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In Extremis

Theatre Of Discomfort: OAKE Interviewed
Luke Turner , January 14th, 2015 16:41

With their debut album Auferstehung placing high in tQ's albums of 2014 and a set at CTM in their hometown of Berlin imminent next week, the Downwards-signed duo tell Luke Turner about their ethos

Berlin is a city we might usually associate primarily with the urban: the dimly lit streets of tenement flats spreading south of the Landwehrkanal. The giant power stations and former industrial areas rotting away along the banks of the Spree. U- and S-Bahn lines. The post-war concrete of Communist East Berlin and the post-reunification excesses of corporate glass unsympathetically dumped all over Potsdamer Platz. Yet, unlike London, with its formal royal parks and tamed heaths, the wild encroaches on and into Berlin. The city is hemmed in on nearly all sides by forest and lakes, some of the old dead zones of the Berlin Wall remain unkempt and, walking just a few hundred metres from the Reichstag into the Tiergarten at winter, you could be in the midst of one of the endless forests of the German topographical imagination. It's this contradictory atmosphere of hard edges, dark and light, wild and violent that OAKE, the duo of Eric Sienknecht and Bathseba Sienknecht, evoke on excellent debut album Auferstehung, released on Downwards. Over rhythms broken sweep melodies that are pleasingly unafraid to tip a hat to pomposity (some delivered via Bathseba's wordless vocal ice drifts). It occasionally sounds like revellers at a remote rave being devoured by wolves after losing their minds and ways home. Other moments, such as 'Fuenftes Buch: Dreloi Wechd', sound like Nico commandeering a metal group. In 'Kapitel Drei: Rechs Zegon' horns blare over rattling brute sounds, as if an ancient army is preparing for war. Next week, OAKE will play at Berlin's annual CTM festival as part of Berlin Current, the programme that seeks to showcase emerging artists based in the city. OAKE will play a mix of the album as Bathseba performs a dance piece interpreting its narrative. The duo have curated the rest of the bill with CTM, and it features the excellent Zamilska, fellow Downwards artist Grebenstein, Shaddah Tuum, Franz Bargmann (who played guitar on Auferstehung) and Kerrioake, the DJ collaboration between Erik Sienknecht and Samuel Kerridge. Before that, we talked to the duo to find out more.

What was your first musical memory?

Bathseba Sienknecht: When I was seven or eight years old, my parents put up a circus tent and moved my drum set in there. I would always dress-up, prepare for my imaginary show and then walk into the tent to play the drums.

Eric Sienknecht: My parents would let me lie on the ground and put some big RFT (GDR brand) headphones on my head and play me stuff like Phil Collins and Pink Floyd (music which was hard to get at that time in that place) and I'd just lie there and listen to it. The first thing I remember is Born In The USA by Bruce Springsteen. I was amazed by that baseball glove on the cover, but didn't know what it was. 

Where are you from? Did that shape your musical taste and founding years at all? 

ES: Chemnitz, Germany.

BS: I grew up everywhere. Different cities and different countries until my parents settled in Leipzig around 1998.

ES: Both cities have strong alternative communities and we both grew into the punk/hardcore/metal circles in each city.

BS: So the circle of people and friends we had shaped our attitude and musical taste more than the cities. I don't know if we would have been involved in the same things in different places, but I think we would have been drawn to the same kind of people somehow.

What was the first record you ever fell in love with?

BS: Foo Fighters. The self-titled one.

ES: I don't know. I think the first record I loved was something quite stupid. Something I can't remember (there was just too much), but it must have had an impact on the way of figuring out what will be important to me later on.

BS: The things that we now still really love came later in life. After we learned more about music and ourselves in general. Eric really loves the first Cult Of Luna albums and plays Burial's debut album quite heavily whenever he gets the chance.

ES: I think Seba is strongly influenced by her parents and loves psychedelic rock and Kraut music from the 70s. Bands like It's A Beautiful Day or Pink Floyd.

Can you tell us a little of the origins of OAKE?

BS: We both were always into music: have been in various bands of different genres. In a band with four or more people you have to compromise a lot and might end up doing things you only partially agree with.

