Ricardo Villalobos - Biography
If the artistic validity of electronic dance music as a genre is still under consideration, the music of Ricardo Villalobos should resoundingly put the matter to rest. The many permutations of dance music — especially techno and house — are too easily relegated to the level of soundtracks for consumerism. While many producers of those genres are happy to provide the expected gestures that will land their music in car commercials or Manhattan’s hip boutiques, Villalobos’s work scores no such bland scenario. Through his increasingly far-out experiments with structure and repetition, Villalobos consistently sets the bar for ultra-progressive techno miles higher than most of his peers.
Ricardo Villalobos was born in Santiago, Chile in 1970 to a German mother and a Chilean father. The overthrow of democratically elected leader Salvador Allende by military dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1973 forced the Villalobos family to flee to Frankfurt, Germany. Villalobos has said in several interviews that his life has always been defined by the dichotomy of his family, with Chilean culture vying for space in the German world where he grew up. From a very early age, the culture and music of Chile had a profound influence on Villalobos. By the age of ten, he was learning the conga and bongo drums, focusing on the rhythms of his birth-country and of South America in general. In his late teens, this fascination would send him to Cuba and Brazil to further his drumming education. Upon his return to Europe, Villalobos discovered electronic music. He has talked at length of his love for Depeche Mode and claims to have followed the band around on its European tours in the late 1980s.
While at university in the early 1990s, Villalobos started to DJ disco, house, and early techno at parties as a hobby. Around 1993 he started the Placid Flavour label with some friends. The label was to be very short-lived, but it does hold the distinction of releasing Villalobos’s first EP, Sinus Poetry (1993 Placid Flavour). Perhaps a more auspicious event that year was when Villalobos met the owners of Playhouse Records. Two years later, he would release his first widely available 12”, The Contempt (1995 Playhouse Records).
The Contempt — along with 1998’s Heike (Lo-Fi Stereo), and 1999’s 808 The Bassqueen (Lo-Fi Stereo) and Pino Jet Explosion (Frisbee Tracks) — established Villalobos’s singular and immediately recognizable style. His tracks were minimal and extremely spacey with a strong emphasis on texture, but they were also groove oriented and geared toward the dance floor. Another trait evident from the start, and one that would continue to grow and become a signature for Villalobos, is track length. The song “808 The Bassqueen (Queen of Bass Mix)” runs over 12 minutes long. This would become a relatively short track length for Villalobos in just a few years. The track is a superb example of his style at the time: a pervasive 4/4 kick drum holds a slithery groove over which dubby, Basic Channel-style chords echo out; lush, druggy vocals repeat a simple phrase; and elegant percussion effects percolate under the surface while strings introduce a simple melody. After 12 minutes of this beautiful psychedelic production, Villalobos brings in an amazingly heavy bass line, cementing the track together but fading everything to a close after a single minute. It’s a hilarious and imaginative structural conceit. Plus it grooves like crazy. The 1998 12” Salvador (Frisbee Tracks) and the track “Tempura” from Pino Jet Explosion introduce even more radical textural manipulation and stranger rhythms. With Que Belle Epoque (2000 Frisbee Tracks), Villalobos shows that he can deftly combine minimal structures and experimental textures with tracks that swing. A collection of work from this period has been issued on CD as Salvador (2006 Frisbee Tracks).
In 2001, Villalobos released Bredow / Damm 3 (Perlon) — his second 12” for Perlon, a label that he would call home for quite a while. Both tracks are spiraling polyrhythmic grooves, relentlessly minimal and smothered in psychedelic dub-wise production. Another key Villalobos element crops up in “Bredow.” About three-fourths of the way through, emerging out of the crunchy and echoing pulse, a super clean piano enters. At first it seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the music, but the piano somehow locks in and creates a very emotive feel at the end of the track. Villalobos would return to this technique of juxtaposing strange elements as a future trademark.
