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november, 26th
Kinetic Kollektive
The Wire Issue 177 11/98

Is Weilheim the new Seattle? Tied & Tickled Trio, Notwist, and Village of Savoonga are just three of the endlessly proliferating groups who have put this sleepy German town on the post-rock map. 

"People say that it always seems to be autumn in Weilheim," sniffs Andreas Gerth, keyboards and electronics operator in Tied & Tickled Trio.  "It's true that all the music coming from here seems touched by a certain melancholia."  A small, rural town south of Munich, Weilheim is currently churning out the most forward-looking music to come out of Germany since Düsseldorf and Cologne first rang with industrial klang.  It might have a melancholy bent, but the music is as exotically varied as the groups' names.  There's the electronic chug of Tied & Tickled Trio, the synth-skewed stoner rock of Notwist and the sample-seeded studio abstracts of Village of Savoonga.  Based around the Payola, Kollaps and Hausmusik labels, its output would be impressive for a city many times its size, and it is all the more astonishing when close inspection reveals all those groups and names are drawn from the same small cooperative of artists. 

Caspar Brander, drummer in Tied & Tickled / Savoonga / Potawatomi, is fully aware how confusing it can all become.  "The incest in our scene seems a little bit ridiculous to other people," he sympathizes, "but it gives us the advantage of being able to extract elements from different musical experiments and putting them together in a new, well-fitting configuration.  Also, the fact that we know each other so well musically [means] there isn't much need for explanation or discussion and we can work quickly and effectively." 

What's happening here mirrors similar giant steps being taken in backwaters the world over.  Weaned on the US hardcore explosion of the mid- to late 80s, young musicians began to dig deeper underground as their appetite  for some new kind of kick grew.  Free jazz, electronica, musique concrête and outsider folk have all been exhumed and welded to the roaring exoskeleton of full-on hardcore.  OK, so in that sense, it's post-rock of a kind, but this time minus all the generic connotations of timidity, turgid, plodding fusion and anti-AC/DC rhetoric that generally characterizes this territory, where sensible shoes must be worn at all times. With the Weilheimers, it's more about isolating some truly diverse strains from the rock experience and using them to bolster the original prog-rock intent, as if they were trying to reanimate the corpse.

As A member of Notwist, Tied & Tickled Trio and Village of Savoonga, drummer Markus Acher is perhaps the scene's key player.  Since forming avant rock stoners Notwist with his brother Micha and Martin Messerschmidt, he has watched the Weilheim scene blossom at an alarming rate.  "The community of musicians and bands developed over the years and I think it stems from the rural situation we live in," he explains.  "I mean, there's not much to do here so we started making music, putting on concerts, publishing fanzines and comics. Gradually we created our own economic situation, where one person distributes the records, one records them, one makes the covers, one prints the nearly everybody is more or less involved in all the activities." 

The Notwist are still an active component in the whole Weilheim buzz they instigated some 11 years ago.  Superficially more straightforward than many of their mutant offspring, they've reconfigured rock's guitar/bass/drums trio components across three LPs in ways and combinations that appear mathematicaly impossible on paper.  Previously drawing on lots of stoner rock staples such as Codeine and Dinosaur Jr, their new album Shrink (on Stereolab's Duophonic label) submerges these tendencies in sticky layers of jazz flight and processed synth.  Martin Gretschmann -Village of Savoonga's sampler player, also known for his icy solo electronica as Console- joins them for the first time, and their attack is now even more subtle and unpredictable. 

Markus Acher agrees that Notwist are the most immediately graspable of a truly eccentric mob of musicians.  "It's true that Notwist always works with songs," he confirms. "We arrange them and then sometimes try to work against the songs, but we always have a song structure as the starting point.  Then we use the instruments, pile on electronics, improvise round them and allow accidents to shape the song.  Perhaps we're a pop band that doesn't want to be one."

With Tied & tickled Trio, the Acher brothers leapt head first into the bloop of early electronics while simultaneously setting the controls for the headier regions of stellar jazz.  They had already begun to explore such territories with earlier projects like the now defunct Potawatomi.  Markus remembers their early assays fondly.  "That was a collaboration with a free improvising bass clarinet player called Rudi Mahall, where we attempted to combine free jazz, noise and post-hardcore elements.  It was a predecessor to Tied & Tickled in that it combined improvisation and free elements with static structures to create tension, but it worked with other musical styles/methods, it was more intense and it always went to the extremes." 

Andreas Garth was playing in the comparatively straight-rocking Ogonjok, at the time.  He originally designed the sleeves for Potawatomi, using photographs of the beautiful electronic instruments he constructed from scrap.  The Acher brothers' interest was aroused and they asked him on board for their latest venture, which they christened Tied & Tickled Trio.  After hooking up with local big cheese, saxophonist/pianist Johannes Enders, an old schoolfriend who'd played alongside the likes of Sam Rivers and Donald Byrd, the line-up was complete.  Markus recalls, "When we started, Tied & Tickled was more or less only rhythm with electronics and bass, which worked live but when we recorded it, it was too boring and basically unsatisfying.  So we asked Jhannes to write and play for the recordings." 

