Ulrich Drechsler (Interview): "Now's the time to dig for gold"
Ulrich Drechsler has always had a very diverse output. The German composer, clarinetist and saxophonist has scored films, worked with Jazz trios, quartets and performed with rather unusual line-ups (such as his Cello Quartet, consisting of two cellos, drums and bass clarinet). Drechsler has combined elements of Jazz with classical, electronic and world music. He has collaborated with a wide range of musicians such as Italian composer/pianist Stefano Battaglia and Iranian singer Sahar Lotfi. While a good part of his work is based on composition, other times improvisation plays a key role.
Most of his musical adventures carried his surname in one form or another – but they all were separate entities. Whenever creating a new project, Drechsler had to start from scratch, he says. Until he recently created "Liminal Zone", a platform that serves as a kind of super-universe for his creative journeys. "Liminal Zone" consists of three projects, "Azure", "Caramel" and "Chrome", all of them independent projects with different approaches. But "Liminal Zone" is more than just a series of records and (whenever possible again) concerts. It is a network that Drechsler is steadily building. A network of interdisciplinary collaborations, infrastructures and concepts.
Ulrich Drechsler has a lot of ideas and plans, and he is by no means letting the current situation discourage him. "In our industry, crises are an everyday occurrence", he says. But crises are always chances too – and if we set our priorities straight, this might be a good time for laying the groundwork for new and exciting things.
Read the full interview with Ulrich Drechsler below.
How did you spend the weeks and months of self-isolation and quarantine?
The first week was a true shock. A whole year's planning was suddenly gone. Concerts were being canceled. At first there was complete uncertainty as to what would happen next. Then I became hyperactive. I thought to myself: I've been making music for over forty years now, and for thirty years this has been my profession. I have gathered a lot of knowledge along the way, a lot of know-how, a lot of contacts. How can I use that to build new footholds, find new approaches? I have spent the year creating infrastructures. Ones that can function under Corona conditions as well as for the time after.
Can you elaborate on those infrastructures a bit?
I decided to start my own label, in addition to my existing record contracts. I've been doing a huge music project of my own for four years now, "Liminal Zone". It consists of several individual projects. We have created a wonderful live series with the Supersense, "Liminal Zone Analogue". Next year a second live series will be added. There are curations planned for next year. I have launched a platform for studio production. I’ve created consulting formats for companies. The economy is swimming at the moment. Many are interested in things like crisis management from an artist's point of view. I have also started to make music for advertising again. Sure economically this year was much worse than the years before. But I’ve created many new pillars that I intend to develop further in the next few years.
With "Liminal Zone" and your various other projects, it's not just a considerable creative effort that comes together - you have to manage quite a lot. Do you have that organizational thing in your DNA? Does it come easy to you or is it a chore?
Well, if I didn't have to do it, I wouldn't bother. But after 15 years of almost exclusively running my own projects, I naturally have a lot of know-how. What I am good at is conceptual design. Thinking up new ideas and new models and putting them into practice. Besides that, I think I have a good 360 degree view. In everything I do, I think about things like: How could I combine this with that, and who else could I include? How can I reach the target audience? That's what I'm very good at. Conceptualizing, coming up with new ideas and making them practical. The older I get, the more I realize how much I enjoy that.
Listening to your discography from the beginning, one notices that you have always walked on different musical planets. Is it correct to say that you have created a super-universe for these planets with Liminal Zone - or how would you explain "Liminal Zone"?
