Detroit-producer Altstadt Echo recently released his debut album on Svreca’s Semantica Records. Monument had the pleasure of chatting with the artist.

Altstadt Echo is an American DJ and producer. Originally from Detroit (Michigan), the artist has now relocated to Berlin. After this move, he has been busy working on his new album called “This Work Contains Lead” that will be released on Semantica Records. For Altstadt Echo, the album is his first work published in Europe – and there is not be a better way to do it.

This Work Contains Lead” is a mysterious work, moved between religion and what follows from it. The title, borrowed from a descriptive label of a work of art, describes two sides of the same coin: mystery and faith with the evolution of his perception of divinities and his gradual abandonment. Technically, the record, with strong and decisive contents, proposes an interpretation of a sixteenth century choir acapella. This moves the sound in these melodic tracks in a fascinating way.

The album coincides with the fifth year of “Eden“, the series of events that Altstadt Echo holds in Detroit and we are glad to introduce him with this interview.

Artwork of "This Work Contains Lead" by Altstadt Echo
Artwork of “This Work Contains Lead” by Altstadt Echo

Welcome to Monument Altstadt Echo. Your album “This Work Contains Lead”, released in May on Svreca’s Semantica Records is your debut album. After being adopted by the Modern Cathedrals label in Detroit, it must be a great satisfaction to release on European label, that also is one of the leading labels of the industry. How did this work come about and how did you feel about it coming out on Semantica?

Svreca had been playing some of my earlier works from Modern Cathedrals and EYE TEETH for a while, and requested I send him some tracks to consider for Semantica. It took me a long time to assemble to the right set of tracks, because this was in the middle of my relocation from Detroit to Berlin. But once I finally got settled here, I got the idea in my head for doing a concept album. After Svreca and I played a show together at Griessmuehle in January, he mentioned he’d still be interested in having me send him some work. This was just at the time that I just finished the first draft of the album, so I sent it over to him, and that was it. I’ve been listening to Semantica releases since I first started played techno, so having a release there now is an incredible feeling.

The title of the release is taken from a warning text at the bottom of a descriptive plaque of an art museum. Reflect your beliefs (and consequently on the album) about religion and the art that derives from it: “while both can be powerful to observe, they can be toxic with which to get in touch.” I read it as if art, as such, it can reach a sort of praised spirituality, and the same spirituality that turns into art, an oratory that can trap you in a spiral from which it is difficult to get out. Which of the two is more toxic: art or religion? What relationship do you have with both?

I grew up in a very religious environment, with years of Catholic school and spending many hours each week in church. But I’m no longer religious, and I consider myself to be opposed to much of what the Catholic church stands for (both as an organization and as a set of beliefs). And yet, I still find religious music to be incredibly beautiful and inspiring. So, I wanted to steal it from the church and reclaim it for myself.

The selection of sounds generates “Tensions between the feelings of reverence manifested with religious art and its gradual abandonment.” The religious art that derived from it was due to praising the omnipotent power of the deities and those who took their place. Is this album an approach to religious art or is it a testimony of its abandonment?

Fundamentally, I think the album is the result of wanting to experience the emotions that can be created by religion, without having to adopt any religious beliefs or participate in it whatsoever. When the original choral music was being written, it was intended to induce feelings of awe, wonder, and mystery. I wanted to capture this translate it into a new format that didn’t require the religious connotation.

The album is divided into three parts, each of which has an interlude: the first “An Early Death” and “Unbearably Radiant” and the whole record is characterized by predominant, strong, decisive kicks, but the connotation of the sounds is divided in different ways: hard components in the first, melancholy and detachment in the second and finally peaceful and calm in the third. Why did you decide to divide your work? Both from a musical and a conceptual point of view, in which part do you find yourself the most?

I never really thought of the album as being broken into parts. The most important aspects of the track ordering were to have “Watch a Moth Drink Tears” somewhere in the middle, and “Concrete Turns to Gold,” at the very end. The image in my mind when I listen to “Watch a Moth,” is walking from a dark, tangled forest into an unexpected clearing. It’s something mysterious and magical that’s experienced once and then never again. So, it needed to be lost in the middle of the album. “Concrete Turns to Gold,” reminds me of dying – it has this somewhat brutal percussion that eventually gives way to a sense of bliss, and then rapidly dissolves into nothing. I had to place it at the end.   

