Cover Story: Kollektiv Turmstrasse

The illustrious German act Kollektiv Turmstrasse chats with Kristian J Caryl about overcoming self-doubt, his laser-focused music production mentality, crafting new messages in house music, and the arrival of his first album in 13 years, Unity of Opposites.

18 min
Press Photo Kollektiv Turmstrasse clean 03a ļ Marie Staggat 2023
Nov 20, 2023
Kristan J Caryl

Music means a lot of things to a lot of people. It’s escapism, it’s comfort, it’s joy. For Nico Plagemann, it’s even more than that. “Music truly saved my life,” he says as a warm, bright sun dazzles our view of him. He is sitting outside, sunglasses on, as the sound of his daughter playing in the background drifts in and out of earshot. He has recently moved to Southern Spain though will not join the family full-time until after his current run of album tour dates.

“My whole life makes sense right now,” he explains. “I’m so thankful that music gives me the chance to use the strength of this condition I have to make art. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t find this way to be creative. Maybe I’d have lost everything and would be living under the bridge.”

Over the next few minutes, this veteran German producer and live act talks of a lifelong sense of dissatisfaction with himself, of “never feeling good enough” and not being able to handle “simple things like being on time, being organised.” He is recalling the darkest days of the last few years and, as was the case for so many people, describes how the Covid pandemic intensified his troubles. “I got crazy and depressed. What the fuck happened?”

Fortunately, a friend recognised Plagemann’s troubled state and suggested he was displaying the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He headed to the internet, took a few online tests, and “was totally clear like OK, that’s me. This is my life.” After consulting a doctor it was confirmed that what he actually had was attention deficit disorder, or ADD, which means he suffers with inattention, distractibility, and poor working memory but not the hyperactivity and impulsivity of ADHD.

A couple of years on, Nico is thankful for the diagnosis. He is prescribed regular medication to control the condition and takes comfort in understanding why he is like he is. But one thing will always annoy him. “I found out so late. I’m in my forties right now and I feel like I missed a lot of my life because of it,” he says, looking away from the camera. “I couldn’t work, I couldn’t move. I was always struggling to concentrate, to have a nice workflow, to fit into society. I always felt like I couldn’t handle that.”

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He remembers feeling lost and like something wasn’t right with himself many times over the last 20 years. “If you carry that your whole life, it makes you smaller, every year. I’m OK now, I can be a normal guy, but it would have been easier to handle if I knew when I was 20 because I wasted so much time.”

It has often been said that out of adversity comes great art, and so it is that Nico has channeled these difficult experiences into his new Kollektiv Turmstrasse album Unity of Opposites. It is one steeped in “melancholic feelings” that he had to get out. But it’s not an album of sorrow of self-pity. It’s one of great intricacy and depth, of musical exploration and therapy.

Some of the tracks on the album were started several years ago, but all of them have been poured over in great detail. “When I work on music, I recognise that ADD is super nice. Its superpower is that you are very creative, hyper-focused.”

It’s his second full-length, but comes 13 years after his first. Looking back to that album, Rebellion der Träumer, which translates as ‘The Dreamer’s Rebellion’, brings a laugh out of Nico as he fiddles with an unlit cigarette. “It makes sense that the album was called that because I am a dreamer, I was always a dreamer, stuck in my thoughts, stuck in dreams.”

He says he wasn’t a troublesome child, just someone always lost in his own thoughts. “I couldn’t match the level of my classmates. I only made it because my parents were very strict, they pushed me to finish school. They didn’t know I had ADHD so it was hard for them too but I feel very lucky to have had them doing that for me.”

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The instrumental nature of electronic music makes it a perfect soundtrack for dreamers. So it proved for young Nico, who found his way into the emerging techno scene of the early ’90s. He grew up in Wismar, a beautiful holiday spot in northern Germany on the Baltic Sea. It’s not known for its underground music culture, but not too far away was Hamburg, which had plenty going on. It was there he found parties headlined by stars of the time like Sven Vath, Carl Cox and Adam Beyer, while UK rave, Detroit and hard techno, drum & bass and Kompakt also turned his ear. There was only one party a month back then so each one was a special event. “We weren’t overwhelmed by choice, it was always so exciting, so special and intense.”

Unlike many young party people, he didn’t dream of being a DJ. Instead, he was always obsessive in the way he listened to the music. He collected records but as a means of research “because it was important for my skills as a producer.”

“I started with an Amiga 500, programming beats,” he explains. “Being a DJ was never my goal, it doesn’t touch me. It was always more important to know how the music was made. Understanding the music was more important.”

After school, he started training with a company that was going to get him a “solid” job at the end of the process. But well before he qualified, Nico already knew that sitting in an office all week would not work for him, so aged 18 or 19, he went to work for his mum instead. She was an insurance broker and had her own agency. Nico would work there by day then go home and work on music until the small hours, catch a quick nap, then head back to the office for 8 am.

“I knew it wouldn’t work,” he smiles through his scruffy, greying goatee and thick-rimmed glasses. “Sitting there with tired eyes all the time was not possible.” One night, he decided to tell his mum he was quitting to persue music. “But I knew I couldn’t tell strict parents that I was just making music, so I said I would properly study music.” He did for a few years at a good school, and for the first time in his life, he recognised “how beautiful it was to learn things because you want to learn them, not just because you have to.”

