Einsturzende Neubauten have just released one of the albums of the year- in depth interview with Blixa Bargeld
On the eve of releasing their most ambitious and perhaps greatest work, Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld has an interesting theory about the First World War which he tells to Membranes frontman and LTW boss John Robb.
’10/10 stunning. Album of the year’ Review of Lament here
’War is something that is always there. It sometimes moves and it sometimes doesn’t move. It is also not something that breaks out, the way people often say, ‘There’s a war breaking outside’. It doesn’t break out like the plague. It’s there. It sometimes moves.’
By extension, the same could be said of his own band.
Of course, Einsturzende Neubauten have been consistently inventive since they appeared in the rubble of post punk and the collapsing new buildings of the cold war rhythms of 1980 Berlin. Their new album, Lament, could also be their finest moment.
That is if scaling this kind of creativity is possible.
Plus would they also allow us to call the recording of their stage show/performance piece on the First World War that debuts in Diksmuide in Belgium in November an album at all. Lament is more of a documentation of the performance and installation comissioned by the Flemish city where it will be performed before touring Europe.
Working on Lament made Neubauten’s charismatic frontman Blixa Bargeld think that war never begins or ends, that it ebbs and flows- a bit like the band themselves who have spent the last 34 years releasing wildly brilliant and uncategorizable records on their own wilfully brilliant terms.
The Berlin based band initially made music on found ‘instruments’ – lumps of metal and bricks providing the rhythm with occasional guitar clank and driving bass lines for Blixa Bargeld’s unearthly screech and demonic vocals to define. It could have been messy but it was always captivating because, instead of being a wilful racket, it was very cleverly thought out and inside all that compelling noise there was always a perfume of beauty.
Somehow they managed to break out of the underground and later releases have been sparser and more orchestral and yet still retain that defining clank and remain creatively way beyond the norm.
Once decribed by Nick Cave as the most ‘destroyed’ individual he had ever seen, Blixa Bargeld himself is a bit of name in Germany these days- a brooding, intellectual presence on the German music scene. He did rock n roll service for a couple of decades as the dissonant guitar player in the Bad Seeds but this must never overshadow his true vocation and Neubauten as a unit have been releasing album after album since their inception with each release being packed full of unusual and challenging ideas that somehow are made to still sound like a music.
After a quiet couple of years, where they have been working outside their band, they have returned to the trenches, quite literally, with a soundtrack to a live show about the the so called great war. The initial idea was to to seek out those voices telling First World War stories that hadn’t already been told a thousand times caught in the act of being regurgitated yet again during 2014’s centenary commemorations. They won’t call it an album- and it is constructed in a different way from the norm but it hangs together perfectly with a diverse musical and lyrical and idea range that is, in a genius way, made to shoehorn together into a mesmerising whole and become, despite what they claim, one of the best albums of the year.
Lament covers a diverse range of World War One related topics in a chronological order without ever making a heavy handed point. It’s not a directly political record and makes no obvious statement but you know where it stands and what it feels and what points it makes, points that are made with a dark and intelligent edge and a variation of styles that really stretches the Einsturzende Neubauten palette with two pre-jazz age war songs from a marching band nicknamed The Harlem Hellfighters, which led the US’s first ever African American regiment into battle; two settings for texts by the mysterious Belgian writer Paul van den Broeck; Bargeld’s reenactment of an early 1920s cabaret style piece by the even lesser known German writer and performer Joseph Plaut, which tells the history of World War One through the medium of an music hall animal mimic; and, also, Bargeld interpreting the German version of Pete Seeger’s Where Have All The Flowers Gone, as sung by Marlene Dietrich.
The group also recomposes a bastard version of a national anthem once partly shared by many participants of the war, including Germany, the UK, and Canada. Finally, the three part title piece, Lament, incorporates a mass of historic wax cylinder recordings made by linguists in German prison camps of prisoners reciting the biblical parable of the prodigal son in their own languages, some now extinct, over a drastically slowed down recording of a motet telling the same story by the 16th century Flemish composer Jacob Clemens non Papa, who lived and died in Diksmuide.
