It takes a certain brand of confidence to name yourself after two towering intellectual concepts. Gesamtkunstwerk is the German ideal of the total or universal artwork, bringing together music, the visual arts, narrative and more into a single intoxicating vision. Albert Einstein is the ultimate example of human intellect - the man who explained the universe.
Put them together and you've got Gesaffelstein, AKA Mike Levy, the Paris-based DJ-producer who reconnected hard techno to its industrial roots - the primal hammering of Front 242, Nitzer Ebb and DAF - and now expands it into a rich and intriguing universe of its own on his uncompromising debut album 'Aleph'.
"Gesaffelstein is an ambitious name," he admits, "and it is something that just came to me when I was living in Belgium a few years ago. I want my music to be art, with something to say, but Einstein is about quantum physics too. That means the small things, the tiny things that change everything, the detail. Einstein always kept questioning and refining his ideas. That's what I strive towards."
To mainstream audiences Levy is known for collaborating with Kanye West
on two standout tracks on 2013's stunning 'Yeezus' album - the
abrasive 'Send It Up' and the astonishing glampunk rap riot 'Black
Skinhead', a co-production with Daft Punk and Levy's friend Brodinski.
But Gesaffelstein has been building up a name among dance fans since the late Noughties. Releases on the OD, Zone and Bromance labels showcasing an ever-developing individual style with distinctive ominous undertones. Remixes for Lana del Rey, Justice, The Hacker, Laurent Garnier and heroes Depeche Mode put his unique sound - harsh but beautiful, sometimes brutal but always delicately structured - front and centre.
Gesaffelstein's vision crystallised on 'Aleph's flagship single, the intense and insistent 'Pursuit', and especially its controversial video. Created by director duo Fleur & Manu it contrasted clinical images of sex, war and machines with gracious neo-classical living and Gesaffelstein's pounding yet melodic track - an evocation of the dark human impulses connecting wealth, class and technology.
It's the perfect taster for the sinister pleasures of 'Aleph', an album which refreshes a stale techno scene with the disturbing flavours that ran through Skinny Puppy, pre-pop Human League, Colourbox and even early Kraftwerk. On several tracks London singer Chloe Raunet - formerly of lo-fi electro band Battant on the Kill The DJ label, now working on her solo project C.A.R. - provides lyrics and vocals to compound the seductive atmosphere of prime newbeat or postpunk electronics: a fierce female presence in a dark storm of electronics.
"I don't know why I'm drawn to dark sounds," Levy admits. "It's like when you make a movie about love," he explains. "That's not your life, it's the art you have made. It's a fiction. The music is exactly the same. Although there is nothing dark in my life, I have a facility to understand dark emotion."
Levy is almost precisely as old as house music. He was born in 1985 in
Lyon and discovered techno music at the age of 15 when he found a CD in
his sister's bedroom. It had Green Velvet's sleek connection of disco
and techno 'Flash' on it. "This was my first contact with
electronic music and I was obsessed with this track," he recalls.
"I was almost too shy to admit that I liked this music. It was primitive but in a serious way and I really liked that. I kept it to myself for years."
A neighbour owned a few synthesisers and Levy began experimenting, not so much with music as with pure sound. "I was obsessed with white noise and analogue sound," he says. When he turned 18 in 2003 he moved to Paris and began what he now calls 'research', releasing singles that felt their way towards the sound he had in his head.
"I had to work again and again to find my proper sound," he says. "The revelation came when I did the first EP 'Variation' on Turbo in 2010. When I finished that I knew it was 'my' sound. It was the first rock of my building."
Now Levy works with great intent on music that is heir to the sounds of
Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA as much as Derrick May or Derrick Carter.
He's never been a hardcore record collector, or a gig-goer, or even a clubber. " If the music is really good I have to sit down on my own and listen". He doesn't even watch much TV or movies. "When I see other people's creative work," he says, "sometimes it overwhelms me."
But visual art is a different matter. Levy is equally inspired by the none-more-black contemporary abstract paintings of Pierre Soulages "I love the way he controls the power over people just through the paint" and the severe 18th century neoclassical grandeur of Jacques-Louis David, who painted those infamous images of Napoleon on horseback.
The cover of 'Aleph' just as important as the music, integral to the
'Gesamtkunstwerk'. Levy created it with collaborator Manu Cossu.
"He has the hands to make it happen, and I have the words," Levy explains. "The cover is pure and complex at the same time - and everything relates to the idea of the Aleph, which is both the beginning and the return to the beginning. It's a beautiful object."
He approaches DJ'ing with the same meticulous way, playing uncompromising mood-driven sets which have earned acclaim everywhere from Boiler Room Berlin to Electric Zoo in NYC, Sonar in Barcelona and Bestival in the UK. DJ'ing can be difficult, Levy explains, because he's not by nature a clubber. When he goes out to a techno club he can find the music so overwhelming that he wants to sit back and listen, not dance.
"When I go out I have to forget the technical side of the music and
try to have fun," he says, "DJ'ing can be fun, especially if I'm
doing it with Brodi. We're friends and it's exciting to work together.
But in the end, you are playing mostly other people's records. I prefer to play live because I feel like it's 'my' work."
The Gesaffelstein live show is about more than the choice of music - and it fits Levy's vision of a classicist form of electronic music that aspires to high art. Levy plays from within on a giant custom-made marble altar where he can control everything from the music to the lights. "I can have a response directly with the audience," he says. "I can take the pressure up and down, build tension and release it, and take people deeply into the music. I have much more pleasure this way."
Does Levy think of his music as French? It's hard to say, he thinks. We live in a digital world where all frontiers have broken down. A kid in the South of France can be making Detroit techno that sounds indistinguishable from the "real" thing. Who would know where it came from? Does it matter? And for all that there "is" something of his homeland in Gesaffelstein's music: the melancholy, the strange sadness of Air or Serge Gainsbourg or even the 60s/70s movie composer Fran ois de Roubaix.
These are the things that Gesaffelstein keeps coming back to.
Melancholy and darkness, the ecstatic charge of a 4/4 beat and raw industrial aggression. Things that have been away from dance music for too long. They're all there in 'Aleph', a word which can have many meanings. The first character of the Hebrew alphabet. The computer that contains a complete reality in Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel 'Snow Crash'. The letter which brings a clay Golem to life in Jewish legend and much more.
"I have the key to my music," says Levy, "and I keep it for me. But I'm really excited to witness other people discovering it".