Photo by Olaf Heine
Those already familiar with Farin Urlaub likely know him as the singer/guitarist of German punk giants Die Ärzte. But he’s also a successful solo artist and has been a consistent personality in German music since the 1980s. At 51, he’s looking back on a three-decade-long career.
Starting out as a small punk band in West Berlin in 1982, Die Ärzte went from Kreuzberg squats to big stadium stages. In 2002, Farin Urlaub founded his solo band, Farin Urlaub Racing Team (FURT). Faszination Weltraum (fascination space), their fourth studio album, was released this past autumn on Urlaub’s own Völker Hört Die Tonträger label, and continues to show his penchant for solid rock and slick, humourous German lyrics. He and his team play at Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide on Thursday, August 20, and their live DVD/CD Danger!, recorded on their current tour, will be released in September.
You’ve been on tour for a month now – how is it going so far?
It’s great, we’re having a lot of fun. I can finally live out my orchestral fantasies. We’re a big band and we have wind instruments, singers, two guitars, a keyboard and percussion, so it’s a pretty big sonic range.
A song that especially stands out on Faszination Weltraum is “Dynamit”. It’s about the ugliness of modern urban architecture. Sounds a little like Berlin...
Parts of Berlin, yes. (laughs) For a while there was this big hole in the middle, a nice empty space, which they eventually built on. My sister has been living abroad for a long time and when she came to visit she was like, “Oh, I see, so Bielefeld has come to Berlin now!” That hit the nail on the head. But the song is not only about Berlin, it’s more about the monotonous way that inner cities are planned nowadays. Contrary to all human needs, just intended to make the flow of money and goods as easy as possible. I don’t watch TV but I’m waiting for a talk show to invite 20 of these city planners and ask them: “Do you actually like what you’re doing there?”
So you support the anti-gentrification protests?
It’s not as black and white as people make it out to be. But yes, it’s hard to watch the destruction of the very things that make a city liveable. People move to Berlin because of the cool scene but then they’re like “Wait, I don’t want the cool scene to happen on my doorstep. I have a baby now, I need to sleep.” That’s not okay. Neuberliner should have to sign a contract that states, “Yes, I like this, that’s why I’m moving here, and I will do everything in my power to keep it alive.” And not the opposite. Moving somewhere and destroying what you came there for... can you be any more bescheuert? In English there is this saying, only an idiot shits where he eats. This is what seems to be happening.
You’re featured in the documentary B Movie, which sparked a new wave of interest in the 1980s West Berlin scene. Was it really that amazing back then?
This is actually a really problematic topic. I started writing a song about it to describe how I feel, it went something like, “I don’t want the Mauer back, but I really miss West Berlin...” – and then I don’t know how it went on. The thing is, we lived in a totally unreal land of bliss, nobody had to do military service, we paid less taxes and as a result of that, there was a huge influx of rather left-wing, work-averse people who got involved in culture. And we all knew each other. When I was a young punk, there were maybe 500 to 800 of us. It was pretty unreal to be in a big city that had that small-town vibe.
You eventually left Berlin and moved away...
I lived away from Berlin for a long time, but I actually came back 20 years later, because I missed it. And now I can’t wait to get out of here again. I have a very ambivalent relationship with Berlin. On the one hand, it’s the greatest city in the world, on the other hand I’m really fed up with it because so many things have changed for the worse. There is no enclosed scene anymore. There are hundreds of thousands of scenes that are often jealous of each other and isolate themselves. Back in the days it was more like, us against the rest of the world. It was incredibly amazing and I’m really glad I got to experience it, even though the Wall traumatised me so much that I do a runner as often as I can.
You do get out of Berlin a lot. In September you’re releasing your third and fourth photo books about your travels through Africa. How do you maintain a balance between travelling and the life of a rock star?
Well, I don’t take the rock star thing very seriously. But the stage name helps a lot, it gives me a different identity. My true passion is travel, even more so than music. But music is such a vital part of my life that both music and travel are mutually dependent on each other. Travelling doesn’t directly influence my music, though. I’m not that type of ethno person who invites a tabla player and then it’s all international. That’s not my thing. My background is punk rock, so I make rock music. The travels boost my creativity and give me input that way but I don’t use them in my lyrics. That’s what my books are for.
You’ve travelled to a lot of poor and war-ridden parts of the world.
The first few times that I was faced with hopeless and utter poverty I was shocked, and of course my first impulse was to think, what can I do? But at some point you realise that unless you’re Bill Gates – and even he isn’t making a lot of progress – you can’t fundamentally change those countries. So you start doing things on a smaller scale. For example, I’m donating my profits from the books to Doctors Without Borders. There are also people I met down there who I am trying to support directly. It’s always a balancing act. I’m not the type of person who dedicates their entire life to saving a country. I’m not capable of that and I also have too many other interests. [in English] “But it’s always on my mind!”
FARIN URLAUB RACING TEAM Thu, Aug 20, 19:30 | Kindl-Bühne Wuhlheide, Straße zum FEZ 4-6, Oberschöneweide, S-Bhf Wuhlheide