Along with contemporaries and countrymen Kraftwerk, pioneering German electronic music group Tangerine Dream stands as one of the most influential acts to ever plug in a synthesizer. Founded by keyboardist/guitarist Edgar Froese in 1967, Tangerine Dream got its start creating ferociously psychedelic, freeform freakouts on the group's 1970 debut Electronic Meditation (when the line-up featured fellow electronic trailblazers Conrad Schnitzler and Klaus Schulze), before moving on to the epic pre-synth dronescapes of Alpha Centauri and Zeit.
The band's game-changing 1974 album Phaedra introduced the hypnotic sequencer pulse and shimmering sonic vistas, making Tangerine Dream a headphone favorite of stoners and, later on, a host of '80s filmmakers who harnessed the group's throbbing futuristic atmospheres for movies like Thief, Risky Business, Legend, and Sorcerer. Tangerine Dream's signature sound would go on to fuel the imaginations of countless disciples in the worlds of techno, trance, and ambient music.
Though the band has operated on a lower profile since the 1990s, sole constant Froese and his collaborators have continued to produce a prodigious amount of music, selling releases directly to Tangerine Dream's loyal cult of fans through the band's imprints TDI and Eastgate. All Shook Down recently posed some questions to Froese via email about his iconic band ahead of the group's first tour of North America in well over a decade, which comes to the Bay Area on Friday, July 13, at the intimate Uptown Theatre in Napa and Saturday, July 14, at the Mountain Winery in Saratoga.
Tangerine Dream has played a few one-off shows in the U.S. in the past decade (Moogfest in Ashville NC last year, Royce Hall at UCLA in 2008), but from my understanding, this is the first proper U.S. tour since the late 1990s. Is there a reason for the long gaps between performances in the States?
A full tour was planned and most tickets sold mid-October 2001, but then Sept. 11 made it impossible for most acts to go straight back to entertainment. Since then we've tried a few times to set up a tour, but failed for a number of reasons.
Tangerine Dream was always at the forefront in musical technology, from your use of synthesizers in the '70s through the shift to digital technology and computers in the '80s. Have you continued to adopt new technology as it emerged for more recent recordings?
Since we started working with high-tech gear back in the late 1960s, we never gave up talking to those fellows who were ahead of their time and were trying to make the impossible possible. Can you imagine running around for most of your lifetime with a sound within your neural network stimulating you all the time to get materialized? I tell you that's harder than climbing Mount Everest, because that can be done in a week...
How have newer technological developments impacted the sound of Tangerine Dream?
The electronic part of TD's music -- and that's about 80 percent of each composition -- is unimaginable without the newest developments in hardware and software. It´s not overstated as a British writer just wrote couple of weeks ago: "Listening to Tangerine Dream's music is like having a full map of electronic instrument developments within the last 40 years."
Technology has also been a part of the band's live performance in terms of visual elements in concert. How has that changed since the last time you toured the U.S.?
We've done most of the modern visual experiments within our career, from lasers in the late 1970s when it became a sensation [up through] 3-D animations used during special events in Europe recently. But to travel the globe fully equipped with such gear today, your name must be Madonna, Madame Gaga, or your guitarist is the little brother of Bill Gates. So we still have our little surprises, but won't roll the moon down to the Granada stage.
Do you oversee the design of the visual presentation, or do you have collaborators who handle that aspect?
In order to get the best possible result, we became sort of a control-freak army just to avoid the endless and senseless money spending into some other people's pocket. There are masters in visual presentation, but you have to have twenty chart titles just to pay for their computer drafts, not talking about the real thing on stage. Under such circumstances, we have to work very efficiently to get a good show rolling.
From the material I've heard, Tangerine Dream's more recent studio work mostly retains the keyboard and synthesizer focus of earlier recordings with some exceptions (what sounds like live percussion, vocals and violin in some songs), but live the band uses a broader instrumental palette. Do you typically rearrange the material to incorporate live drums, saxophone, and more prominent electric guitar when performing in concert?
Yes we do, i.e., there is a studio recording which works like a delicate food department. If you would take such arrangement straight to a number of different theaters, it could be a disaster because of the different acoustic conditions. Just one example is the range of the lower frequencies. You have to take care of in order to give the mids and high frequencies the brilliant life they need to express themselves. A final composition has real life on its own. You must be very sentient not to destroy the breathing of it. These are the rules even for a quite loud and rock-y part of the show.
From live clips I've seen, touring member Bernhard Beibl seems to be the principle guitarist for TD live shows. Do you have specific songs that regularly feature your guitar playing in concert?
I've got a number called "Blue Bridge" were I compliment our sax player Linda Spa with my guitar. The rest of the show is Bernhard's business, because we've got a tremendous amount of keyboard work to play, so with my two hands I'm just a bit limited.
Tangerine Dream's live performances were legendary for both their volume and amount of improvisation; are those three elements still central to TD concerts?
Today we're in much better control of all musical parameters, so we definitely won't blow some folks' heads off. As far as the improvisational part is concerned, lots of things have changed. You can't tell a software program to run its own logic principle in a random mode while such system is connected to three other terminals supposed to be in perfect keys and harmonies. The outcome would be [that] no one knows what happens next. The old way of counting in a song and improvising the way everybody feels can't work with such complex compositions and electronic equipment. In our "old days," the so-called analog age, we did improvise 99 percent of our music for more than 10 years. But that's over.