ES: We wanted to create a space in which we were able to explore sounds, moods and extremes: a space in which we could do what we want, without the need of justifying any of this to anyone.

BS: This was something new for us: a step forward, away from imitating things that we knew, towards things that were new to us and that we yet had to understand.

What are your non-musical inspirations?

BS: Dance and movement. Contemporary and modern. Free art: performance, paintings, poetry and experimentation.

ES: Film. Getting lost in scores and images has a big influence on a lot of things we do. Also life in general: everyday struggles, as well as politics and philosophy. 

What politics and philosophies interest you, and why?

ES: Philosophy is such an artful study, practised by so many gripping minds for so many years that there is not a single form I want to point you to. The reason for my interest is the core value of almost all its trends, even if I don't agree with all of them - they will offer me a change of perspective in various fields: values to be aware of, reasoning and rationale, views of reality and definition of mind - centuries-old wisdom.

Politics are more like an unavoidable confrontation to me than a field of interest. It scares me how governments and corporations operate in today's times. How ignorant and shameless they treat our world and people. The way our government works is not representing what I voted for. And I want to believe that most people feel the same way. But if a majority feels like that, what is our democratic system really worth in the end and how long can we endure this feeling of impotence? What would happen if we could overcome grudge and greed and use our resources for good causes and positive research rather than military spending and exploitation of nature and the weak and helpless? It is hard to answer this question in a few sentences. We are both not politically involved, and I cannot identify with the people who seem to steer our world and also feel very numb and powerless. I think we must learn how to regain our power: at first on a local level by building a bridge or getting a traffic sign put up and then learn from that until we get a school built somewhere...

Personally, we are both living as environmentally aware as possible, support animal welfare projects and aim to lead a predominantly self-sustaining life at some point in our future.

When did the pair of you meet, and how does the creative dynamic between you work?

ES: We met at the first concert of my old band. I was not a member yet, just a good friend of the guys. They played a show and we met in our flat during the afterparty.

BS: I think we did not see each other for quite a long time after that but eventually we grew to become friends and saw more of each other. Eric is always the first one to come up with ideas and concepts and then he'd share them with me and we would shape them together into something we both are comfortable with.

What was your original intent with OAKE?

BS: First of all we wanted to create an intimate space for us to find new ways to express ourselves.

ES: I was driven by the idea to create big discomfort that the listener cannot escape from. A physical impact on the body that is a bit too extreme, a bit over the top. Mirroring or reinterpreting the violent and disgusting sides of life and the world that most people in our society try to hide or look away from.

BS: We have been to shows where a band would play and after the show you did not want to listen to anything else, because the show would just have been so strong, so demanding. We want to get there somehow. 

There's a lot of drama to OAKE's music, it's at times extremely theatrical. Was that a reaction against what can be rather dry electronic music?

ES: A piece of music needs to tell a story. As soon as this story unfolds in front of your mind's eye a track is done. To get there, it needs extremes, it needs patience but it also needs this kind of drama to make the story graspable.

BS: It is not a reaction to other music. It is the right way to work for us, we are truly comfortable with what we are doing and use our music and our output to comprehend all the drama and theatre that is happening in our world around us.

ES: A lot of things around us are fucked up and only a few seem to care or to have the nerves, time or strength to care. We want to create something that leads to self-reflection that makes more people think and wonder and above all: react. No matter if they love or hate it.

For me, your music evokes a very European landscape - wolves, endless beech forests in the snow... are you inspired by that sort of natural setting?

ES: I love the idea of a lonesome barn in the woods, close to a lake and away from all the stress and troubles of the world.

BS: We both grew up very close to and with nature and I think this is an important aspect of our life which we'd like to revisit as soon as we can.

You make music in Berlin - is this wilderness aesthetic and evocation an escape from the city for you?

BS: The music is not necessarily an escape from the city. It is a way of coping with everyday life, with personal problems and things that seem too big and too complicated to have an impact on as one small person. The imagery of wilderness is just one of many the music could create in one's head.

