Switzerland’s The Young Gods have been one of my favourite bands for as long as I can remember. Everything about this legendary avant-garde, industrial rock band defied convention from day one – from the fact their music was constructed via live drums, vocals and sound/instrument manipulation via a keyboard sampler to the way they effortlessly gravitated between hard rock, heavy metal, cabaret crooning, torch songs, industrial, ambient, free jazz and all stops in-between. The trio are a gold mine for those of us who enjoy music that is as borderless as it is challenging and after 35 years of smashing artistic walls, the band returns with Data Mirage Tangrem. It’s their first full-length since 2010’s Everybody Knows and is an expansively lush and pastoral collection that expands upon its predecessor’s use of guitar while presenting with healthy amount of hypnotic and tribal drumming, majestic soundscapes and an enveloping ambience that’s as mellow as it is acerbic.
Recently, the band embarked upon a gruelling three day tour of Quebec during which I caught them in Montréal and at the FME Festival in Rouyn-Noranda, up in the northwestern part of the province. When the opportunity arose to sit down with the band, I teamed up with fellow TYG nerd and obsessive, UK-based writer Dom Gourlay and we sat down backstage with vocalist/guitarist Franz Treichler, drummer Bernard Trontin and keyboards/sampler Cesare Pizzi for a friendly, lengthy and informative chat.
With a discography of at least eight albums that goes back to the 80s, how do you do about putting together a set list for a show or festival?
Franz: Well, it depends on what kind of festival it is and what the vibe is. If we play Hellfest, for example, we won’t play exactly the same repertoire as if we were playing a more electronic oriented festival. That’s one of the ways we go about choosing the songs, the other one is that now we play with Cesare and he hasn’t been with the band from the Kurt Weill record [1991’s The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill] until this one, so he knows the first two. We worked with him for a couple songs on [1992’s] T.V. Sky and [1995’s] Only Heaven, but we had never played anything from [2000’s] Second Nature, [2007’s] Super Ready or [2010’s] Everybody Knows with him. So, it’s not his music and he has to learn it and it’s different. It’s always better to have someone who plays his own music. He enjoyed learning to play “Skinflowers” and “Gasoline Man” and some of the others. That’s also how we choose the set list; it depends on what songs we have ready to play. Basically, we toured for two years playing the first two records after Cesare came back into the band. He wrote those songs with me in the beginning of and that’s how we choose the repertoire.
Bernard: Also, we chose to play the new album on this tour because we saw it as a whole and we didn’t want to play different kinds of songs in between. We wanted to focus.
Franz: Yeah, we wanted to concentrate on the new one because the three of us did it together and that’s who we are now.
After nine years, what inspired the new album?
Franz: We got along really well playing and touring the first two records. After doing this for two years, we thought that if we wanted to go on we would have to do something new. We couldn’t just go on playing the old stuff all the time. We wanted to challenge ourselves, try new sounds and new ideas. We thought we needed to do new stuff to have that feeling that the band is alive, not just playing the old repertoire all the time. So, the motivation is always the same; it’s our way of reacting to concepts and our situation, what inspires us, what we want to say or not say or suggest about the world today. We do it our way and that’s very abstract.
Were you taking influence from the state of the world? Stuff like the environment and the rise of right-wing politics?
Franz: Yeah, this is happening all over the place; some places it’s happening slowly and in some places it’s more up front than others. The situation is spreading and people are being contaminated by lies and everything else. I read a very nice quote the other day by a theatrical artist guy named Julian Hetzel: “I’m trying to politically do art, but not do art that is political.” It’s not my quote, but I really agree with it and it fits. He uses strong images from politics and criticises using contemporary art. If you think about the photograph that’s taken of someone killing someone else, it’s like, ‘who’s the actor and who’s the artist?’ and so on and it’s a big debate. Anyway, one of the motivations is just three people doing music together. We started when we were almost kids but we still have this motivation and with who we are now, at the age we’re at, it’s what comes out. But, I think it’s more in the lyrics where I can put some poetic impressions on politics or approach political things. Every song has a different topic, but I’m trying to suggest things, never assert things.
Bernard: And the starting point of a song is almost always sound, not words. The words come afterwards; what inspires us to put a song together is sound. I don’t mean something like chords of an instrument, but just sound.
