From One Wrong Place to the Next: An Interview with The Notwist

They've been making albums since 1990 and have that rare distinction of being a band that has no two discs ever sounding the same. For their first album in years, the Notwist change things once again.
The Notwist
Close to the Glass
Sub Pop

A simple arrangement of beeps and an assortment of other electronic sounds slowly joined by Markus Acher’s soft vocals welcome us to “Signals”, the opening track in the Notwist‘s eighth studio album Close to the Glass. With very sparse lyrics, highlighted by the repetition of the line “we wanna be you”, the song seems to be making a case for how the rest of the album will attempt to connect us to a higher form of being, through the use of “cold” sounds. There is an icy feeling permeating this entire work in a way that has little or nothing to do with the last time we heard from them (in their score for the 2009 film Storm which combined electronic beats with lush arrangements worthy of Michael Nyman).

If anything this lack of continuity in terms of sound, should speak about the fact that this is the very same band that started as a harder rock band and who in their eponymous debut album combined metal and grunge with results that couldn’t seem farther from their trip-hoppy followup Shrink. If anything, siblings and founding members, Markus and Michael Acher have proved that the Notwist’s truly defining quality is how they aren’t afraid to experiment. In 2002 they made one of the greatest albums of recent times; the truly groundbreaking Neon Golden which set in motion an electronica-meets-indie rock revolution that define the sound of a decade. Yet while other bands that emulate their style continued creating records in the same vein, The Notwist left that sound behind, perhaps as if to show they’d satiated a craving, and continued exploring different genres.

Close to the Glass then has them at their iciest and most experimental. You can almost see the gleeful look in their programmer Martin Gretchmann’s face as he pushed their sound to places they’d never been to before. The album isn’t pleasurable in the common sense of the word; because more often than not it seems to want to keep us away from it, but after a few repeat listens you realize that staying away from the landscapes the band creates is practically impossible. We talked to Markus about how they came up with this sound, Neon Golden‘s effect on their oeuvre and how working with your brother might make the line between business and pleasure quite blurry.

* * *

First, let me start by saying I can’t believe its been 12 years since Neon Golden which is unarguably one of my favorite albums of all time and definitely marked a change in your career as well. When you recorded that album did you expect it to become such a significant, defining element of the Notwist?

Great, you like Neon Golden! We didn’t expect it to become something other than just our next record at that time. We were very happy about the reactions. When we had finished the follow-up-album The Devil, You + Me we had to learn, that many journalists thought of Neon Golden as our best record, and that nothing good could follow. But now we had made the “record after Neon Golden” and that felt very good, actually.

If we don’t count Storm (because it’s a soundtrack) it’s been almost six years since your last studio album. What have you been up to all this time?

We played shows, made music with the other bands we’re in, recorded a score for another movie by Hans-Christian Schmid called Home for the Weekend, made a radio play and music for theater. And then the recording for this new album took us two years… which was more than we wanted to …

The first two songs of Close to the Glass have a chilly, industrial sound to them that put listeners in a daze that’s suddenly broken by the peppy “Kong”. The rest of the album similarly shows abrupt, but very cleverly designed, changes in genre. How did you come up with the album’s structure?

We started to record, and didn’t really know, what we wanted. We recorded as a band live in the studio and didn’t like the result. Then we started to work electronically, got tired of it, and started to improvise with sounds and samples … and so we had all these different songs, that didn’t really go together — at least we thought that — in the middle of the recordings, we were at the point of throwing everything away and start new again. But then we finished the song “Run, Run, Run”, and it showed us a way to see the record … as a sort of collage … colourful and with hard cuts and surprises, with different styles mixed together, sometimes maybe even in one song. We thought of records like Cornelius’ Fantasma, Beastie Boys’ Hello Nasty or Beck’s Odelay. Or also hip-hop records like J Dilla’s Donuts. That, mixed with ’60s records like S.F. Sorrow by The Pretty Things gave us an idea, how to see the record.

