Interview: Faust / Mogwai

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This article originally appeared in The Herald Newspaper (Scotland).

When wayward Krautrock pioneers Faust assembled in Germany in 1971, their aim, says co-founder Hans-Joachim Irmler, was “to create music for the future”. The electronic rock visionaries, who were touted as “The German Beatles”, subsequently defined the country’s experimental movement (alongside Can and Kraftwerk); became one of the first acts signed to Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin label; and prompted Julian Cope to declare “there is no group more mythical than Faust”. And that was a reasonable charge: the band’s history spans naked live shows, jail spells, orgies, living off dog food, police chases and arson.

Over four decades hence, the radical collective still cast long, psychedelic shadows across popular music, and their liberated (and liberating), progressive spirit continues to thrive. The members of Faust have variously disbanded, reconvened, passed away and re-spawned themselves as dizygotic twins (two separate factions now operate under the Faust appellation). Now, keyboard player and engineer Irmler is set to explore Krautrock’s vital and enduring influence on Scottish pop thanks to Musik / Reise (Music / Travel): a one-off collaboration with members of Mogwai and The Phantom Band that takes place at Glasgow’s Platform on January 10. The project was conceived by Platform’s music programmer Alun Woodward (also of Chemikal Underground) and is supported by the Goethe Institut.

Irmler – who will also perform solo and participate in a career-spanning Q&A at the event – is typically enthusiastic about his upcoming sonic adventure with some of Scotland’s most ingenious contemporary artists. “I’m always interested in understanding how other musicians, and other people, think and feel – how they generate ideas and create things,” he says. “I like Mogwai very much, because their music is different – it’s hypnotic, and complex, and it’s not easy to understand how they make these sounds; where they are coming from; what are their origins. And we coincide in wanting to create musical landscapes in the minds of the audience which combine natural and industrial images.”

Mogwai guitarist Stuart Braithwaite says Krautrock in general, and Faust in particular, have had a central impact on the band’s ethos. “When Brendan O’Hare was playing with us, he introduced us to a lot of Krautrock,” Braithwaite recalls of the ex-Teenage Fanclub drummer who played with Mogwai around the time of their 1997 debut, Young Team. “Ever since, they’ve been a very inspiring set of musicians, and a very inspiring set of recordings – it’s just a really great era of music,” he says. “There are definitely things that we’ve taken from it, but I’d like to think that the main thing is the spirit of freedom, just to try things. Not everything is going to work, but hopefully something great will happen along the way.”

The upcoming Musik / Reise collaboration looks set to reflect this philosophy, while looking – and moving – ever-forward. “I think the general consensus is just to get together and see what happens,” Braithwaite offers. “We’ve got a few days [in the studio] before we play, so we’ll probably just go for it. I’m excited about that. Winging it is always fun.” Braithwaite knows of what he speaks: he and Mogwai’s Barry Burns collaborated with another Krautrock icon, Can’s Damo Suzuki, for an entirely improvised live performance at Holland’s Incubate festival a few years back. (“That was like immersion therapy,” he quips.)

Irmler and Braithwaite will be joined by Mogwai’s Martin Bulloch (drums), plus keyboard maharishi Andy Wake and guitarist Duncan Marquiss, both of The Phantom Band, who release their fourth album, Fears Trending, on January 26. Krautrock’s influence can be discerned across our music landscape – from King Creosote and James Yorkston’s unplugged mantras, through Primal Scream’s dread disco and The Twilight Sad’s post-rock, to the trance-evoking electro-prog of Django Django, Errors and Remember Remember – but perhaps The Phantom Band’s kaleidoscopic Scottische pop comes closest to conjuring Faust’s genre-melding, psychotropic dogma.

Braithwaite nods. “Yeah, definitely. I think The Phantom Band have taken a lot of that wide variety of influences and managed to make their own music out of it – and I think that kind of idea defines the Krautrock era as well.”

Faust met in Hamburg in the late 1960s, and were signed up to Polydor in the hope that their ramshackle, unorthodox genius might bear fruit as Germany’s answer to The Beatles. Such commercial heights did not transpire: Faust had other plans. Their substantial advance allowed them to construct a now-legendary studio in Wumme, and their freewheeling experiments in jazz, electronics and home-built instruments were fundamental to Krautrock’s forward-looking ideals.

“We wanted to make music for the future,” Irmler recalls. “There was lots of blues and rock, but we thought it was time to create something new. There was a real pain in our brains, with what had happened years before – with the events of the Second World War – and we really wanted to make a cut with everything in the past. And so, some German bands, like Can and Faust and Cluster, we tried to go a special way. A new way. To create something that was – just like the name Neu! – new.”

Despite their ingenuity, Polydor dropped Faust after two albums, on account of their relatively poor sales and capricious live shows (which often featured nudity, drugs, pinball and pneumatic drills), and so the band looked to the UK where, recalls Irmler, “our crazy music got a lot of attention; even love.” They signed with Richard Branson’s nascent Virgin label and issued an introductory album, The Faust Tapes (1973), with a unique marketing gimmick: it retailed for 49p.

“Oh, we thought it was that such great political idea,” Irmler says, with a laugh, as is his way. “We wanted to make a point about the charts, about buying records, about counting sales – because at the time record companies bought their own records back, so they could get them into the charts. And we thought, ‘How can we do the same without selling our own records back?’ So we got the idea to make an album and to sell it super cheap,” he explains. “We were actually going to give it away for free, and then Richard [Branson] said, ‘No no, that makes no sense – it should be a selling point. There should be a flow of money’. So he got the idea of selling an album for the price of a single, 49p.” The album went on to sell over over fifty thousand copies, although its low retail price rendered it ineligible for the charts.

Decades on, artists including Radiohead have conjured similar concepts, that ask us to question (or reassert) the value of music. And all the while, Faust continue to soundtrack the future, in their myriad guises: crossing musical and geographic borders, breaking new territory, creating brave new sounds – as with Musik / Reise.

Are we likely to see any traditional Faust live tropes in Glasgow? Should we prepare ourselves for on-stage nudity? “Oh no,” says Irmler, cackling. “Don’t worry.”

Braithwaite sounds relieved.“Glasgow’s quite cold in January, so I’m very glad about that.”

Musik / Reise: Platform, Glasgow, January 10, 7pm. Return bus leaves Mono at 6.30pm

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