“Popularity is a currency of its own”: H.P. Baxxter meets Albert Oehlen

Words by Max Dax

In the cover story from our forthcoming Winter, 2014 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, the frontman of Germany’s chart-topping techno act Scooter and the renowned contemporary painter compare notes in their respective fields. The discussion was moderated by EB editor-in-chief Max Dax. Above, left to right: H.P. Baxxter and Albert Oehlen, by Luci Lux. Don’t forget, Electronic Beats is presenting a very special Scooter concert in Hamburg on December 5th, which will be live streamed on the site—full details here.

 

Albert Oehlen is one of Germany’s most prominent contemporary artists. Along with Martin Kippenberger, he is known for radically questioning the role of the painter in society today and formulating a fundamental scepticism toward the medium of painting within the medium itself. But rather than turn away from painting as a discipline and in an effort to communicate in a more “universal language”, Oehlen has opted to paint in and around cut outs from advertisements and copies of Scooter lyrics. In interviews the painter has pointed out the significant relevance of Scooter’s neo-dadaistic lyrics in his work. The band’s curious slogans (e.g. “How much is the fish?”, “Hyper, hyper!”) are theoretically so simple that everyone would be able to understand them—that is, if they were to have any content: “Scooter proudly represents the abolute absence of a deeper meaning behind their shiny and glossy surface.” Somewhat surprisingly, H.P. Baxxter was flattered when he learned that his work was appreciated by a bonafide member of the high-art club. This marked the beginning of an unlikely friendship, from which both appear to have benefited.

 

Albert Oehlen: Hi H.P., I’m calling from Switzerland. Where are you?

H.P. Baxxter: I’m sitting in the back of a limo driving to Moscow Airport.

AO: What kind of limo?

HPB: Mercedes S-Class. That’s our preferred carrier to be brought from A to B and back again.

AO: What was your mission in Russia?

HPB: Over the years I have become quite a TV personality there, so they kindly asked me to become the spokesman for the new advertisement campaign for Media Markt. We had already done some TV spots and, it was actually quite amazing for me to sit in my hotel room one night, turn on the TV and see… myself! This time in Moscow I was attending a press conference and we had an autograph session. Before that, I did a radio interview and was a guest on the Ivan Urgant Show—the Russian equivalent to Jay Leno. The interesting thing about Ivan Urgant in terms of exposure is the fact that it is aired throughout the whole of Russia. It’s on National TV, which is why you can see it in Vladivostok as well as in St. Petersburg. But, Albert, I have to ask you a question. Just recently, a friend of mine sent me an MMS. She had seen a collage of yours in Venice and one of the parts was a portrait of me in an artwork that had originally been published in a German magazine a long time ago.

AO: That’s one out of seven collages that are currently on display at the Venice Biennale. In one of these I’ve incorporated a photo of yours—I hope that’s OK with you. I mean, I didn’t ask…

HPB: That’s funny. Obviously I don’t mind. I’m more flattered, really.

AO: The pieces are hanging in the Biennale that started on the 1st of June and ended in November. You wouldn’t believe how many people visit the Venice Biennale over the course of a half-year. It’s so many more people than I usually would attract with one of my solo exhibitions.

HPB: Would you say then that art has finally become as popular as pop music?

AO: I don’t know if you can compare the two. The collages are huge—two meters high—and appeal to a lot of people because of their size. But back to Russia, tell me how it is.

HPB: I like it. I almost feel home here. But more importantly, Scooter have very loyal fans over here.

AO: Are the Russian fans different than other fans?

HPB: I’d say they are particularly thankful. They often bring us presents to the shows. For instance, I regularly get oil paintings of me as a gift from these fans. Others give us bottles of vodka, which is probably not surprising, as we’ve been coming there regularly for almost twenty years now. They appreciate that. We just finished a tour that led us to remote cities in Siberia and the Urals. Touring includes four to five hour flights on a daily basis. That’s when you realize how big Russia actually is, and that’s also the moment when our regular tour routine suddenly becomes an adventure again.

AO: I stayed in Moscow only once, for one day and one night. I still remember hearing techno music on every radio station. It sounded a bit like techno was the only music that was allowed to be played on the national radio.

