Musical Medicine: A Conversation with Digitalism on ‘5KY11GHT’ and Beyond
Jens “Jence” Moelle and İsmail “Isi” Tüfekçi of the electro-rock, Hamburg-based duo Digitalism took the time to speak with Dancing Astronaut after releasing their 5KY11GHT EP to discuss the past, present, and future of their unique sound. Creating something new is Digitalism’s modus vivendi, and making electronic music from scratch by way of producing synthetic sounds in their rawest form is what Jence and Isi have spent most of their focus on as musicians. Two musical “McGyvers” of sorts in today’s digital age, Digitalism construct a raw, deftly-produced body of work in 5KY11GHT. Their primary goal is to “inject” listeners with their musical “medicine,” because for some out there, their music is a cure for pain and suffering. This cure is precisely what drives the pair to keep creating.
Enigmatically, Jence and Isi prefer to produce in a local WWII bunker with other local musicians. They admit they can be a bit obsessive about where they produce. When touring they always bring any music made on the road back to the bunker before releasing it. Their first album, Idealism, for example, was produced this way — as was 5KY11GHT. The duo drew parallels between their Idealism classic “Pogo” and 5KY11GHT‘s “Jet,” which both feature rolling synths and rapid hi-hats. Notably, however,they’re actively working against repeating themselves every time they forge an album. “With every release, we start from zero,” they affirm, and this purposeful musicianship drives their continued success.
5KY11GHT was released on Digitalism’s own Magnetism label, and is the beginning of a series of multiple pending singles and EPs they intend to release. Sitting on “enough material to put out two albums again,” Jence and Isi are planning to pace themselves in today’s market. 5KY11GHT contains only four tracks (a fifth if counting the “Spectrum – Radio Edit”), whereas previous releases Mirage, I Love You, Dude, and Idealism have 15, 11, and 17, respectively. Albums today need to grab listeners attention immediately, and the outfit agrees that the best way to do this in through releases that are smaller in size but greater in number. This more “bitesize” Digitalism release is part of a new phase in their ongoing project. Also, unlike Digitalism’s previous works, 5KY11GHT lacks vocals. Yet, despite its size, this extended player still packs a punch.
High-energy, techno-inspired, disco-driven, and rock n’ roll-risen, 5KY11GHT is a continuation of composing new and different music that they themselves would enjoy. They trace this authenticity back to their roots. For a couple of guys that are not particularly worried about fitting into a genre, Digitalism mention quite a few. They’re often associated with the French House scene of the early 2000s, despite being German-born. Daft Punk, Justice, and the Kitsuné record label were rising in popularity, and Digitalism’s amalgamation of disco, funk, techno, and rock fit the trend perfectly during that time. Their 2007 breakout release, Idealism, combined these influences in ways similar to what Boys Noize, MSTRKRFT, Miike Snow, and even a rising Calvin Harris did at the time. Jence and Isi hope other artists can come and “party together” as they used to, as today they feel fans and musicians are becoming siloed into separate groupings.
In the early days, necessity and desperation often drove both of Digitalism’s members to be creative with what they had. With a father who worked with Hewlett Packard and Compaq, Jence was able to tinker with computers and electronics from a young age. Isi also pointed out that they were both given exposure to club music at an earlier age thanks to the local radio. “It was such a different thing, it kind of sparked something inside of us. You know, as a kid you hear these tracks and you’re like, ‘wow!’ You don’t hear these songs anywhere, you have to go to clubs, but we were too young.” They met in a record store in Hamburg, and bored with the music they found there, they took it upon themselves to make something better.
Back then, “every shop property had a different selection,” and for most, musical tastes were determined by what was available at the local record stores. These stores had their own scenes, and while everyone had a different preference based on their own locality, many fans enjoyed an amalgamation of genres and styles. With a shift into the digital realm, today’s listeners are much more individualized in their tastes. Blogs and streaming services have given listeners the ability to personalize what they listen to. Yet, “when one door closes another one opens,” they say, and today “if you’re trying to start something new, you’re going to find it easier than in the past,” without local record store selectors curating music tastes.
In their heavily fortified production studio, Jence and Isi have built livelihoods on making fresh and different music. This method was much needed at first: “when we started to produce, all we had was a shitty PC from a catalog,” which, they say, would crash so often they were forced to work with what they had. At the time, they needed to be creative with the situation, and this early period of necessary desperation gave them a raw understanding of how digital music is made and led to the success they’ve experienced throughout their years.
Despite having over 17 years of veteran music industry experience under their belts, Digitalism are surprisingly zen. It’s clear that nothing is more important to the duo than “injecting people with [their] medicine,” with fame or success reduced to an afterthought. “I still feel like I’m in a dream,” one of them admits, but “having said that, it’s very great to do this rather than work in a Starbucks or something.” Only one thing has changed since they started back in Hamburg: the date. Maintaining this authenticity to who they were when they started as artists is both a constant challenge and impressive feat. Whether they’re playing for ten or ten thousand people, success for them is beyond numbers. It’s more of a feeling, an emotion.
Being successful without striving for success, then appreciating this success as something to not take for granted shows these two have level heads. Perhaps their relationship is to thank for this. Both have different music tastes: Isi wants to go funky, while Jence wants to go dark, but sometimes that changes. “We’re very yin-yang,” they say, “but also sometimes yang-yin.” They always seem to find a happy medium, however, and acknowledge how important it is to respect each other as artists. Rather than bickering over what sounds better, they’ve learned to appreciate what the other offers and to “just go with it” if one pushes in a specific direction. “We’re two people, and we need to push each other and respect each other,” they say — “that’s the message of Digitalism.”
There’s something inspiring yet ironic about how a duo called Digitalism has an aggressive do-it-yourself attitude in an age of digital automation and algorithmic music distribution. Despite embracing their sonic realm, Digitalism has avoided becoming repetitive, calculated, or trite. After every release, the only thing repeated on the next was starting from the beginning. There’s something very zen about this wash, rinse, repeat ritual the duo practices with the albums they create. Every sound built to create an album is blown away like a Sand Mandala. One can only wait for what they will assemble next.
Listen to 5KY11GHT here:
Photos courtesy of Maria Louceiro