The first timeI heard The Notwist was in a Rhino Records; the clerk insisted that I listen to a promo copy of Neon Golden as well as, or instead of, the Postal Service album I was buying. While those two records would certainly appeal to the same demographic, The Notwist’s more subtle offering has withstood the test of time somewhat more gracefully, with its moments of sober earnestness and Markus Acher’s plaintive vocals hiding slightly beneath the electronic elements. Neon Golden was actually the band’s fifth album, though it was the first to catapult them into worldwide popularity. It was followed in 2003 by the Different Cars & Trains EP, an interesting collection of instrumental pieces and remixes by the likes of Four Tet, as well as one of the band’s members (Martin Gretschmann, a.k.a. Console).
Now, five years later, they have released the full-length follow-up to Neon Golden, the ambitious and diverse The Devil, You + Me. There are more nuances and slow-burning arrangements this time around. It is most likely an album that will get better and better with each listen, as the layers and lyrics are decoded.
The following interview was conducted via email with the band’s vocalist/guitarist, Markus Acher.
What is the order of operations in crafting most of the Notwist creations? Do any of the songs exist first as melody and lyrics, or do you begin with the programming?
There are different ways: we start composing, I’m always composing with the guitar and singing melodies in my head, the others compose on the computer instrumentally, and then we exchange our ideas. When we have chosen the songs that we think work for The Notwist, we start recording lots of tracks, with all the instruments and sounds we think could fit. And then we start arranging, and most of the time record some more. And so on. Until we think it’s finished. All in circles. One step forth, two steps back. That was the way we worked for the last two records, and we liked it a lot.
But I think for the next record we will start working again in a different way.
Did the international success of Neon Golden have any specific effects on the way you worked on this album? Did it allow you more freedom, or did it make you feel more responsible to produce a specific product?
It actually didn’t affect the recordings too much. We kicked some songs that we thought sounded like Neon Golden songs. But on the other hand, we didn’t try to make something totally different.
We tried to make the structures of the songs unusual for us, though, away from the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure we had on the previous records. More into something mantra-like, like some old folk or blues songs. Folk was a word we used a lot. Maybe it was an [impetus] for the record.
The orchestra works so beautifully on "Where in This World." Were you tempted to incorporate the orchestra into more tracks, or did you want every piece to feel completely different? Do you feel that you will work with a large-scale orchestra again on future releases?
The Andromeda Mega Express Orchestra is a very unusual orchestra of 20 young musicians from Berlin, conducted by Daniel Glatzel. He also wrote all the orchestral arrangements for our songs. He has a very unique way of composing–mixing contemporary, soundtrack, jazz, and classical elements, and that fit very well with our songs. We were looking for something that doesn’t sound like this typical "rock band with symphony orchestra" thing.
We will play some shows with the orchestra in August, in Hamburg and Amsterdam (and maybe more in the end of the year), where we will play songs from the record, compositions of Daniel Glatzel, and maybe one or two new things. We are very excited about this.
You have revealed that the album was greatly inspired by the events in your lives and your friend’s lives (illnesses, births, etc). Is working with such delicate autobiographical material therapeutic, or can it sometimes seem too heavy to tackle?
It was very difficult, important. In the end it was all about finding a way to express something that you cannot express otherwise.
You’ve mentioned that some of the songs were inspired by books and films… Can you talk about some of the art that impacted this record?
Writings that inspired the lyrics were poems by Bob Kaufman (Adam "Doseone" Drucker gave one of his books to me, and I look at it over and over again), and poems by Ernst Herbeck, who found his very own beautiful and disturbing language. The writer Etel Adnan. And Raymond Carver. And Black Hole by Charles Burns, which inspired the whole mood, atmosphere, and [artwork] of the record a lot.
How did you come upon the astrological themes that permeate the album’s lyrics? Planets, astronauts, moons, and suns…
It’s something that interests me, but also I don’t know too much about. I happened to return to these [images], and they happened to be right to describe something close with something very far.
For many people, Neon Golden seemed like a debut album, exploding on the indie-electronic scene. Do you feel there is a separation between your first four releases, and the later two? Do you still perform the early material at your shows?
For us, it’s one step after another. With Neon Golden we more or less continued what we started to try on 12 and Shrink. And we still play certain songs from all of the records, which is a lot of fun. We especially like the very noisy ones!
Can you talk about the record label you started? What inspired it and what are your plans?
We are big fans of vinyl records. And of diversity. We love to discover new labels with a small quantity of obscure records. That’s why we thought, "it’s always good to have some more of this."
And we wanted to release some of the music of our friends. To us, music like Saam Schlamminger’s (aka Chronomad) is some of the best music we know.
Do you have plans to tour for this album, or are you going to take a break, or focus on your many other projects?
We will tour all over this year and also in the beginning of next year. And then we will record some new music with other bands again.
What is exciting to you about the music scene in Germany at the moment… favorite new bands, etc?
There weren’t any new bands that I got to hear that I really liked. Bands in Germany are, like anywhere else I guess, very much into this retro-rock style at the moment.
But there’s still a lot of interesting music, like Tarwater, Klimek, F.S. Blumm…
Other than music, what are three things that make you happy?
My girlfriend, my daughter…
Visit The Notwist on MySpace.
Identity Theory’s recommended listening: "Consequence" and "Boneless" by The Notwist