In the Studio: Gajek - XLR8R
One of experimental music's brightest talents goes deep on the processes behind his work.

There's very little known about Gajek, real name Matti Gajek. The producer and sound artist, a Berlin resident, brought himself to many people's attention with his 2017's '17 LP—an extremely abstract record devoid of any sensical rhythms and structure that one might be able to relate to. With its obscure flutes, sound metaphors, and angular textures, the album marked the young producer as an exciting figure in sonic experimentalism and IDM, cementing a bubbling reputation from earlier works on Monkeytown Records and Infinite Greyscale.

As far his production goes, even less is known about Gajek. It's believed, both through rumor and the nature of his sound, that he's a firm adopter of "totally free music" and improvisational, experimental methods. 17 itself was even delivered as a modern interpretation of '70s pioneering electronic experimentalism. But despite this, Gajek's work, especially his more recent output, feels structured in an unstructured way—as if he's purposefully painting his way through this ambient rumble of waves and digital wonder. To learn more about the equipment and processes behind this wonderfully exciting sonic tapestry, XLR8R caught up with Gajek one day at his Berlin studio.

17 was a tremendous piece of abstract electronica. What’s the idea behind it?

I had the idea for 17 on a bus ride through the German Ruhrgebiet while I was traveling from Bonn to Berlin at the end of 2015. It kind of started with a question: is it possible to make a contemporary version of Kraut music which is completely free of nostalgia but connects to the energy of the music—the futuristic drive, the boldness, the minimalism. It was recorded from 2015 to the end of 2016 in my studio at home. Usually, I'm not convinced by the romantic notion of dreaming up music while looking out of the bus or train window, but it worked out for 17.

What was it about this particular journey that inspired you?

I'm from East Germany and grew up in what used to be the GDR. I discovered the deeper parts of West Germany only in my late 20s. While a place like Bonn was about as exotic to me as London or Milan, I felt a connection to the aesthetic of the Ruhr area—the working class mentality, some of the architecture. I thought about the relationship of music to certain places. The way they shape your desires, your wishes to break out, maybe your anger, your fantasies. And I could relate very well to what I consider the Kraut project. To me, this music never seemed to be about an idyllic notion of home or about a sense of innocence that you wish to save. But about the cracks, the violence, the potential, and maybe also some esoteric sentimentality for other worlds. To me, that is still relevant today in this late capitalist wasteland where so many people seem to dream of going back to some illusion of purity or just wish for some apocalyptic cleansing. I always loved the motoric rhythms of Kraut music, the scarcity and forward momentum. I wanted to create a similar effect without using clear drum patterns or melodies. Some freedom of form in our digital age. To face the changes and meet them with force.

"I don't like building up tracks with drum patterns as building blocks, and on 17 I generally tried to prevent moments where every line is submitted to the same big guiding principle."

What are the key techniques and pieces of gear behind 17?

Since I like to avoid classic drops, it was important to find a working dramaturgy to develop a different way to organize tension. I don't like building up tracks with drum patterns as building blocks, and on 17 I generally tried to prevent moments where every line is submitted to the same big guiding principle. I wanted the elements to react to each other while having some autonomy, going their own path—more of a horizontal focus instead of vertical organization. Like a sort of polyphony where the voices do not necessarily know about each other all the time.

I like it when music allows you to be an observer zooming in on different aspects and moments of the composition. On 17, I thought of the narrative more like an abstract painting or a collage. But to achieve that I needed a lot of sound material prepared before the recording. I needed to have all the single pieces before putting them together. So in a sense, some of the organization moved into the material itself. I mostly started with synth structures which I recorded with the Matrix 1000, a Moogerfooger phaser, pitchshifter, delay and spring reverb. Most of the further production is digital. The digital aspect has always been very important to me because I want to stay away from analog fetishizations of warmth and physicality.

So you are essentially splitting the creative process into two parts: creating sound material and creating tracks—do you see this distinction?

