Being a techno artist is tricky business. In a country where music has to stand for something to be considered serious, techno artists are usually dismissed as creators of dance-floor fluff or computer geeks who twist knobs and push buttons.
When a techno musician does achieve mass popularity, it's as a "crossover" success, which usually means someone has taken an underground art form and diluted it for mass-consumption. Moby started out as a dance music artist. Then he started to introduce more and more live instrumentation to his work, giving it a poppier, more digestible sound. Now he's the poster boy for a "techno" that puzzles musicians loyal to the form's true nature.
"It's crazy because Moby isn't really techno," says Andre Tanneberger, known to record shelves as ATB. He's enthusiastic, very polite, and his English comes wobbling from behind his native German. "He had some techno tracks in the past, but what he does today is really different from what we understand as techno."
Tanneberger first achieved European success in 1999, with the single "9 p.m. (Till I Come)." Since then he has been one of techno's brightest lights. He's worked with Heather Nova, childhood idols Enigma, and Paul Van Dyk. In Germany he's a celebrity. But here in the States, he has a small following of club devotees.
Techno music has its fair share of shallow representatives spreading flimsy, artless dribble. Just visit your neighborhood mall and listen to the fat, droning beats rolling out of teen clothing stores. Stateside critics and musicians find it tough to lend validity to a musical form that is played in dark dance halls for kids who don't appreciate what they deem "real music."
"Dance music doesn't get the respect it should," Tanneberger says. "There is so much dance music that isn't good. [The problem is] everybody with one or two computers or synthesizers can make music. And the labels bring out some really shitty things. Then people say, 'This isn't music.' People always look to the bad things. Then there is one good [song], and they say, 'OK, this song is good but techno is shit.'
"The American market is very hard," he continues. "I think people in America are really into hand-made music. They want [the musicians] to play instruments, they want to hear voices, things like this. For me it's important to mix synthetic music with hand-made music."
ATB deftly straddles the line between the two, creating rump-shaking confections on the one hand and ambient, "chill-out" music on the other. Sure, you can dance to ATB's music, but it has a weight and identity all its own.
"I've always wanted to make danceable music," Tanneberger says. "I don't like the techno tracks that only have the beat, and are really hard. For me it's really important to get the melodies in music, and I like it when people say, 'This is unique.'"
Tanneberger learns a few notes on any instrument he can get his hands on, which comes in handy when he produces tracks. The live instruments provide a sense of warmth that's missing from the cardboard sounds of paint-by-numbers techno artists.
"I like it when the percussion is live, or when there are vocals. That makes the music more interesting than the normal techno that's only instrumental," Tanneberger says. "I play the guitars, I play the percussion, I play the bass, I play it all. In other bands there's a man who plays only the bass... but I do the whole production. I do the arrangement. I do the song-writing. I produce the singers, but I don't get the respect and that's what I don't understand. I don't like it when people say the music is coming out of the computer, because everything I play is from my fingers."
Or from his head: Tanneberger constructs his music from start to finish. Being a composer is much more useful than being able to play bass and not know what to do with it. Imagine sitting Mozart or Beethoven down in front of a computer and letting them get acquainted. The computer is just another instrument helping to bring out the compositions in Tanneberger's head.
Tanneberger doesn't lose much sleep over the elusive North American market, but simply scratches his head over the fact that the US isn't as accepting as other countries, where he shares the sales charts with big-sellers like Pink, Gorillaz, and Alicia Keys. So, at the end of the day, Tanneberger just gets down to what he does best: making music that he loves for people who appreciate him.
"I have two really important things: the music --- the producing and the song-writing --- and the fans. In the US, many people love my music, so there are many people who do respect [techno]. But to those who don't, I say listen to the music and make your own decision. In earlier times I thought more about [not getting respect], but now I work to change it. I try to create good productions so people can hear that it's not only a bass drum and a beat."