Few artists can claim to have as significant impact as Wolfgang Tillmans in his long-spanning career so far, named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2023. His photography has always maintained close ties to the music industry, and he has ultimately made his own impact on music with 2016 / 1986 EP after his single Device Control opened Frank Ocean’s Endless. Tillmans has since made a space for himself in the music world, with his new album Build From Here as testament to his success.
The album Build From Here finds Tillmans exploring where we are currently, as the cover art suggests a kind of construction site, as the title recognises somewhere to build from for the future. This footage has since become the film that accompanies the single release Grüne Linien, which finds Tillmans performing under this agricultural reflective fabric. Reflecting on the ruin and rebuilding of this process, Tillmans himself tells us in this interview: “The title I see as optimistic, one could say wishful thinking. It's a belief that wherever we are, one also has to see it as a base point from where we build - relationships or whatever it is we're building.” This album is Tillmans’ most confident sounding yet, as his voice takes centre stage. From blending words as Regratitude becomes its telling orthographic neighbour regretitude, to the low growl on Grüne Linien, to this exposed vulnerability in political assertion We Are Not Going Back, Tillmans’ voice stands out as both instrument and expressive force.
In advance of today’s highly anticipated release date of April 26th of his latest album Build From Here, we spoke with Wolfgang Tillmans about the upcoming album, collaborating, and navigating the visual and the aural sphere.
Despite initially experimenting in music and of course your own 2016 / 1986 EP, you’re most known for your work as a photographer. What prompted this return to music and inspired this album release now?
The 2016 / 1986 EP was the first of 15 releases that followed since, so the album is now #15 since 2016. I somehow stayed connected and basically addicted, hooked on making music, which I didn't know when I started it again in 2015 after a 30-year break. I had no idea how deep my interaction would become, but around 2014 I realised that I had a stronger longing to bring out a performative side in me that I have in many ways enacted through the photographs, me performing in the gallery space installing the pictures on the walls and literally touching all the wall space. I've always been present in my work, but I found over the years that I that my voice in itself wanted to be an instrument. And initially in 2016, I was of course very hesitant and shy, having seen how other artists switching medium can sometimes fail, and so it's been a sort of eight-year process. I'm still shy about it, but this album of course is maybe the most self-confident full on music album. This is always an experiment for me, but it is a full music album.
Before 2016 / 1986 EP, you had taken a 30-year hiatus from music. Was this just a gradual thing and like you say, moving into recognising your voice as an instrument?
I don't write a diary, but I do write down single lines and thoughts, and I sort of collect them and I date stamp them and just writing the date on them. I sometimes don't see them for years, but I do mind them for lyrics, and I found in 2012, repeatedly this word musikfilm in German, this idea of the combination of music and moving images. Maybe a turning point was also in 2009, I had a talk in Los Angeles at the Bing Theatre where I think 4 LA colleges pulled together and there was a 650-capacity auditorium, which was packed and sold out and I free formed for 80 minutes, talking without script. Around that time, I observed that I developed a certain choreography of my talks where I also sometimes have images where I don't say something and allow silence. Around those years, I observed that to keep people for 80 minutes fully attentive, no shuffling on the feet, no one leaving the auditorium; those are telltale signs that there's something keeping people's attention and so that coming together, and noticing, you are already performing in a way; you are speaking unscripted, and you are giving these rhythmic patterns in your voice.
So, it's been a flow, but really the moment that I performed for the camera in a video myself was 2014 when I gave a workshop at an underground art space in Tehran in Iran. In the morning, I saw a ray of light fall through a crack in the curtain and I started to play with that light and with my shadow. I began playing with the shadow and then jumping from one leg to another and started to dance. But the dance made its own rhythm. And later the same situation happened in a hotel room in Los Angeles. I put the two together, these two shadows and myself, and I called it [an] instrument because I was the instrument that I was dancing to and with. I wanted to morph and modulate the sound of my stepping. I went to a studio in my street in Berlin who I had heard of, and I just did a little tweaking job there, and that's how I met Tim Knapp, with who I then collaborated with for the next eight years.
Your work plays on that intersection between audio and visual mediums, notably your photography featured at No Photos on the Dance Floor! Berlin 1989. How do you view this crossover between the image and sound, are there any ways your work in one medium inspires the other?
I found that I've always seen [and] listen[ed] to music with quite strong graphic visual images in mind. I always saw music as this timeline, and similarly I see my installations of multiple parts on walls from floor to ceiling also as a kind of composition, of elements that all have a different clang; a different sound to them. So, my love for music has found many ways into my work through photographing, lending my lens to musicians, portraying them, doing record covers, even though that's not been a major thing for me until I landed on the worldwide #1 album with Frank Ocean.
