Michael Moppert aka Sonarpilot
Growing up musically in the 1970s, Michael Moppert was fascinated by innovative artists from Bowie, Pink Floyd and Roxy Music to the electronic output of pioneers like Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk and Jean-Michel Jarre. With the explosion of Punk and New Wave, Michael began to make music himself. He acquired an electric guitar, a 4-track tape recorder, a slightly battered TR 606 drum machine and a Korg MS-20 analog synth, and started to work. Main influences at that time were British synth-pop bands such as Yazoo, Bronski Beat, New Order, Heaven 17 and the Eurythmics as well as more experimental artists such as Brian Eno and Laurie Anderson.
In the 1980’s Moppert opened a recording studio and produced local bands while working at night on his own material when the studio wasn’t booked. During this time he began to use extensively digital technology, samplers and synthesizers. Towards the end of the 1980’s his sound was losing the typical song-structure, tracks became longer, increasingly technoid, ambient and experimental.
After a lengthy musical hiatus, Michael returned to music making at the tail end of the 00s with a new artist name and the creation of his own label - Sonarpilot was born.
The Mothership and Radar era...
The debut Sonarpilot album 'Mothership' was released to wide critical acclaim in 2010. Tastemaker blog Music With An Exc!amation Point called it 'extremely well-made and intelligent electronica' while Skope Mag in the US described the album as 'an unforgettable journey through the galaxy of sound'.
A series of bespoke digital EP releases followed the album featuring the remix productions of the underground's finest artists alongside Michael's ever creative original work.
Leading artists such as techno king, Kirk Degiorgio, Gilles peterson's right hand man, Simbad, Ramadanman, the late Marcus Intalex under his techno guise of Trevino, deep house soldier Aybee and London's soulful house ambassador, Danny J Lewis all contributed to build a catalog of EPs and tracks that stand the test of time.
The music created in this period retains it's freshness today, once you've been introduced to one track, you'll want to dig deep and search them all out...
The mid 2010s saw Sonarpilot compile the cream of these digital releases alongside some choice, unreleased gems into his second full album, a deluxe double CD package called 'Radar'. As much of an art project and collector's piece as it is a music CD, the album was described as “5* for sheer diversity in quality electronic music”. SUB.FM simply said... “Soooo many gems on this' while AMDJS Radio summed things up saying “Sonarpilot just means quality”.
Moppert followed up Radar with a third long player, 3.0, opening up each track on the album to be remixed by an up and coming electronic music producer, most of whom would see their first official releases on the resulting '3.1' collection. Inspiring the next generation on their journeys. By now the label and Sonarpilot himself were driven by collaboration and Michael's solid vision for what each track had personally meant to him, where the music had come from and the message contained within. Sonarpilot Audio was now truly Music Inspired by People, places and Travel.
The new season...
2017 saw Michael return from the studio with another albums worth of fresh electronica and throughout the following year, the label consistently released this next wave of Sonarpilot tracks, but in bite sized form this time round... one original, one remix, the label moving into 'series' mode. We welcomed back some of our favourite production collaborators to remix for us once again, Simbad, Kirk Degiorgio, Brendon Moeller – all adding their touch to Michael's originals.
As we move into 2019, the label releases the fourth and final instalment of it's 'Retrospective' compilation album series, a look back over the first ten year cycle of Micheal Moppert's music as Sonarpilot, delivered together in genre-form collections the very first time.
The next ten years? Maybe off-world... Journey with us.
Label Management: Jonny Miller
Michael Moppert AKA Sonarpilot talks to Rockwired about the release of his debut, double CD 'Mothership', returning to music after twenty years and the advantages and disadvantages of music making in the digital age...
