Spend enough time exploring progressive rock, and eventually you will bump into Markus Reuter.
The German touch-guitarist is part of the ever-expanding King Crimson family tree. A student of Guitar Craft (a Robert Fripp-led instructional unit) since the early 90’s, Reuter has made himself a virtual mainstay in the world of Prog, orchestral, and ambient music. This does not include his talents as a producer.
Reuter began professional career playing the Chapman Stick in the early to mid-1990’s, switching to the Warr Guitar before the end of the decade. Ever the innovator, Reuter designed and developed his own touch guitars, the U8 and the U10. Regardless of which instrument he uses, Reuter has carved his own voice into the musical landscape.
As one third of Stick Men (along with Crimson members Tony Levin on Stick and Mastelotto on drums), Reuter has dazzled audiences around the world. I first heard his name as a member of Centrozoon in the mid- to late 90’s. But he really captured my attention during the Three of a Perfect Trio tour in 2011.
Reuter performed not only in Stick Men, but as one-sixth of The Crimson ProjeKct, a band specializing in 80’s and 90’s King Crimson compositions, along with Levin, Mastelotto, bassist Julie Slick, drummer Tobias Ralph, and guitarist/vocalist Adrian Belew. With his touch guitar, Reuter provided the perfect Fripp-like guitar foil Belew needed, not only playing the Crimson founder’s parts, but giving them his own personality in the process.
When Stick Men isn’t on the road, Reuter manages to stay incredibly busy producing, collaborating, and performing in other contexts. On April 12, he will release Heartland, a string quartet suite Reuter composed. It is a project that has been on his mind for quite some time.
Reuter exudes passion when talking about composing and performing music. His tone can be misconstrued as mild arrogance, which is light years from the case. Rather, it is an air of confidence and determination that comes from being a seasoned veteran of the music world, along with being a master innovator.
Reuter was kind enough to talk to me from his home in Berlin. In addition to his passion, he proved to be kind, affable, and quite funny. I have to give the man credit for his memory, because he remembered our first encounter at the 2011 Crimson ProjeKct show. Why he remembered me is a mystery. From a personal standpoint, this chat was a great way to kick off a new interview series.
Cedric: You’re a man of many musical hats. Which hat do you find yourself wearing most often these days?
Markus Reuter: You know, I think that there is only one hat, and it’s music. I think that it’s really just one hat, but I love music so much that I do look into all the nooks and crannies. I’m looking into every single detail, every single niche that I can find. I’m always interested in learning about music. And that’s why on the outside it looks like I’m wearing these different hats. But it’s all music.
What am I doing most at the moment? That’s a good question. As a contemporary artist living in these times, you have to do a lot more than what people actually see. People see me most when I’m out touring with Stick Men. Not this year, but we used to play between 50 and 80 concerts a year, which is quite a lot for an independent band on an international level. My aim is to make interesting music for myself, something that inspires me, musically. First and foremost, the aim is to make that music. And then the project or the band or the circumstance arranges itself around that idea. I’m not putting together a band and then writing music for it. It’s like there is music in the air, and then the people come together to play that music. It’s a little bit like what Robert Fripp says about King Crimson. The music is there first, before there is a name or an idea for a lineup.
Music for me is very much an emotion. It’s something I feel inside. It’s not something I hear. A lot of musicians say when they’re talking about music, “I’m hearing this.” I hardly ever do that. I have a feeling for what it could be. I don’t necessarily know what it’s gonna sound like. You need to feel it. Which means, in practice, you embark on a process. You embark on a voyage to uncover the music. That’s always been so important to me, the process-based work.
Things are in a state of flux all the time, and that’s what I really love about working creatively. I myself get surprised along the way. Not just to listen to the end result. It’s really about the things that happen in the process of. And the “process of” is not finished with the product being out there. Then it’s the people listening to the music that continue the process. It’s sort of branching out to many directions, like some sort of cross-fertilization of spirits meeting. There’s the person making the music, and there are other people who want to listen to the music because they are looking for that same kind of expression.
That made me think of John McLaughlin.
Yeah! That’s why I cannot say what is the main hat. The main hat is the composer and the main hat is the producer because if I want to put the music out there, I’m the producer. Even if I’m on stage, playing, I’m making production choices in how I’m playing, in the sound I’m picking for a particular solo, or for a particular song. There’s always the music production. The presentation is always part of the playing as well. I just see myself as an “all-arounder.”
