Name: The Notwist
Members: Cico Beck, Markus Acher, Max Punktezahl, Micha Acher
Interviewee: Markus Acher
Occupation: Experimental songwriters
Current release: Vertigo Days on Morr Music.
Recommendations: One of my recent favourite books is "A dance with Fred Astaire" by Jonas Mekas. And everything by the artist James Castle.
If you enjoyed this interview with The Notwist, head over to their website for more information on the band.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started composing songs as a teenager, together with my brother Micha and friends. These songs were mainly imitating the bands and musicians we really liked. In the beginning this was all kinds of stuff, like Mike Oldfield, the Police or Billy Cobham-jazz-funk. But the biggest influence for me soon became Neil Young.
Later I discovered Punk and joined the Punk-band-scene of our small town, and then got into American Hardcore-and Post-Hardcore-bands like Rites of Spring, Moving Targets, Wipers, Pitchfork and Sonic Youth. When I heard Dinosaur Jr.’s You’re Living All Over Me one day, this was a revelation for me …Neil Young mixed with Hardcore … noisy guitars, metal-riffs and 60s-folky-melodies … a music I had dreamed of! This was the beginning of the Notwist.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
This is hard to tell, as I try not to analyze my composing too much. I think, most important in the end is always to know what you don’t want to do.
Music is a strange and intimate language … it is transforming experiences in sounds … you can not grab it, but still it can make you cry … so the more I know, the less I understand, and this is really great.
Listening to other people’s music, the sounds on the streets or in nature is the biggest inspiration. Like the band Van Pelt wrote it: “stealing from our favourite thieves“. More than a musician I am a fan, and I learn and take so much from other artists.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
When we started as Hardcore-Punk-trio, we had no knowledge of recording. This was before computers helped everybody build their own studio at home, and so we went to this heavy-metal-studio for the first 2 records and just let the engineer record and mix all the songs.
We were lucky, we got to know Olaf Opal then, who, starting with our third record, produced all our albums … and also our friend Mario Thaler in our hometown Weilheim and his uphon-studio, where we recorded with the Notwist and many of our other bands. Mario had a very definite idea of what he wanted to do and that helped us a lot to find our sound.
But what we learned in the end is, that it’s not about equipment. We trust our ears and came back to a more DIY-way of recording.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
In the beginning, we recorded and mixed in Mario Thaler’s uphon-studio. He had lots of vintage- and new equipment and was constantly buying and trying out new gear. When uphon stopped, we made our own studio called Alien Research Center… one big room with lots of bought and found instruments and recording-equipment and we then recorded there, sometimes together with an engineer-friend, sometimes on our own.
Now we work most of the time in a tiny living-room-studio in the heart of Munich. The gear is not important at all, I think, you can create great music with everything, from high-end-microphones to 4-track-recorders. More and more. we record us playing together in one room again, with one or two microphones in the middle. In my opinion, as much as possible should happen "outside of the computer" … there is no app that can do what happens when people play together and communicate in music.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me personally, the more possibilities a machine or tool has, the less interesting it is. You mostly loose a lot of time trying everything and forget what you initially were looking for. So I prefer to have just a few very simple machines and try every possible combination. Like an instrument. Also to use something in a way it is not meant to be can bring the best ideas and sounds. Broken machines, faults and mistakes helped us a lot.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I could describe my relationship to musical tools as experimental, but honestly it is mostly naive and amateurish.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
We are always huge fans of the artists, we make music with, or who we ask for cover-artwork or videos. Over the years, we did many different collaborations, in many different forms.
With the drummer Billy Hart for example, who collaborated with our band Tied + Tickled Trio, we first composed songs for an ensemble of acoustic musicians, and when we saw that he is very interested in electronic music, we recorded improvisations with him and electronic instruments, and made collages out of it. With Saya and Ueno from Tenniscoats and Mat Fowler from Jam Money and Cico from Notwist and joasihno I met in Munich in our small studio and everybody suggested songs. We recorded them very quickly and live, and it became the band Spirit Fest, one of my greatest and most unique experiences of playing together and creating spontaneously.
