INTERVIEW! Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teardo speak in-depth on their brilliant new album
Blixa Bargeld and Teho Teardro released one of LTW’s favourite albums of 2013. They are back with another adventure this time using wind instruments and subtle fragile observations. LTW boss and Membranes frontman John Robb asked them what’s it all about and you can order the album from here…
Maybe Europe is not for everybody these days but perhaps proving the thrill and power of a true European collaboration, Rome based multi instrumentalist Teho Teardro and Berlin based Einsturzende Neubauten legend Blixa Bargeld are back with a new album, Nerissimo, released at the end of April.
The album is the follow up to 2013’s Still Smiling which was one of our favorites that year and it’s another fascinating collaboration of ideas and beautifully constructed musical backdrops to Blixa’s lyrical adventures. Of course they have moved on into different musical soundscapes- we would expect nothing less from two ground breakers like these and the usual explosion of ideas and textures is captured this time within a framework of woodwind instruments, including the not so often heard bass clarinet, as well as bells and Teho’s framing baritone guitar.
The shapeshifting twilight zone of travel and the twinkling lights of a new pre war Europe provide the backdrop as well as the pair’s artistic relationship with the added intimacy of Blixa’s dry baritone voice that intones the multi lingual lyrics and texts with an exploration of the sounds, rhythms and meanings of words from Italian, German and English.
It’s an exotic and brilliant work. A world to get lost in that comes full of surprises and musical adventures that are also easily accessible in their charm and alchemical imagination that take you on a trip to a deeply intelligent and fascinating world.
Created whilst Einsturzende Neubauten are taking a break from the touring of their stunning Lament album and yet another of the many projects of Teho Teardro who has also worked with Mick Harris, Jim Coleman, Girls Against Boys and Lydia Lunch after breaking out with his homegrown band Meathead back in the nineties. Teho has also made an album inspired by Pier Paolo Pasolini’s poetry with Erik Friedlander, composed music scores for many Italian films like Gabriele Salvatores’ Denti or Paolo Sorrentino’s The Family Friend and Il Divo. For Denti he received the Quality prize from the Italian Minister of Culture. For his soundtrack of the Il Divo Teardo won the David di Donatello Award in 2009. Quite a CV.
LTW : How much different is this album from 2013’s Still Smiling? Did you have a framework you were working towards?
Blixa : I don’t think there was any particular thought on how this album should be different from before. I wanted to try things that maybe we had not done before with instruments that had not been written about before. I had no conceptual idea of what this album should be about. I just wanted an album of songs that we could play live.’
Teho : ‘In the last couple of years we have played so many shows from places like China and we planned to make a new album to really connect things together musically. You make an album then you tour and then you repeat!’
Blixa : I don’t think there was any particular thought about how this album should differ from the album before. I know that Teho wanted to try some things that he had not tried before like working with instruments and writing for instruments that he hadn’t used before.There was nothing written before we started work on it- basically it was, like I said, that we wanted to make an album of songs that we can play live.’
LTW : ‘The first album is a great record. Was it a fascinating one off project or was there this permanent idea of making music
Blixa : ‘It feels like it we have to say this is not really our second collaboration before we theatre play working together much longer already also been working with author?
Teho : ‘There are different levels of things.’
Blixa : ‘As Teho said before very much the reason that we wanted to make another album was very much out of the wish that we enjoy playing live and wanted to go on tour again. And you know how the business works – once you’re record is old you don’t have the best card for more gigs so you have to make more records to get more gigs.’
LTW : The creativity comes with practical pragmatic reason?
Blixa : ‘Yes, it’s absolutely pragmatic. There is no artistic reason at all! (laughs)’
LTW : ‘How does the creative process work? I’m guessing that the geography makes it not so simple with Blixa in Berlin and Teho in Rome…
Blixa : But Neubauten is not so simple either. This is usually all done between the two of us. We work in the studio and usually Teho has already started making some sketches, then we come to Berlin where we work on material and then I travel to Italy to Rome and then we end up back in Berlin before we finish the record.
