Splendid Berlin meets with Die Sterne’s frontman Frank Spilker in Mitte’s Cafe Cinema to discuss their new album ‘Mach’s Besser’ and the band’s 25th anniversary celebrations.
Analogue photography: Heike Schneider-Matzigkeit
Interview: Nathaniel Fregoso
NF: So your new album Mach’s Besser came out on the tenth of February. It’s your twelfth album . . .
FS: Is it a real album? Actually, I wouldn’t count it as the next Die Sterne album. It’s more of a birthday present or something. A compilation made by friends.
NF: A birthday present to your fans?
FS: A birthday present to us. To the band. Maybe to the fans I don’t know. Whoever values it the most. We didn’t put much input into the whole thing except the songs themselves and trying to figure out who should make a cover version. We certainly asked the bands we liked and found most interesting for a compilation like this.
NF: How did you come up with the concept? Was it just talking within the band?
FS: Talking within the band and with others. The process of what to do next always starts when we finish one project, so immediately after the last album Flucht in die Flucht we started collecting ideas about what do next. We started to collect ideas on how to do this anniversary. The first idea was to do a big show with friends in a theater in Hamburg or Berlin but then we thought it would be more interesting and better for Die Sterne fans in other cities where we usually perform to let them take part in this compilation. Somebody came up with the idea, I don’t really remember who it was. It’s not a very new or Sterne-unique idea. I think some friends had done that before. Other bands like Fehlfarben. A band from Hamburg called Superpunk, they did it. They asked us to cover them so we just thought it fair if we asked the favor in return.
NF: How would this album be for someone who’s never heard your music before?
FS: I don’t know. How would I? Actually, it’s like I’m listening to the songs for the first time, because it really feels different if you don’t hear yourself singing. If you don’t worry about the production or the details of when you were singing. It’s a completely different way to listen to music. It’s great, it’s like being able to consume your own work. We thought that it must be interesting for our fans to get an idea of the whole scene like who else is interested in Die Sterne. What other bands would be interested in doing a cover or at least express some kind of understanding.
NF: Do you find yourself being critical when the song is played by other bands?
FS: Yes, actually, the title Mach’s Besser (Do it Better) is meant as a challenge. But only in a fun way. It’s not really a competition. Everybody has to find their own approach to a song if you do a cover version. I think there are three different ways to do that that I found on the compilation. One is to bring in your own personality as a band or as an artist and do the cover version. Stereo Total did a version of “Wenn dir St. Pauli auf den Geist fällt” and it’s totally Stereo Total because they’re always totally Stereo Total. They didn’t have to change a thing. It’s just their voice and it’s their sound. That’s artistically sufficient. For a cover version, it’s something different. And then other bands, maybe they don’t have a strong sound of their own. Maybe they have to do a different approach. There bands like Die Aeronauten and Locas in Love just as an example who kind of covered our concept of making music. Die Sterne always had this concept, especially at the beginning, of quoting, understanding ourselves as human samplers or something. Really quoting and not doing something that is alike to a certain thing. You can hear really well known quotes in early Sterne works if you know where it’s from. We did some Hawkwind, Sly Stone, we did Serge Gainsbourg or whatever musical parts of the songs and made new songs out of it. And that’s what bands covering us sometimes copy. They just took other quotes and built the song anew from other quotes. That’s another approach and the third approach which is for me most interesting, bands like Max Müller or Die Zimmermänner or Isolation Berlin, they really found songs in our work that were hidden in the albums and made something greater than we did as a band. They won the challenge. Great cover versions.
NF: You’ve had the band now for 25 years. How do you keep things fresh? How do you keep up this level of productivity. You’ve released an album every two years.
FS: We made up our mind about this. We don’t just release because there’s a time to release or a certain routine. That’s exactly why we’re having this pause right now and not releasing another album after Flucht in die Flucht. At the moment, there is no real input and we don’t have so much contact with each other than that there will be a new concept in maybe a year or two and we needed more time to do a regular album right away. Maybe it’s because we don’t release anything, just wait until there is a reason to or an idea that is good enough.
NF: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block? Or do you feel the time spent away erases this concept?
FS: As long as I’m inspired by other authors, musicians, bands or I have the feeling there’s something I never heard before or somebody does a really good job with lyrics or whatever, as long as that happens and I’m really excited about it, there will always be new music on my side. New words on my side. Very often I need this kick to be inspired. That’s my challenge maybe. To match up with those things I hear and I like.
