As part of the series on Austrian producers, Ada Karlbauer spoke with producer and live technician MARKUS WALLNER, best known for collaborations with SHAKE STEW, 5K HD, SOAP&SKIN, VOODOO JÜRGENS, KOMPOST3 and many others. This time, the in-depth conversation was about the realization of acoustic images, the growing fusion of production and live technology, the relationship between compromise and magic, the Internet as a swamp, and the permanent fear of finishing the record.
The Vienna Symphonic Library website describes your beginnings as “[…] was coerced shortly after birth into first learning the flute, then the piano, and to everyone’s martyrdom, later the violin.” When did you realize that you were going to go against the classical course of events?
Markus Wallner: The story is that I actually already have a very technical background. I did HTL electrical engineering and, in parallel, because of my parents, I also played the piano for a long time. There was even discussion about whether I should join the Boys’ Choir because I had quite a nice boy’s voice [laughs]. But as a little kid I completely resisted. After graduating from high school, I was in the military ensemble in a string orchestra and could even play the violin quite well. But I still decided that such an orchestra was not for me and that I would not become a professional musician. At that time I also improvised with my violin in various folk bands and then finally ended up studying sound engineering in Vienna and became one professionally.
A PILOT MAY BE IN LOVE WITH HIS PLANE, BUT I’M NOT IN LOVE WITH MY MIXER
Some producers or live technicians suffer from a kind of technology fetish, in which the equipment stands above the music. How would you describe your approach?
Markus Wallner: Many colleagues see it more technically. I see it differently. For me, the equipment that is there is a means to an end, to transport something. Ultimately, it’s about music that you want to transport. The technical equipment only serves a certain purpose. A pilot might be in love with his plane, but I’m not in love with my mixing console [laughs]. As soon as the instruments are playing, I care more about the music and not about the technical trappings.
STANDING AT THE MIXING DESK IS LIKE COOKING […]
Markus Wallner: To create good music you need a good breeding ground and no compromise, because overly compromised working environments, little magic happens. Standing at the mixing desk is like cooking, you have your ingredients and you try to bring them into balance, and also for you, personally. But when that balance doesn’t happen, the only thing you’ve got is volume and intensity. The whole job is an emotional job. I am a facilitator, I listen to what the artists imagine as images, and then I already form a picture in my head of how this can be realized on a stage. Or even on an acoustic stage in a mix, without saying, “But I need this or that piece of equipment.”
You look for a person who has a vision and accompanies a project from the beginning to the end
Apart from your almost year-round work as a live technician, can you also identify with the classic definition of a “producer”?
Markus Wallner: I see myself more as someone who listens, who tries to create an image or sound aesthetic from what is told in his head. For me, it’s about nudging them where they want to go with a few hints – by no means brash and urgent; because I have too much respect for the artists. Musicians usually come to me with a very concrete image. From my point of view, this does not correspond to the classic, school-masterly definition of the term. For me, a producer is a person who has listened to exactly the kind of music a band wants to embody, knows pretty much what’s going on in the market right now, and where they see a market niche for that project. A producer can, of course, be a member of the formation at hand. But it’s really about a vision. You look for a person who has a vision and accompanies a project from the beginning to the end. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be an independent person.
I have and had a lot to do with Soap&Skin. As far as I know, Anja [Anja Franziska Plaschg] cuts and edits everything at home with incredible meticulousness. When she got a grand piano after the first album, I helped her a bit to set up the recording situation. That could already be understood as a kind of producer situation, but more in the form of support. I never wanted to influence her in how she understood her music, because that’s a whole separate cosmos for me. I always figured that if I told her anything, I might bend it in the wrong direction. I never wanted to risk that because I appreciate her just the way she is. I’m always completely blown away by her sonic ideas.
This approach sounds very restrained, in stark contrast to the common cliché of the all-powerful producer who dictates the sound.
Markus Wallner: Yes, that’s something I don’t want to do at all. That’s exactly why I’m much more into the live business, because I don’t want to intrude on making music or producing in any way. Often I record exactly as it is offered to me at that moment, and only when I listen through it can I then give tips. In this day and age, you can hardly make a living from the music itself anyway, and if you can, then you’ve been incredibly lucky. So when you get a producer who is also involved in this whole chain of costs, it’s an incredible responsibility to be able to say profoundly to the artists. “With this tip I’m giving you, we’re going to take this to a new sales number from fifty to five-thousand.” When someone shows me their new record and wants my feedback, I often don’t respond because I sometimes think to myself, “How do I actually get to give a critique?” Grassroots democracy is not the way things work in music. If you make something and you play it to twenty people and one of them says something negative, most of the time you only really listen to that one opinion [laughs].
MEANWHILE, EVERYONE CAN RECORD […]
The classic recording studio as a physical space is gradually giving way to computers and cheap, easily accessible programs. Where do you stand on this?