Sonically this is not an average release, there are also brilliantly sculpted metal percussion KO pieces clashing with dissonant orchestras, old folk songs reworked, a pre jazz ragtime song from the trenches, the return of the air cylinder percussion, haunting strings, old field recordings of prisoners from the war meshed into stunning soundscapes, a brilliant reading of the telegrams from the kaiser to the Czar over a sparse pulsing backing track and the national anthems of the UK and Germany sung back to back to the same melody that they shared at the time in the most effective and damning comment on the war being nothing more than a family feud that killed millions. It underlines so many themes and points that you feel alive grappling with them all.
Themes like Lament’s use of obscure Flemish writer, van den Broeck texts, a writer with trans-European dada interests and connections who evokes how the First World War ran parallel with the advance of modernism and aggressively anti-state art tendencies like dada and futurism. Indeed the early 20th century avant garde first scarred itself into the world’s public consciousness through quasi fascist futurist manifestos, dada silliness and German Expressionist responses to the horrors they witnessed during the conflict. Bargeld clearly acknowledges the impact of said nay-saying art movements on the young Neubauten, but this time any such elements are parts of the period weave rather than a shaping force.
It’s the album of the year for your writer just in terms of its imagination and the editing of brilliant ideas into a cohesive and thrilling whole.
Louder Than War caught up with Blixa Bargeld (‘I’m not avant garde! I’m a deserter!”) as he was rehearsing with the band for the debut show on their European tour of Lament. A debut show that is, of course, anything but average- a live show marking the 100th anniversary of the so called great war in Diksmuide in Belgium.
If any band were perfectly placed to make such an ambitious project work then it had to be Einsturzende Neubauten and it’s difficult to imagine another band being able to pull off something of this scope and scale.
Bargeld is as imperious and impatient as ever and insists on doing the skype interview with the video cameras on which gives us both the curious site of two middle aged men, veterans of the punk rock and noise wars with their glasses on peering myopically into their screens- one of them asking questions and the other batting them back with an informative and high IQ disdain and intelligence.
Initially he wants to explain what is going on with the autumn tour dates.
‘I very much welcome the fact I’m doing this interview to make it clear what we are doing on this tour. We are playing Lament on this tour. We are not playing Haus De Luge or other albums. We are playing these pieces from the Lament album. In addition to these pieces we are playing three others which connect in a way with Lament – like Lets Do it A Dada which makes sense in the context and probably Armenia which also makes sense in the context of the First World War. The greatest hits tour we will be doing next year in 2015 and that will be as a festival tour.’
Although Lament is staggering in its diversity of sounds and ideas, Blixa feels that they were working within their own known parameters.
‘Normally we work with the instruments and the general strategy would be to do something that we hadn’t done before but in this case we have very much relied on our experience of things we knew already and how to do them.’
Did the organisers of the Diksmuide event set you a template for Lament to work to when they commissioned the piece?
‘They said it should be one hour long (laughs) and we ended up with a bit more. They also said it would be nice to have some Flemish in it, so I did that.’
The album uses a lot different of languages- was this to convey the sheer scale of the war and how it spread out across a large part of the world, cultures and languages?
‘For that I would need at least a couple more languages (laughs).’
To create Lament- an album built around a theme and based on a stage show did you utilise a different creative process?
‘We normally do much more research in the field of sound and what to do with new materials because Neubauten is very much a materialistic band in that sense. In this case we had two scientific researchers to actually come up with the actual material for us to work with ideas wise. By the time it was commissioned in August 2013 I already knew the old memory mill had already started. I knew by the time that we put this on stage that there would be a whole year behind it of being constantly bombarded in the media with World War One material and I knew we had to find something, new ideas, about the war that were not trampled to death already.’
Will Lament be a different set up live from a ‘normal’ Einsturzende Neubauten concert?
