Paul Ireson converses with 50% of Switzerland’s most exciting export since milk chocolate - Dieter Meier of Yello.
Paul Ireson converses with 50% of Switzerland's most exciting export since milk chocolate - Dieter Meier of Yello.
There's an expression that says that truth is often stranger than fiction. This is obviously nonsense (unless the fiction that you read or watch is particularly unimaginative) but, nevertheless, real life does sometimes arrange itself in a way that, with hindsight, looks as if someone had written it to be like that. For example, this summer I returned from a trip to Egypt to find that Yello had a single in the Top 10 for the first time, and having checked that I wasn't still under the influence of strong Egyptian tobacco, cursed my bad luck for having missed a) the event, and b) more importantly, the video. "Have you seen that brilliant Yello video?" No, thank you very much, and stop reminding me about it. But here I am, a few weeks later, taking tea with Yello's Dieter Meier in the Savoy Hotel, and he's telling me about an article he's written for a German magazine that outlines his theory about the socio-economic background to the building of the pyramids... but that's another story entirely.
For years Yello have been producing their stylish and very individual music, and have finally achieved a real degree of commercial success, helped both by the wonderful video for 'The Race' - directed by Dieter - and Yello's sudden popularity with the Acid House crowd. The album from which it's taken, The Flag, is in the best Yello tradition: Film Noir meets Eurofunk meets Dada. Melodramatic, seductive, witty, atmospheric, sinuous, rhythmic, eclectic, intelligent, articulate and intriguing. The last three adjectives might also be applied to Dieter Meier, the lyricist/vocalist half of Yello, and therefore exactly 50% of Switzerland's most exciting export since milk chocolate; currently in London "...meeting you, and doing some TV and Radio interviews, and I've had a meeting with a script writer who's writing a film for me."
The film in question is called 'Havana Heat', a thriller set in '50s Cuba, which is still very much in preparation, more advanced is 'Snowball', which should be finished in early '89. Directing is not a new interest for Dieter - he was a film-maker and writer at the time of forming Yello with Boris Blank and Carlos Peron (the latter since departed) in 1979.
"It was no big deal at the time, no big idea behind it. After giving up studying law, I became a professional gambler, then started to make 16mm films, and started to write. As a discipline that followed through all these things, I had a broken one-string guitar at home, which I played and sung along to in an Indian/African style. Just making noises, and telling stories with my voice, with no idea to ever do this publicly.
I then began singing with a rock band - but I wasn't singing rock songs, I was telling stories. Screaming, shouting, all totally improvised. I then met Boris, a totally concentrated and devoted sound painter, who was a truck driver at the time. When we started Yello there was a separate room with our little studio, which was 8-track at the time, and every evening at six o'clock when he had finished work, Boris rushed in, sandwich in one hand and cables in his arms, to his little studio, got to work straight away, and worked till twelve or one in the morning. Every day, or every other day, he'd finish a piece, which he took to his truck, listened to all day, then threw it away into a suitcase. He had hundreds of tapes that he'd done. Like someone who likes to draw, and the process of drawing is much more important than what you do with it afterwards. It's not the idea to become an important artist, to have important exhibitions. He did it because he was addicted to creating sounds."
From the word go, Yello relied on their own resources rather than on established Swiss studios, a move that was made necessary by Swiss attitudes to innovation.
"It's a very petit-bourgeois attitude of being scared of new technology. If you came up with something new you would get laughed at, as making mistakes, being an idiot. Like any artist who is defining himself, comes with his own style. As a matter of principle he's first not accepted for what he's doing. Now out of London you can do this, because London has a tradition of coming out with new things. But these people are scared to do something in a new direction, they just said, 'Well, they can't even record a bass', when they looked at us. You can define any new thing as a mistake, because it's different to what was standard before.
And the other reason of course is that 99% of all the productions that come out of Swiss studios are financial flops, and all the technicians, producers and engineers want to be not responsible for the flops. How do you do this? By delivering standard so you can't be blamed."
Given such attitudes, on face value it seems strange that a group as unique as Yello should emerge from such an unpromising background. On the other hand, the real, total isolation of Swiss artists of any kind requires them to find their own way, and as is the case with Yello, may therefore lead them to develop a very individual style.
