Songwriting Meets Sound Design in a Modular Environment

Dirk Pogrzeba (Neversleep) says:

What I really love about Berlin is its openness of culture

Sound design has to support a musical idea

An arpeggio is a repeating melodic line which builds up an energetic flow

Now I own everything I need for any kind of sound design

Neversleep is the solo project of Dirk Pogrzeba, a Berlin based musician with a huge modular arsenal to play with. Here is his interview for ‘The Electronic Corner’.

Sir Joe: Your music is influenced by early 80s analog synths bands, by your own admission.
Which bands or artists would you name as your main source of inspiration?

NeversleepI would say, I have quite a lot of influences.
In the early eighties, analog synthesizer bands and the new wave movement started as an answer to punk, mostly in the UK. This is just one influence, but it’s a major one because it’s the time when I was raised, musically.
I think everybody can relate to this: you are young, you listen to a specific song for the first time, your jaw drops completely and you think: “What was that?” For example, I remember listening for the first time to a song like ‘Fade to Gray’ by Visage, or stuff from Depeche Mode or Ultravox.
That was jaw dropping, in a way, and I always found that deep sound design, which now I know was coming from analog synthesizers, super interesting.
You have warmth and deepness, in that very sophisticated sound design. In the early eighties it was very limited, in a way, but it was functional to the musical idea behind a song, and this is what I found really interesting.
Other influences I have are more modern, because I don’t want to be stuck in the eighties. Times moved on, and so did electronic music.
There are really lots of very interesting artists out there.
I really love Moderat, from Berlin, who blend the layers between analog and digital, and between classic songwriting and experimental electronic sounds. They also have great vocals and interesting song ideas.
Thom Yorke, Radiohead and Trentemøller are other influences.

SJ: In your social posts you often mention the Berlin Modular Society, and I know you are going to a meeting with them after this interview, so of course now I’m curious.
What is the main purpose of this entity and how can you become a member?

NeversleepI’ve been making electronic music since 2002, after a period where I was playing in alternative pop-rock bands.
I started my modular journey in 2019, and from the beginning I’ve been looking for ways to perform live and reach out to like-minded people.
Berlin is the ideal place for an electronic modular musician. First of all, you have this big store, ‘Schneidersladen’, which is one of the major stores in the world, for modules. Then you have the ‘Superbooth’, a yearly trade fair focused on modules, so there’s a lot going on.
But when I started my modular journey, I didn’t know anybody and I thought: “I want to reach out to people, I want to do collaborations”, because I had very good experiences with collaborations.
One day, I found the guys who were running the Berlin Modular Society. It was during corona virus, so they were only doing live streams.
I asked them how I could perform in their live stream and they said: “No problem, you’re on the list for next time”. These guys are super lovely and really open minded, so it was pretty easy and nice to get to know them and learn more about what they do.
The Berlin Modular Society is currently a group of six people who organize live electro modular performances in clubs, and we do it on a monthly basis. Today, we are having our 37th live performance.
How do you get into that group? In my case, I first played a couple of concerts for them, so I entered in their outer circle of playing artists.
Since in my day job I do a lot of agile coaching and project management, one day I asked the guys if I could help them with the management and organization of the circle, they gladly accepted my offer and so, since last October, I’ve been part of the organization committee, so to speak.
I really love to contact other artists, organize events and meet other modular musicians.
We are in Instagram under Berlin Modular Society, and we have a website,
If any modular artist in or out of Berlin is interested to deal with us, we have a submission form, so they just have to drop us an email.

SJCool! Now, we’ve just learned that living in Berlin makes your life easier in terms of of facilities, acquiring gears and stuff like that, but what about inspiration?
Does living in Berlin help you also with that, or not really?

Neversleep: Yes it does, absolutely. Everything is very close and the community is quite small, so everybody knows everybody. In fact, I expect to meet a lot of known people today at the event.
What I really love about Berlin, though, because it feels liberating for my music, is its openness of culture.
Here, it’s really very easy to blend genres, you don’t feel forced to do one specific thing.
In other places, when you get away a bit from the cliche, people look at you and say: “What are you doing? You’re not following the rules”. But in Berlin, people just don’t care, or they are even more interested, when you bring in a special twist.
I’m not so much involved with the electronic communities of other cities, but I heard that probably this openness is a Berlin specific thing.

SJI do agree. I lived six years in Munich and, even though I had a wondeful time, I must say Bavarians are quite strict in lots of things.
Anyway, let’s move on. In your composition process, how do you manage to combine good songwriting with sound design? Both elements are very important, as we all know.

Neversleep: I have different approaches.
Sometimes, I’m just taking a walk and all of a sudden a melody line comes to my mind and I record it on my phone. Then, back in the studio, I play the chords and start adding some beats, and so on.
Another approach is that I start experimenting with a module; maybe my intention is to do some beat driven experimental stuff, but then I always finish by setting up a patch, play a bit with it, and when I think it sounds nice, in the next few seconds here comes a melody, a chord progression with a musical idea, because this is what has to come first, in my music.
So, I always look for a melodic idea, a song theme, because that’s what I need for my music.
Sound design of course is very important, but it has to support a musical idea. Sound design on its own is nice, but, from my point of view, it misses something.
So it’s always melody first, then sound design, and then lyrics complete the process.