‘The only obvious difference is that we will have string quartets on the stage because we have strings on every piece on the album. So we will have live string quartets travelling with us, playing at the concerts. Apart from that it will be the usual assortment of various materials we like to use. We have also started working with pressured air again which we haven’t done since 2004’s Perpetuum Mobile album. Pressurised air was suitable to the subject we were writing about and we have a lot of pipes we use. We have the pressured air installations on stage so that we can play the pipes with air and other things with air.’
The music on the album captures many moods – was there an attempt to capture the sound of war?
‘I was very much trying to avoid anything like capturing the sound of war. I very much did not want to fill the equation Einsturzende Neubauten- noise – war. I leave that to Rammstein to do things like that. I wanted to tell a horrible story beautifully and not the other way round.’
The first track Kriegsmaschinerie is a brilliantly dark combination of metal percussion and strings which captures its title that means war machinery and is a great start to the album. It really sets a mood.
‘On the album, Kriegsmaschinerie doesn’t make as much sense because you can’t see what we do on stage when we play it. What you hear on the album is what we play on stage which is to set up a kind of leviathan of pieces assembled on centre stage and the noise that is happening from that, performing a score derived from the diagram of the war spendings of the European nations just before the First World War, it adds and adds and gets more and more. Whilst instead of singing I hold up signs. You can see the signs we use in the booklet that comes with the album. The actual lyric signs are like directors marks of what should be happening. It’s a piece that has some lyrics but they are not sung, this will all be obvious in the performance itself. The signs say something along the lines that war does not sleep: ‘War does not break out. It waits/For a singular but thousandfold:/Hurrah’
That track is fantastically dark and brooding and has an almost classical feel…
‘There’s also a string quartet playing in there but they don’t play a melody. They do all kinds of modern 20th century style playing techniques, like a coligno which is the back of the bow played on the bridge and things like that and because of this they actually add to the noise of the track.’
The track Hymnen is very striking- Neubauten sing the national anthems of the UK, Germany and Canada at the time of the war using the same historic melody for England and Germany which is very telling. I knew that Luxembourg used the same tune as God Save The Queen still but never realised that the tune was shared with the German national anthem which had been chosen by Bismarck and in Germany was known as Heil Dir Im Siegerkranz and was used for the German Empire until the end of the First World War. It was also used by Norway where is it known as the Kondesangen and and once by France, Sweden and Russia and even Switzerland until 40 years ago. The melody is rumoured to have originally been French and used at the time of Louis XIV.
Neubauten are slyly making the point that the major opposing powers were ruled by related monarchs but that didn’t blunt their desire to go to war with eachother. To make the point, Hymnen has the lyrics changing language every two lines over its overfamiliar sombre melody. The song changes tack in the last verse, which overwrites the multilingual doffed cap tributes to Europe’s monarchs with a few scathing lines of beery doggerel scrawled by Heinrich Hoffmann, author of Struwwelpeter/Shock Headed Peter which got him into a lot of trouble.
‘It’s a fact that by the beginning of the war all these monarchies of Europe were basically incestious. They were all related to each other. George and Willy and Nicky were all nephews of the same German grandmother who was the Queen of England as you now. About half a dozen of those nations participating in the war were using the same national anthem with different lyrics which meant that, it was, at the same time, the German national anthem as it well as the English national anthem.’
Is Hymnen a comment on the war’s ridiculousness?
‘Yes, for sure, of course- because every true war movie is an anti war movie and everything that you do with a little bit of sense in it is an anti war thing but I don’t think we have made a protest album. I’m still in the business of avant garde entertainment here.
The lyrics in the last second last stanza are a part from what was written by Heinrich Hoffmann who also wrote the children’s story, Shockheaded Peter and he went to jail for his lyrics for making a parody of the national anthem. It doesn’t say anything bad. He was saying the nuts of the patriotic country are being cracked by a nutcracker- whilst the last stanza that we sing is an anonymous satirical parody parody of the Kaiser eating a big fat christmas goose whilst everyone else was eating herring bones somewhere in middle of the First World War, obviously.
