Boris Blank— “Punk wasn’t spectacular at all.”

Words by Max Dax

Photo by Luci Lux.

Boris Blank talks about Rote Fabrik, his new box set, and why punk from 1978 was “ornamentation at best.”

Boris Blank built up the first pre-Yello studio as early as 1977 in Dieter Meier’s workshop at Rote Fabrik, an abandoned factory building in Zurich. Eventually, Rote Fabrik became a punk hotspot, and one of the combat zones of a longterm Zurich youth riot that later was coined “Züri brännt.” These days, it’s regarded as Switzerland’s biggest youth uprising in history. This was the setting in which Boris Blank worked on music for Yello in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of his unreleased recordings from that era were featured in a box set titled Electrified, which came out last Friday. It’s his first  solo compilation of non-Yello tracks and a bona fide extravaganza of classic electronic compositions, so Max Dax marked the occasion by sitting down with Blank to chat about how the cultural turmoil colored his work and why he wasn’t impressed with punks.

It’s hard to believe that, after 37 years, Electrified is the first ever glimpse into your work outside of Yello.

The music I made during those decades was made almost exclusively for Yello, and what didn’t get released landed in crates and on hard drives. I simply never felt the urge to release any of those songs, and I never felt like I wanted feedback from the world. But then, my old friend Ian Tregoning convinced me to release them all. Having said that, only a couple of weeks ago, I found yet another drive containing about 70 tracks, from an even older computer. So let’s meet again on this day in 30 years, when I’ll be releasing my next box set.

You’ve stated that a compact cassette of recordings from 1977 is included in the special edition of Electrified, and that you regard it as the centerpiece of the release.

Those early tracks were all produced in our first studio in the Rote Fabrik in Zurich. They’re the first pre-Yello recordings, some even pre-Dieter Meier. It might have been a bit of an exaggeration to call it the centerpiece, but these songs were our point of origin. At Rote Fabrik, I was producing one song per day. Considering that the compact cassettes were the only backup, it’s amazing how good they still sound today. When Carlos Peron and I went to Ralph Records in San Francisco in 1978, those were the songs we presented to them—”We’re from Switzerland, and we want you to listen to our tapes.”

The Rote Fabrik was something of a punk hostpot in the late ’70s, right?

True, but it didn’t irritate us. Dieter had his huge workshop below our little studio. There are some photos of me on the synthesizer in the Rote Fabrik, before I had a mustache.

This was during the days of the Züri brännt student movement that peaked in violent riots in the early 1980s. They were protesting, among other things, the closure of the Rote Fabrik, and Yello was right there, producing music that wasn’t at all connected to the movement.

Yello was never part of any movement. My main occupation was producing electronic music, so punk didn’t get to me. The Stooges and the Sonics had done it all already anyway, and 1978’s punk, by comparison, was ornamentation at best. The haircuts, the rough mannerisms, Pogo-dancing—it just wasn’t my style. Throbbing Gristle and the Normal were around at the same time, the early English industrial techno movement, and America had Chrome, Tuxedomoon, and the Residents, who were really fascinating to me. Punk, in comparison, wasn’t spectacular at all.

Did you avoid the punks at Rote Fabrik?

It wasn’t hard, because I worked during the day. My last regular day job was as a TV technician. After my shift, I would make music from 7 p.m. until 3 a.m. I left when no one was there but me. The punks and I—our work hours were incompatible. We only ever met when there were concerts on Fridays and Saturdays.

I was driving a Buick Regal at the time, and when I came down after my studio sessions there would always be a couple of drunk punks lying on my hood. “Hey guys, I’m leaving!” I would say, trying to wake them up. It was like a ritual. I would start the motor, and it would come to life with that wonderful, American, bass-heavy bubbling, and they would spit on my windshield. Next, I’d switch on the wipers and slowly start to move, until they rolled off the car.

How could you afford a car like that working as a TV technician?

Oh, it wasn’t that expensive—maybe 6,000 Francs. The Buick had some cylinder head gasket issues in the end. I was driving uphill in Zurich when the motor exploded, and I was shrouded in a cloud of white smoke that filled the whole street. So, I bought my next car secondhand again, a Lincoln Continental. The first time I drove it, I kissed Dieter Meier’s wall in the driveway, because it was so heavy and hard to navigate.

Speaking of Dieter Meier, many of your tracks sound just like Yello, only without him.

