The death of Dieter Moebius in 2015 brought to a close one of the most dynamic careers in electronic music. From his earliest efforts as a member of pioneering Krautrock acts Cluster and Harmonia through collaborations with Brian Eno, Conny Plank, and Guru Guru leader Mani Neumeier, Moebius sought out new sounds and new approaches to making music with each project. That often resulted in dramatic shifts from album to album like the rigid grooves of Cluster’s 1974 full-length Zuckerzeit giving way to the pastoral burblings of 1976’s Sowiesoso. Or how Moebius had a hand in the vaporous glow of Snowghost Pieces (a collaboration with Tim Story and Jon Leidecker) and the fritzing electropop of Another Other Places (made with Neumeier and Die Krupps co-founder Jürgen Engler), both released in 2014.
Moebius’ restless creative spirit is at the heart of a new project, overseen by his widow Irene and Story, his friend and frequent collaborator. Titled Moebius Strips, the work is an audio installation that uses a wealth of loops, noises, and recordings from the late artist, as well as adaptations of his work created by Portishead’s Geoff Barrow, Eve Maret, Phew, Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and others—all fed into a multi-channel speaker system. Move around the space that the installation is in, and the sound and structure of the work changes dramatically and beautifully.
Though the installation won’t make its debut until early November at the Witching Hour Festival in Iowa City, Iowa, samples of the sounds used in the work, and the interpretations of Moebius’ work by the other artists, have been collected on the recent Curious Music release, also titled Moebius Strips. Under Story’s care, the strands of melody, drone, and noise combine to heave and flow with the soothing steadiness of an ocean and a knavish wink.
Story was the ideal person to bring something like Moebius Strips. Not only due to the close friendship he had with the man he calls “Moebi,” but also because Story’s career has followed a similarly unsettled trajectory. Following the release of his 1981 debut Threads, Story found success and acclaim with his collections of modern chamber music and lush electronic instrumentals. As the Philadelphia-born artist has continued forward, he has brought in deep downtempo grooves and, on his Smudges releases, experimental processes that involve turning snippets of other music and field recordings and samples into thickly layered mini-symphonies of ambience.
Aquarium Drunkard spent some time with Story, speaking on the phone from his home in northwest Ohio about the creation of Moebius Strips, his relationship with Moebi, and his own far-ranging work. | r ham
Aquarium Drunkard: How did Moebius Strips come together?
Tim Story: I guess it began when Moebi died—when he passed away in 2015. It was a shock. He had been sick for a while, but it still came as a shock to a lot of us. Some time passed and I got over the shock a little bit, and I started talking with Russ Curry at Curious Music about possibly doing some sort of project that would bring his music alive again. His personality was very lowkey. He was a wonderful, warm person, but he was not a big self-promoter. I felt like he probably didn’t get to do all that he probably deserved. It just started to evolve. We didn’t want to just do a tribute album or have everybody remaking his work. We wanted to figure out a way to bring it back so it could be played in physical spaces. That was the genesis of thinking about it as an audio installation rather than just an album.
AD: Tell me more about that audio installation. What does that look like in physical form?
Tim Story: It’s relatively simple, in a way. It’s just eight channels, but Moebi had such an interesting way of combining sounds and instruments. I worked with him quite a bit over the last 10 years and I really saw his style of working. He had so many sounds that I was able to get access to—original loops, original sounds, his field recordings. I thought it would be really fun not to try to recreate his music, but to overlay my compositional idea of having worked with him to create a new body of work based on his sounds and music. So the idea was to make it explorable in a physical space again. To allow people to wander into this space, and they can wander up to the individual monitors and hear the individual layers and hear how interesting these sounds are on their own. Then if they back up, towards the middle, they’ll hear how all these abstract parts fit together in the compositions that I’ve created and that we’ve created along with our collaborators that were either contemporaries of his like Michael Rother from Harmonia and Hans-Joachim Roedelius from Cluster and Harmonia, as well as newer, younger artists that have been profoundly influenced by him like Jean-Benoit Dunckel from Air, Geoff Barrow from Portishead, and Eve Maret. It blends the role of composer and listener into just one viewpoint, so people are allowed to create their own mixes by the way they wander through the space.
AD: This is not the first time you’ve created an audio installation before. How is it to compose and create sounds meant for physical spaces like this? Do you have to reconfigure your thinking about the work somehow?
Tim Story: I do, but it’s funny…I guess I’m primarily known for my earlier work as a composer of almost like neoclassical or ambient. But as I got older, I found that there were so many compelling sounds that weren’t created on demand by instruments. That you could create associations in people’s minds by utilizing odd sounds and noises and field recordings. Things that don’t seem to have any pitch until you put them in conjunction with other pitched sounds. All of the sudden, they take on a different flavor. For me, the composition process is strangely very similar to what Moebi did. He found sounds that were compelling to him, and then he found very unique and interesting ways to put them together. In my case, instead of creating the sound or playing it on a piano or making a synth patch and playing something live, the parts that I’m composing is really musique concrete. I’m finding these things that already exist and thinking about them freshly. So, it’s different but in a way it’s the same aesthetic: finding things, whether it’s a complementary part on a synth or something of Moebi’s that fits magically or brings a different perspective.
