Music & clubs

“German is a relatively inconvenient language”

This, from Tocotronic, the foremost representatives of poetic, German indie rock? They've succeeded thus far. The concert at Lido on Jan 27 is sold out, so keep watch for German friends with spares.

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Jan Müller and Dirk von Lowtzow. Photo by Tania Castellví

German-language indie lyricists Tocotronic release their 10th studio album “Wie wir leben wollen” (How We Want to Live) (Vertigo Berlin/Universal) on January 25, marking the band’s 20th anniversary.

Emerging from the Hamburg University scene of the early 1990s, Tocotronic, founded by singer/ vocalist Dirk Von Lowtzow and bassist Jan Müller, along with drummer Arne Zank, started off as a rock band with punk roots and a cultured ironic sloganeering in songs such as “Ich möchte Teil einer Jugendbewegung sein” (“I Want to be Part of a Youth Movement”). But as they’ve aged, Von Lowtzow’s songs have increasingly favoured poetry over rebellion. Want to see them live? They unleash the new album at Lido on Sun, January 27.

Wie wir leben wollen. How did you manage to all agree upon that?

JAN MÜLLER: This is a very good question.


JAN: No, I really mean that. Dirk presents a lot of material to us and it is very interesting how we develop a perspective together, especially because we chose such a programmatic title.

DIRK: We took a year off to write this record and Jan had just moved to Berlin, so we had a lot of time to talk about the lyrics and everybody had the chance to step in if they found something stupid. Which happened! Only [lead guitarist] Rick [McPhail], as a non-native speaker, would keep to himself.

Dirk, you once said you find it very hard to write good lyrics in German. Why?

DIRK: Whenever you ask someone why they write in German, they often say it’s just the most natural thing, the language they think in. Which is true. But I’ve always perceived it as more difficult, simply because I had been socialised through Anglo-American music as a teenager – it always felt natural to write in English, regardless of how correct the English might have been. [Laughs] And I usually write the songs in a very traditional way, at home with a guitar, as it is very important for the lyrics to be sung and presented in the context of rock music. I’ve always found it hard to write in German.

JAN: You always have to look at the language the genre was created in and pop music is definitely Anglo-American. Chanson is probably most natural in French.

DIRK: And to put it plainly and simply, German is a relatively inconvenient language. It has many consonants and it’s very hard to sound not pretentious, but groovy!

You want your music to sound groovy?

DIRK: Groovy is absolutely important. It has to have a flow, the language has to have a musicality – okay, maybe groovy is a stupid word. [Laughs]

JAN: German-speaking bands often slip into Schlager because that’s just such a German genre. A thing like that does not exist in any other language. There’s definitely a big challenge for German bands and the ones who have taken up this challenge have created very interesting results, like Kraftwerk or Ton Steine Scherben.

You’re always named as one of the central bands of the Hamburger Schule.

DIRK: I think the Hamburger Schule has always been more of a journalistic myth. The term was originally invented by a Die Zeit journalist named Thomas Groß in reference to the Frankfurt School – Adorno, Horkheimer and so on. With this in mind, it was pretty much a joke: this has to be said. It kind of took on a life of its own as more of a regional attribute, but what it actually meant had nothing to do with the city of Hamburg. It meant more of a discursive approach to rock music, an interest in leftist politics, and philosophy, of course. But at the same time, Hamburg had a very active and very cool music scene in the mid-1990s that was totally different from the one in Berlin and other cities.

JAN: There are regional reasons why the Hamburg scene was so very intense. And I would say it’s still like that. Hamburg is obviously not as big and scattered as Berlin, but it’s not so small, so it has enough room for a variety of people. It’s no coincidence that it had such an active beat scene. Or the Hamburg scene in the 1970s with Udo Lindenberg – that had a very similar exchange and communication. There are currently a lot of collectives, like the label Audiolith, for example. Or clubs like Übel & Gefährlich. But then, a lot of people migrate to Berlin: even us!

You both live in Berlin now, and your last four albums were recorded here.

DIRK: Yes, I moved to Berlin pretty early and already had my second flat here by 1998. In early 2003, I left my flat in Hamburg for good. In the late 1990s, Berlin was an incredibly interesting city, and I wanted to broaden my horizons. The Mauerfall hadn’t been so long ago and there was a lot of free space. Every time we played a concert the night usually ended at the Galerie Berlin Tokyo, a bar in a backyard in some kind of basement storage room around Hackescher Markt. You couldn’t imagine something like that existing today. [Laughs] There were a lot of illegal bars and strange ‘heterotopias’, places that stood for certain utopias or were abandoned.

Speaking of nostalgia, you recorded your new album at the Candy Bomber Studios in Flughafen Tempelhof with analogue technology last used in the late 1960s.

DIRK: To record an album like that is a very unusual thing. It’s contrary to the way most or even all musicians work nowadays. Today, it’s mainly about postponing decisions and having every possible option: replacing everything and mixing it back together later. But a recording on a four-track recorder sounds amazing and has a very unique depth and saturation – though it also means that you have to decide beforehand what sound architecture you want it to have. The recording and the mix are almost identical in this case. And you just have a good story to tell because it’s a very unusual thing.

JAN: Before we even got to the studio we had to make so many decisions because the technology expects you to know exactly what you want.

You even released a little audio guide to one of the songs in which a young man explains the recording process.

DIRK: A very young man! [Laughs] The boy is Rick’s son. It’s based on “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra” by Benjamin Britten; there’s a recording by Leonard Bernstein where a little boy speaks the whole thing. It plays a big role in Wes Anderson’s film Moonrise Kingdom, which was admittedly our inspiration to do this. It’s the blueprint.

Speaking of young men, how would you characterise the German man?

DIRK: I don’t know. I already have a problem with the attribution “man”, let alone “German”.

Tocotronic Sun, Jan 27, 20:00 | Lido, Cuvrystr. 7, Kreuzberg, U-Bhf Schlesisches Tor