Patrick Sisson - Writer, Journalist, Cultural Documentarian, Music Lover

Interview: The Notwist

July 2008


Prague’s Palác Akropolis, the concert venue where the Notwist started it’s current tour, is located in a patchwork neighborhood of slightly faded buildings which sit in the shadows of the Žižkov TV tower, a spaceship-like structure and the lone eyesore in the city’s quaint skyline. It’s a fitting contrast for the German band, which has arrived at a unique fusion of pastoral beauty and quirky electronics after nearly two decades of performing together. The band’s latest, the somber The Devil, You + Me, builds on the group’s breakout 2002 album Neon Golden with an even richer sound, due in part to contributions from the experimental Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra. The band’s guitarist and singer Markus Acher spoke to Pitchfork backstage during sound check in Prague, and as the band’s oddly soothing German GPS system occasionally spoke up in the background, he discussed Dax Pierson’s influence on the new album, his struggles with singing in English, and how you, too, can book the Acher family band for your next birthday party.

Pitchfork: Back in 1999, you wrote a handful of songs for a film called Absolute Giganten, which was about German youth trying to escape small town life and see the world. Coming from Weilheim, a town of about 20,000 people, does that theme resonate with you?
Markus Acher: It’s a theme that is always present. In a way, it was also the reason to start making music. It was such a small town, so conservative and so boring, so we were really addicted to any input from other places, anything that made the world bigger, like lots of American music. It’s not that urgent anymore, but it’s still a feeling I know very well. On the new record, there are still lots of these sorts of images.

Pitchfork: You guys haven’t left. You still live there and Alien Transistor, your new studio, is nearby. What keeps you grounded in the area?
Markus Acher: I guess it’s the knowledge that it’s very good to stay with something and work on it. We couldn’t have done what we did musically, with so many groups, if we went somewhere else. Everybody would have gone somewhere else and we wouldn’t have worked together. It became interesting for us to tour and to have this kind of base.

Pitchfork: Your father, a musician who plays various instruments, taught you and Micha when you were kids. You two also play with him right now in the New Orleans Dixie Stompers. Can you tell me a little bit about that group and what it’s like playing with your father?
Markus Acher: Micha and me started playing music on recorders, the typical children’s instrument. We started playing Bavarian folk music, and then my father taught me guitar and Micha bass and trumpet. My dad is a big jazz fan, especially New Orleans swing and Dixie. His big dream was that him and his two sons would form a Dixieland band. He plays trombone and Micha already learned trumpet. I learned clarinet, but then I switched, because I didn’t like it very much, and started learning drums for the band. [The Stompers] actually started around the same time as the Notwist.

Pitchfork: What kind of places does this band perform? If I had a birthday party next week, could I book you guys?
Markus Acher: With the Dixieland band, we play all kinds of occasions: weddings, beer gardens, and on boats. It’s music you buy for special occasions. It doesn’t matter who plays, it just needs to be there and not too loud. When we play, it doesn’t matter who we are, and nobody knows the Notwist. It doesn’t mean anything to anybody. My father says my sons also play in a rock band, and they say, “OK, interesting, please start playing in 10 minutes.” For us it’s good, because on one hand, it’s very interesting music, and we really like playing. It became some sort of folk music for us, because in Bavaria, there isn’t too much folk music. It’s also good to get real and not take ourselves too seriously. For most people, music is just entertainment. And yes, you could book this band, but not next week, since we won’t be in town. We still play, and we still play birthday parties.

Pitchfork: How did the Notwist begin? At the time, you were very influenced by groups like Dinosaur Jr., right?
Markus Acher: We had played in some bands before that, kind of typical bands that sounded like the Police, or something like this. But then I discovered these American bands and for me, it was really the first time I heard music that I thought was my music. Stuff like You’re Living All Over Me, I really could connect and relate to this music, which I listened to over and over again. It was from somewhere else and I didn’t understand every word, but I thought it was a language that I understood. That was kind of the beginning of the Notwist and how it is today. I started with Mecki [Messerschmidt] the drummer and Micha on bass. We had this idea to do this music like Dinosaur Jr., but also other, faster bands, like Jerry’s Kids and Minor Threat. We tried to mix all this with Neil Young, who was important to me at the time, when I was 15 and a hippie with long hair. In the beginning it was all American music, basically. For most people my age, there wasn’t any traditional German pop music.

Nothing there was really speaking to you or speaking your language?
Markus Acher: No, not really. There was some German punk music, but that was way before my time.

Pitchfork: I think it was Martin Gretschmann who said he met you guys when you put on shows at youth centers around the area. How did that relationship develop?
Markus Acher: I knew Martin from school. He was the first person in the area that bought a sampler, an Akai sampler, so everybody knew about it two days later. He knew how to handle it. We were all really interested in electronic music, but it was like some kind of a myth, we didn’t know how it worked. I went to him one day with some records and we sampled all kind of things and started working on more collage music together and after a while, we thought it would be good to have him be a member of the Notwist. At the beginning he was just pushing samples and loops, but over time he started composing.

Pitchfork: Did it feel different recording the new album at your own studio, Alien Transistor, with the luxury and time to do what you wanted?
Markus Acher: It was very different. The main difference was that we recorded in one main room, which was like one big recording space. And we had all the instruments lined up so everyone could play all the time if they wanted. When someone had an idea, they could just go to an organ and play it and everyone would say this sounds good, let’s record it, so it was kind of like a very slow motion session or rehearsal.

