It is one of this year’s catchiest indie pop songs that I have to think of only minutes before I am about to phone Markus Acher of German indie institution THE NOTWIST. The track is called Düsseldorf by the British band TELEMAN and it’s a wondrously shiny and uplifting, yet at the same time rather melancholic pop record. The second verse, for instance, starts with the singer facing ‘another grey town in the afternoon’. It is mid-October and as I’m staring through the window I try to focus the city’s flamboyant TV tower. It is hardly visible, though, and if it was only for the current weather conditions I would possibly feel TELEMAN’s tristesse. However, there is of course much more to North Rhine-Westphalia’s provincial capital. Düsseldorf as a whole faced a lot of fundamental changes in recent years but has not forgotten about its cultural impact. Be it to live up to its own undeniably important music-historical background or because it is turning into a ‘hotspot’ of sorts for popular culture, the city has been continuously developing, implementing and establishing a significant number of successful events and formats.
New and established events reveal Düsseldorf’s profound festival program
Therefore, it is only reasonable for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION to cover established one-day or multi-day events such as Open Source Festival or New Fall Festival. Besides, worthwhile additions like, for example, the 2015 initiated Electri_City Conference (based on Rüdiger Esch’s book Electri_City: The Düsseldorf School of Electronic Music) and the newly emerged die digitale, a festival devoted to digital art and music, expand the overall festival program with comprehensive talks. Moreover, what is rather exceptional for a German city is that in spite of the calendar indicating the end of November, the festival season is still in full swing. Apart from Approximation Festival taking place this week – a program that pays particular attention to the piano and aims at bringing together musicians and composers for innovative projects seeking new boundaries – there is also one completely new festival concept put into practice in the midst of December.
Lieblingsplatte festival takes place from December 10 to 17 at ZAKK and presents seven German bands and artists who play their most important albums in its entirety. What makes the event special is that Lieblingsplatte restricted themselves to booking the musicians who in turn chose on their own which one of their records they would like play live. And so, amongst others, FEHLFARBEN will deliver Monarchie und Alltag (Dec. 10), DIE GOLDENEN ZITRONEN will contribute Lenin (Dec. 13) and THE NOTWIST will perform Neon Golden (Dec. 12).
With new and established events side by side, Düsseldorf’s festival landscape has a scope broad enough to cover topics like the history of pop music (Electri_city Conference, Lieblingsplatte), current developments and trends (Open Source Festival, New Fall Festival) and future possibilities of composition and the relation of music to the increasing importance of digital art (die digitale, Approximation Festival) – the latter also being a key aspect Jean-Benoît Dunckel of the French duo AIR talked about in an earlier interview for NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION.
Talking to Markus Acher about what he personally associates with Düsseldorf, the historical aspect comes right into play. ‘Well, first of all Düsseldorf is an integral part of the music history and KRAFTWERK as well the the punk and krautrock movement certainly influenced us. It’s not that we know all of these people personally, of course, but they’ve created records that mean a lot to us. On a more personal level, it’s the case that we’ve met MOUSE ON MARS in Düsseldorf and they’re also a band I strongly connect with the city. Moreover, I think that Esch’s book Electri_City might have helped to recollect Düsseldorf’s meaning if it comes to the development and history of music.’
Markus, what does it mean for you to play at a festival that is said to have artists perform one specific record in its entirety?
Well, playing a whole album is something we would rather do when we’re specifically asked for it. Personally, I think as someone attending such a concert and knowing the specific record that is brought to the stage it is enjoyable. As a musician, however, it’s more of a challenge to perform this way as the concept totally differs from our usual live gigs. For instance, it’s usually the case that from the beginning you’re somewhat restricted to the songs that are included on an album and you simply like to play more. Then again a record might consist of a range of relatively quiet songs which is odd for us to play as we like to keep our sets more diverse or mixed. So, there’s a lot to consider which in turn doesn’t mean that it’s not fun to perform a full record.
The festival asks artists to perform important records of the German pop music history. Was Neon Golden an obvious choice for you then?
