Brötzmann in the Wire
Posted: Jun 28, 2008
Issue #132 (February '95)
By: Ben Watson
Caspar Brötzmann doesn't take kindly to being called a guitar player ("It's just a tool," he says), but his attack on the instrument - explosive, obstreperous, large scale, textural, timbral - asserts the material facts of string-pickup-amplifier more bluntly than anyone else currently involved in rock. Sonic Youth, Helmet, Pigface - they're all clamouring for his attention. How does he sound? Blocks of sound unleashed in Varesian wraparound battlescapes, instant abstract klangfarben constructions to delight the surviving posses of unrepentant modernists (warming themselves round bonfires made of Joe Satriani albums): guitar improvisation as sonic weight and filigree counterbalance. No wonder people are saying that there's been nothing like it in guitar music since Jimi Hendrix.
Those who champion the sampler over the guitar as the preeminent noise-machine for aural postmodernism - cybernetic, androgynous, cool, untouchable - conveniently omit its technical dependence on the most restrictive device of classical instrumentation: the keyboard. Sampling so frequently returns its users to Grade Five piano banality (witness the inanities at the softboiled end of Ambient - try Orbital's Snivilization), that it seems more logical to cast it as an agent of control, a hangover from history, rather than a gateway to new musical possibilities.
Brötzmann's self-taught guitar-man physicality breaks through to sounds unheard of in the sampled universe. With the right digits in command, the guitar's analogue capacity, its microtonal penetrations, rubbish the air-brushed niceties of sounds tethered to the tempered scale. Notoriously a man of few words, he often says that everything is "simple" - but this is the kind of simplicity that upsets applecarts, jiggers the smooth flow of stockmarket figures reflected in the requisite mirrorshades, asks questions about the emperor's clothes. Brötzmann's Neo-primitivism seem poised to give pop/rock just the jolt it needs.
Caspar Brötzmann was born in 1962, and brought up in Kreuzberg, an area of West Berlin by the Wall that was colonized by rebels and squatters; the bohemian left galvanized by the struggles of 1968 (though currently - especially with reunification - it is succumbing to respectability and bourgeois order). Brought up by a flute-playing mother (along with a sister), he likes to downplay any influence from his (frequently absent) father, Peter Brötzmann, German's one-man free jazz saxophone revolution. But he does acknowledge the liberating influence of the bohemian milieu he grew up in.
"When I was little, three or four years old, black and white people were sitting on the kitchen table, crazy people, drunk and whatever, sleeping on tables when I woke up in the morning. I was brought up in this kind of atmosphere - and this was my home. When I was 14 years old I started to play my own way on guitar. I found this old guitar belonging to a friend of [jazz composer] Carla Bley and I started to play. It was in the next second clear to me that this was my thing. I already knew then what I wanted - it was forward, straight ahead, to find a way to play."
Brötzmann's power trio Massaker was formed with bassist Eduardo 'Elk' Lopez, of mixed Spanish/German parentage, and drummer Danny Arnold Lommen, whose family comes from Egypt and who lives in Amsterdam. Massaker have released five albums, inspiring rapid worship and confusion in equal measure. It is evident from the records and the gigs that Massaker is a band. Brötzmann's guitar evokes split-second responses from Lommen that could only come from spontaneous interaction, though sectional planning and portentous, doomy riffs indicate Massaker's origins in the same scene that gave birth to Berlin cult groups Deutsche Amerikanische Freeundschaft and Einstürzende Neubauten. Massacre (the English translation of the band's name; Caspar threatens jokingly to terminate the interview when I point out that the German pronunciation sounds to English ears more like a particular Greek dish) was also the name of a ground-breaking record made by Fred Frith, Bill Laswell and Fred Maher in New York in the early 80s, when No Wave musicians sought to trash the dividing line between punk assault and free jazz outreach.
Like many artists, Brötzmann is loath to locate himself in any tradition or movement outside his immediate circle of friends and collaborators (which include Conny Plank, the legendary German producer, Diamanda Galas and Jim 'Foetus' Thirwell). Although people have mentioned the name of New York free jazz rock guitarist Rudolph Grey to him, he hasn't checked him out, nor has he heard of Stefan Jaworzyn and Ascension, London's own apocalyptic electric guitar reinventors. Still, he is amenable to the idea that such parallel reactions against the academic tweedles of post-Metheny jazz and 'Heavy Metal' guitar reinforce the logic of his aesthetic rather than render it otiose, calling them "maybe unknown friends".
