It is wrong to talk about Rødhåd’s music without using certain words: gloomy, unrelenting and hypnotic. These are the touchstones of a style he has made his own over the course of the last decade plus. Only in the last five years or so have fans outside of Berlin’s inner circle been onto him, but it’s now fair to say the copper-haired German born Mike Bierbach is very much part of the global circuit.
His October released debut album, Anxious, again underlines these moody sonic credentials. The monochromatic cover finds him in make-up with blackened panda eyes, dusted in a sort of post-apocalyptic white volcanic ash and looking up to the sky in a sense of desperation. The striking tattoos across his upper body look like they come from some ancient Mayan tribe (though he has said before that their origin is “my secret” and are “an ongoing story that’s lasted more than 10 years”) and the soot-black background suggests he’s lost in a wilderness. Whether urban or rural is unclear.
The granite-like techno within is just as evocative. It is cinematic but doom laden; bleak, but beautifully so. It seems to suggest an air of paranoia, of real unease and uncertainty about the world around us. These notions have characterised Rødhåd’s music ever since his first EP, 1984, borrowed its title from George Orwell’s prophetically dystopian novel.
With its notions of omni-present surveillance, totalitarian future and on-going war, it has never been more apt that now. And what better way to musically distil western civilisation and our technological societies than with the computerised rhythms of techno? This is exactly what Rødhåd—which is German for red head—does with his music, whether he makes or plays it himself or releases it via he Dystopian label and party he co-runs with two friends who prefer to remain nameless.
But despite the shadowy and melancholic nature of his insular DJ sets and productions, Bierbach himself is lightly spoken. He often smiles in conversation, frequently mentions wearing slippers round the house and has a famously wild beard that makes him look like a cuddly bear more than a menacing presence. Sinister, coal-hearted goth he certainly is not.
“The world these days is more anxious and scary,” he says. “I want people to listen to my album, look at the artwork and think about life and the circumstances we live in at the moment. I am trying to make people sensitive to this problem and make their own opinion.”
The album was “produced in a certain way, in a certain amount of time” and started as 30 tracks that Mike had to narrow down. The resulting mind-movie is rooted in deep, rolling techno, but is detailed with distant drones, a sense of mechanised groove and things like glitchy stabs that remind us how much computers and digital systems define our world. Unsettling winds blow through the remnants of old factories and icy pads keep you locked in nervy suspense. It’s an utterly black and grey world but with such definition that you really feel to be immerse deep within it.
Though he admits to mix in a rather melancholic circle of friends, Rødhåd says music making is his way of releasing his inner fears and worries. “I am normally open minded and positive thinking,” he says, “but in my music I can express also my deeper, darker sides, even though I still hope there is a chance for humanity.”
His masterfully layered DJ sets take a similar path, and often find him playing for huge lengths. In the booth he plays with a smile on his face but serves up ever-pressurised techno with muggy atmospheres, hulking great kicks and booming basslines that are never less than visceral. Often mind melting and hypnotic—and drawn from back catalogues of artists like Robert Hood, James Ruskin and Luke Slater—the same sounds characterise his much loved Dystopian parties and the ten hour sets he has been playing at Berghain since around 2010.
Only Berlin would allow a young DJ to learn by playing such long and winding sets, but nowadays he can be just as often found playing a shorter headline festival slot. Even so, he still manages to cook up a sense of sublime intensity and theatre like few others."
As an artist, to have a long period available where I can present my music, that’s the best situation for a me. In eight hours or even more, I can express myself much better. I like to tell stories, but sometimes I also like to just bang it out.” And that’s what he’ll likely do at The Warehouse Project this weekend. It’s a place he says, “I really like” and reckons that, “Manchester has a unique vibe.” With its industrial past, and the history of the Store Street venue as a former war bunker, it certainly marries well with Rødhåd’s nihilistic musical aesthetic.
Born and raised in Hohenschönhausen on the rough edges of East Berlin, he says life in the suburbs “was an experience”—which is presumably putting it lightly. He took to techno as the parties in East Berlin were relaxed environments with no stress; places you could go without fear of violence. That said, the influence of those formative years amongst Soviet relics, grey concrete and crumbling buildings surely still loom large over him as an artist. Until around 2013, Bierbach still worked full time as an industrial designer for an architect firm, but is now fully immersed in music and often plays in three different countries a week.
Nowadays, he finds that making music is “definitely soothing” for him. “As soon I am in the studio, I am in my own world. Producing gives me power and energy in my life. I wouldn't call it therapy, but I need music to connect with the world around me.”
Currently deep in touring the album, Bierbach explains it is an “intense time,” especially as one of Berlin’s famously bitter winters is just starting to bite. On top of that, he’s only just recovering from a heavy cold which saw his doctor order him to cancel a few shows, so he feels he is in need of a holiday. Though it sure is hard to imagine him on a beach in the sun, even techno vikings need time to recoup.
After that, his musical story will resume once more, as will the story of his tattoos: he already has more sessions booked to cover the rest of his skin in mysterious ink. Truth is, they are just another extension of his artistic self and are as beguiling as his music.
THE BEST OF DYSTOPIAN
Take a listen to three of the most interesting and arresting EPs released on Dystopian so far.
Drumcell - Absence of Appropriate Effect (2016)
LA’s Drumcell used the opening track of his only EP on the label to dip into John Carpenter style synth territory, with slow motion arpeggios and doom laden chords all making for a dramatic opening. As for the other two cuts, they dealt in disordered noise techno and bleeping, Millsian style sci-fi fare, making this a varied and vital offering.
Various - Soliloquy (2014)
This eight track compilation pulled together all the core label artists and, unsurprisingly, gives the best over of the Dystopian sound. Gloomy, dark and driven by powerful kicks, with hints of melancholia lingering in the air. It’s functional techno of the highest order that nails its MO each and every time.
Distant Echoes - Fury Road (2014)
This was the first EP to come from an artist other than one of the core family members. In return, Italian Distant Echoes served up four tracks of bouncy, well swung techno with real funk in its heart. Some are more house leaning and dubby, and some hammer home the point with more ferocity, but all are hugely effective.