Interview: Hauschka

08 Sep 2015 — Andrew Darley

Volker Bertelmann’s Abandoned City, released in 2014, has grown into a family of records. The artist known as Haushka has just released a live performance of the album in a museum in Yufiuin, a small picturesque town on the Japanese Island Kyushu, and called it 2.11.14. The record is made of 20-minute sections loosely derived from the original record. He has also released an album of additional songs that did not fit the main record and related remixes called A NDO C Y, a wordplay on Abandoned City. Together the three records sit side-by-side to complete a picture of Hauschka’s creative period that spans two years. His career to date is marked by his experiment in the prepared piano in which he used everyday materials to transform and challenge the sounds of the traditional piano into electronic soundscapes. We chatted with Volker about his approach and the many phases an artist can achieve in their career through reinvention. Read the interview after the break.

Your new live album, 2.11.14, is a recording of a performance you did last year in the remote town of Yufuin, Japan, in its Artegio Museum. Can you tell me about the lead up to the performance?

Yufuin is a very picturesque small village – if there weren’t so many Japanese tourists, you would think that it’s a rice farm village or something. We found the museum, which had very modern architecture in between all these traditional houses. I was quite amazed since I was expecting an older concert hall. It only had the capacity for about 200 people and they came from all over Kyushu. Musicians who tour in Japan usually play in Tokyo or Osaka and then go home. I had played seven times in Japan and I’ve always tried to play in further out places. I realized that the sound in the museum was very good, and by chance my sound guy pressed ‘record’ which captured the whole concert. We listened back to it afterwards and we were pretty amazed by the sound.

You mentioned the architecture of the museum. Does the space and design of a venue impact your performance?

Totally. Also, the travel is something that always influences me. Travelling is very tiring; bands who are constantly touring need to be very strict in their rhythm or they are extremely loose. It’s very hard to find the balance and the right energy. This room we played in was long and rectangular with a very high ceiling. It was unusual because normally you play in square rooms or rectangular rooms and play at the small side of the room but we played the length of the room so people were very close to the piano. I was very surprised by the effect that it had on the whole sound. Even the piano I was playing was an unusual brand I didn’t know where the company came from.

Since the show was set in the museum, how important is visual art to your work and music?

It really depends. I love people working with my music and I love creating music to pictures too. But it depends on the purpose and the person who you work with. It can be great using visuals but sometimes it doesn’t make sense at all. I never do visuals for the sake it for it. Imagery can be destructive to music; I feel it takes focus away from the sound and sometimes you cannot properly hear the music. With big rock shows, everything has to be so visual and powerful with effects that it becomes hard to concentrate on the music.

The record contains versions of "Craco" and "Stromness" – it’s almost as if the songs themselves have disintegrated into a new form that mirrors the overall theme of Abandoned City. Do you see your songs as being fluid, with no definitive version of a song?

I think that there are elements that are defining of a song with regard to my prepared piano pieces. My orchestral arrangements are more strictly written and performed in the same way as they are written. With my album songs, it would restrict me and the audience if I was always playing the same kind of version over and over. Again, a venue can change the song. When I play in a church "Craco" would sound completely different to when I play it in a rock club and that’s because of the natural reverb of the place. Of course, mood comes into play– both mine and the audience's. Time is a big factor too – the way I feel at a Sunday afternoon show will be completely different to how I feel on Saturday night. I want to adjust my music to the situation.

How do you rehearse for a tour? Do you loosely know the songs and the way you want to present them or is it a more disciplined process?

I loosely know the themes and patterns that I will use but I give myself the freedom to decide on the spot. I start from scratch and work myself into a mood where I feel confident and then I try to find elements of older albums to implement them into the situation. With Abandoned City, I had the impression that the mood of music would change and develop as I toured it – I would find a new style that I could use for a new record. I would say that my style is now disappearing from the idea of the piano as an instrument and I see it more as a soundbox – something that I can use for all sorts of sounds.

