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"Not many producers can get away with putting out tracks that stretch to 45 minutes long": How Ricardo Villalobos' hypnotic grooves changed the face of minimal techno

 Ricardo villalobos.
Ricardo villalobos.

In our Pioneers series, we illuminate the genius of the most influential artists and producers in musical history. This month, we're talking Ricardo Villalobos, a visionary producer and DJ known known for pushing both boundaries and track durations.

Not many producers can get away with putting out tracks that stretch to 45 minutes long. But Ricardo Villalobos isn’t just any old producer. One of dance music’s most storied figures, the Chilean-German producer and DJ’s slender, hypnotic grooves have earned him a reputation as a master of minimal techno and a near-universally renowned artist within electronic music’s underground.

Born in Chile, Villalobos’ parents fled the country in 1973 after Augusto Pinochet ousted liberal president Salvador Allende in a military coup, bringing the three-year-old to his mother’s native Germany, a place she had been forced to leave after WWII.

As a child in Germany, Villalobos’s curiosity was sparked by the South American rhythms in the records he would hear at home; he began his own collection at the age of 8, landing his first gig (at the school disco, no less) when he was only 15. Two years later, inspired by Depeche Mode’s emotive synth-pop, Villalobos began tinkering with production using a bedroom set-up centred around the Roland SH-101.

These experiments would spark a lifelong fascination with sound and a passion for the classic analogue gear and hardware used to make it. In the years since, he’s become a hugely prolific producer, putting out ten albums and too many singles to name, alongside a host of radically imaginative remixes that transform their source material into unrecognisable new forms. Though his diverse output has seen him sample everything from postmodernist classical to Serbian folk music to avant-garde jazz, there are a handful of traits that reliably define a Villalobos track.

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The first is his minimal approach, which strips the music back to only the bare essentials; most tracks will only feature a few percussive sounds, a manipulated sample or two, a bassline and - of course - a relentless kick drum. “Music is a language”, Villalobos said in a 2012 RBMA interview, “and I prefer a clear, understandable, and calm voice - with all necessary components and frequencies which are necessary for the music. Nothing more than this.” Another defining quality is the producer’s hallucinatory timbres; weird and wonky sounds, often cooked up by his towering modular rig, that have inspired many a Gearspace forum thread concerning their methodological origin.

More than anything, Villalobos’ music is recognizable by its rhythms, almost impossibly groovy constructions that sound organic, human and anything but sequenced. This plays into another Villalobos hallmark: extended track durations. Considering that many of his tracks run far beyond the length of other artists’ albums, the unacquainted might accuse the producer of self-indulgence.

You might think that Villalobos has simply stretched out his loops ten times longer than the rest of us, but buried in the details of each track, minute elements are subtly evolving

In truth, though, he’s anything but; these are rhythms so supple, so precisely crafted, and so goddamn listenable that half an hour can easily float by in a kind of mesmeric haze. You might think that Villalobos has simply stretched out his loops ten times longer than the rest of us, but buried in the details of each track, minute elements are subtly evolving, keeping the ear engaged far longer than anticipated. Music this good doesn’t need to be cut short.

Villalobos’ talents extend beyond the studio and into the club, where he’s also known for taking his time with marathon cross-genre DJ sets that have become the stuff of dance music legend. Surely among the best DJs in the world, Villalobos is one of the few that can excite the experimentally inclined at Robert Johnson while still inviting big-room bookings in Ibiza.

"You have six months listening to industrial techno inside the belly of your mother"

Speaking to The Guardian in 2017, Villalobos said that he finds a common thread between both of these polarities. “I try to find the common thing about all parties: dance, something that belongs to anyone in the whole world. It’s inside our body. You have six months listening to industrial techno inside the belly of your mother. Your heartbeat, the heartbeat of the mother, all these gastric waters surrounding you - together it sounds like Basic Channel.”

They might sound a little lofty, but statements like these show us just how seriously Villalobos takes his craft as a DJ, producer and musician. “Music is responsible for us still being alive as humans,” he continues. “It really helps us not to kill each other.”

Ricardo Villalobos in four releases

1. Ricardo Villalobos - Easy Lee

Easy Lee is the opening track on Villalobos’ debut album Alcachofa, which received a reissue last year in recognition of its 20th birthday. One of his best-loved and most accessible songs, it’s built around a fuzzy, distorted and really quite catchy vocal line, run through the vocoder of his Nord Modular and surrounded with his signature patchwork of pops, clicks and squelches. Don’t ask us to try to figure out the lyrics, though: is that “can of foam”, “cameraphone” or “Califone”?

2. Mari Kvien Brunvoll - Everywhere You Go (Villalobos Celestial Voice Resurrection Mix)

For our money, this is Villalobos’ best remix and surely one of his best tracks. Norwegian vocalist Mari Kvien Brunvoll’s Everywhere You Go is a live recording of a haunting solo performance for vocals and loop pedal. With source material this stunning, it’s no wonder Villalobos left the vocal largely untreated, save for some reverb, delay and gating; it sounds all the more potent rolled out over a bass-heavy beat that displays his signature balance of weight, power, groove and subtlety

3. Ricardo Villalobos & Max Loderbauer - Re: ECM

In 2011, revered German jazz label ECM gave Villalobos and collaborator Max Loderbauer carte blanche to sample anything from its 40-year catalogue. The result was Re: ECM, an experimental opus of jazz-infused ambient electronica. One of the few Villalobos releases that completely disregards the dancefloor, this 17-track collection shifts the focus from rhythm to texture, transforming samples of John Abercrombie and Arvo Pärt into strange and eerie worlds occupied by warped instruments and negative space.

4. Ricardo Villalobos - Bionic Sad

The unreleased Bionic Sad clocks in at just over 45 minutes, making it the producer’s longest track. Drawing praise and censure in equal measure from the YouTube comment section, it’s peak Villalobos. Stretching a minimal beat, ghostly strings and a robotic vocal out over the length of time it takes to make a lasagna, the music gradually disintegrates until all that remains is a scattered constellation of clicks, bleeps and bloops. Love it or hate it, it’s a radical work that invites a different kind of listening.