And of course, the love for nightlife. I was surprised how little surprised people were and when I started to actually make music, because also I had [done] a little bit of DJing there, but I was maybe myself more surprised than others.
I wanted to start with discussing the art cover of your new album Build From Here. The cover art has this concealed presumably human form in a concrete clearing, hidden beneath an emergency blanket in what seems to be a construction site. How does this image for you introduce the album to listeners?
The fabric is actually not an emergency blanket, but it is a special agricultural fabric, a knitted aluminium, which I discovered I think in 2015/16 and used ever since in installations of mine. It is a product used in very sun-rich areas like Arizona and the desert in the US, to cover agricultural fields, to shield them from excess sun. It has this beautiful, fluid quality. It's metallic, but it's also fabric. It's clearly utilitarian and it's not glamorous; it's not a dress fabric. Maybe I like the quality of it as a sort of climate regulator, and so it's cropped up in covering rooms for sound installations or the video room in MoMA was also covered in sound panels that were stretched with this fabric.
There is nothing intrinsically alarming about the picture for me. It's definitely hinting at a construction site. It is on a construction site, the ladder, and this spray. It is not a fire extinguisher. It's used to spray concrete forms before casting [it] was just standing around there. The image is actually from a film, a video that Michael Amstad and I shot and it's me performing inside. The footage became the video to Grüne Linien, which is the single that came out on Friday, and the video is out now on YouTube. I kind of like that it has some indoor vibes and then it's clearly outdoors at the same time; it is warm and yet it's about shelter and precariousness as well, and that's maybe somewhere also where the world is suspended. The title I see as optimistic, one could say wishful thinking. It's a belief that wherever we are, one also has to see it as a base point from where we build - relationships or whatever it is we're building.
Your album captures a range of different styles and emotions, from really catchy tracks to very contemplative and introspective songs. Can you share some insight into your creative process for this album? How did you approach creating such a diverse yet cohesive body of work?
I think the most distinct distinction or the clearest difference between myself and the musician who is doing music full time is that with me, music can only happen when I make room for it or when it demands its space, and it comes through in a big competition. The exhibition projects I’m working on they are of course all very time-consuming projects, and so there isn't a coherent practise. That's why also I can't really be touring properly. There have been occasional life moments. In the end, it turns out that this practise is that things only happening when they really want to happen, when there's almost too urgent a pressure for me to note down this idea or to meet with Tim [Knapp] and Bruno [Breitzke] because new ideas have piled up and that happens at a low frequency over time. So, on this album there are tracks from 2018/19, 2020, 2021, 2022, 2023, with maybe half being from the last year or year and a half. It was similar with my first album, with Moon in Earthlight that came out in ’21. All this hesitation and this waiting and this procrastination and somehow I was able to then let it crystallise in a moment where I brought together all these different elements of sound production that range from spoken word to field recordings to jams to fine studio productions and assemble them on a timeline, in a relatively short period of time.
Build From Here, I only saw the possibility of this at the end of November, and I delivered it at the end of January. It was literally a good two months of suddenly super intense work of editing a timeline of 80+ minutes and coming down to 40 minutes. But it really all started last summer, with Where Does The Tune Hide? and Regratitude, and We Are Not Going Back, which all were newly penned in New York at Fire Island last summer, which also shows maybe the result of some the work I had with [a] voice coach, which is a really exciting experience that maybe something new had happened in the music that wanted to come out.
It’s interesting you mention working with a voice coach; your voice is really prominent in this album and can really change the reception and meaning of the track, especially in songs like Regratitude, where the word becomes regretitude. Can you share a little more about your vocals on the album?
In photography, I often speak about how a large part of the work is to control the wanting, because wanting to make art is the last thing an audience wants to see. And I guess it's the same with singing. You know, if you push it out, if you force the voice or if you want to be heard, then the wanting is being heard. That, I've been working with my images for 30 years and it's something you can never really own and perfect because the moment you own it, you stifle it also.
But with the voice, it is how you mentally and physically open up without pressure that seems to suddenly allow the voice to resonate and to become the expressive tool. That shows what I enjoy about words because that's maybe what I didn't talk about earlier on, is that I have a pleasure with words - with titles, with exhibition titles, with work titles. Words are also, in a way, things that, when you spell them out, when you say them, when you vary them, you look at them in three dimensions. I believe a certain confidence and control has developed here, whilst on the other hand, there are things that come from sketches, like Regratitude just came to me walking on a beach. It's just spoken into a voice recorder and then sometimes, Tim and Bruno and I find that the voice recorder recording, even though far from perfect, has something that we just use.