LTW : Maybe a bit of skype ?
Blixa : We used stupid Italian telecom…
Teho : Aaah! but you don’t know that 45 per cent of the Italian telecom belongs to a German company!
Blixa : I know – and they are the most hated company in Germany except for Volkswagen.
Teho : I didn’t know that, they bought 47 per cent! unbelievable.
LTW : On this album this time you use a lot of wind instruments – why is this?
Teho : I was getting too comfortable writing cello lines. It was becoming too predicable plus I wanted to try other instruments that have a similar range to the cello. I wanted to try instruments that I have never played before and that I have never worked with. I found it amazing and very interesting. For me it was a very good experience trying other possibilities of writing. I was writing music thinking of cello but played by another instrument and that sort of created some sort of interest for the player because it was not really in his keys and out of that tension comes something interesting for what we are doing.
LTW : When you write for an instrument that you have never played before do you write on the cello or keyboard and give the parts to the players?
Teho : I’m a guitar player I mostly play things on guitar and I write them down for the players to play them. I do everything on guitar because it feels more comfortable with that than on keyboard,
LTW : Do you hear music in your head or do you try and create an atmosphere?
Teho : Yes, sure. The thing is I use the guitar to write the parts for the violin etc and that is not really the way that it is supposed to be. Then the musicians find themselves not in such a predictable and easy situation and I like that very much.
LTW : Blixa, what do you bring to this when Teho brings the parts?
Blixa : ‘We are coming up with material in a suitcase. That’s what we do. We spend all the time traveling and creating. I grew up with all these technical developments but I’m a complete traditionalist when it comes to working methods. I work in a recording studio with a sound engineer and my microphones. I have no recording software in my possession – not in this computer or anywhere else. The only thing I have is my piano there (points). That’s how I communicate I write it on the piano and I scribble it down in a little notebook. Sometimes I scan that page in the notebook and send to Teho. I send the chord progression to him and some recorded stuff.
Sometimes I may send him chord structures or lyrics and ask him to set that to music or later when the sketches are there, I work with that material. I change it very often and I actually re-edit it. There’s a piece on the record that was originally two pieces that I edited together because, as a single piece, they both didn’t seem to work. Once we put them together they started to tell a different story than what was not there before. When I find myself in that position then I’m playing more Hammond organ than I ever did before in my life.
LTW : If possible, you prefer the face to face method, sparking off, the old fashioned human way composing
Blixa : Teho working methods are completely different to mine and we still ended up working in a normal recording studio without sending eachother files. We stood in a room and worked together.
Teho : I am happy to do it that way…
Blixa : At first he was very uncomfortable with this of course because it is a dinosaur way of working by today’s measures. It’s a completely uneconomical way of working. The reason why there is so much electronic music going around these days is that it is accessible and affordable to everybody.People work with GarageBand on their laptop and headphones and it is basically do-able for everybody. That’s why you get that. That’s why there are only duos – if you work with more than two people it is difficult because you can’t get more than three people in front of a screen! It’s hard to get more than three people moving blue things left to right. Bands, as an artistic entity, are dead in an evolutionary way. They are on their way out. I know this, because I have played in several bands. I know how the working process looks nowadays. Even decades ago it was very much on the expensive side because as soon as you work with actual instruments you need a room – and a room, as you know sitting in Manchester, is very expensive…’
LTW : Is also because the human interaction important to you as well, Blixa?
Blixa : It is very important and, apart from that, I am a singer and I want the sound direct. I know that John Lennon very much liked the idea that if he could put a jack in his throat and record directly onto tape that would be perfect.
LTW : What does working with other people bring? an inspiration? The sparks of two or three people together in a room?
Blixa : ‘Of course. You want, at least, the communication of playing off each other – the table tennis between two people that a band automatically has with the clashes of egos and chemistry. Maybe it is all happy and peaceful when you have several people involved in a band but it is still ping pong when you play with each other. I need that and Teho needs that to. It is just that doing music alone it becomes pretty flat and pretty one dimensional.’
