With a career that spans over 25 years and a kinship with two of the world’s most prominent cities - New York and Berlin - David Sumner, better known to us as Function, already has an astoundingly rich. And that's without us having even mentioned or touched upon his involvement with one of techno's most impacting and pioneering projects, Sandwell District.
Sumner’s about to embark on a brand new phase of his creative life, freshly invigorated from his return to the more dynamic and traditional DJ approach of vinyl and CD players he’s been spurred on by his closer affiliation with Ostgut and his now official Berghain residency. With the return of his Infrastructure label announced just last week we got the pleasure to be able to speak to him directly about his plans, his general feelings of anticipation and his readiness to embark on this new chapter ahead of his first DJ set as Function in too long a time here in Room Two this Saturday.
It’s been a busy time for you on the DJ front, since your album came out on Ostgut Ton last year. Haven’t you become an official resident at Berghain now?
I always had a loose residency there and I’ve been doing label nights and playing there multiple times for years but now it’s official. It’s more or less a monthly residency. It’s been great and has really changed my approach since everything dissolved with the last project and now I’ve moved to Ostgut on their booking roster I’ve gone back to DJing. I still do live sets but everything’s a bit more defined now. Before there was a grey area between what I was doing as a DJ and as a live act because the set up was kind of similar for both with a laptop, controllers and a 909 which made things difficult for promoters to pinpoint me. Now it’s more defined and from talking with my booking agent Robert at Ostgut he had pointed out that none of the club’s residents are really digital DJs.
There really is a much stronger culture of vinyl DJing as opposed to digital in Berlin…
It always has been and it's been a nice process going back to it.
So you've been DJing for a number of years, 25 by our count, so going back to this more traditional approach what’s that meant for you?
Well since I moved from New York to Berlin I haven’t even had a DJ set up at home but at the moment I’m putting together a really nice one, with a Rane rotary mixer and the expansion, I’ve got a pair of 1200’s in the mail and I’m getting a pair of CDJ 2000 Nexus’s. And yes I really like being a DJ again. When I developed my previous set up, the way I was doing it before with the laptop and 909, I thought it was revolutionary because I was able to do things that you were just simply not able to do on turntables - like edit and remix live , or layer 5 or 6 things over each other. It was like a constant edit or remix and that was great for a long time. But after a while it became a bit static, I felt like I was repeating myself and that’s never good to do. I found I was becoming a bit lazy because everything synched up I had warp markers on it so it's like I felt like I was on auto pilot a bit and that thing that I used to think was revolutionary became a bit static. So I knew it was time to make a change. Switching back to vinyl and CD’s has been a great experience and a lot of fun.
When you say you found that you were repeating yourself what do you mean exactly?
When I say repeating myself, I should point out that I would never play anything exactly the same. The way I had my set up I was able to throw things in, I would always be layering things and maybe playing some of the same tracks but never in a set order, it was never pre-programmed, but the process of getting tracks into Ableton and putting warp makers on them is a bit laborious. I got to the point where I just wanted to put a record on and not have to go through this process when you have 10 tracks to add to your set and you’re not looking at it as a fun thing to do. Going to the record shop and just being able to play a record is a nice process.
Just being sat at the machine working through the same technical process, I can see that can become tiresome. And of course with the Nexus now you can just plug in a hard drive so you have that option of playing dubs and works in progress too….
It’s pretty much the same exact thing as what I was doing before, apart from now I'm back to matching beats and that's something I've been doing for 25 years.
You’ve already said you’ve been playing Berghain for quite some time now, but I was wondering about what being a resident there now has given you as a DJ or if it's re-inspired you in any way…
There is such a big difference between a residency and a touring DJ. When you’re playing a different city every night over the world you can get away with more but when you have a residency you start building a crowd that’s coming to see you. You always want to impress so it keeps you on your toes, you’re constantly looking for different things to play and I love it - it’s something I’ve wanted for a long time. A residency is more intimate. You really build a connection with your audience and it’s been nice seeing familiar faces every month that I play.
