“Sehr gut / Very good” – Remembering Martin Kippenberger

“Einer von euch, unter euch, mit euch” (“One of you, among yourselves, with you”), wrote Martin Kippenberger on his self-portrait in 1979. He was the master of profligacy, but at one point everything was too much: on March 7, 1997 he died in Vienna—at the age of 44.

What he left behind was a life on the fast track. Kippenberger painted, he played in a punk band, published several books, together with his painter colleagues Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen he founded a secret society called “Lord Jim Loge”, he planned a global subway network, he ran the Berlin pendant of Andy Warhol’s Factory for a few years and basically ruined himself with this exhausting and self-destructive lifestyle. During his lifetime he was denied the fame and appreciation that a lot of his contemporaries experienced. 16 years after his death he is now considered a classic modernist painter and conceptual artist of world fame. The most important museums all over the world show his paintings and auctions of his works keep on breaking records. Due to the great opening of the Kippenberger retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, five of his associates and peers–Michel Würthle, owner of the Paris Bar in Berlin; art collector Bärbel Grässlin; galerists Christian Nagel and Gisela Capitain; artist/friend Werner Büttner–, as well as Kippenberger’s sister Susanne commemorate him. They tell his story, a story of an artist, a self-publicist and a provocateur from six different angles—fused together into an oral history, which is to be understood as an attempt at honoring an ingenious dilettante. The conversations are collected by Max Dax.

Susanne Kippenberger: Our father was a building engineer, who would’ve loved to be an artist himself. He always painted, photographed, drew, wrote, made collages and built objects from stranded goods. He also produced little books and magazines for his closest friends, containing personal letters or writing about our vacations. Martin grew up with the belief that everyday life can be the richest source of inspiration. Our father also used to stage photos of us when we were children. A camera was always with him and unlike us sisters, Martin always enjoyed posing and having pictures taken of him.

Werner Büttner: Martin was unbelievably good at striking poses. That’s why so many amazing photos exist of him. Whenever there was a photographer present, he would strike a pose. These vast amounts of photos of course helps us remembering him.

Susanne Kippenberger: It wasn’t just L’art pour l’art, it was a special kind of self-manifestation that our father encouraged him to indulge in. He always gave speeches—just like Martin would later do as well—no matter if anyone paid attention or not. Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner both have met our father and confirmed that in that regard he was even worse than our brother.

Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger wasn’t tied up in doubts. He was never like Beckett, who couldn’t continue to write once he’d started and who became increasingly blocked and as a result even fewer lines came off.

Susanne Kippenberger: We knew from the beginning that Martin would become an artist. Unlike other boys he didn’t play with toy cars, he rather always painted. On one wall in our kitchen father had written the words: “Martin, our artist”. When he was only eight or nine years old he used to say that he wanted to become a famous artist. He was never doubtful about it.

Werner Büttner: Martin was a special case. He simply couldn’t do anything else. He had to be an artist—and only that, day and night. He wasn’t meant to do anything else. The only apprenticeship I ever heard him do was a brief stint as a window dresser. He wasn’t even able to cope with that. He rather chose the path of total freedom, a fool’s life, doing whatever he felt like doing—and hoping that some day he might get some reward for it. Which he eventually did.

Susanne Kippenberger: School was a disaster for Martin. He left home at a very early age, when he was nine, to go to boarding school. Our parents received a letter from the headmaster in which he states that Martin showed an enormous amount of creativity. He wasn’t sure if Martin was copying anyone. But if not he surely had a future in art ahead of him. Of course, Martin later used this letter for an artwork and exhibited it. He basically turned everything he found into art.

Christian Nagel: Martin Kippenberger was restless from the beginning. It was a restlessness that was mirrored in an inflationary conception of art production that shunned exclusivity. Basically there are only two approaches in art: either one floods the market with as much as possible, or one acts as exclusively as possible. Kippenberger always did things to excess. He simply created too much art–not just because he tried to skirt the art scene, but maybe also because he knew he’d not much time left.

Werner Büttner: To put it nicely, one could say that half of Kippenberger’s oeuvre can be considered disposable, the other half is genuinly brilliant. There is no mediocrity to be found in his body of work.

Gisela Capitain: Kippenberger had an all-encompassing and interdisciplinary approach. Unlike other artists his reputation wasn’t damaged by showing weaker pieces in an exhibition as they were always contrasted with very strong ones. He was never ever anxious about giving away a piece from his studio that he knew wasn’t a masterpiece. That was an immediate expresion of his beliefs, and he was very certain about this. And if he still started doubting, you could bet he used that doubt to create something new.

Werner Büttner: Everything has to be evaluated in context of its time: the ’80s were a strange decade within art history. The mechanics of the art scene were very peculiar then. In the Eighties everybody seemed to believe in the daft idea of “autonomous art”—which basically meant that art is art and everything else is everything else. I never believed in this. And neither did Oehlen and Kippenberger which is why we never had to discuss this on a theoretical level. We didn’t even ask ourselves if we had to fight the idea of autonomous art–so absurd the concept was to us. Instinctively we knew that this just couldn’t be it and that art had to be related to reality. Time proved us right: Nowadays there are only very few people left who believe in that theory.