AD: How was it have access to Moebi’s archives and to be able to dig through all the sounds he’d spent decades creating?
Tim Story: It was special. It was a little emotional, for sure. When we worked together, he would bring his sound bank. He had a little sampler…I think it was a KORG. You could sample anything. I was fortunate enough to produce the last Cluster album here at the house and he would walk around… We had a squeaky door hinge on a bathroom, and he recorded that with his little device and brought it back in. The next day, it’s a part of a piece. It sounds like some sort of sleazy sax solo. It’s amazing that these sounds that are so random, how much complexity and depth and tonality they can have when you put them in certain circumstances. I remember those moments. He would often cycle through a lot of sounds to see what engaged him. So, hearing all those again was… yeah, it was pretty emotional because I hadn’t heard them in that raw state since we’d worked together.
AD: Did you have much of a say into who the other collaborators for this project would be?
Tim Story: Russ has been a great production assistant for pulling all this stuff together. The logistics of it were quite a lot bigger than a lot of things I’ve done. He’s a huge fan of Moebi. He actually took Moebi and Roedelius on their first tour of the U.S. in ’96. He and I sat down and we thought about the people that we would like to bring into this. People that we thought would make interesting contributions to the project.
AD: It sounds like you pay attention to what’s happening in the current world of electronic music and the younger artists that are coming up.
Tim Story: Not as much. I was absolute devourer of music in my earlier days. It’s the same with almost every musician that I’ve talked to. The more you get deeply into your own stuff…it’s not the less time that you have really. Anybody that has an 8-5 job has to find time to fit music into their world. But I find a lot of musicians—Moebi and Roedelius and Harold Budd—if you asked them anything about current music, they’d say, “I don’t know anything about it.” [laughs] It’s difficult to keep up without having it direct your own music somehow. A lot of times you want to find fresh paths forward and not be too deeply influenced by what’s currently happening. But I still love listening to all kinds of music. I just find myself listening to a little bit different music than the style or the content that’s in my own wheelhouse. I find myself listening to Miles Davis or old American minimalism. Things that aren’t exactly what I make.
AD: What can you tell me about Moebius as a person? Beyond his work as a musician and an artist—just him as a person and as your friend.
Tim Story: I really considered him one of my best friends even though I would only see him a few times a year, usually. He was an incredible warm, very humble person with a very, very sharp sense of humor. I think sometimes people would feel that he was a little more distant. Like touring with Cluster a little bit. Roedelius is very gregarious and outwardly friendly with a big smile. Very welcoming. Would give everyone a big hug. Moebi was no less warm but he would always stand back a little bit. He was much more sarcastic, in a gentle way. So I think sometimes people thought that that meant a little bit of coldness. But it wasn’t that at all. This is his style of humor.
We traveled a lot. He would come here often, and I would go visit him in Berlin or in Forst where they recorded those old records. My wife and I would spend a week with he and his wife at their place in Mallorca. We’d travel to do recordings in Montana. Those were the best times with him. We’d love to grill food and drink wine and whiskey and listen to Captain Beefheart and Pere Ubu. Anything that wasn’t really like our music. Unlike so many artists, he would never tell anybody that he around anything about music unless they really, really pushed. Even then, he was reluctant and shy about talking about that stuff. When he would meet someone that would start gushing about, “Oh my God! I can’t believe it!,” he really didn’t know how to react to that.
AD: I wanted to talk a little bit about your own work. Before Moebius Strips, you released Smudges 3: Isola last year. Reading the notes from that record, it seems as though there was a deliberate mood you wanted to set with that album. Is that generally how you approach writing new music—with a strict concept in mind?
Tim Story: It seems like there’s been about three projects in a row like this. Even to me, it feels like a trend. [laughs] But yeah, the older I get…it’s not that I’m tired with old forms of music at all, but I think there’s so many interesting ways to get people to think differently about music. One of the things with the Roedelius instillation, in which I chopped a decade of piano recordings that we had made here into really smart parts and then combined those, it’s really trying to encourage people to realize what it is about their brain that’s creating music. That particular installation sounded almost like conventional piano music. You get in there and you realize it was not created by a guy sitting at a piano or somebody writing notes. It just shows how much the mind of the listener is involved in creating order and patterns out of what is, essentially, a random event. These last couple of projects, including Smudges, are really processes. You set something in motion by setting up parameters for it, and then you’ve hopefully inspired music within these circumstances that you’ve set up.
But that said, I’ve got a record with Roedelius, which is all piano. Just he and I. It’s called Four Hands and we’re thrilled to announce that it’s going to be out on Erased Tapes. A completely different thing but in a way, it’s not that the content is very different, being all piano, but putting it all together was very contemporary. We used the same piano but we didn’t play it at the same time. It was very carefully made. One part at a time. The magic of technology allows us to create this seamless, beautiful thing that sounds like it could easily be two guys sitting at two pianos.
