You Know This Gloom: An Interview with The Notwist

the notwistThe 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

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