Sam Inglis catches up with the man behind one of the year 2000's biggest dance hits, and hears about a tangled web of remixes, bootlegs and licensing deals -- not to mention the most bizarre synthesizer on the market today...
Behind the hired extras and the fake blood, Zombie Nation is actually one man: Munich-based DJ and producer Splank, known to his parents as Florian Senfter. The record he was promoting with his performance, 'Kernkraft 400', is the first he has ever made, and has climbed the charts all over Europe. Here, demand was so high following its European success that it charted on import alone prior to its release, and made its UK chart debut proper at number two, just losing out in a neck-and-neck race for the top spot to Westlife and Mariah Carey. It's also shown remarkable stamina for a modern pop hit, hovering around the top 10 for weeks after its release, and has sold, in total, well over 200,000 copies.
Although many producers must dream of seeing their debut single near the top of every European hit parade that matters, it hasn't been entirely plain sailing for 'Kernkraft 400'. The single's route to the top started as much as two years ago, when Florian recorded the original master using a PC and Soundblaster 16 soundcard in his then sparsely equipped studio. Since then, it's undergone a remix at the hands of its Italian licensees, leading to a bitter dispute over unpaid royalties, and countless other licensing deals have created a web of frightening complexity (see box, right) -- a sharp reminder of the realities of the modern record business.
Munich Maestro Please
Munich has been a major centre for European dance music since the days of disco, when Giorgio Moroder produced ground-breaking dancefloor anthems from his Musicland Studios. It's the ideal German city for an aspiring DJ to grow up in, and Florian was quick to get involved with its flourishing underground dance scene: "I finished school, and I was sure I didn't want to carry on studying, because school was enough terror! So I started doing illegal parties with some friends, because we had our own ideas of style and music that we wanted to present to people who liked it. Of course, I couldn't earn money doing that, so I also did some jobs where I had to carry heavy things around or I did office work. Meanwhile I was always doing music.
"When I was 16 I started playing in a trash-metal band. I played guitar and sang. I still try to do every track in some different kind of style, but it's more or less electronic. After my band project finished, I concentrated more on spinning records. But there were so many records coming out that didn't even scratch the surface of what I imagined this kind of music could be, so I wanted to do it better. And I still keep trying, because the measures of what's good change through time. I think there has developed a distinctive sound that's special to Munich. I'd say it's the return of song structure in dance music; a kind of electro-rock style. We have some interesting projects here such as Dakkar & Grinser, Chicks on Speed, Steril and of course DJ Hell, who's my label boss."
'Kernkraft 400', for the three people in the country who haven't yet heard it, is a brutally simple and irresistible dancefloor stomper consisting of a pounding synth melody, some basic four-to-the-floor beats, and a deep vocal intoning 'Zombie... Zombie Nation'. It's like the bastard child of techno and the early-'80s electro-pop of Landscape or Trio, and although it doesn't quite fall into any well-defined category of dance music, it's often labelled as a trance record, perhaps thanks to the rhythmic delay, clean drum samples and heavy reverb that were added by the remixers. Florian, though, is anxious to distance himself from the idea th
On the Zombie Nation web site at www.zombienation.org, Florian lists the gear in his studio (see the Zombie Nation Gear box on page 68), but warns 'The main thing is groove -- not equipment': "I came to that opinion because with the success of the song I thought 'OK, this is my mission now and I have to invest.' But I noticed that it's better to have three instruments you know like your own ass than have everything, and spend all of your time reading manuals. So I decided to get some nice things like good speakers, a good microphone and preamp. Things without displays, you know," he laughs. "When I made 'Kernkraft 400' it was really a long time ago, I didn't have so many things. Maybe it was better like this, because then you have to work with what you have, and concentrate on the music, and play around so much."
Florian's lo-fi ethic extends to his choice of sound sources as well as his recording gear. Both of the pitched sounds on 'Kernkraft 400' -- the grinding, distorted melody and the evil squelchy bass -- come not from Moogs or Rolands but from the unique Elektron SidStation synth. Reviewed in SOS November '99, this squat grey box harnesses the distinctive lo-fi tones of the SID sound chip from the Commodore 64 microcomputer "At first I thought about it because there were no T-shirts, so I ordered some T-shirts, and I thought this may be good, because people want them, and I can sell them directly through the web site. I can't sell so many things because of the contracts I have, but we sell for example the album [Leichenschmaus], which is only licensed in Germany, so a lot of people who are interested can get the album directly. The album is on Gigolo Records, which is more directly connected to me. I want to know what's going on. If you're on a small independent label like Gigolo you can trust their word -- you know them personally, you say something and it's taken seriously. But when you sign a contract it´s always important to give the contract to a lawyer."
A Licence To Print Money?
