To Max Rieger, Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails were a musical awakening. As a teenager, these artists made Rieger understand that music can trigger so many more emotions than the pop he’d heard on the radio in Esslingen am Neckar in southwestern Germany. Moreover, it planted the seed for his future career: Their albums, Rieger says, made him realize the impact of a good producer. “With Marilyn Manson, I thought two of his albums were totally awesome, but I didn’t like the others that much, and I didn’t get why — until I found out that those two were by the same producer,” he says. The producer? Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor.
Today, the 26-year-old is one of Germany’s most sought-after producers. The jury of the “Prize for Pop Culture” nominated him in the “most popular producer” category (though he didn’t win), while German media touts him as the country’s underground Rick Rubin, having worked with artists spanning from melancholic singer/songwriters to new wave, post-punk, pop and indie.
“I’m just happy that people are interested in what I’m doing,” Rieger says. Rubin — who worked with the Beastie Boys, Metallica, Justin Timberlake and AC/DC — “was on a way different level,” Rieger says. “I feel like I’m still at the beginning.”
That is an understatement that suits his unassuming personality. About 10 years ago, Rieger sat down on his laptop to produce his first song, a trance remix, followed by an album he burned onto a CD. His band, Die Nerven (“The Nerves”), got a record deal in 2012, and 2014’s Fun was lauded as one of the most important records of the decade. His solo side project, All Diese Gewalt (“All This Violence”), has also been critically acclaimed.
Somehow, this still leaves enough time to produce some of Germany’s most lauded underground bands and musicians. Most aren’t commercially successful, but Rieger doesn’t care about that. He simply likes music — all music. From the first CD he bought with his grandma, a single by the Backstreet Boys, to his mother’s Beethoven records, someone, Rieger says, was trying to express something. Rather than judge, he strives to understand.
“Most producers focus on [one thing, like] hip-hop or electronic music,” says Anne Haffmans, a music consultant and promoter who also chairs the jury for the Prize for Pop Culture. “But he does everything, and he does it really, really well. He’s the one person everyone seems to be able to agree on, both from the point of view of musicians and fans.”
Rieger now finds himself flooded with requests by musicians — and that, Haffmans says, could present a challenge. “He will have to carefully pick with whom he’ll work, people who are good at what they’re doing and who can also help him move up,” she says.
Before he says that something should be a certain way, he’d rather try every single other option to be sure.
Musician Max Albin Gruber on Max Rieger
But Rieger doesn’t seem to care about “moving up,” according to one of the artists he produces, Max Albin Gruber, who performs under the name Drangsal. Before they started working together, Gruber sent Rieger an admiring Facebook message and gave him a T-shirt of one of his favorite bands, Talk Talk. “From interviews he’d done, I had this impression that he was intimidatingly stringent,” Gruber says. But in reality, Gruber finds Rieger well-organized, technically savvy and, though extremely opinionated, neither stubborn nor bossy. “He’s always ready to see and try something new, and before he says that something should be a certain way, he’d rather try every single other option to be sure,” Gruber says.
His openness shaped his career in more than one way. After getting started in Stuttgart, the regional capital of his southwestern home province Baden-Württemberg, he moved to Leipzig in the eastern German state of Saxony. He knew people there and appreciated that the city’s low rents and living expenses — remnants of the East-West divide — gave him the freedom to hone his skills and try new things without the financial pressure of major-city rents.
That he grew up in the West in the first place, he says, is owed to his grandfather, who was living in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in the 1950s when he punched an East German military officer in the face for harassing his girlfriend at a dance.
“If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t even exist today,” Rieger says, explaining that his grandfather was advised to leave the country. As the wall that would divide East and West hadn’t been built yet, he simply hopped on a train to West Berlin. Eventually, he landed in Baden-Württemberg, where he met Rieger’s grandmother — herself a refugee who’d fled the province of Silesia, now part of Poland, after World War 2.
As Rieger became more popular, a move to Berlin became unavoidable. In Neukölln, known as the hippest district of Berlin, he’s renting a room in an apartment, but his studio is located in an entirely different part of town: Marzahn, once a prestigious Eastern German neighborhood dominated by industrialized apartment blocks, today a last resort for those who can’t afford rent elsewhere in the city.
Since moving from Leipzig, he says his living expenses have gone up fourfold. Thankfully, his work as a musician and producer has always allowed him to make a living, which is what he wants more than any accolades. “I want to look back someday and be able to say that I always had the privilege to live off music,” he says. “Just being able to pay my rent and my health insurance, that’s enough.”
Photographs by Bettina Theuerkauf
OZY’s Five Questions With Max Rieger
- What’s the last film you’ve seen? Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
- What’s your favorite album? Spirit of Eden by Talk Talk.
- What are you currently listening to? Podcasts, either on politics or science.
- What’s the one thing you can’t live without? Music.
- What’s one item on your bucket list? To live abroad. I’d be most interested in Tangier, Tokyo or L.A., but I’ve never been to any of them.
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