Klack gives you what you need, if you need a triumphant EBM throwback

Madison-based electronic musicians Eric Oehler and Matt Fanale reflect on their duo’s surprise success.

Madison-based electronic musicians Eric Oehler and Matt Fanale reflect on their duo’s surprise success. (Photo: Fanale, left, and Oehler.)

Matt Fanale and Eric Oehler both have a lot of experience latching onto very specific periods and sounds in the history of electronic music, and especially the diverse tendrils that sprouted from the industrial music and synth-pop of the 1980s and 1990s. Fanale’s long-running solo project Caustic built its reputation with tracks that push industrial’s spartan aggression to near-parodic extremes of violence and obscenity, although there’s plenty of sonic diversity to be found amid Fanale’s screamed vocals and brutal humor. Oehler, on the other hand, serves as a producer, multi-instrumentalist, and gracefully melodic vocalist for Null Device, a band rooted in a deep affection for earnestly aching synth pop. The two have worked together for well over a decade, contributing production work to each other’s projects and playing shows together, and both played active roles in the industrial-leaning community of artists and fans that centered around the now-closed north-side club Inferno. Both Null Device and Caustic have a niche following that extends well beyond Madison, scattered around the world and developed through an early adoption of the internet, well before the convenience of social media and Bandcamp.

But Oehler and Fanale’s newest project, the duo Klack, has taken just two years to build up an identity that transcends and in some senses overshadows everything they’ve done before. Klack’s first single, “Synthesizer,” released in July 2017, seized on the visceral polish of EBM, a subgenre that flowered in the 1980s and found myriad ways to balance the bruising physicality of industrial with the varied melodies and synth textures that prevail in more accessible electronic music. The song pairs its tough, stamping beat with a staccato bass line, eerie swooping melodies, and samples of people talking about synthesizers. Like much of the music that followed on Klack’s two EPs, 2017’s Do You Klack? and 2019’s Introducing The 1984 Renault LeCar, it’s an open love letter to electronic music itself, the kind that makes sense coming from two fans and practitioners in their 40s. On “DMF,” from the first EP, Fanale uses his grimy, chant-like vocal delivery to declare “we are flayed to the beat / Enslaved to the beat.” Le Car‘s “Flowers For Ravers” captures the utopianism that might set in at an all-night rave in a rural field somewhere: “See the sun rise slowly / Wave unsullied hands / See the bonds are growing / Over the glowing land.” “The Revolution Will Be Synthesized” even calls out specific gear makers, with the conviction of a teenager just becoming seduced by it all: “The revolution will be brought to you by Korg, Roland, Waldorf, and Moog.”

After “Synthesizer” came out, a German label called Detriti Records reached out to Oehler and Fanale, and ended up releasing Do You Klack?. That first EP racked up hundreds of sales on Bandcamp, even though Klack did almost nothing to promote it. And they didn’t expect even that level of success for Le Car, which opens with a track that samples a throwback ad for the boxy little French vehicle. “I was thinking, you know, some people might like this, but the bloom is off the rose and people are gonna get tired of this, and they’re not going to care about a song about a French front wheel drive subcompact,” Oehler says. “But all of a sudden people are responding to it and telling us, ‘Hey, I like this stuff, have you got any more?'” Le Car outsold the first EP, and though Klack has only played a handful of live shows, they’re playing a few music festivals this summer and fall, including this weekend’s Terminus in Calgary, which features headlining sets from Health and Swedish electronic band Covenant. Klack is also slated to play Chicago’s Cold Waves festival in September (playing a few slots ahead of Nitzer Ebb) and LA’s Substance Festival in November, headlined by Gary Numan. 

Back at home, Klack will also be opening for Boy Harsher on October 10 at Crucible. While Klack has become a primary focus for both Oehler and Fanale, Null Device is finishing up a new album and Fanale has been working on more music for another of his solo projects, daddybear. Both members of Klack talked with Tone Madison last week about why the project took off and how nostalgia informs its music.

Tone Madison: The two of you have known each other and collaborated in various contexts for a lot of years. What was the impetus to start Klack?

