"I imagined Arto Lindsay to be a bit more freaky!" - Interviews - Soundblab

"I imagined Arto Lindsay to be a bit more freaky!"

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

Fuck fuck fuckerty fuck. I arrive at Rough Trade East hot, shamefully sweaty and unprofessionally flustered. Outside, it’s the hottest day of the year, and the sun beats remorselessly down on the vividly graffiti-covered walls and shop-fronts of Old Truman Brewery, a secluded area just off London’s Brick Lane, a place bustling and bursting with street food vendors and interestingly-haired individuals. Slightly delirious and dehydrated, I feel like the young Harry Potter if, rather than enrolling in Hogwarts, he’d moved into a hipster squat with Banksy.

I’m here to interview and watch a performance by To Rococo Rot, the German electronica band who have colonised the word ‘seminal’ the way men with long beards and worryingly small bikes have colonised this area of London. I’m here to discuss their latest album, Instrument, their first for four years and the first to feature vocals, provided by no wave legend Arto Lindsay. But I’m late and, even worse, have precious little battery power left on my phone with which to record the conversation. What a dick.

I sit patiently but damply waiting for my turn to chat to bassist Stefan Schneider, noticing that the woman currently interviewing him seems to be doing most of the talking. Eventually, Katie, the group's wonderful press officer, politely steps in and makes sure I get some face-time before the band’s other two members – brothers Robert and Ronald Lippok – complete their soundcheck.

As a lulling sound-bed of ambient, synthy fiddling and twiddling goes on behind us, I fumble with my crumpled notes. How will this man who seems the very model of Germanic efficiency (I’m really sorry to stereotype, but he genuinely does!) handle my somewhat scattershot approach? Well, Reader, I interviewed him, and a more charming electro ubermensch I have yet to meet.  

How did the collaboration with Arto Lindsay come about?

I think it came about through one of the rehearsal sessions we did for the album and I think in total we had, like, four, five rehearsal sessions over a period of two or three years.

With Arto?

Without Arto, so it was just the three of us in a rehearsal space in Berlin. I think during the first rehearsal session we had a talk and said this time it would be interesting to work with a vocalist. We started debating who to ask and who to approach, and Ronald came with a suggestion to ask Arto Lindsey.

We knew Arto because he came to one of our shows in New York many years ago and he wrote an article on one of our albums some years ago. We thought it was a brilliant, brilliant piece of writing. We knew that he was familiar with what we were doing and we thought it would be interesting to ask him.

That is quite interesting because none of us is a huge fan of Arto Lindsey. None of us has tons of DNA bootlegs at home or Brazilian stuff, but as soon as Ronald came up with Arto we thought, yeah, that would fit.

Did you know him more through meeting him?

We knew some of his records. We grew up with the DNA music but I remember when that No New York came out, I was 15 or 16, it was too experimental for me. There was so much new music coming out at that time and then all of a sudden there was this no wave stuff coming from New York. It was very freaky to me. A friend of mine introduced me to the records he did in the 90s, like in the Brazilian style, and I really loved those records.

I think it was that when you hear Arto sing on those records, you immediately hear that he’s an autodidact, he’s self-taught. I thought that would definitely fit into what we are doing. He has a way as a singer where he will not automatically become the front-person and we will become the backing band for Arto Lindsay. The way he uses his vocal you can immediately hear that he will be like another instrument.

So it was really a ray of intuition. It was brilliant. It was only four days in the studio.

Was he quite improvisational and spontaneous?

Yes, we did two recording sessions in Berlin, last year in April and September. We reserved four days to work with him in the studio and he came along without any previous preparation so there were no lyrics written or anything. He just wanted to listen to a number of tracks and he said, “Yeah OK… I like one, three and five, and I will try something.”

He was sitting next to the recording engineer and he had a notebook. He started to sing along while he was listening to the tracks and he was slowly developing the words, writing down the words. It was a very gradual process.

Are his vocals on the tracks first-takes?

No, none was first take. He really had to work on the bits and pieces. He is technically not that type of singer that does a first-take. It was worked on but it was fine. It was his familiar way of working, to develop the melodies and lyrics.

Was working in that way a challenge for you guys?

It was highly interesting and highly enjoyable because we had no idea what type of person he is because we had only known him very briefly. I imagined him to be a bit more freaky! But he has a very lovely scene of humour, like a New York sense of humour, and what I liked a lot about him is that he lives in the present tense.

He has a 10-year-old son and he had to buy some Nintendo games that are available in Europe in different versions and in Brazil, so he lives a very contemporary life. He’s not a person who constantly starts talking the 70s and how great CBGBs was and stuff, so that was a relief!

Going back to the 70s… Was it easy growing up in Germany to get records like No New York?  

Ronald co-wrote some books about East German punk, underground music. He cares a lot about the history of the East German underground movement. The Berlin scene was very close to the literature scene in East Germany.

