April sees Bavaria’s Notwist heading Stateside for a highly-anticipated tour. It’s a bit of a departure for this essentially studio-based band, but they are looking forward to it. Markus Acher:
“We’ll be playing with bands from the Anticon label, which we like very, very much. I just recently toured with my other band Lali Puna, and that was a great experience. Hopefully, stupid George W and his gang won’t make it impossible with his Saddam-neurosis and his greed for oil.”
Yes, well … about those other bands. The Notwist seems, ironically, to be on the back burner at the very moment that their big US breakthrough occurs, courtesy of Domino Recordings, who have picked up their Neon Golden album from City Slang, and released it, complete with three bonus tracks. But Markus (guitar, vocals) his brother Micha (bass, trumpet), electronic maestro Martin Gretschmann and divertingly-named drummer Mecki Messerschmidt have chosen this moment to concentrate on their other projects, Tied + Tickled Trio, Console, MS John Soda and Lali Puna. Basically, they are just tired of touring: “We played a lot when we started, in the earlier Punk/Hardcore-days, I guess every little club or flat in Germany, which is why we are a little bit tired of touring too long. But it’s still important not to lose the energy which made us start this band.”
Just how a German band could sound so American is a slight mystery, but Markus positively glows with pleasure when the Notwist is compared to Pavement: “I’m totally happy with being compared to such a great band!” Which probably explains how they ended up on Domino: “Well, Domino released lots of our all-time favorite records, that’s why we asked them. We are very happy that they are releasing it.”
All the members of the Notwist grew up in Weilheim, Bavaria, “a very small and boring town”, where they still live and record. After playing in a variety of school bands, they ran into Hardcore, punk rock and all kinds of noise. Influenced by bands like Rites of Spring, Dinosaur Jr and Jerry’s Kids, they started out around 1988 as a trio with bass, guitar, drums, and voice.
Markus was also a big fan of Neil Young, so tried singing slow melodies
over noisy and fast HC-stomping backings. At that stage, they played and toured a lot, gradually developing an interest in jazz and electronics, eventually inviting their friend Martin Gretschmann to do some electronics for them: “After a while, he became the fourth member of the band. Now we see ourselves as a kind of a tragic popband”, explains Markus.
How is it that most German rock bands, including the Notwist, write exclusively in English?
“Growing up with music in Germany, the language of pop music was
mostly English. To me, so many things people like Neil Young sang touched
me deeply, although I didn’t understand them totally. That’s why many
English words have a meaning beside their dictionary meaning, which makes it interesting to write in English and not to try to write it like a native speaker. Not understanding it totally gives you the freedom to use it in a different way. I like the distance, the sound, the limitations, the
abstraction. It’s like playing an instrument you can’t play and being
forced to just find the few essential notes.”
The sparsity of the Notwist’s music is a major part of the band’s charm, as is the highly-charged, deeply thoughtful production which underpins particularly this album. Markus gives us an insight into the songwriting and recording process:
We first have the melody, and it takes a lot of time to write lyrics
that fit into the melody and express what I want to say. For Neon Golden, I
was very impressed by some lyrics of Bill Callaghan and Will Oldham, who write very clearly, very simply, but mysterious in its simplicity. Like haikus, the whole picture should be in one single line.
“As for the production, we started composing and producing individually, then we met in the studio and exchanged material. We started recording,
experimenting with all kinds of instruments, invited friends like Saam the
percussion player to improvise on the songs, and overloaded the songs with signals. We then made a break, took the stuff home, rearranged everything and went into the studio again. We wanted to try everything we could think of. After doing this a few times, we came to the point where we thought it should be more minimal and close, and we started to look for the few essential tracks.
Neon Golden is a highly-rewarding listen, revelling in the intimate “closeness” to which Markus refers. But it’s not likely to be a million-seller, and nor is it intended to be:
“We don’t even attempt to be a part of the commercial music business, but I think we’ve found our place and our way to deal with it. It’s difficult. Money must never be a reason for a decision. That sounds like hippie-stuff, but it’s the only way to sing your own song.”
Long may the Notwist continue to sing their own song.
From Amplifier magazine