Different aspects come into play here. First, we have already performed Neon Golden several times before which means that we basically know how to handle this. Also, you have to consider that it requires a lot of time and rehearsals until the band can put a concert like this into practice; you need time to be able to play a whole record live. Then again the specific way we currently like to perform live makes Neon Golden a good and reasonable choice. Consequently, it’s at least for now that Neon Golden is the best record to be presented and performed live in its entirety by us.
A side effect of Lieblingsplatte festival is the celebration of the album format in times where especially and evidently younger people prefer to consume individual songs. What is THE NOTWIST’s opinion of records and releasing an album in 2016?
Well, both as listener and musician it’s always the whole album that is immediately on my mind and of major importance. I buy records and usually listen to them from start to end. It’s not that I’m compiling Spotify playlists. When I create music with the band it’s also essential to get an idea for the whole project and questions like ‘what is the overall sound of the album’ or ‘what should be the first, what could be the last track on the record’ come up very quickly. Each new song automatically makes us think about other tracks and the context of an album as well. It’s indeed always the full album that counts.
So, the way you perceive music as a listener influences the way you do your own albums.
Yeah, this is surely the case.
We’re not only musicians but also big fans of music and so it’s very natural for us to like the album format or specifically vinyl. With our own music it’s basically the case that we try to do our records the way we as listeners would like to hear and buy them.
This also implies thoughts on what the artwork should look like and how, for example, the front cover might appeal to the audience.
‘We’ve always been about releasing albums.’
Would you say that with THE NOTWIST it’s always been clear that new music is going to be released on albums or did you possibly think about other formats as well?
We’ve always been about releasing albums and it’s nice to see vinyl being quite popular again these days. Also, in this regard I have to admit that it’s the vinyl version of what we do that I think of most. However, this concerns releasing music. Quite naturally, the process of creating music and the music itself always come first. Nonetheless, the question of how we get our music out to the streets is of equal importance and then it’s always the album and vinyl edition that we are most interested in.
The music press tends to compare every new record by THE NOTWIST with Neon Golden. Can a specific record also be some kind of a burden?
Well, it’s been especially the numerous interview situations back in 2008 when we released The Devil, You + Me that made us realise how special Neon Golden had become for people in the meantime. However, we as a band felt somewhat surprised about it as Neon Golden has always been one step out of many for us and therefore we consider it one record in an ongoing process that has never stopped. Anyway, we ourselves can’t really understand the exceptional status some people ascribe to Neon Golden. I think it’s a good album and it’s been the right decision to make this record at the given time but then again it’s exactly what I feel for all of our albums. It’s always been important for us to have a concrete idea and to realise it at a certain time while doing our best to succeed. And since we feel that we did that for each and every album I kind of favour each of our records alike.
What makes it special for you to perform Neon Golden at Lieblingsplatte festival?
What makes Neon Golden special or even outstanding is that almost all songs on it are still part of our live repertoire. However, we’ve started working on the tracks a lot so that the arrangements noticeably differ from the original album versions.
Ultimately, you could say that the songs managed to develop a life of their own. Actually, one might describe them as transformations that feel quite current for us in spite of the record being released years ago.
It’s a progress you will also hear on our recent live album Superheroes, Ghostvillains + Stuff as it collects all current live versions of these songs.
‘There’s a constant change as to how we play our songs live.’
Judging from your live shows reworking songs seems to be of general importance for you.
Yes, indeed, it’s an important aspect for us as well as a necessity to keep things fresh and interesting. Also, it gives us the opportunity to show and implement aspects that we currently like and focus on. Basically, there’s a constant change as to how we play our songs live. The tracks evolve over time – and they do so very slowly. For instance, there are songs that get significantly longer over time until at a later stage we don’t like the length anymore and shorten them. Playing the same songs and the same arrangements over and over again would drive us mad, I guess.
So, in the end it’s also the individual song that matters.
Very often a song or a certain arrangement of a track that you do, for example the way you deliver it on a record, is only a snapshot in time. As time goes on, the music is allowed to unfold and especially when it’s being performed live you realise that there is so much more potential left. This is the moment progress starts and comes into play. We’re glad that Superheroes, Ghostvillains + Stuff is able to capture this.