of the CD, and the other is the culture of being all together and singing all together before the last track… the last track which is made of the folk music from friends of my parents. They made this track right after the military coup in Argentina and the exile situation. And I took this and put it in the electronic music through new technologies. These are both the cultural injections that mean so much for me. And the rest is percussion, sound, and rhythm trips: a lighthouse concept with a strong thing on the sound thing. I really have to say the music is completely different is you are listening loud and on a good system. This is the way of listening. It’s dedicated to Fabric, a present to this soundsystem.
But many people also find your music to be very good for headphones.
Ja, ja, of course, it is also very good for headphones. But it has to be headphones with the whole range of frequencies.
I know you have strong opinions on the U.S.
[Giggling uncomfortably] Is it really necessary to discuss this?
I’m just suggesting that the U.S. has its own folk music, and its own moments that could be injected and I was wondering if you’d want to further explore that.
Ja, I love Western music sometimes, the American music of the last 100 years is amazing. The musical heritage and influence of American music is amazing.
Would you have the desire to come and try your infusion concept live?
If there is something special, of course. I’ve been remixing Philip Glass, for example. But this is really abstract American music. If there is something I could listen to as possible for the dance hall then yes, of course. But American music is a mixture of so many things and cultures it’s so hard to define. Even the electronic music of what we call Chicago and Detroit is a mixture of African and new technologies of string sounds and classical influences. It’s so mixed and difficult to define. It’s easier to say, “This is Gypsy music.” American music is everything, all the Latin influences, how Cuba and Puerto Rico went to New York and it’s like a salsa. And it’s wonderful.
What event would you feel appropriate to come present your concepts?
Like, if there was a real cultural invitation of someone working at Carnegie Hall, a formal invitation for me to present at this cultural event, then I would go to America, when I wouldn’t have the strange questions at the border, feeling like a criminal for coming to the country only because I have a metal box with me. To be officially invited in a cultural surrounding, I would like to do. But for me, if we come to the political thing, my feelings are that America is not really respecting a lot of other cultures because the ones they have to accept inside. So for me it’s really hard for me to come bring my culture. My whole life changed because of American politics, so it’s my way of protesting, of saying something against what is happening in Chile in 1973 or whatever is happening at the moment, is not to go to America. But I would like to have the feeling to go as someone invited for something important, something with joy, not something strange trying to invade. I really would like to come.
To go into a less charged topic, it seems everything we’re talking about involves a lot of balancing of cultures, politically, philosophically, and melodically. Another thing we could discuss, since we discussed the quality of acoustic recording, is what concessions you have found over the years that you had to make for analog versus digital technology. How have you found a way to bridge vinyl to laptops?
This is very important, because we are running in the wrong direction at the moment. MP3 is like offering you an 800-pixel camera as the newest shit. And this is what is happening to sound at the moment. It’s absolutely important to fight against it, so I buy old mixers, old studio equipment, because the best equipment for recording was in the ’50s and ’60s. And all digital recording is only a photograph of the reality. The only recording well is analog on tape and vinyl. Going to the mastering studio and putting it directly on vinyl is the target. Right now what is happening is a catastrophe, how people want more and more music but the music is only numbers, not names and content behind it. No names, lyrics, only downloading. We have to fight this develop with the quality of sound and really saying something about what is happening, how the record stores and distributors and cover artists and mastering studios are disappearing. The original copies, vinyl copies of the CD is something you buy and you can read who is making it, and when. But these are disappearing, and it’s important to be aware of sound quality. So what I do I consider a form of protesting against these developments, how I bring out records on vinyl.
How do you keep the sound as you wanted when you have to deal with the situations you are given, with the booth you can’t customize?
It’s horrible, another situation, how you never know who is recording you. I deal with bad soundsystems and these people by playing different music. I can’t play my music, I can’t play the music of my friends, I can’t play the newest things because people record it and bring it out on the internet and bootlegs. So many developments are in the wrong direction.
