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Escape Velocity

Just Heavy, Big Stuff: An Interview With Klaus Johann Grobe
Bernie Brooks , January 21st, 2019 11:57

Hot on the heels of a new LP and catastrophic gear robbery, Bernie Brooks talks to Klaus Johann Grobe’s Sevi Landolt about kitschy sounds, eroticism, and rebounding from the loss of all but one piece of gear

It's the first of December 2018 when I talk with Sevi Landolt. Roughly five weeks earlier, he and Daniel Bachmann released Du Bist So Symmetrisch, their third LP as Klaus Johann Grobe. Three weeks after that, while the Swiss disco duo were on tour, all of their equipment was stolen in Amsterdam. "It's so stupid, and it's so annoying as well. We're still not over it," says Sevi. "It takes a while to sink in, actually. Like, after the first shock, within the first minute, we basically almost had to laugh for like one day, because you can't really - it's just unreal, because everything is gone."

Rewind a few years, and I'm standing in a record shop staring at an album cover. It looks like this: an old photo of a party, from maybe the late 70s or early 80s, all blue-greens and browns. A middle-aged man and woman - not models, more like a mom and dad - are dancing, their arms wrapped around one another. Normal enough, except there's an inflatable ball or balloon between them. They're pressing their bellies together, holding it there. It's a strange image, fun and little charged, slightly naughty. Around them, in small, struck-through text are the words "Klaus Johann Grobe", who I initially assumed was a person.

I knew the label, Chicago's Trouble In Mind, so I thought it might be garage rock or proggy psych or experimental music from the Chicagoland underground. I decided to buy it and took it home. When I put it on, I was floored by the stripped-back, bass-and-organ-driven, German-language jams that pushed through my speakers. I remember laughing at how perfectly the cover art of the record, the band's debut LP Im Sinne Der Zeit, captured the music within.

"[When we started to work with Trouble In Mind] the krautrock element was still big. When people talked about us, they always talked about krautrock, and we told them from the beginning, 'If we do a record, please don't expect us to stay within this stricture.' And they said, 'Yeah, that's fine, that's fine,'" Sevi recalls. "But we already felt weird with the second record, Spagat Der Liebe, which was kind of a schlager, kitsch, disco thing. And the third one, the latest - we almost didn't send it, because we just thought it's too weird to be released on Trouble In Mind. But they still loved it."

While it's true that Klaus Johann Grobe remain an outlier on Trouble In Mind's roster, it's easy to see why the label would follow along as they journey deeper and into their own, strange world: their progression from record to record has been captivating. Rough edges have been gradually smoothed down. Weirder, squelchier synths have been added to their increasingly romantic, out-of-time arrangements. The basslines have gotten sexier. Krautrock elements so easily recognisable on their early releases have all but fallen away on Du Bist So Symmetrisch - easily their best LP - rooting the band firmly in the fringe-disco firmament.

"I also think a lot of people make it too easy when they just call it krautrock," Sevi says. "To me, it started out kind of familiar to krautrock - I agree with that - but now I don't hear anything krautrock related. I can see maybe the German singing [laughs]."

Returning to the present, and the topic of the gear theft, I ask Sevi how a working band rebounds from something like that.

"We were really overwhelmed by all the people's reactions. We never really thought about not playing anymore," he says. "A good friend of ours, David Langhard, drove up from Switzerland. He has Dala Studios. He's the guy who recorded all our records, and he brought us some of his stuff that we could use until the end of the tour. So, it turned from a well-planned tour into more like an experiment [laughs]. Yeah, it was nice, but it was also, like, really weird for the rest of all the shows."

A piece of your equipment was found on the street, right? In Amsterdam?

Sevi Landolt: They just left it! And it was so nice, because the organ that was found again was the only piece of gear I was really attached to. It was my first organ ever, and I've had it for over twenty years. They just left it there. It looked kind of wrecked, anyway.

Organs are kind of hard to escape with, probably.

SL: Yeah, but then again, all of our gear is really - it's just heavy, big stuff [laughs].

Your music seems really unconcerned with the notion of trends or being cool. I'm wondering how you found your sound, and especially the synth and organ tones that you use - you don't really hear them much anymore, and a lot of people will affectionately call them things like "gross" or "kitschy", but it works.

SL: It started just out of pure fun. I was doing a lot of stuff on my own, recording in my living room, and I had this idea for a project with Dani, who was living in Syria at the time. I knew he would come back, and I was trying to figure something out that I could play with him. That's how the first EP got together. I didn't think about anything, I had the organ, and came up with this weird, disco-ish, romantic, kind of krautrock vibe, even though I didn't really listen to those things. And from then on, it was just a constant growth of musical knowledge and stuff that interests us with a really free - yeah, with just like free thinking - I don't know how you call it! 

We listen to so much music, and we often like the really good songs or the really weird ones. And the really weird ones, as you mentioned, can be really kitschy. Then we pick out something we love. Is it the sound, or a harmony, or a chord progression, or whatever. Like, not the exact one, but we have it somewhere in our minds. Then we just combine it with whatever feels good, and whatever is fun to do, and it somehow makes sense. Even though if you were to write it on paper, people would probably laugh at you and think, "What are you doing here?"

