Faust And Last And Always: Germany's Most Radical Rock Group Talk
, June 16th, 2010 09:10
John Doran talks to Hans Joachim Irmler of Faust about police raids, hotel bills, very long guitar leads and his group's 'last' album
Back in the early 1970s in Germany, it seems you could throw a rock out of a speeding VW window and randomly hit a brilliant, superlative-inducing group of one sort or another. Can were the most famous, Kraftwerk had the most potential, Amon Duul II were (arguably) the most psychedelic, Guru Guru the most hellaciously boogieful and so on and so forth. There were very few things (outside of their nationality) that linked all of them together other than an astounding sense of sonic radicalism. (The eagle-eyed reader will notice I haven't mentioned Frumpy or Eloi here.) Not all of them were early adopters of the synthesizer or electronics and even fewer were proponents of the motorik rhythm (dubbed the apache beat by its most famous rhythm engineer, Klaus Dinger of Neu!) but most of them seemed to be reacting against the previous generation's participation in World War II by breaking as many ties with the immediate past as they could. Especially when it came to music.
But very few were as all-encompassing when it came to their radicalism as Faust, however. And the irony here is that they started their life as a boy band.
Polydor, after several notable failures to sign groups that had gone onto become massive, including losing The Beatles after one LP, wanted themselves a cash cow. A new Beatles. The German producer and journalist Uwe Nettelbeck was quite happy to take the record company's money in order to achieve his own aim: putting together one of the most revolutionary rock bands ever formed. The group would use electronics, heavy machinery, musique concrète, garage rock and free jazz to bring sonic dissonance to the masses, and they would be associated (through him) to known ultra-leftist terrorist group the Baader-Meinhoff Gang/Red Army Faction.
With such anarchic/situationist stunts abounding, it was no wonder that the group was an early love of a teenage John Lydon and counted devotees in Chris Cutler [Henry Cow], Julian Cope, Bernard Sumner, Mark E Smith and more recently Dalek, Radiohead and To Rococo Rot.
They and many others know that the 'new Beatles' tag was actually not quite as misleading as it first probably seemed. In some ways they were, but a version of the band that took 'Revolution Number 9' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows' as their starting point. When playing their 1971 self-titled debut, the first thing you hear forming out of the howling squeals of noise that make up the opening track 'Why Don't You Eat Carrots?' is a brief sample of 'Satisfaction' by the Stones and then Lennon and McCartney singing 'All You Need Is Love' before they become the lounge jazz band from hell. The band have described their early method as reclusive and structured but also totally anarchistic. In their cosseted, early Polydor days at an expensive studio called Wumme, they would sometimes take part in jam sessions without getting out of their beds, utilising really long guitar leads that would snake out of their rooms, down the stairs to the studio.
Their tours, especially those that made it over to the UK, have become the stuff of legend. Band members refused to treat the stage as any different to their practice room and would often just sit around naked watching TV or playing pinball before leaping to their feet to fire into a guitar solo. Some gigs were enlivened by the band's habit of boring through the stage with pneumatic drills.
After being dropped by both Polydor and Virgin, Faust were forced to take extreme measures to make their last recordings of the 70s. They blagged studio time in Munich off disco producer Giorgio Morodor but when the hotel they were staying in began to suspect there was no money coming to pay their astronomical tab, they had to barricade themselves in the studio. Their hapless roadie had to escape with the master tapes, driving a car through a crash barrier and avoiding police capture while the rest of them were arrested for reducing the studio and equipment to matchsticks. They were thrown in the slammer, where they had to wait for their mums to come and bail them out. It was a suitably anarchic yet slightly embarrassing end (for several decades at least) to such a joyously willful band.
Since the early 90s the band has played in a bewildering number of incarnations and now exists as Faust [featuring Werner 'Zappi' Diermaier, Jean Herve Péron, Olivier Manchion and Amaury Cambuzat] who released C'est Com...Com...Complique in 2009... while also existing as another, equally valid Faust [featuring Hans Joachim 'Jochen' Irmler, Lars Paukstat, Steven W. Lobdell, Michael Stoll and Jan Fride.]
The latter group have just released an excellent double album called Faust Is Last, which is supposed to be their swan song, yet probably won't be given not even this incarnation of the group are in agreement, let alone the other one.