Eric Oehler: We’d been talking about doing something like this for quite some time. We’d had little one-offs here and there. For Ryan Parks from Something Wonderful on WORT, Matt and I—and occasionally one or two other people like Chuck Spencer of the late lamented Stochastic Theory—we’d get together and write a song for the [show’s{ anniversary. So this kind of grew out of that, after the one we did for the 15th anniversary. We had started a little project, which we titled Nerdy Sanchez. We had a kind of an idea for it but it hadn’t really gone anywhere. And then I had done a remix of another band where I was kind of playing around with this sort of late-’80s, early-’90s Belgian Euro-dance style. And I said, “Hey man, do you want to do something with this?” And he said, “Yes, but this is not really a Nerdy Sanchez kind of thing.” So that eventually became Klack. We took the kind of ideas I’d been playing around with for that and extrapolated it into a song. 

Matt Fanale: Eric basically put together, in the space of like a day, three or four, not full demos, but like 45 seconds to a minute clips. And I just said, “Okay, this one I have an idea for.” And I searched some samples out, we didn’t do any vocals for it, we just thought it’d be a fun little  instrumental. I think I threw in some little other atmospheric noises. And then we just put out “Synthesizer,” which was the first track, and we just did it for, you know, giggles.

Eric Oehler: We never expected to get more than, you know, 20 of our dorky friends saying, “Hey, this is funny.”

Matt Fanale: We got a significant response from our little world, but also from people who weren’t in our world that had heard about it from other people. Like some people in the techno community. I mean in Berlin right now, this sound, the kind of early EBM sound, has been getting incorporated into techno and all kinds of stuff. And then we kind of took off.

Eric Oehler: We find mentions of our names in the strangest places—Swedish music magazines —and yeah, it’s weird.

Tone Madison: It seems like over the years you’ve both had a lot of experience with building up an audience that is very niche and very geographically scattered—like Caustic, which has a Patreon and sells a lot of merch. How did that play into the success of Klack?

Eric Oehler: Plus it’s an audience that really grabbed on to internet distribution for music and merchandise early on in the game. So these are generally people who have been steeped in it for quite a while.

Matt Fanale: Partially because a lot of the bands are part-timers, not a lot of artists in our scene have full-time jobs where they can do this all the time. So touring is not as big a thing. So you kind of make do with what you can. I mean that’s one thing I realized early on, is that I can sell fun shirts. A lot of time, Caustic shirts, you’ll go, I’ll hear any festival, I’ll hear from 20 people who say they saw somebody with a shirt on. [But Klack] has done significantly better than both of our projects in many respects. 

Eric Oehler: I think we’ve had more downloads of the last EP than I’ve had of like my last three albums combined.

Matt Fanale: It hasn’t been pushed as “Matt from Caustic and Eric from Null Device,” so much as this thing that people just seem to like and just grab it regardless of [whether they know our past work].

Eric Oehler: We kept it kind of on the DL, and kept kind of anonymous, at the beginning. 

Matt Fanale: We were just curious to see who bit, and then a lot of people bit, and a lot of people that already did like both of our projects were interested, but then a lot more people that were not involved in our scene at all. I mean, my friend [promoter] Reverend John of Das Bunker in Los Angeles was like, “I’m seeing you popping up on techno lists of people that are not in our scene,” which is pretty cool. And when I’m like somebody like Ancient Methods, who’s a big guy in the techno world, he’ll play Even Furthur, things like that. So he plays in the techno world, he puts us on [a DJ mix]. Then DJ Mag picks us up and talks about us and Bandcamp’s talking about us and we’ve literally done nothing in terms of promotion outside of me just making some noise…We have not paid any promotions companies. It’s been all word of mouth, which is the best thing, because first off it’s the cheapest thing. But if it happens, it’s the best thing ’cause it doesn’t happen a lot. And I’ve been a part of things where it kind of gets a little heat, but then all of a sudden we just, this last EP just blew up and we got picked up by Detriti, a Berlin-based label who contacted us maybe two days after “Synthesizer” went up and said, “Hey, I’d like to put out a tape of your stuff.” And we’re like, “Oh, okay. Once we get stuff, we’ll do that.” And then we put out, Do You Klack?, our first EP.

Tone Madison: What do you think it is about this that resonates?

Eric Oehler: I think of a little of it might be just sort of a right-place, right-time kind of thing. It’s a semi-nostalgic sound that hasn’t been played out yet, I guess. I mean we’re going for kind of that vibe of the late-’80s, early ’90s dance scene—new beat and early acid house and that kind of thing, sort of the golden age of EBM. That’s picking up, but a lot of the focus up until now has been on sort of the earlier era of that. So there haven’t been a lot of acts up to this point that are, you know, full-on mining this Confetti’s or A Split-Second kind of sound.

