Herrenmagazin talk touring, surviving as musicians, love-hate for GEMA

herrenmagazin_deniz

Deniz Jaspersen of Herrenmagazin.

They sing of failed love, disillusionment, and despite all the pessimism and cynicism of postmodern society, a certain stubborn tenacity of spirit. They have inherited the mantle of Hamburger Schule alternative rock groups like Tocotronic and Tomte, but carry the indie torch with irreverence and creative flexibility, experimenting with electropop collaborations and acoustic minimalism alike. Herrenmagazin’s first two albums have gifted the German music scene with complex lyrical poeticism and powerfully resonant, guitar-heavy instrumentation. Their hard work has paid off, in a modest but ever-growing fashion. Nomad News sat down with the four rockers at the end of their tour for TV Noir, to discuss the upcoming third album and the reality of their lives as independent artists.

“The Noir-Tour was super,” said frontman Deniz Jaspersen. “All the concerts were cool, all were full, we got along outstandingly with Sam and Cheri from Dear Reader, and it really couldn’t have gone better.”

To accompany their circuit with TV Noir, which is known for often highlighting streamlined acoustic performances, the band released an exclusive acoustic EP, Der lange Weg zur Müdigkeit, in cooperation with the boutique Hamburg label Delikatess. The EP presented re-recorded versions of two previous songs, “Gespenster” and “Lnbrg,” from their albums Das wird alles einmal dir gehören, and Atzelgift, respectively, as well as two new tracks. However, their Noir concerts featured a blend of fully amplified and acoustic techniques. Jaspersen discussed their appreciation for both “plugged” and “unplugged” formats.

“Both have their appeal,” said Jaspersen. “What lured us in was the challenge of approaching the songs in a different manner, to look and say, okay, now we just have these options, we need to take away a bit here, how can we solve this so it still works? But we had a lot of fun with it.”

Deniz Jaspersen plays a stripped-down arrangement of ‘Keine Angst’ on a previous 2011 TV Noir broadcast. Credit: http://www.tvnoir.de/herrenmagazin

In addition to the EP, Herrenmagazin have been laboring since 2010’s Das wird alles einmal dir gehören on their third studio album, which has a tentative release date of March 15, 2013. I inquired after its name.

“I don’t know if I’m allowed to say,” hesitated Jaspersen, before laughing and forging ahead. “But it’s called, Das Ergebnis wäre Stille.” (The result would be silence.)

When I last spoke to the band, on tour in support of their second album, I was particularly struck by their organic recording method, of attempting to lay down as much as possible in “live” takes, with all the band members playing in one room, rather than recording separate track layers bit by bit. I asked if they had maintained this approach on the third album.

“This time we changed it in one regard, in that we ‘sourced out’ Torben’s lead guitar, so to speak,” said Jaspersen. “First we recorded Rasmus, Paul and my rhythm guitar, and then added Torben on top, as a sort of overdub. But nonetheless, the basic structure was recorded live again, in any case.”

The band also undertook a more momentous change for their third album, switching up their record label, from the Berlin-based Motor Music to Delikatess, in their hometown of Hamburg. While the Motor powerhouse, formerly a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, has pushed the boundaries of size for an indie label, Delikatess is the epitome of the music business on a boutique scale, with only three artists under their roof.

“We did change our label—we are free, so to speak,” said Jaspersen. “We found a very small but very good label, called Delikatess. A Hamburg label, and we have undergone essentially a complete renovation of our structures. We have new management, a new label, the only aspect that has remained is our booker. At the moment, that feels really good, because we finally have the feeling of being somewhere, where we belong. We owe a great deal to Motor, but what we noticed is that people weren’t getting the right impression of us, from the outside. Motor just isn’t a label that has a precise target, like with Delikatess. Delikatess is its own microcosm, it’s a crew, you know? Motor isn’t a crew. Motor is kind of everything.”

Bassist Paul Konopacka elaborated on the changeover.

“It’s definitely more familial,” said Konopacka. “You notice that Delikatess has a certain identity, and we feel very well taken care of there.”

Although the band members have all placed top priority on touring and recording as Herrenmagazin, they have found time for various side projects and collaborations, including a remix EP with Frittenbude and Deine Elstern, both artists from cult German indie-electro label Audiolith.

“That was cool,” said Jaspersen of the Audiolith collaboration. “We’ve known each other for a long time, and it felt very natural, to ask them to remix us. That it then became an entire EP was a bit of chance. With us, it’s always like that.”

Jaspersen and guitarist Torben “König Wilhelmsburg” Leske spoke of the ethics, attitudes and philosophies shared by Herrenmagazin and the Audiolith artists, which transcend conventions of indie rock or electropop, allowing diverse sounds to mesh. This social consciousness is apparent throughout Herrenmagazin’s lyrics, and will also be present on their third album.

“The first single for example, ‘Frösche,’ that’s a song which deals with politics and the financial crisis, but we are strong opponents of pointing the finger of blame, and therefore in the case of ‘Frösche,’ we have veiled the entire text behind this somewhat vivid, imagery-filled language,” said Jaspersen.

While the vast European debt crisis plays out on the world stage, the life of an indie rocker involves the constant confrontation of a different sort of financial crisis—one that can last for years, or an entire career. Drummer Rasmus Engler published a book in 2007 with the writer and academic Jörn Morisse, titled “Wovon lebst du eigentlich? Vom Überleben in prekären Zeiten.” (“What do you live from, actually? On survival in precarious times.”) In the past, the band members have all worked various other jobs, along with their diverse musical projects, to support the dream of Herrenmagazin. Engler elaborated on the current state of the band’s livelihood.

