Herbert Goes 'Banana': Germany's Biggest Star Takes On England
, August 22nd, 2012 05:55
Virtually unknown in Britain, Herbert Grönemeyer is a huge star in his native Germany, having sold 18 million albums. Now his sights are set on the country he called home for over a decade. Wyndham Wallace meets him at Berlin’s Hansa Studios…
The man opposite and I have little obvious in common. Herbert Grönemeyer is the most successful pop star Germany has ever sired: in 1982 he kept Thriller off the top of the country's charts with an album, Bochum, that's now the country's third biggest selling record of all time, and he also lays claim to its biggest – 2002's Mensch – with well over three million sales to its name.
Having first come to prominence as an actor in Das Boot, the epic film / TV series that captured an international audience in the early 1980s, he now hangs out with Bono, calls Anton Corbijn a best friend, and that's not to mention his humanitarian work: amongst other things, he assembled Band Für Afrika, Germany's equivalent of Band Aid, in 1985, and helped establish Deine Stimme Gegen Armut, the country's own Make Poverty History campaign, earning the title 'European Hero' from Time Magazine in 2005. Then there's Groenland, the record label he owns – which has delivered releases as contrasting as Neu's back catalogue, The Earlies, Roedelius, Psapp, Gang Of Four and Metric – and his role as co-financer of the Corbijn-directed Control (in which he also made a cameo appearance) and The American (for which he also wrote the score).
As for me? Well, let's not go there... But it turns out we do, in an unusual way, share something after all.
In 1998 Grönemeyer and his wife, the actress Anna Henkel, moved to London, a city in which he had already recorded a number of albums and with which she was besotted. Only a short time afterwards, however, she died of breast cancer. Henkel had been diagnosed some years earlier, but even if that could have softened the blow, nothing could have prepared him for the timing, a mere three days after his brother's death from leukaemia. Devastated, Herbert nonetheless chose to retain London as his home base, finding in its anonymity a comfort and opportunity to grieve that his homeland could never have offered.
Like him, I moved after a tragedy of my own, to the city that Grönemeyer left behind: Berlin. In my case it was a couple of years after the suicide of my business partner. I attributed my decision at the time to its relative peace, open spaces and cheap, bohemian lifestyle. But, in some small way, I also benefitted from an unforeseen opportunity to put things behind me due to an unfamiliar culture and language. The insidious negativity that comes from something so simple as putting on the TV news – hearing what Bill Hicks once summarised on a London stage as "war, famine, death, AIDS, homeless, depression, recession, drought, flood, pit bull, war, famine, death, AIDS" – was suddenly absent from my life, and my new surroundings were refreshing. I had wholly underestimated what an impact this would have and, though I'd moved in the opposite direction, like Grönemeyer I found a refuge from the white noise that so often surrounds us and influences our condition.
"Yes, that's exactly the thing," he agrees after settling in a comfortable chair the other side of a conference table in his space at Berlin's Hansa Studios, the legendary venue for recordings like Bowie's "Heroes", Iggy Pop's Lust For Life, Depeche Mode's Construction Time Again and U2's Achtung Baby. "On top of that for me was the freedom that I could go to a café on my own," he continues, "and I think that's exactly the effect, because it couldn't be more contrary for a German to go to England or an English to come to Berlin."
Though he keeps a home in London, nowadays Grönemeyer spends considerably more of his time in Berlin. "I didn't come back because I wanted to," he explains. "It was more personal things. My daughters started studying here, and my relationship ended in London, and Alex (Silva, his long term producer) went to Berlin, and Anton Corbijn went back to the Netherlands. A lot of things happened at the same moment, so I had to go back to Germany. But it's one place I am really romantic about, and this is the last thing you would be in London because it's not very sexual. I really had a great time there. Even with all that happened in my life, I have a very sentimental relation with London."
Now Grönemeyer has decided it's time to release an English language record. It's not his first, as it happens, but the others – despite being translated by Peter Hammill of Van Der Graaf Generator and Andy Partridge of XTC - were never given a proper release, if any release at all. When he offered the last to the boss of EMI's London office – his own music is released by the label – eyes were rolled, he recalls, and curses were uttered. But this one is different. For starters, I Walk is being released by his own label, Groenland, rather than EMI, something about which he's more than excited.