Some people reading this will be new to your musical world. Where would you want them to start? What’s a good entry point?
It depends on where people come from, in terms of musical taste. Historically, I started with performing and recording ambient music, which is something I still do. But I guess the collaborations with people who are better known, like Tony (Levin) for example. I think those collaborations are probably the ones that are most accessible for people who have never had contact with my playing or my compositional skills. So I’d say that Stick Men is a good starting point. Even though it doesn’t represent purely me, collaboration is a big part of what I do. Maybe Tuner – the project with Pat (Mastelotto) – is a little closer to what I’m about in rock music.
How close would you say you are to achieving your musical vision?
To me, it feels like I’ve only just started. But my vision is a really big thing. I would say I’m always getting very close when I’m working on a new project. But I don’t stop. My vision is not something that can be defined in such a way that I can say, “I’ve reached this point, and now there’s nothing more to say.” It’s almost like I’m building a workshop, in a way. And that’s my vision. My vision is this workshop, which grows and has more and more tools in it. And with those tools, I can create more music. And then that music re-informs what extra tools I want to get for my workshop.
At any given time, with the workshop I have, I always get very close to my musical vision. On April 12, there will be an album released of string quartets that I wrote last year. That will be a purely classical project. It’s not me playing. I’ve written the music for the string quartet format specifically. The idea for the compositional technique I used for the string quartets, I had when I was 15. So that’s 31 years ago!
That’s a long gestation period.
Yeah, but I needed to build the workshop throughout those 31 years to actually get to the point where this idea could be put into the real world. I really think that album is as close to my vision as it gets. Having said that, once I heard the recordings – and I’m very happy with them – if I were to do it again, I would do it differently! [Laughs] But I don’t see it like I want to revise what was done. It’s more like I want to write the second volume already.
The cool thing I can really say is that my own work inspires me. I think that’s a beautiful thing. It has nothing to do with arrogance. It’s just something that I feel. That any musical step I take does not take away from my inspiration or my vision. It’s quite the opposite. It gives me more ideas. It gives me more options.
How much would you say your playing has changed since the mid-90’s, when Guitar Craft took hold and you started doing more recording and have since designed your own instruments?
Up until I was 20 years old, I was never practicing an instrument seriously. I was born in ’72. I met Robert Fripp for the first time in ’91. Fripp was the first teacher to show me the value in using the musical instrument as something beyond just a tool to make music, but as a tool for training yourself, for self-development. It’s not just about the music. It’s about learning a skill.
With Fripp being such a master at his skill, he was really good at passing on that torch on to me. And since I started to play the Stick, I took the vibe of his drive. And Fripp’s drive was to become the best guitarist in the world. That’s what he wanted when he was 14.
I pick up the Stick, and it’s a very alien instrument. It’s not very ergonomic. It’s really hard to play. When I first picked it up, I realized either I do this seriously – I do this for real— or I need to forget about it. And then I decided okay, I’m gonna do this! And that was when things started to change.
Ninety-six was the time when I joined both Centrozoon and the Europa String Choir, which was a Guitar Craft band. The most important change, in terms of playing, happened as I was getting into live performance and into recording live in the studio. The biggest step for me was [pauses] … you know we have these little voices in our head that comment, especially if you’re performing. Everything you’re doing is being commented on (by that voice).
It’s not any better from the writing side.
Exactly! There was a 10-day recording project for an album that came out in 2000 called Lemon Crash (DGM). We practiced the piece during the day and recorded three takes at night. That was the process we used for the ten pieces on the album. I remember that at some point in the process – maybe on Day Four or Day Five – I suddenly realized those voices were not talking any more. I’m just playing the piece we’re recording. That was the major improvement, and that’s when I realized that I can be a professional musician. The inner voice –I didn’t shut it up or have to use force – but in that moment of concentration and focus, those voices knew not to interfere.
Because the voices realized you knew what you were doing.
Probably, yeah. And that was the same time Centrozoon (peaked). I think all the music from that era is very much intuitive, direct. I don’t think I was ever in the way of the music. I was just there for the music to come out.
How do you approach an instrument like the U8 or the U10?
