A chat with Peter Van Hoesen
In his studio near Berlin’s Hermannplatz, Peter Van Hoesen is unfazed about a broken guitar string. In town for a few days from Majorca, where he’s recently relocated, he’s spending some time in the studio working on a new project that’s pretty far removed from his usual techno productions. It sounds a little bit New Order, a little bit LCD Soundsystem, and definitely requires his guitar. Unfortunately, on this sleepy Good Friday, all the city’s music shops are closed.
Van Hoesen is working on this band project with a friend and, with nearly an album’s worth of material lined up, the only thing missing now is a female vocalist. Creating something totally different allows him to come back to techno refreshed, he says. But regardless of the genre, his drive to keep experimenting is a constant. So he continues to plug away, broken string and all, making the most of the five he has left.
Conducted in his studio over two days in early spring, the below interview and video serve as a portrait of an artist who has been closely tied to Patterns of Perception since the very beginning. We’re honoured to share this interview package to coincide with Peter’s contribution to our podcast, marking the 50th mix in the series.
Special thanks to our dear friend and collaborator Elsa Löwdin for the video production. You can find more of her work over here.
The influence that Belgium’s rave scene of the ‘90s had on you and your music is now pretty well documented. Are there other important influences that people might not know about?
Before that period, there was obviously everything that came out of post-punk. When I seriously started listening to music, it was that genre. I was still quite young. There was obviously an electronic component to that style and that brought me further into the electronic domain. Before that, when I was 10 or 11 years old, I was crazy about heavy metal. For most people, it’s a phase that stops when they’re 16 and they’re like, ‘now I can listen to serious music’. I still listen to some mostly older stuff, some new stuff as well, and actually I went to a Slayer concert a couple of years back here in Berlin – it was 20 years or longer that I wanted to see that band. That’s still very much alive. If I have the opportunity and I can play it at a loud volume, it’s fantastic.
What is it about heavy metal that you like exactly?
For a kid it’s amazing, because you have a lot of energy. When I was 11 or 12, there was a whole shift in the genre, which happened to coincide with me discovering it, like when the first Metallica album came out. And suddenly everything was five times as fast. That’s very interesting because it’s five times as aggressive. You can play that and you get an immediate hit. When I listen to heavy metal now, it’s also the fast stuff, and that’s still the same as when I was 12. There’s so much energy in there. It’s also technically very advanced.
Are there any parallels between that type of music and the music you’re making now?
My music’s definitely become more aggressive but I don’t know if there’s a parallel with heavy metal. It’s more about energy. When I listen to heavy metal at home for instance, the aggression is all pretty much mid-range aggression. Whereas what I make, and what most people make in techno, has a lot of low frequencies because that energy that moves people resides for a big chunk in the low frequencies. So it’s a different kind of aggressiveness I think.
You’ve talked in the past about the ethos behind your label Time to Express as ‘evoking mental body music’. Is this something you still hold to, for example with the new label Center 91? Is it still part of your ethos?
I thought that recently the mental part had become a bit too big and I wanted to take it back to the body a little bit. To make it more visceral again. If you listen to early Time to Express releases, it has that more visceral feel to it and gradually, over 10 years, the label became less attached to the body music side and more attached to the mental side of it. At the beginning of last year, I was feeling unhappy with that. That vibe of mental body music is still very important to me – that the mental aspect and the physical aspect are still very equal. I had the impression that one was overpowering the other and it was making me a little bit uncomfortable, and I started to hear it in other people’s music as well. Time to Express is still there and still going. The correction is the new label.
I know that feeling from the dancefloor, when the two are in sync is when I’m most engaged. Is that the feeling you’re trying to evoke? Yeah, that’s the main goal. I’ve made quite a radical shift and I think in the next few months it will shift a little bit back to the middle. It’s a question of just putting things out and testing them and seeing how people react. Fine-tuning them a bit until what I see on the dancefloor matches what is in my head.
I was getting a bit bored with techno that consists of a kick drum, one simple hi-hat and an ambient track. Where is the bassline, where is the groove, where is the sex? It was slowly fizzling away in this whole genre of what people call deep techno or whatever, which for me doesn’t do anything anymore, unless it has a groove or a driving element that appeals to the body. When there’s too much appealing to the mind, it becomes too cerebral. And I can’t dance to cerebral things.