AD: That gets at the core of a question I wanted to ask. One thing that stuck out about Smudges was that you were exploring new instrumentation and new techniques to create music. Is that something you feel that you’ve always done throughout your career? And are there pieces of equipment or methods that you have stuck with from the beginning?
Tim Story: Yeah. There’s still the joy of playing the piano and getting my hands of synthesizers and tweaking and figuring out sounds. There’s some physicality to that, and this connection between what your hands are doing and what your ears are hearing that I’ll never lose. But the process between that and what you end up being finished with, there’s a lot of leeway about how you think about putting this stuff together in interesting ways. Smudges came out because I was experimenting with stuff when I was working on other things. I found this process that I loved, and I started curating the pieces that went into it. It was a way of creating music that gets me away from the habits of my own playing. Like I might have a chord and typically my desire to hear certain harmonies means I might naturally go here. This was a way to open up to other things. This process of Smudges basically takes a snapshot of audio, just an instant of it, and smudges the whole tonality of whatever chord is playing across some period of time. Usually six to 10 seconds.
I really was making it for my own enjoyment because they weren’t so completely worked on. If I worked on a piece for three months, I couldn’t listen to it for a year because I’ve heard it too much. I know where it goes and it doesn’t surprise me anymore. With these processes that I don’t play myself, I find that I love to listen to them. Those things are approached by listening and curating what kind of content to put in here. My brother’s marching band music worked spectacularly for some reason. I think because the wind instruments are slightly off-pitch. I would find performances on YouTube and experiment with putting small loops of stuff and it builds these lovely compositions that sound totally composed even though it’s really me setting this little process in motion.
AD: Looking at the scope of your career, it was a slow build early on. You released a couple of albums in the early ’80s like Threads and In Another Country but it was a few years before you really started to hit your stride and were releasing music regularly. Was that a struggle at the beginning? Or were you determined to make a career happen?
Tim Story: I guess there was enough positive momentum, and there was just enough income. I wasn’t married at the time and I lived in a little apartment. And I didn’t really want to do anything else. I guess never would have called it a career at that time. But the second album that was released on a tiny Norwegian label got picked up by a label in Japan, and I’d think, “Maybe there is something there. Maybe this could work.” Then the next album comes out and maybe somebody uses it in a TV show. There were just little threads along the way, no pun intended. I look at it now, and I don’t know really how I did it.
Now when you have this much music behind you, and some of that music from the ’80s is still doing surprisingly well on streaming services and Sirius radio, eventually it all adds up. I’m free now to take on projects without thinking, “Hey, is this good for my career? Can I make money on this?” Now, it’s like, “Hey, what do I really want to do?” I’ve been super luck and fortunate to be able to get to that point.
AD: As you say, your music is still catching ears through streaming services and satellite radio, and people are returning to your older work. Threads was re-released earlier this year, and people are starting to truly appreciate the work on labels like Windham Hill and Hearts Of Space. What do you make of younger listeners embracing your older work like this?
Tim Story: It’s a thrill, really. When I started Threads and those records, I was listening to stuff like Harold Budd and Eno, Cluster and Roedelius, and a whole bunch of other things. My language was always quiet, subdued, carefully manipulated electronic music. It was quiet, tonal music. I had a talk with Harold Budd before he passed away about this. He and I both got rammed into that New Age thing, which I resisted at the time because the other stuff in that category, much of it didn’t appeal to me. But now we have a generation that doesn’t look at any of that genre stuff. They’re appreciating it just for the music. It’s really gratifying to know that it’s coming back without the labels. I always felt that the best thing that can happen is your music has a long live. That meant it wasn’t dated or stuck to a certain era that nobody can appreciate anymore.
AD: Do you still enjoy performing live? Is that something you want to get back into once you’re able to do so?
Tim Story: I have never particularly liked it. I’m not a great instrumentalist or anything. I couldn’t sit down and play a piano solo for 45 minutes to save my life. So I generally work with people where I’m not responsible for the entire production of it, but that I can add what I think of as my strengths. Working with Harold felt really natural. I played with Hans-Joachim in Austria a couple of weeks ago. We premiered some of the Four Hands music. I wish I liked it more. I have a great deal of difficult being interested in playing stuff that I wrote two years ago or 10 years ago. I’m always searching for something new. It’s really hard work for me to sit down and think, “Okay, I’m going to dedicate myself to re-learning these pieces.” It feels like work.
Moebi and Hans-Joachim and Michael Rother, when they started Harmonia, the label wanted them to tour with these really concise, electronic songs. They tried it initially but I think Moebi and Hans-Joachim, after a month, went, “I don’t want to play these songs anymore. I just want to make some new songs.” They bailed out. They didn’t do the normal career thing of finding something that’s popular and then tour around with it and make it sound like that for the next 10 years. I think that’s something that really appealed to Moebi and I. Doing live stuff was about trying to find something new and interesting to present and it wasn’t much about retreading old territory.
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