The complex licensing arrangements surrounding 'Kernkraft 400', not to mention the flourishing trade in bootlegs, have made Florian Senfter determined to forge more direct links with the record-buying public in future. "When I sell a record in Britain, for example, I don't know how much I get. It's maybe around three pence -- about 10 German pfennigs, so that's around three pence. It's nothing, because it goes through three labels. That's about one percent of the price. It costs maybe four pounds or something, the single, and it's one percent. I was wondering where the other 99 percent goes, so I thought 'OK, I'll do things by myself.' There's no contract where I have to do my merchandising with a certain company or something. I just spend the day organising it how I want it to be, not how somebody else thinks it should work. And maybe I'll get 50 percent. When certain contracts are finished I want to do more on my own. I have to admit that without all those labels the track probably wouldn´t have entered the charts, but anyway I will pay more attention when signing contracts in the future!
"At first I thought about it because there were no T-shirts, so I ordered some T-shirts, and I thought this may be good, because people want them, and I can sell them directly through the web site. I can't sell so many things because of the contracts I have, but we sell for example the album [Leichenschmaus], which is only licensed in Germany, so a lot of people who are interested can get the album directly. The album is on Gigolo Records, which is more directly connected to me. I want to know what's going on. If you're on a small independent label like Gigolo you can trust their word -- you know them personally, you say something and it's taken seriously. But when you sign a contract it´s always important to give the contract to a lawyer."
Not only are the melody and the bass line both from the same sound source: they're also the same SidStation patch. "The bass sound is also a SidStation, it's the same thing through a filter."
Unsurprisingly, the track began with the main theme: "I started with the melody. It was a painful time -- the melody is so fat that you can hardly put a bass drum under it. So I decided to leave it without most of the time. I made about six versions because DJ Hell said all the time: this is good, but I know you can do it even better. In the last version I put the voice on it because I felt it was still missing something."
The drum sounds on the original version have been obscured in places by the remix, but are elsewhere audible as dry '80s-style drum machine beats, from Florian's sample library ("I sometimes use drum ma
The filter sweeps in the song were also added in the MPC2000, using its own filter. "It's funny, because the Akai filter is not regarded as so good, but with that sound it's really crushing the speakers," says Florian. "I used the filter on the deep bass -- it's filtered down without any resonance -- and when the melody comes down after the chorus, I put an envelope over it and filtered it. It distorted a little bit, but I think that's good because it sounds harder."
The other major element of the song is the two-word vocal. "It's me!" reveals Florian. "I pitched it down a little bit, that's all. First there was the name of the band, then the track. I knew it would be the main track on the 12-inch single, and I thought it would a nice way to introduce the project, hip-hop style. However, it also led to some confusion, because many people thought that the name of the band was Kernkraft 400 and that the song was called 'Zombie Nation'. The stereo delay on the vocal is part of the remix. I think I had no delay when I recorded it originally."
So what does 'Kernkraft 400' actually mean? "It means something like 'Nuclear Power 400'. But it's nonsense, it's got no political message or anything. It's just for fun, you know -- you record many tracks and then you have to choose names..."
Having signed to local German label International Deejay Gigolo Records, Florian sent the original version of 'Kernkraft 400' out into the world on a 12-inch single with limited expectations: "I thought Gigolo would sell a few thousand 12-inches and that would be that."
The turning point, however, came when the record was licensed by Spectra Records in Italy, whose DJ Gius also did the remix that was to become an international hit. "I didn't like the remix too much," admits Florian, "but I thought 'OK, if they leave it in Italy it's all right.' Half a year later, though, EDM Music in Germany became interested in the remix. I don't know what happened, but in the end they got it. They are also the main licensors to other countries. First there was Polydor Germany, who pushed it to number 21 in the German charts. We also have the DDC (German dance charts) which is the most important trend-factor for charts and so on, and it was 10 weeks at number one. Then there came the Netherlands, Belgium, USA, England. I never expected anything like that, so it was something like a positive accident.
"England was the last country to license it, I don't know why. At first, the publishers and the first label that was licensing it were asking labels in England, and nobody wanted it. Finally Ministry of Sound bought it through the publishing company. I hear that the guy from the publishing firm, Universal, met many other labels at the Popkomm conference afterwards, and they all were totally angry that they didn't take it. But first there was Italy, then the others, like Belgium, the Netherlands, France. It started in Germany in the small clubs, and then it was in the DJ pool, and became popular there, and then it went in the charts. In England, before the record came out, it was already on number 63 in the charts over import, because it was a little bit late -- don't ask me why, it may be some secret of the business. They wanted to wait for the Ibiza season to end, because then is a good "I have a Waldorf Microwave XT, and I made many things with that, but I don't like it any more. I bought an Oberheim OB8, and I think I will make it my main synth. It's more charming, more fat -- it's analogue. Many times I've said 'Yeah, I don't care, analogue, digital, it's a fetish thing,' but I heard the OB8 and it's fat, and you can use nearly every sound. When I used the Waldorf Microwave you had to screw around for hours, and still not get the thing you wanted. And the OB8's more '80s!" "I don't have the sync interface, so now I do many things with the 808 by putting it through a valve compressor and then sampling it." "In the end, when I used the Microwave I put it through the Sherman Filterbank, because you get a little bit more dirt; it's very clean. I have three filters, I'm a filter freak. And with the 808, for example, not having the real physical sounds to modify a little bit, I put it through the mixer, and then I put a little bit through the Sherman, and then I put it back with a short reverb on it, and I can get my own character."