Bärbel Grässlin: The late ’70s were dominated by minimal art, concept art and performance art. Opposed to these disciplines, Kippenberger’s paintings were provocative, fresh and new. The boys all listened to the same music as us, also they convinced us with their intellect. My siblings and I started early with buying Oehlen’s, Kippenberger’s and Büttner’s works. Why? Because their art was clearly beyond the established.

Michel Würthle: Martin never began with constructing a theory, trying to realize it in the next step. He always produced right away. In hindsight it was always easy to then contextualize what he had just created. He processed the content from the form. He lived his ‘work in progress’.

Susanne Kippenberger: Every aspect of his life was rendered into art. He took, whatever it was, and made art out of it. Everyone and everything fascinated him, from Austrian woodcutters to the headlines of tabloids like the German Bild Zeitung.

Werner Büttner: Our enemy wasn’t just the art scene, but almost everything that was surrounding us. Our enemies were certain newspapers, television channels, those other idiotic alcoholics in the same bar as us–it basically was the world around us. We could always agree pretty fast on who was the enemy. But that didn’t mean at all that we weren’t competitive. Our careers probably flourished over the years because we were always merciless with each other and ridiculed the other as soon as one of us made a mistake. We were ruthlessly speaking our minds, even if it created awkward situations. That’s how we learned.

Michel Würthle: Kippenberger constantly put himself under immense pressure of production. Even though he was constantly traveling he felt compelled to deliver on a daily basis. He cultivated some kind of love/hate relationship when it came to everything connected to producing art: invitation cards, posters, catalogs, opening speeches and of course the after-show parties were all most important satellites for Kippenberger. Needless to say that such a lifestyle is exhausting in the long run.

Gisela Capitain: Alcohol was an instrument for him, a means to keep himself constantly in a good mood, to keep a never ending communication flow going. Alcohol was never important when it came to work. Kippenberger never drank alone. Not even at work. He also never worked under the influence of certain drugs. Drinking for him always had a social and societal connotation.

Bärbel Grässlin: He was an eccentric person, he always boozed. That’s not a secret. He drank to let off steam–but that’s what others did as well. Actually, he created the pressure himself by going public over and over again and constantly demanding appreciation for his work.

Michel Würthle: I remember this one outbreak of emotions he once had at the beginning of the ’90s in this god forsaken pedestrian area in some remote provincial backwater. I told him, “Let us never ever go again to a place like Aschaffenburg or Munich, let’s rather go to Congo. Always the same Italian restaurants after the openings. This is an unbearable routine!” And he responded, “This is some kind of war. We have to live through it. You can’t just run away.” The problem was that we kept on boozing in these places. We sometimes just couldn’t escape these provincial nightmares. In the weakness of a post-exhibition hangover we always had to drink more–otherwise we would have never ever endured these situations. And this way we’d spend just another precious day in no-man’s land. With every hour that went by we increasingly felt stuck. We once hung out at the Salzkammergut for three days after the wedding of Cosima von Bonin and Michael Krebber–Kippenberger’s assistant and friend. We almost lost our sight from the beauty of the snowy mountain panorama and, of course, the too many Fernet Branca digestifs. A slight panic seemed to break out. In those cases the only thing that helps is taking a taxi – even if it’d cost us a fortune. Hiking on glaciers, bus or train rides were not an option in such a situation.

Bärbel Grässlin: Kippenberger was always able to work, even if he had partied hard the night before. He would even continue to excessively work when he took his yearly health cures in Austria. There, for instance, he did an enormous amount of drawings for his series “Hotel”–he had to draw as canvas and oil paintings couldn’t be produced in a cure hotel room. These “Hotel” paper drawings were also some kind of compensation as he simply couldn’t access his studio.

Michel Würthle: Kippenberger went to a clinic in Innsbruck once a year where he would live off of bread and milk for one month. From that clinic he always returned amazingly fit, looking splendid with his even skin and healthy tan. These health cures always worked for him. But after three, four weeks tops, his old lifestyle caught up with him.

Bärbel Grässlin: In Innsbruck he befriended a traditional woodcutter who carved some of his most famous multiples for him, for instance the famous “Frog on the Cross” [“Zuerst die Füße”]. No matter if health cure or vacation, suspension of production was not allowed.

Susanne Kippenberger: The worst case for Martin would’ve been to limit himself to one single style. He studied in Hamburg at Rudolf Hausner’s, who in his lifetime basically painted the same heads over and over again. Martin never wanted that. Still one can find Hausner’s very own ‘handwriting’ in each one of his pieces.

“Zuerst die Füße”, Martin Kippenberger, 1990

Bärbel Grässlin: His working strategy was to focus on a certain topic at a time, for instance the self-portrait, the egg, other art phenomena and so on. As soon as one of those topics was dealt with, he immediately commited himself to the next one. Every exhibition differed from the one before. Back in the day if you’d attend two Kippenberger exhibitions in a row, you could easily think you’d seen shows by two different artists. Eventually his ‘fingerprint’ was easier to recognize.

