“Astral Unity” was absolutely one of my personal 2010 highlights. It was one of the most complex and mature dark ambient albums released last year. That was the main reason I decided to contact Martin Stürtzer, and ask him few questions about his project. We were talking about “Astral Unity”, about PHELIOS history, even about UFO… And here’s the result of our conversation. Enjoy!
How did your adventure with dark ambient start? Is there any particular artist whose works made the greatest impact on you and were kind of impulse to start your own ambient project?
I’ve been into electronic music ever since my childhood days. I was in the lucky situation that I’ve had access to all kinds of computers and synthesizers since both my parents are musicians, too. After a while some kind of my own style developed which is what I do with PHELIOS today. It took me some time to realize there was this genre called dark ambient and that there were lots of other musicians doing similar stuff. Without internet and friends with a similar taste in music the whole thing was non-existent to me. The first dark ambient acts that impressed me were Sephiroth, Herbst9 and old Tangerine Dream stuff.
Could you explain the meaning of “Phelios” moniker?
There is none! The word just sounded nice and that’s why I chose it.
I found an interesting information on your official website – your first live event took place in Poland. It was even before your debut album was released. Do you remember that event? Could you tell few words about that experience?
That show was in Klodzko. I stayed there on holiday with friends in 2003. They were living there as kids making it possible to exchange culturally and musically with the locals, which lead to the possibility to return for a show in winter. I played in -20°C in a cave and had lots of fun. The whole thing was off the hook, because there were other music acts, art and performances in other rooms. The locals were very impressed to see somebody from Germany coming there in winter just to play music to them. That’s why the place was packed and the people who surely never heard that kind of music before were listening closely. All in all I was very impressed about the warm welcome and the openness of the local people making this show one to remember.
Some ambient projects sound the same on their debut and on their 5th or 6th album. Yet when I’m thinking about PHELIOS, first word that comes to my mind is progress. Every another PHELIOS album is more mature, and simply better than the previous one. It’s even hard to compare your debut, “Images and Spheres” to “Astral Unity”. I wonder what do you think about “Images and Spheres” today?
That’s a good question. I’ with you that my output kept getting better with every album. I personally think that “Astral Unity” is my best album and am a bit sceptical about “Images And Spheres” today. I hardly listen to my records once they are released and gave it another go since you asked about it. I still like tracks like “Through the mirror” or “Funeral of the wizard” – the rest is a bit odd. I’ kinda surprised that the album got so much positive reaction back in the days. That doesn’t mean that I think it’s a bad record. It’s just that it doesn’t meet my current musical standards anymore.
Is there any particular concept behind “Astral Unity”?
No! I’m into the idea of the so-called “absolute music” that speaks for itself. The layout and the title lead the listener into a certain direction without becoming too clear or limiting the listener. Most attempts of filling up music with too much content, fail.
“Astral Unity” (and your previous albums as well) is undoubtedly dark, but also rather melodic. I have an impression that – unlike many other dark ambient projects – for PHELIOS a good drone is not enough, the melody is equally important, isn’t it?
It’s all about structure. I admire musicians that are able to create a complete record only using drones and soundscapes and still keep the listeners attention the complete distance. I can only think about very few albums in this genre that are not boring. Making a good track without the usual and known structure characteristics like melody or rhythm is incredibly difficult. Lots of people don’t have that in mind and simply create very boring music.
For myself this means, that I am very careful when it comes to working without any structures. There are always these kind of tracks on my records, but most of the material I produce this way, stay unreleased, since their quality isn’t good enough in the long run. The biggest challenge for me would be to produce an album that’s completely free from rhythm and melody.
Your music has also very cinematic feeling. Did you ever consider composing a movie soundtrack? Would you agree if some filmmaker would propose you this kind of cooperation?
The terms “Soundtrack“ or “Score” come up every now and then when people talk about PHELIOS. Unfortunately my previous experience was rather negative. Most people that asked me to do a soundtrack, didn’t finish their movies in the end. Basically I’m very open for cooperation with film makers, but it has to happen on a very professional level.
What kind of feelings or emotions do you try to arouse in the listeners with your music?
