Organised and written for Loose Lips.
I don’t know Volruptus’ real name. I will soon, but as I stand in the shade of a tall apartment building, with my finger hovering over a rusted table of buttons, I don’t know which to press.
I don’t know much at all about the producer behind the twisted trancebreak music, beyond the tagline ‘Volruptus is a space alien from Reykjavik’, and the fact that he lives a short tram-ride from me, in a quiet peripheral section of ex-Soviet Berlin. I lean against the building and notice a middle aged couple walking past me on the pavement, looking directly at me. Back in the uk I find people usually stop looking at me once it becomes obvious that I’ve noticed them, but here (and also in Shanghai, btw) they gaze on, often with a furrowed brow. I was up until 4am last night due to an intense, unexpected phonecall from the UK, leaving me little time to decompress and have a last, proper Volruptus listening session, so the extra time is actually pretty ideal. I listen to Alien People, a bouncy paranoid swirl of movement that I first heard at the end of an enormous Printworks DJ set by Nina Kraviz, whose stanchly dark трип record label released the track.
In the midday heat, without a hefty soundsystem to unfold the track’s shifting environment, its stabbing synth lead feels almost like a chorus, a crunching, jerky solidification of a song about isolation. Or perhaps communion, communion with other wayward aliens, as exemplified by the freestyled, backroom performances from Volruptus’ group Modular Gang, which also includes Rachel Lyn and Volruptus’ housemate, Alex the Fairy. Catching them last year at about blank, I couldn’t tell which member was Volruptus, I just knew that he or she was deeply intelligent and deviously playful.
After a little wait, a man with cropped hair and sharp blue eyes greets me, apologises for the wait and lets me inside. After I ask to hear his works-in-progress, he leads me downstairs, to a hardware-rammed basement that looks like the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit, with black monitors and beige sound-proofing pillows where the windows should be. Flicking through his WIP folder, he exposes me to a lurching mass of frenetic beats, occasionally cranking the volume for a particularly punishing breakdown or pointing to the chunk of machinery that birthed it. Though the music varies in tempo and intensity, with some cuts resonating inhuman emotion and others brutally alarming one’s sense of time, there’s a consistent aesthetic tone, like a collection of recordings from a single interplanetary visit. Over the following two-hour conversation, as Volruptus occasionally drifts into thought or fires up into laughter, I know that my assumption was right.
You have talked before about the extreme, otherworldly Icelandic landscapes connected to your music. Did these places already feel alien to you as a local, or were they just part of your life?
‘You could go out to the countryside, most of it was just flat, maybe a farm somewhere, and then you come to these lava fields that are everywhere. I think to human nature, there’s something about these barren landscapes that isn’t preferable. There are a lot of places just outside Reykjavik with these naked, red rocks, that look a lot like another planet, but I guess even more so to people who haven’t seen them before. Apparently accents and language are influenced by landscape, like just having local mountains would have influence.’
Do you feel more alien in Berlin or Reykjavik?
‘The word for alien in Icelandic translates as space being, under that definition we’re all aliens. I guess I’m a little bit of an alien wherever I go. Right now I’m really relaxed, but it’s like I have two settings, relaxed and really… not stressed, but energetic.’
In the hip hop documentary Scratch, Qbert talks about the notion of trying to be alien as in transcending a primitive planet, whereas Mix Master Mike talked about communicating with aliens. Did that connect with you?
‘Yeah scratch DJs are the weirdos of hip hop, I did a lot of scratching as a teenager. I plan on getting back on it; I’d like to scratch new sounds, take it out of the classic hip hop context and make it more alien. Conventional scratching is already a bizarre sound, but if you put it in the context of weird 21st century synth sounds it has to be even stranger.’
Maybe you preferred scratching to rapping because you were balancing being a teenager and knowing that you were kinda weird.
‘I think you’re right, *laughs* I would be skateboarding, doing graffiti, up to no good, it just fit perfectly. I had this friend who was scratching too, and we were the only guys in my generation that I knew who were scratching in Reykjavik. There were a lot of rappers around, and I sometimes felt like it was silly, and scratching didn’t feel silly. Nowadays it makes more sense, because Reykjavik isn’t as safe as it once was.’
I wonder if there’s a parallel of that balance to you now being a dance producer in Berlin, but also wanting to jack up the tempo and add alien elements. Like taking stuff that’s contextual and pushing it more into being yourself.
‘I think if you’re not doing that you’re doing something wrong. It would be unnatural for me to not put myself into it. The idea of trying to chase a certain sound, I couldn’t get myself to do it.’