Exactly. Originally I wanted to study classical music. Then I realized: Practicing six to eight hours a day, only delivering perfectly what others have composed is too tight a corset for me. Then I studied jazz. That was great, but I also saw that there is so much other music that I also enjoy. Trip-Hop, neoclassicism, film music or some forms of world music, Scandinavian and Persian music. So I've spent the last twenty years roaming pretty wildly between genres, always challenging and surprising my audience. I always had to plan from one project to another project. I'd come up with music, compose it, add instrumentation, make an album, tour with it. Then it would all crumble and I’d start all over again. A few years ago I realized that I'd had enough of that and thought: What format do I need to bring stability into it and simply be able to plan artistically for the long term without having to start from scratch all the time? Then I came to the conclusion: I can't do it with just one project. Because there are far too many ideas, far too many influences in my life. I created this platform, Liminal Zone. Liminality is a term from psychotherapy. It means threshold state, transitional stage. Corona is a very good example of that: You can see how our society is changing massively. That's exactly how I feel about my music. I've always moved freely between genres and want to do that more and more. Three individual projects have emerged on this platform: "Caramel" - which is influenced by neoclassical music, jazz and world music. "Azure" is a real trip-hop project. The first EP came out in the fall of 2020, and the next one is coming in spring. And last but not least "Chrome", a string ensemble with live electronics. It's very much influenced by film music. The Liminal Zone should be understood like an art exhibition: This is what Uli Drechsler has done over the past decades, compressed into three projects. There are almost 25 people working on these three projects, photographers, graphic artists, visual artists, video artists. The basis of everything I do is this ever-growing network of creatives and artists.
"I'm trying to build my own Pippi Longstocking music world"
The Liminal Zone albums are all named after colors. Does that have a synesthetic claim? Is the color decisive for the work?
We thought about it for a long time with our graphic designers: How do we put this into a format that the audience can understand without overwhelming them? In the end, we ended up with colors and shapes. Each project has a very clear graphic design language. The colors already have a reference. For instance "Caramel": We combine elements from jazz, world music, slam, poetry - it's like a Viennese melange [a type of Viennese coffee – M.B.]. Like the color caramel. "Azure" represents the infinity of electronic music. This unimaginable mass of possibilities fascinates me. You want to dive into it, like into an azure sea. This is new territory for me, I have never worked in this way. "Chrome", on the other hand, is film music inspired. I'm a big fan of the neoclassicists, Max Richter, Ólafur Arnalds, Johan Johansson. There's been a whole new genre emerging in recent years. "Chrome" is classy, beautiful, subtle, shiny. That's where the colors come from.
You also released a remix EP called "Caramel Reimagined".
I'm very proud of that EP. "Caramel" was released in March, right after Corona really hit. Everyone called me crazy and told me to please postpone the release. I said: "No, I'm sorry, but I'm not going to let myself get upset. We'll do it as planned." Thank God the type of music I make is not quite as short-lived compared to pop or similar genres. Even if I don't get to play concerts until next year, the music will still be relevant for the audience. Anyways, people approached me and said that my music would be great to remix. So I started looking for electronic artists here in Vienna and in Berlin. In 2021 "Chrome" will be released physically, I want to do a remix album of that material too. Azure will be released in 2022 – with a remix album of it planned as well. That's something I want to expand over the next few years: co-productions with producers. Not only in Vienna, but also in other cities and countries. For instance Berlin. I really like the Berlin underground sound, the Berlin techno sound. Understated, gritty, incredibly creative. There is also the plan to do something with producers in Belgrade. I would like to revive the musical axis between these cities with the possibilities that Liminal Zone offers. There should be more and more exchanges. Maybe at some point people will organize festivals and club nights for each other. To sum it all up: I'm trying to build my own Pippi Longstocking music world.
How do the working methods differ between the various projects?
It's an insane amount of work. I had underestimated that a bit. There are three projects running in parallel. Of course I have help and support, but the final decisions are up to me. That's a lot of responsibility and a lot of work. With "Caramel" and "Chrome" it's not much different than how it all worked up to now. I write and compose the music. Then I invite the artists to participate. With "Azure" it's different. I am not an electronic musician and have no idea about programming. I wrote the music quite classically and gave it to the contributing producer Peter Zirbs, a legend of Viennese electronic music, and Harald Salaun. They programmed and arranged the whole thing, Loretta Who wrote the lyrics to it. It's a collaborative project, even though it's released under my name. I couldn't do it without the others. It's very exciting for me. Normally I'm used to writing the music and having a clear plan of how it should sound. But for this project I write it, have an idea how it should sound, pass it on - and get something completely different back. Which is great.
Is Liminal Zone now the exclusive cosmos for your work? In other words, would an album with the Cello Quartet also be released within that context?