That actually occurred to me as well. I work like a painter who paints one picture after the other. I don’t compose so much as patch sounds together until they become sound sculptures. Before you know it, you have 20 sound sculptures standing around, so then you either store them somewhere or I pass them on to Dieter to see whether he likes any of them, if they could work with his singing. We go by criteria like “too little/too much femininity,” “too hectic or weird”—that’s what decides whether Dieter will get infatuated with a song or not. When I was compiling the 60 tracks for Electrified, I thought that everything sounded like Yello, just without Dieter’s input.

Latin rhythms shine through on many of your productions. Do you think rumba and salsa are the godparents of electronic music? 

Kraftwerk’s “Showroom Dummies” or “Autobahn” quote Latin American rhythms too! You could probably say that Latin music is my secret love affair. I’m really interested in all kinds of musical genres, and love to go on travels with them, like Karl May, who wrote American cowboy tales despite never traveling there physically. I just need to imagine standing on a moonlit beach in Havana and an Afro-Cuban rhythm will come easily. If I really went there, it might rain and the view would be blocked by a gas station.

What inspires your fascination with Latin music?

It’s the offbeats, because the way Afro-Cuban percussionists play is divine. Latin music travels through your body, takes hold of your soul. The dancing is divine. I love watching people dance; it’s the most beautiful and direct means of human communication. That’s why I make dance music—I want people to move to it. I remember my first trip to New York, when “Bostich” had just become a smash hit. At the Roxy, I saw 3,000 mostly Hispanic people dancing to it, and that was a key moment in my life. The way they moved to my music—it caught me. When I’m cooking, I always put on the radio and listen to Latin radio stations from Brazil and Nicaragua.

Is there other divine music to you?

Composers like Arnold Schoenberg, György Ligeti, Alban Berg, and Shostakovich really grew on me. I am also a great admirer of the Sun Ra Arkestra and big bands like those of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. I actually had the honor of meeting Sun Ra in person at a panel in New York. He was sitting next to me, Joey Ramone, Adrian Belew, and Tone Loc. Sun Ra was old already, very quiet. I told him I possessed over 60 records of his, and I think he was quite fascinated with that. We talked about electronic music and I told him about Yello. I could really feel his charismatic presence.

Do you think he was a pioneer in electronic music?

No. I can only find a few electronic aspects in his music, but he had a huge influence on electronic music nevertheless. In that sense, he must be named in the same breath as Miles Davis, who also wasn’t an electronic musician, but had an incredible influence on musicians working in the electronic field, simply because he had the vision to let Herbie Hancock or Joe Zawinul play synthesizers in his band and to commission Teo Macero to make the edits. If you ask me, the direct predecessors to electronic music were more people like Raymond Scott, who built electronic instruments, or composers like Pierre Boulez and György Ligeti, who really used electronic elements in their music. I feel at home in their sound worlds.

What about Karlheinz Stockhausen?

Stockhausen, for my taste, was always a bit to academic and mathematic. He obviously made some great stuff, but most of it feels forcefully experimental to me. He convinced me most when he worked with non-musical sounds, when he used tape machines and experimented with elements of musique concrète.

Yello works with concrète samples too, like a roaring car engine or squealing brakes. One of Yello’s greatest hits is called “The Race.” Do you compose music for cars? Is Yello music “driving music”?

Driving is a recurrent theme in Yello’s music, in sound as well as in the videos. Maybe it stands for a kind of willingness to let yourself drift, to go with the dynamic of movement, “from A to B and back again,” to quote Warhol. Music that aims to stimulate people always embodies acceleration, be it in a specific sound or just the general vibe of the track.

How did you actually get along with Dieter over such a long time?

We give each other a maximum of freedom. He is on the road a lot, but he knows that he can rely on me, and he knows that I make music that he also likes. We’re not a democratic pairing in that sense; there are no discussions. I produce the music, and he has to feel comfortable in it as a protagonist, as the main role, the actor. Once he likes a new song, you can literally see his brain working, and quite soon he will have found a line for the song that opens a whole new world to it.

At its best, your music is very cinematic. 

I love films by Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. The black and white of these movies is magic, stylistically often copied but never accomplished. I love them all: Louis Malle, Roberto Rossellini, Pier Paolo Pasolini…They fascinate me because they captured a certain moment in time, each of them. I simply love the post-war cinema and a lot of films until the mid-’60s, too. Brilliance was the fashion. Even films of atomic bomb tests were great images. The lifestyle of that time belongs to the most beautiful things ever accomplished by man. I would have loved to stroll up to Harlem in the ’60s and into one of the jazz bars, those sweaty cellars, or to have witnessed the deconstruction of Bossa Nova in Brazil. It must have been divine. That is what we have our imagination for: to experience moments in time before our inner eye.