The experimentalism Villalobos explored early in the new millennium was fully realized on his debut full-length, Alcachofa (Playhouse), which was released in 2003. The album begins with the single “Easy Lee” — ten minutes of subdued fractalized funk with his signature shape shifting, percolating beats colliding around the 4/4 thump of the kick drum. The hook is a delirious vocal line fed through a vocoder for maximum hazy warble. “Easy Lee” was a huge single, played by minimal techno giants like Richie Hawtin and Kompakt’s Michael Mayer. Alcachofa dives deeper down the psychedelic black hole than the “pop” of its single hints at. By the time we hit the completely disorienting pulse of “Bahaha Hahi,” it’s evident that the album is not destined to become a soundtrack for shopping. Another standout track is the breathtakingly gorgeous “Dexter.” The song’s windswept melody floats along the top of a stuttering groove. The level of detail on Alcachofa is still unequaled on most minimal techno records and it arguably stands as Villalobos’s masterpiece.
The following year brought the second full-length, Thé Au Harem D'Archimède (2004 Perlon). It’s classic Villalobos, filled with subtle detail and follows the paths set out on Alcachofa, but the album is a little more restrained and less melodic. Thé Au Harem D'Archimède begins with two outright minimal stompers, “Hireklon” and “Serpentin.” The latter is aptly titled as it snakes and winds its way around the beat. The album then takes a turn into slightly darker territory to surface again with three tracks near the end that give Alcachofa a run for its money. “Temenarc 2,” “Temenarc 1,” and the gloriously bass-heavy “Miami” bring the record to a lively end.
The 2005 EP Achso (2005 Cadenza) returns to the organic lushness of Alcachofa in a big way. Four tracks, all clocking in around the 12 minute mark, feature Latin-tinged acid rock guitar, bustling minimal rhythms, and a heady sense of psychedelia. It remains one of Villalobos’s deepest records. He released several more 12”s that year, which were all in top form.
In 2006, Villalobos hit a conceptual high point with Fizheuer Zieheuer (Playhouse). The version released on CD features a mix of the title track that is a whopping 37 minutes long, with the second track (“Fizbeast”) clocking in at over 35 minutes. Both tracks simply establish grooves and lock in.They are a huge success, not only as an exercise in minimalism, but also as masterfully crafted and elegantly structured dance music of the highest order. It’s no small feat to capture interest and hold it for almost 40 minutes at a time, but Villalobos does it easily. It’s the best kind of minimalism, presenting the illusion of change while remaining the same.
In 2007, Villalobos’s contribution to the famous Fabric series of mix CDs was released as Fabric 36 (Fabric). Again, he sets the bar higher than what had come before, offering a mix of his own brand new and unreleased tracks. The set was extremely well received and showcased some of his most forward-thinking and strange productions yet. Also in 2007, he established his own label — Sei Es Drum — and released the label’s debut, aptly called Sei Es Drum (2007 Sei Es Drum). The record explores themes set forth on the Fabric mix, but is even more experimental with glitch-filled textures and hiccupping uneven tempos. He followed Sei Es Drum with the 12” Enfants (2008 Sei Es Drum), which returns to the arch-minimalism of Fizheuer Zieheuer with slightly shorter tracks but similarly hypnotic results. He combines a simple piano motif with loops of children chanting and steady 4/4 beats for an inviting and warm atmosphere.
In 2008, he released the EP Vasco (Perlon), which returned Villalobos to the Perlon label. Although the music is a bit straighter than his Sei Es Drum releases, it’s still fairly tweaked. “Minimoonstar” might be the most spaced out and ambient track he’s released, yet with a synth riff hook to die for. On the vinyl edition of the album, dubstep experimenter Shackleton offers a heady remix, returning the favor of Villalobos’s remix for him in 2006 and cementing the growing relationship between progressive London dubstep and Berlin minimal techno.
Having achieved legendary status in minimal techno along with the likes of Richie Hawtin and Sven Vath, Villalobos never seems fully comfortable with the “minimal” label. He’s obviously following his own unique tangent. Villalobos may be labeled a minimalist, but each sonic event that he creates never happen the same way twice. Each hit of the same drum sounds just a little different. His minimalism is organic and alive, crawling with detail.