A double cd release may seem a bit much for a debut from a new artist but for sonarpilot, ‘mothership’ is more than a debut. It is a return to music making after spending the better part of twenty years in the corporate world as the CEO of a software company in Switzerland. The sense of otherworldliness that Sonarpilot’s ambient sound portrays almost serves as an aural documentation of one mans exploration in that disconcerting world of electronic music. The appropriately named desert song perfectly conjures up the desolation one can feel in the desert (believe me i live in one) with it’s distant yet insistent electronic bounce that builds gradually throughout the twelve minute piece into a thin slice of electronica heaven. Voodoo Logic is a curious addition to largely celestial themed recording. It is centred around an arrhythmic clap enveloped by an echo-y middle-eastern motif. If celestial bodies are the images that Sonarpilot’s music conjures up the best, then planet pop is mothership’s crowning jewel. As with many of the double albums tracks, things get off to an atmospheric and ominous start, but eventually settles on an irresistible groove a third of the way through. Planet Pop is indeed a planet in motion! With celtic lounge, things take a sexier turn as the track sounds like the perfect background music for a make out scene in a big budget sci-fi flick or a nude scene at the very least. It wouldn’t be too hard to imagine Sonarpilot finding an outlet in film scoring seeing as how mothership is probably the most moody, rhythmic and atmospheric collection that i can think of since 1984 (for the love of big brother) by Eurythmics.
Describe how you feel about the impending release of Mothership?
Excited and happy! When i started to work on the first tracks of the album in the fall of 2008 i hadn’t touched any sound equipment for almost 15 years. I had no idea what would happen. Well, it turned out to be a great experience. It was in a way like coming home to a place you’ve lived in the past and haven’t visited for a long time, like coming home. It took a track or two to get familiar with the new equipment but that was more a technicality. What made me really happy was that after all these years it still felt completely natural to create music. It was as if i had never made a break. Now i’m of course looking forward to getting the material out to the audience, hear what they have to say about it.
In a way the release of mothership is sort of signalling your return to the music end of the spectrum as opposed the corporate world? Is that why you've title the album mothership?
That’s a great interpretation of the title - i haven’t looked at it that way, there’s definitely some truth in it. But let me tell you the original story behind the title: i developed Sonarpilot as my alter ego, as a slightly enigmatic character whose mission is the exploration of distant sound spaces. About twenty years ago sonarpilot and his sonic spaceship disappeared without leaving a trace. Now, in 2010, after all those years, an interstellar deep space probe intercepted a series of strange signals. Ground control decoded the messages and they turned out to be transmissions that had been sent out by the main computer on sonarpilot’s ‘mothership’. The signals were acoustic protocols of sonarpilot’s sonic journeys. And that’s the material on the album, hence the title “Mothership”.
What made you want to step away from music and pursue the real job? Frustrations?
No, that was a rather organic development. In the early nineties i was doing a number of things in parallel. One of the projects was a technology startup. With the internet boom that venture took off and soon i was spending more time on planes and airports than in the studio. It was a crazy time, very interesting and intense and left no time for anything else. And before i knew almost 20 years had passed. It was quite a journey, extremely interesting and i learned many things along the way. I am glad i had the opportunity to do all this. But now i am really happy that i am back making music!
Talk about made you want to return to music making after so many years?
I knew for quite some time that didn’t want to do just business for he rest of my life. Although it was really exciting to build a successful business and i learned an incredible amount of things it was never my ambition to be a business person for the rest of my life. I worked almost non-stop for over 15 years and one of important things that kept me motivated during all that time was the the thought that one day i might be able to hand over the the day-to-day responsibilities to someone else and focus on purely creative work again. In the end i was very lucky and succeeded in doing that.
How did music begin for you?
I grew up with the music that my parents listened to: Bach, The Beatles and Miles Davis. As a young teenager i was listening to music all the time. When i wasn’t at school i was working in record shop and knew everything that came out. That was in the late 1970s in the middle of the punk explosion. I wasn’t a huge punk fan myself, but i loved many of the new wave acts. One day a friend of mine asked me if i’d tag along to take some guitar lessons – and that was it. From then on i was playing music whenever i could. It was as if i had discovered a whole new universe to which i hadn’t had access before. First i just had an acoustic guitar, then i bought an old electric guitar, added a simple synth, a drum machine and a 4 track tape recorder. One thing led to another and a few years later i opened a recording studio with a friend of mine.
What music influenced you? Given the sound and feel of mothership - it seems like bowie was a definite influence.
