Growing up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, working ”a lot of fast food jobs” in his early teens and using the money to buy the musical gear he thought was interesting, Paul Birken is a product of the synth-pop 80’s, finding the lure of synths and drum machines more fascinating than the guitar rock that dominated the time. “When I was about 6 or 7 years old my parents had a big organ in the basement so I learned to read notes and play Christmas songs and polkas to those great preset rhythms it had. Sometimes, when they were gone, I would turn the volume all the way up and jump around on the bass pedals to make the walls shake. That got old pretty quick because I could never change the beats or sounds on the old thing, but it sure felt good to pound on those pedals.”
Paul’s musical leanings followed him into his schooling, taking saxophone in school band for a few years, but he knew his interest in that went as far as it could go when he mastered playing the Pink Panther theme. “I knew it was time to move on to something more challenging. Eventually, I was using my Commodore 64 wonder-computer to do some 16-track sequencing of songs.”
When Paul was 13, he saw an ad for a Roland product convention taking place at a Minneapolis hotel. “I begged my dad to take me down there where they had all the new synths and samplers on display. I thought it was really cool that the sampler they were showing could play back animal noises and breaking glass sounds.”
Like many young Midwestern lads born and bred on 80’s tunes and sampling, Paul’s interests progressed into the realms of Industrial music. “I was programming a lot of mechanical, rigid sounding stuff.” In 1990 Paul moved to Duluth for college, but continued to mess around with music as a hobby. He even got to apply his skills in music creating a few radio jingles for a skateshop he worked at- “They were horrible, but it was pretty funny.” [Incidentally, Paul was one of the first people to expose Duluth to Massive- ordering it for the skateshop.]
In May of 1993, Paul attended his first rave party, ‘Hellbent,’ in Minneapolis. “It completely blew me away with the power of the music and the diversity of the sounds that were being created within the tracks. I started to go to more parties around Minneapolis-St. Paul and really got into the music; it was nothing like the commercial dance stuff I had been used to hearing. I enjoyed the concept of creating and sculpting these audio forms rather than a traditional song structure; intro, verse, verse, chorus, verse , bridge, etc.” He had found the new direction in music that he wanted to go.
Paul had piled up tracks for a few years, honing his skills and finding his sound. He eventually got curious of other people’s opinion on the tracks he was creating, and began sending them out to people. One of the more obvious people to ask was the Minneapolis rave patriarch- ESP Woody McBride. “I knew that he was really involved in the scene with all the events and also the labels he had started. I went to a party called ‘Da Bomb’ where Woody was playing that night and I gave him a tape of some of my trax. He called me in a few days and offered some helpful advice on the structure of the songs. I had never DJ’ed, so I think they were a little too DJ unfriendly.” Paul took the advice Woody gave him, and eventually he gave Paul his break by releasing one of Paul’s songs on one of his labels. A full 12” release,the ‘Son of Gonzo’ EP, soon followed on Woody’s experimental Tape label. Releases on other labels in the Communiqué family were soon to follow. “I have often thought that Woody could have just as easily listened to that first tape I gave him, laughed, and thrown it in the trash. It showed me that here is someone who has accomplished quite a bit doing something they love and they aren’t afraid to share some of that knowledge with others. The biggest tip he gave me was to buy a DAT machine so I had a digital master of all the trax I recorded. I had one track he really liked, but it was only recorded on my tape deck. The sound quality was garbage, so there was no way it could ever be pressed on vinyl.”