There's even been times when before I went on the room was thinned out a bit, people were up in Panoramabar and I'm looking at the timetable and waiting for my set and I get on and all of a sudden it's a packed room. It's a great feeling. It's super inspiring and it really pushes you to become better.
It sounds like you’re really enjoying a personal renaissance with your DJing which is great. What’s happening in the studio with you right now?
I’ve just announced the relaunch of my label Infrastructure. Ed Davenport who’s also known as Inland is doing the first release with me. It’s out on May 12th and it’s all in production right now, we just cut the second one yesterday which is from a new artist named Campbell Irvine.
I've really been getting into Ed Davenport - he only just played here, really enjoyed his sets - what's your story with Ed?
Ed and I are really good friends, we were room mates up until about 2 years ago now, he totally gets what I’m trying to do because he was there for pretty much the whole Sandwell District experience and the funny thing is that this first EP was actually recorded three years ago. It was right after we finished the Sandwell District 'Feed Forward' album so there are definitely elements or traces of that sound in this first EP.
How come it’s taken 3 years for you to put it out?
We didn’t release it sooner because the A side track 'Odeon' has a synth part from a Photek track called 'Under the Palms', taken from his 'Solaris' album. We didn’t want to bootleg it, we actually wanted to put it out with his permission. We were both busy with other projects at the time so it sat on the hard drive for a long time. We reviewed it recently and we were like; “this has to come out!”, so we basically got in touch with Photek’s manager and got permission to use it. He was super supportive of the track – he loved it. It's basically a Photek string track with no beats and then we took it and built a track around it, and it sounds incredible.
The B Side is really reminiscent of early Warp and Autechre but with a modern take on it which is basically what we're looking to do with the label - it's really about classic ideals with a modern twist on it.
And what about this second release, can you tell us more about Campbell Irvine?
He’s this 23 year old Australian kid that my girlfriend Stefanie Parnow works with. She discovered him and introduced us. He's an interesting character and we've been referring to him as an outsider talent because he has just moved to Berlin, but he's a 23 year old classically trained violinist. He really doesn't follow electronic music that closely but has recently been getting into it more and I just love the fact that he's making this music that is from an outsider perspective. This is going to be his first record and it's not a dancefloor record it's somewhere between T++ Shackleton and Muslim Gauze.
We're so excited about breaking him because it's very ritualistic music with a very Middle Eastern influence and it's super hypnotic. You can tell he's an outsider but it still feels like he really knows what he's doing.
Then what else do you have planned, have you any Function releases on the cards?
There’s going to be a double CD retrospective of my work it's going to be called Function “Recompiled - Various Works and Pseudonyms - 1995-2012”. The first CD is all the Infrastructure stuff and my Synewave stuff, plus some lesser-known pseudonyms and the second CD is all the Sandwell District singles that I did. It’s been fun going through the old tapes. The point of the retrospective was to show both older fans and more current fans what lead to the album [Incubation]. The way I’ve put these two CDs together it doesn't quite include all of my work, but it's what I feel shows people what lead to my album. It’s been a really fun and interesting process. To put this all together and review stuff that I haven’t really focused on for a long time and then realise that, wow that does connect to my album and I can draw the lines for myself. I wasn’t very conscious of it when I was writing but then realised that this is my sound this is how I write my music.
It sounds like here's been a bit of self-discovery and re-discovery on both fronts in your DJing and your production, I'm curious too - are the tracks for the album re-mastered? Tobias engineered for your album, has he also been involved in this project?
I've been sitting with Tim Xavier from Man Made Mastering who has been mastering all the stuff for the label. He’s an old friend and he's more patient with me than a normal engineer would be so I was able to sit down with him over various sessions and edit things and review things and see how he could EQ things to make everything sound cohesive so I haven't been sitting with a mixing engineer this time but the mastering engineer has helped this project become realised.