Today I'm interviewing the jolliest man I've had the pleasure of talking to in a long time, Hans Joachim Irmler, who singularly fails to get through any sentence without laughing or at the very least chortling. Twenty minutes in he invites me to come and visit the group in Germany as his guest... something I'll take him up on one of these days when I can save up the air fare.
Maybe this shows a lack of imagination on my part but I wanted to say how surprised I was that Faust have done such an uncompromising, brutal, multi-textured and modern sounding album in Faust Is Last 39 years after your self-titled debut.
Hans Joachim Irmler: Can we do anything different?!
I guess so, but even by your own standards this is a pretty far out album... I'd say that Faust Is Last ranks amongst the best stuff you've ever recorded.
HJI: Ja. This is as it should be. It took so long to record... It was really hard to approach. We recorded about 140 gigabytes [worth] of songs. And when we started to select the tracks for the album that went down to 60 gigs... [laughs] So I have to say this album was one of the most stupid ideas ever! Ha ha ha!
Am I right in saying that you started work on this album as far back as 2006?
HJI: That's right. A few minutes before you called I was watching a video that shows our first approach to recording the album and everyone looked a bit fresh... no one was orientated with what they needed to be doing. So in 2006 we just started rehearsing. At first you have to understand the entity of Faust... your relationship with the other members. It's always a bit different. Each of us is very different from the others and I think that's the main point. We have to make sure we include all of the influences.
I guess it would be fair to say that back in the 70s you would have a much more speedy approach to making records.
HJI: Ja. [laughs] You know, when you are young, in a way you are more free from any traditions or philosophies, apart from what was given to you during your childhood, so you have nothing to think over because you are fresh out and have no regrets. You can do what you want to do.
So you were full of piss and vinegar when you were young?
HJI: Ja! [laughs]
Is it intentional and is it a positive or negative thing that the concept of who Faust is at any one given time is a very confusing thing?
HJI: I'm very sorry about this. Yes. It was like this before and it is like this now. Any of us can be Faust you know? Our idea was that all six original members could be Faust but there should never be two Fausts at the same time. It was an agreement but the version of Faust based around [Werner 'Zappi'] Diermaier, [Jean Herve] Péron and [Amaury] Cambuzat broke the rules, in a way. It took a little while for me to get used to it but now I think... ‘Why not?!'
It definitely has the essence of anarchy doesn't it?
HJI: Yes. [laughs] It is the same as it ever was. This is how it was in the beginning. We were split into two parties to begin with. One was more the rhythm section and the other was the noise and melody section. And now, these days, I'm thinking that it is ok as it is.
And as far as you're concerned, is Faust Is Last the last Faust album?
HJI: [sighs] While the thought of all that blood, sweat and tears is fresh in my mind, it would be nice if this were our last album yes! It is a nice dream! In ten years' time however... who knows...
Off the new album, the track 'Feed The Greed' has such a heavy sound; does this reflect a fascination with up to date technology and modern means of production?
HJI: Yes it is. Here in the studio we are using all kinds of ways to get the sound out of the machine. Even if one were to step in a certain kind of direction we tried to keep it modern in all ways of thinking. Even if one were to do garage or lo fi... we tried to realize sounds that would touch other people and touch ourselves.
To the casual observer of German rock music, perhaps one of the things you first associate with Faust is the idea of using inappropriate objects or very strange things as instruments such as road building machinery and of course your influence on industrial groups such as Einstürzende Neubauten... was there much of this on the current album?
HJI: Not really. This time we used metal cans and things like this but this time we mainly just used the voice in different ways. We put the voice through many different machines until you cannot recognize it as human any more.
Among the younger generation, there are a legion of bands who have been influenced by you. I'm thinking not just bands who are influenced by you but bands that you've gone on to work with in one form or another such as Dalek, Radiohead, To Rococo Rot etc. When you have direct collaborative projects with these people, does that in turn influence you?
HJI: We started some years ago with Dalek and we're still really good friends. We did some shows together and out of that might be coming a new project... but not this year! We got invited by Radiohead last year to do a show together in Barcelona. There is still the awareness of Faust out there.
What I thought was really interesting was that when In Rainbows was released in this country in 2007 on the internet you could download it for free but it was asked that you would pay 49p for the download. Of course when you released The Faust Tapes through Virgin in 1973, that was for exactly the same price. The move wasn't exactly the radical sea change that was claimed for it at the time... you had set the template.
HJI: [laughs] Mmmmmm.
