Monolink: finding the connection
On the heels of announcing a new album due out later this year, German artist Monolink chats to DJ Mag about his musical history and expanding his sound
Monolink, known to friends as Steffen Linck, is in the middle of a studio session, working in a complex filled with studios in his home of Berlin. He’s fighting off a moment of writer’s block. “I’m a little bit stuck,” he says over the phone, avoiding sugarcoating his process, as he steps back to reset. This is a moment to take in the development of his new endeavor.
Linck started his Monolink project in the early 2010s. With the release of ‘Sinner’ on March 13th came the announcement of a new album to come in 2020, two years after his 2018 debut ‘Amniotic’ (and 2019 deluxe version). After releasing both on the Berlin-based Embassy One, he joined the home of artists like Röyksopp, Booka Shade, and Example. His upcoming album, as yet without a name or a release date, is still in the developmental phase.
“I’m still gathering ideas, snippets, and demos,” Linck says. He’s about halfway through with the project, and though his overall vision is clear, it’s just as easy to get out of rhythm as it is to get back into focus. “It’s like figuring out in which situation you’re the most creative, or in which situation your mind feels most creative and it can just flow. And the task is to kind of put yourself into that situation, to train yourself. And sometimes when it doesn’t work, I’m just gonna try the next day.”
The album has so far been a reflection on what’s going on in Linck's life right now: how he wants to live, what things are pushing him in the right direction, and what things he’d like to change. Attention has been turned to a recent break up, where he saw a stifling of his creativity, and now, its return. “Sometimes, it can also be inspirational to be suffering,” Linck says. Paying objective attention to your own life can be uncomfortable, but the way Linck describes it sounds like a search for Nirvana.
Before becoming Monolink, Linck grew up in a suburban town outside of Hamburg, a port city in northern Germany. His youth reads in a familiar way: his mother, an accountant, and father, a plumber, got divorced when he was three or four. And though Hamburg was a train ride away, it was distant enough to let teenage suburban disillusionment set in. “There wasn’t so much going on, so we had to come up with our own ideas of what to do. Now looking back I think it really, really helped me.”
Turning his attention to music, learning to play guitar, and forming his first band — an indie-rock group — made it clear that while guitar started out as something to fill his time, Linck had a talent. He found he had a deep fascination with sound, recalling times where he sat and listened to his classmates play instruments. “There was a kid at school that played guitar, and I remember a moment where I was just sitting right in front of the guitar while he was sitting on the table, and I had my ear very close to it. I had this sensation of experiencing sound and soundwaves. That was really exciting.”
“There can be super beautiful moments on the dancefloor where you feel connected to everybody, there’s a sense of community”
In a household where the only music consumed was through the radio, discovering it properly was a revelation. “It was something that I felt I could discover myself. Once I started digging, there was a whole world opening up of music: Songs and masterpieces that I had never heard before.” Music was something that was entirely his own, though his parents didn’t quite get it. Only recently have they started to understand; for his mom, it was when she first heard him on the radio. But as his dad sees it, “my life in his eyes is just a party.”
A personal, deep connection to sound comes through in Linck’s recordings, with ‘Sinner’ a great example of the weight that emotion has taken in his creation. As he further explored as a teenager, an uncle took him under his wing, as one of the first who Linck remembers spotting his talent. As his first mentor, he helped to illuminate the essentials that you can still hear in his music today.
“He taught me how our voices are connected to emotions,” Linck says, “and how we feel, and how to express those emotions when you sing a song or perform something, and how to get in touch with yourself through that.” Along the way, he got connected to a producer who claimed, “I’m going to make you a pop star.”
At 19, he didn’t know the kind of music he wanted to make, nor how the industry functioned, so of course he went ahead with the opportunity. After recording demo after demo, chasing a major label deal, it didn’t work out. Eventually, he moved to Berlin to take on an internship at an architect’s office. “I realized that studying architecture is great, but the job of an architect is not that creative. I really enjoyed studying, and I learned a lot. I didn’t study for long, just for like a year.”