The clearest musical touchpoints for Volruptus’ murky mysticism are Aphex Twin and Drexciya, two artists whose work can fit into and rip open a club, but also function beautifully as virtuosic headphone symphonies. Albums such as Drukqs sounded ‘insane, strange, and more interesting’ to the boy who would grow into Volruptus, stretching his definition of music and empathising with complex areas of his life, areas left unexplored by hip hop’s defiant masculinity. The obvious difference between Volruptus and his influencers is his unwavering floor-focus; my request to hear his least dancey track sends him scrolling through hundreds of files. His tracks may often grow into emotionally lucid soundscapes, but there is always a basis in the beat. I wonder why this is, considering that the top discogs recommendation for his releases is the afterhours-appropriate Drexciya side project Lifestyles of The Laptop Cafe. He hasn’t heard this before.
‘I love Lifestyles. I think it’s closer to water, I’m naturally closer to fire. I used to make really kickback hip hop beats, maybe when I’m older my stuff won’t be so ravey and extreme, but I really enjoy hard shit. When I’m at a party – unless I’m exhausted from travel – I have to dance, even if I’m djing later. And I dance like a madman.’
Why do you use modular machinery to make this music, when software and sampling are so much faster?
‘I really like dissecting things and going to the core. I decided to go modular and start patching my own sounds because I loved idea of the endless possibilities. I’d never use pre-sets. I used to sample loops when I was making hip hop, but if my mum heard it and recognised the sample, she’d criticize it. At some point I felt I wasn’t being as creative as I could, even though I’d always argue that you’re still making new music.’
You don’t just want to make new music, you want to make it from the ground up.
‘That’s a good way to put it, I don’t want to cut something up and put it back together. When I first got the modular I was a purist for a while, like I wouldn’t sample my drums, I would record a long loop of kick drums and make a patch for every drum sound, every time I started a song.’
What physically are you doing when you’re making a patch?
‘Take a kick drum for example, you start with a sine wave. You control the frequency, how punchy, how deep, how long it is, and then you can add more character. I would drive it through a tube compressor, and then an equaliser. If the sounds are all personally crafted, it immediately sounds better to you. Building on top of that is like a chain reaction.’
You played me a crazy track downstairs featuring a tiger sample. At what point in the creative process did you decide to put in something from outside?
‘I dunno, I was making this bass music and I thought a tiger would make it really sexy! When I first got the modular I was really a purist. And then when I let go off that and started using the computer sometimes, it started getting better. And now that I’m allowing myself to sample stuff, I’m opening some doors that I closed, but whilst the doors were closed I learnt to work from the ground up.’
When was this purist period, is any of it released?
‘No, all of the music I’ve released was made in Berlin. I got the modular 5 years ago, when I shared a studio with my friend Kosmodod in this abandoned power plant, in a valley area of Reykjavik. We would spend like 12 hours straight there, when we had days off. I’d go there after work, miss the last bus, fall asleep, wake up, make some music and go to work.’
That sounds exhausting, why did you do it?
‘Hyperactivity I guess. I used to do skateboarding, graffiti, music, alongside jobs all over the place. Sometimes I’d come home from work and fall asleep immediately, but sometimes I’d have the energy. Skateboarding was originally number one; I only started making music seriously because I was injured. After a few years some of it wasn’t too bad, I remember one where I sampled this punk rock drum break, it was like 240 beats per minute. My friend and I were playing this Moog synthesiser, fighting over notes and both twisting different knobs, just doing that along to this loop for ages, and then I spent a few hours editing the best bits.’
It’s interesting that you say that about wordlessly fighting over notes, as the first time I ever saw you perform was at Modular Gang’s first performance.
‘Yeah that was a similar thing!’
I watched one really boring modular performance with my mate Hollie and we were left wondering why we were shown something that felt as linear as a video game. With Modular Gang’s performance it felt spontaneous and expressive.
If I brought a modular onstage solo it would be too nerve-racking, it’s too much to think about. If it’s spontaneous it can work.
So performing with three people actually allows you to perform dance music with this massive fuck-off thing, because of the extra brain power.
It allows you to take risks. For example, let’s say there’s a beat going on, a sequence, and I want to play another one. I would turn the volume down on it, write it and fade it in, and I’m not sure what it’s gonna be, or if it’s gonna fit at all.
And it’s doubly chaotic if it’s someone else’s sequence.
Exactly! And I’ll just fade it in, if it totally doesn’t work together I’ll just mute it, if the tuning’s way up there I’ll just *mimics a screeching pitch slide*.
And you’re able to take that risk because you understand the other two’s tastes.
Yeah, and also we kind of like the risk and the chaos, that raw energy.
[all photos taken by myself]