Pitchfork: You also collaborated a lot with the Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra, and the composer of the group, Daniel Glatzel, actually helped write arrangements for some songs. What was it like working with them and having someone else contribute to the songwriting process?
Markus Acher: I think it was very good and very necessary. We’ve been thinking of working with an orchestra for a very long time, because we really wanted to try out that sound. I guess that’s the dream of every band, to work with an orchestra. We were interested in a more contemporary, experimental sound, which we thought it could fit together well without sounding like the Notwist with orchestra. Our new drummer, Andi [Haberl], is a member of Andromeda, so he played us some of their songs and we were really into it. We asked Daniel to write arrangements for different tunes. He was exactly the right person. It was really by chance. He’s very experimental and has lots of ideas from totally different musical genres, from soundtrack music to contemporary classical to jazz. He’s very open-minded, knows a lot and knows how to arrange. If you said I want this Morton Feldman-like layered stuff going through different instrumental groups, he was like yeah, I know.

Pitchfork: Why did Mecki leave the band?
Markus Acher: It was a very long relationship, and at this point it didn’t really work anymore. Like a normal relationship, it drifted apart, and it was at the point where it was good to for him and us to kind of go somewhere else.

Pitchfork: You were talking about this album with someone at Billboard and said, “there were friends that were sick and struggled with bad things and that made it’s way into the music…” Can you elaborate on that?
Markus Acher: I think it made it very intense to write about certain things. There was always this thought of mortality. The whole theme of escaping, parting or going… it was always there. Sometimes, on earlier recordings, things were kind of abstract. This record really became a face or story of people I know. There was something I really wanted to express, but it was really difficult. That’s why the record is very intense for me and for all of us in many parts. Songs like “Gone Gone Gone” are really about losing people, or people who are facing their own mortality. It’s really difficult to write about things like that without falling into a total cliché.

Pitchfork: It’s tough because it’s such a personal relationship on one hand, and on the other hand, it’s such a universal feeling. Was Dax Pierson part of what you were talking about?
Markus Acher: Totally. Dax was a real shock for everyone because it wasn’t so long ago that we recorded together. And it was because of a car accident, so it’s something that we are always aware of, something that can happen to every band. It was always like why Dax, you know? One of the nicest people we know. I can just tell from a distance how he manages to really live with it. To be so strong, that’s something that really makes me… it’s unbelievable how strong he is. On this record there are definitely, if it isn’t concrete words, it’s concrete music that speaks to Dax. It was really important that we had him in mind. If you think of Dax when I sing, “gravity won’t get me,” on the track “Gravity,” it takes on a whole different meaning.

Pitchfork: Are there any discussions about doing another record with 13 + God in the future?
Markus Acher: Definitely. We really wanted to before, but there were a lot of other recordings on along with the new Notwist. But we already talked and said this time the German guys could go to the US so we could record together with Dax.

Pitchfork: The lyrics on The Devil, You + Me talk more about mortality and things that are out of your hands, and it seemed like there were a lot of references to planetary motion and gravity. Do you find any religion or philosophy influences your lyrics, or is it more personal beliefs?
Markus Acher: It was more personal. There’s not one big philosophy. With every song except “Sleep,” I tried to have different points of view in the lyrics, so you would have a certain theme and in one moment think you have the solution. But then, in the next moment, you experience something else so you get a totally different point of view of that theme. I wanted the lyrics to be kind of like a broken mirror, so you could reflect on everything from different angles. That idea interested me and sort of reminded me of this place near Vienna called Haus der Künstler. It’s a place where this doctor, Leo Navratil, was treating mental patients and gave them the opportunity to draw and write poems. They were suffering from schizophrenia but wrote these beautiful, artistic poems. If you read some of the poems, you think you understand them, but the words aren’t the ones you would normally use. It’s like the writer took the words in the dictionary and the meanings and shifted them, so the words all have different meanings. It was something that I found very beautiful. It expresses sometimes much stronger than common pictures or common sense. It was something I was thinking about when I was writing the lyrics, to achieve something that was a bit more subconscious.

Pitchfork: That’s interesting, because many fans are intrigued by your lyrics because you sing in English and you’re not a native speaker, so there’s always a bit of difference in meaning – you choose words differently and use words that we wouldn’t use together. Is that almost a deliberate shifting of meaning on your part?
Markus Acher: In the beginning, when I started writing lyrics and singing in English, I always thought it’s pop music, you sing in English. But after I thought about it more, I had this crisis and I thought it was really stupid to sing in English. You always have to translate and you can never say what you want. I was becoming really conscious of this process of translation, and then I met Adam Drucker (doesone) and he was really important, because he was someone who I think is a really great writer and he would tell me I could use words totally differently, because I don’t know them. That’s something he wanted to achieve, but he’d have to forget what he knew about the language. For me, that’s kind of interesting. It’s very limited to write in English, and it’s still very different from what I would write in German. But this process of always translating makes it very abstract and gives me a chance to express something I couldn’t express in German. Also, Adam gave me a lot of books, some by Beat Poets like Bob Kaufman. Reading those books has really impressed me and influenced me. I don’t totally understand it, I think, but I understand it in a different way, and it was totally interesting. I get melodies in my heads from the words.

Pitchfork: When you guys look back on the beginning of the band, the days of having long hair and performing on stage in shorts, does it seem odd, like you’ve changed a lot?
Markus Acher: For me, it’s not very strange. Sometimes it’s strange to look at film, where we play like this or look very strange, but it’s not like something totally different. We kept some sort of spirit from those days. It was really our starting point, and there was a very strong scene at the time.

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