For our new album Vertigo Days, which we finished during lockdown last year, we could only share files (except for one track with the Japanese brass-band Zayaendo, which we had already recorded together on a mobile-phone). But as we met the artists before or knew their work very well, we just gave them complete freedom to choose what they want to add. And it always sounded much better then we ever thought it would.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
For me personally it is impossible to have a fixed schedule at the moment …with two children and half of the time taking care of them, and now with homeschooling on and off, it is quite chaotic and unpredictable.
But also in general, my life is quite varied. I just do what has to be done on that particular day … this could be going into the studio with someone, recording by myself, composing … but also a lot of time, I spend working for our label Alien Transistor or organizing things like the Alien Transistor Festival or the Minna Miteru-series for Morr Music.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I can describe our current album Vertigo Days. As we wanted to change and do things differently, but also capture the energy of our live-concerts, we started with only improvising and recording these improvisations. We recorded a lot … little collages from sampled old records, electronic soundscapes or song-like band-improvisations.
After corona and the first lockdown started, we met to select, arrange and edit these recordings and compile them to an album. We also made songs out of them, or composed new songs. More and more we got the idea of turning it into a sort of mixtape or DJ-mix, where songs blend into each other … but also a soundtrack, where themes and melodies repeat with different sounds and arrangements. The art of photographer Lieko Shiga, that we chose during these times, but also the general surrealistic atmosphere of this lockdown further contributed to the overall feeling of the album. It reminded us of the dreams you have, when you wake up and fall asleep again in the morning …
The idea to collaborate with our favorite current musicians (Saya from Tenniscoats, Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay and Juana Molina) came already before we started finishing the record. But it sort of saved us during the lockdown, because it gave us the possibility to communicate and interact with musicians from allover the world … to leave Munich and Germany somehow … something, that is really important to us and was not possible anymore.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
For me personally, it always has to go fast, when there is an idea, that I think is worth following. So I don’t want to deal with gear or complicated set-ups to record something … also the quality is not important. I can compose everywhere … but I can’t force it. It can be the ideal conditions, on 9 of 10 days, I will not compose something that is worth keeping.
Also I try to make it as subconscious as possible … I just take the first melodies and words, that come to my mind and then work on it for a long time … for many years, it worked well for me to look for singing-melodies and words while driving in my car … because I have to concentrate on driving and my mind is occupied with this, I came up with strange and uncontrolled ideas sometimes.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Live-playing definitely has a big impact on our studio-recordings. For our new album, the experience of our acoustic band Hochzeitskapelle, where we only play acoustic instruments and without PA, and never have fixed arrangements or structures in the songs influenced us to play more live in the studio. But also the albums with the band Spirit Fest, which we had recorded in one room together and live with only a few over-dubs gave us the courage to also try more like this for the Notwist again.
For this album we wanted to use improvisations, but also coincidences and "mistakes" to get to other ideas and don’t fall into routines. That’s why we tried to keep as much as possible from the improvisations and let them structure the songs.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Sometimes a sound carries the whole song, sometimes the sound is already the entire song, sometimes the sound or arrangement doesn’t matter much and it’s all about the composition. There is no rule. Somehow we dream of noise, when the song gets too beautiful, and when it’s all noise, we look for the song in it.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
I always have to have images in my mind to finish an album. Every song for me always has a color, and from that the whole album takes shape more and more.
My music-making is always very much connected to pictures, and it is not finished if I don’t have a certain picture in my head. With this album, when we had found Lieko Shiga’s photographs, the whole album became the soundtrack to her images.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art in every form can make you understand other people better and create empathy. In this sense, it is very political. It can create other worlds and utopias. It can say things that words can not and express something you know and feel, too, in a very intense way. It is like a secret language, we all can understand and need to communicate apart from speaking. In this sense, I also see art as something, everybody can do and not something, that some art-, music-, writing- or whatever-experts determine.
There are many beautiful things to learn and many great tools to buy, but in the end, the idea is important, and the skills and instruments don’t matter. Many times the biggest inspirations for me came from artists, who are not part of the art-world or trained musicians … like the painters and poets of Gugging, the songs of the pygmies, children’s drawings, the beautiful throat-singing of the Inuit, etc … If our music can speak to a few people and make their life richer, we are very happy.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Music is everywhere and everything is music, so it will always be there and always change. For example it always excites me again, how you can feel the content of a song without speaking the language. This will always stay with us.