And in contrary to The Devil, we didn’t try to find “one” sound for the whole record, but worked on something like a mosaic of sounds and styles, that in the end put the puzzle together into one big whole.

I was very mystified by the sound and lyrics of “7 Hour Drive”. Can you talk about what inspired you to create this song?

I had the words “7-hour-drive” that I sang along, when I composed the song, but I don’t know why … or where it came from. So I thought of that story about a long distance relationship. And I liked the idea of starting the lyrics with a disillusioned moon … as poor moon always has to be romantic in every love-story.

“The Fifth Quarter of the Globe” feels like a loose piece from a soundtrack. After projects like Absolute Giganten and Storm how interested are you in scoring more films? What kinds of movies that you’ve seen recently would you want to score for example?

This small collage originated from a radio-play we did. The work on this radio-play, which was mainly sample-based, gave us some good ideas for the new record. We liked having lots of old records around us in the studio, and look for sounds. Generally, we like working on movie-soundtracks, as it gives us other ideas. We have to look for certain moods and work very minimal, most of the time. We learned a lot from that, about sounds and structures. I would love to compose music for any movie we can relate to, and that is brave and curious with the soundtrack.

“Run Run Run” reminded me of something I’ve always liked about your electronic albums and it’s that you find something akin to romance in electronic beats. How do you feel about allegations that electronic music can’t always express love and warmth?

I think, there’s many electronic sounds, that can touch you deeply, as much as acoustic instruments do. There are keyboard-sounds or arpeggios, that have a very special “lost” or “sad” qualities to them, that make them sound very timeless and unique. We have a certain taste, and so we look all the time for sounds, that we like … may they be from instruments or samples …

I felt like in the last songs of this album, your jazz influences are showing more than ever before. Can you talk about the genres that inspired Close to the Glass and especially about how your father’s love of Dixieland comes into play with the music you’re making?

Our father’s Dixieland band influenced us a lot, of course, because we played with him as long as we played with the Notwist. So we know these New Orleans songs very well, and could play them half-asleep in the middle of the night. But they aren’t direct influences in our music. For Close to the Glass, for me the influences were French movie-soundtracks from the ’70s (the incredible soundtrack to César et Rosalie by Philippe Sarde was a big influence on the song “Signals”), recent more electronic music like Flying Lotus or Caribou, hip-hop records by Madlib and Apollo Brown, old electronic and library records by people like Eric Framond or Mort Garson and lots of old psychedelic and folk records, like Syd Barrett or the folk-duo Tee & Cara (a record I listened to a lot …). And then we started to listen to ’90s independent music a lot. Stereolab, My Bloody Valentine, the Pastels, Broadcast, Sonic Youth … always huge influences on everything we do.

You and Michael have been working together since 1989, has your relationship as siblings changed because of this? Or do you find yourselves discussing arrangements and beats over Christmas dinner?

We definitely also discuss music related things when we’re at our parents. But generally it hasn’t changed our relationship too much. For the bands we play in it’s a very good thing, as we can communicate very quick and easy.

You’ve mentioned the influence of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock in the way you want to compose and perform music. Are you at a point in your career where you feel like you’ve delivered The Notwist’s very own Laughing Stock?

Oh, I don’t know. Laughing Stock is such an incredible album, I’d never put anything we did near to it. But it’s true, it will always be a big influence in terms of sound and recording, and also in how it combines different styles and genres in a very experimental way, but in the end becomes a very touching, song-based album.

What current bands have you been listening to?

I love the second Coin Coin LP by Matana Roberts, I like Express Rising, Takako Minekawa’s new record, Mount Eerie, Dark Star, and I am addicted to the music by the composer David Lang.

Throughout your career you’ve done punk, electronica, indie pop and ambient music. Is there any genre you’re not interested in exploring? Why?

I don’t know, there’s many genres we’re not so much into … but generally, we never really plan.

Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features for publication consideration with PopMatters.
Call for essays, reviews, interviews, and list features.