LTW : Do you work differently with other people as well, Teho?
Teho : ‘I prefer working with people. I spend a lot of time doing sound. I like to confine myself with other people – that’s what I do.’
LTW : The table tennis of creativity is the preferred situation for you…
Teho : ‘It means endless opportunities. We can face so many possibilities working together that I still find it very tempting and very interesting for me.’
LTW : Lyrically, of course, the album is also interesting. The title is the Italian word for black…
Blixa : ‘It’s the superlative for black – the blackest…’
LTW: Black if often the colour associated with Blixa – you are always dressed in black
Blixa : ‘I’m not the only person in the world who dresses in black. There is much more famous ones who dress in black. There is another namesake of mine who by the name of Cash who is famous for dressing in black…’
LTW : But you are often associated with the colour – there was that famous German cookery programme where you cooked a black meal for instance. What’s the fascination with the colour?
Blixa : ‘It’s basically just the way of of titling an album. Just take one of the titles and use it for the title of the album. Originally the album was called Christian and Mauro – Christian is my birth name and Mauro being Teho’s birth name. It’s a weird sense in Italian Christain decollation of religion and Mauro is also the same but for a different religion. When we finished the actual recordings and the album was all mixed we realised that the title doesn’t fit. It was just completely misleading. We then just looked at which one of the song titles we can take for the album and Nerrissimo was the last one. The last album title, Still Smiling, was one of the titles off that record – that’s a classical way to title an album. This is not particularly an album about colours or darkness or anything like that.
LTW : So in a sense it was a useful handle?
Blixa : Nobody has a problem with pronouncing Nerissimo. Also if we had called the album Animelle which is a different song off the record and everyone would have googled it and they would have all been misled by finding that it means the guts of a cow or something like that which is not what it means in this context on the record. It means spirit in Italian.
LTW : There is no attempt on the record to find a theme then. It’s just a collection of pieces of music?
Blixa : ‘We had one more song which was always trying to fit into the sequence of songs and it just didn’t fit.’
LTW : Why?
Blixa : ‘Because it had a different mood.’
LTW : Mood?
Blixa : The way the album came out was that it was more personal and more intimate than the additional song was. It will probably be released later on separately. It’s called Schiavo Di Testerone which translated means slave of testosterone and it didn’t fit into the actual first person type of lyrics and mood that was going through rest of the record. What I find quite significant with this recording of the album is the thing that normally that no singer would ever do and it’s that, on a lot of these songs, I don’t ever have reverb on the voice. I have it dead dry – extra bruhl! It was in the studio when we start mixing the album and I said to Boris (Wilsdorf) who is our engineer there, I said – can you take the reverb from the voice, less reverb please! and it ended up being no reverb at all.
LTW: Do you like the intimacy of this? Like the voice is in the listener’s ear?
Blixa : ‘That was probably my intention yes, infact I know it was my intention, That’s what I wanted.’
Teho : ‘There is an Italian singer I like very much who does this quite comfortably called conte… he is 82 years old and known mainly in Italy.
Blixa : But he’s even made himself known to Manchester for a while. He is also famous for a lot of Italian songs that became hits. You have to imagine that with his voice he is more like the Leonard Cohen of Italy. He has a very low baritone voice which is very nice.
Teho : Blixa knows him and he’s basically doing the same thing with his voice with a little reverb or no reverb at all on this record and I like that very much. I find it fascinating. We wanted to make a collaboration with him….. but he had just made an album and he told me that he had just finished an album and said that ‘I’m not going to go into another studio in my life. I’m done with it! ‘(laughs).
Blixa : He thought singing was so horrible that he couldn’t do it anymore.
Teho : He said I’m fed up with singing. He is going to do a little amount of shows and that’s it. He’s quite old and probably tired of recording his voice.
LTW : The intimate voice and intimate subject matter of your album. Was it intentional to match the two?
Blixa : It was more of a subconscious thing. After a while you notice which way it’s going and it’s not necessarily premeditated. There was no premeditation about what the music should be or the lyrical content should be. There was nothing like that going on. It was something that makes itself known in the work in process.