The Willy-Nicky Telegrams is a really effective piece with you and Alexander Hacke reading out telegrams from Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas, with Alex Hacke singing Nicky’s lines and Bargeld intoning Kaiser Willy’s on the eve of war, tenderly speaking with affection for eachother whilst plotting war in a duet characterised by the duplicity of two royal cousins conducting a running dialogue via telegram.
‘Roughly the whole of Lament follows a chronological time line. With the first track, Kriegsmaschinerie, you have the pre war machinery, the raising up of defence budgets very much like the situation is now, then in Hymnen you end up with the thousand fold hurray and the singing of the national anthem and then just before war breaks out you get Willy and Nicky sending each other these telegrams non stop telling each other how much they love peace whilst already, by that time, they have long decided, on both sides, that there should be a war. Both of them.
The Germans, especially after the war, have used these telegrams to, in a sense, whitewash their own guilt – releasing them saying look at how much the Kaiser was trying to keep the peace. The Russians did the same thing as well but at the time of just before the war the Russians already had a secret contract with the English and the French about conquering Constantinople – so it was all a real double faced game that they were all playing. It is also expressed very clearly by the fact that that we were both singing into an auto-tune which is something different and which gets auto-tuned into ‘peace peace peace’
The album is fascinating because it tells stories around the war.
‘I accessed it with the help of a researcher from a historical point of view. I didn’t so much write about pain and death. I could have done it much more on a personal level, talking about the fate of different people but I was trying not do that. I was trying to get an historical scope in that window presented to me and I was trying to present different aspects that were not as well known like on the Willie Nicky Telegrams and the Harlem hell-fighters story on the track On Patrol In No Man’s Land which I believe was a story that may have been known in the US but not so much here in Europe.
The two Harlem hellfighters songs covered on the album really expose so many of the fault lines and hypocrisies around the period. The Harlem Hellfighters were the marching band to the US army’s first ever solely African American regiment sent abroad to fight for their country. But in an era still governed by racism and segregation, the US army resisted placing a black regiment under white command. The patriotic brigade who were to die for the country ended up fighting in the French album so as to avoid them mixing with white American forces. By all accounts they proved fearless in battle, and were feared and loathed by any Germans luckless enough to come up against them, as a line sung by a German officer played by Bargeld confirms.
‘Basically we did a postmodern reworking of the song, and we used the original Harlem Hellfighters’ record somewhere in the middle of the track too, lines like, “Come on boys, let’s get them, let’s get them on the bayonet”, and all that, that’s actually the original Harlem Hellfighters record, not us, that’s them. It was a story about the black regiment that was sent over from Harlem that was meeting so much protest in the US because of race segregation because they were black soldiers with white officers. The Americans found a way out of that, a brie doiuxyer, by putting them under French command. They put them in the French army and washed their hands of it all and had nothing to do with them. And somehow they got quite famous out there. They where obviously the best band out there in the First World War- like a proto jazz band and we decided to play two of their songs that they defiantly played whilst they were fighting in the First World War.
The second of the two Harlem Hellfighter’s songs is All Of No Mans Land Is Ours featuring Jochen Arbeit on electric melodica, LAMENT’s second Harlem Hellfighters track sees the regiment returning home in triumph, greeted by street parades in Harlem. But the black servicemen’s moments of glory were short-lived.
‘They came back to a USA still divided by racial segregation. And here they are singing All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours!’ They released 8 sides before their band leader James Reese Europe was actually stabbed to death by one of their drummers, Herbert Wright in 1919, so that cut their career really short.
They were around at the same time as Louis Armstrong and Kid Ory when it was really a proto jazz when the music was referenced to as rag and marching band music. When the jazz term came up they were called jazz before their career was cut short. Mr Bojangles was actually one of them as well and they must have had the best tap dancer in the trenches . (laughs)’
It’s an interesting idea to use music from the time of the war in the piece
I would have liked to have found more but most of the recordings are fake because there were no means of proper sound recording in 1914. The only possible way to record at the time was the Edison Phonograph wax cylinder recorder which we have used also.
