Getting Into Deep – An interview with Oliver Lieb
by Mike G, June 30th 2013
A composer, producer and DJ for 25-plus years (born 1969, Frankfurt, Germany), Oliver Lieb's innovations and wide-ranging body of work have made him one of the greats of the electronic dance age. Even if you don't recognise the name you may know one his many project pseudonyms: LSG, Spicelab, The Ambush, Paragliders, S.O.L and many others.
On dancefloors since the early 90's he's been known variously for his trance, techno, tribal and tech-house singles, as well as an enormous number of remixes - at least 300 by my estimate - that he's done for other artists. From his Frankfurt base he was particularly influential in the rise of club trance in the 1990's, a lineage that can be traced back to the psychedelic ambient trance of a previous generation of German acts that includes Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. His tech-trance embraced both melody and innovation, full of dynamics and energy and crafted from handmade electronic sounds.
He moved on from trance, however, after commercial excess and outright cheesiness came to dominate club trance by the end of the 90's and its epicentre in Europe seemed to shift from Germany to The Netherlands. Ever forward-looking, he continued composing, remixing and DJing various shades of techno up to the mid-2000's. He then took a long break from music to build a new studio and establish a vinyl record manufacturing business, before re-emerging as a producer/performer in 2011.
His electronic dance music, then, is well known and widely covered. Far less known, however, is a much smaller body of his work that could variously be called ambient, chillout or downtempo. Like his best club music it's original, uncompromising and - as I've long been telling anyone who'll listen to my raving - exceptionally good.
Oliver Lieb's LSG project hasn't actually produced any new music since 2004. But this month on his Solieb Digital label comes the much-anticipated official release of The Unreleased Album, a shelved LSG recording from 2002 that he first made available for fans some years ago as a mid-quality MP3. And it's wonderful: a spacey, melodic, 70-plus minute suite of his down-to-midtempo tech-trance, breakbeats and ambient.
I'm not aware of any published English-language article where he's talked at length about his downtempo work. The quietly momentous occasion of The Unreleased Album gave me a perfect opportunity to request an interview, to which he graciously agreed...
Early ambient & exotica
AMG: I think your first ambient-style album was Constellation (1993) on Harthouse/Eye Q sublabel Recycle Or Die. Around that time you were also really starting to make a name for yourself in Europe as a club trance and techno producer. Can you tell us how the album came about?
OL: Well around this time there were bigger events and parties where they had ambient and chillout areas and I found it really interesting to play there live. There was nobody expecting me to play my releases, so my way of approaching a gig like this was really open. I just brought lots of analogue equipment and only prepared a few basic soundscapes and rhythms. The rest was completely improvised and programmed in that moment. There was also a club in Frankfurt where on Sundays it was open and only chillout music was played. So when Harthouse told me about their idea of the Recycle or Die series of ambient albums that all have a picture of some special painting or photo by some artist, I really felt like doing an album in this style.
AMG: The idea of ambient or chillout music was still pretty new to dance audiences back then. What was the reaction to the album?
OL: The people got into it. Like I said, I think chillout music was getting quite big even then because it was a part of big raves and dedicated clubs and so the scene was growing fast. It got great reviews and I always planned another one, but a bit later I left the Harthouse crew and so it never happened. I did more ambient releases on other labels.
AMG: Your one-off self-titled album The Ambush (1994) is nothing like you've done before or since: a mashup of world music, tribal beats, ambient, trance, techno. What inspired the project?
OL: I was listening to Peter Gabriel, Yello and other music some years before I came up with the idea for the album. After the success of the two really hard The Ambush maxi-singles on Harthouse it was clear that there is some potential for this project and Harthouse asked me to do an album. So I collected some sounds – chants and drums – and just started. Also back then the interesting part was to connect everything into a club context. I even played at the famous Montreux Jazz festival as The Ambush and it was a really big success. I had some drummers and dancers to help me turn this gig into something special and interesting.
AMG: The same year you also released the ambient album Music To Films (1994) with Dr Atmo which was conceived as an alternative soundtrack to the wordless film Koyaanisqatsi, originally scored by Philip Glass. It's a fascinating idea. Can you tell us how that project came about?
OL: Dr Atmo was an ambient DJ at some festivals and also playing at the XS Club [in Frankfurt]. One day we met and he told me about this interesting idea to make an alternative soundtrack to a movie I didn't know about. He brought the movie over and I started creating and playing him sounds and melodies, then we both picked what would be in there. But he never played me the original [Philip Glass] soundtrack - I only heard it when we were finished. We also showed the movie with our soundtrack a few times at the XS Club.
AMG: That album was originally on Fax Records but has long been unavailable. Is there any chance of a re-release on Solieb Digital?
OL: I really don’t know yet. Maybe I'll speak to Dr. Atmo one day but at the moment I have plans to release what I recorded when I played at the XS Club several times and make an "Oliver Lieb Live at XS" album on Solieb Digital later this year.
The LSG downbeat trilogy
AMG: Let's move on to the trilogy of downbeat instrumental albums you did under your LSG pseudonym. The first one Into Deep (1999) must have surprised a few people when it came out, because pretty much everything you'd done as LSG up until then was high velocity tech-trance.
