By Alexander Laurence
Photos by Danna Kinsky
The Notwist started out as hardcore punk band in Munich, Germany. The original members are Mecki Messerschmidt (drums), Markus Acher (vocals, guitar) and Michael Acher (bass). The Notwist, in 1989, submitted a demo recording of their song, "I Don't Want To Sell Myself" to a Bavarian radio contest. International notice would take many years to form.
By the mid-1990s most of their records were being released in the USA by the Zero Hour label. They were an unconventional band influenced by punk and electronic music, much like their heroes Sonic Youth and Wire. Martin Gretschmann (electronics) joined the band in 1997. The band took off with the release of Shrink (1998) and especially with the hugely popular Neon Golden (2002).
The Notwist additionally play in the spin-off groups: Potawatomi, Village Of Savoonga, the Tied & Tickled Trio, Toxic, Console and Lali Puna. They also write soundtrack music.
I spoke to Martin Gretschmann on the last date of their tour this February.
Notwist (1990), Nook (1992), Live (1994), 12 (1995), Shrink (1998), Neon Golden (2002), and Different Car and Trains (2004).]
AL: Most Americans have taken notice of The Notwist especially after the release of Neon Golden. But you have been around for a while. Did you tour here before?
Martin: We did tour here actually. We had this label here, Zero Hour. They released 12 and Shrink. We toured between 1996 and 1999 in America. Every show was for like ten people. It was totally crazy.
AL: Where are you from?
Martin: We are from Munich. I am more from the countryside. We all come from the same city. We all went to school together. That's how we met.
AL: What is that city known for?
Martin: It's just a boring city in Bavaria. It's very old and old fashioned. There are twenty thousand people living there. We are from a place that is almost an hour from the center of Munich. People travel to work there. There is some industry there.
AL: When did you form the band?
Martin: I wasn't in the band at the beginning. I first played with them in 1995. Then I joined them in 1997. I know that they formed the band in 1989.
AL: Back then; they were still an indie rock or punk rock band. Were they still playing that music when you joined?
Martin: Yeah. They were about to change anyways. Different things came into the sound, like jazz. It went into other directions, not only because of me, and all the electronics, but they wanted to open up the sound. We have done five albums. There is a live record done before I joined and the others are not really satisfied with it.
AL: There are four members in the band now, and you play with another person live?
Martin: Yeah. We have another guy from Berlin who plays guitar and keyboards. He has his own band.
AL: Does the whole band live in Berlin now?
Martin: No. I don't want to go live in Berlin. I want to stay where I am. Where I live is very boring on one hand but I am very comfortable there. I was born there and I like it. It's totally slow. It's very different than a big city. You can concentrate better.
AL: How do you do the songwriting in the band?
Martin: Actually we all do songwriting in the band. Markus, Micha, and me all do songwriting. For Neon Golden, one of us would start a song, and then they would give the file to another person. We edited some strings. We got in the studio and discussed it. It was like starting from scratch. One of us would take it home and work on it. Then we would meet again.
AL: Has technology influenced the work in the past few years? I noticed that when you came off stage after the sound check, you grabbed your laptop computer.
Martin: Yeah, it has made things easier. There are some things that weren't possible before and are now possible. Just taking files home and working on it at home. That was impossible before. We all use Logic audio.
AL: The Notwist seems really popular now. Years ago, only ten people showed up. Now it's a sold out tour with pretty good-sized venues like Bowery Ballroom and The El Rey.
Martin: I don't know. It's totally amazing. We are astonished. We don't know how it happened. But it has happened and that's cool.
AL: What other bands do you like? Do you have any recent influences in the past few years?
Martin: We like a lot of bands. Each of us like different bands. We do share some musical taste. But it's a totally wide range of music. For myself, I am really into early indie stuff like Slint and Sonic Youth. I also like some recent stuff like Mogwai and Low. I listen to a lot of electronic music. There is a lot of club music in Germany.
AL: Do you follow the DJ culture?
Martin: Yeah. I also DJ myself. I am not really spinning records. I am doing a DJ laptop set. It's something between a live set and a DJ set, because I play my own songs but I mix them with other songs off records. I have everything on the computer. I am into the club scene as well.
