An Interview with Skinnerbox

    For more than 10 years Skinnerbox have been making tremendous contributions to the wide field of electronic-music-making. Olaf Hilgenfeld and Iftah Gabbai, two talented musicians with different backgrounds, are amongst the very few that actually play electronic music live on stage. Their live shows are a great display of playfulness, artistic skills and the ability to completely improvise a thrilling performance. Over the years Skinnerbox have developed a distinctively musical and groovy style, a complex, detailed, idiomatic sound and a bunch of unique technical setups and instruments for live shows as well as studio productions.
    They started performing in the legendary party contexts of Bachstelzen and Bar25 in Berlin back in 2005. Ever since they have been playing widely respected tours in the new and old world. Skinnerbox continuously release their studio productions on labels like BPitch Control, My Favorite Robot, Darkroom Dubs, Turbo Recordings including several musical collaborations with other artists.
    In 2014 was the premiere of “Time & Timbre” – a software drum-sequencer and drum-synthesizer for Max for Live. It is the result of an on-going technical relationship with Ableton and the idea to make an instrument available for the public which was originally designed by Skinnerbox for their personal needs in the studio. It stands in a row with a lot of self-made, adapted or modified musical gear they use.
    Olaf (left) Iftah (right) - Skinnerbox
    While in Berlin for Loop, Tom visited Skinnerbox in their studio for a conversation...
    How did you first learn about Max?
    Iftah: Well…. (laughs!) I had a professor who asked me if I could do some programming work in Max/MSP and… well, I said yes! The thing was I had never even opened Max but I thought to myself, "How hard can it be?!" I had a few weeks and it actually came together quite cool. Of course, after that, I realized what a great thing Max was, and kept using it.
    I was very young and had an idea and it worked. It just took me a week and it opened up me up to a lot of new art work, new media and installation - it was like a portal to a lot of new stuff.
    When was this?
    Iftah: It was 2005.
    Max is a toolbox, really. Whenever we need something, it’s just there - we go to Max and we build the solution to a problem. Everything is possible. There are no limits - just the power of the computer.
    Iftah: I really like its openness - You can do anything, and we always need something....
    Olaf: Why do we come back to it? Because we’re always in need - for example, we wanted to have specific control of our input on our CV gear, like an LFO with special abilities. There’s no such thing in a modular system. So if you’ve used Max for 10 years, it’s not problem to make these little helpers - or bigger projects.
    Iftah: Both of us just really love to sit and just program different things. We live in this individual age - it’s a lot about customization and it’s like Max is more relevant than ever. Olaf can, but I cannot write code. Max is the only way I could have done this - I really got into Max/MSP.
    Olaf: Recently, I’ve been into this synthesizer, I just bought in this experimental FPGA board. It’s just a high-speed programmable gate array - It’s great, but you have to describe absolutely everything and it’s tedious. Something like Max on an FPGA would be amazing....
    Iftah: It’s always been my dream to have Max as a language for programmable hardware - to just dump Max onto something.
    What’s your favorite object?
    Iftah: Arrrrrrrrgh excellent question…..
    Olaf: I do have one, it’s the accumulator (+=~).
    Iftah: Oh! I’ve been waiting to answer this question all my life, and now it’s like you've asked me what is my all time favorite song – I love print, it’s incredible useful.... (laughs). Actually it’s exclamation minus !-~. I also like %~, but Olaf and I always fight about it because it’s a little costly.
    Olaf: I really like the simple objects, to be honest. The big ones are great, but they’re costly. I like just using a few little objects to be efficient and just make small functional pieces of Max code - my own phasor~, for example.
    Iftah: The building blocks, they’re our favorites.
    Tell us about being an active musician and a programmer….
    Olaf: Sometimes I feel a bit stupid to spend all of this time developing something that doesn’t exist rather than just spend a bit of money to buy something that at least does 80% of the job. But I always want the full 105%.
    Iftah: While we were on Mexico on tour recently, we were on a creative panel with Robert Henke and Electric Indigo (Female Pressure) and they were asking Robert what he thought about developing his own tools. He said “Sometimes I wish I didn’t know how to do it.” As a musician, you know our existence is dependent on it, but sometimes I wish I didn’t know how to. It would make my life - our lives - so easy. We’d just make music using instruments from the industry without thinking too much. On one hand, it’s amazing to know how to make instruments and program. But on the other hand, it has a price.
    Olaf: Now we’re really strict - trying to separate technical time (programming) and musical time. But now (with the Ableton pack), we have a lot of really good tools. The utilities we built we use day-to-day now, especially CV4LIVE.
    Iftah: Actually I cut my Modular Synth (Eurorack) right back because I was just spending too much time messing around, now I have a minimal configuration and I use it with the computer as an expansion, both ways, sending cv in from Max and sending CV out via CV4LIVE


