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At some point in the early 1990s, liner notes pushed a teenaged Ulrich Schnauss toward a profound revelation. As a young enthusiast of then-hot electronic music styles such as acid house and Detroit techno, Schnauss was so enamored with the concept of that genre that he used his favorite artists to give him a history lesson on the form as a whole. Frequencies—the 1991 debut album from British techno outfit LFO (not to be confused with the American pop group of the same name)—provided a crucial gateway. That record's sleeve shouted out to such innovative electronic names as Yellow Magic Orchestra, Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream. Schnauss' affection for LFO led him to Tangerine Dream's Stratosfear, a 1976 album from Edgar Froese's long-running and immensely prolific project. That band would have particularly powerful resonance with Schnauss.
"It is electronic music on a formal level, but on an emotional level, it's very human, and the human being that controls the instrument always remains the priority, so they never had this man/machine aesthetic like Kraftwerk," he says. "That kind of dichotomy is always something that really appealed to me: to use electronic instrumentation to create something very human and organic rather than [something] being completely taken over by technology, basically, and the human being almost becoming secondary."
Working today as a musician and producer still smitten with electronic and ambient music, the German-born, now-London-based 35-year-old (who also handles keyboards in British shoegaze outfit Engineers) keeps many of Tangerine Dream's aesthetic angles in play for himself, despite being raised with a conservative musical education. Schnauss started studying piano at age 7 and spent the next eight years relishing the idea of "making noise" when he could, but maintaining mixed feelings about his overall enjoyment of and interest in the instrument. Around age 12, he acquired his first keyboard, which contained a built-in sequencer; that set him on the path toward making his own compositions. During the 1990s, he focused on producing drum-and-bass tracks, as well as other forms of dance music.
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In 2001, he issued Far Away Trains Passing By, his first album under his own name (as opposed to aliases such as Ethereal 77 and View to the Future) and turned his focus toward shoegaze-inspired electronica. But after completing 2007's Goodbye, he felt worn out by that approach.
February's A Long Way to Fall, Schnauss' fourth album as himself, marks a kind of introduction to a third period. The difference between records isn't dramatic—both Goodbye and A Long Way feature warm, dulcet tunes that are shaped in the awe-inducing sprawl of the Milky Way—but Goodbye has crunchy moments of rock-born distortion, whereas A Long Way is packed with sparkly melodies that feel wholeheartedly electronic-music-oriented in execution. Over time, Schnauss emphasizes, he plans to move away from "genre music" and cut out signifiers (such as electronic-music software plug-ins) that could link his work to certain dated subgenres or trends. This means an increased focus on stripping elements from songs. Schnauss' goals are to make sounds that are "more and more pure" and music that has a more timeless sensibility.
Schnauss came from "what you could probably call quite a rough upbringing with a lot of violence and stuff like that," he says. Partially because of that, he began holding tight to the idea of music as a means of escapism—both as a listener and creator. In a February interview with Rocksucker, he noted that he has spent the past two decades attempting to re-create something he heard in his head as a child—"a music that's symphonic in the way that many different layers of sound interact with one another and that has an overall 'surrealist,' otherworldly impact."
Speaking to OC Weekly, he affirms the importance of that dream. "When I was probably 7 or 8 years old, I used to lie awake at night for long times and just imagine music. This was even before I had an idea about electronic music," Schnauss says. "Ever since then, I always thought, 'One day, I'd like to try to make this kind of music.' That's something I'm trying to move closer and closer toward, but I think that's going to be a long process."