You’re right - bowie was definitely one of my heroes. I was fascinated by his ability to always create new personas, to reinvent himself and to combine very experimental elements with commercial material. Even more important for me was Brian Eno with his ambient music and his involvement in contemporary art. I also liked early synth acts such as Tangerine Dream, Kraftwerk or Jean Michel Jarre as well as some of the 1970s supergroups such as pink floyd. And then there were all new wave acts such as talking heads, eurythmics, early Depeche Mode and many more. Increasingly i listened to classical music, ranging from Monteverdi to Steve Reich, as well as jazz and world music.
Is it fair to say that your desire to want to record your own music stemmed from recording other artists at that 16 track studio that you opened up in Basel.
It was actually the other way round: i wanted to have access to a professional studio environment. That was expensive. So the only way to get there was to open a studio and finance it by recording other bands. You have to remember: in those days decent equipment was extremely expensive. It was all still analog, with huge mixing desks and multitrack tape machines. Home recording equipment was ok for a quick demo tape – but if you wanted to produce something even semi-professional you had to go to a studio. Today i am of course extremely glad that i have that experience from the recording studio. Else i wouldn’t know how i’d cope with the complexity of today’s sound recording software
In returning to music after fifteen years, what are your thoughts on the technology that has changed?
Well, first i was completely blown away when i saw what you get today for very little money. I remember when we bought our very first digital reverb machine to replace our old analog spring reverb in the studio, probably 25 years ago, we paid about $10’000 for that thing. And that was just one effect box… today you can buy everything you need to make a professional recording for less than the cost of that single box. This has profound consequences: you don’t need an expensive studio to produce your music. Plus you can distribute your stuff for next to nothing globally via iTunes and many other platforms. That means you no longer need a label to finance your record and distribute it. This shift opens up wonderful new opportunities for talented musicians. There is of course also a downside: as the technology has become so cheap we have millions of people who fiddle around with this technology. It’s pretty easy to cobble something together that does sound acceptable. You don’t even have to play anything yourself, just buy a bunch of libraries and pre-produced loops and off you go. The problem is that the vast majority of that stuff is mind-numbingly boring. In the end it still needs a lot of work, dedication and talent to make music that is more than acoustic fast food. 20 years ago it was a challenge for an artist to get a record deal and the support of a solid label. For the consumer it was difficult to find some of the music because it wasn’t widely available. Today the challenge is to break through the enormous din of a never-ending avalanche of very mediocre material and find your audience, or, as a music-lover, find artists that you really like. But overall i believe it’s great that many people have access to creative technology and i myself of course feel like a kid in the candy store!
Why the name Sonarpilot?
I think of Sonarpilot as my alter ego, the musical me. He is steering the ship, i am the passenger watching and trying to describe the soundscape through which we are travelling. Hence the “pilot”. And the sonar is the pilot’s most important instrument as it explores its surrounding with sound. I like the idea of music as a travel through a soundscape. Creating music is a discovery process, an exploration. I never know where the pilot will take me. I am working on a track and all of a sudden the individual elements that i have put together build a completely new acoustic landscape, something i didn’t plan or expect to get to.
Explain - if it's explainable - the creative process. How do you go about composing?
Usually i start with one single element, mostly a specific sound or atmosphere. In the case of “First Contact”, the opening track of the Mothership album, it was that sonar ping. Just one single note. But that sound created a strong picture – a strange vessel that dives through deep waters or cruises through space. Then i explore that image and soundscape. I add layers of sound and chord progressions and melodic structures. Then i take this material and start to structure the track. When everything works well i basically listen and watch the track develop. Finally i work on the mix and the overall sound. It’s a long process, i often need about a month for one track until i am really happy with it.
So, Mothership is a double CD. Clearly you had a lot of mind running through your mind. What songs off of it resonate for you the most and why?
Hmm, that’s difficult. I guess they are a bit like kids. They are all different, but you like them all. Each track has its own history, its own personality and – i hope – it’s own magic. And they all play their part as an element of a two-hour soundtrack. It’s a bit like looking through a kaleidoscope: you see many facets in unexpected, different colours. All elements together build one big – and hopefully interesting - picture.
What would you like a person to come away with after they've heard mothership?
I hope people take the music and make it their own personal soundtrack that inspires and refreshes their mind and soul and adds an interesting shade of colour to their life.
April 21, 2010
Interviewed by Brian Lush