Marco Shuttle’s third album was released last month via Incienso. On the LP, field recordings from his travels to Singapore, Mexico and Thailand blend in with modular synthesis, drum machines, effects, and analog oscillators, at times making it difficult to distinguish what is what. Sonically, it continues along the lines of the Italian artist’s distinctive aesthetic, as previously released on labels such as Spazio Disponibile or his own imprint Eerie Records, while at the same time breaking new ground into utopian territories. Visually, Shuttle has also contributed with his own photographs for the cover and booklet. We met him in his Berlin studio to discuss the process behind his most recent release, his passion for analogue photography and fascination with drums, and the role of electronic music beyond the club context. Throughout the interview, he shares some of his photographic work captured while on tour.
You’ve previously described your way of producing music as a “go with the flow” approach, where you just start somewhere, never knowing where you might end up. When listening to your new album, though, I get the impression that it’s one rather self-contained universe. How or when did you find the album’s aesthetic direction?
It’s not a neat line. So far, albums have never been something I plan. I just happen to make music in a certain way for a period of time. I use certain techniques, a certain mood, a certain set of instruments, or textures of sounds. It was not until the very end that I realised this was a set of tracks that were part of one universe. In that sense, it is more of an inverted procedure rather than a premeditated one.
How long was this recent creative period?
Compared to my earlier productions, I haven’t done something completely new. I’ve just pushed a bit more dramatically towards a certain direction. But it was three years ago that I decided to focus on doing field recordings and taking analogue photographs wherever I would go on my travels, and started learning to play the tombak. So I picked up all these different sides of the project – field recordings, photography and drumming – at the same time, and now they came together as a whole piece of work.
The drum plays quite a dominant role on the album. What is it about this instrument that fascinates you?
Drums, especially hand drums, have always been quite present in my music – either as samples or something I made with machines. I’m sure I’m stating something very obvious here, but what fascinated me about them is that they embody this archetypal form of techno. The repeating drum patterns of shamanic or tribal rituals from thousands of years ago are nothing but an ancient version of what we hear in the clubs today. As a DJ, I’ve always been drawn towards percussive elements, even more so if these elements are close to an original drum sound.
The tombak, the drum I’ve majorly used for this album, is a Persian traditional drum. The reason I used it so much is that I’m a big fan of the tombak- and daf-player and composer Mohammad Reza Mortazavi. We were playing together at Terraforma a few years ago and became friends. When I found out that he was also Berlin-based and gave classes, I started to learn to play the tombak from him.
What got me into the sound of this drum was its wide range of frequencies – from really bassy tom sounds to snappy, sharp rim shots. Between these tonal extremes you have a lot of different sounds, so it’s the harmonic possibilities of this drum that fascinate me. And just to be clear: I’m not very good at it. But it’s getting a bit better, so with a lot of editing, I can use it in my productions.
Has getting to know such an old and traditional instrument fed into your work with your modular system and other, more modern machines?
At its core, the album is very much about the clash of electronic sounds and more ancient ones. Folk elements together with modular synthesis, synthesisers, drum machines and all the other classic instruments and effects that we have in electronic music.
Would you like to take us through one of the tracks and tell us a bit more about its different elements, and how it was built up?
“Into thin air” is one of the tracks that exemplifies the working process and the synergy of drums, field recordings, and electronic instruments quite well. I started with some field recordings I made in Thailand. There are some birds, car traffic, scooters, and other background noises. Then I added a sampled drum loop, on top of which I started jamming with the tombak. I stayed pretty much on time, but wasn’t following a certain pattern. The repetition was given by the samples, so that was the fixed part of the track. With my drumming I gave the movement and disorienting feeling. The underlying vibe was very much coming from the field recordings.
The second track of the album, “Danza de los Voladores”, sounds almost like an ensemble playing together. Do you sometimes wish you were part of an ensemble, or are you happy with being a solo artist first and foremost?
I’m quite a loner. Being part of a collective never really worked for me. Mostly, this was my fault as I haven’t really looked or felt enough desire for it. This is partly due to the fact that I’ve never played live. But as I’ve now started to seriously think of doing that, I’m realizing there is only so much you can do with just two hands. So it might actually not be bad to do it with someone else.
So you would only consider collaborating with someone else because of those physical limitations?
