Interview with Martyn Heyne
QCR: Thanks very much for contributing a mix to our Quiet Cast series we have been fans for many years (the words ‘Lichte Studio’ can be found on many of our all-time favorite records) so it is a true honor and a pleasure to host you. Where is the mix recorded and what would you like people to know about the mix?
MH: Hello and thanks very much for having me! The mix is recorded at Lichte Studio in Berlin. No grand masterplan - I just grabbed what was lying around or what I’ve been hearing recently and went with the flow. I have a new album to present of course, so the mix opens and closes with pieces from that.
QCR: This month see’s the release of your album ‘Open Lines’, how would you introduce this LP to someone unfamiliar with your sound?
MH: I would say this new LP is the best way to become familiar with my new sound. What better way than to listen? Is there another way? I don’t think so. As a first for my solo output, I’ve invited friends to play on a couple of tracks as well. My good friend Tatu Rönkkö of Efterklang and Liima fame has contributed some amazing drum parts and the cellist Anne Müller who’s been in Agnes Obel’s band for a long time, has lend her magic as well.
QCR: You just started the label Tonal Institute. What influenced the formation of this imprint and what are your future plans for it? Will it be a home to just your own music or that of your friends also?
MH: One night as I was busy procrastinating, I found that the URL tonalinstitute.com was not taken. I bought it immediately. I couldn’t believe the world didn’t have a Tonal Institute and I believe it should have one so here it is. I don’t think of it as a label - it could be involved in anything tonal. I love tonality in music and think it’s currently undervalued. Let’s see what the future brings for TI!
QCR: Lichte Studio just celebrated 10 years - congratulations! During that time you have been involved with some truly historic releases from The Alvaret Ensemble’s incredible debut to the incredible live album ‘Spaces’ by Nils Frahm. When you look back over the last decade what projects are closest to your heart and you are most proud of?
MH: I am very proud of the fact that Lichte Studio has been doing so well in this particular industry and that I got to contribute to releases of labels like Mercury KX, 130701, Erased Tapes, Warner Classics, 4AD, Deutsche Grammophone, Moderna Records, 7K, Sonic Pieces, Morr Music and so on. The largest part of my customers are people with whom I’ve been working for a long time and have developed a great relationship with.
However, working in the studio is my day job and I look at it like Steve Albini who says he feels it’s unprofessional to even form an opinion on the client’s music. He’s right! I never take on work based on whether I personally enjoy it, but based on whether I’m confident I understand where the client is going and that I can help taking them there.
That said, there are a few records I was involved in that I find myself playing sometimes. One is Ten Sails by Luke Howard and Nadje Noordhuis. Just beautifully played. I recorded and mastered and it was mixed by the late legend Jan Erik Kongshaug who did so many ECM albums in his Oslo studio. Another one is Chanson de Geste by Hecq, we mixed the whole album from ambient mics and it sounds uberlush and that is now a word.
QCR: What role does Lichte Studio have in the process of creating our favorite records?
MH: This is really different for each record. Generally, the artist comes with an idea but can’t fully make it happen. Or they have an idea and make it happen but they forget to make the things around it happen and so forth. A lot depends on knowing what even needs to be done. One constant challenge is to do things for the artist that they themselves can’t do but to somehow keep them at the steering wheel at the same time. And a taste for sounds is of course essential.
QCR: A question for all the gear heads - what are your go-to instrument makers/bits of gear/pedals etc?
MH: It’s never the gear, always the use of it. There was this streaming concert at the beginning of the worldwide Corona lockdown where famous people were performing from home and one bit was Lady Gaga singing into the back of a U47. That’s a $20.000 microphone being addressed from the wrong side, the side that’s not supposed to pick up sound! She probably just didn’t know and there was no one there to tell her. On the other hand, all of the records you love are made with whatever people had available to them at the time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m massively interested in the tech side of things, goes with the job, but the extent to which people nowadays think sound comes from the gear rather than the user is just completely and utterly mad. I could give endless examples and hope to be invited to a 2 hour televised panel show where I can present them all.
QCR: Being based in Berlin puts you in the heart of one of our favorite music scenes - how has this city affected your journey with music?
MH: To me, Berlin is music city. With the Philharmonie, the Konzerthaus and the Boulez Saal we have three of the greatest sounding acoustic venues of their respective kinds here, two of the world’s greatest Orchestra’s and many more, any touring act will play a show here, tons of fantastic underground venues, a most amazing history in recording technology as well, much of the industry has moved here too. That incredible history together with the fact that Berlin seems to be one of the few large European cities where you can live without having streamlined your life to capitalism entirely, which allows for the growth of many great, small, new things, makes it one of the most important places for music today. That said, the music scene I am part of and work in is really a global one. Everyone visits Berlin though!