These detours helped him get some clarity about what he wanted to do next. That meant going back to the drawing board, to his wheelhouse playing as a folk trio with a double bass, guitar and drums. His group — a project under his full name Steffen Linck — played in bars and on the streets, eventually getting booked for a small local festival of a few hundred people. As a folk act booked for a mostly electronic festival, he played the live stage, and for the first time in his life, encountered electronic music on a large scale.
“I got really inspired by it and started to understand what electronic music is about,” he says of that first experience. “Folk music was all about stories and songs. This music was mostly without any spoken words in it. It was body music — stuff that you would listen to with your body, and you would get into some sort of meditation listening to it. That was like a revelation to me.” He immediately knew his next move.
Linck’s lifetime with music has been defined by a series of revelations. First with guitar, folk, and indie, and now with electronic sounds. He started versing himself in a new sonic world. He collected songs. He made a mixtape. He expanded his network, all while still working on his folk project.
“I kind of felt bad about having so much interest in, you know, techno,” he recalls. It might have been something to frown upon in the circles he was in. There is, of course, a perceived hierarchy. “Before I was listening to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and all these, like, wise people, and now it was just kick drums and hi-hats. I was wondering if I would be losing some of my brain capacity.”
Creating the sound of Monolink was a process that can be read as experimental or truly logical. After sitting down to learn the ropes of as much production software as he could and landing a few DJ gigs, Linck went back to his years making indie and folk, and took stock. He asked himself, “What would work in the context of a dancefloor?”
He transitioned from thinking like a songwriter to thinking like a producer, which meant remixing his own songs into a new form. He played his first show as Monolink in April 2014, and has basically been on tour ever since. “To mix those two worlds that I was living in, like this folk and concert thing and then the club thing,” he says, “I figured they could both help each other.”
Of the scene that’s taught him so much and shown him the importance of community in recent years, he says, “I like being a part of that. I really like to be at parties to experience music. And there can be super beautiful moments on the dancefloor where you feel connected to everybody, there’s a sense of community. And that’s really exciting. That’s what I love about it. And that’s also what I miss sometimes when I’m at a regular concert.”
Monolink’s discography has a new sheen to it. ‘Amniotic’ was a culmination of digging back through his entire catalog of experience. Now, he’s ready to move into a new post-‘Amniotic’ phase.
“I feel like I had a pretty clear vision of how I wanted to approach the next album,” he says. “And I was also really looking forward to working on it, because I’ve been touring so much the last few years, and I had so many ideas and so much inspiration on the way — and also, the way I play my music kind of changed over that time.”
This record, he says, is more about contrast. It’s about getting back into songwriting, with a process that’s not just sampling his library, but composing and creating new sounds that play off each other, playing with the “louder and quieter, and harder and softer.” It also means new instruments, breaking out of life on the guitar and buying a piano, “to really sit down and write about stuff that’s happening in my life or in the world.”
Live And Direct
Since its inception, the Monolink project was as much about the live show as it was the music itself. Linck made a name for himself with his live set-up, where his performances give off an air of deep understanding of instrumentation. Linck seemingly plays anything he can get his hands on, electronic or not. While this style is certainly a hallmark of his show, he’s taken these recent years of touring as an opportunity to learn and evolve his vision.
It was at Coachella in 2017 — after he had his own performance at the DoLab — that he saw the way a show, with music and art intertwined, could move a room. “I realised that there are actually a lot more ways in which you can reach and touch people with performance. I think what I liked about Radiohead, for example, was that it really felt like a piece of art that’s being presented to me and in that moment, I realised for myself that I also want to take my projects a step further and not just be a DJ at parties, but also try to create something more out of that.”
Bringing together the live indie elements and the things he’s learned from DJing are essential to opening up this new strategy. “I wanted to give myself more freedom when playing live, and be more in control of energy,” Linck says. “In the beginning, I was just sort of playing my songs the way I made them in the studio. Now I’m just trying to have the possibility to go harder, to go really hard and go techno, or go really slow. To be able to not stick so much to what I’m used to doing, but to be inspired by the moment and crowd.”