April 25th, 2011 | Interviews

Illustration by champoyhate

If German progressive rock bands of the early 70s were members of the Weasley family from Harry Potter, Can would be Ginny Weasley, Cluster would be Bill, Kraftwerk would be Percy, and Neu! would probably be the one who studies dragons … but undoubtedly, Faust would be the twins. The sly pranksters of the Krautrock set (who hate the name ‘Krautrock’), Faust have always been known for musical larks, marketing scams, and instrument destruction across a career that’s spanned 40 years and seriously nurtured the fame of billionaires and redheads in the process. We caught up with one half of Faust over Valentine’s Day weekend. This interview by Dan Collins.

Your new album, Something Dirty, sounds so modern with its harsh distortion, like the noise bands of the last ten years or so. Have you been influenced by any modern bands? Or is this the kind of music you’ve always been making?
Zappi (drums): Of course I’m influenced by modern music. You hear new music, whether you want to or not. But mostly I’m influenced by marching music because my father was in a marching band.
Is the title in any way a tribute to Sonic Youth’s Dirty? There are some definite Sonic Youth-isms on the album—‘Tell the Bitch to Go Home’ even sounds like a Sonic Youth title!
Jean-Hervé Péron (bass): You’re asking a subjective question—were we influenced by Sonic Youth? And you want me to confirm or infirm the hypothesis, and so I will infirm it! I mean, of course, we are influenced by everything—I am influenced by the sounds of cement mixers in the street, and from Sonic Youth, and from my mother singing to me in the womb before I was even born! So yes, I can say that we were influenced—but once again, we are a group of five individuals who come together, so it is impossible to be influenced by anything, because we are not united.
Your new lineup includes artist Geraldine Swayne and James Johnston from the Bad Seeds—how did you meet them? And does Swayne play an accordion, as I saw in some recent photos? You can’t hear them on the album.
JHP: I met them at a concert in Paris, and the accordion got broken at a wild stage show, that’s why it isn’t on the album.
How did it get broken?
JHP: I am old, and my memory is not what it used to be. Remember that on stage, we are in a different state of mind, a chaotic state of mind, like a trance, and it is easy for things to get destroyed.
For better or worse, your music is normally described as ‘Krautrock,’ a genre which you have described in interviews as a wide spectrum of sounds, with Kraftwerk as one extreme side of the spectrum and Faust as the other. How would you describe the Faust side of that spectrum that makes it Kraftwerk’s polar opposite?
Z: I don’t like the name ‘Krautrock,’ it’s just a meaningless word for German bands that play rock music. However, I think our music originates more from spontaneity than Kraftwerk’s music does.
JHP: With Kraftwerk, they are a band that has a goal and a path, and they prepare. Faust is something that is always of the moment, always chaotic, a group of individuals that come together—from France, from northern Germany, from southern Germany, from Austria. That is why we will never be popular! We were always full of extreme chaos!
Do you feel more of a kinship, then, with English bands such as Hawkwind, that were more chaotic and less somber?
JHP: Hawkwind?! I don’t want to sound arrogant, but … I don’t think that there is any other band like Faust.
I thought all German bands of the ‘Krautrock’ era were good friends who hung out together all the time, recording on each other’s records at Conny Plank studios and befriending Brian Eno together.
Z: We didn’t have any contact whatsoever with other German bands from this time. We met Brian Eno once, but that’s the end of the story.
How important were rock critics in the 70s to inspring your enthusiasm and success at music?
JHP: Criticism comes after the work. I don’t think critics have impacted our music one way or the other—it’s their job. But the feedback we get from friends—I hate the word ‘fan’ because it is short for ‘fanatic,’ and I prefer the term ‘friend’—there’s been lots and lots and lots of young people that came to us and said, ‘Thank you for what you have presented to us, thank you for the new music that you have opened our eyes to.’ And every time, I am confused, because we never realized that we were doing anything special. Now, it makes me happy. I am very proud that the music we have made has apparently inspired a few people and given them strength! And this is why we keep on doing it, because it can’t be wrong. They are so close to us! When you see the stars in their eyes, and the big gleaming smiles they have when they meet us—that’s where the energy flows! This is the way I like it. I want to give and to get and to give and get and give.
Faust has served as a backing band for a wide spectrum of other artists, from Slapp Happy to Tony Conrad. Who do you remember most fondly?
JHP: If I had to name three events in my life that affected me the most profoundly, I would have to name the birth of my children, my journey through the Sahara, and my work with Tony Conrad. He had some definite ideas about simplicity—no changes at all, whatsoever. I guess you could call it ‘rock music’ because it has drums and a bass, but he was so insistent that nothing change whatsoever. At one point I decided, OK, I will play this same note, but I will play the harmonic minor, basically the same thing—you can hear it on side two of the album. And to see Tony—you could tell that just this one tiny change really disturbed him!
Your Outside the Dream Syndicate album with Tony Conrad is perhaps his most accessible. Did Conrad recruit you because he intended to make a ‘rock album,’ or did it just happen that way?
