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The Voice Of Minimalism: An Interview With To Rococo Rot
John Freeman , July 7th, 2014 11:51

Robert Lippok of German post-rock stalwarts To Rococo Rot talks to John Freeman about unlocking the band's voice on their eighth album, Instrument

A couple of years ago I found myself in the lounge of Stephen Pastel's west Glasgow flat. I was interviewing Stephen for tQ's Baker's Dozen series and we were listening to one of his choices - The Amateur View by the German post-rock band To Rococo Rot. I was a little embarrassed to admit to him that I wasn't familiar with their work as he clutched the album's cover to his chest and spoke about how he had discovered To Rococo Rot after listening to German techno. His love for the outfit was very evident: "Although they were coming from a techno angle, they had real melody and colour that I found missing in a lot of other techno music."

Stephen had subsequently become friends with the Berlin-based trio – brothers Robert and Ronald Lippok and Stefan Schneider – and The Pastels would go onto play shows with To Rococo Rot and the two bands would collaborate on each other's projects.

After meeting Stephen I began to discover To Rococo Rot for myself. I centred my new found love on their early City Slang releases - Veiculo, Music Is A Hungry Ghost and the aforementioned Baker's Dozen entry, The Amateur View. I became enthralled by the ambient minimalism and space afforded to many of the 'songs' – some of the tracks had the lightest of structures – and could relate to Stephen's comments that To Rococo Rot's work contained a warmth and vitality that I, personally, found absent in more 'clinical' genres of electronic music.

My late entrance to the To Rococo Rot party means that new album Instrument is the first of their records that I've been able to excitedly anticipate. It's also a first for the band - Instrument is To Rococo Rot's eighth album but first to includes vocals. Arto Lindsay, an American singer, guitarist and experimental composer (and once of No Wave pioneers DNA), provides his deft half-whisper and gliding guitar melodies on three of the album's ten tracks. Lindsay's presence never dominates the warm tones of Instrument and only adds to the sense of intrigue and adventure.

A few weeks after first hearing the new album, I caught up with Robert Lippok via a wobbly Skype link (which apparently made me resemble an ageing Max Headroom) to discuss the reasons for Arto Lindsay's inclusion on Instrument before delving into Robert's musical upbringing in 1970s East Germany.

Your new album includes three tracks featuring the vocals of Arto Lindsay. What triggered the idea to use Arto on Instrument?

Robert Lippok: It all began in the rehearsal space, which was a former garage in East Berlin. The garage was full of about 40 old pianos. We always start from scratch, so we have nothing prepared. It turned out that the way Ronald was drumming meant he was doing a lot more with the tops. That created these kind of micro-melodies and was the first step where we thought it could be a direction for the new album, in that we would be caring more about these smaller percussion sounds. At the same time, all the strings from the pianos were resonating to our music while we were playing. That created a kind of ghost track – like a fourth person in the room – because it was an element we couldn't control and came just by the amount of pianos in the space. That gave us the initial idea to have another element, rather than us three on the record and was the point where we thought it would be good for this record to have a voice.

So, the obvious question is why Arto? What was it about him?

RL: It was mainly the sense of his voice; the way that he can level his voice to his guitar playing. He works in a more abstract way that had fascinated us for a long, long time. Also, we liked the way he develops melodies in his singing - he has a very unique whisper. Singers tend to make everything they sing into a song; so it sounds like a pop song. But with Arto, he has this abstraction in his voice. It is almost that his voice is like a bird that flies parallel to a train or something. It's hard to describe – his voice is following other lines rather than the usual routines.

When did you first meet Arto?

RL: We have known him for a long time – he was at the first To Rococo Rot show in New York, at a club in the Meat District which is now all about Gucci and Prada, but before was transvestite whores and crack cocaine and nightclubs. He liked the naive minimalism in our live playing that night.

What was the creative process? Did Arto arrive in the studio with ideas for melodies?

RL: No. He sat in the mixing room listening to all of the tracks we had. He would say, "This is nice; I can imagine singing to this" and then he developed the singing and lyrics in moments. He was sitting there writing text and listening. He recorded his voice in the mixing room. He didn't want to go to the recording room. It was very nice as it was very intimate. It wasn't like a studio situation where everyone sits behind glass and watches the maestro playing. It was more like a campfire. Most songs were done in one or two takes and then he would listen to a take and say, "I will try this part again" but the melodies themselves were developed in one take.

How did it feel to hear Arto's melodies placed within the new music you had made?

RL: It was beautiful because the way Arto develops melodies is so abstract and gentle. With To Rococo Rot we often have people singing to our music at our concerts – and of course we do that too. When I listen to our tracks I also have my own melodies. The melodies Arto sang were surprising compared to anything I could imagine for the tracks. His voice is light and is flying over the music with turns and twists, but also it is brittle and has something almost fragile about it. It's like a delicate bird.

Is this the start of a trend for To Rococo Rot? Would you consider using other vocalists on future projects?

RL: I could imagine that we maybe do another single or record with another vocalist. The work was so fun and so great [with Arto] and I can see more possibilities.

I'm about to do something dreadful and paraphrase your press release back at you. It mentions that Instrument sees To Rococo Rot "coming back to where they started." Why is that?

RL: Which crazy guy said that? Well, the first album it was done on an ADAT – an eight-track digital machine – and we had no possibility to edit anything on it. It was much the same with this recording. With our other records we have done a lot of computer work; shifting sounds and doing a lot of post-production but with this album it was a very direct way of seeing the track as a very simple sculpture made from just a few elements. That's where we began, so the quote is not so wrong.

What sort of music did you and Ronald first hear as children?

