Interview: Manuel Göttsching (Ash Ra Tempel & Ashra)

Interview: Manuel Göttsching (Ash Ra Tempel & Ashra)

1. Childhood

Composer and multi-instrumentalist Manuel Göttsching has long carved out connections between rock experimentalism, improvisation, cutting edge electronic production and minimalist classical. His iconic alter-egos Ash Ra Tempel and Ashra are mentioned together with Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream as absolute pioneers of their time across Krautrock, new age and early techno and electronica.

As the leader of the group Ash Ra Tempel or Ashra, one of the most notable German groups of the 1970s and 80s, as well as a solo artist, he is one of the most important guitarists of the Kosmische Musik genre.

We had the privilege to talk via Skype with Manuel Göttsching about his Ash Ra Tempel days, a little bit of the history of the so-called Krautrock movement, and also his more recent projects and future plans.

Let's start by going back into the past a little bit. What music did you hear, or listen to, when you were a child?

Manuel Gottsching: I listened to a lot of classical music, especially operas, like Italian operas, Verdi; I also listened to popular music, rock and roll, Elvis Presley. Later, in the 60's, I listened to the popular beat music, when the Beatles came out, the Rolling Stones later, Jimi Hendrix, Cream and British blues bands; I liked blues quite a lot back then. There were a lot of blues influences in my music, because blues has a very simple structure in music. I was trained in classical guitar, but when I started composing music, I started with elements of blues, jazz, rock and, of course, some classical elements.

Did you have records around the house?

MG: No, I was never a record collector. I remember I had some records of Jimi Hendrix. I didn't even own a record player. I produced the first five records without owning a record player, but I used to tape it, I used to work with tape machines and I preferred that.

“A lot of crazy music happened at the end of the '60s, very strange, and very curious; and sometimes very stupid music was created as well, but in the end it was a very fruitful period. That's why today it is still remembered as this kind of Krautrock period.”

2. Zodiak Free Arts Lab

Moving on a little bit, we know that Zodiak Free Arts Lab and also Connie Plank's studio was important in the development of the Krautrock scene in the 70's. Can you tell us a bit more about what was happening there, how was the atmosphere?

MG: This Zodiak Free Arts Lab was created by Conrad Schnitzler, a very creative musician that I liked very much, but I never performed there, as many people say, but it's not true. It's a bit of a mystical thing around it. It only existed for one year or so; I think around '69. We had a very good place in Berlin called Beat Studio; it was a kind of a music school with a room for rehearsing and composing, ran by a Swiss composer named Thomas Kessler. He was guiding this studio, and there were all the bands from Berlin from the late '60s working there - Ash Ra Tempel, Agitation Free, Tangerine Dream, and also Conrad Schnitzler, so we all knew each other and we performed a few concerts together in the beginning of the '70s. I liked Conny very much, we did some very experimental performances called Eruption; this was the only work we did together. Unfortunately, he died some years ago and we always wanted to play again, but it never happened and now I'm sorry for that but...it's the way it goes.

The funny story is that I bought his old VW Bass and I used it, it was a quite legendary car and we used it for going to concerts. And Conny Plank was different. Conny was not in Berlin; he had a very small studio in Hamburg, were we recorded our first album - Ash Ra Tempel. We had some problems with recording in Berlin, as we couldn't find a studio and a good engineer to record it; we tried two or three different places and it was impossible and so this last thing was very good. Our producer Ulrich Kaiser proposed Conny Plank, so we went to Hamburg to record it in February 1971.

How was the audience at that time responding to this new kind of music?

MG: From the mid '60s this was a very interesting period in Germany, since there wasn't really any German music. After '45, the war didn't destroy just the houses and the buildings, but the whole culture too, and most creative heads were either killed, gassed, or when they could, they moved away to America or to somewhere in the world. So, in the '50s there was a very low level of culture and then in the '60s it began again. There was a new generation that wanted to create something new; they wanted to create a special music again, and - of course - they were influenced by the States, by Britain, as I said: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Santana, The Grateful Dead. And all this music came here, so there was a big demand for creating something new. And so was the audience; they were really interested and happy that crazy things happen, and this was not at all commercial in any way, it wasn't in the papers, it was underground. People were really nice and they were welcoming all the experiments. A lot of crazy music happened at the end of the '60s, very strange, and very curious; and sometimes very stupid music was created as well, but in the end it was a very fruitful period. That's why today it is still remembered as this kind of Krautrock period.

3. The process of composing

How does the music come to you when you're composing? Is it something specific or in a more raw form that you keep shaping afterwards?

MG: It is always different. Sometimes I just start to play, to improvise, and then something is growing. For example, with E2-E4, I recorded it in '81, but I did this kind of experimentation in the '60 and '70s. Sometimes I have something in my mind, I have a concrete structure, and so I sit down and start writing it, or make a concept and start to compose it. For example, the track Sunrain from New Age of Earth is a complete composition from the first to the last note. It's no improvisation at all. I always like to work in different ways; everything attracts me. I try this and I try that and finally what's interesting is the result, it's the atmosphere, if it has something special or not.

Do you have a ritual when you're composing?

MG: No, the only ritual is that I try to set up the technical parts so that I don't have issues with that. My studio has to work; the computer, guitars and keyboard have to work, and all the cables and everything. For me this technical part is very important.

Is there any specific gear setup that you prefer?

MG: Not at the moment, because in the last few years not very much is happening and so there are some basic changes in technology. First, the use of small analog synthesizers that I liked to play with until the end of the '70s and then I started buying more and more. I added more synthesizers, sequencers, but what I really like is that with this technology you really have to create a sound, you start from nothing, you switch on an old synthesizer and nothing happens, so you have to create something. And with programmable keyboards this for me was a bit boring, because you had millions of sounds and you just pushed buttons and it becomes exchangeable. This is not so interesting anymore because you are not really forced to create something because you just use something that is there already, and everything sounds nice. But in the end you don't know which is better or worse and so I didn't follow this in the '80s.