Susanne Kippenberger: He always saw the bigger picutre. Barbara Straka, who curated his exhibition “Lieber Maler, male mir…” [“Dear painter, please paint for me…”] in 1981 at the NGBK in Berlin, once stated that she witnessed Martin’s completely different approach. Instead of just preparing the exhibition he curated a whole week of happenings around it. The opening for instance was just one of many related events–there was also a concert at Café Einstein, a festival at Michel Würthle’s Paris Bar, another opening at Galerie Petersen and he even incorporated our father’s 60th birthday into his week of events. It was one big art installation.

Michel Würthle: Martin could be a stubborn character if he became fixated on a certain idea. He could switch into attack mode from one moment to another, especially when things slowed down or went wrong. He wouldn’t accept no for an answer if someone didn’t take him seriously.

Susanne Kippenberger: He was very determined while working, always straightforward. His declared goal was always to become a famous, celebrated artist. He did have minor goals too, that he couldn’t realize while still living–for example he dreamt of being a writer. I don’t know if he really, really believed in it, but he actually went to Paris for a few months, rented out a hotel room and started to write a novel there. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, he didn’t become a famous writer. He also used to always say that he would’ve loved to become an actor, a second Helmut Berger. Suffice to say, this also didn’t work out.

Michel Würthle: One of his unrealized projects was his wish to appear as a cameo in a big budget Hollywood production—it would have been enough for him to just prominently walk through a scene showing his presence. That would have been all he wanted. It didn’t matter who would have starred in the movie–it only needed to involve helicopters and such things. He envied José Luis de Villalonga, who, in the 1950s, managed to have cameo roles in almost 50 movies—among other roles he played a Brazilian ambassador in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He would have loved to have had such an impressive list as well, but he had to write that off as just another failed project. Martin was very sad that his film career never got started.

Bärbel Grässlin: Accessibility in the Beuys’ sense was a top priority to him. Everybody should know. He always carried a stack of invitation cards with him which he would then hand out to everybody he met–be it a boozer in a bar or a man on the street. As many people as possible should come to his gallery openings, these weren’t meant only for an exclusive inner circle. Instead the family was permeable and supposed to always be extended. Permanently. Perpetually.

Michel Würthle: He was always accompanied by a ever-changing troupe of fans, an entourage which didn’t have to neccessarily match his wit. In this scenario he always was reminiscent of a circus director who constantly recruited new performers and bystanders for his next show. Wherever his journeys would take him, he always would spot that town’s dives and gin joints. He had an instinct for spotting the most desperate of all public bars. That’s where he would go and start drinking and generously recruit assistants for the upcoming exhibition opening.

Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger was always the center of attention, no matter where he was.

Bärbel Grässlin: He loved openings, because it was him who was celebrated and he enjoyed that excessively. Artistic recognition was more important than anything else. The question was, “who is there? Who isn’t there?” As a member of the family you simply weren’t allowed to be absent. And if you were, he would remember it. For him presence was some kind of testimony: “I honor you that’s why I’m here”.

Susanne Kippenberger: He wasn’t the type who would let anybody control him. Like an animal he had a precise instinct for another person’s weak spots. He wouldn’t hesitate to bring up the most painful subjects—and he did, extensively. I mean, nobody likes being told painful and also true facts about oneself in front of an audience.

Christian Nagel: Kippenberger was really good at dredging the shit up and throwing it in the other’s faces.

Werner Büttner: If you cultivate a confrontational relationship, good and evil start to surface. I always quote from the most gruesome book of the Bible–The Revelation of John—when I teach my students: “You can be hot, you can be cold. But if you are lukewarm, the Lord will spit you out.” Nobody had to remind us of this. We were never tepid neither with each other nor with our audiences.

Christian Nagel: I remember how Kippenberger once insisted on serving croquettes and other Dutch fast food ‘delicacies’ at the after-show dinner as part of his grand exhibition opening in Rotterdam. He used to love those croquettes as a teen when he went on holidays to the Netherlands with his family. The director of that museum was very embarrassed about this–his staff originally planned on serving something sophisticated, but Kippenberger insisted on having this greasy, fried, unhealthy convenience food. The director was confronted with a working class cliché of the Netherlands born out of the Ruhr area in Germany.

Susanne Kippenberger: The German art set of the ’80s was convinced that humor doesn’t belong in art. For them it meant lack of seriousness. In their eyes any art that used humor was irrelevant. That explains why Martin had only one solo museum exhibition in Germany in Darmstadt and a second one in Mönchengladbach right before his death—but dozens in the United States.

Christian Nagel: Kippenberger cultivated a love/hate relationship towards the art scene. He wanted to be Picasso, Beuys and Warhol at the same time. But he felt disgusted by the art market. He tended to get pretty mad when he felt confronted with meaningless praise, wrong arguments or vanity. He definitively had a moral code and could thus be easily offended.

Bärbel Grässlin: You can trace an anarchic sense of humor, as well as irony, especially self-irony in Martin Kippenberger’s work. He always displayed a critical distance towards everyday life and towards art. He kept a distance from the art scene, but at the same time he absolutely wanted to be part of it. The legions of art historians, curators and museum directors definitively had their problems with Martin Kippenberger while he was still alive.