Not in general, but that was the way I did it for 17. At the moment I'm not producing like this. At the moment I´m working on more rhythmic MIDI-based tracks. It still goes off grid, but it is more precise. Taking the 17 vibe to another place.

Once you have the sound material, are you then piecing the tracks together as you would play them in a live set?

No. That would mean to piece them together in real time. The benefit of producing in a studio is to give the production some time.

I was struck immediately by the use of these warm, sublime textures and sensical rhythms. How did you create the drone sounds and complex textures, that seem ever-present in your music?

To create these kinds of drones and structures I use delay, reverb, ring modulation, pitch shifting, phasers, and distortion and also some pitching afterwards. I use these effects in a studio setup but also digitally with Ableton, Max, and Native Instruments. For rhythms, I use any kind of recordings that I have from drums to field recordings. I like to use rhythms in an instrumental sometimes almost melodic way.

Speaking generally, how do tracks come together? And how long does this take?

It comes naturally but it can take a while. For 17 it really took some time. The first tracks I tried to produce in the way 17 is now didn't work. To get the first two tracks of the record to work took me about as long as it took to finish the rest of the album. Once I figured out the format the production sped up. Still not exactly quick but definitely faster than before.

What do you mean by “format?”

An interesting format can be a setup I create, like a certain constellation of equipment, harmonies, MIDI textures or the general structure in which the audio material is organized.

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Which were the first two tracks from the album?

The first two tracks of 17 were "St. Pierre" and "Futur Zwei."

Can you talk me through the process behind one of them, and how it came about?

For "St Pierre," it was important for me to work with a Popol Vuh vibe as a reference and to bring that together with an abstract organization of the single sound elements. It started with more melodic synth lines which I later deconstructed and stretched very long; the rhythmic intention comes from a tremolo effect I put over it. Then I added the more percussive drum-like sounds. I worked around the track in many different sessions and at the end, I kind of simply threw it in the final song project and watched what happened. For "Futur Zwei" it was similar, I produced both of them at the same time. But there the intention was more to focus on the rhythmic elements.

And do all tracks follow a similar process, or is it very different?

It can change a lot, but for 17 that mostly was the way the tracks came together.

Let’s go back to the start. You’ve been producing music since the ‘90s. What did your early experiments sound like?

My first concert was a gig in school with a band I had as a teenager. I had borrowed an old guitar from a friend of friend who was some kind of legend in the town I grew up in. People called him Krähe for some reason—which would be “crow” in English—though I don't know why. It was a spectacular concert. The guitar kept on detuning; every time I touched a string it got worse. It sounded terrible. The drummer was too loud and the amp from the bass player died. The audience looked at us not knowing what to think or what was going on. Is it supposed to be like that? Kind of the same way they still do today at my concerts sometimes! Not much has changed. Maybe we all got used to it. After the concert, there was a fight about the guitar. I think it is still in that school. Sometime after that, I started with electronic music provincial small-town style with Fruity Loops and Reason on a home PC. The music was really informed by Mouse On Mars, Schneider TM, and later the UK IDM classics. That was around 2000.

When did a clear sound aesthetic begin to develop?

When I came to Berlin around 2005, I met other musicians and experienced how to play in a club. My first concert in Berlin was with Freeform I think. Then I kind of made club music for a while until I had the opportunity to hang out in a friend's studio where I learned to use an analog production setting. Creating sounds by building up effect units with sends and returns had a deep impact on me. That gave me the basics. Then I discovered that I can make whichever music I want to. That was around 2009.

How clear was your idea of the music you wished to make?

It was more about what music I didn't wish to do anymore. When I started I had no clue how an analog studio setup works. For example, the sound of Broadcast was a complete mystery for me and felt so far away from what I thought I could do. Back then I felt very limited in my resources. I was mostly bent on digital production as I didn't have any other opportunities. And I thought digital production was really difficult because of all the possibilities you have. Working in the environment of a studio helped me to limit myself and to understand what I want and get it. Now I really enjoy the possibilities of working digitally.