The only recordings that have been made worldwide from soldiers or prisoners of war were in two different universities in Berlin and they were done by linguists and by musicologists making studies at the time. I visited both these archives with both of the researchers. Strangely in the guest book, interestingly, it was always the BBC that was one day ahead of me which also showed me that the recordings were absolutely unique and that there was nothing anywhere else.
For example all the recordings from the German radio archive are where they have digitised versions of records and there were a shocking amount of disgusting records trying to imitate the sound of the First World War made in the studio after the war. It’s always the same thing – the singing of the hymns, the ringing of the dead bell and the field church prayers with a bit of boom boom and so on. They were meant to sound like war and were released on labels with names like Patriot.
It was all re-enacted in 1920 in a studio so anything you would hear nowadays in fuzzy black and white documentaries would mean that the sound is always fake and decades later there is no proper sound recordings. The closest you can get to it is the two things- the actual Edison cylinder recordings in the archives of the universities and the 8 songs the Harlem Hellfighter recorded in 1919 when they were straight out of the war and into of the studio. They actually released the songs on Pathe- the French label.
The voices in in Pater Peccavi are really haunting fading in and out over the melancholic backdrop.
‘They are the wax cylinder recordings of prisoners of war reading parts of the bible whilst they were being studied that we found in Berlin’s Humboldt University but in the documentaries the voices they normally use are usually fake.
To use these wax cylinder recordings was quite a delicate thing to do and not to use them as sound effects. These are obviously recordings of prisoners and obviously done under pressure and they are on the opposite end of being audiophile recordings, so, in my understanding it was absolutely necessary to treat them with the utmost respect possible and not to choose just anything from them. I didn’t want my personal taste to interfere and say I prefer this one or I think that voice sounds better.
We had to find a strategy that makes it impossible for us to choose for recording to say this one is better than the other one. These people had to speak under pressure. They were in prison. So, there’s a certain amount of delicacy involved in composing something with these kind of ghost voices. We played them in hand held speaker cubes played to the microphone and we held them to the mic so that we can release the voice and close it up again – a bit like we have a small animal in there or a treasured object, like a fragile egg – it becomes obvious also on stage that it’s not turned into a sound effect but treated with respect.’
It’s really haunting and some of the languages they are speaking in don’t exist any more, speaking over the resulting drawn out drone, where the band members each ‘play’ the voices of prisoners of war, recorded during their incarceration in Germany on wax cylinders by German linguists, who asked them to recite the Biblical parable of The Prodigal Son in their own language.
‘That’s strange – there are things like long lost Occitanic to Corsican dialects. We had about 100 voices reading in their own language and they were reading the story of the prodigal son from the New Testament and we have combined them with a drastically slowed down version of a motet about the Prodigal Son called Pater Peccavi which was composed by the 16th century Flemish renaissance composer, Jacobus Clemens non Papa who is buried Dixmuide- which is the city that we are going to perform Lament in. We have a quartet playing the prodigal son and that was an open door that I could not resist going through and combine these two things that are combined by chance into the song.
There are some English dialects, Occitanic, Sardinian, French, some Corsican dialects and they all read the prodigal son. Why they did that? There were bible translations obtainable in all these languages and they had to find them something to read out. The linguists did that for language research. The linguists were studying prisoners of war and the way they spoke. In the booklet it has one of the pieces of paper they filled out which asked where they came from, their civil profession, and how they spoke and whether they slur and how they pronounce the letter ‘r’. They analyse the whole thing.’
And yet a few miles away they blow them all up!
‘Yes exactly, although it’s fair to say that the treatment of the prisoners of war in the First World War was far better than Second World War. At the end of the war they were running over to the other side in hundreds because it was better to be in a prisoner of war camp than to be in the trenches any longer.’
Pater Paveccis is the third part of the album’s title track, Lament, which is written in three parts, the title track Lament is the project’s centrepiece.
‘I originally wanted to write a lament, in the sense of a Klagegesang. You know, the song blames this, and I do this, etc, etc, but that idea reduced more and more, until the track ended up with just this one sentence. Only two words are left at the end: Macht Krieg. Which mean: Power. War. But in German macht Krieg also means: make war.