To protect yourself how do you keep the essence of the set you want without playing the exclusive tracks?
The problem is, I can’t keep the essence if the soundsystem and situation are not perfect. If you are in the big club of 5,000 and you get paid a lot and the club owner is right behind you trying to see if the money was well invested or not then it is a different situation when you are in an incredible club with 200 people and amazing sound. I try to stay in and search for these small situations and try to play the big ones from time to time only for surviving. The rest has to stay like this; has to stay small, touchable.
What is your reference for success? How do you judge when you’ve succeeded in these goals?
I don’t have any references. I am fighting with the problem that if I bring out an album everyone is comparing it, measuring the success with it. But if to be not successful means you are not having to do the things that get you interviewed in the magazines maybe I don’t want the success. [laughs] The problem is we have to deal with the thing of success and it’s lot of bad sides, the side of hype. The hype is an enemy for art, doing what you really want, which is playing music and not talking to millions of people who want to have a little bit of your time because they want a little photo or conversation or whatever, and it really distracts you from what you really want to do–which is to play a nice party with a nice soundsystem, which is the only reason I am doing what I am doing. That’s the problem you have to deal with, all the things that have nothing to do with the music.
Do you feel you’re judged fairly by other people?
What happens is people get information by third parties, but not yourself, no direct contact to you–because direct contact would take so much time for someone to truly fairly judge whether to be a friend or not. It’s a long process. So people love or hate you because they heard of you, read of you, and it is very dangerous. Also people write web pages in your name. If you don’t do it they invent a reality. A guy on MySpace was answering letters as me, had an incredible biography, acting as me, and he had a love story with a girl on email. And this girl came to me in Berlin and she jumped like an ape on me and was like, “We’re in love, I’m your Number One friend on MySpace.” And I had to tell her I had no web page, and it was not me. And this girl was falling into pieces right before my eyes because she had this love story with this other person. They were in contact for one year, sending letters. She was in love with me, but it was not me. So I realize there are so many dangerous developments with the internet that we have to make the people aware of.
If people don’t have the opportunity to get to know you directly, do you feel they get the right impression of you through your music?
No…perhaps. If they listen to it on a proper soundsystem, or try to find the little tones in the back, perhaps. But sometimes many of the interviews are asking more or less the same questions so I don’t know if there is a different picture of me than I appear.
How wrong an idea do you feel people have of you?
I don’t know. I have an image as a heady, crazy guy. I have an image that I am influenced by drugs, his South American roots and was lucky to grow up in Germany. This is the quintessence of the interviews. I don’t know what kind of image I have, but it’s not controlled by me, which is very bad. The image of a person should be controlled by a direct contact, so I have an image to my friends and the people I can talk to, but all the rest is a virtual reality.
Is it much like your feelings of sound, the only proper representation involves those full frequencies?
Exactly. Very good.
When you’re making a track, though, do you feel people get the appropriate impression of both the isolated artist creating and the music for the masses? Do they get the balance?
I have the impression that enough people get it, but the message in all kinds of club music is searching for something special, a special composition of frequencies, mostly directed by the bass drum, that makes the people dance. All of us are hunting for that secret; some people have a certain formula and the people start to dance. This is the most important thing I want to do, nothing more.
Do you consider yourself more an artist or an artisan?
I don’t know exactly, I don’t know the exact definition of an artist. If something is inventing something new and original in his life then it is a miracle. We are all getting information from somewhere else, filtering it and thinking about it and giving it to the people. And I don’t know if an artist is something different than any other person because an artist is doing this with an intention, trying to earn some money out of it but I don’t know what an artist and an artisan is. If there is a definition for an artist that an artist is getting a strong impression in a way from their own experience and giving it in a way that the rest of the people can understand it, more than one can understand it, then it could be a definition for an artist. If I do music that is only understandable to me than I am not an artist. If I do music and more than two people start to dance because of the sound, the tones, the melody, the bass, whatever, then I start to be an artist. But I don’t define myself exactly as something.
