Race Against Time
swiss rock 'n' roll - or pop with a precision movement
SWITZERLAND IS BETTER KNOWN FOR ITS WATCHES THAN ITS MUSICIANS, BUT NOW THE COUNTRY OF CHOCOLATE AND CUCKOO CLOCKS HAS GIVEN US YELLO - A BAND EVERYBODY CITES AS AN INFLUENCE, BUT NOBODY SEEMS TO KNOW VERY MUCH ABOUT. FRONTMAN DIETER MEIER TELLS THEIR STORY.
ANY STYLE OF music, particularly fashionable music, has its "credible" influences. In most cases those influences are safely locked away in the past - aspects of bygone musical eras whose stars may be retired or even dead. But ask many of today's pop acts to name their influences and you're likely to find Yello high on the list - and not only are Yello still going strong, they're reaching more ears than ever.
The Swiss duo closed last year with two charting singles, 'The Race' and 'Tied Up', and a long-player entitled 'Flag', all of which exhibit the same quirky-but-fresh approach to songwriting and production that spawned earlier masterworks like 'You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess', 'I Love You' and 'Pumping Velvet'.
Arriving at the Phonogram offices straight from his native Zurich, Yello frontman Dieter Meier has only a black coffee for refreshment, but is keen to talk. His English is staggeringly good but, like his band's music, it throws in the odd linguistic eccentricity. Apart from his eight-year partnership with Boris Blank as Yello, Meier is recognised for his work as a film-maker, performance artist and some-time professional gambler. But let's begin with 'Flag'.
"I insisted on doing something that was 100% Yello - with our craziness, our voices", he says. "The last single, 'The Rhythm Divine', had been done with Shirley Bassey, it was a very nice song but it was not 100% Yello. With the new album I felt like showing a flag of our new direction.
"Everyone said the song with Shirley Bassey was going to be a hit, but it was Yello pure - 'The Race', with all kinds of crazy noises and crazy voices - that made it. And this, of course, encouraged us to do the album as it is."
The "wackiness" of the band's members is well-documented, yet Meier and Blank have consistently produced music that is as innovative as it is individual. Meier maintains that Yello's character is a product of their Swiss background, and what he terms their "provinciality".
"Yello is anarchy and precision - which is what Switzerland is all about. Yello is very provincial, it's not an expression of any musical trend. You can't group Yello in any musical category - in America this is still our problem.
"Rock music has no tradition in France, Germany, Switzerland or Japan. I always say it's like somebody who is a Japanese yodeller: what the hell is he yodelling? Swiss rock music is like a Japanese yodeller, it has no roots - it's a copy of a copy of something. Your music here is a combination of black soul, folk... It's a conglomeration of lots of influences that created pop music which has its roots in this very country."
Confronted with the influence Yello have had, and continue to have, over other popular artists, Dieter responds with modesty and one of the references to "art" that are to litter our conversation.
"It shows that we have done something of value, which is encouraging, but it's not a very important thing. Cézanne lived all his life in Aix-en-Provence. France is extremely centralistic and, in order to make a career, you have to be in Paris whether you are a prostitute, a singer, a painter or a writer - there is no such thing as making a career outside Paris. But Cézanne stayed in Aix-en-Provence and important young painters travelled to visit him until he became a very respected painter. I don't want to compare myself with Cézanne, but the fact that he stayed away from the mainstream of painting gave him the freedom to develop his style.
"But there's another thing that's been important for Yello - and I must admit this is very important: never in my life have I had to worry about money. So it's partly unfair when I say I don't care about commerciality, because I never had to make my money with music. Same with Cézanne, his father was a banker and left him enough money to make a fool of himself all his life. This was my case and, after a while, was Boris' case because I decided we should do this together - I had some other income and we lived off this and developed Yello. It was an investment."
According to Dieter Meier, record company investment is at the root of at least part of the problem facing music today.
