Berlin Was Made For Ambient: An Interview with Jan Wagner

When I first visited Berlin it was a bit like what Detroit is today.

It was cheap. It was run down. And artists and freaks of all types were moving there because it was also full of possibilities. But like with modern day Detroit, no one, and I really mean no one back then, in their right mind, would’ve ever thought that one day it will become one of the cultural epicentres of the world. But the reality is that when it comes to music, art or design, Berlin has just as much clout nowadays as New York, LA, Paris or London. I know I have a heavy bias here, but that’s because I have a soft spot for this idiosyncratic island of a city that it is (and you can interpret that in as many ways as you want to). And Detroit, who knows, maybe there is hope for you too?

A couple of weeks back, I received a record called Nummern, from a Berlin based artist by the name of Jan Wagner. Music to daydream to is how I would best describe this type of music. It’s deep and it’s blue. And it’s the type of record that you actually take time off to savour. For the vinyl junkies among you, I would say that you could probably file this one alongside any of your Radiohead records, or maybe slide it next to a Ryuchi Sakamoto (next to Async maybe?). And I’m gonna stop right here because it really doesn’t make much sense for me to describe this music in detail when you can actually just click on any of the tracks below and hear what I’m talking about. So, in closing,  I’ll just say this: if you like ambient music with a droning piano and fleshy, singed synthesiser lines full of relentless arpeggios and plenty of space in the mix – you’re gonna love this one!

Below you will find an interview that I conducted with Jan Wagner, where, as per my personal bias, I decided to ask him about a city that I love.

When did you move to Berlin?
I moved to Berlin in 2010. A close friend of mine moved here in 2009, so I visited him a lot. By that time I knew I need to move here as well [laughs].

Do you still remember what you thought about Berlin back then?
I was overwhelmed by the mass of people! I grew up in a small town in the South of Germany, where growing your hair out was the thing. And there I was, in Berlin, feeling like my head is exploding from the realization of the endless possibilities.

Tell me more…
There is a never-ending list of things that make Berlin unique. To sum it up quickly, you have the division of the city into West and East. And then back in the day, there was this island of West Berlin which, through its isolation spawned an incredible art scene. It all started way back then, the idea that any form of art, or any artistic expressions are accepted here.

Do you think that the city can still stand for all the things that people love it for, despite the heavy gentrification and all these companies moving their headquarters there and, in some cases, even buying up whole neighborhoods?
I’d like to believe so. Everything constantly changes. It would also be equally bad for a city not to evolve in any kind of a way. I honestly believe that through gentrification and what people call ejection that the art scene is not dying but that it is being forced to constantly develop and evolve. There are always new parts of town where art scenes find a place where they can thrive. If art wouldn’t evolve we’d all still be listening to medieval music (laughs). Everything is always moving on and the art scene is especially aware of this fact.

Which neighborhood do you live in?
I lived in several places in Neukölln and I am currently living in Kreuzberg, but as close to Neukölln as possible (laughs). I moved last year, so I’m still discovering new places every day. For example the new bakery at Gräfestraße, they have the best croissants in town!

How would you describe Berlin to someone that has never been there?
You can do anything here! And eat anything too (laughs). It’s a really cool mix of young and old, modern and vintage. There is always something going on and you can get a slice of pizza at any time of the day.

And where is your studio located?
The Studio I work in is located in the heart of Kreuzberg, near Görlitzer Park. The neighborhood is a bit rough:  lots of people and a lot of traffic. Dealers try to sell you drugs all day long, the party crowd waits for the U1 train, and everything smells of urine. There’s a lot to see here, good and bad. But when I arrive at the studio after soaking it all ups, I just close the door behind me and embrace my silent retreat.

You released a very beautiful record recently, entitled Nummern if you had to choose one song from it that would capture the vibe of Berlin, which one would you choose and why?
I’d say Nummer I. Berlin can be quite inhospitable some times, the winters here are freezing cold and grey. People bury themselves in their heavy coats. The piano in this track represents this melancholy Berliners suffer from at the end of a long winter, the bass is driving as if you’re passing an underground club hurrying to your next appointment. Everything gets faster and faster and suddenly every thing is light. The noise fades out, and for one moment, you’re just by yourself.

photo by: Benjamin Schäfer