No. I have deliberately reduced it to these three projects. The possibilities are now unlimited. I can work with each of these three projects in all directions. To put it pragmatically, the infrastructure also creates a certain service structure. You can also use it to create theater music, film music, events or studio products. I am very interested in new media. At the moment I'm very engaged in visuals, (and) interactive visual formats. Interfaces that react directly and in real time to music. The big dream is to eventually bring complete works of art to the stage. Music that works with great visual concepts - light as well as video. In which dancers, speakers, writers are involved. The graphic moment, the visual language is very important. Yes, Liminal Zone is to be understood as a cosmos. It should develop as its own brand. I recently watched the extremely recommendable documentary about Quincy Jones on Netflix. Jones produced Michael Jackson's first two albums, was a former bebop trumpeter, composer, arranger. He has worked for Sinatra, (and) scored fifty movies. Discovered Oprah Winfrey, discovered Will Smith. This is THE American music god of the last 30, 40 years. This idea of just doing high-quality creative work yourself and at the same time not only doing your own thing, but also doing commissioned work, collaborating with other media, I find that very exciting. I've dealt with it far too little up to now. After all, I've been able to live quite well from playing concerts so far. But yes, now you have to go one step further. Now you create opportunities for yourself. You no longer have a second pillar only, sometimes you have seven or eight. And yet I only do my own thing. I'm not determined by others. Everything I do, everything I offer, it's always Ulrich Drechsler.
"When I was younger, I wanted to become the best classical clarinetist on the planet."
If you had to describe your career in five albums to someone who has yet to hear you?
I'm an insanely self-critical person. Five albums that I could really recommend - that's difficult. Very difficult, I wouldn’t want to commit myself to that. Every album has one or two pieces that I think are good. Often it's just that there are a few seconds, half a minute of music in individual pieces that I think we've done well. If someone asked me what kind of music I make, I would say, "I've been making very different music for the last thirty years. I couldn't make up my mind." Now I created this monster called Liminal Zone and increasingly I feel like, 'This is exactly what I’m all about.' I don't have to commit myself, I can move back and forth between genres as I please, I can bring in new influences at any time. Things that are new to me, that take me in a new direction - without me having to open up a new project for it. The whole thing is like a huge playground with an extremely large number of playground equipment, all of which I like - and I can switch back and forth at will.
I didn’t mean it necessarily as choosing your best five records, but more in the sense of conveying a biographical framework.
That I can do. When I was younger, I wanted to become the best classical clarinetist on the planet. Until I realized: That's a lot of work. Then I wanted to become the best saxophonist on the planet. But I realized: There are already quite a few. I moved to Vienna, that's where Café Drechsler happened to me, together with [drummer] Alex Deutsch and [bassist] Oliver Steger. We were in the right place at the right time, with the right idea. It was a big portion of luck. This band accompanied us wonderfully from 2000 to 2006, and opened up many possibilities. When we put the band on hold, the question arose: What do I do now? I decided: I'm going to make my music and not make compromises. I’ll try out whatever comes along and make sure that I remain as authentic and self-sufficient as possible. That is the common thread in my life: I have always remained enthusiastic about getting involved in new things. The only thing that's important to me is that I can reach people emotionally with any kind of music I make. It's not about how loud, how fast, how high I can play. There are others who can do that ten thousand times better than me. I want to reach people directly. I don't want to make music for a professional audience. My target audience is the interested average music consumer. I want to make high quality music for people who like to listen to music. Who like to get involved in something new every now and then. People who appreciate the value of music.
Café Drechsler was founded in 2000 - that was the time when Vienna was quite present on the musical map with downbeat, lounge, trip-hop, the Vienna Sound – however you’d like to call it. How do you feel about that time?
Unfortunately I came to Vienna a few years too late. I came here in December 1998, when the really cool things, Soul Seduction, the events at Volksgarten, were already dying down. But yes, Vienna was a world capital of the downbeat and dub scene back then. Kruder & Dorfmeister, Vienna Scientists, Sofa Surfers, you name it. There was great new music in the city every week. Amazing clubs. The Meierei in the Stadtpark, where there is now a posh restaurant. That was an extremely hot club back then. Or the Dub Club in the Flex, every Tuesday back then. The whole city was there. People were dancing all the time. We were extremely lucky because we discovered a small market niche. At that time, people almost exclusively danced to electronic music, to turntables. But then suddenly us three guys stood there with acoustic instruments and made danceable music. Acid jazz had been around for a long time elsewhere, and it was already happening in Germany too. People thought that was cool. It was something different from what they were used to. That was the secret of Café Drechsler's success.