So at times you bridge the gap between a work of art and a tool of a craft?
As we talked about all of this I remember seeing in your bio that you wrote about the club of the future and a lot of what we talked about tied into that, so I guess what I find interesting is the club of the future has a lot to do with the past. With stripping away things almost that we have been talking about have become a problem, internet, digital compression, and what not.
Well, yes, exactly.
Tell me a little bit more about where you would like the future to go.
First of all, we are dealing since the acts the American government was doing five, um, six years ago. This is coming like a wave to Europe also. You know how like that smoking campaign is coming to Europe also, it happens to be in everywhere. It will come to Germany also, and it will come to Berlin. And all these restrictions will one day come to Berlin also. That means that the clubs cannot be open forever. That there are restrictions, police control everywhere. That the police is coming because of only a repetitive beat, whatever. And these are all like European rules, and I think we have to defend ourselves, not in an offensive way of trying to do crazy parties in hidden places. I think the more intelligent way is to find a club, which is open Tuesday afternoon from 3 to 7, for example. And also on Wednesday, and also on Thursday. And in this club, there is the best sounding music, under 100 decibels, so no policeman can say something. So no neighbor can say something. There is no drug policy because it is during the day. Perhaps someone’s smoking in the corner. But outside, it’s an open place with a lot of air. And it’s a bright place, and the sound is absolutely incredible and kicking. And the definition at the end, the definition of what we are doing all the time is because of the music. It is because of the sound. So to do things like this is a form of doing a future club in an intelligent way. You know, to create different times of partying to find the gaps where the police and the politicians cannot really restrict us in a way. I think this is what we have to do, and we need to create places where the sound is incredible. And where it is not necessary to put it very loud. Where the sound is so good it is not necessary to put it loud. You know this is a very big difference.
So that is always a goal of yours, that you want your sounds to be so they sound great on large systems, but you want them to be so impeccable and in extreme detail that as long as the sound is good it does not need extreme volume.
Exactly. And there is a French friend of mine who is working for the American brand, Meyer Sound in South America, and he is working on developing a ring where it is a dancing ring. It is a ring–big or small–of speakers and you can be inside the ring. And inside the ring there is sound. And then outside the ring there is no sound because the little speakers in the back, which are deleting with the opposite phase, the sound coming out of the ring. So this is the club of the future. To really to get the best technology, the best lawyers, the best writers, the best DJs, the best sound people together and to go on making parties. And go on celebrating the little therapies we need on the weekend. But not just on the weekend. You know, whenever! Whenever going into a club anymore, you go in and have a drink and it’s not loud anymore, and you go home after three to four hours again.
So to a lot of people describe clubs and studios almost like caves, but you look at it more of like a cocoon or a sort.
No, like an open place. More like an open place.
I guess I say cocoon in a sense that it is nurturing, as opposed to an isolated solitary experience.
Yes, exactly. More like a cocoon, perhaps.
So an open cocoon.
Yes, an open cocoon [laughs] exactly. An open cocoon. Okay, I have to finish because the other guy is waiting now. It was an exciting conversation. [interviewer informs subject that piece will run in Music Technology issue] We should have talked more about the reverb things. Because the dry recordings are timeless, and the reverb recordings are always fixed to a time, and this is a very important thing if you are listening to the jazz recordings of the ’80s, Chick Corea or an electronic band. All the horrible reverbs they use. And it is always the recordings without reverbs; for example, the cello recordings from the ’50s were completely dry, which are timeless. And the reverbs thing… humans are really experts in reverb, because it is the only effect we are experts in. So yeah, recordings without reverbs are the best recordings. If you are listening to your favorite jazz record, you will realize it. If there is a jam coming with a reverb saxophone, then it is over. You know. That’s only my opinion. But the best recordings are dry always. Or have only the room recorded. Reverbs are [destructive] sometimes. And sticking and connecting the music to a certain period of how good the reverbs were at this period, you know. This is my opinion about reverbs. [laughs]
Well, thanks a lot.