QCR: You have just gone through the process of starting a new record label and facilitating its first release. For those wanting to do that same what advice would you give them?
MH: I would say I’ve most importantly self-released an album, and in the process of that also started a label. For the first time in recorded music history, this is a possibility and I’m very excited about it. Even 10 years ago the idea of a self-release would mean that there would be many things one couldn’t do without a label. This has changed greatly. Also, the general music listener tends to think that what they hear on a record is exclusively what an artist intended. They have no idea about all the interference that happens between the artistic idea and the product. I see the struggle between the artist's idea and other people's opinions, who are also involved in some capacity, all the time, and as a fan of music I have to say I’d rather just hear it the way the artist wanted it. Overall after this first experience, I have to say self-releasing was incredibly fast, fun, and yielded exactly the intended result, so I can imagine that this will be a much more popular model in the future.
QCR: We have to ask this, Tonal Institute has to be one of the best names we have come across for an imprint - how did you come about this name and what does it mean to you?
MH: Thanks very much! I also love it. I should say ‘tonal’ doesn’t only mean ‘sound’ it also refers to a harmonic centre in music. To me harmony is an essential aspect of music. Sometimes people think it’s old school and not necessary anymore but I feel that’s like a chef rejecting salt for being old school. Come to think of it, that’s probably gonna happen at some point as well and I’m not looking forward to it. Salt for me please!
QCR: Having a hand in so many amazing records must mean you have a pretty stellar record collection. How is it organized and what are some of your favorites?
MH: I’ve caved in and gone alphabetically as I just couldn’t find anything anymore otherwise. Here are some good ones: Mick Goodrick - In Passing // Bibio - Hand Cranked // Bill Callahan - Apocalypse.
QCR: One of our favorite releases this year is the amazing 10” you did with Ben Lukas Boysen (one of our most favorite musicians for many many years now) on Gregory Euclide's amazing Thesis Project. How did that project come about and what are your memories from the time you and Ben spent together making those pieces?
MH: Gregory asked me to do a Thesis record and I thought I’ll only do it if I find a good partner that’s near me as I’m doing so much over the Internet I really wasn’t interested in that. Ben and I live within walking distance from one another and we were friends anyhow so we did it. In fact, it turned out to be a perfect match on many levels as I like to just play and Ben loves to edit - what he calls his zen garden - so I delivered material for him to work with, he collaged the pieces, and then we went and mixed and mastered it at my studio. It was a super pleasant workflow and Ben is one of the best people to spend time with!
QCR: Thanks again Martyn for making such incredible music that enhances our lives and for putting together a mix for us. One final question - what is next for Martyn Heyne, Tonal Institute & Lichte Studio?
MH: I’m afraid that may depend largely on the development of the Covid situation and how we as a society chose to deal with it. Performance art is a huge, massive, industry and taxpayer, but it’s not organized as one and has thus been shut down right at the beginning of the pandemic and left largely unsupported since. While the reason for the shut down is of course understandable, it’s a crime that so much tax money support is given to all sorts of industries, but the performance arts, that have paid so much of that money, are largely left out simply because they don’t have a united voice. My friends that worked in offices get to stay home on 75% of their salaries while musicians and technicians that are well in demand and solely cannot work due to the regulations that are put on them, suddenly have to try and find work as harvest helpers and burger flippers. The society that, for its protection, has forced the performers to stop working, chooses to not protect them in turn. All the while football and air travel continue.
I have played just a single show since March and am extremely lucky to be able to instead work in my studio with the musicians that can afford to use this time productively and make records. But if this situation continues as it is, they will all be put out of business eventually. It’s shameful how lightly we seem to be taking the value of culture and go and deem it ‘not system relevant’. I’d like to be shown a society in the history of humanity that wasn’t heavily reliant on culture - there isn’t one! But there are plenty that did just fine without planes and stock markets or whatever we currently think the golden calf is. If you look at the grand societies of the past, what set them apart was always a strong investment in culture, libraries, cathedrals, philosophy, music, literature, painting. Accordingly, I predict that the countries - both the people and their leaders - that wake up first and try to defend as much as possible of their dearly acquired cultural life, will come out of the crisis best.