"We try to start from scratch without this big balloon in the back saying, 'The big artist's coming'," he argues, "We try to present them the songs. I can hopefully, maybe find a niche where they say, 'At least the songs are not that bad'. But none of the thing: 'The big German act is coming. Beware, the Germans are back.'"
He giggles. It's something he does often, a high-pitched, infectious sound that punctuates our conversation at regular intervals and is at odds with his otherwise gruff voice. He's enjoying himself, it seems, so much so that the sixty minutes allocated for the interview will eventually stretch into two and a half hours. Talking about his music and about the land that adopted him with an English journalist who has come fresh to his music clearly excites him. But why is it that he now feels the need to take on one of the most sophisticated music markets in the world? Is success in Germany not sufficient? It turns out there are a number of reasons, but they all centre upon two things: his need to be challenged, and his love for the country that offered him sanctuary.
"I think there's two sides," he confirms. "One thing is that I lived in England for 12 years, 11 years, and secondly, all my songs when I write them, I sing them with this English 'banana lyric', I call them. So when I write a song, I would sing it with this very weird English language. It really makes the melody flow, and these versions often are the nicest in a way, because the lyric has no meaning. And I think it's very good to challenge yourself to go a new step, to at least try out. Like in the early days, you go somewhere and no one knows you and you have to convince them on the evening that you may be interesting. I don't expect to be very successful like in Germany, but it's to find out, 'Is there a quality to what you're writing?'"
In his homeland, Grönemeyer is most acclaimed for his lyrics, many of them too refined and multi-layered to be easily translated, so it's surely a risk to rely on his understanding of a foreign tongue.
"I try to find out the same thing it took me years to find out: how it works in German," he explains. "And I'm totally happy to find out how it works in English. Or maybe I don't. Maybe I fail completely and it's rubbish. But I think if I sing English, it goes much more on the melody and my singing. It sounds not very modest, but I actually think I'm quite a good singer. But in Germany it's all very strongly based on my lyrics. And in English I think the songs can blossom more: the music, the sentiment in the music, the sentiment in the voice.
"In Germany, the melody on its own doesn't get you in the charts," he continues. "It has to be the lyric on top. I think three interviews in the last 750 interviews I did were about songwriting. The rest is always about lyrics. And that's what I admire about England, this enormous access to the joy and the melody and loving music. Music: that means music and not lyrics. This is the punk attitude of every British person, because they've really lived that. In Germany it's either intellectual or it's completely Schlager (the country's own take on Easy Listening). But you hardly ever talk about music you write, or what is interesting about it."
He reaches for a cigarette before continuing. Bracelets jangle on his wrist.
"I was very proud to be in England. I really enjoyed living there, and it had a lot of impact into myself. Now I want to learn by maybe playing English gigs, finding out, 'Do I get the people? Does it have the same fun for me as singing in German?' I like to go out and challenge myself by playing to people who have never heard of me, and then see where it goes." There's a moment's thought. "If they come!"
This time he roars with laughter. If he's remotely concerned about the likely comedown his British adventure will present – his two year tour on the back of Mensch saw 1.5 million tickets sold – he's not showing it. The reason truly seems to be rooted in his love for the country, and the opportunity he now has to return there, both as an artist and with a clean slate. But, to understand that, it's perhaps necessary to understand how he sees his own fatherland.
"The Germans are the country of engineers," he chuckles. "That's all they're interested in. They're always analysing. And some things are not analysable. Anything that's anarchistic or a bit weird or a bit odd or too successful, or it sticks out: they don't like that. And that's what was so refreshing to be in England. First of all, if you say, 'I'm making music' everybody says, 'What? That's good, that's cool.' Even if your child says to you as a father, 'I'm making music': 'Yeah! Go! What do you want? A drumkit? A guitar?' In Germany, everybody who sticks out, like Rammstein or Kraftwerk, or even actors like Romy Schneider or Marlene Dietrich: it's very, very hard to keep up. You have to fight like crazy to maintain your acceptance. The difference, I think, between Anglo Saxon culture and German culture is Germans like everybody to be one Golf, a grey Golf 250, and an English or Anglo-Saxon person admires people that are crazy, different, special, colourful, eccentric. And that's why fascism was so successful. Especially for a German, England is really helpful. Nothing works, everything is chaotic. As an 'engineer' you find at least 35 things you can definitely do better. A day! But then, in the end, you realise it's totally the opposite of German thinking. I like this English quality that nothing has to be perfect. If I come back to Germany and go to the toilet in the airport, it reminds me of this. It's so clean, and then I really miss this looseness of England."
