Musician and composer Hainbach originally took to YouTube to work on his improvisation skills. Over the years, though, his channel has morphed into an essential resource for musicians with a taste for the experimental. His videos exploring techniques for using tape loops, as well as esoteric instruments like the Ciat LonbardeCocoquantus have wracked up hundreds of thousands of views. But he’s perhaps best known for repurposing old lab equipment as musical instruments.
Hainbach can often be seen coaxing surprisingly musical drones and rhythms out of ancient looking pieces of gear with decidedly unmusical names like function generator, frequency analyzer and lock-in amplifier. There’s even a video dedicated to building a thudding electronic track using test equipment from a nuclear lab.
In November of 2019 he took some of the more obsolete and, let’s say, unruly, pieces in his collection and turned them into a playable sculpture called Landfill Totems. Those stacks of half broken and forgotten gear eventually became the basis for his new album and a virtual instrument built in collaboration with Spitfire Audio, which share the Landfill Totems name. Hainbach sat down (figuratively at least — he actually stood through most of the interview) to talk about the origins of the album, his recent run of VST collaborations, and how learning to make music on obsolete scientific instruments has changed his creative process.
Some answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Tell me a bit about the album, walk me through the origin story of the Landfill Totems as a piece and how it became this.
The whole thing started out when I got into test equipment use for music. I saw that this friend, Dennis Verschoor in Rotterdam [a musician who also works with test equipment]... and the first thing I thought was, “This is madness. I'm not going to ever do that because it just always means a huge amount of heavy stuff that can do surprisingly little.” And it seemed to me such a waste. But I've always been fascinated by the topic because I studied music history and people like Stockhausen, Pierre Schaeffer, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, they used to work with these test equipment instruments and were in parts adamant about them being more interesting than synthesizers in the case of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.
So I just went around and started looking for anything that I could lay my hands on that could potentially make a sound. And I bought stuff cheaply, and I bought a lot of stuff, and the stuff was huge and heavy. And there's a video where I say, "Oh yeah, just get a bit, I'm not going to put more than this because I need this space." And it quickly got into a full wall of that stuff.
It was a bit shaky and unsafe, which added to the whole charm.
So I kept buying more and more stuff… and I quickly ran into space problems. And then a gallery asked me, PNDT art gallery in Berlin, if I want to do a three months residency. I said, "Oh cool. Now I get a storage space." And I could justify keeping buying stuff and trying it out and then putting aside when it didn't work. Because I know, well, there's this space where I can put all that stuff.
My original idea of just making like a playable wall where people could interact with everything and would be something interactive, I had to discard that and I thought about other things. So I started stacking them up in different shapes and the obvious shape at first is a tower. And I did that. And suddenly after half an hour, I realized this had become something humanoid. It reminded me of Johnny 5, that robot from that old film. Then it reminded me of totems because there appeared all these faces all over, because test equipment is all these round dials and they have some sort of design that is always humanoid.
I think within like two hours, I had the statues up. And then it was just a case of putting them to music because I'm a musician, I'm not a sculptural artist. Though, in this case, I was that also. So I patched them all together and they were all stacked rather haphazardly. So it was a bit shaky and unsafe, which added to the whole charm of them because they looked wonky and dangerous. They looked like something that is thrown away or like a marker from a civilization from the past that I could see as some sort of Mad Max kind of wild sci-fi thing.
But the main process for me was actually turning them into a musical composition. And that was a fun struggle because those were like not the super musical things from my collection. The super musical things of course stayed in my studio where I needed them to work all the time. These were more wild and it's hard to tickle some sounds out of them. So that provided me with a unique challenge in then making them into a 35-minute live performance. I was really happy that worked out, and the performance went really well.
So when Spitfire Audio approached me to, if I want to do one of their library slash album releases, I thought, “I want to hear them sing again — I want to hear Landfill Totems sing again.” So I put them up in a venue that a friend of mine has. It's not a venue, it's a synthesizer shop basically, Patch Point in Berlin. And there I could set them up because the shop was closed to the public, mostly due to Corona. And then I could work on music for an album and also work on making new versions. Because every time I had to change something these things kept dying on me sometimes right after I recorded.
But also “Funktionsverlust”, the first track of the album, is actually the sound of a dying function generator. And that only sounded so good because it was dying, because one thing that these things do is usually go [imitates a sine tone] a flat line straight note is what they like to do. But when this thing went, [hums a complex rhythmic pattern] I thought, “Wow, that's an interesting Latin pattern.” But that was its swan song.
I started to record the album, and because the whole atmosphere of everything in the lockdown was much darker and heavier than usual and I had just exhausted my capacity to hope with the previous album, which was called Assertion. I thought, now, let's go dark. And I went really dark with that album and they went to hopeless and stark places. Yeah. And that is reflected in the German song titles, which tell a little story of the times on their own.
The stark contrast between Assertion and this album is really kind of stunning. Was that something that was a conscious choice to go in a much darker place? Or was that just where you felt yourself being naturally pulled by the sound of these instruments?
Yeah. I mean, usually things don't come from one center, but yeah. These things, they demand something, because they are higher than me. They're like two meters, but they have a certain sense of — they want to be respected in a way, and that's something that's in them. And it is easier for them to drone and to transmit stuff like code, which already sounds strange and alien. So it's in their nature to sound that way. But I mean, the things that I have here also, in regards to test equipment, I can more easily tune them to have little sunrise in here, but there in that form, I couldn't. And then of course, I didn't feel motivated to do so because yeah. I'd just done something very bright in a very short time and a one or two go, No, no, let's go dark.
How much similarity is there between the original performances and what kind of ended up on the album?
I think the thing that is similar to the original live performance is that that was also pretty heavy and pretty dark, but a bit more humorous. Like in the performance, I had a few humorous moments. At least I found them funny, and I think the audience found them funny. There was one unit that I couldn't connect, audio-wise, but had its own little speaker. So when I finished everything in a big blast of noise. And then I went to that unit and just went beep boop. There was that contrast, like everybody, after having to listen to like heavy bass and drones. And, ah, this was a moment of relief.
So that comedic aspect is not so much in the Landfill Totems album. But also one thing, because these are really tracks and I had more time to work on them and work each of them as a single piece, they're a bit richer because in a live performance, I couldn't like... It's physically hard to re-patch these things. It's BNC connectors, they're wobbling, and it's a dangerous thing to re-patch. So that first performance was basically a composite. One track with different movements over the whole statues, while this is like pictures at an exhibition. There's a common theme, but each of them uses the full color palette that is possible.