Obviously there is a thematic link between the sleeve of your debut album and this one, as they both show X-rays of a clenched fist. [Faust is German for fist.]
HJI: It is easy to understand that the hand is open. It's not a fist any more.
Are you suggesting that you have become more reasonable men now you have reached a certain vintage?
HJI: [laughs] Well, you can see there is something red behind the open hand and it is a heart!
Ah! Well, that's given me a warm feeling inside! Well, talking about the absolute opposite of this, the confrontational, anarchic approach of Faust in the beginning... well this was really exciting. I remember when I first heard your debut... I hate The Beatles... I hate them... I hate them... so it was so exciting to hear ‘All You Need Is Love' being pulverized in this sea of noise. And ‘Satisfaction' by The Rolling Stones. What an appalling record. And one that is, ironically, incapable of delivering satisfaction. Did you have any other symbolic or destructive rituals before making this record?
HJI: We used both ways to overcome normal music and we have reflected it in a different mirror... but it's still quite close to what is going on in the music world as well. Faust act as a mirror on the current rock music scene for the listener. The next step was using the same idea again on the second disc in the set, where you have the same music and musical basics but in a totally different environment.
Is the second disc like a dub disc?
HJI: [laughs uproariously] It's hard to explain man. I was so happy when we had thought about how we can use all the different parts. We put them all into a big melting pot and remixed them. To me it's like in some years, people will understand that the basics of the two discs are the same. I am so happy that it is like this. People need to chew it to digest it!
Obviously, back in the day, Faust gigs had a certain reputation whether you were using a pneumatic drill to go through the stage or appearing stark naked or playing pinball or appearing in bed fast asleep on stage. Presumably you can't appear on stage like that anymore... What do you do now to get yourself into that zone for playing live now?
HJI: You know years ago we performed live, playing in front of the screen that was showing a silent movie. I think that changed us, I realized: 'This is my part and I must play it.' I realized that I was done with drilling things and smashing things... Even Pink does things like this now! I have nothing against Pink you know but...
It has become a rock & roll cliché...
HJI: Yeah. So our show has been reduced and all we do out of the ordinary is to use a few cans and other metal things because they give a certain sonic identification for our sound. I don't want to watch TV on stage because I am no longer bored. Now we have tried to become more into the music. When we started doing this I wasn't very happy going on stage. I refused at the very beginning. Why the hell should I go and do a concert? Without really realizing that music was what I liked doing! That's why we started building these black boxes, which helped us to recreate live the sound on stage which we could make in the studio. You know about these black boxes? Anyway then I agreed. I was the youngest in the band and by that point I must have been a bit older because I realized I would sooner do this than something normal! We had several interactive systems to avoid having a man on the mixing desk triggering lots of tapes. It was designed so that no one would really be able to do what we were doing. Then things changed again, and we started working with two very good engineers who we still have with us and have been working with us since the 1990s, one from Coventry and one from Switzerland. After this I was very happy and I still am now. I can trust them because they know what they are doing and understand the music. I trust them and they are so important to Faust you know?
Talking about the genesis of Faust – and I hope you don't think this impertinent but it is quite relevant to the history of the group I guess – when you started, how much was this idea of rule breaking, making a clean break with the past and creating something from scratch tied in with the concept of breaking away from the past... Breaking away from the recent past of your parents' generation and their involvement in the Second World War?
HJI: [sighs] We had to do it you know? We had been under such pressure that we agreed that we had to go against our parents' generation. And there was no way to do it any differently than we all did. It's not that everything that was left behind was bad. There were some traditional things that were still really good - it's just that modern music was no go. All that we could look to was American and Britain and I'm still of the opinion that British musicians did such good music at the time – and are still doing now – but they were doing what they did so well at the time that there was no point in us trying to be like them. If you wanted to listen to really good British music, you could do, that already existed. We had to make something new.
I was thinking the other day about how Uwe Nettelback convinced Polydor that they had the new Beatles on their hands when he convinced them to sign Faust. But perhaps it was not 100% of a lie... you were like a Beatles who had never recorded anything less radical than 'Revolution No. 9' and 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. How on earth did he manage to convince them of this anyway?!