LTW : Did the music suggest the lyrics or was it the other way round – more of the creative ping pong?
Blixa : Yes, that’s rather true.
LTW : Is that true for you as well Teho? Did the lyrics affect the music?
Teho : We started from the music first. When I work on the music there are no voice ideas – nothing and then I write sketches and get them together and present them to Blixa and then both of us work together on the music and that’s where it starts.
Blixa : It’s different to the other records with the fact that the material then was created over a very long time by Teho. There were some things that he had in the drawer for ten years.
Teho : I have a piece on the album, which in wrote in 1997. I was very happy with it but I never found the right situation to use it until now.
Blixa : All this material was written last year for this record so that probably also makes it more coherent than the other record was.
LTW : Is this a record about friendship?
Blixa : Then it would have ended up being called Christian and Mauro (laughs) but that was not suitable so have we still have to make the Christian and Ronaldo record!
Certainly it is a document of our friendship and certainly we have been working and writing together for some time.
LTW : The instrumentation adding to this sense of intimacy?
Blixa : We said before playing live that when we go on tour this time we will take the bass clarinet with us. So there’s going to be a string quartet, a cello, a bass clarinet, a baritone guitar and lots of bells and voices of course. So you can watch the bass clarinet player’s face get redder and redder and redder (laughs).
Teho : When we recorded the bass clarinet I was comfortably sitting on my chair recording the guy playing it next to me and he was dying! (laughs) after the five minutes of playing he was all red in the face and then I said can I try to play this thing. When I was a kid I played clarinet but bass clarinet is a different world. I tried and I couldn’t get a sound. You have to be a giant to push the air through it…
Blixa : Most of the time the bass clarinet players look giants.
Teho : He looked absolutely normal and then he turned completely red (laughs). I said do you feel good? is everything alright? and he said I’m fine!
LTW : How can he tour if you are killing him!
Teho : We will get a different one for every show. No, really!
Blixa : When we are on tour we work with local string quartets. That’s something we can actually do. We send them the notes before the show and send them some files to listen to the pieces so they can study the notes and do a rehearsal together and then we do a rehearsal on the afternoon before the show. That’s possible but it’s not so easy finding a bass clarinet payer in Pordennone or somewhere like that that we know we can rely on. We need somebody to rely on and somebody who will swear before we go on stage that they won’t play any jazz! (laughs).
Teho : The guy that we have plays in the Jazz world – plays with john Zorn, that kind of music. When he came here he said when is the solo moment and I said it’s all done! we don’t have a solo moment! (laughs)
Blixa : The string quartet players are the exact opposite. They would never play anything that is not written down there for them or is outside their normal learned comfort zone. So the actual arrangements for the string quartet on the stage are left for them. They don’t have to do anything extraordinarily difficult or jazzy or any solos like that and that’s a good communication level and you can actually see that will work. Some of the places we played like China, for example, the communication was not that easy with the string quartet and you would have to rely on the universal language of printed notes
LTW : You present sheets of music for them and they play them?
Blixa : And mp3’s so they can understand what is meant by the notes. You follow the notes and actually play them otherwise a tour like that for us would not be feasible.
Teho : In the end we played so many shows that if I can only count how many musicians we played with – it could be 500 people
Blixa : It’s 4 at each show…
LTW : Do you like the madness of this? The way that it is a creative tightrope? the idea that people turn up and may present something slightly different.
Blixa : It’s hard to tell for me. It would be something Teho would deal with. I face this way on stage and they are behind me and I don’t really know what they do.
Teho : We do everything behind you back!
Blixa : On the the record a piece by a great Brazilian Tropicana singer. It’s a fantastic piece but I noticed that the rhythmical understanding of the string figures in the song differs really literally in different territories. In some places it was pretty good, although I’m sorry to say the Chinese don’t swing!