Matt Fanale: Or Micro Chip League…I mean, and it’s a very big scene right now in Germany. Berghain, which is this massive club in Germany that everybody talks about and everybody wants to go to, this is the kind of stuff they’re playing. There’s Gesaffelstein, who hit with “Pursuit,” which was a really big techno track, but it was honestly just an EBM track. It wouldn’t have been outside of Nitzer Ebb’s purview. This is an in-vogue style. Not a lot of people [in America] are doing it. In North America there’s some, but in mostly it’s overseas. 

And I think the way Eric puts it together, it’s still fresh enough. That’s one of the nice things people have said—that it’s this thing, but it does not sound like we are ripping off this thing. It sounds like it’s a new version of this thing. Eric writes the music, I write the lyrics, we switch over a little bit, but he still does most of the music. Basically he does the stuff he really enjoys, and I do the stuff I really enjoy, so we don’t have to worry about the things we don’t really enjoy. He might tweak lyrics a little or tweak the way that it comes out, and I might offer suggestions on the music itself, but I mean, we’re just having fun. I mean, most of it, I think it’s just fun. Yeah. It’s light. It’s kind of whimsical and goofy.

Eric Oehler: And there’s so many weird little in-jokes and dumb references.

Matt Fanale: It’s ridiculously referential.

Tone Madison: Eric mentioned the element of nostalgia. The nostalgia at work in Klack’s music is super playful but also really sincere. How did you want to play with that element, especially when you have tracks like “Synthesizer” and “Le Car” that use all these very obviously dated samples?

Eric Oehler: The line we’re trying to walk is halfway between just having a laugh and still trying to be sincere. I mean, we write some straight-up weeper synth-pop tracks, but we also do stuff like “Le Car,” which is similar to the kind of stuff that would have been out in 1986, 1987.

Matt Fanale: It’s very Confetti’s.

Eric Oehler: That someone would write a song about a car—well, I suppose Kraftwerk already wrote a song about a road, so that’s not too far off. We’re just kind of having fun with it and we’re sincerely having fun with it, I guess. 

Matt Fanale: Yeah, we’re not taking a piss with it. 

Eric Oehler: I mean this is the music I came of age with, basically. 

Matt Fanale: The influences we have are everything from A Split-Second to Micro Chip League to early Depeche Mode and Yaz, which had a similar sincerity to it, but it’s also still kind of goofy.

Tone Madison: There’s a lot of both of you in Klack that people can pick up on if they’ve listened to your previous work in different projects, but it’s still pretty far removed from what you’d expect.

Eric Oehler: It’s definitely a very different vocal style for me most of the time. 

Matt Fanale: And I get to experiment with just a different presentation of my vocals, but I think that what I write for Klack is distinctly Klack as opposed to what I would write for Caustic. And I very specifically do not [use explicit language in Klack]. I mean Caustic, every other song has an F-word in it, if not the title. [On the Klack song “DMF’] we have the “dance motherfucker” sample from Platoon and I reversed the curse word on it. I’ll put it this way: It’s something my kids can actually listen to in the car with me, as opposed to me like having to cough loudly 14 times in the song when there’s an F-bomb getting dropped, or any other word I typically use. 

Eric Oehler: My seven-year-old niece loves Klack. 

Matt Fanale: There’s a nice innocence about it in that regard. Even though it’s being done by a couple 40-something dudes. But I think there’s a very high-school innocence that I try to think of when I do the lyrics, and things that I would write [that reflect] what really mattered to me when I was in high school or middle school listening to this kind of music. 

Tone Madison: Right. It’s a big departure from the confrontational and sometimes deliberately offensive stuff you write for Caustic.

Matt Fanale: Right, I’m not afraid to take a swing. 

Tone Madison: But I tend to think of Null Device as being super earnest. So perhaps Klack is sort of a happy medium. 