What was it like to get back together then?
In 2016, we met again for a schnitzel and a beer. Alex Deutsch had his 40th anniversary on stage at Porgy & Bess and asked if we wanted to play for twenty minutes. That's what we did. The place was packed, everyone was thrilled. The record company quick to suggest: Let's make a record. So we made a record and since then we've been around again. Of course, it's not as new as it was twenty years ago. How could it be? It has become different. Each of us three has taken very individual paths and you can feel that influence. We don't have to be fancy, trendy and up to date. It's all about having fun. But the concept itself is the same as it used to be: Be there, play and see what happens. Back then we were just the shit, nowadays we are, to put it bluntly, already half a retiree band. At 51, I'm the spring chicken in the band. I'm also noticing more and more that there are now one or two generations that have never heard of Café Drechsler. Which in a way makes me quite happy. My name was very much associated with Café Drechsler. When I told someone that I was Ulrich Drechsler, they immediately said: Oh, from Café Drechsler. A curse and a blessing at the same time.
Was there a lot of nostalgia at the first reunion shows? I'm sure there were a lot of people who came and wanted to relive what it was like back then.
It's funny when people come who also were at the concerts twenty years ago. In the meantime, we have all aged together. We now all have families, children, some even have grandchildren. You have conversations like: "Do you remember when we played for two nights in the Café Leopold in the Museumsquartier, which back then still didn’t have windows?". It's only then that you realize where you've been and what you've experienced.
What does your practice routine look like? Your instruments are already quite physically demanding.
That's a big issue. I've never been the super self-disciplined musician who sits alone in his room and practices for three or four hours every day. I have my bouts where I think to myself: "I really need to do something." Then I practice three or four hours every day for a few months. But then again there are times when I don't practice at all, because I can't get myself together or because I have other things to do. My life is also a lot about organization, logistics, things like that. I have always had a lot of fun playing. Maybe that's why I didn't become a classical musician. Practicing alone in a quiet room was never my thing. It’s too lonely for me. But I notice when I haven't played anything for a while: The muscles weaken immediately. Meanwhile, I also have to make sure that I stay physically in shape, because the instruments are physically challenging for the whole body. I have ergonomically better straps for my clarinets and saxophones now, I do back training and endurance training. Otherwise, these instruments take their physical toll. This is even worse for orchestral musicians.
How heavy is a bass clarinet?
About three and a half kilos. Like a tenor saxophone. Maybe four kilos. When it's hanging around your neck for an hour, it's pretty noticeable.
"It has always worked out somehow."
Do improvisation and composition play an equal role in your work?
Both are important. The concept of Café Drechsler, as you rightly said, is 100 percent improvisation. We sit down, one of us starts - and then we see what happens. That's great, because every concert is completely different in terms of energy. We are very dependent on the general conditions. What the audience is like, what the weather is like, how the acoustics in the club sound, how we feel that day. Especially in the last five or six years, I've been working more and more intensively on the subject of through-composed music. Until then, I simply wrote pieces that served as the basis for improvisation. Beautiful melodies - I am an outspoken "Schönspieler" and "Schönschreiber". Ideally, the melodies are recognizable, with quite simple structures that you can improvise on. In the last few years, it has become more and more the case that I sit down and think about overall concepts for instrumentations and write through-composed music. That is, of course, much more time-consuming. Writing ten minutes for a string quartet is already a lot of work. Then maybe somewhere there's a passage where an improvisation part comes in. Composing music and inventing new sounds, I find that very fascinating. I still have a lot of plans for that. Although I am not a trained composer. I studied saxophone at the university. We had courses for harmony and arrangement. But I didn't take a specific composition course. I taught myself a lot of things. In many respects I compose simply by ear - and that works.