RL: In my family, music was not so important. My parents were interested in art and liked when the two brothers would draw or make little sculptures. They did like rock & roll and were great rock & roll dancers in 50s, but I got closer contact with music when my uncle had a tape machine and he would play us Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin and all that kind of stuff. That was the first time I listened to music. When I was 11 in 1976, it was the time when I started to listen to the radio by myself. I would hear the John Peel show and that was my main source for music that I liked. Even at 11, I felt that the punk rock movement was very interesting. When I first saw [a picture of] John Lydon I thought he looked ill but the attitude intrigued me, even though I was a kid. There was this initial feeling of adventure and of a new horizon, which interested me.

How easy was it to access new music in East Germany in the 1970s?

RL: In the late 70s and early 80s, John Peel was still the main source, but also other German radio shows. We could easily listen to West German radio but it was nearly impossible to get records. Whenever someone had a record it was shared and taped like a 100 times onto cassettes. The East German underground movement was a lot about sharing. There were people who have had some synthesizers from West Germany and they gave them to us for a few weeks to do recording and the instruments would travel throughout Berlin.

How did you meet Stefan?

RL: I met Stefan in a gallery in Berlin. His former band was playing and I was DJing. I really liked what I saw and he liked my DJ set. He was looking through my records and I suggested that we do something together at some point. Then, my brother and I held an exhibition in the gallery and the owner had some money. We told him we would like to make a record. He was a music enthusiast and so he agreed to it. I phoned Stefan an invited him to Berlin – we had money and a studio. Robert and Stefan met in the studio. They had never met before. In two days the record was done – it was very fast work.

Was the DNA of To Rococo Rot defined in those two days? Did you have an initial vision for the band?

RL: No. We hadn't wanted it to be anything because we didn't want to form a band. That was not our initial goal. There was no goal; there was just an opportunity to make a record. The way I compose music now is still the same as I did in the early 80s; I start with a few elements and then take an element out and then maybe put it back in. It's a very simple way of organising music and I could hear that in Stefan's band too, so I thought there must be a way to work together. So, I was quite sure that we could make something but I didn't know what to expect. In the studio we had just a few elements; a few rhythm machines and a sampler. On one track Ronald was singing but we didn't put this on the album as we felt the project did not need a voice. In our previous bands we always had a vocal, so that was a new decision for To Rococo Rot.

What is your relationship like with Berlin? How has the city's music scene impacted To Rococo Rot over the years?

RL: In general we have almost been nomads. We don't have much equipment, we have no rehearsal space – we keep all our stuff at Stefan's place. Over time, the club scene in Berlin has changed and the possibility for us to work in a live setting has changed. I think we have always felt a bit like outsiders, even though I am a Berliner. But as To Rococo Rot, it feels like we are visitors to the different scenes in Berlin. We knew people from the WMF club and other scenes, but we have never really been involved in one scene.

Why do you feel like outsiders?

RL: I think it is a question of personalities. In general, I like to not get too deep. I don't know much about software. I don't know much about synthesizers. My knowledge is very specialised but on a very limited scale. Comparing this to the Berlin scene I always like to be able to see things from outside. Of course I have friends in the drum & bass scene and I loved the jungle scene. Jungle is my favourite music of all time, besides happy hardcore [laughs]. I like to switch – to be totally there in the techno thing and then for weeks be into drum & bass. I think it is just a personal thing; it wasn't a decision to be outsiders.

A band like To Rococo Rot always seems to be tagged as 'seminal' and 'influential'. Do these descriptions resonate with you at all?

RL: I like them, because I experienced the same thing with other bands. It's about ideas and handing a kind of power from one to the other. It's about giving another musician the ability to think that they can do this too. It happened to us in the late 70s with the New Wave bands like Cabaret Voltaire and those other really avant garde bands. With punk rock you needed three chords but with those bands you didn't even need that. It was just noise and totally free. That for us was the initial starting point where we thought we have to form a band. People often tell us that one of our albums is important and that they are trying to sound like To Rococo Rot. Sometimes we hear the songs that are trying to sound like us and, of course, it's beautiful but it never sounds like us. They are doing it with their own mindset and with their own ideas but maybe within some framework of ours. That is how it should be, that people take elements or sample us, as we have sampled other people. That's part of the life-form of music. But, we did laugh once because one journalist said to Stefan that we were 'veterans' and asked how he felt about that – that was ten years ago!

They'd probably describe you as pensioners now.

RL: Maybe, but there are no pensions for post rock musicians in Germany.

I don't think there are pensions for post-rock musicians anywhere. What's next for To Rococo Rot? Where might future projects take the band?

RL: To Mars! There are no plans – we have never worked in a strategic way for our career. We land where we land. We are never thinking of doing the right stuff at the right time. I was at a festival in Utrecht recently and I was thinking that now a lot of stuff is for consumer satisfaction. We've never been interested in that. Actually, we went the other way in reducing our input to so little that people had to read their own content in our music. They are almost in complete darkness at some points and their brain can create colours. We always try to work on very simple structures – they are always too simple to be called music sometimes – but I think we can develop it.

What do you think the development arc has been for To Rococo Rot across your albums?

RL: What I love about To Rococo Rot is that it is hard to say where the musical development is from the first record to the last one. There is no musical development – there may be a new strategy or a different awareness of sound or melody but it's more like when you hear music from Africa or South America, where it is not developed in a capitalistic way, but it develops more 'horizontally'.

If that's the case, what type of projects challenge you as artists?

RL: We did a project last week where we played in a former catholic church in Bonn for a festival about architecture. We did an hour-long track based on the church bell. The church was built in the 70s and looked more like a sports hall – a very simple design. The church bell had an electric motor that made more noise than the bell and we tuned our instruments to the tone of the bell and developed a whole concert for that. I like that open situation and I hope in the future there will be more projects like that.

The album Instrument is out on July 21 via City Slang. To Rococo Rot play Cafe Oto on the same day