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It all paid off. By 1998, Nico had formed Kollektiv Turmstrasse – named in part after the main street in Wismar – with the now departed Christian Hilscher, though it was always him doing the production. A steady stream of early EPs established them as part of the rising minimal scene of the time, and by 2015, they had a super hit on their hands with “Sorry I Am Late” on FFRR. “I don’t make hits,” says Nico of the surprise breakout anthem, which sounded like little else out at the time. “It’s the people who make something a hit. If they like it, for them it’s a hit, but I don’t think about that when I’m producing. I always try to swim against that. I really like to do what other producers do not.”

He has certainly done that with Unity of Opposites, an ambitious electronic album punctuated with seven “Betwixt” tracks – interludes of poetry written a hundred or so years ago by renowned Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a staple of the school syllabus in Germany. The poems are characterised by a subtle sense of mysticism and explore themes of subjective experience, and each one is read by an actor friend of Nico’s. She nailed every track with her first take and the thinking behind including them was to unify an album that is musically diverse.

“I feel like now is the right time for real messages in music,” reflects Nico. “Electronic vocals these days are often just a voice saying “give me your energy” or whatever and this is so annoying and boring to me. Early house music showed us a way to do vocals with meaning and I have tried to give my music meaning, to give something back to the culture that has not happened before.”

The version of Unity of Opposites that has made it out into the world is actually a third iteration. The first two were scrapped when Nico was “totally unsatisfied” with them. “They weren’t skillful enough. I hadn’t shown my best, so I tried to give the music much more personality.” Writing the final version became “a much more emotional process. I really lost myself in it. I was hyper-focused and really gave everything that I had to it.” As such, all the tracks tell their own story and convey Nico’s feelings at the time of writing.

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The likes of “Distant Love” is a tense, textured sounding with heavy broken beats and aching chords, while “Night Wire,” which started as an import live jam, is more joyous and uplifting with its shiny chords and rousing grooves. “Fools in Love (feat. Joel Stewart)” has the sort of fluttering melodies that we have all felt in the pit of our stomach when struck by a new romance, and “Crossroads” is a soundtrack to late-night contemplation and contentment. “The music doesn’t exactly describe how I feel, but I tried to bring my moods to it to trigger thoughts and emotions in people who listen to it.”

After more than 25 years in the game, Nico admits that making music is getting harder. What he means is that as he has grown more technically proficient and more educated about production, he is even more critical of his own work. He tries to push himself with every track and create something new, from scratch, every single time. He reports that on the eve of the album release, he is “anxious” and “afraid” to release it into the world, not easy because he has poured so much of his soul into this particular record.

“There are musicians and producers out there who are so talented,” he says. “They can go in the studio and hits just happen. For me, it’s much harder work. I am always working on music. I have so much unreleased material on my hard disk that I will never put out. I feel my skill comes from hard work. I don’t feel talented. What I do comes from routine, from always working, figuring out different ways to do things.”

That mentality is also what inspired him to become a live artist – the multitude of creative possibilities and endless different ways to connect with a crowd. “I can really express myself playing live. I can do so many things a DJ can’t do,” he says, before explaining that there is quite a difference between Nico to procurer, and Nico the live artist. “They are two different people, to be honest. As a producer, I try to make music that makes sense, but my live show is more about enjoyment for the people, delivering a different energy.”

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Nico also curates his own occasional parties under the YAP – or You Are Perfect – banner, all with a concept that harks back to dance music’s founding principles of inclusivity, diversity, and community. “I wanted to try a party where music takes control. Where we appreciate everyone, whoever they are, whatever they look like. I want people to be themselves like in my early years when everybody was really connected. Everybody is perfect in their own way and I want them to feel that at YAP parties.” So far the first parties in Poland and Amsterdam have also platformed the rising Crimean-born Ukrainian DJ Miura, with more to come in 2014.

There is a melancholy to Plagemann’s character. A self-doubt and shyness comes over as he talks, often with his head bowed and punctuated by unnecessary apologies for his poor English, which is actually excellent. “I’m a simple guy,” he says. Outside of music, he enjoys fishing but mostly spending time with his family, relaxing, which is part of the reason they have recently moved to Southern Spain – better weather for better times together. “I’m a nerd, and I love playing video games,” he adds. “But I’m 100% addicted to music, and there is not much space for anything else.”

In fact, when he has tried to have a break from music, it has backfired, which was the case after the release of the last album. It’s usually a wise choice to rest, refill the creative wells, and take some time away from the studio, but Nico will not be doing that this time. “I actually lost a connection to the music for a long time. I know now I need big projects for myself to stay focussed. I want to take the energy and new skills I have learned making this album forward with me and keep on working at it.”

If pouring himself into music results in albums as quality as Unity of Opposites, we hope Kollektiv Turmstrasse never stops.

Kollektiv Turmstrasse’s sophomore album Unity of Opposites is out now via Not Sorry Music. Buy it on Beatport.

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