On that note, as a band that writes with samplers and sound manipulation, are you always hearing music everywhere you go and is your daily life a constant battle or barrage of potential music and songs?
Franz: It’s not that we hear it all the time. When you start diving into the process, then you hear it. When you come out of the studio, you can hear songs without thinking about the gate on the reverb and all the production to the point you’re not even listening to the music anymore. It also depends on whether you make yourself available to sound as well. There are so many sounds all the time that naturally someone just shuts off his ears because you hear music everywhere. Sound is everywhere and so permanent that you have to switch it off. But what Bernard meant is that I always come up with the lyrics after the song is done. I have tons of words here and there and in notebooks, but it’s very rare that I write the whole lyric if I don’t have the finished music in front of me.
Bernard: We don’t say, ‘Let’s do a song that talks about this or that.’ It comes after.
Franz: And sometimes I don’t even tell them what the song is about [laughter].
Bernard: But we are also listening to things every day. When did our sound check earlier, I was playing the drums, just playing whatever came to mind at the time and suddenly I saw Franz coming towards me with a recorder to record part of what I was playing because he was hearing something or had an idea for something else.
I was surprised at the amount of guitar in the live set and new songs. Was adding more guitar an extension of having a guitar player in the band on Everybody Knows?
Franz: We wanted to experience including a fourth member on Everybody Knows because we got along with the guy [Vincent Hänni] very well and he was a multi-instrumentalist. He could play synths, program stuff, play guitar, bass and drums; he’s kind of a crazy genius. Even Al Comet [ex-keyboards/sampler] wanted to go in that direction of improvising more, but we weren’t really ready at the time. We were working on a two-week residency where we would get together and play some stuff, everybody would bring all their instruments. I brought my guitar, my bass, we all had our computers and everything with no restrictions. We used to work only with the sampler, but in the year 2000 we started opening up to different things because we had a formula we wanted to break and move on. So, this particular record was also born like this because we did this two-week residency in a very small club where we played live in front of maybe 80 people every night. The residency was part of something that was kind of like a jazz festival, so there was that spirit there. We didn’t call it The Young Gods; we called it The Treichler Trontin Pizzi Experience or something [laughter]. We kept it very vague because we didn’t want people to come and scream “Play ‘Envoyé!’” or “Play fucking louder!” [laughter] We wanted to just try stuff on stage, live and in front of people, to share the process. So, we came with lots of skeletons, bits of ideas, loops, anything. I brought my guitar because I wouldn’t have felt comfortable just standing there with a microphone only; I wanted to be able to jam. So, when we listened to those sessions, we went through the process we thought that it was good to have live guitar because it’s different and brings one more organic thing into The Young Gods. For this record, we thought it was great, but it’s a bit schizophrenic for me because for 30 years I’ve been behind the mic. I wanted to really concentrate on the vocals and what the music does to me physically, but for at least, it’s really cool to have this one more element added because it changes the mood. Also. these new songs are longer than most of the stuff we used to write and it’s very repetitive so one more organic or analogue element is welcome because it can make slight differences in things.
You’ve been cited as an influence on a lot of bands and a favourite band of many known names and musicians. How do you feel about your legacy and influence?
Franz: That’s good! We all got inspiration from bands that were known and unknown, so I think if you can pass it on and give inspiration to other people, that’s great. And there’s some good music in there as well. I think lots of Nine Inch Nails is good music, especially in the beginning. I remember when the first time we toured in the states in 1989 or 1990 for L’eau Rouge. That was our second record and Nine Inch Nails had just released Pretty Hate Machine and we were touring the same clubs. We never played together, but we’d see the posters that they’d be at the same club we were playing in two weeks or they played last week and so on. On that tour, we did about 35 shows and when we came back in 1991 or 1992, Nine Inch Nails was still touring the same record. They toured for two years on that album.
Is moving forward and not wanting to play the same record over and over also a driving force?
Franz: I think it’s an instinct, basically. It’s not that you don’t want to repeat yourself, you just want to try new things because it’s exciting. New people bring new ideas as well. We’ve had a quite a few changes in the band: three drummers, two keyboard players, a guitarist at different periods of time. Tastes can change over time too. I’m glad you say you think we’re always going forward because that’s the way we look at it too. That’s why after playing the first two records for two years we wanted to keep going forward.