    It’s really related to this age of individualism.
    To be honest, the year I got into modular hardware was probably the least productive year of music making I’ve had. I love it, but it just takes too much time to get to a sound. Maybe if I didn’t have a family... Now it’s quite optimized.
    How much do you record material? What is the process?
    Iftah: Sometimes Olaf or I come in with a super concrete idea, conceptually. Mostly Olaf, he’ll sit down with a scale and be, like, "I want to do this." He’ll come with such a concrete idea that I’ll just do the audio around it.
    And sometimes we just sit and start together and basically...
    Olaf: Sometimes we just jam together, but that takes more time - you sit for two hours and jam but, then you have to admit to each other that it’s just bullshit and just move onto the next thing. Let’s start over, reset everything. And go again...
    That takes some balls, to just look at each other and say, that’s bullshit! Let’s start again. How long have you guys been working together as a duo?
    Iftah: Thirteen years. Since 2003.
    Olaf: We met at a birthday party, by chance. There was a jam session at the birthday party - complete improv, just silly stuff with guitar and Yamaha PSR something and singing and stuff....
    Olaf: Then we met a week later at Iftah’s birthday. We had this big mixer, the Minimoog that we still use, so we set everything up, recorded 10-channels and 2 and a half hours of crazy music. A guy came along with his didgeridoo along with a bunch of others during the session. They joined in for a while and left without stopping the recording. We still have that recording, we have gigabytes of this stuff. It’s essentially free jazz.
    So you two have a pretty solid relationship now?
    Iftah: Yeah it’s really getting on now. It’s not 50 years, but it’s a serious amount of time. You really get to know someone in such a profound way, you know, because we tour a lot together and when you travel you really find out about each other.
    Like it’s not even just this level of being friends. We just spent 20-days up in each faces, more or less, (everyone laughs!) because you’re doing these big tours together once or twice a year.
    With your recent trip to Mexico on tour, in the spare time you made a lot of live music video that gained quite a lot of attention. What pushed you to do this?
    Olaf: You saw the video in the tree? Ja!

    skinnerbox - postlude for a found cricket and the tree of eden

    Yes, it was awesome!
    Iftah: You know, I think it’s maybe more important to do this than to release records nowadays. It gets a lot more interest and the videos bring the gigs, actually.
    You know we never really made money out of selling records.
    Olaf: Not directly.
    Iftah: You know it’s more that you have to release music to stay relevant, so you get booked. Right now I find it a little more interesting - I mean, I’m very interested in making live improvised music - but at the moment I’m less interested in ‘producing’ music, like in the studio and I'm more interested in making videos.
    So you feel less precious about that need to make and release albums?
    Iftah: We are two people, so we kind of interlace our needs. Olaf is now... we did a lot of sessions working on our last full-length album and I know Olaf is wanting to continue this…
    Olaf: Yes! Yes, yes, yes.
    Iftah: Nowadays I’m less interested in making singles - like getting into a conceptual piece of music, I’m really just into videos. I have thousands of ideas... music videos, music live improvisational videos, and the like.
    Olaf: In this last tour we had maybe two days of not doing too much, taking care of yourself, you know cleaning, shaving and contact with the rest of the world....
    But then there was one day where we just went hiking in the rain forest - but the rest of the time (over 20 days) was occupied by just doing stuff. Traveling, playing and making videos.
    Iftah: We really got into that. We had plans for getting deeper into this field of a kind of “sonic anthropology,” and we didn’t think we’d come out with five full-length live videos.
    Olaf: We just had an idea to maximize our time in this part of the World - to get everything out of it and to walk away with something in our hands of the experience.
    How did you power everything in these remote locations? I couldn’t work it out....
    Olaf: Actually we had a power inverter and a very long extension lead to a car. We’d run everything off the car!
    I’d like to make us completely portable - I think I’ll even modify the Mini Moog so that it’s battery powered. Then we can be completely portable.
    Ha! a battery-powered Moog Model D?
    Iftah: It’s like a Volca. (laughs)
    Olaf: Moog Volca
    Iftah: You know, it’s important to mention – this is how we started. Olaf had a portable PA back in 2005 run off a car battery and a speaker, and we’d go out to the park. It wasn’t common then - in fact, we might have been one of the first (in Berlin) to do this. But now you see it a lot - oh, actually less because now the Police care - back then, nobody gave a shit.

    skinnerbox live@görli

    skinnerbox live in görli 2008

    Back then we’d go to Görlitzer Park and just Rave…. This is how people first saw us, and how we got our first gigs.

    skinnerbox live hasenheide OA 2008

    Olaf: I just built a custom box with power and the Moog Model D on top - but now it’s just too much. By about 2007, it just didn’t make sense anymore. There was too much music in the park and we didn’t we want to be competitive, so we stopped.
    Iftah: I just wanted to mention this because now we’re kind of back to this - more exotic spots maybe - but this is where we started, you know. Getting outside and playing.
    Olaf: We really had fun playing in the tree in Mexico. It took about 2-3 hours....
    Iftah: We really want to get better at this, in fact we want to get more into using found sound.
    Olaf: We have this microphone from Italy that is about 250KHz sampling rate, so we take these recordings, and then pitch them down. It’s still crisp, but then we have a cool bass drum of something.
    Iftah: I have to hand it to Olaf - he had this vision and got this microphone.
    Olaf: As an experiment we took this 1/8” drill bit and dropped it onto a piece of metal, then we pitch it down 4-octave and it sounded like a steel beam dropping down.
    Thanks for chatting with me guys. To wrap this up, can you recommend a way for users to get into Max?
    Iftah: I think the best way is first to know what you want to do with it, to have a concrete need, and not just to dive in and try to figure it all out. If you know what you want to do with it, it's pretty much all straight forward then on and you learn so much on the way!

    Time and Timbre by Skinnerbox

    • Dec 07 2016 | 5:13 pm
      Great interview but...."...are amongst the very few that actually play electronic music live on stage". Someone needs to get out more, there are loads of people doing it all over the world :)
    • Dec 07 2016 | 10:06 pm
      I'm always interested to notice the ways that people who do "live" electronic music minimize the risk of their failure on stage; I assumed that Tom was thinking of people whose live setups are something like the live coding environment where NOTHING is set in advance.
    • Dec 07 2016 | 11:56 pm
      @foldh I believe the answer is in the sentence that follows, also this is their bio. Skinnerbox is in an area of electronic music that is mostly DJs, launching clips or playing samples :)