20 Questions – An interview with Ali Schwarz from Tiefschwarz

Ali Schwarz is in his home in Berlin when he answers the phone. After sending him a ‘few’ questions over email, the older of the Schwarz brothers, insists I call him up. The situation is a “bit complicated”, he explains in a polite German accent and he doesn’t really have the time to sit down and answer 20 questions “within questions” (an excessive list in retrospect), between prepping a live show and running two studios. When I call him he’s going through his record collection in a attempt to ”get rid of all the crap that’s been sitting there for decades.” I imagine a dark-haired Ali Schwarz in some Berlin warehouse sifting through endless shelves of records, records that have travelled with the producer throughout his life, and some of which have been there since the very beginning when Ali, as a young adolescent, ran around Stuttgart savouring the nightlife of the city. “Stuttgart is huge bag of memories. Everything that shaped my character and personality is based in that time.”

The German city lies in a valley 207m above sea level and “looks a bit like San Francisco without the sea”; says Ali. Steep steps dot the city in extreme elevation changes and with the Black Forest only an hour away the city is surrounded by “super beautiful scenery.” It’s also the city from where Mercedes and Porsche base their operations and where Danilo Plessow started his career as Motor City Drum Ensemble. Although Danilo might have found some affinity with Detroit in picking his artistic moniker Ali says; “besides the cars, Detroit and Stuttgart have nothing in common”. Although Stuttgart has a very working class population like Detroit, it’s far richer than its American counterpart, and while Detroit went through an impressive slump at the end of the eighties, Stuttgart inconspicuously carried on with business and amongst other things, nurtured a young Ali through the start of a musical career.

It was in this environment where Ali’s eclectic musical tastes first blossomed as he earmarked everything from “Abba to Zappa” in his youth. It would lay the foundation for an easy transition into new wave when Ali started experiencing Stuttgart’s nightlife as an adolescent teen. “I started going out when I was very young, listening to the original new wave stuff in the eighties, stuff like David Bowie and Prince, when it actually happened in a way. I was hypnotised by everything.” Ali, being the older Schwarz brother, naturally influenced his younger brother’s tastes, but before they eventually came together as Tiefschwarz, the two followed individual directions with Basti favouring the role of punk drummer, while Ali ventured deeper into club culture and its music.

It would a be short leap for Ali when he made the jump into the role of club promoter, hosting illegal parties in disused locations with the emphasis on bringing people together. “The first party we had like three hundred people, the police came it was a big mess, but it was amazing.” Through these parties Ali found some affinity with a group of people that were passionate about the same music and it wouldn’t take long till they opened the first club ON -U in the beginning of the end of the last millennium, 1990. Based on the Adrian Sherwood’s sound system of the same name, ON -U is where this group of friends, which now included Basti (after moving his drum kit into the basement), would learn their trade as young apprentices. “When we started our club, we couldn’t even mix records. I was just fascinated by the nightlife, the temptation of crossing borders, the music and everything.” The brothers would get their musical education from friend Jan, a self-proclaimed music nerd that took the brothers on a musical journey every week through his impressive record collection and knowledge. “We would go to his house Sunday afternoons for ‘lectures’ and listen to records for eight to ten hours.” Jan always went deep avoiding the obvious as he taught the Schwarz brothers about the value of music. “It’s like when you learn to like cheese.“ At the same time the whole ON -U team would also be educated in mixing, with another friend passing on his experience from playing “fancy” disco clubs in the city.

It took the group about a year to master the basics, with Ali and Basti soon displaying the type of virtuoso talent we’ve come to know today. Their eclectic tastes were given absolute freedom to explore their every whim and desire at ON -U with like-minded audiences encouraging the brothers to discover new music like Richie Hawtin and Rare-Groove through their DJ sets. “There was so much new stuff coming out. It was kind of a new era and the people were super enthusiastic about everything.” It’s an unfamiliar era to the present, where the Internet and mobile phones have jaded the average clubber; something Ali says has been the result of the present’s emphasis on marketing. “It’s so crazy what you have to take care of instead of just playing good music and taking care of your audience. It’s all about how you position yourself in social media today.” Ever the chameleon he accepts this new period of club culture, but misses the “intimacy of you and I” in the clubbing experiences from his past. “It was about the moment and the experience. There was no recording.”

