Faust and Foremost : Interview with Uwe Nettelbeck

Karl Dallas

Melody Maker, Mar 1973

An interview with Uwe Nettelbeck conducted during the recording of the first Faust BBC Sessions

Interview with Uwe Nettelbeck

It is twelve noon, and in the smoky sunshine of a London afternoon a group of German longhairs are unloading a huge Mercedes truck full of electronic gear of various shapes and sizes and carrying it into the BBC's number one eight track studio, which has just been vacated by Victor Sylvester and His Ballroom Orchestra.

It's not a small studio by BBC standards, but when they've done there is barely room for the five Germans to pick their way among the wires and synthesizers and sound generators and other electronic paraphernalia.

BBC SessionsIt is also four-and-a-half hours later before Faust, possibly the hottest word-of-mouth group to emerge out of the Common Market mists of Eurorock, are ready to start recording.

Producer John Walters confides to me that he hasn't had so much mail about any new name since the earliest days of Family, despite the fact that both their Polydor albums have received very little exposure in this country.

When I saw the first one, a wholly transparent disc enclosed within an equally transparent sleeve - mindblower number one - I determined that I had to have it even before I 'd heard the music on it which might have been James Last for all I knew of the group.

I took it home and put it on the turntable, and then came mindblower number two: as the disc revolved, some sort of stroboscopic interaction between the grooves on one side and the grooves on the other - because, remember, being transparent, you could see both sets - made it look as if the disc was revolving a quarter turn, then stopping, then another quarter turn, then stopping again, and so on. I took it off and checked there was no equipment malfunction before I realised that I was the victim of an optical illusion.

After this the music could have been a complete let-down, but it was in fact mindblower number three. Here, as the man said, words begin to fail me, for mere vocabulary can't really express the multi-dimensional complexity of what they were doing. I doubt if even German, with its propensity for long-winded poly syllables, has words adequate to describe it.

Things were not helped by the fact that there are so few parallels one can draw either in the field of rock or modern classical music. One thinks of unsuccessful experiments like the Beatles "Revolution No. 9". Inevitable OK classical names like Karlheinz Stockhausen or John Cage leap to mind.

But producer Uwe Nettlelbeck, an intense bearded ex-journalist and film-maker who first conceived of Faust in 1970 rejects this sort of comparison and asserts that what they play is in fact rock.

"I want it to be popular music," he said. " As far as terms are concerned I wouldn't like to have it in that bag with Stockhausen, Cage and all that, what you call experimental muscle."We are avant garde not as a style but just as an accident, not by purpose. Just because some things we are doing nobody else is doing, it puts us in a position to be avant garde but that's just accidentally. I don 't rate such terms very high. Its just music.

"And I would rather like it to be considered as rock. Why not? It is. It is rhythmically based very often, it's using elements of rhythm and blues and all that in a different and twisted way, but it is still using it. I am not very much into rock music. I am listening to the records but I don't know much about other groups. I only can say what groups the band and I like, it's very strange, it goes from things like the Shangri-Las to Frank Zappa or early Velvet Underground, even the Beach Boys.

"As far as content is concerned we are realising the particular situation a German band is in, by not having any roots in rock music, but on the other hand knowing all the stuff because our record shops are just the same as yours, there's no difference. But it puts you in a strange relation to the stuff because you neither speak English nor have any connection to anything in it. It 's a second sort of reality."

"So we try to make an amalgam from all the material which comes to us to form something which goes beyond quotations. The material should be altered, shouldn't stay the same, never, and this should be combined with sounds".

Their very first, Clear album began with quotes from the Stones' "Satisfaction" and the Beatles' "All You Need is Love", while the second, "all black" album (So Far) has a song, It's a Rainy Day, Sunshine Girl, which is recognisably derived from the Velvet Underground.

By now John Walters has wandered off, saying that his role as producer is almost superfluous. The BBC engineer is checking for level, but all the band is giving him to work on are pure tones from their sound generators. Perspex black boxes covered with dozens of white buttons enabling four out of five members to generate all kinds of sounds and inject them direct into the recording.

