Wu-Tang Clan may have porked out over the years, but there’s no doubt that Pantha du Prince was responsible for the heaviest performance at Primavera this year, with a stage set dominated by a three-tonne instrument comprised of 50 gleaming bronze bells. The carillon is the centrepiece of Hamburg techno producer Hendrik Weber’s latest album, ‘Elements of Light’, recorded with The Bell Laboratory, a handpicked ensemble of classically trained Norwegian musicians. Striking a balance between contemporary classical and dancefloor-ready techno, the record is an ambitious follow-up to 2007’s ‘This Bliss’, his acclaimed second album of accessible minimal techno, and 2010’s ‘Black Noise’, which saw him tweak and twist field recordings of bells into an irresistible atmosphere of starry-eyed euphoria. A few hours after their ecstatic performance in Primavera’s own indoor auditorium (a treat for knackered festivalgoers), Weber told me about his love affair with bells and why he doesn’t need to know a thing about music theory.
CR: You’ve been exploring the sound of bells for many years now – why do they continue to fascinate you?
HW: It’s a sound that has a certain physicality. As soon as you hear it, you connect it to a physical object. This is a fascinating thing, when you have this interfering of seeing and hearing, when it becomes one. And at the same time the bell never has a consistent note, it changes. It has such a big variation of overtones and interferences, and the directions of the sound travelling, that you always have a kind of mess, which makes it so beautiful.
CR: Hearing the carillon in Oslo City Hall was one of the moments that inspired you to use the instrument on this record. What made that carillon special?
HW: It has a lot to do with the environment of the place, the structure of the landscape, the city, the building. The specific instrument has a different sound as well, as different manufacturers make them in different ways. You have a lot of cheap ones that use cheap iron, and you can hear that the tones aren’t as refined. It’s an old, old handcraft. It’s an artform to create a nice bell.
CR: Have you tried to play the carillon yourself?
HW: Yeah, but it’s not that I want to start playing an instrument. I had so many field recordings of bell sounds that I really wanted to explore it through someone playing it, which is the most fascinating thing for me with The Bell Laboratory, this idea of the human interface. We wanted to do something with classically trained musicians, experimental, open-minded musicians who can read scores but at the same time can think and act beyond their normal frame. The whole piece was written before with the samples from the carillon in Oslo – I put it on my keyboard at home and wrote the melodies with the bells from the city hall. Then we had to transpose and transcribe the different parts and put layers on top of it.
CR: The audience at The Bell Laboratory shows seem to get completely swept up in the music, it’s almost euphoric – do you notice their reaction?
HW: I notice that they are dancing, but I think I have another view on the crowd, I recognise them as an organism. I’m not looking at single people, I see them as a swarm of birds where they are moving this direction or that direction. And in the end it becomes this picture, and then they lose themselves in the picture and you can actually recognise this on stage, the point where people get what we are doing.
It’s also because of the music. When you as a human being see another human being become part of this organism, it’s something that touches you deeply. When you see a creature doing what you would normally expect to be electronic, people inhale it as something new. Because it’s not the gesture of the bass player, or the guitar player playing a solo, it’s a more internal journey, and I think people recognise that. No one is the master, and this is what makes people happy, to see that there is no real master except for the pulse.
CR: That’s very much the core philosophy of clubbing, too – the DJ is important, but not as important as the crowd. Everybody’s necessary.
HW: But some DJs misunderstand that. The danger of abuse is close, because it’s focused on one person. I got asked before if I am the band leader, and I am definitely not the band leader. How can I be the band leader if they tell me what tone to play? They have to tell me it’s E minor.
CR: So you’re not trained in music theory?
HW: No. People think that you need to know everything before you can start working, but you don’t. I mean, look how many people are playing at this festival here who have no clue. I would say probably 80%. The Bell Laboratory musicians are part of the organism – I give my knowledge and they give their knowledge.
CR: In many cultures, bells have traditionally been a mystical or religious instrument. Is that something that appealed to you?
HW: It’s not a conscious thing; it’s probably something in me that resonates with the sound. Bells are normally used by people who claim to have a higher sense of perception, but I think in the end it has nothing to do with that. Everyone has the same possibility to enter that knowledge, and this is what we are basically claiming with this project as well. The sound and what you experience through it is not to be misused by people to lead you.
It affects you on a non-material level very strongly. It affects what you are – not through your ears, not through your body, but in a way that goes beyond your material existence. I’m not a fan of churches, I’m a fan of giving everyone the power to use, in a very conscious way, the abilities of their presence. So it’s nothing mystical in the end.
CR: Is there a possibility you’re getting a bit sick of bells now?
HW: No, no. I loved the performance today. When Bendick, the one next to me on stage, played his bells, I was like, wow. It’s fascinating, it’s just fascinating what it does to you, and how nobody uses it.
CR: Are you working on anything new at the moment?
CR: Does it have bells?
HW: [Pause] I don’t know.
CR: What’s it like?
HW: It’s Pantha [laughs].
CR: Doesn’t that mean bells now?
HW: No, no, Pantha is not necessarily bells. It’s just a frequency range.
CR: And are we likely to see you playing in clubs again?
HW: I am playing still. It’s still so much fun to play these banging shows, you know, I will never stop that. It’s the essence, in the end.