Z: No, he had a definite plan beforehand. He wanted to have short, hard beats. During the recordings he often made mistakes on the violin, and as a result we had to play the tracks over and over again. I was dreaming about them at nighttime.
JHP: That’s the idea of Tony Conrad. He’s not trying to reach something with complexity. It’s totally the opposite. You can reach ecstasy, you can reach a trance state of mind if you repeat the same thing over and over and over, until the word or the sound you are producing or the thought are totally irrelevant. It’s like a donkey carrying you over thousands of kilometers. It’s just a carrier, a pretext. If all you have to do is ‘BAM boom BAM boom BAM boom BAM boom’ for over an hour, obviously your body will keep doing this, but your mind will start going through all kinds of phases. First you feel like laughing hysterically! You think, ‘Shit, this can’t be true! We are here in a studio going boom boom boom boom—it can’t be true. It’s ridiculous!’ And then you keep on doing that, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. And then you go one level higher and you ask, ‘Why? WHY am I doing this?’ And then one level higher: ‘What’s so good? Why do I KEEP on doing it?’ And one more level: you go through pain. My fingers were bleeding and I broke two strings on the bass while playing this live concert, so physically, it’s pain. So you go above this, and then you reach ecstasy, you know? Your body is here, but your mind is wandering.
Let’s talk about Slapp Happy, which their own members have described as ‘naïve rock.’ They had a much more conventional sound than the Faust sound, yet you guys were basically their backing band on their first two albums at the same time you were recording your own pivotal works.
JHP: Oh yes. I have more than one face, and there’s a part of me that likes songs, and while on the surface with Slapp Happy it seems to be conventional rock music, if you listen closely there is a twist. And with their lyrics, if you only pay slight attention, you might not hear it, but if you read them, if you examine them, there is always something odd, a twist. So I was very proud of my work there.
Your own music, while definitely avant-garde, sounds less psychedelic than, say, classic-era Can. Were you not very interested in making music to take mushrooms to? Perhaps you guys took different drugs than your peers?
JHP: Some of us in Faust were very interested in excess, and in pleasure, and in taking many drugs. And some of the members in that lineup of Faust were very intellectual, and wanted not to take anything and did not want to be involved with this.
Who was who?
JHP: Noooo—I am not going to go there!
I think it’s clear which camp Zappi falls into.
Z: I thought we were making psychedelic music at that time. We took the same drugs as our peers in those days. I think we just took more.
When you started, you were one of the first ventures for the fledgling Virgin Records, who sold The Faust Tapes for 49 pence and got the album to number 12 on the charts. But then after all that attention and care, Virgin dropped Faust after a few albums. What happened?
Z: We wanted a German cook during the recordings, but we didn’t get one.
JHP: We can’t blame Richard Branson for dropping us. I remember him being a very pleasant, very nice person. We took advantage of their kindness, I think. We were always having orgies and throwing parties, and we always left the bill with Virgin. We took advantage of their secretaries …
What was the name of the secretary from Virgin? Mary?
JHP: Her name was ‘Mary,’ and she was the secretary of the Virgin office when they were on Portobello Road. She was a very dedicated person, and we had a lot of ‘communication’—let’s put it that way!
Johnny Rotten said in an interview, ‘They’re quite the commune, Virgin. A load of groupies as secretaries …’ Was he telling the truth?
JHP: I agree! I can tell you, man, it was a beautiful time at the Virgin office. Richard Branson did something fantastic. He was the brain on the financial level, and he also knew how to make people feel good and keep the maximum of the efficiency in a very relaxed way. He wouldn’t call his secretaries and say, you know, ‘Behave and go back to your type writing machines!’ He knew they were working and keeping everybody happy, so what do you want more?
What was it like recording at the Manor?
JHP: We were invited by Virgin Records to go and record at their studio which was called the Manor, and it was an old manor with a large Irish wolfhound named Bootleg! If I had just had the right recording machine, I would have loved to record his heartbeat, because those big dogs have a very irregular beat. Sometimes I thought, ‘Hey Bootleg, oh, oh, oh, he’s dying!’ Because his heart would stop for like one, two, three, four, five seconds, like, no beat, and then suddenly, BOOM BOOM BOOM! And then stop again. It was really impressive. I also remember once in the studio, Keith Richards entered the room and I didn’t have my glasses on, so I couldn’t tell who he was, so I told him to fuck off! I think he was quite upset by this.
Were there any bands, maybe even bands on Virgin, that you were ashamed to be associated with? Mike Oldfield perhaps?
JHP: No. Mike Oldfield was a very good musician and honorable person! I can’t think of any group on Virgin I didn’t like. Henry Cow, Kevin Ayers, Kevin Coyne … all those people were highly respectable, dedicated, engaged people to their art. Tubular Bells was recorded in all the off-times of the Manor studio. Faust would work during part of the day, and Mike Oldfield would move in during the night when we would leave the studio and do his work, bit after bit after bit. And if it became ever so popular, certainly most of the reasons are because it’s something that lots of people needed and wanted. And it’s good!