Werner Büttner: Martin wasn’t allowed to receive the recognition he so eagerly had fought for all his life—a participation in the Venice Biennale, the Documenta or even the huge retrospective at Tate Modern in 1997. It was a cruel and cynical aspect of his life that he died in 1997–the same year his career internationally went through the roof.

“Paris Bar”, Martin Kippenberger, 1993

Susanne Kippenberger: Everybody says that if you die young, you’ll become a legend. But I personally believe this is only one possible explanation for why Martin is now honored with huge international retrospectives and merits. Many people didn’t even see his art, they only saw him, the provocateur. And more often than not, they got him wrong.

Bärbel Grässlin: Martin Kippenberger lived twice or three times as fast as the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he died so young. I watched him closely when he was in Frankfurt as a guest professor at Städel-Schule. Socializing on a nightly basis was a must–which was a drag. Being alone was never his thing, so he always had to gather an audience around him. No one was able to keep up with his speed.

Susanne Kippenberger: Until today not many are aware of Martin’s last series, especially the litho-series “Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”] and “Bilder, die Picasso nicht mehr malen konnte” [“Pictures that Picasso Wasn’t Able to Draw Anymore”]. Some people still see him as a clown and an ironist.

Werner Büttner: Many people think he didn’t anticipate his death. But I doubt that. I think he lied to himself as I feel he knew deep down. You can actually see it in “Das Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”], which he created in Denmark referencing a motif by Theodore Géricault. There is no doubt that someone is bidding farewell. If I look at the prints, I see a disfigured, bloated, destroyed body waving goodbye. And on some of the prints this body even strikes the Imitatio Christi pose—reenacting a crucifixion. When I saw his last series of lithographs I realized that this cycle implied a foreshadowing of the end and that it was a goodbye to the world.

Christian Nagel: I am quite sure he knew the end was near. Interestingly enough, this didn’t lead him to push even harder, instead he tried to enjoy his life. He married, he even went on his honeymoon and started to live in a house with a studio in Austria. This house to him became his home—and not just a stopover. But, of course, he still was constantly working until the end.

Susanne Kippenberger: I believe that even facing his imminent death he couldn’t completely change. He still couldn’t really slow down. Looking back, there was always this enormous desire to live and work. And yet Martin wanted to become an old man. A fortune teller once told him he’d live past his 80th birthday–he enjoyed telling this story so much. But then again he was a smart guy. He knew he was drawn to a dangerous lifestyle.

Werner Büttner: I got this phonecall call and the other voice said, “He is dead”. So we all traveled from every corner of the earth to this rotten hill, which guards the exit of the Pußta and its worthless setting. The weather was so terrible that you could’ve been jealous of the dead. Frozen-stiff and weighed down with morbid minds we approached the pit painfully slowly. At a certain moment, when almost a hundred of us still hadn’t faced up to his grave, suddenly the gravedigger started to fill the grave. The widow froze, the mourners froze. Asked what he was doing, a loud and drunk reply in the meanest of all Austrian dialects spewed forth from his stinking mouth, “Well I’m in charge, I’m closing this hole now, it’s getting dark soon.” Michel Würthle took the drunken Catholic creature aside and bribed him with some pennies, which, aside from schnapps, was his only interest. Then we proceeded with the rituals of piety. I am sure that even during this very last episode, Kippenberger would have unearthed some odd pleasure. And certainly, he would have made something out of it. ~

Main picture: “Ohne Titel” [from the series “Lieber Maler, male mir”], Martin Kippenberger, 1981.

Continue Reading

Ruza ‘Kool Lady’ Blue on Kraftwerk

I originally came to New York in 1981 from London to run a fashion store for Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood called Worlds End 2 in Soho. At the time I had been living in the Chelsea Hotel and fashion and music for me were always intimately connected, something that both Malcom and Vivienne understood very well. In the eighties, the burgeoning hip-hop scene wasn’t really that organized, and there was no hip-hop scene in downtown Manhattan. But there were DJs, MCs, B-Boys, B-Girls, dancers, and graf artists scattered all over the place up in the Bronx, so I basically went up there and brought them all downtown, and organized them. They had no idea where this journey would take them, nor did I.


I had first been exposed to hip-hop through watching Afrika Bambaataa and The Rock Steady Crew open for Bow Wow Wow at The Ritz, which was a show Malcom had actually organized. That was when my mouth dropped and hip-hop replaced punk for me in terms of main musical interests. In the early days it was all so experimental, and it was never about making money or bling-bling, or shareholder meetings, but more about unity and fun and dancing to incredible music. My contribution was, I guess, combining all of these elements into the electronic dance club context, and it worked. It was mad. You could feel an overwhelming sense that things were shifting into a new era of explosive creative freedom and change in NYC. Mash-up culture was born and DIY was the name of the game. You could do anything and no one would judge you.

The hip-hop and downtown scenes mixed fantastically; like the perfect cocktail and a brilliant sense of humor. I had this gut feeling it would work and after a short spell promoting parties at Club Negril, which got closed down, I had the idea to move the scene and start the Roxy parties, which ended up being game-changing. I always wanted to open a massive dance club in NYC on the euro-electro music tip— people dancing to the sounds of Kraftwerk, Ultravox,and the like. But I wanted to do it with a twist. I was particularly inspired by the blitz-electro-new-romantic scene in London and what DJ Rusty Egan was doing, but I didn’t want it to be so exclusive.

