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 covers...so
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
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