Tobias.—an unassuming enough name (and note the spelling, please: that’s Tobias., period!). But his productions are anything but understated: Street Knowledge, Dial, Balance, and of course I Can’t Fight The Feeling—these are the recordings that have animated dance floors and enthralled critics over the past several years. Not to mention remixes for the likes of Efdemin, Los Updates, Two Armadillos, Russ Gabriel, D’Julz and more, all cumulating in a slew of releases for era-defining imprints like Cadenza, Wagon Repair, Ostgut Ton, Liebe Detail, Circus Company, Simple and Buzzin’ Fly. As minimal techno has risen and fallen, as deep house has gone from guilty pleasure to crate staple, Tobias. has worked steadily away, synthesizing elements from decades of electronic experimentaion into one of the most distinctive styles in contemporary electronic dance music.
How do you even begin to sum that up? One phrase: “Non Standard Is the Standard.”
If you had to articulate Tobias Freund’s musical philosophy in a single phrase, that would almost certainly be it. It’s right there in the names: in his record label Non Standard Productions and also Non Standard Institute, his collaborative project with Max Loderbauer.
Of course, everyone wants to be non-standard nowadays. What makes Freund different—what earns him the right to the Non Standard tag—is that he doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Standards are all about fealty to an ideal, and no one is more faithful to certain musical ideals—the defamiliarizing power of electronic sound, the libidinal spirit of house music—than Freund.
With a life’s work (that sounds so much nicer than “career”) reaching back to include more than 20 years of composition, experimentation, performance and professional engineering work, Tobias has learned what makes a standard work. It’s those lessons that allow him to step beyond the known, to create something radically new, in every one of his records.
An Underground Background
Freund began making music in 1980, spurred into action by the purchase of a Korg MS-20; his first “official” musical project was Vo Ese, a partnership with Viktor Sol. Working with the MS-20 and a tape machine, and synthesizing ideas from the avant-garde and nascent currents of electronic body music, the pair approached the project without predetermined structures or commercial ambitions, setting the tone for all of Freund’s work to follow.
Freund’s freeform electronic investigations found a more conventional focus in his day job as a recording engineer. Beginning as an apprentice, he would go on to spend nearly 20 years working behind the boards for pop musicians like La Bouche, Milli Vanilli and Meat Loaf. The job, says Freund matter-of-factly, was just a job—a way to earn money and stay up to date with high-end studio equipment. (One forgets that before the personal computing explosion, access to a professional studio was a requisite for even the most underground electronic musician.)
It’s easy to be amused by the idea of a rigorous electronic minimalist like Freund working with a performer as maximal (in every sense of the word) as Meat Loaf. But Freund’s engineering background is a crucial part of the way he makes music. Approaching the recording studio as an instrument itself, he belongs to a distinguished lineage stretching through Phil Spector, Teo Macero, King Tubby, David Cunninham and the electronic pioneers of New York, Chicago and Detroit.
In the ’90s and ’00s, Freund adopted a handful of aliases, including Metazone, Phobia and Zoon, but most of his energy went into two projects: Pink Elln and Sieg Über Die Sonne. As Pink Elln he explored everything from ambient to electro-funk to acid, appearing both solo and alongside Atom Heart (Uwe Schmidt) on a host of releases for Ongaku, Rising High, Saasfee*, Logistic and others. Many of these were live recordings—an unusual format for electronic music, but one perfectly suited to Freund’s approach, whose twin poles are process and spontaneity. Sieg Über Die Sonne, a duo with Dandy Jack (Martin Schopf), was Fruend’s other principal outlet, with four album releases for Dance Pool and Multicolor that moved gradually from brittle techno to a fuller-bodied and unconventional take on club-ready electronic pop.
Present Processes and the Future Perfect
Having pulled the plug on Pink Elln, and with Sieg Über Die Sonne on hiatus, Freund has moved into what might be the most exciting phase of his career. Working both solo (as Tobias.) and alongside Sun Electric’s Max Loderbauer in Non Standard Institute (NSI.), Freund has redoubled his efforts to strip house and techno back to their most skeletal forms, all the while pushing at the limits of electronic sound design. (To those projects add Odd Machine, an open-ended collaborative investigation whose first release featured Freund and Ricardo Villalobos; the project will expand over time to include a wide variety of musicians.)
It’s instructive that a musician with over two decades of studio experiments would forsake gizmos for a tried-and-true kit. Using the computer primarily as a recording device, Freund relies on a few staples like the Roland TR-808 and 909, hardware sequencers, vintage analog or modular synthesizers, and outboard effects. His productions are investigations before they become “songs,” the result of hands-on explorations and years of experience. To watch Freund at work is to realize that electronic musicians can be just as much “instrumentalists” as their acoustically inclined colleagues: Freund’s 808 patterns are written and performed in real time with a fluid grace that demonstrates the depth of the relationship between man and machine.
Freund is a purist, but not in the conventional sense. Precision, clarity of purpose and spontaneity are the three pillars of his music, and you can detect their weight behind every element of his music. He might be said to be a minimalist only to the extent that he shuns excess. Maybe “purity” is just shorthand for a maxim of the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans: “If one thing matters, everything matters.” In Freund’s music, every single thing matters, from the envelope on the kick drum to the precise filtering of an open hi-hat. Nothing is extraneous, nothing is let slide. That attentiveness shines through in the music, which might be one reason Tobias.’ records have been played and charted by dance music’s heaviest contenders, and lauded and applauded by critics the world over. At a time when electronic music so often seems to be going through the motions—a museum curio, dusted off and gussied up for revolving-door crowds—Tobias. treats it as a living thing, its history crashing into its futurist yearnings, a shapeshifting timeline reconfigured with every shuddering drum pattern and every ecstatic vocal sample. It’s the real deal, this restless, self-generating music that refuses to rest on its laurels, refuses to believe that electronic music begins and ends with the 4/4 and a handful of chords. Non-standard is the standard: Tobias., full stop.