“Financially, it’s only changed in the fact that on free days on tour, we can now pay for food from band funds. Otherwise, it’s actually just as disastrous as ever,” said Engler. “We can count ourselves lucky that we don’t go off on the weekends and then come home in debt because of gas costs. And it paid for itself pretty early on. But observed as a whole, it’s become much worse—I know fewer and fewer people who can live from music alone. But all things considered, we can say that we’ve divided it up effectively, so we get by with various jobs and still have time for the band. It’s become a bit easier . . . I don’t think I could have afforded a tour like this two years ago.”

The life of scraping by and working side jobs to survive is the reality for the majority of normal musicians, who can’t afford to be as magnanimous about income from their music as the likes of Radiohead. In Germany, the battle landscape between strict copyright enforcement and staunch advocates of free-for-all piracy looks a bit different than in the United States. The enforcers have a much more effective arsenal—one of the first bits of information imparted to foreign students at programs like IES Abroad in Germany happens to be a warning against downloading illegal content, which in contrast to the States, can often generate swift and effective reprisals in the form of 1000-Euro fines or more.

But in recent times, the agency at the heart of German musical copyright representation, the GEMA (Gesellschaft für musikalische Aufführungs- und mechanische Vervielfältigungsrechte), has run into a massive storm of negative public perception and backlash against their policies. Their sometimes ill-considered antics have ranged from attempting to extract money for song rights from kindergarten singalongs, to the extensive blockade and removal of their artists’ content on Youtube due to an apparently hopeless impasse in fee negotiations, to a proposed extreme restructuring of the music tariffs demanded from nightclubs, which has met with widespread condemnation from politicians and nightlife lovers alike. To these problems, GEMA adds an opaque system of income distribution, which tends to favor the few artists who receive the most radio play. Despite their flaws, they do seem to provide a more effective defense for the rights of artists—even small ones—than one sees in the States. Jaspersen expressed the band’s mixed feelings towards the monolithic copyright agency.

“The discussion surrounding the GEMA is very interesting. I do think that the GEMA is a pretty bureaucratic kraken, with the system of distribution and all, it is highly non-transparent,” said Jaspersen. “They devour an extreme amount of money, something like 220 million euros per year, that is ultimately lost to bureaucratic overhead. And then, of course, there is the fact that the allocation system follows a classically capitalistic mode of thinking, that those who are played more [on the radio] receive more money—out of one pot. But none of that should distract from the meaningfulness of the GEMA, or from the fact that for many artists, it is a very important source of extra income. We also receive money from the GEMA. The GEMA is simply necessary.”

“It just needs to be cleaned up,” added Wilhelmsburg. “In and of itself, protecting the creative copyrights of the artists is important like nothing else. But nobody has an overview of how that functions and how one receives money. You always get these hideous lists, but you have no idea what all is there, how these amounts are determined, no one knows that.”

Berliners at a Sept. 6, 2012 demonstration take to the streets in protest of GEMA tariff policies.

Berliners take to the streets against GEMA policies at a Sept. 6, 2012 demonstration.

Jaspersen elaborated on other practical problems with GEMA representation, including the inability of artists to selectively have some of their works represented and others free from GEMA management.

“Nonetheless, I think the discussion about the Youtube links is missing the essential core of the issue,” said Jaspersen. “It really isn’t that GEMA is inherently bad, or that Google and Youtube are good. A business model where other people create the content, but Google and Youtube earn billions, billions with advertising income—”

“—and none of it goes to the artists,” interjected Wilhelmsburg.

“Exactly!” Jaspersen affirmed. “And then GEMA is the villain when they say that they want a portion. That’s just . . . yeah. That’s a very interesting topic. It’s completely clear that the GEMA has many areas needing improvement. But intrinsically, that has nothing to do with the fact that it is necessary to protect copyright. The artist also has to live. The problem is that many people just can’t even begin to imagine what it means, to live from music. All these people who rant about the GEMA and say, those are the bad guys, they have their secure employment and earn their money, and then can go to the anti-copyright demonstrations on the weekends. That’s a difficult issue—an interview all by itself, I think.”

Herrenmagazin, ‘In den dunkelsten Stunden.’

On a lighter note, I inquired how the band would spend New Year’s Eve, known in Germany as Silvester. Startled, they chuckled and considered for a moment, then the jokes began.

“Paul is throwing a big party,” stated Wilhelmsburg slyly.

“Paul is throwing a big party, we’re all invited!” echoed Jaspersen.

“He doesn’t know it yet, though!” laughed Wilhelmsburg.

“Yes, cover charge is 50 euros!” Konopacka retorted smoothly.

“And there’ll be nothing to eat,” said Jaspersen.

“I still have no clue, but I’d really just like to go to a private party with my friends and drink a ton of alcohol,” said Wilhelmsburg. “And I don’t want to host a party myself. I did that last year and I couldn’t drink, because I was sick and had to work the next day, and everyone was totally drunk, and it was terrible. I think everybody had fun except me. I threw them all out at five in the morning—the apartment looked like shit,” he laughed ruefully.

Nomad News wishes the guys a much better celebration this time around, and all the best for their album release and the year ahead. They will be opening for Madsen at a few concert dates in February 2013, and hitting the road again for their own tour in April.

“We’ll be touring all over Germany again, and then come the festivals, and then it’s fall again,” said Jaspersen. “Tour, tour, tour.”

** Note: This interview has been translated by the writer from the original German.

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