Do you think people expect something challenging from the band?
Franz: I think so. Our biggest fans like to go forward with us, they like to be surprised. The bands that have stayed with me the longest are the bands I didn’t like at first. The first listen would be, “What the fuck is that?” The second listen would be “ummm” and slowly I would discover something new in them and like them more and more as I kept listening. So, once you accept that from a band, you listen to the first one and maybe like the second one but you go on with it and discover it little by little.
Is there a reason you didn’t bring the tour where you were playing the first two albums to North America?
Franz: The problem with North America is more about visas. For us, Switzerland isn’t in the European Union and you have to apply so the application costs $1000 and you’re not even sure you’re going to get the visa. So, if you have six or seven people you have to put $6-7000 on the table to not even know if it’s going to happen. Financially, we never had a solid tour of 20-25 shows that we could take the risk on coming back to North America to play, but we would love to. This is our first time here in 23 years.
So, how did you end up here?
Franz: You mean in Rouyn-Noranda? [laughter]
Well, yes. But playing this fest and coming over for a three date tour of Quebec. I mean, I’m not complaining because I’m getting to see you guys on most of it…
Franz: Well, I’m complaining [laughter]. I would have loved to have played Toronto and I would have loved to have played the states. There was this Wax Trax! anniversary thing that is happening in two weeks, but we couldn’t afford staying here and couldn’t afford to go back to Europe then come back for one show in two weeks. I’m sure a North American tour going to happen and I hope it’s sooner rather than later.
Speaking of Wax Trax!, I’d heard that your camp had approached them about putting out the new album, but they weren’t able or didn’t want to release it?
Franz: I’m not sure what happened, but I would love to be on an America label for North America, Wax Trax! especially. We were on Ipecac for two records, so having a label here helps, definitely. Lots of people would probably love to release our records too, but they know they probably wouldn’t sell many [laughter] because who’s buying records anymore anyway?
After seeing four decades of change in the industry, what advice would you give bands starting out about what to do and what not to do?
Franz: I hate giving advice to bands, it makes me feel like an old man [laughter], but one thing is they should for sure not try to do someone else’s music. Do your own stuff and believe in it, even if no one else believes in it. Just keep on going. That’s the best you can do and it gives you more chances to break through because who wants to listen to another such-and-such.
Bernard: I would say that, but also to not rush to record something. Take your time to find what the band really is, your own sound, your own music through touring, composing and rehearsing.
You’ve always called Switzerland home, but have you ever been tempted to relocate to somewhere like London or something?
Franz: We actually did! In the very beginning, we would come to London quite a bit. When you leave your comfort zone you learn a lot and fast. Coming to London, I remember we never stayed longer than three or four months because we couldn’t afford it and had to find jobs back in Switzerland, but we were playing all the pubs we could all the time and squatting at some friend’s places and stuff. It was our second home during the first two years of the band. That brought us a lot of very good experiences and later in the 90s I lived in New York for a year or two and worked with [producer] Roli Mosimann a lot on T.V. Sky and Only Heaven. The two other members joined and they stayed about six months. After the Ministry tour for Only Heaven in which we toured extensively for almost two years, our former drummer left the band because he was tired of the lifestyle and that was a sign for Al and me to think about where our base and families were and if we wanted to stay in New York. So, we went back to Switzerland and started again.
Touring is obviously a very different thing now than it was back then. When you consider those differences, do you think if you started now that you’d be around in 35 years time?
Franz: It’s obviously very difficult to answer that, but you try to survive the way you can and it’s part business and part more than that, for sure. If there isn’t this ‘other thing’ then it’s not really worth it. If it becomes a job, then…you know.
[At this point, there’s some stuff missed and left out as we ended up having to move to the band’s dressing room when the federal Minister of Canadian Heritage, the Honourable Pablo Rodriguez and his posse of various employees, friends and hangers-on barged into the room and proceeded to not-so-honourably stir up a racket with their ‘outside voices’ and the excessive clinking and crashing of wine bottles and glasses]
Is there a concept or theme to the new album?