You studied saxophone in Graz, the capital of Styria.
I come from the Stuttgart area and originally wanted to study in Hamburg. But I wasn't accepted there, they only had one place for saxophone. I was the lucky second. Whereupon my parents told me that the entrance examinations in Austria take place in autumn. In Germany they were already in spring. So I went to Graz and was accepted there. Then my mother said: "Now you are moving to Graz". I moved there under great protest. I mean, moving there from Hamburg for a guy in his early twenties was a bit of a downgrade.
Was that a culture shock for you at the time?
It was actually a huge culture shock. Austria was not yet in the EU at that time. The first thing I had to do was go to the regional hospital in Graz and have a health checkup. Tuberculosis tests and things like that. At that time, there were still half and quarter lines for telephones. That was completely new territory for me. I passed the entrance exam and a week later the semester started. So I moved from Hamburg to Graz overnight. I had nothing with me except a suitcase with the bare necessities. But: I'm still here after almost thirty years and I don't plan to leave the country.
But then you moved to Vienna right after graduating university.
Yes. I was in Graz for seven years - and by then most of my contacts to Germany were broken off. I knew a few Viennese musicians, so Vienna was a logical next step. But I also had to make the experience very quickly: Okay, there are already two or three musicians and two or three saxophone players here and no one was waiting for me to come. I made the decision relatively quickly: I'd rather see that I do my own things than frantically try to work my way into this scene. And then Café Drechsler happened.
How do you rate the Viennese music scene?
There has never been so much creativity as there is now, even under Corona. There is art here at an extremely high level. Extremely innovative stuff. There's some things that get in the way a little bit though. The great thing about the Austrian mentality is that we are proud of our history here. On the other hand, we always find it difficult to get involved in new things. That has advantages and disadvantages. If you achieve a certain level of fame in Austria, it will stay with you for the rest of your life. But until that happens, you have to work very, very hard. Many have made it via a detour abroad. But as far as creativity is concerned, Vienna doesn’t need to shy away from the rest of the world.
What are your plans for the near future?
The next "Azure" EP will be released at the end of February 2021. Then we will continue the "Liminal Zone Analogue". We'll also establish an event called "Liminal Zone Listens". This will be a listening session with artists, labels and record stores where we discuss new releases or favorite records with the audience. We listen consciously and we talk about it. At the end of May we want to record the "Chrome" album, which should be released in the fall. Then I have a cooperation with the Muth, where I will curate a cycle starting next fall. That's also something new: that I don't play myself but curate. Of course, if the restrictions remain in place, everything will be different - but those are the rough plans. Every week a new idea is added. I think that's also what keeps me going in this strange time, which is very challenging for all of us, but also gives me fun and energy.
How do you see the cultural scene developing in the near future?
The cultural local supply will become more important. Globalization has come to a standstill. We will probably not be playing abroad in a big way in the near future. Because the logistics are missing, because the finances are missing. Because the industry will shrink. It will be exciting to see how the rock and pop circus develops, how the big festivals deal with it. Small, high-quality formats that offer something special have potential and a future. Now's the time to dig for gold. It's going to be very exciting. The sad thing is that a lot will fall by the wayside. Especially here in Vienna: the way the club scene is being treated is anything but fun. I'm curious to see what will be left of it. In spring, the loans will come due. No one can imagine Vienna without a club scene. Unfortunately, so far very little came from the authorities. Although, in my opinion, the clubs had delivered very, very good proposals on how to operate on a small scale under strict regulations.
But you're optimistic?
It has always worked out somehow. In our industry, crisis is an everyday occurrence. Things go up, things go down. I don't know it any different. Sure, right now it's really tough. I've never been forbidden to play concerts. But to me it's normal that I make a plan in the morning and in the evening the conditions have changed, a musician has left the band or I've run out of money and had to completely reorganize everything. Still, it has always worked out. Now is exactly like that. Crisis always means change. But at some point, Corona will be over and the lust for life, the need for a quality of life will still be there. Or even become more. That's what we're missing the most right now: the joy of living. There is nothing out there that is fun right now. And there I see my task in doing something for it.
More information about Ulrich Drechsler and his projects: