Markus Guentner is a German musician, who has been putting out music for over 20 years and is known for the "pop-ambient" genre from his work with Kompakt Records. Markus Guentner's versatility and craft in making music encompasses various genres from contemporary ambient to dub techno. This has allowed his discography to move between styles and genres over the past two decades.
To get a better idea of his music, where it has gone and where it is going, we chatted with German producer Markus Guentner about the 10-year anniversary of his enchanting album Crystal Castle, plus his recent album Extropy, which was released in October on A Strangely Isolated Place.
In the interview, we cover interesting facts about Markus' debuts and ongoing affiliation to Cologne-based label Kompakt, as well as his views on ambient music and techno, plus some thoughtful insights on making music.
Hello Markus, how are you? It’s nice to have you here. What have you been up to recently and how has been 2021 for you so far?
Hello Angel. Thanks, doing really good. And thanks for having me. Well, this year began quite bad. Huge lockdown here in Germany, not much work to do etc. But it turned out quite well so far. Business is doing great again, I worked on a lot of new music and remixes. Summertime was lovely here and I had a great time with my friends. So, I can’t complain.
You have been producing music (from ambient to techno outside any boundaries) for over two decades — with notorious projects such as 1981 on Kompakt and In Moll (2001) to Crystal Castle (2011) which turned 10 years old this year. How did you develop your style over the years?
It’s crazy how time flies. I can’t get it into my head, that I'm doing this for more than twenty years now. Sometimes it feels like I’m still the young guy who just want to sit at home and make music and nothing else, but of course my ID and body say something different. And yes, it’s the 10th anniversary of Crystal Castle this year and Affin Rec, so I decided to do a special CD-edition for it. The original was released digital only.
Well, I would say that the development in my music came complete naturally. There was never a specific direction I wanted to go. I always went with my own flow and watched where it took me. Of course, with the experience you collect over the time, you’ll find ways to go further (musically and technically). But the approach is still the same.
Tell us about your latest album Extropy that was released early October 2021 on A Strangely Isolated Place after the very well-received Theia in 2015.
The album marks the end of the (accidental) trilogy of Theia, Empire and finally Extropy. When I started working on Extropy in 2019, the other two albums were in my head all the time. The story about earth and moon were created, yet the "humanistic systems" was not told completely. So the philosophy of extropianism was an interesting way to go.
Some tracks on Extropy evolve between "dark chaos" and heat with swirling melancholic chords and atmospheric sounds that somehow remind me of earlier music by Harrod Budd and Robin Guthrie. What was the purpose or the motive for you when you wrote this music?
All of that was definitely the result of Theia and Empire. From the chaos to order, from "noise" to rest and so on. And the idea of extropianism by "improving the human condition" with body, mind and technology was the perfect object to bring that into my music. It was always the line between theory/fiction and real and existing things. A confrontation between thoughts/ideas and tangible things. Like the music on the albums -- a play between "real" and "unreal" sounds.
Now back to some years ago. "If Music be the Food of Love" is one track from your album 1981 on Kompakt released in 2005 that garnered international attention. What were the emotions at the time when you composed this album and this track specifically?
Oh, that’s a good question! To be honest, I can’t remember exactly. That was a really exciting and diversified time for me. I was a lot on the way (DJing somewhere), met a lot of (new) people and went to a lot of parties. The album was not a specific project I wanted to do in the beginning, it was a process over a long time. I took all the impressions and experience from that time and brought this into the album. And over the time it became more and more personal and I needed to bring the busy life into the form of an ambient album. All the things that I experienced and learned became the music. So the title 1981 (my year of birth) was the perfect theme for it.
Your track Such a Shame (2005) was a hit on the dance floors according to radio journalists and DJs active in these years. What clubs or nights made an imprint on you in Germany and abroad? Are there any specific influences for you during these days that you still bear with you today?
I started DJing in the electronic (club) music scene when I was 14. I went to a lot of parties here in Regensburg at that age and got my first club-gig when I was 15 and a residency at 16. As a young person, you’ll get a lot of impressions and you soak up everything that crosses your way. There where a lot of fantastic nights and parties and definitely another lifestyle, that finally brought me more and more to the decision of kicking school when I was 16 and make music only. And yes, there were so many good and inspiring nights and situations, no matter if I played there by myself or just as a visitor. But I don’t do much clubbing anymore these days. I enjoy concerts, nice dinners and some relaxing wine-evenings with good friends and great music much more now.
Your album In Moll has “orchestral” sounds where drones and pastoral chords interlace together. Was it a style you initially wanted to develop or did it come after a few experimentations in the studio?
At this time, it was definitely more experimenting than forming a concrete idea or so and it is still the same nowadays the most time to be honest. Well, of course I wanted to create something that has a lot of substance, that is very present and interesting, and not a background-music-ambient-chill-out-thingy. Something that grabs your attention and wrap you in. Some sketches already existed before the idea of a full album. So for me it was definitely an experiment to create a whole album. In Moll was my first full length release.