Franz: It’s sort of when you hear all those scientific voices who tell us that you can’t rely on technology the way we do, how there’s a lot of colliding algorithms and there’s so many that what the output is shit for our lives. It’s just a mirage to think it’s going to work in the long term. That’s a bit of the meaning behind the title. The tangram is just because all this is a game and the tangram is a game of seven pieces that you put together to form a square. It’s a Chinese puzzle game and you can be creative and do shapes of animals and humans, but it’s also something that is hard to pack as a square back in the box. So, it’s fun, but it’s also the opposite: maddening. We thought it was relevant to these seven songs because tangram is seven pieces that you put together and we had seven songs we put together to form a record.
When someone learns to play an instrument, they learn chords, scales, notes, rudiments and so on. You can also learn by playing along with records and whatnot. How does one go about learning to play a sampler as an instrument, especially starting as you did in the early-and-mid 80s? It’s not like there’s a structure to follow or you can play along with albums.
Cesare: During this last century there is always innovation. If you think about the piano, when it was invented, nobody used it and it took somebody taking the time to learn it and introduce it in a large orchestra. That was an innovation that somebody had to start. I think the big difference with the sampler is that when you play guitar or bass, it’s something physical. Of course, you need your mind to understand and learn, but when you have the instrument in your hand, you play with your body and fingers. The approach of the sampler is fortunately or unfortunately, more intellectual. You need to project a bit beyond before playing. If you’re curious enough to actually go and read the user guide for some of these samplers – sometimes they’re 100 pages long – you can discover that the music never stops and the way to produce sound will never stop. When I started using the sampler, it was Franz who came to me with it and for me it was something really incredible; it became a challenge for me to figure how to capture sound, play with it, play on stage and so on. You need to have a ‘double culture’; you need to be a musician to understand the roots of music, but you also need to have this second skill where you understand electronics. It’s like the first mini-Moog came, if you didn’t understand the tuning, the shape of sound waves and everything, you’d be lost. There would have to be a real intellectual approach and you’d have to know the instrument well. I think you need to have a background in curiosity. You don’t need to have a masters in computing, but you must be curious and understand that the approach is not only physical, it’s also intellectual.
What musician or music gave you the inspiration to approach music in that way?
But in bands like Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can, they were technical, but they were also very loose if you know what I mean?
Franz: Yeah, but there’s always one guy in every band who’s the technical guy [laughter].
Cesare: For me, it’s second nature. I’m more comfortable with computers and programs and so on than most musicians, I guess. I love learning about it, understanding and programming them myself. It’s fun and you discover another world and another way to express your art.
Franz: For me, to put the instruments aside wasn’t totally intellectual. When I discovered the sampler, I had to physically feel it. I had to get rid of the guitar, get rid of the harmonica, get rid of everything I knew. I learned classical guitar for many, many years and it was just like, how we talked before, about sound and stuff like making rhythms with a small looper. You start from scratch when you’re composing and it’s really, really different. At that time, I don’t think I read a lot of the manuals. I was more of the instinctive guy.
There was a point when John Peel was playing you on British radio and you were on alt-rock radio and video shows. Was there ever a point where a label said, “write a three-minute single” or tried to dictate writing a hit?
Franz: No, but we have edited songs to make them shorter for radio or something. We tried this on the last album, to take a seven minute and cut it so that it makes sense at three-and-a-half minutes. If you take it as fun, it’s ok, but we never formatted things that way during the writing. It was always the second move after the fact to see if it’s good enough or if it can fit a video or whatever. The original is always on the record – no compromise [laughter]! But even three years ago we had a manager who was telling us it’s no good to do albums anymore and that the kids only want to listen to singles…
But that’s not what the kids or the fans are telling you?
Franz: And it’s not that I want to disrespect anyone, but I’ve never done this in my life and just because someone else thinks that way and you can’t think like that. It’s totally abstract to think that an entire audience wants to listen to something one way. As much as people say “the public,” you can’t average people. A lot of people like this and that, but there’s nothing that’s the same.
Bernard: I think the mistake is people are trying too hard to format the music and the public. We need more freedom. It’s always happened in music, but it’s seems like it’s worse now.
Cesare: I’ll tell you a story: I have two kids. One buys vinyl, CDs and so on, but my daughter knows nothing about music and only really has the music that’s on her smartphone. One day, I asked her if I could listen to what she was listening to and she was listening to the Beatles, but she doesn’t know anything about them, has no idea about their history or who they are, but she loves it! That’s completely amazing.
[photo by: Mehdi Benkler]