Australian-born Deepchild AKA Rick Bull is one of his country’s most successful techno exports, and he’s no stranger to the album format either, releasing his debut Hymns From Babylon on the seminal old-school stable Clan Alalogue back in 2000. By the time of his fourth album Lifetime in 2007, he was already regularly taking his music to Europe and the rest of the world, before 2008’s Departure signaled a semi-permanent departure to Berlin.
A regular presence at clubbing vanguards in the city like Berghain, Watergate and Tresor were the tip of the iceberg for Bull, as he later scored himself a coveted 3-year ‘Exceptional Ability’ visa that allowed him to tour and perform extensively across the United States and Canada. Eventually returning to resettle in Berlin, Bull found himself less than enthused with the notion of bunkering down to record another album; which makes the story behind his latest Neukölln Burning album all the more fascinating.
The recording process for Neukölln Burning took place during the depths of the notoriously bitter Berlin winter, of which the city is currently emerging from its darkest in over 60 years; and Bull had spontaneously chosen as the time to wean himself off his anti-depressant medication, for the first time in nearly a decade. Extreme insomnia and personal distress resulted, with Bull painting the finished product as, “an exercise in catharsis; an experiment in transforming a sense of claustrophobia and uncertainty into something ultimately hopeful, visceral, perhaps even seductive.”
Some of the emotions behind Neukölln Burning are incredibly raw: the ‘Neukölln' in the title is a reference to the bustling district of Berlin, where Bull was situated while recording the album, and still calls his home. The ‘Burning’ on the other hand refers to a Buddhist quote about being consumed by your own personal fires. The end result is certainly powerful enough; it’s one of the most sonically dense, emotive and cohesive electronic albums from the past 12 months.
As Bull himself says, “This album is the most singularly unified piece of recording I‘ve done to date.”
The Initial impressions from Neukölln Burning are that it’s an inviting listen, though after a few spins you realise there’s something more to it, that it’s a lot more dense. It’s definitely worth investing the time to draw out the album’s substance.
It’s an odd thing for me, because I didn’t really want to write another album anytime soon. I’d done five previous to this, and it’s a pretty laborious experience. And then also, I was wondering whether the format is even valid any more. I just have a really good relationship with Noah Pred from Thoughtless Music. He’s just a good friend and a sweetheart, and he’s been so supportive of all the music that I’ve done. He was like “Rick, I think you should do an album”. I was like “oh really?” He kept pushing for it, so I thought, I’ll give it a go, but I don’t know how it’s going to work. It might be shit…
So from the outset, you didn’t have a story that you wanted to tell straight away?
No, not at all. And then, it’s really weird because in the middle of winter, I did something that I don’t think I’ll ever try to do again, which was to decide by myself that now is a good time to rapidly come off my anti-depressant medication. First of all, winter is not a very good time to do this, especially in Germany [laughs].
Had you talked to the doctor about it as well?
Ah, nope [laughs]. Well, I’d spoken to the doctor a couple of years ago, and he was like [in German accent], “Why are you still on this high dose of this medication? You need to come off!” and I was like “Oh no really? Should I?”
And this was for how many years?
About eight. And I’m one to sometimes get moralistic about the necessity to not be reliant on anyone else, and that kind of backfired for me [laughs].
Do you think you could’ve been a bit more considered about it?
Again, it was kind of stupid, but I thought to myself, “I have one month left of prescriptions, so therefore I’ll get off all in one month.” Then I went off and renewed my script, so after that, every week I was halving my dose. I was OK for about three weeks, but then I plunged into utter panic, terror and disarray, a crazy meltdown suicidal panic attack, cold sweats… In the midst of which, I was trying to write music. I was so exhausted, I couldn’t really do anything.
A sort of stabilising thing was just to try to have at least one or two hours a day where I was actually trying to work; by which stage I wasn’t even consciously focusing on any idea of an album, I was just trying to write whatever. Then it became clear that as a body of work, the tracks that I produced would be reflective of this tone. I knew I wanted to write an album that was more techno, but the series of events dictated how it would turn out in the end.