The second part, Abwärtsspirale which translates as Winding Down Spiral, the second part musically does exactly what it says, tumbling through a downwards spiral based on a pattern taken from the four numbers making up the final year of the war: 1-9-1-8.’
Translating as Hinterland, Achterland is the second LAMENT piece with a Paul van den Broeck lyric. Taking a break from the frontline, van den Broeck’s words describe the act of delousing.
‘Lice suck on blood,and his text does this whole thing about blood, about how everybody lives off blood here, and so on. What I originally wanted to do was write a vignette for each member of the band. The vignette that Andrew did was with the barbed wire harp. This ended up with Andrew as the Kriegszitterer, that is an uncontrollable war shaker, in the beginning. Then it goes to Alex walking with amplified crutches from left to right, Rudi Moser is playing ammunition shells, and I play an air compressor, which you could also see as a delousing station.’
Part of the idea behind Lament is about how war continues. How it never ends.
‘If you could go into the future, maybe to 2150- I wonder how much of the time even now will be considered very much part of being in the same conflict still. I could have very easily not called the song ‘ the Willy Nicky Telegrams’ but the ‘Angie Vlad emails’ whilst the whole same fault line that has been there within Europe is opening up again with similar conflicts around the same fault lines yet again.’
The eternal war?
‘Eternal? If it goes all the way to apocalypse, well I don’t want to say. We are 100 years away from the beginning of the First World War and we like to look at the two wars as two separate wars but the more I got into my whole research the more and more I got the feeling that they are the same war. I can imagine that if I go to the future I can look at all these substitute wars that have been fought since the First World War and the Second World War as still being part of the same conflict.’
And before World War One?
‘It’s very obvious that between the wars there were constantly wars going on in Europe. There was the Spanish Civil War, and then I think the Greek Civil War going on. It was not like that at the end of the First World War that all wars cease to happen. Much has happened since the end of World War Two- the Pacific theatre still went on and several more conflicts opened up and are still opening up. We are still breaking up at the same place where the East Roman and the West Roman empire broke up.’
History likes to try to tidy these things up into easily understood chunks
‘I am not a historian- this is just my little opinion that I thought of when I worked on this.’
The version of Pete Seeger’s 1955 song Where Have All The Flowers Gone is a great moment on the album where it is entitled, Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind after the famous Marlene Deitrich version of the song. Marlene Dietrich performed this song in English, French and German. The song was first performed in French (as “Qui peut dire où vont les fleurs?”) by Marlene in 1962 at a UNICEF concert. She also recorded the song in English and in German, the latter titled “Sag’ mir, wo die Blumen sind“, with lyrics translated by Max Colpet. She performed the German version on a tour of Israel, where she was warmly received; she was the first person to break the taboo of using German publicly in Israel since WWII.
The song’s appearance on LAMENT bears out Bargeld’s assertion that the First World War continued into the Second, while those Germans who carry on condemning Dietrich as a traitor after her death suggest that the war goes on.
‘To tell the truth, we actually tried recording that Pete Seeger song before. We had tried recording it 14 years ago but we were not able to find a suitable version of it then. The idea presented itself again whilst doing this project when someone said, lets do it and then the next day Pete Seeger died.
I have enormous respect for Pete Seeger and I have enormous respect for Marlene Dietrich as well- not only for coming from Berlin but for also being more of anti fascist than other German emigres in Hollywood . She was really fighting and she was really very much hated for it after the war in Germany. After the war she went back to Germany and during the first singing tour she did a concert in Berlin and there was a massive protest against her with people chanting ‘Marlene go home’. She was looked on as a traitor who had fought against the Germans. Pete Seeger later said the German lyrics in her version are better than his English ones.’
Did growing up in Berlin in the post war period reflect at all on Lament?
‘No, not really. I have no family connections with the First World War. I had a grandmother who was born in 1901 and I know a little bit about the Second World War from her but very little about the First World War. Not knowing of my grandfather I have no private family connections to the second world war left. The war, though, or both world wars very much present in Berlin because, in my youth, in the ruins in the city there were bullet marks everywhere in walls and in facades.