Teho : The Russians were a bit stiff too – they couldn’t play it so well but when we played Lisbon I didn’t have to say anything when we did the rehearsals. Normally all I had to say was that it is a Brazilian piece and it kind of swings a bit so don’t be rigid and when we went to Lisbon I didn’t have to say a word on purpose because I knew they would know. They have a connection with Brazil and they were just amazing. They did everything perfectly at the first bash!
LTW : Even if the Russians and Chinese don’t swing they must add something interesting in their own way…kind of push you to react in different way?
Blixa : It’s still possible to communicate with them. It’s still possible to let them get a bit into the direction like Teho describes the Portuguese did. You don’t even have to tell the Portuguese that. On the other hand I don’t know what happens to a piece that’s completely rigid, you know – the other way round.
LTW : Blixa, this idea of using your voice – was it like using the wind instruments on the record… using your voice as an instrument like the wind?
Blixa : For the microbiogical opera called Ulgae on the record my voice is heavily treated. I’m treating it myself and I do pretty extreme things with it. I didn’t have to do anything like that in that category on this record. I have my inhuman screams, my inward screams which I have done throughout my career and even in the Bad Seeds and I don’t really do anything like that on that record. I wanted it for something unique and it’s not gimmick when I do it but after a while when I played with the Bad Seeds and they played Stagerlee where I’m meant to do ‘the scream that no -one can do’ and everybody is waiting for that and thats shouldn’t be like that.
LTW : The idea that your voice was almost using as a texture or an instrument as well
Blixa : I’m 57 now and my voice over the decades has got lower and lower. I listen to the records we recorded from 1982 and it’s amazing. It’s almost like a different person and it was a different person. I don’t think I can reach the highest notes of what I was able to do easily in 1981. I really don’t think I can reach them any longer.
LTW : Your voice has a richness now.
Blixa : I have a different body. I’m 35 years older. Logically the voice and the body is changing .
LTW : I was wondering if the press release about the album was correct when it said that this is a record about different cities. About Berlin and Rome.
Blixa : As we described in the working procedure – it’s very much about travel from Berlin and Rome
LTW : Is that part of what the record is about?
Blixa : It was already about that on the last record. The fact that I sing in Italian and German and then there are things with lots of some references in there that were particularity Italian. I have not written much in Rome before and I’ve written some things in Rome this time. on the last record I’ve written a couple of pieces in Rome where the Romans and the Italians can understand the references that I make there .
LTW : In the sense of you as a German and a very Berlin person being in Rome – impressions or sketches of Rome.
Blixa : It’s neither sketches of Rome or impressions of Rome. I don’t write about anything like that.
LTW : Maybe getting an essence of Rome
Blixa : No, I don’t think in this particular record that it reflects very much in with what I’m singing or where I am it’s just not there. The previous one has some references like that but this one doesn’t.
LTW : You sing in a different languages which makes for an interesting experience. Are you fascinated by language?
Blixa : It was part of the theme of the last record. On the last record we had language and the relationship between language and the body as one of the marks and one of the themes of the album. That was obvious on the last record but not so much in the here and now. I asked the question on the last record ‘who am I?’ in different languages and ‘can I kiss in a different language?’ is my body the same in a different language? that’s already all of last time. There were particular things I did for this record. I knew I wanted to write them of course. I did not try to find the theme of language. Last time it just happened to end up being there. I didn’t know what the theme for this particular record would be and I still don’t know. I guess we still have to get couple of months down the river to see if something suddenly make itself known to me. I don’t know what it is is yet. Just that certain things should be be in Italian like the Nerissimo track was in Italian and not in English, but that is probably the first choice I had to make there and which language is this song in.
LTW : When you sing in Italian what does that bring to the atmosphere of the song or the piece?
Blixa : One of my major problems is that is my ‘rrrr’ is not very good. Really I should go to speech training or something because my ‘rrrr’ is not very Italian and not very good. So I had try really hard with some of these things to get them sounding correct .
LTW : When you sing a song in Italian does it make the song have a different atmosphere?
Blixa : The point is Italian is not my language. I can’t even judge it now. I have to leave the judging to Teho or someone else who has Italian as their mother tongue to see if it is OK. When I sing something in English it so much in my daily life that it’s quite different but not so much with Italian because I’m not exactly speaking Italian very well or to the point where I can judge about either the taste or the colour or something in Italian.