NF: Do you find you’re inspired and influenced by books or films more than other bands?
FS: I don’t know. Actually it’s hard to say. In the end it’s a mix of it all, because ultimately you can’t find a form in other artist’s lyrics or other artists way to write lyrics. Maybe the topics from a movie or the things that happen around you. Political things. Developments in your neighborhood. That doesn’t have a lot to do with the form I am inspired by. It’s also books and movies of course.
NF: Are there still points when you’re shocked by the success of the band?
NF: Not shocked. But when you first started the band did you have it in mind to reach a certain level of success and to just keep going until you made it.
FS: All we wanted was to find our audience. We didn’t think a lot about how big an audience would have to be to support a band or us as artists. So it wasn’t really a career move but more an artistic mood. And we were kind of surprised ourselves how much a difference it made to live in a media city like Hamburg and to be recognized by the media. That was the case in the early 90s. We were kind of lucky to get into this whole development. People seemed to be waiting for a band like us. Singing in German again. Being part of a political discussion and not just doing feel good music. Doing it a new way. I think we were marketed like a whole scene. The whole Hamburg scene was an analogy to the Seattle scene or the Boston scene. It’s what the press did. They said, “this works” and they were writing about the whole community of bands. The whole social system of bands in Hamburg. We had some benefits from that. We had this music television called Viva and MTV and MTV started to broadcast German bands because they had this competition with this German television station. And when that happened it became really big because the problem that you have as a band in Germany is that the radio is fragmented in the small countries “Länder”? It’s really hard for a smaller band or a band that isn’t a mainstream band, doesn’t just reach for the middle, but is kind of indie or specialist. You can’t get through because all these little country radio stations only play mainstream music. So you don’t have a radio situation like in the UK with 7 BBC formats and they are all nationwide. Having the chance, having Viva and Viva 2 and another live television station that specialized in live independent music that was really a big boost for the whole scene and not just for us. And that was a big surprise accidentally. It didn’t have a lot to do with the sound of the band.
NF: Can you give us an idea of what music was like when you first started to play with your band and how that influenced the sound perhaps? As a reaction to what you were doing.
FS: What was it like? It started in fact in the middle of the 80s with my first bands as I was in school. After the first false tracks, it kind of discovered music for us or independent post-punk bands. We had this club hidden in the countryside called Forum Enger. Where everybody was playing. It was a club for a capacity of maybe 200, a small club. Say Festsaal Kreuzberg would be pretty much the same. So we had this and the BFBS radio station was a lot of input. We knew all the new music from the UK and America too. All the bands came to the Forum Enger. On the other end, there was nobody, it was a specialized audience. The situation was kind of bizarre in the countryside. We all moved into cities and then found, coming from the countryside, that musicians, nearly everybody was one step ahead of what you did in the countryside. Because naturally it is that way. We kind of changed. Made one more step forward into modern music by stepping out of this post-punk concept by being more influenced by crossover bands, by new school hip hop bands. This whole sampling idea came up and rapping instead of singing and stuff. We kind of modernized our concept but still being a band that comes from this punk or grunge background.
NF: Can you also explain briefly what the Hamburger Schule is?
FS: Hard to say. The best way to explain it is as a social system of bands that came from different artistic, musical approaches. They found a platform to act together. Especially Anti-nationalism in the early 90s because we had these really harsh events Rostock-Lichtenhagen against immigrants. We had the football world cup in Germany. Germany won in 1990 and everyone was…we thought it was close to 1933. That was the platform we could agree on and act together. That was picked up by the press and by the public, but more as a musical togetherness that wasn’t really there. Because all of the bands from the early 90s that are labeled as Hamburger Schule have really different artistic ideas. Soundwise. Tocotronic is a grunge and Blumfeld have been really more like a post-punk approach from the 80s. And Die Sterne had this more 90s sampling groove and crossover approach. So that’s three different concepts. But I think with Britpop it was pretty much the same.
NF: So there’s no unified sound per se, but there’s a unified approach.
FS: Right. There’s no unified sound, but there’s certainly a likeness of a generation as far as the use of German language is concerned, so I think you can find some similarities between those bands as well.