I think the Roxy was the first racially diverse electronic dance club ever, and it became the blue- print for so many important clubs. We had everyone from punks like John Lydon, to serious couture fashionistas like Carolina Herrera, to Madonna, to twelve-year-old B- Boys, DJs like Bambaataa, to Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Mick Jagger, Leigh Bowery, Debbie Harry, Julian Schnabel, and the ubiquitous Glenn O’Brien. And then there was all the people from the Bronx . . . All barriers came down and there were absolutely no age limits. We shunned Studio 54’s elitist policy, and we knew we were on the right track because the juxtaposition of these diverse sets of people was so mind blowing. At the time, hip-hop culture was all embracing: no one cared if you were a tranny, had blue hair or wore spandex or a Sex Pistols t-shirt. This was the party where white people first saw all four elements of hip-hop culture showcased in one place in downtown NYC and in a massive dance club environment.

There are so many stories to tell, I can’t think of them all . . . I remember booking Malcolm McLaren to perform his hit ‘Buffalo Gals’ at the club, and he went missing the night of his show. He had serious stage fright, but I managed to locate him in a bar somewhere in Midtown and convince him to come to the club and that things would be all right. It turned out great in the end, of course. Prior to that, I managed to convince Malcolm to give me a copy of The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle to show at the club. That was the first time the film was ever shown in America, and what a pivotal night that was; when hip-hop met punk face-to- face. The right chemistry was there so I ended up screening the film every other week for a laugh. I felt like a mad scientist mixing and mashing up cultures to create a new conversation.

Kraftwerk were very, very important to my club. Everyone danced to Kraftwerk—and I mean everyone. I made sure their songs were played every week, and it quickly became part of the soundtrack. I find it extremely difficult to rate their output, because virtually everything has been so influential and so high quality. But if I had to choose, I would say Radio-Activity, Trans- Europe Express, and Computer World are my absolute favorites. I’ve also had the chance to see them live a couple of times, most recently at the MoMA retrospective. All I could think is how timeless and relevant this band is, especially in today’s Apple computer culture. And I loved the idea of wearing the 3-D glasses. I attended Trans- Europe Express together with Afrika Bambaataa, and it brought back a lot of good memories of the Roxy and ‘Planet Rock’. Of course, ‘Numbers’ and ‘Trans-Europe Express’ were classic Roxy anthems. Musically, I am not sure you can overestimate Kraftwerk’s influence. Like hip-hop, Kraftwerk is everywhere and still miles ahead of their time. For me, Kraftwerk was the perfect mash-up band as far as representing the future goes. And they had a message. Even though their lyrics were minimal, they remain incredibly poignant, even today. ‘Radioactivity’ is perhaps the perfect example.~

Earlier this year we where reporting from the Kraftwer Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at New York’s MoMa, where we collected a lot of interesting takes on the legendary techno innovators from the likes of Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Klaus Biesenbach and more – Read them here.

Photo: Max Dax


Continue Reading

Electronic Beats Screen Test: Mark Reeder

Mark Reeder

We’ve got a video camera and we’re gonna use it—to make screen tests! 38 years after Andy Warhol started to shoot Factory regulars, Warhol superstars, celebrities, guests and friends on film, we’ve decided to do the same. The first person to star in our series of screen tests is Mark Reeder, who recently contributed his ABC to Electronic Beats’ Fall issue 2012. Our screen tests know only one rule: They are around one minute long—and anything can happen. Stay tuned for the second screen test next Monday—again directed by Luci Lux. ~ Photo: Luci Lux

Continue Reading

“Anything can be pop nowadays”: Pet Shop Boys Interviewed

In a music world obsessed with artistic authenticity, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the Pet Shop Boys are unapologetic pop supremacists and vocal critics of the contrived poses of rock and roll realness. And why shouldn’t they be? Having sold more than 100,000,000 albums, the pair speaks with the authority of the most successful British duo in history—a feat accomplished through exposing the value of surface sophistication and giving a voice to the snarky and un-rebellious. Oh yeah, and by writing unquestionably brilliant songs that make queer fans proud to be out and straight fans secretly proud to be in. On Elysium, Lowe and Tennant have once again dreamed our reality. Photo: Pelle Crépin

Your elegantly designed website informs us that today, exactly fifteen years ago, you shook hands with Tony Blair in No. 10 Downing Street.

Neil Tennant: Did we?

Chris Lowe: What’s the day today? Is it fifteen years already?

NT: Let me think: Blair won the election on May 1st, 1997. Actually, he had invited me. And I asked Chris if he wanted to go too, because I had got plus one, because I’d been a donor to the Labour Party. I’d actually given them money from Neil Kinnock onwards. One day, I stopped donating. And you know what the best thing was? They didn’t notice!

There’s two reasons why I think the 1997 Blair encounter is remarkable. The first one is obvious. Does it do any good if pop stars shake hands with presidents or prime ministers? Isn’t this a wickedly tricky situation?