"I think the business is like a werewolf. There is this coincidence of young people doing the right thing at the right time, not knowing what they're doing, and they're being eaten up by the industry. After a year or two or three they don't know what happened to them, they don't have time to develop. Finding your identity is what art is all about. If you look at writers or painters, you have to give them time - a publisher works for 20 years with a writer, or a gallery for a long time with a painter. In this industry, it's more and more difficult for an A&R man to develop a young guy, because if the second album is not working he already has a problem.
"Video didn't kill the radio star, video killed the young artist because it's all international mega products with mega videos - if you want to compete in that race the investment is just ridiculous. The record companies are scared to invest in 'art' because they know they're looking at long development times. I think album six or seven was the first Pink Floyd album that sold; before that they were an underground band. Then the investment in a group was £30,000 or £50,000 a year. These days, even in Germany, you're talking £300-400,000 yearly investment."
Returning to his roots, I ask Meier about his own perception of Yello. How - and why - did it all start?
"It is quite a contrast of styles we have", says Dieter. "Boris is an incredibly talented musician who can do everything with his instrument - which is the studio. But because he is in the studio ten hours a day, he needs a director, like a good singer or a good actor needs a director.
"Boris is like a Renaissance or Baroque sculptor, and he does his 'David' in sound - he really wants to have things right. He works ten hours a day until he has the perfect shape of a musical body. I throw colours at canvasses. I put my brush into pots of colour and it's either there or it's not there.
"This is the total contradiction between our two methods, and the reason we have incredible discussions when we produce. I encourage him to be more spontaneous, to concentrate on the looseness and the expression of the music he's working on, not the precision with which it's made. And he has to remind me that I should concentrate more on the result of how it sounds, not the gesture of doing it. This is what really makes Yello: he's precision and I'm anarchy."
In the Yello studio, where it's hard to distinguish where reality ends and fantasy begins, it's the Fairlight "Computer Musical Instrument" that holds centre stage. Now it's the state-of-the-art Series III, but Yello had one of the first Series Is, and claim to have been working with sampling - the Fairlight's greatest strength - even before that.
"We were working with the techniques before the Fairlight was invented", says Dieter. "We were already working with noises, tape loops, transfers from one tape recorder to another... For us, technological progress didn't change the quality of our work, just the quantity of it.
"The Fairlight was there in our heads before the Fairlight was there in our studio. It was just much more time-consuming to work. Now, for someone who works the way Boris works, the Fairlight is just the most incredible machine in the world.
"Our concept was to become like kids, and Yello was our toy", he says. "It was nothing to do with the colour. We had all kinds of ideas of what we should call our band and I had the idea it should have a name that could be the name of a kid's toy - like Lego. Something that doesn't mean anything but has a nice sound to it and is not pretentious. The toy has become quite big, but it is still a toy."
In keeping with this theme, Meier's account of his early days with Boris Blank make his partner sound like an overgrown boy. The setting is Meier's small studio, located on the first floor of a disused factory...
"Boris was a truck driver then. I'll never forget the way he'd come rushing in when work was finished, say 'hello' and he was up there. Five o'clock work was finished, five-fifteen he was at his machines. He worked 'til 12 and produced more or less a piece a day. And for him the big pleasure was the next day in his truck - he had a little cassette recorder and he could listen to his music. He had a whole suitcase full of tapes."
Before the factory studio he set up with Dieter, Boris had a studio installed in his kitchen. Today the Yello studio in Zurich is as well-equipped as any professional London facility. All Yello's studios have had two things in common - the instruments in them and the mess Boris Blank has made of them.
"When I met Boris he had his studio in a kitchen and it looked like a musical garbage tip", recalls Meier with obvious amusement. "He'd drilled a hole through the wall and the recording room was in his bedroom. He had all kinds of weird instruments - broken guitars, rusty trumpets, an old flute, a drum kit that was absolutely ridiculous. He's never had a decent instrument in his life. Everything was 'kaput', even now everything is 'kaput'. He's just bought himself a real bass, but he has to demolish it before it's his bass.