NF: Can you speak about the importance of writing lyrics in German and about the types of songs that Die Sterne writes. Not necessarily love songs but often very political songs.
FS: Yeah I can write books about it. Is it important? I don’t know. The importance is awareness that it actually can matter. What is said can matter. It makes a difference if stuff matters. So that’s basically it. That’s the book that I would write. That’s the title of the book. When I was 19, pop music in German, people didn’t listen to the lyrics. Even if they were in German. Because what you found after the so-called Neue Deutsche Welle was really ridiculous stuff. Happy stuff that was supposed to be funny but wasn’t. Growing up with that, you thought, “you better not listen if it’s in German and you better not listen if it’s in English either.” That’s kind of a little bit of work. If you’re talking and thinking in German you have to concentrate on English lyrics. If you speak English. It needs more concentration. Nobody was listening when I was young. We started to try to make a difference and hook them on the lyrics instead of trying to be like all the other bands. We weren’t the first, but we could find bands from the past that we could just quote or imitate but we tried to find our own way. It was a process of course. You start somewhere in the past Friedrich Hollaender in the 20s or maybe Rio Reiser in the 70s. Fehlfarben, bands like that that were the early part of the Neue Deutsche Welle. The good part. You could start from that and build your own thing and that’s what we did. The hip hop kids came a little bit later. A new product maybe. German pop music was totally flat and Schlager. It was something new by that time.
NF: The majority of your shows have been in German speaking countries but you’ve also played other places in the world. Can you tell me a little about the places you’ve gone and what the reaction has been?
FS: Let’s start with London. We did some shows in London at the beginning. Because of MTV. Even when they had their show in German they produced from London. Like Christian Bühl made the first German language show in MTV and that was produced in Camden. And then flying there and producing something with MTV we also did a show of course and played at a small club. There were other bands there and people were asked at the entrance which band they were coming for, to divide the entrance fee. Somebody worked very hard for us because it seemed to be like there were enough German tourists in the city to fill the place. But of course if you don’t have the media in the UK, you can’t get people there, because there’s so much other stuff going on. We had a little article in Time Out and we had the place packed, so that was no problem. I didn’t have the feeling that was the real UK, but that was the first experience.
And then the first thing we did that was really out of context was tour through North America sponsored by the Goethe Institute. The Goethe Institute is a German language institution, also a cultural institution. Paid and sponsored by the Foreign Ministry. We were invited to represent German culture which was kind of weird, because we were more off-culture. That’s what they wanted us to do. We had two different kinds of shows. One was at schools and when we heard about it we thought, “No we don’t want to play at schools. We want to be in clubs.” So we organized a tour to do two shows in each town. We went from Montreal, Toronto, New York, Boston, East Coast and then West Coast. Whatever. We did two shows in each town. One was in schools and universities and the other was in the club. And that was pretty different because the first thing we learned was that people in the US were really excited by something exotic like a band singing in German. We would never sell records with what we did because we didn’t have a concept like Rammstein who match all the stereotypes of Germanness. Something uniquely German or European. Because we quoted all these American bands. That wasn’t something you could sell in America I guess. At least it was exotic and we had fun times. The real surprise was that we had lots of fun in those universities and schools because what we didn’t know was that people couldn’t go out until they were 21 and that there was a strong need to. So we fulfilled that need and had very good parties too. So that was really a success in the sense that we had fun and the places were kind of filled and people had fun too.
The last things we did were also sponsored by the Goethe Institute because we really don’t have this international approach. The concept of Die Sterne is related to German language. The only thing to get abroad or outside the German language region is to be invited by a cultural institution in some way. We did a China tour. China and Japan two years ago and that was also great. I wouldn’t say it was a success commercially. It was very much dependent on how much people, the locals, knew about organizing a show. You can’t expect too much from a German cultural institution like the Goethe Institute. Sometimes it works, sometimes it didn’t. But for us personally it was a great experience. It’s great to get in contact with so many people that have the time to talk to you. To go to the universities and talk to German students. We did Paris. That was a great show. It was an exceptional show for us because we had all these pupils form the Goethe Institute there but apart from that it was a normal Die Sterne show with a very urban surrounding like maybe Festsaal Kreuzberg again.
NF: You’ve used some English phrases in your songs. Would you ever consider doing some songs or writing an album in English? Or does that go against the whole approach?