In a pop scene still reeling from House's discovery of the sampler - the virtual worlds of Ambient and Techno - Brötzmann's insistence on active musicianship has the pleasing scent of heresy. Although there is a long tradition of progressive Luddism in rock (skiffle's broom-basses and washboards originally allowed Trad Jazz to outflank Modern Jazz creating the Blues Boom, R&B and Rock-as-we-know-it), that is not really where Brötzmann stands. He says he is pleased that on his recordings, "you can hear that people are playing live: sometimes I feel like I'm doing an 'old-fashioned' thing, though really that makes no sense because this is the time of the world." In an important technical sense, Brötzmann is no Luddite: his is pioneering a pristine palette of original guitar sounds, while the albums, in common with state-of-the-art films like Amateur and Natural Born Killers, use the breathless eroticism and drama of the latest digital recording technology - knocks and scrapes recorded with such immediacy the effect is visceral, a surrealism of documentary intensity.
Brötzmann appears to have arrived from nowhere, but has he really? He laughs when I ask if he is a 'Grufti' (literally 'dweller in crypts', a Berlin term for the city's Goth-inflected punk rockers), and replies, "Do I look like a Grufti? A Dracula, maybe." The cover of his latest release Home will be familiar to anyone who has seen the paintings of A R Penck, Georg Baselitz or other early 80s German artists characterised as 'Die Neuen Wilden' (Neo-Primitive) for their embrace of the tribal, the irrational and the shamanic. Brötzmann's image of a deer is rendered cave painting style. Song titles ("The Tribe", "Hunter Song") confirm such allegiances. As with his music, though, Brötzmann is loath to acknowledge the influence of external ideas. Paradoxically, his rhetoric is sheer Neo-Primitivism: 'instinct' is more important than knowledge of artistic currents.
"I started painting for a second record, Black Axis. The recording was finished in the studio, we needed a cover and I started painting - five and a half years ago, I was painting animals." His father started out as a painter, but turned to the saxophone out of disgust with the art market, and its provision of commodities for speculation by the rich (to this day Peter Brötzmann supplies some of the best album covers to be seen in the racks). Interested in finding out what ideological current had inspired him to think of painting, I ask Caspar if he knows any painters in Berlin.
"I'm not interested in that," he replies curtly. "For me, it's a lot of fun to paint, if I have time to sit somewhere. For example, for the cover of Home I had five days holiday in Milan, I was sitting down with a balcony, a big sea-board in front of me, mountains, it was really hot - I was painting. For me, it's the same as playing guitar, just like that. I really have fun. If it's no fun I don't do it - sometimes musicians invite me to go in the studio to play this solo for this and I can earn this money - but if there is no feeling for myself, I don't do that. That's what I mean, that I take care of my own quality and my friends. What I've learned from these 500 interviews is to bring all words on a point that I am doing - it's about that I take care of my work, my friends, my friends and my work. It's really important to have friends in your life. It's totally simple, that's why all the time I am saying that I am just a musician. I can make interviews with really big words in a newspaper but I don't. I like small words."
Caspar is currently signed to the Blast First label; unsurprisingly, the label's owner, Paul Smith, applauds the guitarist's 'primitivism'.
"The critics' take on Caspar is interesting, they're so trying to put a square peg in a round hole. He's never heard of anyone, and he's also not the slightest bit interested and that interests me. I told him Philip Glass was coming to see him in New York and I was saying to Caspar, you know, Philip Glass, you'll have heard of Philip Glass, and he was saying, 'No' - and he's also not interested in knowing who Philip Glass is and I find that really interesting!"
The inspiring paradox is that Brötzmann's naivety - his belief in intuition, in playing live, in releasing what is played without studio manipulation - has had such a complex and stunned reception in the rock press. "Biba Kopf called me a noisy bastard," he says. "In America they call me the 'demon decibel'." Of course, the constrained world of rock-pop has never heard (of) Sonny Sharrock, James Blood Ulmer, Derek Bailey, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Joe Morris, Rudolph Grey, Stefan Jaworzyn or Billy Jenkins, which no doubt explains why Brötzmann has been described as "gargantuan noise assault" (Music From The Empty Quarter), "mega-noise" (Select), "harrowing" (Vox). Actually, he plays soaring psychedelic guitar full of iridescent colours and dramatic gear-changes. Home, it is true, works towards a slightly portentous (Grufti?) Industrial thump that shows connections to Berlin's infatuation with Bauhaus and Cabaret Voltaire - but Merry Christmas, an improvised duet album with FM 'Mufti' Einheit from Einstürzende Neubauten that was released by Blast First at the end of last year, is a triumphant bouquet of incandescent guitar sounds in the tradition of Bailey versus Bennink, Zappa versus Wackermann, and Jenkins versus Noble. Also, the recording is exemplary, which gives Brötzmann even more of an edge.
But Brötzmann bridles at such relegation to the guitar pantheon, however illustrious.
"In the end, though, I am not a guitar player - I work for the atmosphere. I use my guitar as a tool - just as a tool to say what I have to say. It could be a piano or a trumpet, I don't care. The instrument is not important - what is important is whether you have something to say or not, a way to bring out what you feel, what you think, what you're angry about. That's why I always say I'm not a guitar player."