Enders's beautifully belched tone comes straight out of the belly of Blue Note, taking cues from the likes of trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and the convoluted vibe patterns of Bobby Hutcherson.  The resultant pile-up of humming electronic static and propulsive rhythmic hammering that characterizes their self-titled debut (originally on Payola, now reissued by Bingo) kicks like Big Fun-era Miles or Hereby Hancock's Sextant, albeit without some of those illustrious forebear's sidewalk sass and sleaze.  A live favorite is their heavily nailed take on Joe Henderson's "Earth", from the Elements album he recorded with Alice Coltrane.  "For us those Joe Henderson records of the '70s are very strange and inspiring," he raves.  "We also like some of the Alice Coltrane collaborations with Pharoah Sanders." 

But Markus is wary of electronic jazz's negative connotations.  "We really wanted to find a way to integrate all this stuff into our music but without becoming this typical groovy electronics meet jazz thing.  Johanne's playing keeps us out of that whole 'Acid Jazz' thing." 

"I think it's also because we don't live in a big city," Andreas Gerth adds.  "We aren't so surrounded by all this anonymous, cold, functional technology.  We just use electronics on our records as another instrument to create sound that corresponds with our conception of music and that reflects where we come from." 

Gerth's homemade instruments -which project electronic silhouettes on to the music the music, recalling the spooked soundtracks of Chrome and The Residents- are central to Tied & Tickled's deeply human aura and warmth.  They look as fabulous as they sound: lost steam engine entrails and primitive pumps, a quaint futurama.  "As a sculpter I have a pretty naive relation to technical considerations," he admits.  "I tend to judge my creations purely by their appearance.  As a musician, though, it helps if they actually work.  I use something called a D106, which is a construction of metal pieces that not only look interesting, they also sound in a way I like.  I simply contact-mike it and put it through an amp." 

The Acher brothers also instigated Village Of Savoonga, whose sampler-heavy modern electronics are much more abstract.  Their extended forays into hazily filmic territory have produced three startling, extraterrestrial long players: Village Of Savoonga, Philipp Schatz, and  Score.  Again it's the constant line-up shuffling that keeps Markus inspired.  "Working with different people gets you different results," he says. "It was always important for us try different things in different constellations to get new ideas.  Our concept for Village Of Savoonga was simply to have no concept.  We always go from one idea, or one noise, anything that comes into or minds."  Building tracks from a single sound source or a solitary piano chink, textures are layered and warped in the studio. 

"The orgin of most of the songs is in the studio," Markus explains.  "We're never really sure how the tunes will sound until we finish mixing them.  Sometimes w only have a sketchy idea or a bass pattern, though we also play fully composed pieces.  When we play live, we open out the spaces in the songs for intense improvisation, making them simpler and more malleable." 

At the heart of Savoonga's studio-bound process is the Uphon recording plant run by Hausmusik engineer Mario Thaler -"The Mastermind", as Markus describes him.  Indeed, like legendary Krautrock engineers Dieter Dierks and Conny Plank before him, Thaler works according to his own uniquely awry sound logic. Markus, however, doesn't see his music conforming to a particular Krautrock aesthetic.  "sure, I'm a big fan of Jaki Liebezeit's drumming, and for me it was certainly a big influence, alongside the aspects of repetition in some of Faust's music and the electronic sounds of early Cluster.  But I really don't feel that has anything to do with the fact that we're a German band.  I was too young to recognizes Krautrock when it happened, so I didn't grow up with any particular musical tradition.  All German music was as near or as far as any other music from elsewhere.  For me that only changed with the musical scene that we built around ourselves." 

Markus is quicker to place the activities of Savoonga et al in the same context as contemporaries like Mouse On Mars.  "Some of the new German electronic music is really important and inspiring to us, especially the A-Musik scene from Cologne," he enthuses.  "To see Mouse On Mars playing out live, as a band, was a very big influence and one of our most fascinating experiences ever." 

Savoonga are undoubtedly the most far-flung of the Welheim collective.  But their kind of hybrid is becoming more and more common as the leftfield opens out to the abuse of previously straight-edged punkers.  For Markus, the explosion of new electronic exploration and sampling culture has blown open many a closed mind.  "There's definitely a greater interest and understanding of strange, innovative music these days, which makes it much easier to get our music across. It sometimes seems that almost everyone knows the likes of Pierre Henry, Lee Perry or Ornette Coleman.  People don't panic anymore when they see a saxophone on-stage."  Andrea Gerth is also an advocate of cultural cross-pollination.  "I think the borders between the underground and so-called 'high-culture' are much more permeable than they were a few years ago.  New ideas and developments spread much faster than before; what was one day a unique expression of a special scene is by the next day public knowledge."

by David Keenan