Rethinking The Ordinary
Carefully dabbing the sweat from his brow, René Pawlowitz takes a seat opposite mine. It’s a typically sweltering July afternoon in Kreuzberg, and, I’ll admit, I’m sweating a bit too.
Pawlowitz’s prickly reputation as an interviewee is weighing on my mind. This awkward repute has tailed him since the powerful statement of intent that was his 2008 album Shedding The Past; it’s one borne of a series of terse replies to journalists and a general unwillingness to engage with the PR machine. Yet, following some amiable small talk on the stairs up to the Monkeytown office – weather chat always prevails – and even a joke about the interview being conducted in German (it wasn’t, and he knew this all along), I’m beginning to think my apprehension was misguided.
As well as a knack for crafting dancefloor destroyers, Pawlowitz’s legacy has been solidified through diversity and a sense of constant forward motion – remixing the past to forge the future. His output as Shed marries the lush textures of Detroit techno to an immediacy and bass-weight borrowed from rave and hardcore. This provocative sound has been explored through a triptych of cinematic full lengths – Shedding The Past, The Traveller, The Killer – on Ostgut Ton and the soon-to-be-defunct 50Weapons.
Under the WAX and EQD monikers, both now officially retired, he constructed a series of compelling and ruthlessly efficient club tools that are being continually rinsed to this day, in addition to exploring dubstep mutations as The Panamax Project and STP. Currently, it’s his Power House imprint – both a label name and an encompassing genre – that’s in the spotlight, providing a platform for the gripping and visceral house bombs he makes as WK7 and Head High.
"No playing around, no effects, just boom, boom, boom. That's my power house"
“At the moment I’m more into house music. I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older,” he laughs. Detached from his spiky reputation, Pawlowitz seems totally relaxed. This affable state doesn’t dilute his outspoken nature though, looking me intently in the eye as he speaks openly of a continued disaffection with much of today’s identikit techno.
Pawlowitz maintains that techno is “his music.” He discovered the sound in the early 90s, and would regularly endure the 100-mile round trip from his hometown of Schwedt to Berlin to buy the latest records from the legendary Hard Wax, later being employed behind the counter. Today, he bemoans a lack of consistently good new releases. “Sometimes you can feel it, and sometimes, a year later, you think ‘oh shit, it’s still the same,’ but then the next year it’s OK again”. Dissatisfied with the straighter, more functional elements of the genre, Pawlowitz laments the slowing-down of the rapidly-mutating, sub bass-heavy sound otherwise known as ‘UK bass’, which splintered off into different styles around 2012. “I was a bit sad about this”, he says, “because suddenly for me, there was only techno left.”
The past 18 months, therefore, have found him DJing more than ever under the Head High guise. As someone who began his career solely as a DJ, embracing production later, it’s a change he welcomes. “I thought playing some house records as Head High would be cool. Back to the roots a bit.”
Pawlowitz has also recently completed a power house-focused tour, playing a number of gigs back-to-back with former Hard Wax colleague Prosumer, Achim Brandenburg to his friends. Merging Head High’s euphoria with Prosumer’s loose and unabashed style, their respective tastes intersected in the DJ booth. “He’s more into disco music, more into late 80s Chicago house … on that past tour, I’d be going to Prosumer and saying ‘Achim, no disco. We play power house here, no disco,’” he says, with a wag of his finger and a cheeky smile.
Pawlowitz cites the 90s output of New York’s DJ Duke as one of the biggest influences on his own power house productions, in addition to the likes of Chez Damier, Ron Trent and Kevin Saunderson’s work as E-Dancer and Tronik House. I ask if Duke’s label, Power Music, provided inspiration for the naming of his own imprint. “Yeah kind of, I think,” comes his response. “When I talked to [DJ] Pete at Hard Wax it was always like, if you have this pumping house beat, with no cheesy stuff, only the drums – the rhythm stuff – and maybe a chord, we always said, ‘yeah, this is power house.’ No sounds that are playing around, no effects, just ‘boom-boom-boom’. That was my power house. And yeah of course, Power Music was kind of cool.”
That’s not to say that Pawlowitz is wholly averse to more colourful strains of house music. I was pleasantly surprised to hear him playing some of my favourite Pépé Bradock and Norma Jean Bell tracks during a particularly heady set in the Berghain garden last year. “That’s the kind of house music I would like to play, when it’s more slower, more brighter.”
Indeed, it’s a strong grasp of melody that sets much of Pawlowitz’s work apart from his contemporaries – full of evocative flourishes that summon a sense of forgotten nostalgia. “Without a melody, you don’t have any emotions … it’s just a percussive track. And I think that can also be good, but you can’t remember this track again later on. A melody is like an anchor in your head.” I ask if this is something he consciously tries to achieve, only to finally receive the kind of notoriously curt responses that plagued previous interviews.
“Yeah, maybe. It could be. I don’t think about why I do this or this, I like it. That’s why I’m doing this”, he says nonchalantly.
This laissez-faire approach bleeds into his latest project, a new audio-visual show as Shed, which will premiere at this month’s Berlin Atonal festival. The visual element of the performance will consist of “some slow movies from not very spectacular places”, he tells me. “Like under a bridge, or in the countryside, in a field. Together with my brother, we made some machines, and we could put the camera on it, and it rotates very slowly. And we would leave it for two or three hours in this place, and go somewhere else while it’s recording … it’s always on places which are not really – at first sight – very interesting. But when you record a longer period, it has something special. And that fits really good with my music.”
For an artist who thrives off excavating and repurposing his own musical heritage, Pawlowitz refrains from getting misty-eyed about it all. He seems more than content with life in the present as a married father of two. Clubbing, for him, is strictly a business pursuit these days. “I don’t know why. I’m too old, I think. When it’s so crowded, I can’t have it,” he admits. “It’s good that it’s over, I think … I just didn’t like it at all, in the morning when you come back home and it’s 10am or later, and the whole day is wasted.”
Though his cagey reputation may not hold up in person, Pawlowitz is, and has always been, about cutting out the bullshit, whether that’s overtly functional techno, the tendency to relentlessly overthink his craft, or the exhausting nature of the clubbing circuit. Instead, he’ll continue to be inspired by other, non-musical sources. “I like to go fishing, that’s cool … it’s all about my home at the moment,” he tells me, in a rare glimpse into his reality. “It’s all about the kids. And the wife.”
Shed performs his live A/V show at Berlin Atonal, Kraftwerk Berlin, 22 August