FS: Actually, I did two songs in English on my solo album in 2008. Is it an artistic question? I don’t know. It’s more strategic if I think about it. Because I certainly would like to expand the region of my activities and at least reach out to Europe or something, but I know how hard it is to match the level of a native speaker lyric wise because my level of English is very different depending on where I have spent the last few weeks, the level can rise. I think I could do it. I could find a way, but I would still be a German who writes lyrics in English and people would notice the difference and that has a lot to do with how I write songs and lyrics in general. It’s all about connotations, the fine differences in language that make the story. And it’s not A plus B pop music lyrics. If the lyrics are very flat you can do it in any language, but it’s not my strength.
NF: What comes first the music or the lyrics?
FS: I can’t say actually. As Die Sterne we do a lot of music together before the lyrics appear. When I write songs it comes alongside. Mostly. I always think of a melody when I write lyrics. Or at least the rhythm.
NF: What always strikes me about your music is how funky it is. It has this funk hip hop element which I didn’t necessarily expect when I first started listening to your band. How did that funk element come into the music and does it influence the lyrics?
FS: As I say, as a writer of lyrics I always think rhythmically. I always imagine a rhythm because that’s what makes the difference between lyrics and writing down rhyme or something. I’m very much interested in this language wise. Even in folk music or music without drums, the rhythm of the lyrics becomes important. It’s not necessarily to do with funk music, but it’s something we came up with after realizing that as a band we needed or wanted a concept that was one step ahead of 80s post-punk sound. And that’s why in the early 90s when all these bands came up we thought we just could understand ourselves as human samplers and just quote. If you’ve not grown up with let’s say funk music or rhythm and blues you could at least quote it. That’s not a problem and that’s what we did and then we found out you don’t even have to play or know your instrument too well to do that. But that’s an old punk approach. And I really believe that it’s sometimes even more efficient if you just step on the stage with whatever capacity you have for music and professionalize being onstage instead of professionalizing what you think you need on stage. So that’s the old punk approach. I think it works well for Die Sterne because we are not too good as musicians.
NF: Do you see yourself as a bit of a punk?
FS: I don’t know. Punk is a moment in history. It’s a technique of thinking. Unblocking yourself from values you thought you should have or must have. Releasing a lot of creativity. I find punk and hip hop as well, whatever new artists appear that don’t care about yesterday’s rules, that’s mostly what I call punk. In that sense, I’m trying to be a punk always.
NF: So you were talking about this relationship between words. The rhythm of the words. Do you read a lot of poetry?
FS: No. Actually not. No. Sometimes I enjoy it, because sometimes I get into situations like lyrics festivals or the whole literature scene and they always have room for poetry and slam poetry and stuff like that. And sometimes you get to know people who really do a good job, but I still prefer the performance over reading them. I think that poetry is lyrics without the music, waiting to be performed. It’s maybe a thing of the past to read lyrics. Very unnecessary in modern times I think. Maybe in the 18th and 19th centuries you really had to read lyrics because there was no other media. Nowadays you have all this media you don’t have to read lyrics or read poetry.
NF: When you are writing, do you write by hand, laptop, typewriter? And do you have any superstitions to help you with the writing process? To help you get things out in an efficient way?
FS: I don’t know if it’s a superstition but my technique to get into the writing process is to forget about the need to write. Like doing something else. I think my wife must hate me for that because I start cleaning up or cooking something and I never finish it the moment I get into the writing process again, so everything lies around. But that’s what you can do. Take a walk or do something else. Something manual so that you don’t stare at the blank page or at the screen or at the monitor. That’s a technique more than a superstition, but it works quite well for me. As I said, inspiration. Listening to music, going to concerts. Especially concerts. Whenever I see a show, I keep concentrated for three or four songs but then my mind kind of wanders off and I see my own movie and most lyric ideas come from that because you have this rhythmic inspiration in the background and maybe another story that you don’t really listen to and your own story mixes with that and then something comes out.
NF: How do you know what a song is about? Is there a plan when you’re writing a song or does the song take shape as you start writing phrases down?
FS: Good question. I kind of try to not be too prosaic by really pointing out what the song is about. I think there is no need to do it because people always get more than you think they get. I don’t want to explain everything. On the other hand I want to have a strong reason for myself to know why I write this. So I always know why I write. I always know the topic, but I don’t try to point it out too much. Maybe that’s the best explanation.