Even when the wall came down the bullet holes in the facades of buildings were a very common thing.
They were everywhere but it’s getting gentrified now- a couple of years ago you could point them out on every street. I’m definitely very much a child of the cold war, Berlin was the epicentre of that- Berlin was the cold war city per se.
I grew up near the old airport, airport Tempelhof, which was given after war to the Americans at the time. Every American president’s plane would land there as a symbol. These planes would go over our houses and if, occaisonally, it was particularly loud and people would freeze and shout ‘now the bombers come again!”
That was still common in the sixties in the cold war and it was a common thing in our life in Berlin. It felt like the war would start again – it was a very omnipresent thing in your day to day life Berlin when I was growing up. The East German radio stations were beaming against the West German radio stations- radio stations paid for by the CIA with the American senate boosting the high power radio stations to reach the GDR and the American forces network television beaming out to the east and this was all present at the time.’
Was the war and post war period a very different experience for the Germans
‘It was not even just for the Germans but it was especially crude in Berlin because that was the frontier of the whole cold war.’
This track Der Beginn Des Weltkrieges 1914 (Dargestellt Unter Zuhilfenahme Eines Tierstimmenimitators) or in English, The Beginning Of The World War In 1914 (Presented By An Animal Voice Imitator), is fascinating- it sounds almost like a theatre piece.
‘I went through the radio archive and that was among these bizarre records re-enacting World War One and that was where I found this piece from 1923 from a German artist that I had never heard of before- no-one I know has heard of Joseph Plaut. He was a German actor, orator and regional poet from Lippe, who after the First World War performed cabaret shows with his wife Maria Schneider. He was doing this bizarre piece about the start of First World War with the help of an animal voice impersonator. The most significant thing that he does in the piece, though, is that he mentions Hitler because in 1923 Hitler was a little footnote who did not really appear in the public eye very much apart from his 1922 march on the Feldherrnhalle in Munich. It was his first attempt to seize power and after that he was put into jail where he wrote Mein Kampf. So the fact that in 1923 that Plaut was satirising Hitler was quite prophetic because at the time he was a much too small figure to be acknowledged as to what he would become later. It would be much easier to make fun of Mussolini who, at the time, who was a much bigger figure than hitler was.
The piece is not a song but a cabaret routine and it was quite prophetic thing to do in 1923. It was pretty clear sighted and clairvoyant of him to make fun of Hitler.
Hitler is portrayed by a peacock and he jumps onto the highest point on the farm and he opens his wings and he starts calling ‘Hitler Hitler’ and he does that when he sees Graf von Haeseler who was a commander in the german army in the First World War and also from the Franco Prussian war in 1871.
He also mentions Ludendorff- the same person as hitler uses for his own means even in 1922 Munich putsch when he seizes power and was a commender in the 1871 war and 1914 war and a general asshole of unbelievable dimensions. He says Hitler by name but he didn’t say Ludendorff by name- he says Graf von Haeseler but you know exactly who is talking about.
When you perform Lament will you have to change it as you go round Europe?
I will try to adopt the languages as much as possible. For instance I will probably not do the pieces in Flemish in London. It would be beside the point. Apart from that we will treat it like it’s a theatre play where we will do it as it is.
That doesn’t change my theatre play.It would be be very interesting to see what the reactions are. For all of us it is 100 years ago. It is connected to our grandfathers but I’m 55, and a lot of the audiences are much younger than that. I don’t know if there are any direct connections at all.
How does Germany react to the wars?
My wife is American and she always makes fun of the fact that you can turn on German television at any time and there will be always something about the war- flip through the channels and 4 or 5 of them will have documentaries about the war on, and it’s not necessarily only the history channels and it’s more omnipresent in 2014 than ever.
Is the story different in Germany?
It’s very different of course, the danger lies somewhere else in that the overkill of documentaries about any war is helping put them into a drawer and close that drawer. It gets presented like something that is over. It doesn’t matter if they say in the end that it’s all out fault because it all helps in closing that up.