The album cover is a photograph you took during the winter of 2014 in Detroit. The cold, the loneliness, the snow, the melancholy. But winter ends and a light are rediscovered that dissolves everything else. Is hope or light part of the toxicity of the human touch? On the other hand, religion and art are creations of man.

To be honest, there isn’t a strong symbolic connection between the art work and the concept behind the album, it’s more just an emotional similarity. Despite having moved to Berlin, I’m still fascinated with the environments of Detroit. There are places of incredible beauty, like the street in the photo, but there are also still areas that feel very alien and desolate. I believe it’s important to think critically about how things got that way. Detroit has a lot of lessons to teach the world, but I’m not the right person to talk about them. I’ll never stop thinking about Detroit, so I think it’s likely to keep appearing in my album art over the coming years.

The most obvious curiosity of “This Work Contains Lead” is the use of the atmospheres and melodic elements used. They are entirely built on choral acapella recordings from the sixteenth century. You listen well in “An Early Death” while in the others there has been a meticulous and careful process. How much did you work from a technical point of view? But above all where did you get these recordings and what emotional impact did, they have on your perception of the album?

The manipulation of the recording was definitely the most challenging aspect of creating the album. Literally every melodic or harmonic element of each track is built from a single choir recording, without exception. The production involved a lot of time-stretching/pitching of the original recording, layering, saturation, compression, and of course a healthy dose of reverb. In some cases it was more effective than others. I like the atmospheres I was able to create from it, but some parts (like the dub chords) could have been done better if I had allowed myself to use synthesizers. But I was very committed to the concept of only using the choir recording.

Building the album from choral music had an uncanny feeling to it. Having grown up singing religious music in choirs, there was a feeling of everything coming full circle. I stopped singing when I was 14, and starting DJ’ing at raves when I was 16. At the time, I thought these were fundamentally opposite activities. And yet at the age of 29, I ended up combining them.

The album coincides with the fifth anniversary of your “Eden” party organized in Detroit at the Tangent Gallery, which has become one of the most anticipated events in the Detroit techno scene. This is a good time for you, and I bet very demanding. Could you tell a bit about the “Eden” event concept, and will there be any special changes in the anniversary event or the upcoming ones?

The Eden event series started with the launch of our record label, Modern Cathedrals. We actually named it “Eden” because the first event was held at a place called The Garden Theatre, which was a recently renovated building that used to be a porn theatre, but now is a very fancy event space. We lost an unfathomable amount of money on the first show. But BMG, who controls the calendar for the Tangent Gallery during that time of the year, came to the rescue and offered us the Friday night there in order to continue to grow the event. Since then, it’s roughly tripled in size.

The concept is that we essentially create a space that incorporates some aesthetic ingredients of cathedrals (like candles and incense holders) with the industrial framework of a warehouse. One time I also brought in holy water containers filled with tequila, but got in a bit of trouble for it, so it probably won’t happen again. The aim behind the musical curation is to bring in artists that we feel are at the cutting edge of techno, most of whom have never played in Detroit before. As a result, we’ve hosted Detroit debuts for everyone from Vatican Shadow to Samuel Kerridge. This year we’ll be introducing Adriana Lopez, Reka, Xhin, Phase, and Alien rain to Detroit for the first time. 

Resident Advisor called you “Detroit techno’s new guard”; Spin Magazine “the avant-garde element to Detroit Techno”; Detroit free press “one of Detroit’s fastest rising electronic music names”. You have a good responsibility. How do you feel about being associated with such titles, and do you feel pressured?

I don’t really feel pressured by these titles, because I don’t personally believe them. I think the work I’ve done in Detroit is interesting, but it’s within a very small niche of the Detroit scene. Most of the Detroit scene is interested in other styles of dance music that tend to be a bit more house-y or influenced by Detroit’s musical history. There are other artists of my age group, like Kyle Hall, who represent the Detroit sound much better.

After the publication of “This Work Contains Lead” and after your “Eden” party you will take a break, or you are already working on something else. Do you reveal any secrets to Monument readers?

I’m always working. The techniques I was experimenting with while making the album are still interesting to me, so I’ve made around another 10 tracks in that style (about half of which are actually good). So, there will be more coming.  

Eden will continue to expand. We had our first Eden event in Europe this past January in Berlin, and it was way more successful than we could have expected. Ideally, we’d like to add more cities – maybe New York and London. So right now, we’re in the process of scouting out venues to try.