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Cognition Audioworks' Andrew Duke spoke with Stefan Betke (Pole) about the music he has released on Berlin's Kiff SM and Din, plus his November 1998 North American tour with Substance and Vainqueur.
(interviewed October 26, 1998)
by Andrew Duke
It's a late afternoon in October and Berlin's Stefan Betke is busy slimming down his music spread and packing up his gear for a short tour of Canada and the United States with Substance (Peter Kuschnereit) and Vainquer (Rene Lowe). They're flying into Detroit from where they'll head to play Windsor, Toronto, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York in early November of '98. Betke is happy to be coming to North America, and not because of where they'll be landing ("I don't know anything about Detroit," he says). He's excited to be playing for audiences that are anticipating these performances, because while his music is minimal electronics, it's not the sleek, sinuous techno that pleases the German populace.
Better known as Pole, Betke describes his music as "a kind of dub reggae without any four to the floor beat. It's very crispy." The reason for it's crispness is also the source of his nom de musique.
As Betke explains, he was given a Waldorf Pole filter as "a present from some friends of mine. It fell down on the floor and was broken. Now it makes strange noises. It's very funny to use this little unit, because it was just a mistake." But it was a mistake that worked out quite well.
Basslines propel the Pole ship and are so important, according to Betke, that he completely does away with any use of drums in his work. "Basslines," Betke illustrates, are "much more important than a normal drum groove". For the uninitiated, the music he makes as Pole balances canyon carving basslines with the snap, crackle, and pop that is the manipulated sound of the namesake's filter trying to work through the damage of its analog circuitry. The result is a new take on the less is more adage. Pole is "very basic, very empty, but the deep basslines are filling it up. You can feel the music," Betke stresses, "you don't need to listen to it. It's very good to smoke a joint listening to my music."
Involved in a rock band in the early '80s, Betke comes from a traditional music background, including some avant garde jazz, before moving into electronic music. "Sample technology and computers," Betke remembers, "made it very easy to stop playing with a guitarist, then a drummer, then a bass player, then playing only with computers." Today, he uses a "laptop computer, Microwave, sampler technique, Space Echo, and some effect units" to make his music. Though Betke tags his output as dub reggae, he only started listening to dub and reggae music back in 1996, citing producers like Lee "Scratch" Perry and Scientist as favorites, plus vocalist Horace Andy (those who've heard Andy's work with Massive Attack have only seen a bit of his output).
Betke is determined to forge his own path with Pole. Ask him to compare his music to that of dub artists and Betke insists "they are doing their kind of music and I'm doing my kind of music. Sometimes we are very close to each other, and sometimes we are not." The music of Pole is all instrumental at this point. Is he interested in using vocalists in the future? "Absolutely not. I don't want to be a copy of Rhythm & Sound or Maurizio or something like that. I was doing my music about 600 km away from Berlin and I didn't know anything about the Berlin style, and then I moved to Berlin and came to Hardwax (the world famous record shop) and then I heard this music for the first time."
It was through the Hardwax connection that he got his job at Dubplates & Mastering, quickly becoming the choice of many musicians to have their material prepared for pressing. Betke's dayjob is constantly mentioned in reference to his work as Pole, but he is quick to separate the two. "My work at Dubplates & Mastering is only a job, it doesn't have to have anything to do with my music. I learn a lot about frequencies and working with sounds and vinyl, but I don't take any parts from the job home. I know it's hard to separate from the job, but I have to because I don't want to risk being a copy of something. I don't want to be a copy artist."
But the same attention to detail that makes him renowned at D & M, the acute focus, the desire to be different from the norm, is what also helps make Pole's music unique. He's not interested in turning his success as a musician into a DJ career, for instance, as too many are. Starting his own label is also not on the agenda. "I just want to be a producer and to not do too many things. Just doing my music and doing my mastering job, that's OK." Anxious to get back to preparing his equipment for the transAtlantic voyage to North America (the tour turns out to be wildly successful in opening many more minds to his music), Betke closes the conversation with reference to the universal leveller-time. "I need a lot of time to make my music," he explains. "It's the most important thing for me to be working in my studio, searching for new sounds. On the other hand, I have to do my job to pay my bills and it also takes a long time to do a good mastering job. The day has only 24 hours, I don't have time to do more."
Just before we break our phone connection, one question demands an answer: what if that gift, the Pole filter his friends had given him, hadn't been dropped on the floor and broken? What if his Pole filter didn't speak with synthetic cackles and hiss?
"I had already been working on these kinds of basslines and harmonics. This mistake," Betke says, referring to the damaging of the Pole unit, "gave me the possibility (to use this) instead of drum loops." His closing words could settle many a gear-related argument. "Instruments," he finishes, "aren't important; it's the ideas and the way you use them."
"Raum Eins"/"Raum Zwei" (DM Din)
"Tanzen" EP (DM Kiff SM)
"LP1"/"CD1" LP/CD (US Matador/DM Kiff SM)
"LP2"/"CD2" LP/CD (US Matador/DM Kiff SM)