Live albums can sometimes be risky to release in that they can either capture the magic of the performance and artist in the room or they don’t. Do you feel this album offers an extension of your work to listeners?

If you put me into perspective of the beginning of my career when me, Max Richter, Dustin O’Halloran, Jóhann Jóhannsson – all these guys were working on piano music in an independent context – I’m very far away from that. I feel I could release this record on a very pure electronic label. I believe that there is a lot of romanticized clichés around piano music and its piano players. I want to escape all of that and create something that actually kicks me. As an extension of my work, I would see 2.11.14 as setting the path for the next album. It’s a bridge into something new.

In light of your prepared piano work and how you experiment with different materials to sculpt sound, do you think that we may be on the way to creating a new instrument altogether?

The piano is already quite great and I just expand its opportunities with other materials. I don’t think I or others have created a new instrument but you’re using 100% of what is already there, whereas typically only 40% of the instrument is played. All the people who have tried to renew the piano, in making the body bigger or strings longer, so far from what I’ve heard is not convincing. I have the impression that it doesn’t add too much to it. I think it’s worthwhile creating new sounds with the piano but also keeping its pure sound that is beautiful. I don’t hate the original sound of the piano but I’m trying to find how far I can go with music that interests me.

Can you remember the first item you used to experiment with the sound of the piano?

I was in Wales recording my first album Substantial and I used Christmas cake cellophane wrapper to create hi-hats, which made me realize I could use something different on each string and use it in a way a sampler would work.

You mentioned Max Richter, whose work is continuously called ‘neo-classical’ alongside your own. In its broadest sense, this refers to music that incorporates classical instrumentation with modern technology and electronics. Similarly Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds have been framed in this way. Do you identify with this term?

No, not at all. Comparing or putting Max Richter with Ólafur Arnalds in the one box is impossible. There’s a completely different attitude behind it. I would say Richter’s music has a much deeper impact – it was already there, way before Ólafur, and I feel it is very deep in a way. I have the impression that guys like Ólafur and Nils are much younger and they pick up on all the stuff that is working well and put it together – which is totally fine.

All the guys I know who work with piano would never consider themselves neo-classical composers. I think this term is completely irritating. It suggests something that is already there or existed because ‘neo’ means “new” suggesting a new invention in classical music, but I don’t hear any classical music in any of those composers, besides some of Max Richter’s work. All the rest have so much independent rock and electronic music involved, rather than Debussy and Ravel.

When I started in 2004, I was never thinking about being grouped with Richter or Jóhannsson – I just liked what they were doing. I really tried to find my own language. Of course, you are attracted by certain things but on the other side you want to find your own identity. With this neo-classical genre, it suddenly becomes a brand. There’s this assumption that everyone in the historical line of piano music all know each other. It was very funny because when I played in Moscow someone said to me that they love neo-classical music because we all support each other. But that’s not true – we may know each other but there’s some that I don’t know at all. There is also difficult relationships between people, they may have met each other at some point and didn’t work out. There is a possibly a renaissance of piano music with a huge amount of young piano players coming up.

Sometimes I feel that music journalists have no idea about who they writing about and put so much personal empathy in their review and forget to write about the music itself. I’m very glad about positive and negative reviews because I can get a perspective of where I’m standing at any one time. Maybe a guy from Pitchfork is reviewing one of records as great, then the next one is bad; sometimes this helps to form your own opinion of yourself. You can choose to accept or reject what they say. I would love to discuss my music with someone who wrote about me to find out why he is thinking in a certain way.

We all have stagnation and we all have phases of growth. You can’t always grow in the same direction – you have to make decisions of where you want to go. I would say that the potential of an artist starts when you discover that he has the possibility to make a lot of moves in his career. Not only by recreating his art that was once successful because that will cease at some point, so you have to constantly find new angles or things that are interesting to you. You should never be scared that your main audience will disappear.