OL: Well it was time to do something different. I've always tried not to stand still, to develop both myself and the musical projects I am working on. So with LSG's The Black Album (1998) I was going in a more hard direction - something like “listening techno”. Into Deep was then on the other sound-side: a more chilled and spaced out album that still had the pumping club-mixes of several tracks for the single/vinyl release. It shows how much is possible with just one project; it can have both extremes without losing its identity and still make complete sense. Into Deep was one of the most liked albums of the LSG project.
AMG: The album has lots of different beat patterns and percussive textures driving the melodies but the individual tracks gel together really well. Did you always intend to blend the tracks together DJ-style, or did that idea come later on?
OL: I always wanted to have albums as a big 70-something minute soundscape. The early Spicelab stuff - which has ambient parts in there too - as well the Constellation album started with 15-20 minute parts and this is how that process started for me. Then with LSG I was able to do a real long player as one track plus individual vinyl/single releases. I think it's far more than just “DJ-style” mixing - it's not just blending some music together but rather a developing story or a musical trip.
AMG: The next album in the trilogy is LSG: The Singles Reworked (2004). I think it’s a great example of creatively how far downbeat remixes can go, beyond just stripping away the original drum tracks. Can you talk a bit about that project?
OL: At the time there was another LSG album that was supposed to be released and was already finished - The Unreleased Album - but since the original distribution company went bankrupt I agreed with the label to start the new distribution deal with a Best-Of album. I didn't just want to have only existing songs on there, so I decided to do some chilled-out versions of some tracks.
AMG: Were there any club singles that you started reworking as downbeat numbers but then realised they wouldn't work in that context?
OL: No, the ones I wanted to include all turned out really fine.
AMG: And finally in the trilogy we come to The Unreleased Album (2002/2013), which you're officially releasing this year. Can you tell us the backstory on this one?
OL: This was meant to be what came out after LSG's The Hive (2002) album, acting as a transition to where LSG would go next. But with the move to a new distributor, and a bit later with Superstition Records stopping the album, it never got released and the whole project kind of got put on pause.
AMG: It sounds like the sister album of Into Deep - it's got those broken beats and spaced-out melodies and segues smoothly between different movements. What are your memories of creating the album?
OL: In a way that album is a mix of all different kinds of styles I did as LSG. It was supposed to be a resume of the project's current state and then I planned to take it in a different direction.
AMG: You've waited over 10 years to officially put it out...
OL: I didn't really wait but rather got talked into it by a lot of people to finally make it available in full quality. I did put a low quality version online for the fans of this project a few years ago and I didn't really think to release it officially.
AMG: How important is it to you that the music you make has longevity?
OL: The biggest problem for anybody doing music is to come to the point where you say: “This is what it is. Finished”. Every day you could make some more changes and turn a piece of music into something else, so it's always a compromise to say that something is finished, especially with an album. To me, everything I do is in a way outdated a bit after I finished it since I would do it differently later. I was thinking for a long time that I wouldn't release The Unreleased Album because it was done so long ago and maybe people wouldn't understand it.
AMG: Since you started making records again in 2011 you've been composing and DJ'ing in a more minimal tech-house style. The tempos have slowed, the beats are starker, there's less emphasis on melody. How's the reaction been on the dancefloor to your new sound?
OL: I wouldn't say that this is something completely new since I never played very commercial and melodic DJ sets, and I always produced some harder or non-melodic stuff. It is just that my more melodic stuff is better known and maybe in recent years I've been doing productions that are a bit less commercial. So far people are getting into it a lot, since for a many of them it really is something more fresh sounding.
AMG: Some of your new club tracks like "Extrasolar" and "Collider" still have that cosmic thread that's been running through your music since the very beginning. Does this come from an interest in astronomy and science fiction? Or is this cosmic quality something more spiritual?
OL: I watch a lot of documentaries about space and science and, yes, I find it very interesting that there is some mathematical background in nature, space and of course in music. So to me there is a big connection between everything, but it's not so much about something spiritual. I also just like the terminology and sound of some words. I'm into science fiction movies but not by anyone specific.
AMG: The track "IC Future" is beautiful. It sounds like you're channeling Kraftwerk. Are you a fan?
OL: Thanks. I really like their stuff up to the Electric Cafe album and the pads in "IC future " might sound a bit like some of their old stuff but this is really more a coincidence. I would call myself a fan of Yello from back then. They were doing more crazy stuff and were always doing really wide-span stuff on their albums and developing their project very well.
AMG: Which of your recent dance singles do you think are good candidates for downtempo remixes? I could imagine them on the chillout remix discs that have been part of John Digweed's recent Bedrock Records compilations, for example.
OL: I think I could do downtempo mixes of almost everything. The EP release I had on Parquet Records [Rack To The Boots] comes to my mind first.
AMG: I see you're also playing occasional LSG and trance retro sets. The fans are quite mad for it. Does LSG have a future?
OL: I wouldn't say no, but I don’t really know if I would use the LSG name rather than doing the project's music under my real name. We'll see, as this is something I'm thinking about at the moment.
