Contemporary German music has gained an international reputation for experimentation and elegant precision. In the 1970s, Krautrock artists like Can, Neu! and Faust made wild psychedelic rock that exploded the limits of human consciousness. As the Berlin Wall was falling, the city was pumping out techno that perfectly captured the alluring alienation of modern life. It also helps that the country has a lauded reputation for its bacchanalian nightlife, boasting clubs such as the legendarily decadent Berghain.
The career of Jan Wagner has intersected with all these movements. As a highly sought after producer and sound engineer, he’s mixed countless records for Berghain’s music label Ostgut. And for over a decade, he has been working at the famed Studio Scheer, with Faust’s Hans Joachim Irmler. Wagner is also a gifted pianist, recently releasing his debut album Nummern (Numbers). Veering from the meditative to the epic, the album shows his mastery of classical instrumentation and current studio trickery. He recently chatted with me from his home base in Berlin:
Please introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m both a pianist and a producer, and have worked a lot as a mixing and recording engineer. During 2016 I recorded my first album, a piano-synth electronica album. And when I’m not working in the studio you´ll find me somewhere on the coast surfing. (laughs)
Why did you name the album Nummern?
I had an intense year while recording the album, so I used the piano as my outlet. But for me it was important that the listener isn’t prejudiced while listening to the music. I want the audience to create their own story. Everyone feels music differently and so I didn’t want to give the music a name that implies a specific feeling. If I had called the tracks ‘wood’ or ‘beach’, for example, it would automatically create a certain picture in your head. The listener should decide how to feel the music and create their own mental images. So, I came up with Nummern.
What differences do you find between using piano and synthesised sounds?
The biggest difference is that a real piano doesn’t need any amplification. You can play straight away without any electricity. I’m fascinated with how the frequencies melt together while playing different notes. It creates a feeling you can’t get with a computer. I have to feel the tiny vibrations in my fingers while playing the piano. That’s why playing Nummern on an E-Piano wouldn’t work. And then there are the synthesised sounds like my Juno 60. It also creates a special feeling while playing. I worked a lot with layering these different worlds and melting them together with reverb. I’m interested in the symbiosis between these two worlds.
Tell me more about working with Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust fame?
He is my mentor. He taught me how to listen to music and how to free myself from a specific form or note. We talk a lot about improvisation and what a record really needs. His method of producing an artist or a band is different than others. He listens a lot while cooking and barely intervenes in the recording process. Sometimes you don’t see him for hours. And then he comes to the mixing room, listens to the recorded tracks and just says one or two sentences. At first you don’t understand any of what he said but gradually his words affect you and put you in the right direction. He has a lot of experience and I’m grateful to be able to learn from him. When we are together in the Faust Studio it feels like the outside world doesn’t exist. He listens a lot and barely intervenes. You’re in a bubble full of old instruments, each one has its own history. It’s an honour working with him and all these great artists around him. Going up the stairs to the Faust Studio is still thrilling to me every single time.