Do you limit yourself when working digitally?

Absolutely.

It took a long time for your first release to arrive, with 2014’s Restless Shapes. Was this the first time your music felt ready to be released?

No. I just didn't have the right infrastructure for releasing music. I was ready for a release years ago. But it would have been different music. Restless Shapes was a big step for me. At this point had already gone through some evolutions as a producer. I have had a lot of time to gain experience and to collect a huge amount of different sound material. Restless Shapes was the first time I really felt that I had a finished album. In the beginning, I didn't even think of it as one album. More like three mini albums. But either way, it's working fine.

Do you feel that you needed time for your music to mature? Just how important was this period in refining your sound and style?

Certainly. It was very important and still is. I think that developing your sound should be an ongoing process. I'm bored when artists stick to their copyright sound forever. Even though I can, of course, understand it. As a musician, you have to suffer through your redundancies.

What techniques did you use for this first record?

A lot of MIDI action is going on there; it's super concrete. A friend of mine who didn't know me so well at this time thought I was a total control freak after listening to it. I was a bit upset about that. Really the process was not that pedantic at all. Then I thought: on my next release I will give away some of that control. She likes it better now.

What were the key pieces of gear behind the music?

Like for 17 I also used the Matrix 1000 and the Moog phaser. I also had a SH 101 at this time which I used to make some of the deep glide sounds on "Moving Glasses." The Telefunken spring reverb was basically on everything. I also used some standard Ableton synths.

Do you think 17, with its abstract nature, was a reaction to the pedantic nature of Restless Shapes?

Yes and no, I worked on a lot of different music between these two albums. By the time I produced 17 the echo of Restless Shapes was long gone. But still, I think the two albums make an interesting constellation together, because they both work with organizing time in different ways. Before Restless Shapes my tracks had a more classic A B C part structure which never really suited them. Restless Shapes was influenced by classical music. There you have the main themes which get remodelled, sequences that allow changing perspectives for the different parts and still everything comes together as one bigger composition. I learned from that. Getting a feeling for larger structures and narratives and their relationship to the individual parts. Trusting longer arcs was very important for 17. So while Restless Shapes is about concentrating everything, going into very small detailed pieces, 17 is more spacious, like a landscape.

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Let’s talk about your studio. Tell me about it.

My studio is in my flat. Sometimes it's just an empty table and sometimes I put out my gear.

How long have you been here?

I have been in this studio for over four years now.

What do you look for in a studio space?

I like to think of a studio more as a kind of artist space, where not everything is necessarily focused on a mixer-speaker-music-production center. It's also a place where I think about the artwork and performance. To me, making music can be a painful process in which I need to stay really focused to come out with something which in my mind makes a difference. To develop my ideas clearly, I need a clear space. I´m often overwhelmed in studios where there is so much gear that you don't know where to start. Mostly I am better with a clear table and my computer on it. On the other side it can be very nice to mess around with a lot of gear stuff but for me, that is rarely where the interesting things happen.

Do you find it’s important to combine your workspace within your living space?

Not necessarily. It is practical. But also dangerous for your social life, if you never get to leave your flat. I once had a studio outside from my home but at this period of time, I needed to produce so much that the distance was just too far. I didn't it make there even once. So I stopped paying rent for it and stayed home. Where I still have my studio now. I did get an angry mail from my studio mate later in which he accused me of leaving a rotting pumpkin there for him as a surprise. I honestly never set foot in it. I didn't do it!

How do you feel this impacts your creativity and mindset?

It's good to feel at home, which I do. But I'm sure you can get that in a studio as well. I think the impact on the life you have when you are not producing is bigger than the opposite. It´s hard to catch a break when your studio is in your living room. I never had the feeling that my private life stands in the way of my creativity. But maybe my mind could get more rest if I had a studio.