"He likes to work out of a mess, it's very important - he hates clean studios. We got a fabulous new studio about two years ago and it took him about a year to create a substantial mess in there."
The effort of explaining Blank's working environment is obviously too much, and Meier pauses to regain his composure before continuing.
"It would take an engineer probably five years to get the studio in order after a year of Boris' messing it up. You can't walk in the studio because it's a cable salad. Mickey Mouse had an inventor who invented nonsense things in his little lab. This is how Boris works.
"We had this visitor, some important producer. He was talking to Boris and, after about half an hour, he said 'now, Boris, can we see your studio?' because be couldn't believe this dirt hole was the studio."
And, as Dieter is keen to explain, it's not just Yello's studio that's a mess: Boris Blank's whole method of working seems almost entirely random.
"When he mixes he doesn't have a track sheet. Can you believe it? He hires in as many multitrack recorders as he needs - we used 120 tracks for 'Tied Up' - and he knows what's there for more or less every second of every track. It's unbelievable. He worked without a track sheet when we had an eight-track machine - OK, you can remember eight tracks - but now this guy is like a conductor who can conduct a 150-piece orchestra after having read the symphony just once or twice!"
While Boris Blank is obviously obsessed with music technology, Meier claims it makes him neurotic.
"I sit in there in my chair and I just listen and talk - I never touch any of the machines", he says. "Even to put a gramophone in action is something I don't like, I have absolutely no connection with machines. I also have a bad influence on machines, they break down when they see me.
"But this is very good in combination with Boris because I have no need to be in the studio, I'm only in the studio when I'm desperately needed. Normally everybody wants to be in the studio because it gives them the feeling of being important - to fly the engine, to fly the machine. I have no need for this."
Instead, Blank constructs the basics of Yello's music in Meier's absence, calling on him only when he has something he feels is really worth pursuing.
"I first hear a piece when Boris has the first sketches done - maybe a rhythm, maybe a bassline or just a sound - and he asks me what I think of it", explains Meier. "I encourage him, I tell him why I like it and give him ideas - verbal ideas, how he could go on with it.
"It's basically an encouragement for him to continue and not to worry too much. He's such a perfectionist that he sometimes loses his best sketches because he thinks they are not good enough. In the early days he was too shy even to play his ideas to me - it made him feel too naked. Now some of our ideas, like 'Tied Up' and 'The Race', are made out of sketches that would have been thrown away. Probably my only ability in music is that I have a very strong imagination for how something could sound in the end - whether something is rolling or not. I'm a very rhythmic person, I can dance very well, anything that is to do with throwing and moving I'm very good at..."
In many ways, Yello are a prime example of how individual band members - who on their own couldn't make a convincing demo, let alone a hit record - can bring out the best in each other and produce exciting, moving music.
"We used some little £300 synthesizers on 'Flag', but it's very misleading to call us a synthesized band because we use all kinds of sounds that exist in nature... Synthesizers are probably only 10% of our sources, the rest is sound sculptures. At the start of each piece there is no melody, but there is Boris' week- or month-long work on the quality of one sound or one note. Sometimes he works for four days on one bass note."
Finally, I ask Dieter Meier when he will tire of his toy Yello.
"I hope when I'm 107 and killed by lightning in the Sahara, when they have the first rain in 500 years", comes the reply, without a trace of hesitation.
"I cannot see any end. The only thing that's changed is the playground has become more accessible. If you're successful, people throw money at you much more readily. It's nothing to do with the project, it just has to do with the fact that you're successful. Our music has always been Yello, but it's only now that we get the front page of 'Melody Maker', only now that we get a Top 10 hit.
"We're enjoying it tremendously but it has its other side: you have to be careful not to go on in the administration of your growing circus. At the end of the day you're still a clown or a trapeze artist, not the manager of a circus."
Got that, everybody?
Interview by Tim Goodyer
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