I think that's the way we actually found - I mean, we are still looking for different sounds, and we're still trying to progress, with the new record as well. I think that’s how Grobe works. It's just different elements from everywhere that are fun or great and sound nice - without having to be too contemporary sound-wise.

This is probably a pretty common thing for a lot of fans of your group - over here anyway - but I don't speak German at all, so I have no idea what your group is singing about, but it doesn't matter - the feeling of the songs translates. Is that something that you're cognisant of?

SL: Again, this just happened, everything in German. We'd never sung in German before. And it was interesting to see, because before we played in Switzerland, we actually played in the UK. So, we started playing in countries where they couldn't understand the language, and it was interesting to see how it never really mattered, which was really surprising to us. It's interesting that you mention that the feeling kind of translates well. I guess it's something we're aware of, and it's just part of the process, how we write songs. The lyrics always come last, so they definitely come from the song itself. That's why I think it probably works without understanding the language.

It seems that people still tend to relate your music to krautrock, but I think it's closer to disco in both its sound and in the sense that it has this kind of this sensuality about it, and an oscillation between an earnest innocence and a weird sort of eroticism. Your music shares that quality with house music, too. Am I misreading it or are those qualities a goal of Grobe?

SL: I think it's definitely a goal. It's definitely closer to disco music, and I really like the house connection that you made, because I do love house music. I was a huge house music fan. Like, French house especially in the late 90s. But I don't know where this is coming from, this kind of eroticism as you call it - this dancefloor, different genders, whatever thing is going on [laughs]. It's probably [because of] how we look around at the current music of the last twenty years. It's oversexualized I think, and that's definitely not something that we are, not as persons, not as a band. Even less as a band. But I think we do have a big ironic approach to music. And we do like to observe all kinds of - is it people, movements, whatever, and in our minds construct our own weird thinking about this. I think that maybe part of this eroticism in the music comes from there. [But if it's] too obvious, it's just like a bland, flat joke, which isn't funny at all.

And if you don't do it enough, with many things it gets too serious and flat as well. We like to think of [ourselves as] being really on the edge of how much you can do before it gets unbearable or too stupid. But then again, do enough so that it isn't like the usual serious, whatever music you do. So, it's somewhere in there. I don't know why this eroticism is there, always, but you're definitely right.

One of the things that makes your group so compelling is the way it's like a tightrope act. You're constantly walking this line without falling over into this pit where people could be like, "This is a joke band," or, "This is making fun of this stuff instead of genuinely appreciating it." And I guess I'm wondering if there are some tracks in the vault that you felt went too far? Like, "Whoa, I don't know about this one."

SL: We don't really have much in the vault. If something doesn't work for whatever reason, we just put it aside and it's gone. So, we're pretty strict when we work on songs. But there was, I remember, one track [from the] Spagat Der Liebe [sessions] that we actually recorded in the studio and it was almost a little bit psychedelic, so it didn't really fit on the record anyway, but there was a part - and it's not like what you thought, where we went over the edge kitsch-wise, but it turned into something way too serious. It turned into one of those [straightforward psychedelic] songs, and it was just not Klaus Johann Grobe anymore. We worked on the one part for like half a day or maybe almost a day, and it just got worse and worse and we couldn't get out.

There's not a lot of money to be made in the music industry these days, and it's a ton of work, so I'm curious what keep you guys going?

SL: That's what I ask myself, too [laughs]. "Why do we do Klaus Johann Grobe?" Even if we quit the band thing, and don't do music on a professional level anymore, it would still be the biggest part of my life at least, and I think of Dani's life as well. So, I think we know we have to do music anyway. We just never thought about doing it on the scale we are doing it now. We always thought we would just play in our rehearsal room, and play a couple of shows in a year. So, yeah, with this project, it is a lot of work. And there's hardly any money in it, even though we now live maybe like part-time from it. But we've been at this point several times already. Almost after every record, we think, "Do we even want to continue? Is it worth it?" I mean, we get back so much love from all the people, so this keeps us going of course, but the touring and everything - it costs so much energy. It gives back as well, but it's just so hard when you have to work beside it. You can't go home and just relax for a week and then start writing new material. You dive right into your daily life. It's still fun to do, and we still love it, but when we did the first record, we told each other that if either of us thinks, "I'm not feeling this anymore; I'm kind of burning out," then there's no discussion - we just drop it. This kind of makes it - I don't know the word - makes it more "light" maybe? More relaxed in the way that both of us know that, hey, if I don't want this anymore, then that's fine with everyone involved. I think that's a big part of it as well. As long as we have fun, we do it.

Also, we're not really the live guys. We're more like the studio recording freaks. This could also be a way. Once we feel we don't have the energy anymore to do so much live playing, we'll just put out records. I don't know, but at the moment it feels good - apart from the burglary [laughs].

Du Bist So Symmetrisch is out now. Klaus Johann Grobe's Go Fund me for replacing their gear is here