Thomas Brinkmann - Biography
German producer Thomas Brinkmann is widely regarded as one of the most unique and innovative voices in modern European techno. Working with some of electronic dance music’s best-known producers, artists like Richie Hawtin and Wolfgang Voigt, and releasing music on labels like Profan and Raster-Noton, Brinkmann has become synonymous with the vanguard of progressive techno. Over the last two decades and countless releases this producer has helped to define the sound of abstract and minimal dance music. His new work reaches toward traditional song forms and serves to illuminate this producer’s constant willingness to experiment.
Born in 1959, Thomas Brinkmann studied art at the Dusseldorf Academy. He began experimenting with audio in the early ‘80s. It wasn’t until the mid ‘90s that the producer began to release his work publically. He first gained the attention of the global techno community for his reworking of music by the above-mentioned Hawtin and Voigt. 1997 brought the release of Studio 1 — Variationen on Voigt’s Profan label. Voigt’s legendary “Studio 1” series, released under the Mike Ink alias, is among the most holy of grails in minimal techno. Brinkmann did a remix, or a “variation” as he calls it, of the entire Studio 1 album. Working from vinyl, Brinkmann loops sections of the music on a turntable of his own design that features two separate tone arms for the left and right stereo output. He then uses effects to further process and separate the original music. The results are totally hypnotic with Brinkmann coaxing entirely new patterns and shapes from the originals. By layering constantly shifting sections of beats he creates an aural moiré pattern of labyrinthine sound. In 1998 Brinkmann applied the same technique to the music of minimal pioneer Richie Hawtin’s “Concept 1” series. This resulted in the Concept 1 — 96:VR release, another genius rework that highlights the rhythmic complexities of so-called minimal techno.
Concurrent to the variations releases, Brinkmann started releasing his own productions in 1998. Spread across his confusingly titled labels Ernst, Max and Max Ernst, he releases a series of 12” records housed in bright orange sleeves with song titles bearing the names of women. The series went from ’98 into ’99 and has since become one of the most collectible runs in techno. The music is jawdroppingly good. Ostensibly minimal techno the tracks Brinkmann crafted for this series sound like nothing else. The music is funky, yet terse and dry; totally hypnotic and deadly serious but with a sense of humor that shines light on techno’s roots in American funk and soul. Ultimately its like nothing else around and to this date sounds absolutely fresh. The series was collected on CD and released as Rosa in 2000 on the Ernst label. It remains one of Brinkmann’s finest moments.
Brinkmann also releases more overtly experimental work under the moniker Ester Brinkmann, supposedly the name of his sister. He created the Suppose label just to release this music. ’98’s Totes Rennen, ‘99’s Weiße Nächte and 2001’s Der Ubersetzer — II Traduttore all feature vocal samples, mostly from modern philosophers, over throbbing ambient techno. It’s deeply disquieting music, dark and mesmerizing. Brinkmann’s contribution to Raster-Noton’s famous 20’ To 2000 series also falls under the Ester Brinkmann project.
Perhaps his best-known work has been released as Soul Center. Comprised almost entirely of samples from funk, soul and R&B, Brinkmann creates a dense, funky type of minimal house and electronic soul. It’s easily his most accessible project, aimed squarely at the dancefloor. ‘99’s I and 2000’s II were released on Brinkmann’s own W.v.B. Enterprises while III was released by Mute in 2001.
It’s almost impossible to keep up with this producer’s steady stream of 12”s, but an important full-length arrived in 2000 with Klick. Like most of Brinkmann’s earlier output this is process-oriented music. These tracks can be categorized as minimal techno, but just barely. This is a shuddering, loopy strain of ambient clicks and cuts that is strikingly original. Made by cutting grooves into vinyl with a knife, Brinkmann creates the same phasing, rhythmic pulse used on the variation releases. On Klick the sound is more effected, with reverb and delay adding extra layers of ambience. It’s electronic art music of the highest order.
Row was released in 2002 and serves to collect tracks from Brinkmann’s many 12” releases. These tracks are certainly still marked by the producer’s unique techniques but represent his efforts at material created for the dancefloor. There are some truly funky songs to be heard here, such as the classic “Loplop.”
2004’s Tokyo + 1 finds Brinkmann branching out. Still highly conceptual, these songs explore varied textures and deep ambience more so than previous releases. The music is based on field recordings made in Japan. Sounds of street activity, subways and public life are edited, layered and looped into dubwise ambient techno. There’s a stronger sense of the musical and the organic on Tokyo + 1 that points to where Brinkmann would take his music next.
Lucky Hands was released in 2005 and was a departure from the straight minimal dance music Brinkmann had helped to define. The tracks here are still certainly informed by minimal techno, but there’s an organic melodic sensibility in effect now. Also, there are plenty of vocals to be heard not to mention covers of The Smiths’ “The More You Ignore Me The Closer I Get” and the jazz standard “Charleston.” Lucky Hands is ambitious as it moves Brinkmann closer to pop territory. Admittedly it doesn’t always work, but the music is always engaging as it reaches for something new.
As if in reaction to the pop attempts of Lucky Hands, Brinkmann returned to the techniques of Klick in 2006 with Klick Revolution. The stripped down, bare bones rhythms are back this time augmented by heavy dub bass and some deeply textured electronic noise. Looser than Klick but boasting that keen attention to micro-detail, this album stands out as a reminder of what made this producer’s music so exciting in the first place.
2008 brought Brinkmann’s biggest attempt at proper song structure to date. When Horses Die… is an album of deftly arranged, electronically enhanced songs featuring Brinkmann singing on every track. Overall the tone is dark, electro-inspired synth-pop with influences from Depeche Mode and early Nine Inch Nails. Guitars, proper verse-chorus-verse structure and Brinkmann’s unadorned voice mark this album as something entirely new for this producer. There are genuinely harrowing moments here, such as the stunning “Birth And Death,” that indicate Brinkmann could take this newfound interest in song to soaring, emotive heights.
Over two decades of work shaping minimal dance music has made Thomas Brinkmann one of modern techno’s respected elder statesmen. His conceptual, tersely funky early work continues to inspire a generation of minimal techno producers. That his new music is reaching into unexplored territories of traditional song shows a confidence and willingness to experiment that would terrify many musicians. Brinkmann’s defining trait is his ability to capture new musical forms. No doubt his future releases will continue to surprise us.