Merry Christmas begins and ends with tracks called "Panzerketten" (which translates as "Tank Convoys"). There's a tank pictured on the cover and the finish is gun-metal grey. There's also a track called "Solingen", the name of the German town where racists fire-bombed an immigrant hostel and killed four people. Brötzmann is wary of taking to the political soap-box.
"It's not a big thing. On Merry Christmas I was making the cover and all the titles, "Solingen" was just - you have to excuse my English, it's not so perfect - look this has happened. Just a kind of give-hands-to-the-families, if you can buy this record, there is the word, "Solingen". It's a very simple way, it's not a very theoretic thing - just to give something, that's all. But in the end, I really mean: to listen to this kind of music you don't need titles. If you listen to the music, you know. Especially for Solingen. I can look at all these bad things that are going on, you look at the world, all these bad things from South Africa to Yugoslavia or whatever - to play, to say 'no' in your music to all these bad things, that's what I do. To give my feeling a kind of way, the emotions."
Despite Brötzmann's limited English, he seems to have found the words to describe militant music that is political in its very texture - dub, early PiL, Revolutionary Dub Warriors - rather than in well-meaning lyrics added as afterthought icing. Perhaps it is better this way, as Brötzmann's verbal politics tend to be limited to the kind of pious wishes that feature daily in any liberal newspaper:
"All I can say is that I try to find a kind of freedom that means that the next day I can say, I was doing my best - making music talk. Freedom - I'm not a person who is going on the street and shooting down someone else because he is bad; if I read a newspaper and see what's going on in the world, all these wars, it's so stupid, so silly - what can you do? You can play - that's my turn, I can play what I think. This is my answer to all these problems, to what's going onŠ"
I tell him that whatever my sense of the limitations of art as a political tool, I am glad that he makes music.
"But it's not easy. But I was so young and found a kind of work, that I knew I really wanted, that was a lot of help. It's a lot of help to have something straight in your life. It makes a lot of things easy, but it makes a lot of things heavy too. It was straight ahead."
Blast First have flown Brötzmann over to London from New York especially for this interview, but he lets drop that, for him, the exercise has little point.
"I did millions of interviews over the last year and a half in America, in England and in Germany. Lots of the time the question is, music is a language - I'm just a musician, that's all. If you really try to explain music in wordsŠ It makes more sense just to play music. All the time I'm saying the same thing in my life, all the time I'm trying to find a way, a kind of freedom in my music and people who are working with words are trying to do the same, different expressions or whatever."
"It's my own way to follow my own vision, to live like a musician. It's heavy enough to live my own life. I don't care if people understand it or not. All these things, how to make music, how to talk about music, it's all not the point - the point is that I can go on stage and play. If I'm on stage, then I can talk - but all these other things, they're not really necessary."
Towards the end of the interview, Caspar impresses on me that he wants me to think deeply about the life experience behind the words, "On stage is where I feel at home".
"If I say in English, for example, that on stage it feels like home, you have to think of what it means - it means that I'm 32 years old, I've been playing for 18 years, I learn one step after another. I've found friends, I know friends, I follow my way - that's the reason one of the records is called Black Axis. I follow my own path, my own vision - I can hear music, I cream music, for example. For me to say that the stage is like a home means a lot. Behind these few words, there's a lot of life behind. To follow your own vision, to follow it through, for a long long time, that makes you a little bit strong. You know what you're doing."
Merry Christmas sold 4000 copies within two and a half weeks, a staggering amount for music that would be equally at home on Derek Bailey's tiny Incus label. Not that Brötzmann is a plutocrat of Sting proportions: his extensive live work lets him pay his rent on his Berlin flat, but he can't live "in luxury". But, in a way, his Neo-Primitivist romanticism, his insistence on the absolute freedom of art, the home he has found on the stage, his disinterest in how his music is disseminated, serves to occlude one of the most inspiring aspects of his art: his spanner-in-the-works function in pop, his (and his record label's) ability to project free jazz into the rock clubs, his unsettling of niche marketing. Neo-Primitivism, in all its tongue-tied 'creative' purity, cannot acknowledge such a wish to épater the commercial order. It means that, for example, Brötzmann's hatred of fascism remains just that - he cannot see how it links in with capitalism's need for a 'radical' movement that will leave property relations intact, how the daily processes of exploitation demand an enemy, a scapegoat, that is not the system itself.
How do you feel about the state of rock, I ask him - "I don't care," comes the reply. Between punk and Grufti, oh what a gulf! The paradox is that Brötzmann's utopian art - like Captain Beefheart's, another rock artist who paints - makes most sense when infiltrating the commercial machinery he disdains to talk about. It means more to listen to Brötzmann's music - and check out his stunned reviews - than to rehearse his art ideology. In these over-conscious, over-ideological, over-theorised times, that's a plus.
© The Wire 2008