On music, design and chilling out
AMG: After the 1990's it's well known that you got turned off by the increasing commercialism of club trance. Trance in any form has always had lots of melody. Do you think the cheesiness of Eurotrance has made melody a dirty word?
OL: Well it made “trance” a dirty word. But the problem is more that some producers, labels or DJs want to go the pop star way and just go for the masses, money and easy stuff, but the scene they came from tries to hold on to them; people don't accept the fact that an artist has left and is doing something else. So there is always moaning about commercialism from the underground, instead of people clearly marking the line and saying: these artists don’t belong there anymore and don’t get any more attention from us.
If there's a new Madonna or whatever commercial album out then on the scene nobody is moaning; it's more when some artists DID do something underground in the past. If their decision is to become a pop star then so be it, but please don’t mention their name in an underground context. Also, some of these guys or labels still see themselves underground because they would like to be cool. So this is a big grey area and it's frustrating that fans still support this way of thinking.
AMG: You've always been known for tailoring your own electronic sounds instead of relying on presets. How have the latest digital tools affected that process for you?
OL: There are interesting digital effects and plugins out there but I think it will still take a few years until computers are able to handle some of them in the highest quality. The price of those computers will be interesting! Nevertheless I still rely on my Kyma system [a digital audio hardware-software combo] and all kinds of other stuff. A combination of plugins can create some really special sounds, you just have to find the interesting ones.
AMG: Some of the tour photos you post on Facebook suggest a love of cool architecture and urban design. What connections to you see between architecture and music?
OL: I guess some mathematical connections maybe in architecture but it's more a connection to “techno”: dirty, industrial, clean, repetitive, minimal, cold, spaced out etc. All words that can fit both architecture and techno music but don’t necessarily define them.
AMG: What kind of music to you listen when you're not working? Any favourite ambient or downtempo albums?
OL: If I don’t work I might listen to tracks on Beatport or I might just not listen to anything, to refresh my ears. I still like the old Morphic Resonance (1994) album by Syzygy [on Rising High Records] - that to me is a nice melodic piece of ambient music. There's more weird and spaced out stuff like Tangerine Dream's Phaedra (1974) that I also like. They're two sides of ambient or chill-out and they'll always sound fresh.
The music business
AMG: Over your 20-plus year career you've had your fair share of problems dealing with record companies - Harthouse and Superstition, for example. How are you finding the brave new world of online, where artists no longer have to depend as much on record labels?
OL: The problem is that now the artist has to do all the work and there is normally not a budget to stand out, so you can get lost in the swamp of millions of releases. I don’t think that's a good development. I do like the fact that really everybody now can create and release something. But then a lot of people that buy a laptop today think a few days later they are the next superstar DJ or producer and market themselves as such on Facebook and everywhere online.
AMG: Business-wise you seem very independent now, doing exactly what you want to do and really enjoying it.
OL: Yes, I prefer working with one or two strong labels and for the rest being independent. I hope to continue like this for another couple of years. I see the next couple of months as being one of my most creative times with lots of releases. There's another ambient album on Psychonavigation Records, lots of remixes and original track releases, ongoing re-releases, and another album I have in mind with new music in the LSG-style sound area.
LSG The Unreleased Album is out now on Solieb Digital and iTunes.
Read Ambient Music Guide's essential albums overview of OL/LSG here.
Introducing Oliver Lieb: recommended listening for newbies
Albums - Ambient, downtempo & other exotica
Oliver Lieb - Constellation (1993, Solieb Digital)
The Ambush - The Ambush (1994, Solieb Digital)
Music To Films [with Dr. Atmo] (1994, Fax Records)
LSG - Into Deep (1999, Superstition)
LSG - The Singles Reworked (2004, Superstition)
LSG - The Unreleased Album (2002/2013, Solieb Digital)
Albums - club trance & techno
Spicelab - A Day On Our Planet (1994)
LSG - Rendezvous In Outer Space (1995)
LSG - Volume 2 (1996)
LSG - The Hive (2002)
Singles & EPs - club trance & techno
Spicelab - Quicksand EP (1992)
Paragliders - Paragliders EP (1993)
LSG - Blueprint EP (1994)
LSG - Netherworld [esp. the Jules Verne mix] (1997)
LSG - Hidden Sun Of Venus (1997)
Oliver Lieb - Subraumstimulation [Push remix] (1999)
LSG – Into The Deep EP (2000)
Choice remixes 1994-2013 - club trance, techno, prog and tech house
Pete Lazonby - Wavespeech [Oliver Lieb remix]
Humate - Love Stimulation [Oliver Lieb softmix]
Hallucinogen - LSD [Oliver Lieb remix]
Paragliders - Lithium [Oliver Lieb remix]
Ambassador - The Fade [Oliver Lieb remix]
Natious - Amber [Oliver Lieb remix]
Mauro Norti - Last Day [Oliver Lieb remix]
Tran & Teho - Almeria [Oliver Lieb remix]
Recent Singles & EPs - tech house & beyond
Oliver Lieb - IC Future (2012)
Oliver Lieb - Collider EP (2012)
Oliver Lieb - The Shortest Day EP (2013)