Barker: The paradise engineer
Dispensing with hammering kick-drums in favour of a more expansive sound, Berlin-based Brit, Barker, has become one of Ostgut Ton’s most-celebrated artists in recent years. DJ Mag chats to him about his musical philosophy and how he produced one of 2019’s best albums
“I never consciously liked trance,” says Sam Barker. Until last year, the British-born, Berlin-based artist was best known as a co-founder of the Leisure System party and label, and as one half of Barker & Baumecker, a genre-busting collaboration with Panorama Bar resident Andy Baumecker. With that background, most people likely thought of Barker as an experimentally minded bass or techno producer.
The release of 2018’s ‘Debiasing’ on Ostgut Ton changed that. Heavy on soaring synths and entirely without kick-drums, the EP wasn’t styled as trance, but certainly prompted comparisons to it. Some techno artists might have recoiled at such a comparison, but Barker has taken a more measured approach. “I do have a tendency to put an extra spoon of sugar in the mix, and make things a little sweet and melodic,” he says. “Trance music, in its purest form, is really about inner peace, but what trance [ultimately] became had nothing to do with that. It was obnoxious, shouty, demanding, and sort of dictatorial in its signals.”
Signals, however, are something that Barker is keen to investigate. He started working on ‘Debiasing’ with 20 years of production experience, yet even with a studio full of impressive hardware and an enviable working knowledge of synthesis and Max/MSP, all of that freedom prompted feelings of fatigue rather than inspiration. “[In order to be] more productive on my own,” he explains, “I had to find purpose in what I was doing.”
He found that purpose through academic studies: in philosophy, behavioral science, cognitive psychology, and ethics. He was particularly drawn to the American behaviorist B.F. Skinner, and his laboratory work with rats and their reactions to stimuli.
“I came to the realisation that music is a reasonably complex behavioral science,” he explains, “where you signal certain things and you create predictable responses... dance music has gone into a manipulative realm. You have this universally recognised signal, the kick-drum, that comes in and says the same thing over and over again: ‘dance, dance, dance’.” He continues, “People are so used to [the kick-drum] being there that they respond almost spontaneously to this cue card.”
During his reading, Barker came across a quote from American philosopher Ambraham Kaplan: “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” The concept — the law of the instrument — provided Barker with a new sense of clarity. While kick-drums aren’t the only metaphorical “hammer” in techno music, they’re certainly the most prevalent — which is why Barker elected to take them out of the equation entirely.
Before releasing his first EP as Barker in 2013 on Leisure System, he’d released a handful of more experimental, IDM-informed records under the name Voltek. Although he’d continued producing since then, things weren’t coming together. It didn’t help that he was also working a demanding day job as a booking agent, growing disillusioned with the “unapologetically capitalistic” nature of the business. “If I didn’t stop doing it,” he explains, “I was never going to have the head-space to actually produce something valuable musically.” After 10 years, he left his job at the end of 2016 to concentrate on his own music.
Newly focused, Barker assembled the ‘Debiasing’ EP. Although casual observers still tend to think of the storied Ostgut Ton as an outpost for the dark, doom-laden techno than once defined the Berghain dancefloor (and still does on occasion), the label’s catalogue has become increasingly diverse and colourful in recent years. Barker’s music has been an important part of that, along with recent releases from Martyn and Efdemin, and the experimental offerings on the label’s revitalised Unterton imprint.
Yet neither Ostgut Ton or Barker were prepared for the deluge of accolades that would greet ‘Debiasing’, which was enthusiastically applauded by techno DJs and experimental heads alike, and eventually wound up on numerous end-of-year lists. Barker describes the response as “touching”, and explains that it also prompted another revelation: “That I had done something that was quite utilitarian,” he says, “creating the most pleasure for the most beings is sort of the basic principle of utilitarianism.”
In this, Barker had found the core concept that would influence his debut album, ‘Utility’. Released in September on Ostgut Ton, it does share some sonic qualities with ‘Debiasing’. “There are very few kick-drums on the album,” he says. “I did want to explore that some more because I feel like there's still a lot of potential in it. I'm not done with leaving the kicks out just yet.”
Beyond the percussion (or lack thereof), ‘Utility’ is also a euphoric record, its tracks awash in gauzy, organically blooming synth melodies that recall (albeit unintentionally) the late ’90s heyday of trance, progressive house, and chillout rooms.
Album opener ‘Paradise Engineering’ paints a serene, starry atmosphere, populated by twinkling melodies and slow-moving synth washes, while the more downbeat ‘Gradients Of Bliss’ wraps its deliberate churn in a dense, pillowy haze. More propulsive are tracks like ‘Posmean’ and ‘Models Of Wellbeing’, which wrench momentum and dancefloor energy from a pastiche of rapid-fire melodies, and only a smattering of percussion. ‘Experience Machines’ pulls a similar trick, with the help of a crunchy bassline that wouldn’t have been out of place on an old Sasha record, while the album’s title track offers a deliciously sweet flight through a cascading synth crescendo.
At its core, ‘Utility’ is a pleasurable listen, and that’s by design. While Barker once worried about whether the music he was making was too cheesy or emotionally pushy, he refused to be hemmed in by those concerns this time around. You might say that he inadvertently found the same sort of inner peace he once associated with classic trance, and did so by following his own voice, unburdened by thoughts of what he should — or should not — be doing. “I let go of the cheese monitor,” he says with a laugh. In the studio, he thought, “If the last decision that I’ve made has made this thing I’m listening to more pleasurable, then it’s the right decision.”
Cynics might read this as an attempt to give in to base impulses, but there was nothing quite so deliberate or tacky going on. ‘Utility’ isn’t all that cheesy, and in Barker’s mind, his creative process wasn’t particularly unique. “Music-making is an inherently utilitarian practice,” he explains. “Even people that are making ostensibly abrasive music, they’re still trying to please a core group of people.”
On ‘Utility’, Barker has chosen to stretch his own targeted “core” farther than ever before. The album may bear a passing resemblance to trance records of old, but Barker isn’t worried about the t-word. Maybe he’s onto something.