Yes. Given that it's so thought-provoking and introspective, do you find that you have to be in a certain headspace to make this music?

Yes, it's not the music you make when you are trying to have some fun time in the studio. In a way, you need to work against your wish for instant satisfaction. The satisfaction comes later when you listen to it unfolding; when everything comes together. You need to be patient which makes a lot of the production time really hard. Sometimes it takes a long time until a track makes sense. I need to do a lot of detours. But then again what is even harder is that I mostly just am in this headspace anyway. I can't switch it off, which can be frustrating. Musicians can be a little autistic.

So you’re constantly thinking about the creative process—do you find it hard to connect with other parts of your life not being able to switch this off?

Yes!

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Is there one piece of equipment that sits at the center of your operation?

Computer and coffee maker.

Which coffee maker?

At the moment it's a simple Cafeteria. But I'm planning on a bigger machine. I have my eye on the Vibiemme Domobar Junior HX. I will have to synchronize this purchase with buying a new computer though. To upgrade the biological and technological calculating capacity.

What do you look for in a studio setup?

To be completely honest I always had to work with restrictions for very banal and material reasons. So I never really had to think about this hypothetical luxury. I will give it some thought.

What do you look for in the equipment that you use?

At the moment I'm using a lot of software. In software, I'm looking for synths or plugins that are really basic and don't try to trick me into thinking they sound really great by already having a 1000 effects on it. That's my job! I think my new record will not have any reverb or delay. Everything will be in the front.

Can you name some of the plugins that you’re using?

Right now, I am working a lot with Native Instruments, the Razor by Errorsmith is fantastic. The Max Audio Effects and Instruments are also great. Spectral Filter, Wasteband, Simple Pitchshifter, Convolution Reverb, are some Max Audio Effects I like to use. Mostly I build up send and return lines and bring them together in an effect unit. That was also a big part of my production process for 17 and Restless Shapes. I like to build up AUX send and return lines via my Mackie Mixer or digital in Ableton.

"...even with the best gear you can still fail. There is a lot of shitty music made with expensive equipment."

Is there any piece of equipment that you feel like you’re currently missing?

No. I could use a new computer, mine is getting slow which annoys me. For me it's simple, instead of thinking what I could do with this or that I have always preferred to see where I can get with my current options. There is great equipment, of course. But even with the best gear you can still fail. There is a lot of shitty music made with expensive equipment.

Can you talk us through the setup, including the monitors?

I have a Mackie CR-1604, Oberheim Matrix - 1000, Oberheim OB Three Squared Drawbar Organ Module, MPC 1000, Telefunken Spring Reverb, Moogerfooger Phaser and Ring Modulator, Boss Digital Delay DD - 5, Boss Supershifter PS - 5, Roland MC - 303. Monitores are Tannoy Reveal 5A active studio monitors but I mostly use AKG reference headphones K - 812.

Is there a piece of gear or software that you use to start a track, and how frequently does this change?

This changes a lot depending on what I want to do and where the focus is. For a melodic album like Restless Shapes, I would start by writing it down in MIDI notes and find out later which sound would suit the theme. For material which is more like 17, I start with building drones or look through material I have recorded to find interesting aspects from which I then carry on.

In terms of production, how much of your process is improvised?

You could say it’s all an improvisation. But for the freedom and the accidents to work, you still need to develop some kind of system. Improvisation is rarely random. The freedom is possible because there is a concept and a practice behind it. This kind of concept developing takes time. In earlier productions, I was often stuck in loops which I found hard to escape. The struggle to get from one bar to the next. I didn't want to work like this anymore. So I experimented with other ways of bringing my material together. I like to think of a track as an ongoing system, always changing. Like taking a peak into a bigger piece, checking in, and staying there for five minutes and checking out again while the music keeps running forever.

