Friday, 23 December 2011


The release of the eleventh Tarwater album, 'Inside The Ships', finds the Berlin duo drawing reference from 1950s sci-fi, kraut-minimalism and experimental cinema; even eliciting the atypical circumstance of a film being made around their album- rather than the other way around. While the voice, effected guitar and analogue electronics of Ronald Lippok (also of To Rococo Rot) and Bernd Jestram seem rooted in an entirely post-modern space-age, it is inevitabley borne of their country's kosmiche heritage, flickering B-movies and their 1990s 'post-rock' contemporaries. Inevitable comparisons to Tortoise, Sonic Youth, Neu! and Stereolab abound, yet Tarwater are time-served alumni of this school, and continue to explore the furthest reaches of their (Forbidden) planet of sound. Their new record is clear testament to this, so I thought I should ask them a bit about it. This interview took place when they played the 'Eastern Promise' festival, at Platform, in Glasgow's Easterhouse.

                                                         Tarwater. Photograph by Christoph Voy

The album, Inside The Ships, took two years to finish. What happened during those two years?
R: We were working on stuff like film music, theatre, and radio plays and so on. When we started doing the album in the beginning we didn't have any idea. A friend of ours was working on a space opera- a science fiction space opera- and that was the kind of initial inspiration for the album. We thought that was interesting, and we started listening to space rock, to the Ladbroke Grove scene, and to old science fiction music from the GDR- East German science fiction film music. Actually, it was meant to be a space opera radio play. That was the initial inspiration for the album.

How much of the two years was writing, how much was recording, how much was mastering?
B: Because I'm running the studio, it's always one process. We don't compose at the beginning... We just say "Today is a Tarwater day, let's record something", and we start from zero.
R: We start to do something, and it's not very strategic. We don't write songs in the classic way where you start with an instrument- it always starts with sound, soundscapes... that's the best way for something to happen. When you never know.

The album has inspired a short film. Tell me about that.

R: There was a guy who said to us "Let's do it the other way around. Don't write music for the movie, give me the music first and I'll do the movie". We wanted to see how the video developed, based on the tracks. It's not like a video clip really, it's longer- it's 35 minutes- and it's based on Tarwater tracks. It was good doing it the other way around, because when you work on film music normally, you do the music when you have the pictures and this time it was the other way around.
B: We were recording and making the album at the time, so he got tracks that we didn't put on the record.

Tracks that were meant for the record?

R: Tracks that died!

What did you think of the film?
R: I really liked it it. It was done on Alexanderplatz in the centre of Berlin. Since we were children we've known this place, but looking at the movie we didn't know it was made on Alexanderplatz. It was interesting seeing a place that we're so familiar with, and not noticing it. Imagine going to the most famous spot in Glasgow, and you shoot a movie, and people don't know where it is...
B: It was shot at nighttime, just using the light that was coming from the surroundings.
R: They didn't bring any extra lights, it was just the lights that were there.

So if this guy approached you while you were making the album, did it change the way the album was created?
R: Hmm. Good question. Actually, I don't think so. Working on the album was taking quite a while, for us, because albums have their own needs. It's like when you try to attract an animal, and you go "Come! Come! Come!", we were waiting for the songs to come. To come together. We'd think one was good, then we'd think one was fantastic, but the album had no 'face'. Then when it started to come together, then we thought "OK, let's tour, we've got an album". Recording an album should be a microcosm. It doesn't necessarily have to be a concept album, but you should be able to listen to the whole album and see that this is a little world in itself. You never know when this is going to happen.

The press release for the album says that it definitely isn't a concept album.
R: (Laughs) I know... Science fiction was just an inspiration, but if you listen to the tracks there is a certain theme. Like 'Radio War' is about Orson Welles and the whole story about his radio play (War Of The Worlds) when everybody went nuts about the martians coming to Earth, and how at the time there was this big fear of communism. 'Do The Oz' is like a science fiction dance- "Put your left wing in, take your left wing out"- even though it was inspired by Oz magazine, because Oz was going to stop, and we wanted to support this underground magazine. Science fiction was an inspiration, but I think a concept album has to have a weird story going through it.

Like a Soft Machine album.
R: We love Soft Machine.Soft Machine was one of the inspirations for the album. We did a DJ mix for (excellent music website) The Quietus that you should check out. It's a one-hour mix of science fiction music.

Were you watching a lot of films when you were making the album?
R: Science fiction was always interesting to us, but we were watching a lot of Russian films at the time. We weren't doing 'research', science fiction is always around, it's to do with our lives. It's not like fantasy that puts you someplace completely else, with science fiction you still have a connection.

The science fiction that comes to mind when I listen to the new record is the science fiction of the 1950s and 60s. Stuff that was set in the year 2000. It's this vintage future that never existed.
R: That's a good way of putting it. When I was a child I expected to be living underwater by the age I am now. When you listen to 'Forbidden Planet', it's a very interesting soundtrack, made electronically. When you listen to a science fiction movie from now it's very boring. It's just standard. In the olden days they thought "OK, how could music sound in the future?" That was far more interesting than what science fiction music is now. I think it's a pity that people don't try harder now.

People like Delia Derbyshire, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, who did the Doctor Who music, don't exist anymore.

R: Doctor Who is a very good example. That's fantastic, frightening music. With science fiction there's so much more in the 50s, 60s and 70s than there is now.

Is there any music out just now that you like?

R: I really like the last Kreidler album. I'm not saying that because we're on the same label. I really appreciate that a band like that can make a statement with a record like that. Is there any other stuff?
B: I quite like the new Wire record! I've listened to it several times now, and I like the songwriting, and the singing. I was really impressed. I've been a Wire fan for so long, but the new one just made me say "Wow!"

How has the Tarwater sound developed over the years? The first album was quite beats-based, but do you think your music has begun to merge with the soundtrack work you do?
R: It's hard for us to say. I never listen to the old albums, unless I'm really drunk. Although I was listening to an old track today, for the show, and it sounded quite different to the version we play live. If you work for a long time things will change. With 'Dwellers On The Threshold', we had an interest in folk music. Like psychedelic folk, and soul. I think that changed the sound in a way. But we have always worked in Berlin. We've never worked in, let's say, the countryside. We're always in town, and we're out listening to DJ sets. We're always surrounded by people doing stuff that has an impact on our music. It's not very strategic. We don't go "The next record should be more song-based, or have less guitar" or anything.

Each album seems like a new sound.
R: I like that some people only know the new album, and some people only know the old albums. Some people will only like the albums from the mid 90s, with the singing and electronics. This curious mixture of sound and song. It's hard to say as a band. We don't ever plan anything. For our career that might not be good, but that's the way it is.

Are you touring the new album in a big way?
R: Tonight, we're playing the songs for the first time. It's a special night- it's an adventure! We've been rehearsing at our studio, but we don't know what they sound like through a sound system.

When you're writing a song, do you think about how it'll sound live?
B: No, never. When we're in the studio we just record what we like. We never think about live. So later on we sometimes have massive problems. Like, "How can we play this song, it's not possible".
R: Or we'll have something that we just can't repeat, from an old Korg or something.
B: We can't play all the instruments with just two people.
R: Playing live is like a parallel process to doing the album. We have to think "OK, what can we play live? How can we translate this?" And then we find out.

                                                         Ronald Lippok, me, Bernd Jestram

Tarwater - Inside The Ships sampler by Bureau B

Check out Tarwater's mix for The Quietus here-

No comments:

Post a Comment