Inevitably, these are not necessarily things with which British citizens will sympathise. What to outsiders can appear to be endearing eccentricities are often enough to enrage those who have to live with them all their lives. Grönemeyer admits that there are many things about the country that puzzle him – the British approach to flirtation, for example, or the language's convoluted complexities – but his outsider's perspective also allows him to notice things that perhaps we don't, like the impression made when one enters Britain, and what it tells him about its citizens.
"There is no glass on the borders in the airport when you come in," he asserts. "Hello, check, go in. They let you in very quickly. 'Come in, come in, show us how to put a nail in the wall. That's very good: we need you!' Germany: glass. Switzerland, everybody: glass. We always say the English are stiff, but that's not true. They might be insecure a little bit, but once the brain in England is going they're very smart, and very fast, and very interesting. And that's a lack in Germany. For 80 million people, there's not very much there. And also on television, I admire these shows where these two universities play against each other, and you're like 'Huh?!' There's not one question you can answer! Imagine that on German television. The people would say, 'Are you crazy? What bullshit is this?' That's what I really like about English culture. And that's in their daily life. 'Is there any challenge, is the person interesting, is there anything I can find out that I don't have?' And in Germany they try to move you very quickly into the mainstream."
"The other thing I like about the English," he adds, "is, we grew up with Grimm's Tales, and the English, they grow up with Winnie The Pooh. And I think that also tells a lot. Winnie The Pooh is something a German would never read a child. It's too smart! And it's humorous! That's what I really envy about the English: desperate, very hard life, but whatever they do, whatever they say, there's always this little smile…"
I Walk is the culmination of a love affair with England that remains as potent as ever. It's puzzling, though: given his extravagant wealth and, consequently, his ability to settle anywhere in the world, why did he choose the country? Considering England's longstanding distrust of the Germans – a racism that may have softened but remains little short of being institutionalised – what is it that provokes his intense affection? Why would you do this to yourself, Herbert? You seem like such a nice guy.
In fact, a nice guy is exactly what Herbert Grönemeyer is. German friends of mine have been dismissive of him – one commented that "hearing his music on the radio makes me want to smoke crack", while a reputable critic at a leading German cultural magazine insisted to me that Grönemeyer's success in Germany's charts is as inexplicable as The Wombles' in the UK. But this, they concede, is a response to the ubiquity of his music, something that has rendered it bland through overfamiliarity. As a person, they all agree, he seems rather charming: he's endured some dreadful experiences, done some wonderful things, and all credit due to the man. When it comes to German tastemakers, in other words, he's the anti-Paul McCartney: they'd rather he talked than played. What the British will make of him remains to be seen.
I Walk is different to his previous English language efforts because, rather than simply translating an album, he has drawn (largely) upon songs from across his recent catalogue. His aim was not to present a Best Of, he says, but to answer the question he set himself, "How do we get this album to work in itself?" In addition, it offers three brand new songs, and features guests of significant stature. Bono you might perhaps expect, precisely because stars at such level often congregate together. But Antony Hegarty? And James Dean Bradfield? All three on one record? You may not have seen that coming.
While his guest stars' appearances might seem the action of a grand marketing plan, Grönemeyer maintains that they are the product of coincidence, something he refers to as "a big gift". James Dean Bradfield is a friend of his producer, who invited him to contribute guitar on 'To The Sea' (formerly recorded as 'Zum Meer'), an Eastern-tinged slice of melodrama with string arrangements of which Manic Street Preachers would undoubtedly approve. Silva also helped enable the duet with Antony Hegarty, 'Will I Ever Learn', a melancholic piano-led ballad in which Grönemeyer's husky tones rub surprisingly effectively against Hegarty's tremulous voice.