"The challenge is to get to the sweet spot between preconception and letting go. It’s great if it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And that is great too."

Are any of the tracks preconceived—or is it mostly random?

I don't think any of it is random. To allow for contingencies and spontaneous reactions to happen still means that you have to create a setting with certain points of reference. Like the jazz musicians say: first you make the rules, then you break the rules. And I guess in between you need to forget them. You start very consciously and the deeper you get into the process the more you can rely on muscle memory and start to play. It's like learning a language: you want to get to the point where you do not think about grammar and vocabulary anymore. And in music and art, you get to make languages up. There can be rhythmical rules or certain things you want to avoid; it's very playful really. You can lose yourself after a while. But I always do have a very clear idea of what I want to do. The challenge is to get to the sweet spot between preconception and letting go. It’s great if it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And that is great too.

You say a “clear idea”—but do the tracks often end up sounding like these ideas or do they morph into something different?

It never ends up the way I imagine it exactly and I think that is a good thing. It gets a life of its own. And that is what I'm looking for. You need to arrange the material in a way that makes it possible to let things happen. You control some aspects so that you can leave others be.

How do you learn to find this "sweet spot" between preconception and letting go—does it just come with practice/experience?

I think practice is the deciding factor. Practice in the sense of working through it, giving it time. Immersing yourself in your material, trying, failing, finding ways out of dead ends. Doing this thing, several hours every day for years.

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So how long do you generally take for a track to come together? 

That is hard to say. Mostly I'm doing them all at the same time, or I have smaller song groups, I´m not going from track to track. Sometimes it goes very quickly. It takes some time in the beginning of a bigger process, as I said earlier: "St Pierre" and "Futur Zwei" took a while. And I remember "Moving Glasses" from Restless Shapes, which was the first track I produced for this album, also took me a long time. And then "Curved Engines" came along super fast.

How do you start and end a track? Do you have a go-to process? 

A track feels finished when it works well with other tracks. Sometimes you need more than one piece of music to understand which one is finished, which one needs more work and which one simply will not make it. I always rather start a new track rather than spending too much time on one singular piece. For starting: I just start.

How many tracks or sketches are you commonly working on at any given time?

In the deep production of an album, it can be around 15; when I'm in a finding process then it is around five. I'm working on less tracks in parallel in these periods not because I have less audio material but because I am searching for the right ways of bringing it together. Lots of the material gets used later when I know where to go.

How much of your music is played live in the studio and how much is sampled?

I do not sample other musicians’ work. But if by sampling you mean reusing sounds and structures from my own preexisting material and developing new music from there then you could say there is quite a bit of it. There are always certain elements played live. Most tracks evolve from sessions I did before. It happens often that on the end of one track there are certain lines that lead organically to the next piece.

Do you master yourself?

Mastering is always a difficult thing! I don't do it on my own. Just for private listening. I always get in trouble with the mastering engineers, I think they have a problem finding a focus point in the frequencies. They do a great job but it takes time. When the test pressings arrive I'm always dying. Maybe there are some control issues after all. I don't listen to test pressings and masterings at home because in my own space I have a picture of the sound which is pretty much one hundred percent carved in stone and if it differs just a little bit from my version I'm going nuts. For me, it's good to listen to it in a place where I can get a more objective view. At a friend's studio for example.

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You seem to stay away from 12”s. Do you simply prefer the long-player format?

Yes, I personally prefer the long player narrative. It gives you more time to make a point and tell a story. Plus, once I have found an interesting format that works a lot of new material can come together comparatively quickly. For an EP it would be more like the documentation of a finding process, which can also be interesting.

What’s next for Gajek?

I'm deep into the production of a new album and have also been involved in other projects like the New Composer Collective together with Mouse on Mars and Michael Rauter - we are going to launch our website very soon. There you can listen to a recording of our first collective performance at Akademie der Künste Berlin. Also I produce scores for German Movies.