HPB: Last year, we released our single “4 AM” in Russia, and it’s in the official Russian charts for the fifty-third consecutive week now.

AO: Did you shoot the video to it in Russia as well? I remember it had a Soviet-style look and feel, with run-down alleys, gray urban backdrops…

HPB: I think you’re wrong. “4 AM” was, if my memory serves me well, shot in a club situation with many people ecstatically dancing and beautiful women all around. The clip you’ve seen probably was “The Sound Above My Hair”. That one had an “eastern” look. But we actually shot it in the Harz Mountains in eastern Germany. Everything looked kind of retro there. The single didn’t perform very well, though. Then again, “4 AM” bombed in Germany, too. It was only a smash hit in Russia. This is remarkable since we usually have a hit in Germany first and from there the singles spread virally into other markets. But tell me, what have you been up to since we last met some two years ago?

AO: Nothing special, really. I’ve had a big solo show in a New York gallery and a couple of museum shows in Europe.

HPB: You consider this “nothing special”?

AO: Don’t get me wrong—of course museum shows are always special. But if you happen to do a show each year, you still get excited but you also learn to stay cool.

HPB: I know what you mean. That’s why I stress that our recent tour in Russia felt like an adventure. Things can be most exciting, but as soon as they become a routine, they lose some of their thrill.

AO: This leads directly to an interesting question: how do you measure success?

HPB: I’d say I measure it in terms of how often people recognize me on the street in some foreign country. Popularity is a currency of its own, if you ask me—and not only since the advent of Facebook likes.

AO: It’s a bit different in the art world. You never hear a word of criticism at an exhibition opening. Everybody is polite and friendly. But with a delay of, say, eight years, people casually will drop a line such as: “You certainly agree that your exhibition back then was shit.” This is a bit disappointing, as you are neither given the chance to digest and evaluate such criticism, nor the chance to react or correct.

HPB: That’s interesting. Our long-term fans actually insist that nothing should ever change. They expect us to repeat the same formula over and over again. I sometimes find this discouraging, especially if I happen to read posts in Scooter forums. I ask myself if these people are sitting twenty-four-seven in front of a computer screen writing weird comments. I think that change is important. To remain true to yourself, you have to adjust to the times you’re living in and the sounds that are happening. We are fully aware that Scooter has a recognizable style, mostly thanks to my voice and my way of singing. But at the same time we know that we have to adapt to today’s tempos and trends to still be accepted as contemporary musicians in the clubs. This means gradually but constantly adjusting the winning formula. We’re basically forced to keep it as Scooter as possible and to expand the music as much as necessary. I remember you told me once that from time to time you insist that your students have to question the tools they are using—the canvas, the pencils, the techniques. It’s a bit like that, I suppose.

AO: I’d say that if I am working on a collage, the most important thing for me is to work with materials and sources that are not powerful, valuable or loaded in and of themselves. It’s important for me to use material that I either have personally discovered or that is unimportant or atrocious.

HPB: And what about using my portrait in the collage?

AO: Ha, ha, ha!

HPB: Ha, ha, ha!

AO: Ha, ha, ha!

HPB: So?

AO: Look, that’s a different story. I was talking about materials such as gold and diamonds that are valuable in and of themselves. I don’t think artists should use such materials to impress people. I would never use a photo of, say, another artist’s artwork in an artwork in order to “enhance” it. But to use the picture of a pop star in a piece of art is something different because it refers to something outside the art that I am making.

HPB: That’s exactly how we did “How Much Is the Fish?”. There we used a traditional melody that had been quite popular in the seventies and eighties, when the Dutch group Bots used it as the chorus for their smash hit “Seven Days on End”. We were “allowed” to use it because it was so contrary to everything you’d expect from a techno group.

AO: A transformation has to happen. I actually quite liked it when you collaborated with Status Quo for your single “Jump that Rock”. You addressed different generations with the track, although Status Quo actually represented the same kind of dull-witted, headbanger culture twenty years prior to Scooter. I’d call it mindlessness with a positive, sympathetic connotation.