These boxes, in fact, are one of the secrets of Faust's unique blend of sounds - and the reason why they have not appeared in public before now, the reason why their Manchester Free Trade Hall gig on June 6 is only their seventh in two years.

"Those machines weren't ready before now," said Nettlebeck. "We had to have them custom made and it took two years. We wouldn't like to play without them because it would he too much of a compromise, we wouldn't have been able to switch sounds, to play collages on stage.

It would interrupt the flow of the music every time we had to, because we would have to disconnect and connect to get different effects and all that. With these machines we just have to press a button".

The remarkable thing as Faust begins to warm up for their "Sounds of the Seventies" recording is that already they are beginning to sound like their albums, which were the product of painstaking hours of over-dubbing and editing.

In fact, the second side of their first album on Polydor was recorded entirely live in their own studio a converted school-house in the countryside between Hamburg and Bremen, and this is how they prefer to work.

Everything they have issued so far, including the remarkable 48p LP of tapes from their own archives which launches their move to Virgin records, was recorded in that make-shift studio.

The band really began as the outcome of a dispute between two branches of the vast Polydor combine in Germany. The International wanted to show the native German Polydor company the chances it was missing. In the great flowering of German rock which has made names like Can, Neu and Amon Düül familiar to British listeners.

Polydor International asked Uwe Nettlebeck to get a group together. He was a former radical journalist who 'd had to move into films and sounds when he found no magazine would publish his views on the political trials that followed the student disorders of 1968.

" I knew this guy at Polydor International who asked me whether I knew some people to put a band together which would be a bit significant," recalled Nettlebeck.

"That was the beginning, in February 1971; but it was also the end because the national company got so upset that they started to fight us from the very first day. That is why we are unknown in Germany. That 's not a very nice situation in your own country you're just not available in a record shop.

We are better known in France than Germany, and better known in England than in France just because people like journalists and John Peel took us up.

However, when we started Polydor gave us all this old equipment, none of which would work, and we tried to make it work. It was very hard because often we would have to work for several hours getting it ready and by the time we there ready to record we were all tired and upset, but we continued to work on our concept, which was to have a band which is not featuring anyone in particular but has a combined sort of sound, just like one instrument, playing in a very wide range of sounds and styles.

For instance, even now it is hard to identity who is doing what, except the drummer or the guitarist. But if they are more into electronic stuff you wouldn't be able to figure out who is playing what if you saw them standing there.

And we definitely won't have a stage act in which somebody is in the spotlight. Actually it should be the equipment which should be in the spotlight. Sometimes Joachim Sosna (sic) plays a guitar solo, not a straight one because he plays very peculiar guitar, but he is not behaving like a guy who plays guitar solos. And we had the idea later, if we can do it, to project a film next to him on stage which shows him playing a guitar solo but he's standing still and not doing it.

The only thing we have, really, in the act is in these generators which can work by themselves. If you switch them on they can infect each other and do a sort of electronic percussion thing, completely on their own, and that's a solo. And you can leave the stage and let them do it for five minutes and you have a solo which actually the equipment is doing.

Basically, Faust is a machine, but everybody is sitting on the machine and trying to get freedom out of it we don't want to get into a formula where you have to deliver industrial product to big companies which try to make money out of it.

I have a huge collection of tapes which we have made over the two years, made on an ordinary stereo recorder without any eight-track or multi-track. When we left the studio, I took two or three weeks to go through them and collect pieces out of them and cut it together, not in chronological order but to sound right. I prefer the second side, actually. The first side is a bit hard to listen to.

I had the idea that it wouldn't be fair to sell it to the public for the price of an ordinary album because it didn't cost anything. It would be a nice gesture to put it out really cheaply. It should be less than 48p, because we are not taking anything at all out of it".

By now the session is over. The technical problems are over and already the band is talking about its first experience, starting the next day at the Manor, of recording in a commercial studio with all the facilities most bands take for granted. I see Faust's engineer at the BBC eight-track deck, wiping the tapes of music that they've rejected. "We have to avoid bootlegs," he said with a smile. For a band that's started its period with a new company by producing its own bootleg, that struck me as funny somehow.

Karl Dallas, "Faust and Foremost", Melody Maker 1973