Talking about your studio, what can we find in your home in Regensburg? And have your tools evolved over time or do you have some favorites you can’t live with?
At the moment you’ll find a bit of chaos. Last year, I quit my office and I only work from home now. My former dining room is now my office/studio. I need to do some renovations and switching rooms etc. to make everything comfortable again. But the only thing I really need is a computer.
I started making music just with software and I did that for a long time. Most people thought that there is a huge and expensive studio where i do my music and you MUST have crazy hardware to get that sound. Well, not at all! In my beginning it was a bit condemned to use software. But hey, I didn’t care. It’s not about how many synths you have and how big and expensive your studio is. It’s just about what you do with the stuff you have. You can make the best music with just a computer and the worst music in a $100,000 studio. But sure, over the years my "studio" grew, a controller here, a guitar there, another synth, and so on. So there is definitely many additional stuff i’m using nowadays.
Your time with Kompakt was surely a key driver in your own interpretation of ambient music, especially pop-ambient, for which the genre was attributed to you. Knowing your versatility in producing music from dub to techno, from ambient to pop, how has ambient taken over now for your music?
Absolutely! Ambient was a "serious" thing that was definitely very special at that time. But that kind of music surprisingly worked fantastic beside the club and techno stuff. It reminds me of the good old chill-out rooms in every club. I have no idea why they vanished completely. But a lot of electronic music artists already worked on some ambient music at this time. There were a few artists in Germany and the Kompakt surrounding such as Dettinger, Lohmann, etc. Regensburg was definitely the ignition for pop ambient. In the end it was not that unusual. It just needed the right platform to do it.
So, back then DJing and releasing club-music was my biggest task beside the ambient music. It was important to get gigs and staying in the scene. But in 2008/2009 things really changed for me. My feeling was that the club-scene has changed completely. Mostly it was not about going out and having fun listening and dancing to good music. It was more and more about the big names. People just cared about the drinks and some loud music (no matter what kind of music). The music itself became just "functional" and was not that emotional anymore.
I’ve never been the person, that jumps around at the DJ-booth (in the worst case with a pre-mixed cd or so) and do some big show. I just wanted to give people a good time with good music. So I came to the conclusion, that this was not the "job" I wanted to do. I reached out for some other work (graphic design) that pays my rent and my food, so I can just make the music I really want to do, without consideration if that record "works" or not etc. That’s the reason, why ambient took over for me. But hey, don’t get me wrong, there were and are still amazing techno releases and I’m still into techno and also playing around from time to time. Who knows, maybe I will do some club-stuff again some day.
For ambient music, we can say that the genre has surely attracted many producers and DJs who shifted away from techno during the pandemic. Can you dive us into your own vision of ambient music and any artists or works that have influenced you in this genre, such as GAS from Wolfgang Voigt or bvdub?
Oh yeah, that’s true! And it’s funny because it connects a bit to the answer before. Techno became too much "business" and "functional." When Covid hit the world and clubs and bars were closed, there was not much space for "functional" music. It was more important that the music creates pictures in your head and some kind of emotional state.
I think that’s the reason why ambient became more "popular" for a lot of people. For me, the main influence was always the "atmosphere" of a track, no matter which artist or if it’s techno, indie, classic or ambient music. But yes, of course, GAS was a huge thing for me. The CD1 is one of my all-time-favorites! That was an epiphany. Creating worlds with such a deepness just with the music was a whole new level. Good ambient music has so much more to offer than just listening to it. Sometimes you hear and explore new things in the music, even if it’s 25 years old.
What is also your vision for ambient music in the future?
I really don’t have a specific vision of ambient in the future to be honest. For me ambient/electronica became more and more future-orientated, which is kind of funny, because that is/was the philosophy of techno, compared to any other genre. So it’s more like: play around, try new things and let’s see what happens. But I would wish that this genre becomes more serious and more recognized. A lot of pieces right now are definitely the "new classic" music and I hope that people are getting more into this. The good thing is that it already happen with ambient. It reaches out to many things like movie-scores, art etc.
Aside from music, you are also a graphic designer. What are your main influences and inspiration for your graphic art and your sounds?
Well, it’s not that far away from the work with music, just visual. There are so many things that inspire me. A chat with "colleagues," a walk outside, movies etc. I think everything is inspiring, when you open your eyes to the world without any prejudice. Ok, to be honest, at my job as a graphic-designer there is not that much space for creativity. I do a lot of commissioned work. But sometimes there are things where I can get fully crazy on it and put everything I want into it.
Let’s look into the future. What are you looking forward to in 2022? Any future collaborations or exciting music ventures we should be aware of or prepared to receive?
Oh well, absolutely no plan for 2022. The last two years showed me (and all of us) more than ever, that the future is so unpredictable. I had so many ideas and plans over the last two years, but most of them shattered like nothing. And now I see we’re in a long and quiet winter (again). But I’ll definitely take some time off the job soon and getting work on some more music. But definitely I have no specific plan. We will see what’s happening.