It was a time when the music would be the glue that brought the people together, and a time that saw Ali dig deeper and deeper into the music too. He started spending a lot of time in Chicago, getting “really addicted to Chicago house”, and an obsession grew that would invariably lay the foundation for his next club. With Basti on board again, the brothers opened Red Dog in 1993. Taking its name form the Chicago record store, it ushered in a new era for Stuttgart and the brothers Schwarz, an era where they would turn their focus on the deeper end of House and Techno, and eventually attain their first production credit as Tiefschwarz, the deep black having some relation to the music they end up making.

“Over the years we got more professional and more certain about what we wanted to do.” This newfound certainty would see the brothers enter the studio for the first time at the end of the Red Dog’s career and with the help of Peter Hoff, they would lay down their first single ‘Music’, and what else would it be than an instant deep-house classic. An album followed in 2000 and RAL 9005 garnered much critical acclaim after it was released on Classic recordings in the UK and François Kevorkian’s Wave records in the states. With Guitars, vocals and even elements of Krautrock funnelled into neatly packaged House tracks, Tiefschwarz displayed the kind of eclecticism in their music that had always been there in their DJ sets. “I can play Techno, I can play Disco and Deep House. I love to combine things, and come with something unexpected to keep the things interesting.“ It’s something you can clearly hear on Tiefshwarz’ Misch Masch compilation from 2004, where everything from code 6 to Mylo make an impression. What it also shows is that Tiefschwarz are able to effortlessly adapt to any situation, going from deep-house to electro without even batting an eyelid, in their DJ sets and also in their productions. “We are always aware of trends for inspiration, because we never wanted to get bored with our own music.” Ali says Tiefschwarz likes ripping off old layers to make room for new ones and moving with the flow without losing focus on yourself.” That self Ali refers to is Tiefschwarz’ “versatility”, the essence of what the brothers grew up with and the element that’s always there no matter which era of their discography the listener samples. “Music is too rich and too beautiful to focus on one corner. For some period of time it was good for us to be all over the place, and it never felt wrong. It was our own development within the music.” From the heavy guitars on ‘Eat Books’ to the minimal approach of a track like ‘Whistler’, Tiefschwarz always seem to take some aspect from the current zeitgeist and manipulate it along with all their other influences to arrive at something new each time.

Right now they are at the next phase of their continual development with Left, their fifth studio album, an album that highlights Tiefschwarz’ ability to adapt to the present mood yet again with Techno at its core. “Right now it’s all about Techno and Techno revival number 200 and I love Techno, but I like to keep things a bit open so it’s not as obvious. And that’s also our philosophy; to keep things interesting.“ Left keeps it open with syncopated hats, some very interesting electronic arrangements and a human voice that can go from robotic synth-pop expressions to sweet melodic refrains. That voice belongs to Kahn and in it, Tiefschwarz have found a common ground too obvious to ignore. “He’s also this kind of Chameleon.” It was Kahn that inspired the brothers to take the group back on the road, the first tour since 2010’s Chocolate. They’ve toned down the ambition of that tour, to get back to that intimacy of the clubbing experience and with Kahn on the podium, it brings an intuitive human dimension to their electronic set. “He’s an amazing performer, and he doesn’t take things too seriously. It’s all about quality, but he’s grown up enough to see that sometimes people are just too serious about this shit.“

It’s a show I’ve been looking forward to for some time, and realise now that I might have not even asked Ali about the new album or the show in the extensive list I sent him earlier. A true professional in every regard, he doesn’t mention this at all, and entertains the same questions he must have heard a million times before. Questions like will he ever start a club again. “Under certain circumstances I might consider a night.“ He mentions how he loves going to day parties and how they are currently flourishing in his adopted home Berlin. He still hangs on to that “bag of memories“ from Stuttgart though, the things that shaped his character and personality, but he calls Berlin home today. “Stuttgart is my ‘Heimat’, and that connection will always be there, but my actual home, where I’m at home, is Berlin.” Ali can’t care less about the opinions of others when it comes to his city.” No matter what people say, I don’t give a shit, because I love Berlin.”

Our time together draws to a close, and I have to let Ali get back to sorting through his record collection, but somehow my list of questions look longer than when I started. Those twenty questions that I had to begin with have just expounded to a hundred more, but they’ll have to wait for another time…