Faust are one of the oddest exponents of the phenomenon known as ‘kraut rock’. Key member Hans Joachim Irmler is just ecstatic that his devilishly good group has survived to influence a new generation of twisted music makers.
By Gary Steel
When Real Groove’s esteemed editor gave me the rare opportunity to pen a piece on Faust, my typing fingers got stage fright. It’s easy to write about bands you don’t give a flying shit about, or whose music is fine by any standards but which doesn’t really touch you. But Faust – a band so obscure that they barely rated a mention in rock histories for decades – are my all-time favourite group. In fact, I love their first three albums so much that if I really did have to pack ten discs for that metaphorical desert island, three of them would surely have to be by Faust. How do you write about a band you’ve steadfastly maintained were categorically The Best Band To Exist, Ever-Ever, since that day in 1976 when their So Far album burned its secret message into my cranium for the very first time?
Well, here goes.
We barely knew it down here in the colonic irrigation of the colonies, but Germany in the early 1970s was a hot-bed of explorative, transgressive and astonishing rock music. The English press dubbed it ‘Kraut Rock’, a mildly racist term that stuck and even ended up a song title on Faust’s fourth long player.
The most adventurous period of rock in the West had flowered with power in ’66 and was already withering on the vine by 1970, in the wake of disastrous festivals like Altamont and the Isle Of Wight and the ODs of Janis and Jimi; making way for years of insipid country-rock and blustery macho metal and pointlessly virtuosic prog.
While Western youth were kicking against materialism the way only children of prosperity could do, the German baby boomers had grown up in an austere post-World War II environment in which the worst kind of crap entertainers like James Last had blossomed to fill the cultural void. Something had to kick against this prick and what now seems like an amazingly fertile scene rose to do just that. Most students of ‘unpopular popular’ music know about Can and their killer trance rhythms, and Kraftwerk and their electronic prototypes, and many have heard of groups like Neu and Guru Guru. Fewer have heard of the hundreds of other brilliant groups and records from this scene, because, even today, the received ‘wisdom’ of rock history maintains an unfair balance towards the West.
As you know by now, in this writer’s opinion Faust were the best of the lot. The story of this remarkable band is worth retelling in part, as it’s quite extraordinary. Polydor desperately wanted another rock act to replace the recently-deceased Jimi Hendrix, and influential journalist Uwe Nettelbeck had the ear of the A&R guys at the company. In essence, what he did was delightfully fraudulent: he convinced Polydor that he had the Next Big Thing on his hands, and they handed over fistfuls of cash. Nettelbeck combined two different groups to forge this imaginary new band, set them up in a deserted primary school where they could ‘be creative’ over a two-year period, and recruited Kurt Graupner, an amazing engineer, who brought a whole lot of unused but rather excellent recording gear from his former place of employment, classical label Deutsche Gramaphon.
The freaks that comprised this loose collective called Faust set about making something that was to bear scant reference to anything else going on at the time – or any time. With Graupner recording just about every audible emission made by the musicians, day or night, they eventually ended up with a self-titled first album that still sounds alien 35 years later.
As organist/sound alchemist Hans Joachim Irmler attempted to explain in his broken English, the album starts out with a kind of mission statement. Predating dance music’s naughty sampling by 20 years, the album begins by referencing The Beatles, Bach, The Rolling Stones and the dreaded James Last before hurtling head-first into its bizarre sound world of musique concrete, audio collage and freak rock. It was utterly brilliant, sold next to nothing, and ended up going out of print and remaining so for many, many years.
Then, to try and get things happening for the group, the record company insisted they come out of their schoolhouse and play a concert. In one of the most infamous performances ever, this reticent bunch rigged up their big gig with an innovative 20-channel surround sound. Just one problem: it failed to work on the night. Facing a completely malfunctioning sound system, and with droves leaving the venue, the group hit upon a strategy: let’s perform the whole set list a cappella on the few microphones that are still working. Though considered a disaster at the time, Irmler now rates it one of the high points of his career.
“At that time I refused to go onstage, and my idea from the beginning was to have the opportunity to creating different sounds and whatever a studio can offer. I did not really like the idea to go on a stage, but it just happened near the end of the Polydor era they wanted us doing shows.
“For me it was a big process to realise a little bit what happens in a studio then later in front of an audience. I thought totally different about sounds because I was not a blues oriented musician. I was more into the idea of how to realise with instruments and whatever the smell and taste of a thunder or a storm. Understand? It was so interesting to me, because at that time it was not really possible.