NF: You’ve also written a book. Es interessiert mich nicht aber das kann ich nicht beweisen.
NF: How does writing a book differ from writing songs and do you prefer one over the other?
FS: Very much and not so much too. It’s a different kind of work. The time spent is much longer. You are working much longer on a certain idea. You can’t have it all in mind. Song lyrics can be completely written without a typewriter or even a pen because you can have them in mind and with a book it’s another story. And that’s maybe the biggest difference and of course I think Dramaturgie, staging events and creating suspense, that’s the thing that works completely differently and really something that I feel I have to learn. There is some handcraft needed in writing a book that maybe I am just acquiring. With songs it’s pretty easy. I know when the drums have to play half time. All this classics you can use. I don’t think too much about it because it comes naturally. But at the same time, doing this other form of art is a challenge that really makes . . . I rediscovered the fun in learning. I think I tried out every technique I can think of in music but I am really a beginner in writing novels.
NF: How long did it take you to write the book?
FS: I think maybe two and a half years. And maybe three to six versions.
NF: Do you plan to write another one?
FS: Yeah but I’m not planning to write six versions again. I have some ideas.
NF: You also have a radio show called Frankadelic. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
FS: Yeah, that’s something special. I was always a radio enthusiast. I have a special devotion for radio. I grew up with John Peel BFBS. A lot of information in the countryside. So he was always very important for me. I think the move of the radio station I’m working for, Byte FM, to establish a special interest radio station, an independent radio station on the internet bridges the gap. There’s nothing happening in this radio landscape that I talked about. In Berlin, you have a special situation because there is Radio Eins and Flux Fm and stuff. You have some student radios in student cities like Leipzig, but most of the country is not reached by anything other than mainstream music and Deutschrap Radio maybe. So the move to found Byte FM was something that I really support and I’m really a fan of the idea. When they asked me I didn’t hesitate to be a radio DJ too. It’s not very hard. It’s more work than I thought. Especially being up to date. But I think the work that I invest or time I invest in trying to be up to date and listen to more music than I would naturally keeps me kind of younger. I turned 50 last year and you don’t consume as much music as you do in your 30s. This always triggers me to do a new show on Byte FM. That’s a good thing.
NF: Do you see the influence of your band in younger bands? When I go to see some young German bands I hear and see the influence, especially in the way bands write and deliver the lyrics. How does that make you feel?
FS: We’ve won. I think I said that before. That we’re building upon something that we also discovered. I didn’t invent all of it. If these authors, if this string of history is the right one then I actually totally agree with them. I can’t say how much is really my work. I can’t divide that. I would ask those bands how much they are influenced by Die Sterne. Maybe they don’t know. It’s hard to find out. Maybe you’re the best person to find out because you have some “Abstand”.
FS: Some distance.
NF: So the magazine is called Splendid Berlin. What do you find most splendid about Berlin. What do you like to do in the city when you visit?
FS: For Hamburgers, Berlin used to always be a party town. I met a Hamburger at the station today and he asked me what I would do tonight and I said, “Nothing. I don’t have a plan” and he was really like, “You come to Berlin and you don’t know where to go tonight?”. In moments like this I realize that I have a lot more to do with Berlin than other Hamburgers because through the last twenty years I spent a lot of time in Berlin working and we have our label here, our booking agency, our drummer lives in Berlin. To me Berlin always feels like a different part of Hamburg. I have to travel an hour or two to get there but it’s still Hamburg. And splendid.
NF: I am obsessed with astrology and since your band is called Die Sterne, I have to ask you what’s your astrological sign?
NF: Do you believe in astrology at all?
FS: Not at all. But I can understand the obsession.
NF: Why is that?
FS: I think even if you don’t believe it you can assume for fun that it makes sense. And then to discover that it sometimes gives you information about people or whatever must be fun.
NF: This is the final question. If you could take a time machine back twenty five years to when you first started your band, what advice would you give yourself?
FS: I think probably to be more self confident because when you are 19 and start something, even if you know you are on the right track you get distracted a lot by people who don’t agree with you and that’s something . . . starting again I wouldn’t listen to those people at all or get myself distracted or doubt that I was on the right track. That’s the advice I would give to myself.