I’m naturally a quite self-centred person. Sometimes dealing with people can be pretty exhausting, and also quite damaging. Especially if you have very strong opinions about what you’re doing. I don’t like to change much of what I’m doing if someone tells me to. So part of my solo-approach is out of respect for my personality. But it’s definitely something that I would like to do with the right partner or partners. Especially now that I’m discovering acoustic instruments more.
Would you describe yourself as very self-critical?
One of the reasons I started making music and left my old job as a designer was that I really longed for a way to express myself, not depending on other people’s opinions. If you work as a designer for a company, all your ideas get filtered and need to be signed off by a series of people. Ultimately, your original idea is completely mutated into something else. What I like about being an electronic music producer is that I don’t have to report to anyone – apart from myself. This approach necessarily causes you to be a bit hard on yourself. You have to be completely sure that what you decide to present is going to be appealing to someone. Over the years, I learned to understand when I’m onto something good, something OK, or something amazing. It’s a skill you develop, which is about learning to read and trust your emotional reactions to what you do.
Would you like to tell us a bit about the visual part of the release?
It worked very much like what I did with the field recordings. I have a Leica M6 analogue camera that I always take with me when I travel. Doing field recordings and taking photos is an opportunity to bring something back home to the studio, whether that’s sounds or images.
Both the album’s cover and booklet are photos I captured of this sort of alien, Icelandic landscape. Iceland is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. Maybe in some ways the most beautiful. The field recordings on the album are like acoustic postcards of places I’ve been to. So I felt that the images were a relevant and natural way to complete the project with a visual counterpart. I was a bit afraid that it could come across as too self-referential, that people ultimately would just want to hear the music. But now I’m pretty pleased that the visual and sound are connected the way they are.
What’s the story behind the title of the album?
It’s actually a funny one. After touring the US with the last show being in Los Angeles, I, my US agent and Erika from Interdimensional Transmissions went to Joshua Tree for a little retreat and stayed at this beautiful house in the middle of the desert. In this part of California people are quite spiritual and esoteric, they’re serious about aliens and stuff, and quite often people give names to material things. So this house – or let’s rather say mansion – where we stayed, was called “Cobalt Desert Oasis”. When I saw the sign outside the door I thought this was a wicked name for an album. I like what it evokes, because in the end it’s a non-place. It reminds me of some Jodorowskian world – surrealistic and abstract with an exotic flavour, which ultimately is also what the album is very much about.
How do you see the pandemic and the influence it has had on the scene in general and you as an artist?
That’s a vast topic, but what I can say for sure is that it changed my perspective. It made me think that there’s something really wrong about this scene if the only thing it depends on are clubs. This music also needs to make sense on its own.
It also reinforced my impression that this industry undergoes a lot of politics. So I promised myself to never let a club, record label or magazine tell me how good I am. It put me more in this mindset of “just do what you do, all the rest is just – the rest”. And it made me think about electronic music outside of this box. It’s important that we find a place for it outside of the gigs, the shows and the club scene, which of course are also important. But electronic music needs to exist and have a sense outside of these environments as well.
It definitely also made me more keen on a listening approach, not just the groove part of it. But that’s also a matter of age. When you grow up a bit, you become drawn to more contemplative experiences in music.
Do you feel you are getting old?
Let’s say I’m less young than before, haha.
I think the pandemic made a lot of people feel this way.
For sure. This gap of almost two years – fingers crossed it’s not going to be longer than that – represents a big stop. It’s a very relevant slice of your life during which you have to stop doing something that’s so important to you like experiencing music in public places. So I think it’s very normal to think there’s a life before and after this. For me, it definitely ended a phase and started a new one.
What is the new phase looking like?
It made me more confident that I’m able to provide musical content that works outside of a club environment. Don’t let your bookings determine how good you think you are. The music itself can go anywhere. It’s just about you and what you want to do. If you make something good, it will also work outside of certain environments.
I hope you still want to continue playing records for dancers.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m dumping the dance floor. I love to play my techno, and I love to play and make music for people to dance to. I’m just saying that this is just one of the many possible scenarios you can reach. There is a lot more you can do.
Are there some emerging projects you can already talk about?
Currently, I’m putting a lot of thought into how to make a live set with the same approach I had in making this album, also visually. I’m not interested in performing live in a strictly club setting, but definitely with a groove element to it. Ideally, I would like to do a set where sometimes you dance, sometimes you just stop and listen, so something multifaceted and open.