That's how I also see a similarity to my photography. In my photography I also would never say, oh, let's [do] another take, let's do this again tomorrow. The moment that a picture happens, there's something that cannot necessarily be remade, and so I also always record every jam and every note because I believe in a certain voice photography or audio photography.
That  makes a lot of sense; you can’t recreate intention without changing that intention fundamentally. That theme of language emerges as a real theme in the album, as you said becoming a 3D thing. You also speak in multiple languages on the album, could you talk a little about the inclusion of language in that way?
And a song called Language (laughs).
Yes, exactly! (laughs)
The concluding one. Yes, the words usually are always the beginning of new songs. The word comes into my mind either simultaneously with the melody, or very shortly after the melody happens and of course that is I guess the magic of music and words and how cadence makes for infinite possibilities of saying something like a simple sentence. How the words fall in time is the joy of it. I never studied music and I can't read or write sheet music, so I only note and write with a voice recorder. I've been told I sound good in German, but English, because I've been bilingual for 33 or 34 years now, and it's probably the more natural language because of course it's more universally understood. And then the French one came from reading Camus, La Peste or The Plague in high school at A Level.
Language, it's a dimension I trust, and I think we have to trust language and we have to look at it and consider why are we saying things the way we say them, and we have to believe also when people say things they mean them. Like with Trump and with all political demagoguery, people say beforehand what they plan to do; Hitler spelled out beforehand what he intended to do and people often don't believe that it could be true. I mean, that's of course the extreme, scary side of things, but also in love and in poetry and in relationships, it's what you said; the intention. Intentionality is very much part of what we are actually saying.
Definitely! It’s interesting you bring up the politics of language as well. Your involvement in political activism is also clear on this album, particularly in addressing LGBTQ+ rights on We Are Not Going Back. How do you view blending activism into your art? What role do you believe artists have in advocating for social and political change?
It's important to me that it's not limited to LGBTQ+ activism.
Of course, I remember your campaign against Brexit also.
Yes of course. More fundamentally, however, women's rights, because without women's rights, starting with the right to vote in 1918 - without all of that social change having started by very courageous people and generations before us, we wouldn't have had the further liberations of the decades after. Even though having grown up in the 80s and come out in the 80s and 90s, I hadn’t felt harassed or bullied much myself, but I had a strong and acute sense that the freedom that I'm experiencing certainly cannot be taken for granted and certainly wasn't available in many other places in the world and that those liberties were hard fought for. The people that gave us them, that had to surrender, they did so against their conviction. Many people in the, say, Catholic Church do not want women to take on a full role in the church or in life beyond the family. This is not a case of when it's won over into civil legal code, that it is then solid and safe forever. That's where my activism is I think most directed at - this understanding that democracy and general civil liberties need care from the centre. They need care from the core of society. If at the centre they are not nurturing them and watering them and exercising their democratic rights then you lose them; use them or lose them. Because the extremist sides, they are working on this every day, they never sleep. I found myself in this unusual position that seeing myself as a progressive artist, I was surprised to find that actually work at the core of society is maybe the most radical - working on the cohesion of society rather than the centrifugal fringes.
On that same track, We Are Not Going Back, you feature 80-year-old film footage by your grandfather. What was this experience like, working with film as well as something that must hold such sentimental value, to revive it or give the film another life and meaning through your art?
You know, you'll be surprised. I knew that my grandfather did make 16mm films, but until a couple of years ago, I had never seen them because we don't have a 16mm projector and they were just in the metal rolls in my parents’ basement. During the pandemic I thought, come on, let's take them out of the basement where one day they might get water damaged, and I digitised them and ultimately it's it is only a few hours of footage now because obviously film was expensive in those days.
Working on that song, We Are Not Going Back, I didn't want to show the past as negative. That would have been too literal because, so it just shows some pasts. It's like a pre-war New York World Exhibition and Manhattan Times Square, and post-war West Germany - ice skating and sports scenes that had the right specificity. I don’t know if the viewer senses that this is not just a random image bank search, but it's images that have been recorded by somebody who knew of the preciousness of this celluloid of the film, of the few minutes that you have and so it's something that was dear to the filmer. It's interesting because there is obviously a fascination with the extraordinary, you know, a world exhibition is sort of like the Olympics and it's something extraordinary. But then the everyday of the traffic and of leisure. I guess that is similar in my work, that I am interested in both the everyday and the extraordinary. People often make more a case of that I'm looking at the everyday, but I am interested in both.
