Exclusive Interview with Johannes Buff (producer/musician)
I met Johannes in Toulouse while he was touring around Europe as a sound engineer for “Zombie Zombie”. While talking to him, I discovered a very open minded and interesting person, which had much more to tell than stay hidden behind the crowd and do his job under the shadow as people sometimes do. Johannes is a multi tasks person I think, capable of touching, listening and creating many different things in the same time. Who else could he be? A real artist!
Y.D: Hi Johannes, first of all, tell us a few words about you...
J.B: Hello Yann, I come from the Basque Region and I listen for a living.
Could you briefly tell us what is a sound engineer ?
I think a great engineer is a person with good social skills.
I like to keep in mind that recording a band is more about decrypting intentions than capturing sounds. Recording is a series of situations. I try to be a good listener in every aspect of these situations and then render them onto tape for people to hear.
The best albums are great because they tell more than just the lyrics.
It's the same for a live show, I try to make the instruments speak to their player's voice. Narration is as important as energy.
It's a lot of multi-tasking, but a lot about dynamics, too.
Like many sound engineers, you are a musician as well and even play in two different bands; Tin Trails and DUBAI ! Can you introduce them and explain your role within each of them?
I've played music since I was seven or eight and started releasing solo music almost ten years ago, though I've waited until last year to really give a band my full attention. Probably because I've never been in one place long enough to build such a relationship. Today I'm still living between two continents but I've met people with whom it seems very natural to collaborate.
DUBAI is a project with my wife Anna Barie. I met her on tour, while running sound for her own band These Are Powers. Very soon in our relationship we knew we had to make something creative together. It's been a little chaotic, but I think we found a common voice to express ourselves. It's an intimate project, two people choosing overlapping realities, alone and together. So the music we make is a strong reflection of that, sometimes harsh and noisy, but always honest.
I just came back from a three week European tour with my other band, Tin Trails, which is a very new project.
It started with a songwriter submitting demos and two like minded brothers arranging those songs.
Somewhere down the road it became its own entity, and I'm happy the band is now getting bigger than ourselves. It's also the first band with my brother Felix, and it's really great to share that with him.
We write beautiful songs, that we destroy to reveal their essence. We then reassemble the puzzle. I think the songs become more interesting when they go through such a process. But we also like simple songs and some of them don't get destroyed.
What are your musical influences ?
I'm a big fan of the "less is more" idea.
Very often when you face a problem, it works better to take an element out and try something else than adding on top of all the mess.
I'm interested in design, movies, art, fashion, food, relationships. It's vague but I'm more a sum of senses than a sum of aesthetics. I think all creatives are more inspired by a lot of different things than the actual field they're involved in.
In music, to name only a few contemporaries, I cherish producers Dave Fridmann and Jim O'Rourke, songwriters Bill Callahan and Jeff Tweedy, and freaks like Wayne Coynes and Mykki Blanco.
I guess being a sound engineer helps you while playing with your bands and vice versa. Could you tell us more about that? Do you consider yourself having a specific musical approach thanks to your experience as a sound engineer?
Yes, and it's a big problem sometimes, ha.
I'd say that playing music with other people helps my producing more than the latter helps me be a musician, because I tend to be too analytical when I write music, and sometimes treat producing issues before writing the song. But the other members are always there to stop me from it.
I'm getting better with it now, and it definitely helps to be aware of that when I'm recording a band. Understanding how a band functions (why a beat grooves or doesn't, how instruments interact with each other) is crucial for a engineer. It's all about relationships and I don't think I could improve much as a producer if I didn't have this background.
Being a sound engineer was very frustrating creatively, because the part I can take in the writing process is limited. Most bands underestimate how much an external perspective can bring to a band during a show. It's also hard to only be a technician, and I understand how you can get burnt out.
I'm responsible for how people will perceive the band's music, which is a pretty big responsibility, so I'm definitively part of a piece of art, but I'll never really be part of the band. Making my own music is a natural patch.
How do you compose songs and work on the sound for Tin Trails and DUBAI ? Are there any specific differences in the way you work?
A band is like a girlfriend. Every relationship is different and I assume writing music is different for every band. I said earlier that I like to decompose songs, and repackage them. I guess that's a producer's point of view.
With DUBAI I have an idea of a mood in my mind before I start writing notes, maybe all of our songs sound different, have different aesthetics. I like that idea of variety.
With Tin Trails we share a more stable and established aesthetic, but we try to make something unique too.
In both cases it often comes from a single idea, that grows into something bigger. Alone it's easy to make choices, but when you're several, your ideas get bounced back to you and that is a very interesting thing.
Which other bands did you work with? Which of them have been the most inspiring for you ? Why, what did you learn ?
I started working in a big mainstream studio in Germany, literally with pop stars, and everything that comes with it. I mostly assisted big producers and learned a big deal about politics there. It was a great experience and I'm glad I've been part of this but I learned a lot more about creativity, personality and ethics with bands and people such as Trans Am, Enablers, Quintron and Ian Svenonious. Mostly Americans I have to say -I even married one of them!
I'm working right now with Zombie Zombie and Herman Dune from Paris, and they are very inspiring artists and human beings. I wish I had met them and their music before.
I'm also lucky enough to be touring with legends Lee Ranaldo and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth, they have a lot of stories to tell.
All these bands constantly remind me that music is not just a product on a shelf.
What is going on for the moment ? What is next ? Any special things coming up within the next few months ?
Lots of touring as sound engineer!
DUBAI and Tin Trails will be writing new material very soon, with touring plans for the fall.
Definitively a release for Tin Trails, maybe even for DUBAI… writing, releasing and touring is a constant cycle, but what I mostly look forward to is happy moments. I can make plans for myself only about six month ahead of time these days, so I want to enjoy the present.
Anna and I are looking to establish a home in Paris. It's exciting. I like this city probably as much as I hate it. But the quality of life is so much better than New York!
You do some web design besides working in music. The purpose of this collaboration between us is to feature you and your multiple artistic activities throughout a unique and original design printed on Colorblind Apparel t-shirts. Can you explain this choice of such a kick ass and uncommon “revolver” ?
This revolver is a 1860's Colt. It was made in Italy and exported to the USA to serve in the army.
This object is a strong symbol of western society. It conveys values on which our society has been built and how we generally think.
Flash codes are a great invention, the past two decades are full of awesome inventions, internet is a huge one, but it's killing so many aspects of human relationships. It provided us with an infinite tool for communication, and maybe it will bring more unity and equity to the world; but I feel so far that it brought more isolation, jealousy and conflict into people's lives.
Thanks a lot Johannes !!
You will find the fruit of this nice collaboration below. A really nice revisited 1860’s revolver printed on cool Fair trade t-shirts ! More info about Johannes work and bands can be found here:
You can listen to a few songs of DUBAI here: https://soundcloud.com/dvbai
Tin Trails Website: tintrails.com
You can listen to Tin Trails first single here: https://soundcloud.com/tintrails