Techno legend Chris Liebing recently released his second LP ‘Burn Slow’. It’s his debut on the British label Mute, well known for artists such as Depeche Mode, Goldfrapp and New Order. Recorded in film composer Ralf Hildenbeutel’s studio, we asked Chris to talk us through how he made his first solo release in nine years, track by track.
Chris Liebing has built a reputation for hard-hitting techno but on his latest release ‘ Burn Slow’, the German producer focuses on sound design and melodies with features coming from Gary Numan, Polly Scattergood, Miles Cooper Seaton, Cold Cave and Aleen. The groundwork for the album was laid in 2014 and in 2015 Chris decided to turn his attention to the LP properly. Pulling back from his label CLR, and the time-intensive CLR Podcast, he freed himself in order to really focus on this new direction and decided to partner with film composer Ralf Hildenbeutel to help with what Chris felt was his weakness: crafting melodies and harmonies. Ralf has a serious dance heritage of his own having produced the first three albums for Sven Väth and was one of the main producers on Eye Q and Harthouse. Having been friends since 1995 there was an established chemistry and this is the story of how each track came to be.
“So Then… feat. Cold Cave”
To make one thing clear, each morning when we met in the studio, I never had a definite idea in my head. I felt like the theme of the album should be whatever comes out of the moment without much preparation, which does not mean that we had no preparation at all. On the contrary, I felt like that Ralf and I combined probably around forty years of preparation. Ralf´s studio is a heaven for creativity. He has a collection of the most amazing synths from over the past twenty years and just being in the studio is very inspiring.
We started a new track each day when we went to the studio and when we did “So Then…” I didn´t initially think that this would be an intro track. It was more or less an idea to not really care about a dance floor beat, not really care about a certain BPM but rather care about a certain atmosphere and a vibe that is being created.
And with every new day in the studio I was just looking around and playing around with the synths, or Ralf was playing around with some synths while I was making coffee, and then it usually happened that at one point I heard something and we took this as a starting point.
This also happened with “So Then…”. The great thing not only on this track was, that as soon as this process was started and the first sound was used, it automatically led to the next idea and the next sound. The process was extremely fluent and wasn´t held back by needing to re-cable anything or having to find out what kind of sound we should use, it was somehow always there. Only later on, when the track was laid out and I took it back to my studio to start re-arranging and mixing it a little, I felt like this could use a vocal.
I have been a big fan of Alan Watts for a long time and I usually listen to his talks on youtube to fall asleep or on planes. I remember one night I was listening to this talk in which he was talking about the present moment and meditation and it hit me that the passage of this talk was perfectly reflecting what the album should be about: that the music originates from the present moment.
IBy the way, the track title, “So Then…” comes from Alan Watts as well. When he was speaking in his talks, he usually concluded some of his philosophies by saying “So Then…” , which I found was a perfect track title for what would eventually end up starting the album. When I had these lyrics I asked my friend Wesley if he would want to read them with his girlfriend Amy and they immediately agreed to do it. The result perfectly fits the record.
“Zero One” started out as a straight beat track which was actually intended to have a vocal on it, but after a while, I realized that something didn´t sound right and I decided to create a different beat on that one. I think in this track Ralf and I perfectly captured some sort of old Eye Q vibe. It has a really nice trance-y feel to it. The track title “Zero One” is a reflection of the fact that we are living in a world of duality. That every front has a back, every up has a down and that we are living in a world of zeros and ones, digitally speaking, anything can be said in zeros and ones.
And All Went Dark feat. Polly Scattergood
All the tracks on the album started out as instrumental tracks and the vocals were added later. The little sequence you hear in “And All Went Dark” was done with an Arturia MiniBrute, a very little but effective synthesizer. The vocals of Polly Scattergood, which were a suggestion of Daniel Miller (head of Mute Records), fitted perfectly and were another example of how amazing Daniel Miller´s A&R work is when an artist needs help.
“Novembergrey” happened quite quickly, just as almost each one of the outlines of the album tracks, basically in one day.
I came into the studio while Ralf was playing around with the Pro 2 from Dave Smith and that sound came up. I think I was making coffee again, as we started working every day from ten in the morning on and I was instantly jumping around in the studio, going like “stop, stop, stop, we need this sound” and told Ralf to play a little sequence with it.
And that was essentially the starting point. I added a straight beat and the next natural step was adding this kind of 80s sounding bassline to it.
Out Of This World
“Out Of This World” is a very interesting track as I felt like I wanted to do something more subtle and while this beat was running I found that Ralf who is a very good piano player, almost a pianist, should just play over the whole track live and un-sequenced with his Hohner Pianet. And just while we were laying out the structure of the track, he basically played this whole line live on top of it. Nothing has been changed about this take.
Card House feat. Miles Cooper Seaton
“Card House feat. Miles Cooper Seaton” was actually the very, very first track on the very first studio day we had together and the original version had a straight beat. It was done in one day, was nine minutes long, without any breaks and was quite a trippy version, but ultimately Daniel Miller found that it was a bit too subtle and he was missing focus in it.
