Inhalt Navigates the Minimal Wave Resurgence

Post Author: Chris Zaldua

Inhalt is German for “content” or “contents.” It can refer to the literal contents of something, such as a box or a book, but it can also refer to something more ineffable, such as substance or essence. It can refer to quintessence, function over form, or the essential “thingness” of a thing. And rarely does a single-word band name tell so much about the band.

Inhalt is a synth-pop band from San Francisco, California. (“Synth-pop” is reductive, but more on that later.) Core members Philip Winiger and Matia Simovich met in the least auspicious of ways—at a Guitar Center, courtesy of a mutual friend-slash-employee—in early 2009. Winiger, born in Switzerland, was in San Francisco for a year long sabbatical, and Simovich had just finished a stint as studio engineer at the now-defunct Asphodel Studios and Recombinant Media Labs. Winiger recounts with a laugh, “One day [Simovich] came in wearing a Kraftwerk t-shirt. Autobahn. Immediately, I was like, this guy knows his stuff.

Simovich invited Winiger to his studio. “Here comes this guy,” Winiger recalls, “who says, ‘I’ve got this room with an ARP 2600, a Jupiter 6,’ and so on—nobody has that!” Sparks flew. “We got to the studio and instantly hit it off. In one afternoon, we put together a song. And Philip started singing, just kind of instinctively, and it was magic,” Simovich says. The song they wrote that night was never finished or released, but Inhalt was officially born.

It’s important to note that, at this point in time, “minimal wave” was in the midst of a worldwide revival. (That term, lifted directly from the name of Veronica Vasicka’s New York record label dedicated to reissues of 1970s and 1980s synth-heavy post-punk, was eventually adopted—if contentiously so—as its retroactive genre name.) More demented than new wave, more clinical than disco, and more synthetic than punk, minimal wave nonetheless existed at the nexus of all these genres, prefiguring the contemporary cross-pollination between punk and techno by some 30 years.

As a genre, it came, went, and was then forgotten, overshadowed by the pop licks of new wave and the intense imagery and mood of industrial. It essentially languished in out-of-print limbo for decades, until the reissue efforts of Vasicka’s Minimal Wave, and Josh Cheon’s Dark Entries, based in San Francisco, began re-inserting this music back into modern cultural conversation. (For a primer on the sound, Minimal Wave’s aptly titled Minimal Wave Tapes Vol. 1 is an excellent place to start.)

In 2011, Simovich was finishing up art school in London while canoodling musically with Andy Blake and Joe Hart, whose World Unknown party and record label—which blended acid house, new beat, industrial, EBM, and disco—left an indelible impression. In the meantime, he returned periodically to San Francisco, recording with Winiger whenever possible.

“On one of those trips, we got together, and literally out of nowhere, ‘Vehicle’ happened,” remembers Simovich, referring to Inhalt’s breakout first single. As debut singles go, “Vehicle” is about as good as it gets: Hard-driving, up-tempo, and propelled by Winiger’s German vocals, Simovich’s rubbery bass lines, and the crisp kick of a Roland TR-808—”Vehicle” encapsulates the Inhalt sound and ethos. Owing just as much to D.A.F. as to DJ Hell, it’s guaranteed to light up a dance floor and yet it’s very much a song.

“We’re songwriters, traditionally,” says Simovich. “If you break our work apart, there’s a melody, an arrangement, a rhythm. We’re not progressive in that regard.” Winiger stresses the point: “The core idea is that we want to make songs.

Inhalt’s inclination towards songwriting is key in understanding what separates them from their peers and forebears. Most minimal wave, punk as it was, was not written with songwriting, per se, in mind; on the other side of the coin, most synth-pop and new wave lacks the ferocity and rawness that made minimal wave such a distinctive sound. Inhalt sit in the middle.

After Simovich returned to San Francisco for good, the musical landscape wasn’t the same as when he had left—for the better. “So much had changed in the three and a half years I was gone,” he says. “Minimal wave was happening. We got signed to Dark Entries and everything went from there. Other people in the U.K. scene found out about what we were doing and reached out to us.”

After “Vehicle”, Winiger and Simovich began working with an engineer, Bryan Gibbs, who had his own studio in South San Francisco. Those sessions resulted in Occupations, Inhalt’s second EP for Dark Entries. Occupations lacks the breathtaking call-to-arms feeling that characterized “Vehicle”, but it’s a mature, even-handed second record. Soon after came Simulacra, a remix collection courtesy of those aforementioned U.K. connections.

At this point, Inhalt arrived at a crossroads. Their relationship with Gibbs had ended, leaving them in need of a studio. Simovich was working at the storied Different Fur Studios in San Francisco, co-producing Machines of Desire, the new record from Peter Baumann of Tangerine Dream. There, he met Steven Campodonico, who was working at the studio at the time. Much the same as when Simovich met Winiger, they hit it off instantly.

How do I deliver an experience where the audience feels what I’m saying without understanding what I’m saying?

And with that, Inhalt “Mk. 2” was born: Simovich and Winiger folded Campodonico into the band. “We [the new trio] spent two days in the studio, wrote ‘Alles’ [a forthcoming single] on the spot, took a break, then came back a week later and mixed it,” says Simovich. “This is the speed we’re working at now.”

Their latest frontier is live performance. Retooling workflow and stage setup allowed the band, finally, to perform live nimbly and easily. “We brought our sound on stage. We brought our studio on stage,” says Winiger, grinning. “And instead of being in a dark room somewhere, we’re on stage, and we say, ‘Hello, we’re here.’ It’s fun.”

Live, Inhalt are a sight. Simovich and Campodonico man the machines, tweaking and editing live, on-the-fly. Winiger, despite being reserved in person, works the microphone like he was born to do so. “How do I deliver an experience where the audience feels what I’m saying without understanding what I’m saying?” Winiger asks himself. “That’s what I’ve been working on and practicing.”