"I didn't even expect he would say yes," Grönemeyer says humbly, "because I thought, 'Why would he sing with me?' First, he doesn't know me, and secondly he has other things to do. When he started singing my skin went up, and I was really thinking, 'Wow!' And then he said, 'It's so nice to sing with you because I can really lean on you.' I thought it was a very nice compliment. 'When you sing, you're so solid I can really lean.'"
He glows visibly with pleasure at the memory, before recalling how Bono also ended up on the record. "He was here in the studio, and the really beautiful thing with Bono is that once he's into something then he can get really focused. And he listened to the album, and he said 'Wow! It's so beautiful! Sounds like classics to me. May I try something out? Maybe pick two songs for me and if you like it, take it.' And I was really, 'Wow! What is that?! This can't be true.' And then he sang on 'Mensch', and I was completely thinking, 'Wow, this is really kind.' It was not that we'd been sitting down (and planning), but it's a massive help. It's a big door opener. Because I think no one's waiting for this album."
Most likely he's right. Does anyone need anything except bank loans from a country that may formerly have given us Kraftwerk, Can, Einstürzende Neubauten, Atari Teenage Riot, Boney M, Rammstein, Propaganda and Neu, but whose charts are still known in the popular consciousness as the second home of David Hasselhoff? What can Grönemeyer possibly add to the party that Scorpions haven't already?
As it happens: quite a bit. Readers of The Quietus might be swift to dismiss his work as schmaltz – a word suitably derived from the German for 'rendered animal fat' – but beneath the sometimes sentimental surfaces of his music there's a skilled songwriter at work. It's mainstream, without a doubt, yet he prefers to describe it as "mainstream alternative". There's truth in this, a result of his conscious belief that "rock & roll was always about being provocative, and it has nothing to do with the establishment, and that's the thing to always watch when you get so successful. When they get knighted by the Queen, I think that's very weird." He exhales deeply, troubled by the idea. "Although I'm mainstream, I still try to maintain this kind of idea behind it. I'm establishment but I don't want to become part of that establishment."
His words are backed up by his actions. Over the years, Grönemeyer has worked as an activist on a number of projects, campaigning against poverty, attempting to appease right wing extremists in former East Germany, and he recently spoke out against the proposed closure of Opel's factory in his hometown, Bochum. He has, by all accounts, been a thorn in Chancellor Angela Merkel's side, and allegedly refused to meet her on several occasions. He seems, however, to have avoided the sense of self-righteousness that dogs others of comparable prominence when they engage in such pursuits.
"I think that an artist has the duty to say things to a thing that he understands," he states calmly. "I think musicians or artists are drummers for something. And if I find a topic that I like, then I go for it, because I can make things public at least. But I never speak to politicians. I think in my opinion music and politicians don't go together. No way. We have to be the danger. They don't have to like us. That's very important. But if you look back on the things I did, I did not that many. But once I do it, I do try to do it right, and then I step out of it. I think the danger is that, the more you get successful, you think you're smarter than anybody else. And then you're in danger to become this spokesman: 'Let me say something, because the world's waiting for my comment'. The only thing we can do is, we can drum."
I Walk treads a fine line between German schlager and the nuanced songwriting of classicists like Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb and his personal hero, Randy Newman. I'm flattering him a little when I compare him to these greats, but only a little: 'Before The Morning' and 'Airplanes In My Head' – one of his breakthrough hits in 1984, under the original title 'Flugzeuge Im Bauch' – offer manifest echoes of Webb's unconventional romanticism, albeit illuminated by lighters in the air rather than candles. Additionally, the reduced acoustics and chamber strings of the yearning 'Keep Hurting Me' are genuinely touching, especially the gentle transition into its bridge. 'Mensch', furthermore, has a way of wriggling into one's consciousness - no wonder the Germans call such songs Ohrwürmer (ear worms) – thanks to the dubby undertones embedded within its verse, a massive, shamelessly uplifting chorus and a sincere, moving message of gratitude for friendship in times of trouble.
