Remembering the Surrealist Techno Mixes of Post-wall Berlin
“Everyone wanted to be part of it. They didn’t necessarily see it as a commercial exercise — more a creative one.”Horst Weidenmueller
Coming across as the type of bloke who avoids reminiscences on yesteryear when possible, Horst Weidenmueller — head of Berlin’s eminent !K7 label — is making an exception for the topic of the X-Mixes, an obscure series of audio-visual compilations commissioned by the record company in the mid-1990s. A collaborative project of his own creation, the seven mixes represented a timely meeting of two artforms enjoying the huge technological advancements in creative production in the twilight years of the twentieth century. Combining the mixing skills of the likes of Richie Hawtin, Paul van Dyk and DJ Hell with the product of some of the most prodigious computer artists of the period, it’s a project that for the most part holds up well nearly three decades on, and makes for an intriguing relic of a distant cultural moment when both CGI and dance music remained largely underground ventures.
As a viewing experience, the pieces resemble a psychedelic trip run through the plasticky CGI aesthetics of the time; in ‘Enter Digital Reality’, the 1994 instalment Horst names a “tipping point” in terms of the series’ popularity, we watch a luminous flamingo ice skate across a rainbow in deep space with the encouragement of excitable synth stabs, while the final mix, ‘Jack The Box’, is an affair characterised by a flatter, more minimalist parade of dadaist visuals, accompanied by a hypnotic selection of late ’90s acid techno curated by Hardfloor.
The first musings of the concept, Horst tells, came around the time that Berlin saw its wall fall and its techno scene rise, and it was the fiercely independent ethos of the latter that brought much inspiration.
“I created !K7 in ’85 as a video label, and originally we were working with bands like Einstürzende Neubauten, Psychic TV, Jim Foetus, Nick Cave, and loads of ‘independent’ bands. But it was quite difficult in a way because most indies had given their rights outside the UK to the majors, and so were not really independent. We always had difficulties really to get the video rights to film bands and to record them. By the end of the ’80s there was this new music, techno music, where people pressed a couple of thousand vinyls and just sold them. This was to me the real spirit of ‘independent’, because there was no big [record] deals behind it, so naturally I wanted to begin doing my video for that. For me, it was always about showing the development of new independent music. So, I thought — what could a techno video actually look like? And what I’m saying now probably sounds stupid, but back in those days it was zeitgeist to think ‘yes — the music is produced on computers, so the visuals should be produced on computers as well’!”
The project was one that was very much international in reach, with musical and graphical contributors hailing from all corners of the globe, but the inbox of !K7’s offices would always be where the fusion of artistic vision would take place.
“What was always a highlight for me was to, in one week, receive twelve videos from computer artists I’d never seen before. Every time an X-Mix was finished and we went into the editing suite to finalise the long-form mix it was like Christmas. In those days of course they would come in on Betacam through wire couriers, and so you’d open twelve boxes with no idea what the videos were actually going to look like. We started with about three or four video artists we knew coming out of our network in Berlin and Amsterdam, and released the first long-form videos. As it was a completely new form of music video, it got picked up almost immediately by the computer art scene, and we received demos from computer artists all over the world saying ‘hey this is amazing, look at my work, I would like to be involved’. At !K7 we took an executive producer role for the videos, we weren’t really involved in the software. So what I did is nominate a DJ, and the DJ made two mixes — one was the mix for the CD, and one was the mix for the video. For the video, we always decided that it should be only about twelve-to-fifteen tracks, and after mixing we’d then send it over to the computer artists.”
Nowadays, the mixes survive largely as the esoteric curiosity of Facebook groups, techno retroists and ex-ravers on nostalgia trips, being circulated mostly via eBay purchases and various unlicensed copies circulating the web. In their time, though, the appeal of the mixes was broad, and straddled the regimented grounds of alternative and mainstream entertainment.
For viewers, an X-Mix would often be the first time they had seen computer graphics to such a level of avant garde. For many CGI artists, who were still years away from having a popular medium through which to easily share their work, the mixes were more important still as an invaluable outlet through which they could introduce the wider public to their work.
“X-Mix really developed quite quickly into the platform you need to show your art in order to be seen as a computer artist because, at that time, X-Mix was also MTV’s only source for underground videos. In the early ’90s, most videos were done for ‘Eurotrash’ commercial techno stuff and not really for what was happening in the clubs.”
Not only did MTV take to broadcasting the mixes in full as part of its ‘Party Zone’ programming, but VJs at parties and clubs across Europe also began to use the visuals themselves, in the process rooting the music back to the underground, and inspiring others to attempt similar efforts of their own on limited-scale VHS releases. Bizarrely, Horst recalls that even the medical community began to pay attention to the graphical flourishes of the X-Mixes.
“One day I got a call from the University hospital in Berlin from the brain surgery department — they asked for permission to use the videos in order to locate brain activity, and he invited me to have a look. The kind of 3D tunnel ‘drives’ on the X-Mixes, which turned out to do a lot with your brain, actually helped them analyse activity in an area of the brain which they hadn’t seen before. They put people in a scanner, gave them some glasses, showed them pictures depicting emotions, and then showed them our videos in order to help highlight that area. I found it quite interesting that our mixes were now helping people to perform brain surgery!”
As the project grew, so did !K7’s profile, and Horst found himself giving interviews to MTV to accompany each release. By the end of the decade, though, the same creative itch that saw the label begin the mixes was starting to move their focus towards new endeavours, ones which would keep pace with shifts in music distribution emerging towards the dawn of the millennium.
“We just had a feeling that we’d expressed what we were able to express. If you see the later editions you see very well-produced, well-rendered 3D tunnel drives — everything went very crisp and sophisticated. There was a feeling we’d done it — musically we’d done it, visually we’d done it, and I was just thinking that we had to move to something else. By that time I’d also started DJ-Kicks, and was more excited about the potential of bringing club mixes home, and creating a hybrid between an artist album and a compilation album than I was with continuing the X-Mix. So we had the feeling we did our thing, and now it was time for others to step in, and there are many who followed after us who did greater work.”
!K7’s enduringly popular DJ-Kicks series, effectively the spiritual successor to the X-Mix, recently saw the seemingly omnipresent Korean DJ Peggy Gou put her name to a compilation she’d spent the best part of a year putting together.
But other than a one-off anniversary weekend commemorating the inaugural release at Berlin’s Stattbad in 2013, the X-Mixes have been allowed to remain intact as artefacts of the recombinatorial delirium of the 1990s, their legacy in terms of the now commonplace coupling of techno with leftfield graphical content perhaps coming above much recollection of the mixes themselves.
A piece of music history is how he’d prefer it to stay, Horst suggests — “I’ve done many things in my career and it’s always been about excitement, so I couldn’t go back to the X-Mix — it’s not part of my thinking anymore. There are so many people in the lead now.” It might have begun to verge on journalistic trope now to bring up how the grand shift online changed everything, but it’s probably true that concentrating the eyes and ears of Europe’s clubbing scene in the way the X-Mixes did becomes a far more distant possibility in the crowded field occupied by today’s DJs and computer artists.
The philosophy that birthed and ensured the success of Horst’s project, however, seems something much more timeless. “It comes down to being somewhere, seeing something and being extremely excited about it”, he perpends. “That’s what I felt with the X-Mixes.”