But in the lyrics to the first piece on the album I tried to make clear that war doesn’t break out, war is not the prisoner, it’s not the plague, or ebola. It’s something, somehow always present and it’s somehow moving – sometimes getting fat, somehow getting thinner. In the official newspeak they say a war broke out and somehow I don’t like using that verb in that context because I don’t think war breaks out because it’s always there. As the old saying goes- he who doesnt remember the past has to repeat it.;
Do you think the First World War was the first post industrial revolution war?
‘I have not written anything in that direction. I consider myself a director- I’m not there to speak as an historian or a philosopher about war. I tried to find parts and materials that were not trampled to death already to shed light on things that were not that well known, to highlight what was not known. I was not trying to make a record about war. I was not trying to make a record with a didactic quality to it. We are still in the entertainment business- even it it’s a strange type of entertainment. I want this to be joyfully consumed. I’m not wagging a finger, explaining things about the war and telling you how much mankind has changed or not changed, that was not my intention- it was very much my intention not to do that.’
Did the research really change the perspective on the project ?
‘Working about war and death for almost a year doesn’t make you feel physically better so in the whole process of working on it I tried to keep it as distant from me as possible. Writing things like Weltkrieg (Percussion Version) is as distant as it gets. It was purely a statistical piece about what battles and when each nation entered the war and what nation had an armistice in order. I did a mathematical calculation. Saying each beat is one day, we’re doing it in 4/4, at 120 beats per minute, and each instrument is one of the powers involved. We tried it in 60 bpm it is true – that was 26 minutes long, which was quite annoying. We could have sped it up to 160 bpm and it would have been comical. So 120, it’s a good medium decision. We had 20 different pipes to represent all the different nations and the duration of their involvement. It starts from beat 1, Serbia, Austria, Germany, and tak tak tak tak, whoever comes in joins this big party of the First World War until the start of armistice.
It’s a statistical piece of music, a statistical piece of dance music in fact, because if you hear that, you want to move around to it.’
How Did I Die is yet another haunting piece- a list of ghost like recalls of death in the trenches coming back to haunt the high command. Over a string quartet setting with a featured solo cello part, Bargeld describes different ways of dying, tempered with the feeling that lives shouldn’t end like this. “So they come back, sing a different song, and Europe is a different place afterwards.”
‘I remember we left the studio one day saying to Alex (Hacke) that we are going to start a new piece and he asked what it was about and I said- death, death, death and the next day we started recoding How Did I Die, which is, of course, much more about pain than the First World War percussion version. It’s a song that German political satirist Kurt Tucholsky wrote. You can see it on YouTube. It’s called Die Rote Melodie, and he signed it: gewidmet (German for dedicated) Ludendorff (who commanded the German army in the First World War). He wrote this wonderful song about his experiences in the war, and dedicated it to Ludendorff. So he didn’t have to say anything, but every chorus goes against Ludendorff. Though he never says it directly, it’s clear that the dead soldier that the song is about will come back and haunt him.”
How did the creativity work? did you shape out the songs with the research and present the ideas to the band?
‘I did the research before we started in the studio and I presented them with the results and said what do you think we should do. It was a complicated process and every piece that ends up on the record had to have several attempts to be recorded before it found its way to what it is on the album. For example the first thing we worked on was On Patrol In No Mans Land and we did lots of versions of that. There was initially a plucked banjo version, then a faster version and then a slower version until we came upon the version we ended up with.
We had a percussion version of World War (Percussion version) that was twice the length because it was played at a slower speed so we ended up with it being 120 BPM because I can’t make the First World War shorter! you can’t play it faster it was already a condition piece and you have to have a drumming constitution if you go on for thirty minutes like that…
At this point Bargeld has to return to the band’s rehearsal with the explanation of the creative process still ringing in my ears. It’s complexity and insanely brilliant sprawl of ideas a perfect example of the sheer imagination involved in the making of Lament- an album that LTW recomends you immerse yourself in totally.