“The first concert we were to do was quite artificial but naturalistic sounds, but to be honest it went totally wrong. [laughs]. But in my eyes it was still one of the greatest concerts ever because it was so frank in a way, because we had no chance to be otherwise. What we decided in the end was nothing is really working so let’s sing the whole, all the sounds. What was working was just a few mikes. So we decided to sing the whole concert.”
Working in splendid isolation allowed the group to develop many innovative musical ideas that came to full fruition on their second and third albums, So Far and Faust Tapes. In essence, these records were recordings that had been boiled down from many hours of fooling around in the studio. This collage editing process echoed the work Frank Zappa had undertaken with the Mothers Of Invention on We’re Only In It For The Money (1967) and the Beatles’ ‘Revolution #9’ (from the self-titled ‘white album, 1968), and their music had more than a hint of a Zappa-type humour along with a scary darkness prevalent in that Beatles track. In a sense, it’s that duality that makes Faust’s legacy so durable, but also makes defining them more difficult: So Far, for instance, contains phenomenally grinding dark noise pieces that are considered precursors to the industrial rock movement of a decade later, yet it also has playful tracks, and heavily percussive numbers which could be considered simply fine examples of the ‘Kraut Rock’ style. And like the Beatles and early Zappa, Faust on record is an almost perfect example of the recording studio being used – and manipulated – as an instrument.
Later, when the band were forced to tour, engineer Graupner went with the group as an integral member, mixing their sounds live and mutating them on-the-spot in the manner of a dub conjurer like Adrian Sherwood.
Irmler helped design the famous black boxes that allowed every band member to do their own on-the-spot mix. Though he claims not to have enjoyed performing live, Faust performances became the stuff of legend as every gig became more outrageous, culminating in using pneumatic drills on stage and influencing a whole new generation of bands (Einsterzende Neutauten, DAF) in the process.
Says Irmler: “It was really problematic when we started that we understood no-one could mix Faust except ourselves, so it was given to Kurt an idea how we could manage to mix ourselves onstage, live, and that’s how these black boxes became part of the shows. Each of us could just create his own sounds but could take a bit of the guitar or the drum like that, because I thought it might be interesting in this very moment. And it was part of the idea that there should not be a band like a star.”
Faust’s history would have been short, had it not been for their revival in the ‘90s. By ’73 Polydor had dumped them, and despite a temporary reprieve from a fledgling Richard Branson with his Virgin label, the following year they were adrift without a label and only able to piece together one further album before fading into the black hole of obscurity.
As Irmler explains it, though, he continued to muck around sporadically with former Faust members through the ‘80s, and they were reformed in the early ‘90s before being rediscovered by a new generation of American avant-rockers like Sonic Youth and Jim O’Rourke, who produced their ’95 ‘comeback’ album Rien.
Since then, with the internet community to boost interest, the group have stumbled through an ever-permutating lineup, started their own label (Klangbad), and continue to sporadically release new music. While the contemporary Faust has its charms, it lacks the killer punch of the original lineup, mainly because the two outsiders who conceptualised it and engineered it – Nettelbeck and Graupner – are no longer involved.
Irmler, however, is a happy chap who never had any aspirations or expectations and was always against conventional notions of stardom.
He has, however, always known that the band responsible for accidentally taking up so much of his life was of some importance:
“If you’re in a band, it’s hard not to be too proud of it. But yes, I was sure that it was important act to German music. It was a big step for German music. None of us was a really good player, but we just thought it could be a tip where to go musically. Most musicians are much more sophisticated or trained. We thought it might be a good choice to show another way to go, maybe. We’re not a perfect pop band, not stars, but put a finger on a way of where music could go also.”
These days, Irmler toils away in his studio (at the moment he’s producing an album by psychedelic Welsh band Ectogram), and slowly works away at a new Faust album:
“I’m always into Faust, sometimes a problem. We are you know because we are working on an album since years. I do something like that and work for two or three days on this, and have to stop for awhile, leave it a bit. We will be on tour and doing a new album. The idea was to create it maybe three, four years ago and I’m still liking it; it’s having time enough, leaving it and finding out if it’s good enough. We’re not in a really big hurry. We’re little bit a lazy band.
“Yeah, hmmm. I have to be thankful, but we are normal human living.”
“Anyway, you’re down under, what the hell you caring about what’s up here?”
* Real Groove magazine published this piece in 2006. I didn’t know at the time – and Irmler didn’t mention it to me – that there were in fact TWO bands at the time calling themselves Faust. One contains Irmler, the other Werner ‘Zappi’ Diermaier and Jean-Herve Peron.