"All Swiss artists who were ever doing anything were totally isolated. There was no such thing as a cultural scene, or what there was has always been very dry. Most Swiss artists, especially writers, in order to survive, had to make fun out of the scene."
Is this perhaps one of the reasons for the humour in Yello's music?
"I'm definitely not a rock singer, I'm more of an actor who plays parts within Boris' sound pictures..."
"I think we're both very humorous people in very different ways, but we both have to always twist things around. When something is very bombastic in the sound, then we walk a chicken through the sound picture. Because of the chicken - which is ridiculous - the whole thing is not ridiculous any more."
Because you're aware of how ridiculous it could be?
"Yeah, we claim it. It's a fine line, which sometimes we fall on the wrong side of."
The alternative to finding your own style, of course, is to simply copy someone else's, and the problem with most European music is that it mindlessly copies British or American styles, and has no domestic scene to feed and inspire it.
"Rock and pop in continental Europe is like yodelling in Japan - it has nothing to do with us, no roots here. This is why it never gets anywhere. Somebody asked me why the English were so chauvinistic about all the music that came from continental Europe - well, why should they listen to the copies when they've got the originals? Everything original that came from Europe, like Kraftwerk and Yello, was accepted here."
Having had some success with their first three albums, Solid Pleasure, Claro Que Si and You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess, Yello used a German studio to record their fourth. However, even the experience of working in foreign studios reinforced their belief in the importance of recording in their own environment.
"We went to another studio to record... The most expensive studio in Germany. Near Nurnberg, called Hartmann Digital - a very sophisticated studio. But we found that this was just not our cup of tea. We would rather drive in a small, little racing car that we know than in a modern one which makes us the slave of the machine. Now, of course, we have a very sophisticated studio - there is nothing that we would like to have that we don't have. But this grew with us, and we never depended on technology, so this is the way to do it."
One of the many striking aspects of Yello's music is its narrative vocal style - the band seem to be storytellers above all else.
"Definitely. I'm definitely not a rock singer, I'm more of an actor who plays parts within Boris' sound pictures - parts he has invented. When Boris has a sketch of this picture finished, then I sort of step into it and try to define - to sculpt - a figure. I even give it a name. All these figures have names, and they become real."
"Your mouth is the best synthesizer in the world."
As Dieter tells a story through words, so Boris evokes an atmosphere and sense of location through music. In much of Yello's work, even where a Latin location is not implied by the story or character ('La Habanera', 'Pinball Cha-Cha', for example), the music still provokes mental images of nightclubs in Mexico City, or a thriller set in Rio. The reason for this has more to do with Yello's interest in the rhythmic aspects of music than with any previous interest in Latin music. Dieter explains: "It's not really intended to be like that. We were interested in rhythm like kids are interested in building sand castles, and when the castles are finished they look South American or African, to our surprise. I think whenever you deal with rhythm in a very natural way, the way you want to hear music you can dance to, you end up in these territories automatically. Especially if you're not coming from a very rock or pop tradition, which we're not. Rock is not as danceable as Latin music - it just goes boom-cha, boom-cha, boom-cha... So you always end up in these areas.
"For example, we had no idea about the Cuban original, Salsa Cubana, when we began a piece called 'La Habanera', but we shot a video in Cuba for 'Desire', which is not at all in the sound tradition of the country. And throughout the whole shooting of the video in a tropicana theatre, we were playing this cassette of La Habanera, and the locals couldn't believe it; it really sounded like how their '50s music might have developed. A mixture of American, South American, black, showbusiness, big band type stuff - and they couldn't believe it. Everyone was dancing to it, but we hadn't heard the Cuban music before.
"It was a brass and rhythm track originally, so when I added the vocals I invented this informer to the former Cuban government, who couldn't get out any more, when the revolution came."
The name of the informer, Pedro Comacho, is actually taken from a novel by Maria Vargos Llosa called 'Aunt Julia And The Scriptwriter', a reminder of the fact that Yello's influences extend far beyond the bounds of music. So how does music as eclectic as this get written?
"We never start with a melody or a text, Boris just starts creating sounds on the Fairlight.