The latter's title, 'Mensch' – like schmaltz, a Yiddish word derived from German – is a word defined as a person of integrity and honour, and it's high praise to be so described by a friend. The song was written following the death of his wife, helping to power Grönemeyer back into the charts after four years spent grieving for his loss. Its strength was in its modest recognition of how others had helped him through, rather than an articulation of his despair, and captured a nation eager to offer him sympathy following his extended leave of absence.
"The song 'Mensch' was about…" he begins, before pausing a moment. "Because this happened to me. Because I've always loved people, I've always believed in people. My father was the biggest people-lover on earth. The nice thing about all this in the end was that my friends really helped me through that time. And that's what the song is about: life is so beautiful because you're surrounded, if you're lucky, by good friends, and life is actually really great again. The whole thing was to say thank you to these people."
Grönemeyer's desire to challenge himself by releasing his English album is, it turns out, reflected in his motivation with Groenland, his record label: "I like music. Because it keeps me alive as well. It keeps me on my toes. It keeps me aware of what's going on around me." It was initially set up after his acclaimed attempt at the end of the millennium to encapsulate the previous half-century of Germany's musical growth with an eight CD box entitled 50 Jahre Popmusik und Jugendkultur In Deutschland (50 Years Of Pop Music and Youth Culture In Germany). Commissioned by EMI, who, Grönemeyer claims, were soon flush with sales of over 100,000, it encouraged them to invite him to set up a little incubatory label on their behalf, and his first release – extraordinarily for such an apparently conventional figure - was a reissue of Neu!'s back catalogue. This emerged from the relationship Grönemeyer cultivated with Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother while attempting to include a Neu! track on 50 Jahre Popmusik.
"I think they didn't sign to Mute because there was somebody with the wrong tie on or something," he laughs. "I'm a Westphalian: we can be very stubborn. We beat the Romans! And with my knowledge I know the dangers you can have with a label. You know the dangers an artist can have. And maybe in the end it was a part of what Neu liked about me. It was the same shock for them: he's a mainstream artist and he comes across suddenly with these kinds of ideas that you don't expect from these kinds of artists. You think, maybe, 'Here comes this idiot around the corner'. But I like that. I think music is an art form."
The label's philosophy remains defiantly old school. "What I always wanted was to create a label in the sense of what a musician likes to have as home. To have a back up to really do what you want, and no not-so-smart, 'clever people' in the back who are always just checking, 'Where is the success?' and 'How we get to the success?' So my dream was one day for people to come and say, 'This is a nice home to be'."
He overstretched himself, however. "I had to more or less close it down," he admits, "because I just spent too much money. I drowned every year I think £400,000, crazy money, and then in the end I thought, 'Oh, shit, I really have to be careful.' And that's the good thing, because I can afford it, and that's exactly the freedom I had, to do it for art. I moved the label to Berlin, and the first album from Phillipe Poisel came to us. And that's the nice part of the story. He really came with his guitar to us. And the same with Boy. They really came to sus. They chose us to be their label."
He chuckles heartily again, and he has good reason: though EMI severed their ties with Groenland, Poisel has now gone on to chart in Germany with three albums, and Boy look set to be even more popular, with 100,000 sales already to their name.
"Now – and this makes me a little bit proud –we're even more successful than the German EMI," he boasts rather sweetly. "Because, in the end, we're exactly that which EMI wanted, this little boat that gives artists this home. I always say the record company gets the record they deserve. Because artists observe the spirit. And that's what we try with the label. And, in the moment, it works really nicely. You never know, but at least we don't try too hard, we haven't sold ourselves yet, and we're still independent, and we try to keep that up. You find things that you really enjoy, these little pearls, and even if they sell 5,000, or 4,000… Because we're really capable of doing good albums with 3,000 sales."
In fact, one suspects, Grönemeyer would be more than content with sales of that level for I Walk. If there's been one constant factor throughout our discussion, it's a romantic vision of everything with which he interacts: his love of England; his belief in humanity's power to overcome difficulties, whether personal, social and political; his passion for music, and his own music itself. Whether England needs him or not, it's clear he's grateful for the opportunity to at least offer something back to the country that has given him so much. It's another thing that we both have in common.
'Will I Ever Learn' (with Antony Hegarty) is out now. I Walk is released on October 8
Photographs by Anton Corbijn