Zombie Nation Gear
Akai MPC2000XL percussion sampler.
"I do nearly everything with the MPC. Sequencing, building songs, sampling. I used to use the PC for master recording and putting some plug-ins over mixes. Now I play the sequence from the MPC and record tracks seperately into the PC so that I can do different mixes, even if it's a while after I recorded it."
Alesis Quadraverb multi-effects.
Allen & Heath GS1 mixer.
Big Briar Moogerfooger filter.
Digitech Studio Quad multi-effects.
Doepfer MS404 analogue synth.
Dynaudio Acoustics monitors.
Elektron SidStation synth (x2).
"I've got a second one now. I've got two SidStations because it's only mono, and if you put one to the left and the other to the right and use slightly different sounds..."
Emu E5000 Ultra sampler.
Gerd Schulze Compact Phasing A.
Lexicon MPX500 multi-effects.
Jomox XBase 09 drum machine.
MAM VF11 vocoder.
Marshall 9000 preamp.
Oberheim OB8 analogue synth.
Roland TR808 drum machine.
TC Electronic M1 multi-effects.
TL Audio VP5051 voice channel.
Waldorf Microwave XT wavetable synth.
"I have a Waldorf Microwave XT, and I made many things with that, but I don't like it any more. I bought an Oberheim OB8, and I think I will make it my main synth. It's more charming, more fat -- it's analogue. Many times I've said 'Yeah, I don't care, analogue, digital, it's a fetish thing,' but I heard the OB8 and it's fat, and you can use nearly every sound. When I used the Waldorf Microwave you had to screw around for hours, and still not get the thing you wanted. And the OB8's more '80s!"
"I don't have the sync interface, so now I do many things with the 808 by putting it through a valve compressor and then sampling it."
"In the end, when I used the Microwave I put it through the Sherman Filterbank, because you get a little bit more dirt; it's very clean. I have three filters, I'm a filter freak. And with the 808, for example, not having the real physical sounds to modify a little bit, I put it through the mixer, and then I put a little bit through the Sherman, and then I put it back with a short reverb on it, and I can get my own character."
"To be really successful in the charts, a record has to be licensed to a country, because there the people know what to do. You can't do it from another country. If you're Sony or Warners, you have your own arm in every country, but smaller labels don't, and you can't do it over imports, not selling so many records. You have to know the structures.
"It's hard to see how it works. For example, in Mexico they said 'Why Kernkraft 400? It's 2000 now!' so they changed the name of the song to 'Kernkraft 2000', and I only noticed it when it was already too late. There are so many steps that you can't know what's going on in every other part of the world. Or, for another example, Ministry didn't put the original version on the vinyl. That makes me angry because I think even if the original was jazz music or something, it should also be on the vinyl, because the remix is always from an original, and people have to know the story. But it's always too late -- when you hear it, it's already done, and then you can do nothing. So I hope next time many things will go better."
Remix, Remodel, Rip-off?
As well as adding the stereo delay to the vocals, the remixers' main contribution was to change the drum sounds and pattern: "It's different drums, more punchy, more straight. The original is more lo-fi. What they did is that they kept the percussion, the percussion is the same, but they put a different bass drum and put a hi-hat on top of it, and blew up the melody a little bit. They put a fatter bass drum and a little bit more straight hi-hat. The filter over the drums at the end is part of the remix too. I think they wouldn't play the original on the radio because there have to be certain standards of production."
Florian sent the remixers the individual elements of the mix to work on, which gave them the freedom to mix it into a more commercial style, but which has also caused him some grief since: "When they did the remix it was just the beginning. They did it mainly for their own release in italy, so they didn't get much money. Maybe that's why they spread the 'live chant mix' bootleg illegally. We haven't got one pence off those guys yet. That's a sad story. When I sent them the individual parts, they also gave them away to Canada. We don't know it for sure, but there's an Italian connection in Canada, so we guess they gave the parts to them to do another bootleg. 'Zombie Station' it's called. But I think that's normal, you know, it's just the first time I've experienced it.
"I never spoke to the remixers in my life. I wanted to, but there were really so many things happening and you don't want to deal any more with people who rip you off. There's also another thing in England called 'Domination' -- it's nothing to do with the original, it's a bootleg, but it's just the same thing with a stupid voice over it. I'm not so happy with that. Of course, many people try to use the same tone or something, but I have the good luck that the melody is so strong that you can't -- I can't do a better melody myself! The interesting thing is that the melody's so strong and that it's the main thing. There's nothing else. It's a little bit minimalistic."
Into The Nuclear Age
The success of 'Kernkraft 400' means that Florian is having to think about a follow-up single, as well as publicising his album Leichenschmaus ("It means 'funeral meal' but it's got a double meaning: it could also be eating a dead body. It's only funny in German. I didn't think so much about big international success!"). "So many people like the song, and they expect something that's equally good; the same thing," he acknowledges. "But if it's not so popular in England, if it reaches position 40 or something, I won't be depressed, because I was not planning to do a top 10 hit, so I was very surprised. So the main thing is that I concentrate on what I like. I can't work too much on other people's expectations."
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