He takes a violin, for what is probably going to be our next piece, and with a violin you can make unlimited sounds - you can bang it with your hands or with a drum stick, stretch the strings until they break, bow it in a thousand different ways. Just forming sounds, recording them digitally on the Fairlight, and then forming them again - sculpting them with the 'mountain' display.
"It's like meditation almost. Boris creates these sounds for weeks, with no idea of a piece, and then a piece appears. Like a mushroom, you know it has a network underground, and when the rain comes, the mushroom comes up very fast, and you cannot push the rain, you have to wait for it. It happens, sometimes after three weeks, sometimes after two days, that the rain comes and the mushrooms become visible. When the mushroom is visible, the piece is there. This is actually a very accurate comparison, I never thought of this before! Boris works on the network - the rain comes and the mushroom is there overnight. The sound, attitudes become form. When they have a first form, I hear it for the first time, and then I invent this character. I give him a name, words and melody - this is all my part. Boris is my producer, he directs me when I do this. But I'm alone when I do this, it's not like collaboration on that."
Boris creates his sound painting and then you act your part in it?
"We were interested in rhythm like kids are interested in building sand castles..."
"That's right, and then we produce. And this is collaboration, because the piece is not necessarily just an additive story of sections - 'Tied Up', for example, is five minutes long but 120 tracks. So it's the same musical theme, but it's like a huge orchestra. And when we produce, it's more than giving a song the right shape and sound - producing is actually forming the stones of a puzzle, and then bringing it together for the painting. This happens at the very end, because we never work in terms of a song structure."
Although most of their material has featured only Dieter and Boris, together with regular contributions from Rush Winters (vocals), Beat Ash (drums) and Chico Hablas (guitar), successful collaborations with Billy Mackenzie and Shirley Bassey have been notable features of Yello's more recent work, allowing more characters to act out parts in Boris' soundscapes. Looked at in this way, the choice of collaborators make a lot of sense, for both Billy Mackenzie and Shirley Bassey have great dramatic potential.
"Very much so, and they are real singers. They have voices like opera singers, and this is very different from my approach. They are more singers than storytellers. On the other hand I think that I can sing, and bring characters to life - there are many brilliant singers who maybe are like the 10,000 brilliant guitar players who no-one wants to hear play. Then there is this little guy who has a two-string guitar somewhere in the streets of Havana, and he just plays something and you want to hear it because it's from the heart. It's a mistake that a lot of musicians make, artists too. It's very 19th century to, in an academical way, become better and better and believe that the ice of being disconnected with yourself is melting at one point and then you become an artist."
Contemporary hi-tech equipment has been blamed for making music increasingly uniform and bland over the last few years, yet Yello have employed it to produce a unique sound. It's therefore no real surprise to find that Dieter is well aware of the pitfalls of technology.
"I think it's very dangerous, because the more complicated it is, the less the musician understands how to work it, and is depending on specialists - programmers, engineers and producers - who are building something for him. After two months he comes out and there's some music there. But it's like when these musicians do a video: the record company orders some professional video company to do a video with these guys, and it's just like selling washing powder. They go to one of these video factories and somehow something is done. That's it.
"It's getting more and more difficult to be in control of it. The music is getting more and more boring and people are getting more and more fed up with that kind of music, because it's so uniform, because the machines are the message, and not the musicians. The machine is the message. It's like when you have a certain technique of building houses which is very economical for some reason, and the houses all look the same, and there's no architecture anymore.
"In our case, I think we grew very slowly with the machines, and the studio always was our instrument. We started with two cassette recorders, and now we have all this equipment. But Boris very naturally grew with the jungle he was working in, and now he knows the jungle, he handles the studio. We have no engineer, no producer - he's alone. He handles the studio like I've not seen any other engineer in the whole world - he's the fastest, happiest guy in connection with these machines. He handles 120 tracks without track sheets, in his mind, and he has 14,000 sounds so far, which he has constructed on the Fairlight, which he has all in his memory. They all have a name, by the way. 14,000 names. And he has no index. These diskettes and streamers are just lying around the studio. If I say 'Boris, do you remember this tennis ball you were throwing against the wall and recording the bof, bof', he'll say 'Ah yes, that's Bonzo Gonzo'. And he finds the disk.