AL: Did you ever go to Love Parade?
Martin: I went there once. I was only there by coincidence because I was playing the day before. I spent the weekend. I didn't really go there. I have never been interested in Love Parade. It's a mess. Most of the music is not my style. On the days of the Love Parade, there are some clubs that have cool lineups at night. It's crowded and too much like a carnival. There are good underground clubs in Munich. I like the underground scene in Barcelona. I have lived there for a few months.
AL: What about other styles of music?
Martin: Micha and Markus listen to a lot of Jazz music. Markus is really into old country and old reggae music right now. I like that stuff too. Markus is constantly buying records on this tour and the past few years.
AL: Are there any good bands that you played with recently that you have liked?
Martin: Themselves. They are great. It's amazing to watch them play and it's fun. They played with us on this whole tour. They are great people. I like all the Anticon stuff. Over the years we have played a lot of festivals and we have played with many bands that we don't like. We do like Sonic Youth. We played with them at Hurricane that is a big festival in Germany. The Beastie Boys and Bjork were the headliners. We opened for Sonic Youth in London last year.
AL: When I think of some of that music, I think that some of the audience smokes a lot of pot because it is psychedelic music.
Martin: We get asked a lot if we do drugs or smoke pot. I do sometimes. But the other never did and they don't. People often make the connection. They think that drugs influence our music, which isn't the case. It's okay. It's just like drinking beer, and why not? In Switzerland, pot is legal, and everyone smokes pot. They are so slow, and they are almost falling asleep, so they might be okay without the pot, because it often seems so boring to play there because everyone seems so tired and bored.
AL: How do the audience usually react?
Martin: It depends on our mood and the country where we are playing in. The audience is very different. Switzerland is calm. But we played Istanbul two years ago, and we sold one hundred records there, because there are no records there. The people were going mad. They had signs. They want us to play this or that song. Even in Germany, we play places like Hamburg, which is more of a media city, and people are too cool. Then when we go to Cologne people go totally mad. The more south you go, the wilder about the music the audiences get.
AL: Have you read any good books lately?
Martin: I just finished reading Death In Venice by Thomas Mann. I also like some American authors like Paul Auster, John Irving, and T. C. Boyle. I am also fond of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I am not good at remembering names.
AL: You watch a lot of films then?
Martin: We watch a lot of movies. I just saw The School of Rock. That kept us from being totally bored on the plane. Two of my favorite films for the last year were Punch-Drunk Love and Adaptation. I also really like City of God. I have saw Lost In Translation. I will have to get the DVD when I get back.
AL: Are you influenced by the idea of movie soundtracks and have you done any soundtracks yourselves?
Martin: Yeah. We have done some stuff for German films in the past year. This German guy wanted to make a documentary of us making Neon Golden. We agreed to do it. We had been doing it for three months already. He was following us around and when we were recording. He shot one hundred and fifty hours of footage. The documentary was just shown on German television. It's really cool. He doesn't have an off camera voice. There are no comments. It's just watching us. This film got really good feedback. He did a documentary about the swimmers in the English Channel who go from Dover to Calais. We did music for that. He is doing a third documentary about an author writing a new book. I am going to do some music for that. We have done some other soundtrack work.
AL: What is Console?
Martin: That is me.
AL: How did you choose the remixes or the people who did them?
Martin: Four Tet did a remix of Notwist. I don't really know him. Markus knows him. I made most of the Console remixes of Neon Golden because I was bored. Loopspool is another friend of ours who also did the artwork for the record.
AL: So "Red Room" was a song that was left off of Neon Golden?
Martin: It was a b-side of "Pick Up The Phone."
AL: When are you going to do the next album?
Martin: We are going to start in the Autumn probably. We haven't done anything yet. I was busy touring for Console. Markus was doing the new Lali Puna record. It's a band with a girl singer. Markus writes some music for it. It's on Morr Music. It's very good. They will be doing a tour. They will be playing in America too. After they finish that we will do the next record. The Notwist will be playing some European festivals this summer. All the bands need some space and time.