SJFor the next question, you have to complete the following sentence: Life without arpeggiators is…

NeversleepTo me, life without arpeggiators is a life where all music would just be esoteric ballads.
I mean, what is an arpeggio? An arpeggio is a repeating melodic line, which builds up an energetic flow. If you take it away from a song, you would just have a flat sound, without that kind of flow that you also have when you are running, for example.
In arpeggios, you have chord progressions or even super disharmonic stuff, like in modern techno, where you have different kinds of notes and half notes built into an arpeggio. It all sounds cool, natural and nice, in a way.
There is a song by Jean Michel Jarre, called ‘Arpeggiator’, I remember it quite clearly because it was one of those songs where my jaw dropped, when I heard it for the first time.
When this kind of bass apeggio starts, you wonder: “What is that sound?” It’s so energetic, but it’s also meditative and focused, and it builds up a melody line, which I find very fascinating.
When you listen to my music, you notice that I have sequences and arpeggios in every song, and I work a lot with arpeggios also in my live performances, bringing in chord progressions with different voices on top of each other.

SJLet’s talk about shopping!
When you buy a new model module, how does the process start? I mean, do you start with an: “I need this”, and then you look maybe in internet or in a shop for the best deal, or do you just fall in love with a product and then buy it even though maybe you don’t really need it?

NeversleepWhen you look at my modular system, I guess it partly answers your question.
Actually, until 2019 I produced all my music with only software instruments on my computer.
Then, one day, I bought a couple of modules, because I wanted to build up an effect rack with a nice delay, chorus and reverb effect. I went to ‘Schneidersladen’ and told them what I needed.
That’s when I started to get absolutely fascinated by modular synthesis, so I bought a very nice book, ‘Patch and Tweak’, where all different aspects of modular synthesis are explained.
The more I was reading it, the more I realized that I needed many more modules, and that’s when I started collecting them.
Now it has changed a bit, because I own literally everything I need for any kind of sound design. If you ask me if I can do frequency modulation, or build a really complex oscillator, or amplitude modulation, or a certain kind of effect, the answer will always be “yes”, because I have one or two modules for nearly everything.
That’s why I’m a bit more selective at the moment.
There’s a couple of manufacturers that I really love, so when they come out with something new I’m always interested by default, because their modules are so intelligently designed and well worked out.
One of these companies is ‘Instruo’, from Scotland. Their modules have a very nice visual design and a signal flow which is easy to follow, thanks to their clever design.
Then, at one of the meetings of the Modular Society, I met the guys from ‘Shakmat’, a Brussels company. They are very nice people and I bought 6 or 7 modules from them.
I love the guys from ‘Xaoc Devices’, from Eastern Europe, and I supported ‘Instruments of Things’, a german start-up.
I also like oscillators with a different sound design approach, like the new stereo oscillator from ‘Make Noise’. It’s called XPO, and I find it really interesting because you have 10 or more outputs of waveforms that you can mix; actually, you could use this module nearly as standalone, in a live performance.

SJYou seem to be more interested in publishing live albums than studio albums, at least looking at what is available on Spotify. Why is that?

NeversleepWell, it’s not that I don’t produce studio music, actually I would say it’s quite the opposite, since I have a huge backlog of songs to be finished.
The problem is that, when I work in the studio, I tend to be a perfectionist, so I’m always listening back to stuff and thinking: “This is not good enough, I need to change that” and so on.
I know that my last studio release is dated 2017 and that I have released a lot of new music as live versions, and now you know the reason. It’s easier to release a live album, because you cannot do a deep editing of a live performance. All you can do is mix, master and get it out.
With studio work, it’s a bit different and it requires much more work.
However, there’s a bunch of new stuff coming out in autumn. For example, I have just finished the end mix of a new EP, called ‘Doomscolling’. It was originally intended to be a single, but since I had lots of musical ideas, it ended up being ‘Doomscrolling I’, ‘Doomscrolling II’, ‘Doomscrolling III’. All songs are based on the same idea, but in the end they are really different tracks.
I will also release a 10 year anniversary remastered version of my first album, which was released back in 2013 and is not on Spotify, at the moment.
It will be released in October or November, and there’s also a lot of other new songs coming up in the near future, which could mean a new album by the end of autumn.

SJHow challenging is it to prepare your stage when you go live, considering that you’re not one of those artists who need only a laptop and a mixer? Do you bring your stuff with you, or do you mostly rely on what the venue can provide?

NeversleepWhat I do, and I think this relates to nearly all the artists playing at the Berlin Modular Society, is that I bring my own gear: my drum machine, my modular case and other stuff … also a small mixing desk, to do my mix of the live sound.

I just hand over two XLR cables (stereo left and right) for the main mixer to the sound guy, who connects them to the main mixer at the location. Everything else, I take care of by myself.

(Now I invite you to watch the following video, starting at 27:37. Get ready for a live performance of ‘Doomscrolling’).

We say thanks to Dirk Pogrzeba, a.k.a. Neversleep, for this very educational interview.

Don’t forget to visit Neversleep official website


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