Paul is testament, though, to others looking to have their material released, that sending out tapes to labels isn’t a waste of time. After reading an article that Oliver Lieb was starting a new label and that he was accepting demos, he followed through, and soon had a release on Lieb’s new (but short-lived) Spy Vs Spice label through Intergroove. The story doesn’t end there, though, as Frankie Bones eventually found it in his bins at Sonic Groove on a fluke. He must’ve like what he heard- he cited Paul’s ‘Speaker Freakin’ release on Communiqué as one of his most played out records of 1997 and eventually asked Paul to do a remix for his ‘Dirty Job’ release on BML and more recently had Paul (as the misspelled ‘Boboflux’) do a release on the label Bones heads, Nu Futura. Frankie also included some of Paul’s tracks on his ‘Factory’ mix CD. A number of DJ’s have included Birken tracks on their mix CD’s, including Terry Mullan and France’s Torgull and DJ live. “It always sounds strange when I hear one of my trax in a mix because the pitch and tempo are always different from my DAT master that I have been accustomed to hearing. I like to hear the different environments that the trax are used in. Usually, the DJ’s surprise me- like on the Factory CD, Frankie was spinning two copies of the track ‘Speaker Freak’ against each other and I immediately thought ‘What the hell is going on?!’”
Some projects in the works include a release with Frankie Bones on Eightball- “just some Discoey cut and paste house” -that will be included with remixes by Frankie; and possibly a release on Drop Bass featuring some of Paul’s more abrasive tunes. An EP is scheduled on Woody’s Sounds label as well as Terry Mullan’s Catalyst and New York’s BML. Chicago’s upstart People of Rhythm/Machine records has just released Paul Birken’s ‘One Way Whammy’ release behind fellow Twin Cities acid rocker Freddie Fresh.
Paul remains humble about his recent exposure, and maintains a level head. “I actually like the negative feedback as much as the positive. If someone doesn’t like an aspect of something I did, then I am always curious as to how they perceived it differently than I did. After you listen to something you are working on for hours at a time it has a tendency to change a bit and you may not be hearing exactly what your original intentions were. I’m not going to say that it doesn’t make you feel good when someone you really respect tells you that they love that last record you did, but it is much easier for me to push into my music when I’ve got feedback from both sides. It keeps me thinking about different things.” When asked whether he plans on starting his own label, Paul is quite content staying on the production end of the business- “I haven’t given it much thought because I like sending trax out and getting some opinions on them. I also don’t have the time it would take to seriously put some effort into running things properly. I don’t have a problem with letting someone else handle what’s going to happen with the songs after I create them.” As a matter of fact, he still treats Techno as simply a hobby, choosing to keep his regular routine in his admittedly glamour-devoid workday as an order processor at a company that prints checks for credit unions. “My day job gives me 3-4 weeks paid vacation, so there is plenty of time for me to go play gigs if they come up here and there and I would love to do that.” Though most people who have to do the daily grind might find this hard to believe, his job is actually of some inspiration- “when I’m at work it keeps the desire to get into the studio and work on trax really strong. I’m not waking up going ‘Oh man, I need to make some great songs today.’ If I feel like sitting down and programming out a cover song of Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ or something stupid like that, I’ll do it and laugh all day long. I’m usually having a blast with the gear.”
The music Paul creates stands on its own, each track possessing a sound and feel unto itself. Many bear a ‘catchiness’ -not implying any kind of commercial sound, but they would stand out in a driving tracky set. “Many times, the sun is coming up and it’s time to go to my day job when I’m finishing up some trax. If the parts aren’t coming together and sounding right to me I’ll just erase everything and start over later. I never let a track sit and come back to it, because I think you lose the mindset of what you are working on when you walk away from it. Maybe I’m stupid for doing that, who knows?” Apparently, the method of his madness has some merit, because his tracks kick ass.
While many artists shy away from sampling, Paul embraces the unlimited possibilities- “The incredible thing with samplers is that they are not simply tape recorders. You can really twist and work those sounds if you put the effort into it. One of the downsides is you hear far too many straight rip-offs of other songs. I think people should push sampling a bit more.” One listen to a Paul Birken track and you’ll see that he uses sampling as a tool rather than a crutch.
