WHOOPS-A-DAISY: When Stefan Betke’s Waldorf 4-Pole filter fell to the floor and began to malfunction, Pole was born.
It all began by accident, when Stefan Betke’s Waldorf 4-Pole filter fell to the floor and began to malfunction, its broken circuitry producing strange, intricate patterns of snaps, crackles, pops, and hisses. Rather than discarding the damaged filter, Betke decided to use its subtle phantasmagoric rhythms in place of four-on-the-floor beats in his bass-rich ambient techno experiments. And thus Pole was born.
In the latter half of the ’90s, Betke released three mesmerizing albums of crackle-filled abstract dub under the Pole moniker. With beautiful monochromatic covers (in blue, red, and yellow), these numbered records were both spaciously minimal and, with their sinuous, ultra-deep bass lines, sensuous as hell. The influence of these three records — the cinematic Pole 1, the dub-heavy Pole 2, and the techno-inflected Pole 3 — continues to reverberate, surfacing everywhere from minimal electronics in Berlin to the dubstep experiments out of Bristol.
To mark the 10th anniversary of the release of the first Pole album in 1998, Betke’s own Scape imprint is reissuing all three early Pole records in a box set with four bonus tracks from the same period; it’ll be out August 5. Over the phone from his home in Berlin, the affable Betke (with much giggling over the course of the interview) explained that the rise of dubstep had produced a resurgence of interest in these early recordings with their cavernous spaces and phenomenal sub-bass. “It’s kind of an archive situation to provide access to this early work, so people can learn from it, understand it, or make it different. With the 10th anniversary, it seemed like it was time to do it. Last but not least,” he laughs, “I thought maybe I could get a little bit of income.”
The first three Pole records were the product of a fertile period in electronic music, one that saw a flowering of minimal, glitch and ambient techno, as well as now oft-maligned genres like IDM. By contrast, Betke’s assessment of the current situation is measured, tempered by age and the view on the ground. “With electronic music, almost everything has been said at this point. You can’t really do anything new. In the ’90s, techno itself was not that old, so there were spaces where you could sneak in and do your own stuff. Ambient was just becoming popular, and it was possible to find something new by accident — like with my broken filter. But nowadays it is not that easy, because, in a sense, the formulas have all been fulfilled.”
But that doesn’t mean Betke has given up the search. He’s still looking for chinks in the armor, but the process of innovation is more deliberate than in the days of 1, 2, and 3. His last album, 2007’s acclaimed Steingarten, was (by Pole standards) a dense, noise-filled work, with nary a crispy crackle in earshot. It also took four years to complete, slowed in part by the added weight of the past.
“Now, 10 years later,” he says, “I ask myself, where could the music go to? How can I develop it? What might be interesting? How can I manage not to repeat myself; can I manage to keep enough influences from the history in my productions so it is still Pole? There are more things that I have to keep in mind than with the first three albums. Every record you make becomes more difficult, because it is not the first one.”