That was – in a way – pretty easy, because I realized pretty early on that nobody knew how to play it. Nobody could give me any answers. So what I did is I looked at the things I knew I needed to be able to do. I knew I needed to be able to start a note and to stop a note. We know that’s the basics of music, before we even talk about dynamics or whatever. On a Stick or a touch guitar, it’s not that easy. It’s not like you have the key – like a mechanical part – that helps you strike the strings. It’s not like that. That’s because the finger is the hammer on the string. That was great realization, because I knew that I have to press the string down on to the fret. As long as I hold the string down, that gives me the sound. The note is ringing. Then when I raise the finger up ever so slightly so that the string does not touch the fret any more – but I’m still touching the string – that means that’s the end of the note. And only then can I move the finger off the string. That was a revelation I had very early on.
A lot of people who play this touch style are not aware of the fact that the finger has to stay on the string at the end of the note. They always take the fingers off. And that’s why a lot of players sound really messy, or it sounds unpleasant. Because they don’t control the end of the note! Every great guitarist really mutes the strings. It’s hardly ever talked about. People always talk about the notes, but they hardly ever talk about what is happening in between the notes.
Exactly! The transitions and the silence! Because there’s always some sort of action between the notes. You could be tiding notes over, or you could have notes distinctly separate from each other with a lot of break. Realizing that gave me a good starting point to develop a technique.
I came up with everything myself. I was practicing every day to discover how it works. Now I’ve been playing for 27 years. And even now, almost every other week, I’m making a new discovery. The strings (on a touch guitar) are much more alive than on a regular guitar. On a regular guitar, you have more tension, and the strings are shorter. With the long strings on the touch guitar, and the low tension, it’s very sensitive. So if you’re hitting very hard, all the strings are vibrating, even if you’re hitting only one note. In the back of your head, you always have to think about signal to noise ratios. So sometimes I’m playing a note with my right hand, and I’m using the strings around the string I’m hitting here. So the two hands are always working together to mute and to play. It doesn’t work any other way.
Let’s talk about (Stephan Thelan’s) Fractal Guitar, which is remarkable! Can you walk me through your production process?
With Sonar, (Stephan) doesn’t really get the chance to use a lot of color with those compositions, because the concept is that it’s all very stripped down. It’s just the guitars. They don’t even use distortion. It’s all clean sounds. They basically have this one sound. And within that sound, they create their compositions. So Stephan’s idea was to start from a similar place in terms of the style of the compositions. He asked several people to collaborate, and I was the first.
The way I approached it from the very beginning was I gave him lots of options. So he sent me a track, like a basic idea for a composition. At that point, the drums were still programmed and he hadn’t played any bass parts. I gave him, like, three to eight layers of parts. Soundscaping parts, solos, riffs … anything I could compose in that moment. I took between three and six hours per song to come up with parts. But those parts were never arranged, in a sense, because I wanted him, as the main guy, to make the choices. So I sent him back these long tracks of ideas. He then chopped them up, and used the bits that he wanted to use, and he created the landscape from the materials that I gave him. Then he asked other people to add other elements that way, like David Torn, who did quite a few long solos. Most of the other solos I’m playing, with the exception of two solos by other guys.
So in a way, from the very beginning, the production process started even though he hadn’t asked me at that point to be the producer. So later on, once he had compiled all the materials, he made some demo mixes. He always updated me on their status, and at some point, he asked me to produce it for him. Knowing the Sonar albums, I wanted to do something that was going beyond what those albums were.
Well, mission accomplished!
Yeah! For me, there’s no such thing as a good sound. For me, there is a good piece of art. You might have a painting that looks ugly in a way, or uses colors that fight with each other. But it can still be a great piece of art. So you see, I approach everything like that. Especially with Fractal Guitar, I wanted it to be something that is really outstanding in terms of musicality and colors and width and depth. I wanted it to be exciting and cushiony at the same time. The only things Stephan said to me was he wanted the landscape to be changing during the pieces. If you’re listening on headphones, you’re traveling through the pieces, within the pieces. You have the elements kind of floating like that. It’s very fluid, wonderfully clear, but also aggressive in parts. There are also some more abrasive sounds in there. But I think they all come together beautifully.
There are so many textures to the record. It amazed me. I wondered, “What possessed these people to come up with sounds like that? It’s not something you can put on a lead sheet or on a staff.”