HJI: That was a good trick! Polydor was a big company and all they were interested in was making money. No one there really understood about music. They operated out of this massive building in Hamburg and I only ever met about three people at the very most with whom I could discuss music with. The rest were just interested in making money. They were obsessed with the fact that they lost the real Beatles because of stupid business ideas. It was a burning pain in their asses that they had missed them the first time round you know!? [laughs] So we just told them that we could be... eventually... a replacement for The Beatles!
Well, you were... in all the right ways at least... maybe not in selling records though! So what were the original discussions like about what you were going to sound like? Were there a lot of arguments?
HJI: Oh yeah. And it was exactly the same when we did Faust Is Last! When we started originally it was important that we started from zero, you know? It was not easy to find a direction to go in at first. It was not easy to find a musical direction that we thought was pure. In the beginning we recorded tons of demos but then we found out that it may be possible to use the studio in a different way. It was a new idea at the time. And after we realized we could use the studio as another instrument the sessions went much better.
By 1973 there was a conceptual link between what you were doing and what Lee Perry was doing at the Black Ark.
HJI: Yes. It was wonderful. Up until that point – I only know about Germany, I don't know about other countries – we had this young engineer and he had been trained to do everything by the rule book. It was very German! He was very exact! It was very difficult to persuade him to do it NOT the way he had learned it. But once we had him we could use the equipment much better. We built a lot of our own equipment as well. It was built from bits and pieces from other studios that had been left over. We put these bits and pieces together in a self-made frame. It had a big patch bay... I wish I still had it. You could use it in lots of different ways. It was such a great bit of equipment. After these things it became a lot easier trying to achieve what we were trying to do. The sessions got better and better. There was then progress. And to satisfy Polydor, who at one point had become a bit mistrustful of us, we had to play them something. We said we would do them one better. We said that week by week we would send them a tape of what we considered to be the new musical standard. And they stopped it after a while because they couldn't understand it any more. It was noise. It was singing. It was [makes insane noise]. It was trumpets. It was a children's choir. It was all the things that they couldn't understand. Ha ha ha!
Were drugs an integral part of your process in making music or was it just part of the scene back then?
HJI: I think it was a bit of both. If you are under the influence of certain substances it can help in a special kind of way sometimes. It can offer you ideas. It can... It can spread... Gah... what is the word in English...
Just give me a second. I happen to be sitting next to the lovely Melissa who is German... can you explain to her what the word means...
[Hans and Melissa talk in German]
Melissa: Oh my lord!
[They talk some more in German]
Melissa: It is basically when you take drugs and then it opens up a different sphere or realm to you. You can see more... There is no English word for it, I think.
HJI: Wherever you went you would hear about it but we wanted to expand the brain in a way.
You mean like to expand the consciousness. I kind of laugh when we say to cleanse the third eye but I know exactly what you mean.
HJI: Ha ha! Yes! It was just that you had to experiment with yourself. But we were much more happy at that time and we were much more careful then than how people use drugs now. I'm really astonished at what is going on now.
Back during the Polydor days, how much were you aware of Uwe's connections with the Baader Meinhoff Gang and Red Army Faction?
HJI: [pause] You know, I don't know exactly the story with Uwe, but sure he was a left wing man and we were the same you know? There was no way we would be right wing or even liberal. Now we know better perhaps.
And the studios where you recorded originally, Wumme, were you there when it was raided by the armed police?
HJI: Yeah. It was a really very heavy time. I think people are more used to getting caught up in a police trap or something like that now but then it was totally unknown. It didn't happen. It started with Baader Meinhoff, then they started closing roads off totally, then they introduced new laws that allowed police lots of new powers and one of these laws led to the raid on Wumme. It was fortunate for me that I was at Uwe's house. But Zappi was there and afterwards he looked really awful! The police had found out that we stayed in this old school house in Wumme and so we got a call and we went there and the road had been totally closed off and the school house was surrounded by heavily armed police people. I'm still amazed that nothing really bad happened. You do not know how to react if someone jumps into your room with a gun and shouts ‘Stand up!' You don't know how you will react and this situation lasted for nearly a day, until they left.
I interviewed Jean Herve Perron a few years ago and he said he literally got woken up by having a rifle pushed in his face.
HJI: Really, yeah? Well, with Zappi, in certain situations, you cannot predict what he will do. We were really afraid that he would have done something stupid. He was the main focal point of the group. But to be honest we had always been in a non-combative environment though. Before we went to Wumme we lived in a film maker's community, I was a member of the film school there and we also came from an art school background. But we had contacts with so many crazy people that it was impossible to say who was involved at any time. Now we know better but then it was a certain kind of normality to meet people with crazy and extreme ideas.