How do you make sure the sound that you’re producing now, while influenced by the rave sound of Belgium in the 90s, stays fresh and forward-thinking?
That’s an important issue. I think the reference is more towards the energy and not so much towards the sounds of that era, though there is a little bit of that as well. There was something very visceral and there was a lot of energy in there. Nowadays everything is very certain, very formatted and secure. That brings with it a certain vibe and energy. I think that’s more of what I want to evoke with the label. The sounds need to be mostly contemporary.
Can you specify what that energy is all about?
It was excitement, which obviously you can’t have today anymore because we’re no longer in the 90s and it’s no longer as new as it was back then. For a lot of people back in the day there was a certain ‘aha’ moment. A lot of people did not want to be involved with rock music or traditional bands on stage. When electronic dance music came around, for a lot of people, including myself, it was like, ‘finally, we have our music’. That was very crucial for me and a lot of other people. And the music was fast and hard.
Do you see your DJ sets getting faster and harder?
Yeah. It happened first with the DJ sets about two years ago. I just couldn’t resist. It just goes up and up and up. For most of my sets four years ago, I would start at maybe 126 and 130. I don’t think I start under 133 today. It just happens. I’ve always done it when I was very tired because playing fast music keeps me awake. So that was always there but now it’s every set. I still try to play a deeper sound, the deeper sound is only faster than before. Whereas before the deeper sound always meant slow, I try to play deep but fast and with this mental component.
And still groovy?
Yes, it needs to be groovy. I love to dance myself. I’ve spent a lot of time on the dance floor so I just play what I want to hear should I be on the dance floor. I know there’s a lot of DJs out there who don’t dance. I have no idea how they do it.
How do you approach the production of your music?
I do think that when you make electronic dance music - or at least the way that I approach it - every track that I make is obviously a thing in itself but I also feel that it slots in a much bigger whole. An ensemble, like a wider story. Your track is almost like a little building block in a DJ set of someone else and it’s also a small building block in the genre. You can look at different levels and different perspectives on this thing. For me, this is also how the world works – a fractal principle that is at work. In a way, that idea influences my music, or supports the music.
That’s quite a nice metaphor for the nature of the DJ set as well.
Absolutely. It’s very apt for electronic dance music, but specifically for techno because a lot of good techno is completely faceless and can just be taken at face value and used as a tool to create something new. Compared with pop music, for example, a techno track goes a lot further in connecting itself to a higher, wider context. I feel I also now gravitate more towards tracks of that kind and I try to step away from tracks that have too much of an identity or are knocking too loud on your door, ‘I’m here!’ It’s like, nah, I’ll take the shy one in the corner and work with that. That seems more interesting to me now.
Are you trying to tell a story with your music or is it about something else for you?
It is about storytelling but less with techno than with the experimental music I make. The experimental music I make is connected to a story. Techno probably also, but to a lesser extent. Techno for me is an energetic outlet. That pulse that you hear in the music, I’m literally addicted to it. I’m 48 years old, I walk into a proper club, I hear the sound system and I’m immediately still directly connected to it. It’s a fantastic feeling. That bass and that pulse, that heart that just beats.
But the experimental stuff, like a lot of the things that I do with Yves (de Mey, for their Sendai project), that is very connected to stories, to images. I’m usually the one who distorts the beats and makes everything angular because for me the world works in a way like that. I like to mess it up because I also feel that corresponds to a certain slice of reality. With the techno, I don’t really have the urge to do. It needs to make people move. It needs to make me move when I work here. There’s always the point when I hear the moment in the track and I’m dancing to myself here and I think ‘okay, we’re there, cool’.
Why is that an urge for you, to make people dance?
In the ideal situation, which doesn’t always happen but you always have to strive for that, there’s some sort of exchange of energy, which is very clearly there. That’s an amazing feeling. I’ve only felt that specific kind of exchange when I was doing martial arts. Certain movements where you do it with a partner, certain circular movements that have no end, so you just go into an endless loop. At first it’s all technique, but when you have a partner who you correspond with, suddenly you get into this hyper state of flow. A dance floor which has really taken off is in the same sort of flow. People are connected also, they sort of lose their ego. The dance floor is an egoless thing and if I become egoless as well, that’s amazing.v
Text: Zilka Grogan, Patterns of Perception Video: Elsa Löwdin Images: Supplied by artist