NT: I’d say it’s nothing special. There’s a long tradition in Britain that allows exactly that. It’s no big deal. Since the time when Harold Wilson was Labour Prime Minister in the sixties, the government has celebrated British creative industries. Just take the famous picture of designer Katharine Hamnett arriving at Downing Street for a celebration for the fashion industry—wearing the “58% DON’T WANT PERSHING” t-shirt. And you cannot forget that in 1997 we’d had a Tory government for eighteen years. And the new Labour government—they even liked to be called New Labour—seemed like a really fresh thing. For instance there were two openly gay men in the cabinet. That was a sea change in British politics.

There were no gay Tories?

NT: They had gay members, but they wouldn’t out themselves. But what was the second reason for your question?

When you realize that you’ve been invited to Downing Street fifteen years ago—don’t you think sometimes that time is running fast?

NT: It does, indeed.

The new Pet Shop Boys album Elysium has this sense of awareness that you are getting older. Once in an interview for Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine you asked Elton John if aging in the realm of pop was an issue to him.

NT: That was also fifteen years ago, in 1997. But I don’t remember what Elton replied.

He said: “I’m still as fascinated with the music business.”

NT: I’d say an equally good answer would have been: “You get used to it.” As a matter of fact, sooner or later everyone will realize how quickly time passes, how quickly a year passes, how quickly the seasons change . . . We are moving towards extinction. But in terms of being in the music business or in the world of musicians, there are two generations above the Pet Shop Boys. So I’d say we’ve got used to that world. The Rolling Stones are still touring. Paul McCartney is seventy and he still does concerts.

Bob Dylan is even seventy-one.

NT: Everybody seems to have become used to the idea that a pop star can be seventy or older. It’s only twenty years ago that the NME wrote: “Pet Shop Boys—two men who are pushing forty.” Like if this was supposed to be something bad. Nowadays people don’t say that so much anymore. You either are or are not making a record that people want to listen to.

Would you agree that Dylan was the first real pop star to age in public? And, by doing so, became a role model of sorts?

NT: The point is that he has written songs from that perspective for some time now. That’s the difference. We do the same. Elysium is an album that has been made by two men in their fifties. And yet it’s still pop music. So, in a way, this is sort of a strange dialectic that pop in theory is a young people’s musical form and it can be about growing old.

Would you therefore say that the meaning of the term “pop” has changed? Or does it only depend on the perspective you write your songs from?

NT: Is Dylan pop music?

In the Warholian sense? I’d probably say yes. But of course he ultimately pursued the tradition of a folk singer.

NT: I don’t think Dylan is pop, really. I think it’s much more difficult being Mick Jagger than it is to be Bob Dylan. As Bob Dylan you are allowed, even encouraged, to look old. Although there is a side to Bob Dylan which I think is always overlooked, because Dylan at all times, in any given period, has had a strong image. He grew a moustache and wears hats—he’s even occasionally worn make-up. I mean, first he dressed up as a folk singer. Then he came to England in the sixties, went shopping in Carnaby Street and became all hip and snappy. He hung out with The Beatles too . . . You must not underestimate the power of an image. He’s probably got a style advisor somewhere. In that sense, yes, he is pop. But musically, I think he doesn’t fall into the regular pattern of a pop star because he is not selling sex. Mick Jagger on the other hand, like Madonna, is always selling sex. And Mick Jagger, to his credit, is doing it now in his late sixties.

Have you seen him lately?

NT: I saw a picture from Jade Jagger’s wedding on the Hello! magazine cover. You look at him and think: Wow, Mick Jagger! He’s made craggy work. He has had no facelift, no Botox. He’s very lined. But he still looks glamorous. He’s still thin, and he has this slightly feminine way of standing. I don’t know, he had a lot of charisma in that picture.

Pet Shop Boys are considered pop in the true meaning of the word. How would you define pop nowadays? Funny enough, the word became a common term in the sixties, already some fifty years ago…

NT:When did pop first appear as a term? If I remember correctly, pop emerged in the fifties independently in the UK and in America. In Britain I think Richard Hamilton coined the term.

Richard Hamilton was Bryan Ferry’s professor in art school, wasn’t he?

NT: He was, yes. And you know, one time we used to worry whether we were a pop group or not. But of course we realized we were a pop group and we totally still are. We used to hate the fake authenticity that rock claimed to have. By the way, that fake authenticity dated really quickly. Do you remember U2 and how they got styled for the cover of The Joshua Tree? On the contrary, eighties pop music looks authentically dated . . . therefore it is indeed authentic. I think it’s quite funny that pop, by not claiming to be authentic, is so much more authentic. It has a freshness, an easiness, a naturalness about it and a bit of glamour. Pop has something that people in the street are genuinely into.

Only that you, in a recent interview with Spex magazine, said that “pop is surface”.

NT: A revealing surface, yes. But the point I want to stress is slightly different. The war between the fake authenticity of rock and the real authenticity of pop was sort of won by pop. But it could be un-won by a rock fightback in the future. For the moment, pop is the winner. Anything can be pop nowadays. We live in a pop world now—which means that everything is a question of style. Whenever a pop star shows humility, emotions or humanitarian engagement—this seems to be a style decision. I can’t decide whether they are sincere or not. I can’t tell if Lady Gaga is sincere when she calls her fans “my little monsters”.

CL: We call ours “our little pets”.