Yeah, that would be impossible [laughs]. Every single sound I made, I created specifically for that album. Everything has been designed to be more than what you can write on a piece of paper. The texture and overtones of every single note are designed to be special. I can’t even remember when Stephan asked me to play for that project. I think it was three years ago. So it was good to have a lot of time for it to grow into something so complex and beautiful. And here’s another thing: the bass part is also played on a U8 – one of my instruments (that he designed) by Matt Tate.
What makes me chuckle is knowing if you guys take this music to the stage, I guarantee it will sound almost nothing like the record! It’s a question of feel. You can’t just sit there and reproduce what you did in the studio.
That’s my attitude toward recorded music. Recorded music is its complete own world. It doesn’t have to be repeatable. I think that’s the beauty of recorded music. The studio becomes a musical instrument. And you don’t take the studio on to the stage with you. [Laughs] That’s why it’s such a beautiful project. I could go into all kinds of music theory and stuff. You don’t need to understand it in detail. With Stephan’s compositions, they are musically very, very simple. It’s like one drone. It’s just three or four notes droning throughout the whole piece. What I tried to do with my overdubs was to change these drones throughout by adding notes that extended his harmony in different ways.
You were filling a little of the open space while also giving it room to breathe.
Exactly! And that’s the beauty of Stephan’s compositions: they can be filled in. In a way, it’s like painting by numbers. You know there’s a “two,” and you need to put a color where the “twos” are. But you can still choose what color to use there. But you still have the shape. The composition is already there, and you can fill in the colors. Even within the tightest cage, you can still make some decisions.
Let’s talk about the music business for a second. You’ve talked about how many roles you have to play these days in order to make a living in the modern industry. Far too many people are devaluing music, treating it like something they’re entitled to, as opposed to something they should appreciate and compensate the artist for. How has streaming affected you, as opposed to the old model of having a record deal?
I think the music business – as we knew it – started dying in the early 90’s. I released my first album very early in ’98. I remember I did my very first run of 300 CDs back then. The album was called Taster. From that point on, I never really got in the situation where I had to sign a record deal. Only half a year later, I met Ian Boddy, who I started collaborating with. From the very beginning, we split everything 50/50. That’s the sharing approach I have taken since then. I’ve never gotten into the situation where somebody says, “You’re only gonna get five percent,” like a record label would give you. Or even less. I’m still working parallel to the music business. I’ve built my own empire [laughs]! It’s very small, but it is very powerful to see the fan as somebody who’s close to you and somebody you interact with directly. Somebody who understands that yes, I may still be putting out product, but it’s not enough just to buy my CD. But if that’s how much you can contribute, no problem! The people who support me know if they pay me for a free download – and people do pay me for those downloads – they know they’re not paying for the product. They are allowing me with their contribution to continue making music.
Are we talking about the Core 10,000? Meaning, I could sell 100,000 albums to an audience once, or I can sell 10,000 people ten times over because they’re my core audience?
Ten thousand is a very high number even for artists that you think may be big enough (to sell that many). Ten thousand is a number that hardly any release sells these days. We’re talking hundreds. Even with Stick Men. Hundreds is what we can believe. Just believe that there are gonna be 200 people buying this release. Everything else is a bonus!
Things happen (most) when we’re touring. For an independent band, it is really impossible to reach more people than that. Even if you’re thinking that social media is such a great thing, and you have X number of followers on Twitter or whatever, the number of people those services allow you to reach is much, much less. That’s what a lot of people looking in from the outside get wrong. Another example, something that has struck me for a while: the quality and the work that I’m putting into the product make it have a certain vibe and a certain appearance to the listeners. I’m so anal about getting it sounding great, that people who listen to it may think it’s an expensive production because it sounds so good. It’s really quite the opposite. I don’t have any money (for an expensive recording)! I have to take the bad recording and massage it such a way that it comes out great. And by giving it so much attention, it gives it a sense of grand-ness. It’s a big misunderstanding that something that sounds big also must be big [laughs].
It’s stunning the way people think. “He’s been on the radio, therefore he must be rich. He’s got a record in the record store, therefore he’s made it.” That guy is mowing his own lawn and is driving a little Honda. He’s not a millionaire by any stretch!
Exactly. That’s been kind of a misunderstanding, and that’s something that people … I have to talk about Robert Fripp again. It’s something he’s been aware of since the early 90’s, when started DGM. When he still called it Discipline Global Mobile, and (then) Discipline Records. That was the time when he thought he wanted to operate within the marketplace by not being in the marketplace.