Matt Fanale: It really falls back into the nostalgia, thinking back on how I used to feel. I did something similar with Beauty Queen Autopsy, which was a different side project that I did with a friend of mine, Unwoman out of San Francisco. Just mining those feelings of youth in a way, which, you know, you kind of, it takes a while to remember. But then if you remember specific instances you go, “Oh god, that’s how I felt.” Okay, wow. Then I get a lyric in my head and I go, “OK, well, I’ll just keep working off this.” And then we’d do something like “Lost Without You,” which was a kind of a kind of more of a Depeche Mode-sounding synth pop track, which ended up being one of the biggest tracks on the last EP. And we were just like, “Oh wow, everybody’s glomming onto this one.” And I had it in my head a lot, so I knew it was catchy, but then did see all these DJs started playing it. 

Eric Oehler: I approach some of these, not necessarily as like, “How did I feel when I was 19?” But it seems like how if you listen to the music of 1986, ’87, that’s just how the songs were put together. People were earnest and sincere and a little, you know—now we’d say that’s a little cliched, a little, you know, a little passé— 

Matt Fanale: A little ridiculous. 

Eric Oehler: Yeah. “Oh, The Human League is going that route on this album. Okay.” But thinking back at the time, that was the thing. That was what everyone did. “Lost Without You” is an example of that. “The Revolution Will Be Synthesized” is one of those ridiculously earnest, “music will save the world” kind of tracks.

Matt Fanale: A lot of songs about dancing. 

Eric Oehler: The politics of dancing? The politics of, mmm feeling good? 

Matt Fanale: We should cover that. That’s a great song. But I think the big thing is there’s no irony. I think there’s a thorough lack of irony in what we’re trying to do. I mean, “Le Car” is a silly song, but we sincerely think that’s awesome. So we’re not winking really ever. Um, at least I’m not. 

Eric Oehler: I’m not.

Matt Fanale: I don’t see you winking. I think that’s part of the fun of it, is that it hearkens back to when there’s not all this kind of sarcasm and everything’s not ironic and kind of like, oh yeah, we know we’re not really taking it seriously, but we, we are, we’re having fun with it. The attitude is different.

Tone Madison: It’s also interesting to hear your two vocal styles coming together. When I saw that you were starting a project together, the first thing I wondered about was how that would work.

Eric Oehler: We weren’t sure how that was going to work either. 

Matt Fanale: We had a comparison to it, because in Front 242, Jean-Luc De Meyer is the main vocalist for the project. But then you have Richard 23, who’s the hype man. And so I pretty much hype-man a lot of like the earlier tracks. But then some, I do the main vocals on. We kind of switch off live and kind of hype-person each other. 

Eric Oehler: I can do a decent impression of a Belgian hype man, apparently. 

Tone Madison: You have both been really involved in electronic music in different forms for more than 20 years, both locally and beyond. How do you find the environment has changed for you?

Eric Oehler: Well, we’re all a lot older. 

Matt Fanale: There’s a lot of people who still like the music, but they don’t come out as much. And that was, that was what happened with Inferno, unfortunately. People had kids, people didn’t want to go out as much. They stopped—I’m raising my hand—they stopped drinking all the time. The scene itself is smaller, and it’s nice to have a place like Crucible, but it’s big. That’s one of the things that’s a little daunting about booking shows there, is that it’s a big place and, you know, if you get 30 people in on there on a Sunday, it’s not the biggest deal, but it still feels like a big place with 30 people. 

Eric Oehler: But if you put 30 people in the old Frequency, it felt pretty good. 

Matt Fanale: It’s a matter of trying to get new people in, which is the hard part. And the younger crowd just expects different stuff and they’re just not as into—industrial is not a cool thing. I mean, you have certain bands who’ve come through like Youth Code and 3Teeth, who are [playing the High Noon Saloon on Tuesday, July 23] with Gost and Author & Punisher. 3Teeth toured with Rammstein and just got off a tour with Ministry in Europe and Author & Punisher played with Phil Anselmo before he realized he was a giant racist and was on his label, but he’s not anymore. It’s just getting those crossover successes that is hard, and we’re starting to a little bit with Klack, and it’s really kinda hard to tell. 

Eric Oehler: It seems like there’s a revival of the early post-punk and early industrial sound but the whole period from, say, 1993 to 2008 is just ignored. 

Matt Fanale: People just have forgotten that that music exists outside of Nine Inch Nails.

Eric Oehler: The new kids are all about the early stuff. So that kind of works for us a little bit. 

Matt Fanale: It’s a retro thing, but we’re just a couple of dorks making musics.

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