NT: Is it patronizing or is it friendly? I really can’t work it out. But we have to give her credit for many things. She does it her way.

Despite obviously being a pop record, Elysium sounds very different to anything you’ve done before. It sounds like you’ve listened to a lot of sentimental Hollywood musical scores from past decades—and pitched them down. You hear a lot of old-fashioned string arrangements, orchestra and vocal ensembles.

NT: You know we’ve always primarily seen ourselves as songwriters. That’s the foundation of it all. This time, we considered making an album that was in one mood all the way through. I’m talking of a musical mood. We wanted the songs to be slower, more reflective, beautiful and with more sub-bass. And this is why we decided to go to Los Angeles and to work with Andrew Dawson. We knew that we’d get the backing vocals there because the city has a long tradition of professional vocal ensembles and it was clear to us from the beginning that we wanted that on many of the new songs. Elysium is different to the albums we’ve made before. For instance, some of the new songs don’t have a middle eight, with the notable exception of “Winner”, which has one of the strongest middle eights we have ever written. The majority of the new songs have a simpler structure though.

What about the late Pet Shop Boys’ use of harmonies?

NT: If you listen to the first Pet Shop Boys album Please—and I think I’m right in saying this—you will find not a single vocal harmony. And on our second album Actually, the only vocal harmonies were made by producer Stephen Hague putting my voice through a machine. And then, when Trevor Horn comes along with “Left To My Own Devices”, he gets me to sing vocal harmonies on the chorus. As time has come along, I do more and more vocal harmonies.

CL: This time we worked with Sonos as our backing singers. They are a harmony group from Los Angeles.

NT: They’re a quintet from Los Angeles who performs concerts a cappella with effects pedals to change the sound of their voices. They, for instance, sing on our new song “Ego Music”. But we worked with the Waters Family too, who sing on eight tracks of the new album. They have this incredibly smooth sound—which is a very Los Angeles thing to get. We don’t have the same thing in Britain. We wanted this smoothness and elegance. That’s why we went to Los Angeles. You know, in America they have super-professionalism. In Britain we have great ideas. But it’s always about style. In America they have the professionalism of Barbra Streisand and Aretha Franklin. In Britain we have David Bowie, Mick Jagger and The Beatles. That’s why we approached Andrew Dawson who had worked on the last few Kanye West albums. The electronic sound of 808s & Heartbreak appealed to us a lot. It’s sparse, spare and sort of melancholic with all this aching and all this incredible bass. When we were writing “Invisible” that particular Kanye West sound seemed like a reference point. And that’s why we approached Andrew Dawson. And the first thing Andrew Dawson did was delete things, take things out. We were pushing him to put them back in, but he was very resistant. He was very polite and persistent so he succeeded. As a result, the record became simpler and more elegant. And it has a lot of bass while it’s refined to its essentials. To my ears, Elysium is a very warm-sounding record. As opposed to its predecessor Yes which was a very compressed-sounding record, very MP3-ish.

CL: I noticed that Andrew never left the studio.

NT: He probably just had such a strong idea of how the record should sound like.

What about you?

NT: Well, when we arrive at a studio, we give the producer so much to work with that we can easily leave the studio for a while. Our songs are always demoed to a very high level. It’s actually quite difficult to live up to the rough mixes that we bring with us. The job of the producer is to refine it and to make it better.

CL: I imagine someone like Kanye writes the songs in the studio instead of demoing them.

NT: I think maybe he does. I don’t actually know. But Andrew pointed out something that almost nobody seems to have noticed before. Kanye West often “vibes out” vocals, as we say. To “vibe out” means that from time to time you sing or rap little meaningless gobbledygook syllables that sound good but are meaningless. And Kanye sometimes leaves them in because they sound good—even if they’re pure nonsense. It’s amazing that no one really ever points this out. By the way: that is pop, because it is as much about effect as it is about meaning. I’m sure Andy Warhol would approve of that.

When you did Yesyou’ve worked together with a team of producers called Xenomania. You mentioned other producers such as Trevor Horn, Stephen Hague and Andrew Dawson. Why do you always seem to seek out a new producer instead of teaming up with someone for a longer period of time?

CL: There is definitely a hunger to seek out ways of doing things differently. It’s a fascinating learning process to see how other people do things. That’s also one of the reasons why we do cover versions. We want to see how songs work, and you learn it best by playing a song yourself.

NT: I would sometimes tell Andrew Dawson: “If you were Trevor Horn you’d be doing this now.” Or “Trevor would put a choir on it.”

Didn’t this annoy him?

NT: No. Once he even asked me what Trevor would have done in a certain situation.

And what did you tell him?

NT: Record someone jumping into a swimming pool and use it as the snare.

CL: Nobody works like that anymore. It’s of course a problem of cut-down budgets. In the old days, rock groups used to hire a studio as a lockout for more than a year. They were allowed to experiment. They could take a track down a road and see if it worked. If it was a dead end they could come back and try again. It’s no comparison to sitting at home on your computer and trying out all the plug-ins you’ve downloaded. Experimenting in a studio has become something of a luxury nowadays.