Artistically that environment must have been amazing. Being able to try different ways of recording out, such as when you all had a jam without getting out of bed... just having really long leads coming out of various bedrooms leading down into the studio.
HJI: [laughs uproariously] Er, ja.
How did you first come into contact with Richard Branson and did you see him more of a spiritual ally than the people at Polydor.
HJI: Yeah, after the first two years, both we and the people at Polydor understood that there was no common ground in front of us. Then we started to look around to see if there might be another label. The best reactions we got were from the people who came over from Great Britain. To me, my favourite music was coming from Great Britain and we said ‘Why not?'
I guess one of the most heroic yet bathos filled events in your whole career was what happened with your final recording of the 70s in Munich when you conned your way into the studios and then escaped from the police with the tapes.
HJI: Yeah, it was like... I quit having anything to do with any of them in England, left for Germany and then two days later Rudolph left as well. After this I got bored, I got some homebrew, I looked for an old farmhouse. But after a while I got an idea to do another record. I contacted Mr [Giorgio] Moroder. I knew that the [Rolling] Stones used his studio a lot of time. So I contacted him with a proposal. I told him that we couldn't afford to pay him but if he let us know when the studio was not in use, we could use it then. He was very generous. I asked him about the money and he just said ‘Ok, let's do it like that. If you really get big money out of this production then we can talk about that then but don't worry about it now.' It was a really great production. We worked at nighttime when no one else was there. There wasn't much in the way of drugs going on. And finally when we thought it was done I did the final mix while the guys went upstairs into the hotel to party. I remember Amon Duul were there. I was mixing at one point with two hands on different controls and one foot on a fader! It was a great record but we never really officially released it or designated it as a Faust album. We still have a lot of the material left.
What's the truth about the tapes being driven by a roadie away from the police while you were barricaded in the studio?
HJI: Yeah! Ha ha ha! Yeah, it had to go out like that because by then they realized that we weren't going to pay for our rooms at the hotel and they had come to get us out. It came to 50,000 marks or something so the hotel were ready to call the police. But eventually my mother and Rudi's mother bailed us out! We were no longer blue eyed boys! It was great fun though. But I think today you can't do things like this anymore!
What happened to all of you during the 80s?
HJI: Good question. It came to the stage where we couldn't sell Faust records I was like Ok, I have to accept it. We were a bit sad about this but, you know, life goes on. So we decided to go our own separate ways. We decided to become fathers, Rudi stayed in Munich... I decided to get more into electronics. In Hamburg I had a repair shop. Everybody did something totally different. Zappi and me, we had certain kinds of rehearsals. We would rent a small room in Hamburg and have fun musically and from time to time we would invite other musicians. So we didn't really stop making music. But it wasn't official. Then at the end of the 80s we thought... music is really now at the end! Ha ha ha! Zappi was great at making really stupid inventions however, so we decided to do a concert in a small public place instead of doing parties and that was in 1989. Jean Herve came just to say hello and he was looking for a job so he was part of it musically at first. The first show we did was called Klangbad, because it was in a swimming pool. Jean Herve came to Hamburg from Cherbourg more often. A guy from Hamburg persuaded us to play this big venue – a very old fashioned music hall. And that was the first concert we did in years. And then we did another one two years later... We decided to do concerts but not that often. We did a show in 1992 in London. And it just went better and better. But I was still running my shop so I couldn't do it that often. I couldn't make it to all the shows so I recorded some stuff onto cassette so it could be played at some of them.
Because in the pre-internet age it was easy for scenes to disappear off the radar, I remember I heard about Faust literally years before I ever heard anything by them. How important to you has it been having people like Julian Cope and Chris Cutler in the 90s, keeping the torch burning for you and your peers before reissue culture and archiving and sharing of MP3?
HJI: Yes I think we have to be thankful to them for bringing us again into the minds of people. Without Julian or Chris Cutler I don't really know what would have happened to us. I really have no idea. I wasn't thinking too much about it because I was convinced at the time that what we did would survive. I just had this thought that just the idea behind the project might survive. We wanted to make something that would outlast ourselves. And I hope that we have done this a little bit. But I don't want to be a big mouth or a big head. I think we had the luck to be there at the right time however we could also realize it.