Markus Wallner: In the past, a recording studio was like the holy grail. You prepared for three days and then the record had to be done. Unless you were a superstar, you had your own. Today you go to the computer store, buy a computer, a cheap interface and you can make world hits with it. Meanwhile, everyone can record and that’s a great development because it broadens the range of music incredibly. As I started studying this twenty years ago, if it was a “hobby project” one would have said right away that it didn’t pay off to continue. With these current developments, that’s changed a lot. People are firing up their laptops and recording. YouTube and similar channels are full of people trying to establish themselves as musicians. I don’t know if a genre like cloud rap would have developed twenty years ago.
IT’S A HUGE SWAMP AND LITTLE TREES KEEP GROWING OUT OF IT […]
Markus Wallner: My sense is that there would have been a technician sitting there asking, “What’s that?” But of course that assumption is also a bit narrow-minded [laughs]. That point where you say you now have to budget to be able to operate the whole chain – from music reproduction to mastering and record production – also just falls away because of this easy access to producing. You can put your data directly on the Internet, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have invented a new genre of music with your vision. But then five million people worldwide are doing it in parallel, simultaneously [laughs]. It’s a huge swamp, and there are always little trees growing out of it that also reach us. I’m not someone who searches the whole net for new music, because I don’t take the time at all.
What interesting collaborations have there been lately?
Markus Wallner: What worked really well for me was the last Soap&Skin tour. I recorded the last album “From Gas To Solid/You Are My Friend” with Anja. I collaborated with Mira Lu Kovacs for her project with Clemens Wenger. With Clemens Wenger from 5/8erl in Ehr’n I also did a project for the festival Glatt & Verkehrt, which was Mira’s song in a new guise and with a completely new instrumentation, which also resulted in a live record. With Mira I have had very many production processes over the last few years, starting from the original line-up of Schmieds Puls, when we produced the first record.
Markus Wallner: What is also working very well at the moment is Shake Stew, Together we travel all over Europe from one jazz festival to the next and are really hyped everywhere. I was also involved in the last double album. There are just so many synergies. In the meantime, you’re no longer just a producer or just a live technician, you simply have to be broadly positioned and have an open eye and ear for all the jobs that come up that help musicians realize a musical dream. To say that I do all this just to get rich is illusory. So to anyone reading this: You don’t get rich doing this [laughs].
TO SAY THAT I’M DOING ALL THIS JUST TO GET RICH IS ILLUSory
Keyword: synergies. How exactly can you imagine such intermixing between studio and live work?
Markus Wallner: It is now often the case that, as a live technician at important concerts, at one-off events – such as 5K HD in the Arena or Soap&Skin at the Kasematten (Graz) – I am asked if I can’t record that as well. That’s now technically relatively easy, because you can record that from the live console context. Then it has to go bang, bang. Social media is just waiting to be fed while the food is still hot. The time spans of releases are getting tighter and tighter, people expect that when you release a record, two days later the concert is already happening in the venue, otherwise the attention is gone immediately. Often, live records come out of that.
Do questions of contemporary hype or any other play a role with regard to your work?
Markus Wallner: Yes, of course. But for me it’s more about not unintentionally making something that is labeled cheesy or not worth releasing at present. The step to make a record is always a big risk for me, because I see myself more as a technician. You invest a lot of time, but secretly you’re always afraid that the record will be finished, but no one will be interested in it. This is then again the role of the classical producer, to set the end point and believe in it without stagnating, due to uncertainty.
Which jobs would you turn down immediately?
Markus Wallner: A no-go for me is an event that could drift into the right-wing milieu in any way, shape or form, or even just in a tendency. I’m still waiting for a call where I could then cancel [laughs], so far that hasn’t happened to me yet. Other no-go’s for me – from the live work – would be any tent festivals, the Wiener Wiesn; things like that. If I had been offered something like that, I wouldn’t have done it. I also wouldn’t take care of any event that I wouldn’t attend privately without having to pretend. It has to challenge me a little bit artistically. What I like least are concerts or CDs that are just beautiful, because just being beautiful doesn’t do anyone any good. Of course you have to live from something, but that’s really not the reason why you want to make music, produce a record, record and make even more usable in a live context. There’s enough beautiful – beautiful is background.
For example, I do live work with Elvis Presley’s original band. These are rather older musicians with whom I stagger around, which is an absolute anecdote for quite a lot of young artists, because they often ask me then: “And how is it with the gentlemen?” I actually find it very pleasant to have a dialogue with these music legends. So, of course, it’s fair to say that it’s more of an outlier compared to what I usually do. I don’t define myself by it, but I still value the music. I am very reluctant to do projects where the music is not valued. Any galas, where you then look after a band in the background, you only do because the money is right. But if it doesn’t hurt anyone and doesn’t oppose my principled political stance, then I do it sometimes and become an enemy of myself [laughs].
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translated from the German original on Mar. 9, 2020 by Arianna Fleur