The video also interested me, because as you said, those words to become 3D – they’re very literally put onto the screen in this video.
That came from the digital single sleeve because I wanted the words to carry as much meaning and as far a distance as possible. For the videos I worked together with Michael Amstad, who has been working at my studio two days a week for 10 years now. He's a brilliant editor, so I direct the videos, but he brings an editing skill to it that I would never have. He took my general typography for the cover, and we really only exchanged a few words about the use of the typography in the video. He just interpreted it so freely and to the point that I didn't correct anything, and I liked it as he did it.
It sounds like a very serendipitous collaboration! Speaking of, you notably worked with Frank Ocean, as he included your track Device Control in his album, and then featured your portrait of Ocean as the cover of his album Blonde, as well as with Powell, on your EP together Spoken By the Other. Could you share a little more about collaboration in your work?
It was really quite a surreal thing to happen at the time. Frank Ocean is such a universally admired figure and when we met in Berlin, it felt like a very eye-to-eye understanding. This experience with Frank Ocean was just so wild. As my friends and I were making music in New York, Fire Island in the summer of 2016, the pending album release, was daily conversation and then there was suddenly a phone call, and it was actually Frank Ocean asking if he could use this photograph for his album cover. We hadn't really spoken much since those pictures were taken the year before, and I mentioned that I had started making music and ended up sending him three songs. A few days later, I received a text message from him. "Device Control is brilliant. Can I use it as the intro to the album?” Then in the end in August one morning, I see my e-mail full of comments about this entire 7 minute Device Control track being on his album book-ending Endless, the visual album and I’m suddenly giving an interview to Pitchfork. And then the next day, Blonde drops unannounced, with the photograph on the cover. I was just myself in the fledgling stage of making music, just having released the first EP having slated Device Control for release in September, and suddenly Frank Ocean drops this and I'm on the number one music story worldwide. It just was so surreal that you couldn't have made it up.
The collaboration with Oscar Powell was more of the traditional collaboration where we were mainly sending sound files to each other for a year and vocals and instrumentals and finding moments of coagulation. You know, Oscar is such a stubborn musician in the best sense of the word. You know, one could also call it radical but stubborn in a good way. There's a huge disregard to traditional song and harmony and composition formats that that let us end up with this one super sort of catchy Feel The Night track, and then a bunch of super experimental challenging tracks.
We ended up suddenly in the summer of 2017, headlining Atonal festival at Kraftwerk in Berlin. It was really quite punk for us to just end up there on Saturday night, last act on in front of 2000 people with the film programme that Michael Amstad and I compiled and Michael live-controlled, as a third member of us on stage. It was such a contrast to the gritty black and white imagery that most of the other acts were projecting on that screen, and we had footage of a poodle dog a few weeks before. It must have seemed so unserious and disrespectful to this sort of institution, and to the code of experimental that it somehow broke the boundaries of experimental and so some people hated it, and some others also liked it a lot.
How do you approach live performances with your music? Do you have any upcoming plans to perform in the near future?
There was this band element of my musical activity, that I spoke about so from 2016-2019, the band project called Fragile, we performed about 7 or 8 concerts. But because we were from Colombia, the United States and Germany, from three continents, we could not really build an ongoing live practise as well as my time doesn't allow for that either. So, I decided after our two shows at Kantine am Berghain in 2019 for Moon in Earthlight, which is a solar project with different musicians, but all from the fragile universe, somehow to not be a live project because it couldn't be performed live but for there to be a film to go with it - an assembly of different moving parts. That became an installation, a room at an exhibition in Los Angeles and then in Vienna at the museum there, and ultimately ending up at MoMA for the four-month run of the exhibition. So, I realised that giving space to music, giving an actual space in an exhibition of 11 rooms, giving one room over to the music is maybe the way that I can represent this part of my practise and preserve my nerves and stress levels. I wish I could perform this more live and the song Grüne Linien that is on the album is a live recording. I love doing it and I really enjoy the thrill, but I just cannot sustain it. I can't, time-wise, do it. And so, finding this film format is something that I am I'm happy about, but having said that we are just [adding] finishing touches on that film, and I'm still thinking about how that could be maybe toured with a personal presence, or if it's only with the mic presence and how it could be toured through certain cinemas in a way.