ES: The whole project and sounds are very personal things to us. It would sound different if our life circumstances would be different. The aesthetic is not a conscious decision for or against something. It is an unconscious decision for the right, the true thing for us.

When did you start to make Auferstehung? What did you want it to be?

ES: Last year, during Christmas and New Year's, I spent some time alone in Berlin to write some drafts for the album. My goal was to condense and reinforce the sounds of the first two EPs.

BS: The idea for the album was to get to the core of what we have done so far and to create a closing piece for a trilogy of releases, which we had in our head.

There also seems to be a lot of guitar there, and drums - did you use a lot of live instrumentation on this record?

BS: We used a lot more live instruments when recording it. Of course we processed a lot of these sounds and Eric sampled a lot, but we wanted to make it more organic and more playable in a live setting.

ES: Our close friend Franz Bargmann, who is an amazing guitarist and tours Europe with Michael Rother from NEU! at the moment, would come by and we would just jam in the studio together.

Why is the album described as an "ending and a beginning at the same time"?

ES: We said before that it is the closing piece to our trilogy of releases. Now, after doing the album, and with the album itself we are at a point where we slowly start to understand what we have done in the last couple of years. So it becomes not only an end, but also a new beginning.

BS: A new state of mind.

Can you tell us about the track titles and structuring of Auferstehung? Was it intended to create a narrative around the music?

Eric: The record is structured like a story. We have a prologue, chapters and books. It's our narrative, our story – not just a collection of tracks.

Are you also using a hybrid/invented language? 'Graevann Grewen', for instance, I struggled to place.

Bathseba: It's good that you struggled. You are supposed to, and see: you thought about it. That's all we want.

Eric: The artwork of the LP might give you some hints to understanding.

Am I correct in thinking that Auferstehung translates as "resurrection"? Why did you choose that title?

ES: This relates to your question about why this is a beginning and an end at the same time. Offenbarung ("revelation") was our first record. At that time we were not even aware that people would listen to music like this...

BS: ...that music like this exists. We didn't even know the bands and acts we were being compared to. So it was a revelation for us to discover this whole new universe of sound, people and history. We were pretty naive at that time, thinking that we created something that no one has heard before. 

ES: Then we created Vollstreckung ("execution"/"enforcement"): we learned a lot about other musicians and the scene we were suddenly a part of and tried to embrace this.

BS: We had to find ourselves, then we had to understand ourselves and now we are trying to put this together and be ourselves. So this is our personal resurrection. 

You've been described as "experimental techno" and you DJ in techno 'places'. What's your relationship to that music? A lot of what Downwards release seems to be a reaction to techno, rather than a celebration of it.

Bathseba: I never had and still don't really have a relationship to that kind of music. Eric is my connection to techno music. He showed me that world.

Eric: I used to DJ a lot of drum & bass, jungle, garage and dubstep. After moving to Berlin, I got quite regular bookings at techno and house venues and clubs. There, I had to adapt to the genre to fulfil expectations. So I spent loads of time to find new music in these genres which were really new to me at that point - but I've never been a big fan of this 4/4 aesthetic. So I tried to look for tracks outside of that realm. Mix it up with other genres and find something I was comfortable with. But it was never music I'd listen to at home just for fun. I only listened to it to find tracks that would work on a dancefloor. During that process I often got stuck on certain sounds that I found really interesting and I did not understand why people don't embrace these sounds more. So I tried to create tracks only with these sounds, completely ignoring the dancefloor and the party.

Bathseba: So we are, to some extent, a reaction to techno.

Eric: I think that is true for most music on Downwards. But I would not pinpoint it down to techno. It is a reaction to a lot of things and a celebration of independence - away from streamlined trends.

What are OAKE's future plans?

Eric: There is no five-year plan. The album release gives us space and freedom to work on new projects. We already have some ideas for OAKE and will continue to work with this project in all possible ways, not only bound to music.

Bathseba: I just started to work on a dance performance to visualise the album, while Eric is planning our new live show. He is also very keen on his and Sam Kerridge's UF project, which both want to work on more.

Auferstehung is out now via Downwards. OAKE play CTM festival's Berlin Current programme this month; head here for full details