"We've been ripped off a lot, which I think is very nice. It's the biggest compliment. If people don't steal from you anymore, then you should start complaining. But not if they steal. One guy - a specialist who sells samples - sent us a diskette from LA and offered to sell us the sounds for $1500, and 80% of the sounds were Yello! The guy didn't know it was us, he was just dealing with it, and somebody had stolen our sounds. But that's nice, we had a big laugh. Boris got annoyed at the beginning, because for him his sounds were like his creatures, and to see your creatures being abused... But he got used to it. As long as he can use it first, and use it how he wants to use it, it doesn't really matter."
The basis for many of the distinctive samples in Yello's music is the human voice.
"We've been ripped off a lot... it's the biggest compliment. If people don't steal from you anymore, then you should start complaining."
"For us, the voice is another instrument, and with the Fairlight you can play with it a lot. You could form a whole orchestra with your voice. The voice is a very adjustable instrument. You can do a million things with your voice, from singing 'Oh Yeah' to screams, to crinkly sounds, to all the consonants and 'tsch', and so on. Your mouth is the best synthesizer in the world."
There are stories about Dieter Meier that seem too good to be true, all contributing to a kind of super-real public image: that in his days as a professional gambler, he once played in a game watched by Marilyn Monroe; that as a performance artist he spent a week counting pieces of metal into bags of a thousand; that a piece in New York involved buying the words 'yes' and 'no' from passers-by for a dollar a time; that there is a plaque set in the pavement outside Zurich station that announces that Dieter will stand at that exact spot on 23rd March 1994, from 3pm to 4pm... and so on. However, they're all true.
"The plaque thing was 16 years ago. When I look at these things now it looks as if I had directed my life to, in retrospect, have interesting stories to tell when I'm giving interviews to music critics in London. It all looks very entertaining and constructed, but this is not the case. I was struggling to do these things, I had to do them. The counting of the metal pieces - I really didn't know why I had to do it, only later I understood why. Many things I did, I only understood years later why I did them."
So why do you do them?
"I think in a way everything I do is just a very, very serious game. All the products I create - already much too big a word, 'create' - they are like footprints; an expression of my walk through the few thousand days I have on this planet. Learning about yourself and the world constantly is more important than the actual product. I don't care so much about the product."
As befits the public face of Yello, Dieter Meier at first appears to be something of an eccentric, a globetrotting, project-hopping Swiss intellectual. But this is a little unfair. When he says that "life is a serious game", the serious is perhaps the more important part of the statement.
"I'm a very hard worker, but I don't see it as work. It's a way of life. There's not 'work' and 'leisure'. When I talk to a cab driver it's as important as when I talk to you or sing a song for Yello."
Dieter's early struggle to find a direction and identity, now clearly established, may have been very real, but there was never a financial struggle. Some critics have made much of his wealthy family background, but such security also had its drawbacks.
"Whatever I did was interpreted as coming out of the fact that my family is rich, as if this would be an advantage when you're a young artist. But, actually, it's much more difficult. The pressure when you go away is much bigger, and any fall is much bigger, and what's most painful is that I knew that I never had to do anything in my life to survive if I didn't want to. When you are a writer and you finish a novel, you have to kind of push yourself to do it because you have this existential need to survive - you have to make money. And this is a big advantage: it gives you the most immediate reason to do it, which I never had. Why do you do it? Normally, a writer is a hungry young man who, of course, wants to go his way but also wants to survive. He has an immediate existential reason creating the sense of why he's doing it. There was a good book about famous German and Swiss writers, and they were explaining why they write. Most authors wrote five or six-page essays on why they were writing, but one of the most interesting Swiss writers of the last 30 years, a guy called Durenmacht, he just wrote one word - the same word Shakespeare would have written: professional. It's my job. He is a writer, end of story, and this justification I never had."
As the interview began to draw to a natural conclusion, and one of the Phonogram press officers arrived to whisk Dieter off to another engagement, I suddenly realised that the one question I'd been longing to ask him since I first heard Yello's music had remained unanswered. The first thing that I remember wanting to know about Dieter Meier: what does it say in his passport under 'Occupation'? What can it say? Genius? Mild eccentric? Musician?
End of story.
Interview by Paul Ireson
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!