Teho : Very often the Italian reaction is good…
Blixa : I think that’s what I’m curious about mainly. Also sort of the fact that I don’t play it live for an Italian speaking audience that really justifies it in the end.
Teho : In general the Italians have very positive region because he ended up using words that nobody even thinks of… he has a kind of very unpredictable and unique choice of words.
Blixa : I check it with him. I first had this list where I made this list of colour names in Italian and of all the things that seemed to be interesting sounding to me and I showed him the list and he liked Mellisimo and I underlined Mellisimo thinking, aha! Mellisimo seems to be an interesting word.
Teho : I remember talking with my daughter – she is 7 – and I talked about black and she said Nero and then I said more black and she said Nero Nero and she repeated it and then I said more and then she said Nerisimmo! Blancissimo – that would be very very white
Blixa : rossimmio – you don’t really use it – mostly for white and black, probably because of the extremes. It’s not the same way of making a superlative as it is in the English language and that’s what tickled me. I heard the story of the British sculptor Anish Kapoor- he had an exclusive contract with a company to use blackest black. This black was of course developed for the military. It’s so black that things that are painted with it actually swallow the light – even lazer light. I was sent a news link by email last week that he had made n exclusive contract with a company that produces the paint and that he is the only artist that can use it.
LTW : Maybe this is the ultimate Nerissimo
LTW : Does singing in a language that is not yours bring something interesting to the song or a certain detachment.
Blixa : Yes. Probably. I remember singing in a language outside of German in 1991. I was doing it for a Canadian dance company in Vancouver to sing in French and they asked Neubauten to write the music for them. I had asked them which language it should be in and they and I started writing things for them in French, in English and in latin and in German and made it into an album and that became Tabula Rasa where every song has another line in another language. Some of the songs exist in three different versions and in three different languages and this playing with the multi lingual has never really left me. It just continued into my daily life where I speak several languages. It has never left me and it didn’t feel very new to me or it was not very much a decision when we started working on the first album with this project to do it in in Italian and English and German. If it would some day be necessary to just make an album in Italian then I would touch that too!
LTW : Is it a fascination with the meanings of words or the sound of the words?
Blixa : I have no fascination with meanings or sounds. For me singing in German is totally normal because I grew up with it as it is my mother tongue. I grew up with German of course and the way that the German words resonate with me is that it is different than other languages because they have much deeper roots with me. I’m far away from mastering Italian yet English is so long in my life that some of the words have rooted in my mind as well. They already have more than just a meaning with Italian where I’m at the very beginning of that. I had to trust someone else to tell me the word for elegant or if it was adequate enough to use it or not.
LTW : It’s interesting the depths of words in a language and the way they actually have a deeper resonance.
Blixa : There is the meta level to it of course and a sub level to it. The sub level works on a much more physical or psychological level than the actual dictionary meaning and language very poor thing without it.
LTW: It’s more than understanding the word to get the feeling.
Blixa : I have different experiences. I have been with British record companies almost all my life. Neubauten was signed to Mute. I remember a couple of incidents when people were very surprised when they got the translations of the what it is that I’m singing in German and that also has to do with the predominant image of the early period of Neubauten. Onstage I’m singing in German and they think that I’m singing the usual industrial bullshit that other bands release into the atmosphere like Rammstein or whatever or however you want to call it. I don’t know if they are disappointed but they are certainly surprised when they figure out that I have never used never used the word ‘shit’ for example, ever, in any song or anything similar to it. I don’t even swear in a song.
It is, of course, this surprise and misconception that is part of the fascination with Blixa’s work. From the beginning his work has been full of nuance and subtleties. Even in the more confrontational noisier era there were layers and subtle shapes of meanings that were far beyond his contemporaries. His current work with Neubauten, of course, reflects this and it’s further explored with the music he is making with Teho – a fascinating project that removes him completely from the traditions of his alpha band.