HPB: I know what you mean! Status Quo, after four decades in the business, have called their 2007 album In Search of the Fourth Chord. That’s the kind of self-irony everyone can relate to. It’s as if we’re all looking for some kind of Esperanto—be it in music or art—that doesn’t exclude anyone anymore. In that sense, it is very important to take care to double-check if every part of the equation is understandable. In all honesty, it also means that you don’t have to be a genius to make music, since the result doesn’t have to be original. It can be a collage of sorts.

AO: I am constantly facing a conflict. I actually want to produce art that can be read or gazed at by anybody with no previous knowledge whatsoever. So, yes, in that sense I am also keen to find that kind of “Esperanto”. But it’s an illusion to think that you can “read” a work of art without having seen other works of art before. I’m not talking about interpreting a picture in a right or wrong way. In a collage for instance, each and every part is referencing something else. If you don’t have a clue, you’re probably going to miss something.

HPB: Then again, if you’re listening to “Jump that Rock” and don’t know who Status Quo are, I doubt that you’d miss that much. It’d still be the sound that has you bouncing about on the dance floor. Did you know that Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” wasn’t written by Marc Almond but by Ed Cobb and was first performed by Gloria Jones in the sixties? I found that out decades after I had fallen in love with that song. So I’d say you don’t always have to know the context to enjoy the surface. You just have to make sure that the surface is shiny and immediate. But coming back to what you’ve just said, when you’re using parts and pieces from Spanish roadside billboards and include them in your paintings, then you employ a language that is supposed to reach everybody without exception: advertising!

AO: That’s right. I use the billboards for exactly that reason. It’s my attempt to develop a new way of painting.

Oehlen_Baxxter_Electronic_Beats_Magazine
H.P. Baxxter and Albert Oehlen first met in Hamburg’s Hotel Atlantic in late 2010 (above, photo by Max Dax). This initial conversation appeared in Germany’s conservative newspaper Die Welt in 2011 to much public interest, fueling Scooter’s oddball reputation and leading to a critical reevaluation of their impressive chart history.

HPB: How self-critical are you with your own work? Does it sometimes happen that you look back and consider, for instance, the past year as twelve lost months? This has happened to me in the past, and if this happens it is a clear signal that I have to change something in our set-up.

AO: This happens to me all the time. 1987 was a catastrophe, clearly a step backwards then.

HPB: What happened in 1987?

AO: I was just meandering. I did some good stuff, but then also a series of paintings that were leading nowhere. They haunt me. This has happened to me from time to time, but not so drastically. I would consider a painting pointless and simply move on. But when you have a clear vision of what you want to achieve, you can usually tell quickly if you are following a wrong lead or not. Then it’s up to you to correct the direction you’re following.

HPB: You said earlier that you don’t want to use materials that are valuable, such as gold or diamonds, because it already leads to a specific direction, right?

AO: Yes, and in that sense Picasso is a role model for many. Almost all good artists historically only needed a pencil and a sheet of paper to create something beautiful and valuable. Other artists—such as Damien Hirst—use forbidden fruits, like his diamond skull. With the shark in formaldehyde solution for example, he triggered a primal fear that is inherent in every human being. It’s an archaic thing. We humans fear and respect the shark. So, if Hirst exhibits an entire shark, I ask myself if I am impressed by the artwork or by the shark. The impact the shark has on you doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with art.

HPB: I actually quite liked the shark.

AO: And I changed my mind eventually. Today I have to admit that the shark is a strong work, even if Damien Hirst did something that should actually be forbidden. But this is a problem for me. The two things happen to be contradictory. But since you asked, I want to reverse the question and ask you if Scooter would function without the intensity and volume you expect from techno music. Couldn’t it be that the volume is an archaic tool, equal to the shark, which basically impresses thanks to its sheer loudness? I mean, from a purist’s point of view, volume is not a trademark of quality, isn’t it?

HPB: But volume, unlike gold, is free. It’s nothing classist or dividing. On the contrary, volume is a standard parameter, comparable to the canvases you paint on. I listen to all kinds of music. For instance, I like The XX very much. It always depends on the mood and on the surroundings.

AO: Fine, but what about the precise moment of going out on stage? Do you feel safe because you know that whatever you do, it’ll be loud?