NT: But to be really commercial can mean to produce something fresh. Commercial music nowadays can be quite experimental. Actually, producing Elysium was quite an expensive process, too. It involved getting an orchestra, renting Capitol Studios in Los Angeles and very expensive backing singers. But of course, every experiment that you ever try out at the end has to still sound like the Pet Shop Boys. You want to keep the character.

In the Fall 2011 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine Brian Eno said, “You see it over and over again that good artists end up com-ing back to the same ideas they’ve always worked with.”

NT: Brian Eno works with different rock bands and different projects. We work with different producers as we have different projects. And of all these things you learn from and then move for- ward to the next thing. And it’s also the case that when you’ve done something you don’t want to do something like it next. You want to do it different, but not entirely. I’ve always been suspicious of people who jump genres. Look at Blur. First they were the English Blur. And then suddenly they were an American slacker band. How can you be both of those? Nothing against Damon Albarn—he is a talented musician and he is good at that genre-hopping. I agree with Brian Eno. You develop by doing the same thing over and over again, but always a bit differently. I’d say over the course of the years we have learned more about what we do. Continuity allowed us to have become more sophisticated with Elysium.

You are releasing an instrumental version of Elysium as well. Why that?

NT:We just liked the way the songs sounded without me singing on them. Sterling Sound mastered the instrumentals and sent them to us for approval. Listening to the instrumentals, I fell in love with them. And as a matter of fact, it was an easy way to have an entire bonus album that you can offer. It’s probably our first chill-out album. For several days I only played the instrumentals. I like them as much as the proper album. So we suggested to EMI to release it as a bonus CD for an extended edition of the album. And last but not least it is our first karaoke album.

CL: People will be able to sing along to it on YouTube.

NT: I can’t wait for the people who start to rap on it and put it online. Actually I caught myself thinking of other words that I could sing to these songs while listening to it.

CL: It would be interesting to write new songs on existing ones. We could call the albums Actually 2.0 or Yes 2.0 . . .

Has anyone of your status done such a thing before?

CL: I don’t know.

NT: I don’t think so. It’s funny because during the recording process you often change the lyrics of a song or you use the middle eight of one song in another one instead. “Winner” was a song that went through such a process.

The release date of “Winner” was perfectly synchronized with the kick-off of the London Olympics—where you also presented the song for the first time live. Did you write it for the Olympics?

NT: No, we didn’t. The idea for “Winner” came when we were on tour with Take That. Every night we’d leave the stadium while 70,000 or 80,000 people were going berserk to Take That singing, “Today this could be the greatest day of our lives”. And Chris said, “We have to write a mid-tempo anthem.”

CL: We’ve never done it before.

NT: We were talking about anthems in our hotel in Manchester. We were discussing “We Are the Champions” by Queen—and I’ve always hated the line “No time for losers”.

Didn’t Freddie Mercury sing the very line at Live Aid, too?

NT: He did, yes.

CL: That wasn’t right.

NT: And to make this conversation come full circle, Tony Blair played this song at his election party. I couldn’t believe that the members of New Labour could sing along to this line . . . It seemed so ridiculous.

CL: Let’s face it: A triumph never lasts very long.

NT: We are already halfway through the chorus and the triumph is already a memory. That’s the tricky thing with triumphs: As soon as you realize you have been triumphant, that moment is already over. You go on stage, you make your Oscar speech, and then realize it’s already over. Unless you happen to be Meryl Streep. And of course, you have to deal with all the fallout from then on. But that’s another story. ~

Continue Reading

Billie Ray Martin: Five Takes (A Song About Andy)

Here at Electronic Beats we’re keen followers of Billie Ray Martin’s career trajectory.

Having started out as the singer of Electribe 101 and S’Express in the 90s, her work would go on to be defined by its casual disregard for the usual boundaries erected between mainstream and highbrow. For recent evidence, compare 2011’s yearning disco single ‘Sweet Suburban Disco’ with 2010’s Crackdown Project, an act of creative revisionism which saw her pair up with Stephen Mallinder of Cabaret Voltaire to reshape tracks from the Cabs groundbreaking album The Crackdown. Fair to say that second guessing where she’ll go next is a somewhat fruitless endeavor. That’s why we were somewhat intrigued when it was announced that her next move was a DVD entitled, in somewhat self-explantory fashion, Five Takes (A Song About Andy). The premise was to create a conceptual piece inspired by Andy Warhol’s famous Screen Tests which, during the sixties, bathed everyone from Edie Sedgwick to William Burroughs in a naked, insinuating light. Produced in collaboration with electronic producer Waterman and director Joern Hartmann, the videos are composed of five different ‘takes’, featuring five different versions of the same song. Watching them, in one go, is a curiously mesmerising experience; the fidelity to the source material is disarming with the movies emulating the particularly tactile effect of the film stock that characterized those stark, almost unreal, Screen Tests. The song itself, “On Borrowed Time”, is a melancholic and soulful piece of fibrous and glitchy electronic pop, with each of the five variations illuminating a different texture and grain. A worthy tribute to an artist to whom frequent obfuscation of himself was ultimately an attempt to escape who he was.

Billie Ray Martin – Five Takes (A Song About Andy) is available now as an 8 panel deluxe DVD on Disco Activisto.

Continue Reading