The song ‘Jennifer’ is about a girl from that village, right? Many people consider that Faust’s most romantic song.
Z: Yes. And yes, Jennifer was a real girl.
JHP: In this little village, this very small village, I don’t remember the name [Shipton-on-Cherwelled.], there were a couple of young people, and obviously we were more interested in the young ladies, and one of them was called Jennifer.
Z: She used to watch us from the park there. She had red hair and was very shy.
JHP: And she had magnificent ginger, red hair. And she had a strong life attitude. She was always beaming, and saying, ‘yes, yes, YES!’ to life, and this impressed very much Rudolf—he’s dead now, so rest in peace—but he was really impressed by this, so he made a song. The lyrics are not very romantic, not very sentimental, but listen to the instrumental part in the middle of it, that breaks my heart! I think it’s highly emotional.
How did you react to the era of new wave and punk rock that immediately followed that era? Did you get along with the Sex Pistols’ generation of musicians?
Z: In the beginning punk and new wave was just simply rock music, but later I started to feel its brutality.
JHP: The raw energy that these bands had—they VOMITED their emotions! They didn’t mind to use very crude words to express the feelings of their generation, which was going through pretty hopeless times. They did it with such ruthlessness that I almost envied them!
You’ve definitely embraced the music to come out of punk, but aside from recording with the hip-hop artist Dalek, you seem to have avoided connecting with hip-hop. Why is that? Most people in my generation would say hip-hop was at least as creative and rule-breaking as punk.
JHP: Maybe here there is a generation gap. I was confronted with the punk movement at a time when I was much younger than I am now. And I am confronted with hip-hop in a world which is all digital, using a vocabulary with which I cannot identify, and where the political and social background are totally different. For me, I cannot compare the two of them—one touched me very intense, because I was young and probably eager to receive such in-sources, and the other one—I don’t want to negate the potential of hip-hop, and maybe it sounds stupid, but fuck man, it’s not for my age! I don’t get it. I don’t get it. It’s too fast! It was great to work with Dalek because it was a confrontation and it was extremely challenging. But when you are confronted with the music, I don’t get it. It’s my fault. It doesn’t move me the same as punk does.
Yet Faust has at one point done music that was similar to hip-hop sampling. With The Faust Tapes you took snippets of songs and strung them together, and in some ways it is that arrangement that makes the album compelling. So why haven’t you gone further in the direction of sample-based music?
JHP: Oh, OK, now I get you. I get you. We have not been interested too much in sampling things. What we have done is used elements of something that is now very common: field recordings. This we like very much, but we don’t use it that much. When you say ‘sampling,’ it has a different resonance in my head: I would record the sound of a breaking of a bottle, and I would ‘sample’ it and put it on a MIDI keyboard. And we don’t like this. We don’t like it; we don’t use it. But we do use pre-recorded tapes of something of nature, something human, something industrial, whatever—sounds of things that we find interesting. But not as a sample! It’s part of the music. It’s not one little bit that we use. If it’s thunder, it’s longer than just ‘baroom!’ We try to use it as an instrument, not just as a quotation.
And this is why you never embraced electronic music either?
Z: For me, it wasn’t really music I could concentrate on. For me, it’s functional music.
JHP: Faust is about anarchy and chaos, and for us, being locked into anything is too much oppression. We’re not a band that wants or needs borders. If you brought a drum machine into Faust—into any incarnation of Faust—in five minutes I think you would have a sledgehammer and the whole thing would be smashed!
You guys don’t even have the border of being one band anymore—youv’e split into two completely separate Fausts, with you and Zappi being one camp and Hans Joachim Irmler heading up the other Faust. Considering that the other Faust’s last album was Faust Is Last, what does the other entity of Faust think about your new album?
JHP: You are talking about the fact that there are two Faust entities? That is correct. There are two Faust entities. I don’t know why, but we have grown in such a way that our energies cannot be contained in only one group. The differences are too strong now. Both of them are a facet, an aspect of Faust. And we do get along okay. And we leave each other in respect. We don’t interfere with each other. And we have no sympathy for each other! But no one is saying bad things about the other.
But their last album was called Faust Is Last, which was marketed as the last Faust album ever. Aren’t they making presumptions that affect you?
JHP: I think it’s better you ask these questions of the other Faust. There are two entities of Faust, and nobody is fighting about the name, or who’s the right Faust or the wrong one. Let’s keep it that way! There hasn’t been a lawyer between us yet, and I don’t think there will be one ever. I wish all the best to any entity of Faust who plays in the spirit of Faust. It’s up to the audience to see how they react to one or the other entity of Faust. I don’t know what they think about our music, and you will not know what I think about their music!
If the other Faust came out with a new album, and I were to ask you to write a 250-word review of it, you would refuse?
JHP: Oooh … um….
This isn’t hypothetical! Want to write a review of the upcoming Faust album for L.A. RECORD?
JHP: I would probably be diplomatic and say, ‘I’m very busy at the time; I can’t do it!’