HPB: I actually don’t think that volume can disguise a bad performance. If my voice is croaky for instance, amplification doesn’t help at all. If the monitor sound on stage isn’t balanced out, then performing is like flying blind. I’ve experienced shows that we completely fucked up because we couldn’t hear ourselves on stage. The sound is extremely important, but it isn’t about investing lots of money. Thank God that bad shows only rarely happen. But if they do happen you can be sure that the audience will notice the difference immediately. You can’t fool an audience. That’s actually also the reason why I’m still a bit of nervous before going on stage. I wouldn’t call it stage fright, but it’s close.

AO: I envy you a bit for that. Nowadays, when I attend my own openings, everything is planned out perfectly. I remember openings in the past, when people would openly joke about the smell of the paintings—they still smelled like turpentine because they were still drying. Those were great times. We were really proud of our pictures, and only a week later you’d see people’s reactions in the live situation of the opening. But nowadays, if a museum decides to exhibit a body of my work, the paintings are rarely younger than a year. You don’t smell the turpentine anymore. It sometimes feels like listening to playback instead of a real live show. I miss that a bit. I think I will start painting two weeks before the opening, next time, even if it would confuse the whole system. Everybody would be stressed and worried about the catalogue and about the hanging. It’s a lot of pressure!

HPB: Did you hear about Berlin-based artist Jonathan Meese’s Hitler salute during his last opening?

AO: I thought pressing charges against Meese was ridiculous. I’d call him very authentic. He pushes his luck by constantly giving his status a reality check. He could actually lose it all. But I tremendously respect his willingness to risk that. He’s basically flooding the market with his art. This could become dangerous for him. Most other artists follow a less manic agenda.

HPB: He’s producing too much?

AO: No, the paintings are great and have to be painted of course. But I don’t know any career counselor who’d advise his client to act so anarchically. I really like Meese for exactly these reasons.

HPB: Do you follow a more planned professional agenda?

AO: That’s not easy to answer. I certainly think about my career in terms of aims and goals. But more than that, I mistrust the quick win. I’m not trying to land the next hit. I try to see my work in the context of the idea of the new painting that I mentioned before. I try to be successful within my own artistic agenda. I constantly try to set the course for a substantial development that allows me to follow my ideas. This actually applies also to the so-called “wild years”. I mentioned the habit of painting until the last minute before the exhibition would open. Even then I always tried to paint against the success. I would have been irritated by too much accolade and praise then. I preferred the frowns and rejections. Because I knew about the quality of my work and I knew that time would tell. By avoiding the early smash hit, I could develop under the radar. It is actually kind of a kick for me to delay the success that would come. Martin Kippenberger, by the way, did likewise. If you consider this career planning, then the answer would be probably ‘yes’. But I’d answer the same question with a clear ‘no’ if career planning meant squeezing out everything to become a top-selling, super expensive star painter.

HPB: That’s totally different with us. After topping the charts with our first single “Hyper Hyper”, we developed a sportsmanlike ambition to repeat this instant success. Our formula was always the same. If we believed in a song, we’d try out everything to properly market it. We definitely try to reach the highest chart position with everything we release. Knowing that this is actually impossible, we realistically try to have one #1 hit per album. Sometimes, however, we’d also release a song knowing it wouldn’t storm the charts, simply because we want to make a statement. But we certainly wouldn’t follow an art-for-art’s-sake policy with Scooter.

AO: I understand. That happens to me as well, occasionally. If I succeed in landing an immediate hit, and if I really identify with that painting, then I obviously see no reason not to follow that trail and work harder in that direction. I have the impression that you don’t have a professional advisor as well. To me it looks like since “Hyper Hyper” you’ve continued on a certain path.
It’s innocent. People appreciate that. Especially when they can rave to it.

HPB: That’s true. I actually tried to force it with my first band, Celebrate the Nun. I did everything to be successful and nothing worked. With Scooter we just let it happen. I’d say that following your intuition was—and is—probably the best career advice in the world. ~

 

Scooter celebrate their twentieth anniversary with a performance at Hamburg’s Uebel & Gefährlich club on December 5th. The event will be streamed live on electronicbeats.net. The book Scooter: Always Hardcore by Max Dax and Robert Defcon is available now. You can read excerpts from it, in English, here. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 36 (4, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.