So he offered me to get in touch with Miles Cooper Seaton who is a musical poet and I decided to change the rhythm of the track into an electro rhythm, which worked amazingly well for this one. I also added another bassline on top of the old one. The same way I worked with Polly Scattergood on “And It All Went Dark”. I e-mailed with Miles Cooper Seaton for about two months, exchanging ideas, lyrics, talking about the idea of the album and then he came up with those beautiful lyrics, just as Polly Scattergood did on “And It All Went Dark”.
Both of them are very good examples of how the A&R work from the Mute side, especially from Daniel Miller´s side was helping me.
Ghosts Of Tomorrow
Regarding “Ghosts Of Tomorrow” I will reveal a secret now that I haven´t told anyone yet, so this is exclusive!
In the morning on the way to the studio, which I normally did on my bike with my headphones on, I was listening to Radiohead´s “In Rainbows” album and the “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” track came on. When I came into the studio I was having this beat in my head and without even saying hello to Ralf I was instantly like “can we do a sequence like this” and I basically re-sang the sequence that was in my head.
So if you compare “Ghosts Of Tomorrow” with “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” from Radiohead you might find some similarities in the rhythm structure. That the track turned out to be 150 BPM was just another fun thing that showed that I really did not care anymore about the BPM of any track. The main thing for me was always the question “do I enjoy listening back to it?”
Polished Chrome (The Friend Pt. 1) feat. Gary Numan
“Polished Chrome (The Friend Pt. 1) feat. Gary Numan” was an idea that I had, to do a very drone-y track in Nine Inch Nails style.
I actually remember that I was working a lot over Christmas on headphones at my house after the kids had gone to bed, laying out the groundwork on this track that we had started in fall and which was just lying there bare. As I said before, the ten tracks on the album were all started in fourteen studio days, spread out over a period of approximately three months – September, October and November 2015.
Over Christmas, I went back to this drone-y track and I had these lyrics that I had written, lyrics that may sound Sci-fi or fantastic to some or like a weird dream to others. I felt that I should maybe ask my friend Ade Fenton who happens to be the producer of the last two albums of Gary Numan, if he could get in touch with him and ask if he would basically just talk those lyrics on top of this track. And the great thing was that about a week later Ade answered me and said that he spoke to Gary and that he was happy to do this.
About another month later I actually had the audio file with Gary Numan reading my text. It fits perfectly on this piece of music and according to Ade Fenton, he really enjoyed a) the lyrics and b) the track and said that the lyrics sound so weird that he could have written them himself (laughs), which was probably the best compliment one could get.
“Trilogy” was the second day in the studio, after “Card House”.
All these tracks did not have these titles back then. They were only called “Trk 1”, “Trk 2”, “Trk 3”,…. “Trilogy” was the track that we did on the second and third studio day. That was the only track that needed two studio days to get the basic groundwork done.
Here we heavily used our beloved Moog Sub 37 synthesizer, a synthesizer we have used at least as much as the Pro 2 and the Prophet `08 from Dave Smith on this album. It started out like “let´s do a little bit of a techno beat” and I did this techno beat, we were playing these synths on top of it and at some point I felt like “maybe we should try a different bassline”.
We threw in the Sub 37 and it fitted perfectly in what was running, but it somehow did not mean that I wanted to delete what was going on before, so we just went on going on with this track and it ended up being twenty minutes long, which it still is today as I never really changed anything about the length of the track.
As for all the other tracks, the mixing period and a little re-arranging and fine-tuning period, together with the adding of the vocals – all parallel to my touring – probably took another year to accomplish. While the majority of the tracks were laid out and basically produced in Ralf´s studio, all the mixing and fine-tuning I did in my studio later on.
That the track ended up being almost twenty minutes long was just the way it happened. It was never intended to be a long track, it just ended up to make sense the way it made sense with all the other tracks. There never was the complete idea of what to do, it was just little sparks of ideas and I consciously wanted to leave room for these little ideas to develop, rather than having a finished idea of how the track needs to sound in the end. And this is how it came about with these twenty minutes.
The final track “No Regrets” contains the second part of the text that I wrote, of which the first part is in “Polished Chrome”. We asked a friend of Ralf, Aleen, who has been providing vocals for him in a lot of other projects, to read these vocals for me. You can also hear some sort of like submarine kind of “ping” sounds, these come from another little secret synthesizer that we have been using all over this album for little bits and sound bites, which is the Korg MS2000R. It´s the rack version of the Korg MS2000R, maybe the much less known sibling of the Korg MS20, but we used it a lot as it´s a very versatile, fun synthesizer.
In the end, I have to say that maybe 80 or 90% of all the sounds on the album are coming from vintage, old synthesizers, of course being treated by extremely modern, up-to-date plug-ins, mostly used from my Apollo UAD soundcard, as well as Plugin Alliance and FabFilter plugins. Plugin Alliance is a plugin company that I can recommend to anyone working in the music industry, because those are probably the best Native plugins you can find anywhere. And that basically rounded up the process of the whole album.
Once I had all the tracks more or less together in a way that they were mixed nicely and slowly the track names were coming together, I had a little issue finding the overall name for the whole album. The creative team that also worked on the album artwork suggested to me to call it “Burn Slow” after they listened to it and I felt like “yeah, that would perfectly make sense”, especially as I always felt like this album is something that is meant to be listened to from the beginning to the end, preferably on a couch with a glass of wine or even a nice vaporizer filled with THC.