Neukölln Burning, the name is obviously drawn from the fact that I love where I live. The ‘burning’ part is a reference to a Buddhist quote. I guess the paraphrased version is that everything is burning, the eyes are burning, the nose is burning… it’s the notion of being overwhelmed by your senses, the things that cause suffering, or by your own judgment of what these senses are telling you. It’s a funny kind of dovetail with what was going on with me; I was totally overwrought, everything was burning [laughs].
When trying to draw out the personal emotions from the album, it can feels like they’re present, though perhaps you can’t quite access them. It’s like it’s done on purpose, perhaps intentionally, kept a little obscure so you can’t quite knuckle down what it is?
Maybe it’s a series of unanswered questions, and maybe they don’t even need to be answered.
The distorted RnB vocals make a return, but in an even more mashed up kind of way.
I guess, just practically speaking, you can hear the references to a lot of the stuff I listen to. There’s lots of really ball-tearing techno, or a slightly dubby kind of techno, though I’ve always been fascinated by an aesthetic that’s also a little bit awkward, or slightly unquantified.
The album is definitely not straight club 4/4 banging, and I guess it’s kind of warm and melodic… Just a little bit outside the frame of what functional club music is, perhaps.
A lot of those tracks I have played out at Berghain. And it maybe is an album that is a bit more suited to a space like that, which is a little bit more…
Yeah, and kind of intentionally uneasy. Despite the clichés about the club, it actually has been something persistently wonderful about being there, and hearing people go “What? He just played what?” The last few times I played there has been live sets on the main floor, as opposed to Panorama Bar. Both were great.
The Panorama Bar is obviously a little more suited for the deeper house and techno stuff, while Berghain’s mainroom usually brings more of an industrial sound.
Yeah totally. Playing there and then being asked back, was definitely a confidence boost, “Wow you’ve taken the risk a couple of times and you’re doing it again. That’s really interesting”. So people are hearing music in a way here that is different other more mainstream clubs. It’s remarkable. I remember about 10 years ago, struggling to get a DJ bar gig in Sydney, and then all of a sudden getting booked to play live at clubs like this, and it’s like, “Really? You want live again? In this space?”
What’s the stronger theme on the album, is it your own personal stuff, or is it the actual location of Neukölln? I thought that still seemed to feed into it somewhat.
It’s definitely a bit of a love song to Neukölln, and what it represents to me in terms of being a ‘safe’ space, in a time when I was personally all over the place. There are references to that throughout the album, and there are recordings from people and places around the hood.
However, there’s a lot from the US too. I guess in the opening track there’s a couple of soundbytes from my friends in Detroit, from when I filmed a little doco there. Berlin has turned out to be a real haven for a lot of people and a lot of artists, and for me, I would also love to see that happen in some parts of the US as well. It’s a shame for me to visit and just say, “Man this city could be amazing!” but people are just leaving and leaving and leaving. These are the questions that I’m confronted with when I’m in the US. I never imagined that I would be playing there so much, and I’ve made so many wonderful friends, but they’re constantly being bitten in the arse by this system they’re subjected to. When they can’t even have their basic health needs met because they’re low-income earners. And these aren’t ghetto dwellers or anything, these are normal middle Americans! But if they break their arm, they’re kind of stuffed.
I think there’s a sense of an urban landscape in the album’s textures; while these are often used in electronic music to project isolation and alienation, here there’s a little more warmth. But then the album closes on a really harsh note, and it’s like you’ve taken the listener and dumped them in the streets of the Berlin winter. Was this intentional?
I don’t know. I mean, I had written a lot of ambient soundscapes; and there is a sense I guess in the album that it’s not necessarily a place of arrival. It kind of starts in a place of transience, and then ends in one. And that’s kind of Berlin; everything is always just changing and transient. In terms of the personal journey as well, with the meds and everything else, that’s still an ongoing question. There are moments of reaching for hope and elation throughout the album, but these days I’m less inclined to be definitive and dogmatic about my proposed solutions to these questions.
So it can be more open ended? It doesn’t have to bring an answer, or say you’ve reached the end of your journey?