That’s a tough one. Like I said before: I don’t want to lead the listener into a certain direction. I’m always happy to hear about what people connect with my music or what they experienced while listening. As long as my music doesn’t harm anybody or anybody doesn’t misuses it, everybody’s welcome to feel or think whatever they want.
Dark ambient live events for me are kind of phenomenon. First of all, in my opinion it’s rather “introspective” music, which should be listened in solitude. And second, this is very specific kind of music, which mostly doesn’t require any skills when it comes to play on instruments. Most of the artists just take laptop on the stage, press two or three buttons and that’s it. PHELIOS plays live quite often (as for dark ambient artist), so I guess your opinion is different then mine, isn’t it? How does your live shows look like? What elements make them special, unique, something that could attract me – the ambient live show sceptic?
You’re absolutely right. With my own festival in Wuppertal (Phobos), I try to build up a proper concert culture for the genre of dark ambient. This means that the shows take place in a perfect scenario – a church in this case. The audience sits comfy and is able to fully concentrate on the music. It’s completely dark with a video screen behind the musicians. The PA is really good and offers a good amount of pressure down to the lowest frequencies. The bands I invite all perform live and use acoustic instruments next to all the usual computers and synths. Bands like Herbst9, Troum or Circular. Plain laptop-acts are not welcome. When all the basic conditions are good, a dark ambient show can be a great experience.
My own shows are usually quite free-style or improvised, making it easy to adapt the show to the given conditions. I’d rather play fast stuff in a club, in contrast to the quite atmosphere at the Phobos festival or my “Live in your living room”-show.
Being a classically skilled musician I need full access to music.
I know you also try your luck in creating techno music, don’t you? Although in my opinion both techno and ambient genres have much in common, I still wonder what was the reason that you’ve started all these rhythms and beats activities?
I simply need something to do. After releasing an album, I need some kind of deflection to get my head free in music terms and create new ideas. This time I produced some quite nice dubtechno tracks and an old-school techno live set. But no worries, this will not mix with PHELIOS in the future. I always did lots of different styles. It’s just that people notice that nowadays.
Can you imagine yourself composing “conventional” music with “normal” instruments, like guitar, bass etc? Or aren’t you interested in this kind of stuff at all?
I studied music (Piano was my major subject) so I naturally have a close relationship to “normal” instruments and “convenient” music. I don’t write on the piano, for I strongly believe that everything is already said and done there. Every now and then I discover incredibly interesting composers and works that I can rehearse. Recently I’m fascinated by Skriabin and Debussy. Casually I play drums, guitar and bass, while I don’t want to include these instruments in my electronic music. But I’m very interested in this kind of music; I listen to loads of classical music, all kinds of guitar music and other stuff.
“Astral Unity” is kind of “science fiction – oriented” album. Do you have any favourite sci-fi novels or movies?
I love the stuff from Phillip K. Dick, whose blueprints of the future have turned out to be disturbingly unerring. Lots of his books have been adapted to the big screen like “Blade Runner”. I always enjoy the “Alien” series and am a big fan of “Star Trek”, especially “Deep Space Nine”.
Do you believe in extraterrestial forms of life? Or is there only cold, vast, lifeless emptiness out there…?
It’s quite unlikely that there is no extraterrestrial life form or (according to our standards) intelligent creatures out there. Since the universe is infinite, there has to be something somewhere. Also there is quite an amount of nothingness making it kind of a tricky situation.
Which dark ambient album (albums) made the greatest impression on you recently?
The complete output of LOKI is musically right down my alley. I think the latest Land:Fire and the new Circular are very good. According to sounddesign, I really like the new album by Squaremeter. Album of the year is no doubt: „Funeral in an empty room“ by Blood Box. And I highly recommend the last album „Derelict World“ by my musical buddy False Mirror.
Any plans for the nearest future?
I am developing a lot new ambient material at the moment. There will be recording sessions with other musicians like a very talented percussionist or a small string section. I will take my time to do the next album and observe in which direction things will develop.
Thank you for the interview, Martin. Any last words?
Thank you for the interest and the really interesting questions. The next interview will not take place in the near future since every thing is said for now. I´d like to thank Michael W. for translation.