To get punk records or new wave records you had to go to Budapest, in Hungary, which was the most liberal of those Eastern Bloc countries. It was very, very difficult for people from East Germany to travel to other countries in the Eastern Bloc, it was not that you could go anywhere you wanted.

I was once in Poland in ’86, and for me it was quite easy to go to Poland from West Germany (Stefan grew up in Dusseldorf). I was on a train in East Germany and for people travelling from East Germany it was really difficult. They had to have loads of papers, and passports, and visas. They were being controlled and inspected many, many times by the police. It must have been very difficult.

What did you listen to growing up?

One thing we had in common in East Berlin and Dusseldorf was John Peel. In East Berlin, it was quite easy to access BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Services). In Dusseldorf was the headquarters was the British Rhine Army so there were lots of British people in Dusseldorf. Therefore you had access to British radio very easily.

John Peel was a huge influence also for Robert and Ronald. The interesting thing about his shows was that he would play some rockabilly music next to some punk music, and then some jazz music and some music from Indonesia. That was highly interesting, to hear all that music from different cultures of the world next to each other. In terms of To Rococo Rot, he had a huge influence on the way we grew up.

It’s four years since your previous album. What made you this time think you wanted to try vocals? Was that the product of a lot of experimentation or was it just a mission statement from the start?

On the previous album, Speculation, we collaborated with Jochen Irmler from Faust because he invited us to come to his studio in Stuttgart. For that album, we thought a vocalist would be too much of a mish-mash thing, and would pull focus away from the wonderful collaboration with him. And the album before that, ABC One Two Three, was more of a conceptual album which was meant to be for a documentary on the Helvetica typeface. It was difficult to say – it was in the air, it was intuition, and this time we thought it would be nice to have some vocals in it.

The first ever time we worked with a vocalist was Sarah Cracknell from Saint Etienne. We produced one of the Saint Etienne albums in 2000. We were basically like a studio band for Saint Etienne on Sound of Water and it was really interesting because I felt that she was a bit under-rated in the band.

The two guys were like producers and she was the singer. While working together with her on those recording sessions we thought, ah, she’s really keen on doing more than she possibly has to do in Saint Etienne.

Do you think you’ll carry on using singers now?

I have no idea!

Many Descriptions’ is the only track on the album which to me sounds like it has a conventional song-structure. Is that an anomaly or a sign of where you’re going?

I think the songwriting credit (for ‘Many Descriptions’) goes to Arto because if you listen to the tracks, they’re all on one chord! (Arto said) “It’s not really songwriting that you do, it’s all on one chord”. And we said, yeah, we never think of chord changes (laughs)! It’s definitely his credit that he gave it a bit of a songwriting feeling with his contribution.

Are there any singers you would like to work with?

Sarah Cracknell would be lovely to approach again because that session with Saint Etienne, that’s already 14 years ago. That’s like an unfinished opportunity because she’s a great person and a great singer.

Dusseldorf has such a music history. What’s the music scene like there now?

It is highly interesting. There’s not as much going on as in other cities, but there’s a lot going on in terms of very interesting, experimental music. I’d say the only thing that is missing is maybe an interesting record label which would put out some of the music.

There are fantastic clubs in Dusseldorf. I’d say since the late 50s, all electronic music has been deeply connected to the art scene in Dusseldorf. Dusseldorf has a very prolific art scene since the 50s, because of the art academy, and Cologne has a huge gallery scene; there are lots of museums.

The art scene is one of the most interesting in Europe still. The club scene is excellent (but) there are hardly any good labels.

We have cities over here which seem a little burdened by their music history.

Like Sheffield or –

Yeah, like Manchester or Liverpool, with The Beatles and stuff.

But Liverpool had a good music scene in the late 70s with Teardrop Explodes and that was totally different. Yeah, it’s always like, when you say you’re from Dusseldorf and you do electronic music, especially in the UK and America, everyone mentions Kraftwerk. It’s hard to get anyway from that because there has been so much interesting music coming from Dusseldorf.

But it’s not the worst reference. They haven’t done any interesting records in 30 years so…

Very true. Do you have a favourite place to play live?

(Long pause) Not really, no (laughs). In London, we’ve played so many different places, from Queen Elizabeth Hall to the Water Rats. In that sense, I guess we prefer the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

At this point, Katie interrupts to say it’s time for Stefan to join the other two on stage. I don’t mind at all, I’m amazed I’ve had as much time as I have with an artist I have so much respect for. Plus my phone didn’t give up on me. Result!

Stefan seems to evaporate silently into the growing crowd and re-condense with suitable understatement onto the stage, where Robert and Ronald are already waiting. The gig is amazing, of course; their machine-with-soul music is the perfect denouement to a beautiful, brutally hot, slightly surreal summer’s day.

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