He said he could sell 30,000 units on his own and make the same money as selling 300,000 units through a label.
You could make ten times as much selling ten times less. Because the record companies would make sure you wouldn’t be getting money. The original recording contract is one of the most evil things you can think of. The idea that you can take away someone’s rights, and in return you give them money they have to pay off (in the form of an advance).
Can we do anything to motivate more people who use Spotify or Apple Music and educate them about what’s really going on?
Those people who are interested and understand about the process will always want to get involved. I think there are just parallel worlds (among fans) that exist at this time. You asked about Spotify in your question. If you think about it, it’s unbelievably evil: the idea that as an artist, you are just a very, very small part of the whole operation. You believe that you are giving them content, and the content is the product. (You believe) music is the product. No, no, no! That’s not true! The product is Spotify! That’s how they think of it, and that’s what’s actually true. It’s their product, and the artists that have their music on Spotify, by posting links for their music, they promote the big corporation. They’re promoting Spotify as a product. They are not promoting the music, as such. It’s such an evil thing where you’re actually getting very little out of it and they basically ask you to promote their product.
So you’re basically doing their work for them.
Exactly! They don’t put you on a playlist. They don’t.
There’s a flip side to the argument. When I mention Spotify or some other streaming service, some people chime in saying that these services are an updated form of radio. Or they say that we’re no better than Spotify users because we use YouTube. Maybe they’re saying we’re being hypocritical. But as an artist, I would rather put my music on YouTube, where I know I won’t make any money, than be paid fractions of a cent on the other streaming sites.
Yes! Exactly! Here’s a story for you: Ten years ago, I did a little sound design job for a German company called Native Instruments. It’s a big company making plug-ins. They are one of the major plug-in makers. They had a new synthesizer plug-in called Massive. They asked me to program sounds for it. They specifically asked for three sets of 50 sounds each. I did that, and I gave it back to them. I was so stupid! They only used three sounds out of the 150 I gave to them, and per sound, they wanted to give me 15 euros, something like 15 dollars. Unbelievable!
I was so shocked that I wrote them a letter, basically saying they should put the money where the sun doesn’t shine. I didn’t want their money. I didn’t take it. I didn’t want 45 euros for three weeks of work. It’s very insulting. I think as an artist nowadays, you have to always point out these things. A lot of people just give in and they accept the unfairness. That’s the problem. That’s wrong. I do have music on Spotify, because it’s music that I produced with some other musician, like the collaborations with Ian Boddy. But I’ve come to the realization that I can choose where I want my music to be.
There is a streaming service in the U.S. called Pandora. There is one track of mine from an old record that has been very successful on Pandora. There were like four million plays per year, which is a lot. It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a lot of streams. So what I did in November of last year, I recorded three albums in the style of that one song [laughs]. I’m gonna put out these three albums on Pandora and on Spotify. So just making my own rules, I see there is one track that was successful on streaming services. It takes me like a week to record three albums of beautiful music that is somewhat like that track. Now I can place it there, knowing that I’m not gonna make much money of it, and knowing it’s gonna be doing a little work for me in the background, and I don’t have to worry about it. I don’t have to promote it, and I’m NOT going to promote it. But I know it’s there, and it can be played. And if I get lucky, there will be some money coming back to me. So that’s how I’ve decided to work with this new kind of radio: make a specific product for a specific outlet.
What’s on your musical “bucket list?” What haven’t you done that you want to do?
That’s a good question. Like I said, for me it only feels like I’ve only just started. So anything new is on my bucket list [laughs]. I would like to – and it’s not a contradiction – I would like to be more successful with my music. That’s on my bucket list. I want to at least know that people had a chance to hear this music. And that’s what I see as success for me. I have a core group of maybe 100 people who are like big fans, real fans. It’s just not enough. I’m very grateful for those people. It’s wonderful. But I believe there is a much bigger group of people that needs this music I’m making.
I think the reason I make the music I’m making – remember at the beginning when we talked about these hats, and my hat is music – it is as if music has asked me to be the person to help find the forum for this music to come out. From the very beginning, it was always clear to me that I’m not just doing it for myself. I can actually listen back to albums I’ve produced, just as a listener. I can listen to it completely remotely from being the artist. I think that’s my bucket list. I want to be successful so that people can really enjoy my work.