He enjoys doing live PA’s, but understands “you can’t do it continually because the gear really takes a beating and there is a lot of programming involved to do a 1-2 hour live set. I don’t find anything really challenging physically about playing live because it is identical to how I record my trax at home.” What is interesting about his live PA’s is the fact that he doesn’t save any of his tracks to his sequencer- once he lays down a song, he erases everything and starts on a new song. “Every live set is something completely new that I don’t record to DAT because I think they should be something special for the event that I am playing.” If he does want to use any part of any of his tracks, he samples them off his DATs or pressed releases. “The only concept I have with my music is to try and progress the ideas which I’ve already used and done. That was the main reason I got rid of the MC-202. I had outgrown the piece after using it on so many trax and I needed to try something else that wasn’t as restrictive.” Though his live performances have been mostly restricted to the Minneapolis and Duluth area, he was able to perform on the Communique tour in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and even Hawaii.
It’s refreshing to hear what Paul has to say about his approach to making Techno. It truly remains a hobby and he does it to have fun. Techno’s purpose is to get people to move and let them have fun. One can only hope the artists making the songs that make people move are having just as much fun producing them. Though he’s nonchalant about it himself, Paul Birken is definitely a name we’re going to be hearing more often. While he goes about his life, doing what he does with no vision other than to have fun, many people have rightfully taken notice of the talent he has to offer.
For the future, Paul just looks forward to doing more live PA’s and releasing tunes on the labels he respects. He is getting married in November and is finishing his schooling as a graphic designer He has no plans of changing the way things are now- he’s keeping his day job and will continue making the tracks that make people move.
Gettin’ Nostalgic with Paul…
What sort of gear were you using ten years ago?
Yamaha DX-21 synth, Prophet 600, Casio CZ-101, Roland TR-505, Mks-100 sampler, S-10 sampler, Commodore 64, and my beloved MC-202.
How about your studio now?
It generally changes by the month, but I love the Waldorf Pulse and Kawai K5000r. I am sad to say that the MC-202 and I have parted ways after 13 wonderful years together. I hope it finds the love and excitement we once shared together with someone new. I know it has many wonderful days ahead of it, but as many people know it’s hard to keep that flame of desire burning and our relationship fell into a stale routine.
Whose tracks and DJ’s trip your trigger nowadays?
I think that Troy (DJ Slip) really tries some innovative stuff. He doesn’t stick to any formulas. A lot of the Adam Beyer, Cari Lekebusch, Surgeon type stuff sounds good and is popular now. Since I don’t DJ, I am not at the record stores listening to and buying stuff each week. Usually, I am just creating the stuff that I want to hear and that fulfills my need for music. I saw Derrick Carter the other year when he was in Minneapolis spinning and that was amazing. Terry Mullan can put together some amazing sets also.
Who do you cite as influences? What was the earliest music you remember getting into?
The first record I remember getting was Kiss ‘Alive II.’ My dad picked it up at a garage sale for me when I was 6. I thought it was cool. They looked all crazy and the music was great. I liked a lot of silly things like ‘Pac-Man Fever’ and other novelty songs. Around age 10-11 I started listening to Euro-pop synth stuff like Human League, Erasure, etc. As I was skateboarding and snowboarding more it went to punk/hardcore/hip-hop/industrial in my middle teens, stuff that had a little more “bite” to it. Then I went all electronic. For influences, I have to say that almost everything and everyone I’ve come in contact with has some sort of impact on what I do. My parents gave a lot of support and encouragement with everything I did. They’ve always let me know that there is nothing you can’t go after. I owe them a lot for that because I have a lot of confidence in what I do. I also think that Woody influenced me because he is such a genuine person who doesn’t parade around behind some big ego even after all the success he has had. Minneapolis has a great group of people involved in the scene. I’ve gotten to know the Solus and FUSE guys recently and have been impressed with their attitude and commitment to the scene and music. They are also a fun bunch of people to hang out with. I also think that the smaller parties getting thrown up in Duluth are still some of the best. Everyone up there is involved simply for the love of the music.
Any cartoons/TV shows/movies that freaked you out as a kid?