In 2013 you made a documentary piece with Tori Amos called Through The Night, in which you travelled around Berlin sharing your experiences, exploring the piano and playing music together. Both of you studied classical music at some point in your lives and ultimately found your own path and relationship with the piano. Did you learn anything from her or take away anything from that night?

Tori Amos is a wonderful person. It’s not often you become close with someone you’ve been listening to their records since you were fourteen. You can always learn by meeting people that have a career; you can learn from their attitude towards things and what they are struggling with. She’s a great example of an artist who has a lot of periods in her career; you can see that there have been phases when it doesn’t have the edge it did at the beginning. Yet she has reinvented herself and tried new things. I think her last record, that came out after our documentary, was very good and I was delighted to see she was playing Primavera. With Tori, when you sign to a big label like Universal, you can lose the attachments to who you are because you become a product and sometimes you can’t even do what you want to do. I think she feels she is now coming back to her own roots.

I’m a huge fan too. From what I understand, she had a difficult time in turning fifty and her place in music amongst all the younger artists. 

That’s an issue of course; you see younger guys and they pick up their audience and maybe they are closer to them. I was always surprised that my audience was so young – normally you would expect that people who come to your shows are as old as you. I feel my music escapes the hipster area, which I like. You see how they follow a certain musicians for a while and and then jump when something new comes along. They don’t stick with you. I’m a big fan of continuity and the only way I can continue is if people stay with me and are interested by what I’m doing.

 It’s about building a relationship between the artist and the listener.

I totally agree. Even if you take a break from the artist that you like, it doesn’t really matter because you can come back and find something new. At some point, every artist faces their peak and find their original energy is not there as much anymore. If you are able to reinvent yourself, that’s a big gift, and I think Tori is someone who is able to do that in a very nice way.

Have you ever felt like you had to reinvent yourself?

I’ve done twelve albums now and I feel like I’m reinventing myself with every album because I don’t want to bore myself. I could play every night with my ping-pong balls and make the same jokes at every show for years and years but people will come back to my show and say “Oh man, this guy sucks completely!”

You also have another record out, A NDO C Y, which cleverly uses letters as if the original record title has disintegrated. What relationship does this have to Abandoned City?

There was so much music unreleased that we wanted to put it out separately. I was a fan of doing little side releases, 2.11.14 which is live component and A NDO C Y is the remix and extra songs that couldn’t find a way on the main album. They’re not B-sides because I really love them. Now we have three vinyl records that sit together as a set, which reflects two years of work. I wanted these side releases to feel as if they complete a picture. The cover of A NDO C Y is the same album cover as Abandoned City; we left the cover out for a couple of months in the rain and wanted to see which letters were left over and that’s the title!

The theme of Abandoned City focused on the idea that when something ceases or dies, something new is born out of it – the world around is limitless. Does this sentiment stretch to your musical approach in that where other musicians may see an instrument in a very uniform way, you try and see past that?

What I’m trying to do in a way is a very simple thing. I was born a lover of music that is very physical, like dance and hip-hop. I love music with bass and rhythm but here I am as a piano musician. In piano music, rhythm and bass is not happening intentionally; it’s much more to do with movement, melody and warmth. I try not lose the instrument to my other love. That’s why I’m trying to expand the sound of the piano as well as integrate it in its traditional sense. My performances are not there to make a show – if I wanted that I would install a big light show and I would get bigger but I’m not interested in that. Inner growth is totally fine but I don’t believe in things needing to grow constantly, that’s a big mistake. It puts you under pressure and awakens a weird sense of yourself.

Why should I change from the prepared piano if I’m not finished it? If I want to make a guitar album as my next record, I will do it. I don’t know if the fans I have are coming with me. I don’t want to lose my fans but I’m not also there to please them. That’s the difficult part because some fans may think you have to be loyal to them and I don’t know what loyalty is in that situation because you don’t know each other. You are connected through a love of music. People who I adore like Nick Cave or Tom Waits, they are older but always remain fresh in what they are creating. I feel this is most important ¬¬– you do what you want and people will come with you.

2.11.14 and A NDO C Y are out now.