Where do I start on this one? I was a TV nut when I was little because I didn’t like to sleep too much. I would get up and be watching TV at around 5 in the morning when I was little. I feel fortunate that I was able to see some of the most goofy shows that the networks ever aired. The ones I remember in no particular order were… All of the Kroft Superstar shows (Dr. Shrinker, Electra Women and Dyna Girl, Buggaloos, Bigfoot and Wildboy, Space Nuts, Sigmund the Sea Monster, Wonderbug, H.R. Puffinstuff, Haunted Hotel, and Land of the Lost). The Great Space Coaster, Voltron, Plasticman and baby Plas, Thundarr the Barbarian. The Superfriends… I could keep going for a long time. I am really disappointed that the kids nowadays don’t get to see all of these interesting shows. From what I’ve seen in the last 5-6 years, most Saturday morning cartoons have been replaced by Saved by the Bell rip-off type shows that offer very little to fuel kids active imaginations. What little kid wants to see some high school kids going through their typical school week on TV?
We used to have a movie theater by us that showed Saturday matinees of Godzilla movies. I think I saw at least a dozen different ones there. Those were movies that definitely needed to be seen on the big screen. My mom would drop my friends and I off there when we were like six or seven to see those crazy battles. We would always try to act out the fights afterward. I always wanted to be Ghidra the three headed dragon. Later on I saw Close Encounters and got all excited when they were communicating with the aliens by playing the ARP synths. I thought it was so cool that some simple tones could bridge the gap between us and them. I would sit at the organ and play out the little riff on the top keyboard and then bang it out on the bass pedals like the ship was responding. I think that really gave my mom a headache after 20-30 times.
Do you enjoy beer? What culinary delights delight the Birken palate?
I do enjoy drinking beer, probably because I’ve never messed around with any other substances. I prefer the Canadian beers that have a higher alcohol content, or even a fine 40 of Mickey’s on those hot summer nights. Some days, I like food that is spicy and has some zing to it and other times nothing sounds better than a peanut butter sandwich.
Any Minneapolis-specific things you have grown up around… like Polka or that crazy lutefisk stuff? Norwegian gay pride parades?
Oh yeah, we all play the Beer Barrel Polka on the bottom of our 10,000 lakes in the middle of January wearing nothing but a MIDI cable for a swimsuit!
PAUL BIRKEN DISCOGRAPHY
1996 Bobaflux- Track on Muscle Bound V.A. 2 X 7″ Head In The Clouds
1996 Land of the Lost- Son Of Gonzo 12″ EP Tape #004
1996 Land of the Lost- Surfin’ Superior 2 X 12″ LP Communique #028
1997 Bobaflux- Bobaflux EP 12″ EP Spy Vs Spice #07
1997 Paul Birken- Speaker Freakin’ 12″ EP Communique #031
1997 Land of the Lost- Slurred Vision V.A. 12″ EP Head In The Clouds #009
1998 Paul Birken- One Way Whammy EP 12″ EP People of Rhythm #02
1998 Boboflux- Dog Day EP 12″ EP Nu Futura
Da Brick Rmxs- Keith Maniac 2 X 12″ Sounds #022
Dirty Job Rmxs- Frankie Bones 12″ EP BML
Catalyst EP 12″ EP Catalyst
Sounds EP 12″ EP Sounds #031
Birken & Bones 12″ EP Eightball
?? 12″ EP BML
+ 1 track on upcoming BML techno compilation
Paul would like to thank the following people for all their support and good times:
Jen, my family, Woody, Brian @ P.O.R, Lars, Focus, Kelly F, Swany and the rest of the Duluth crew, Dave O, Scott and Solus crew, Jon @ Music Central, Frankie, Terry, Nigel @ 611, T-1000, Kev and Denise, Rob Williams, Gardiner, B. Douglas, Steve, Troy, Matt & Massive, and everyone else who continues to embrace and share this music we love.