What interested me was the development of computers. End of the '70s I started with early computers, Apple II class models and Commodore models, and then later I experimented a bit with Atari. The programs were not very flexible and they were really not very interesting for me to play music. It was only end of the '90s that computers became very stable and powerful and that was a time when programs like Ableton, which really uses computer as an instrument that you can play with, you can push any button and it doesn't stop, you can really use it as a musical instrument. And I had to wait some 20 years for that.

4. Performances

How were your performances back in the '70s different than the ones from nowadays?

MG: Performances in the '70s were bass, drums, guitars, organs; I didn't make that many solo performances in the '70s, I had only one in '76. I made a solo tour in France for the release of my second album, "New Age of Earth". Before that, I had my first solo album called Inventions for Electric Guitar, which was pure electric guitar; there were four electric guitars and I played some of the parts of it, some excerpts with some musicians, with two guitars. That was a very interesting experience.

In 2010 it was the first time I could perform with four guitar players in Japan at a big festival with Elliot Sharp from New York, Steve Hillage from London, and a Chinese musician, Zhang Shou Wang. This was great. With ”New Age of Earth”, the second solo, I did a tour but it was a bit difficult because there wasn't yet the technology to perform too much at the same time, and I had to play an analogue sequencer, a synthesizer and after that I didn't do it. I really wanted to play again with a group of musicians and I formed again Ashra, the shorter version of Ash Ra Tempel, which was more an electronic version with electronic instruments, sounds, but with additional drums and a second guitar and keyboard player, and so we could perform this in a group situation.

It was only in 2005, talking about modern technology, that I decided again to play solo concerts because I felt that I could recompose or rearrange these old tracks, from "New Age of Earth", from "Blackouts", and also the "E2-E4", to create a version that I can play with a laptop program, and a keyboard and guitar, but that I could perform in a very simple way. There are some pieces that I can't perform, which I try to rework; for example, I did some performances for fashion events in the late '70s, which were very unusual at the time. Nobody knew about electronic music and so this was really crazy, and these were live performances with synthesizers, sequencers, analogue synths, keyboards, for 70-80 minutes. I used one of these Big Birds to perform it again in 2012 in Berlin; and this was possible also with this kind of technology that I could perform it again without huge amount of old equipment. Also, there is an idea now to perform "Inventions for Electric Guitar" in England, with some local guitar players.

Working with various contemporary ensembles, can you tell us a bit more about working with Zeitkratzer?

MG: I met them in 2000 and they were interested to perform E2-E4 in a way. They finally made a short version, performed it, and then we agreed to have some performance together. Zeitkratzer is an ensemble of orchestra musicians who perform also in other orchestras, but they meet from time to time to perform very experimental type of music. They played the version of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music" that was very special. Working together was a good idea.

During a performance, what is mistake for you and how do you handle it?

MG: One of the first old ideas is... if you do something wrong, just repeat it. So...if you play a note that you didn't want, just play it again. (laughs)

5. Different ways

What do you look for when you're making music?

MG: It depends on the music. I started with classical guitar when I was a child. I had a very good teacher, one of my biggest influences, and she really taught me to look for the sound. I had to play one note for an hour and I didn't understand this when I was very young, but in the end I learned a lot; it gave me a feeling of the instrument, a way to listen to a sound. I still love the sound of the guitar.

Of course, I was interested in popular music - how this music was done, how it was produced, how you achieve those sounds in a studio with a bass, drums, electric guitars, organs and voices....So I became interested in how you can make it. I was interested in playing the keyboards and all the electric instruments in the beginning.

I was influenced by Terry Riley end of the '60s - beginning of the '70s, because I liked very much his minimalistic style of music. He played very simple instruments, such as the electric organ, but he used some jack delays and that's all; he was a fantastic player, he was a great piano player. That was the reason why I came to something like Inventions for Electric Guitar.

Steve Reich influenced me as well, more in the kind of composing music; I tried to work in this way, to use it in my music. In the end, I make the music that I like so, after all, I have to like it. I always try to go different ways. If you look at all these releases, everything is a little bit in a different direction, because I always wanted to change something. I try out something. Then I want to make another one, but I switch to something more electronic, using some synths and also composing for keyboard. You play different chords, intervals that you would not play normally on a guitar.

So it's a continuous search, you are always looking for new paths?

MG: Yes, I am always looking for a new challenge. It's true...In 2003 I started composing for a quintet; I composed a film score for a silent film by F.W. Murnau, 'The Haunted Castle (1921). The idea came out because my wife is a film director and she made a documentary film about one of the last original silent movie piano players who was nearly 100 years old and he was still performing - Willy Sommerfeld. This movie is called The Sounds of Silents. Willy Sommerfeld was very popular here, he performed long feature films, 2 hours...at his age...and he was completely improvising. He lived in Berlin almost all of his live and he was a really original guy. He performed in the way that the people in the '20s used to perform; it was just improvised and they just had some guy in the corner with a piano that could really play to any kind of atmosphere, completely live. He was playing in the style that people played in the '20s, so that really interested me and I thought ‘why not make something special from today with electronics’ and do it in a bit of a similar way. That was the original idea to make the music to 'The Haunted Castle' and later, a film festival in Brunswick commissioned the film. There was an idea to introduce also a small chamber ensemble, so I started composing, writing for them. It was a great experience for me.

There are some ideas about the E2-E4 in the future; one is with the use of a jazz orchestra from Frankfurt, a big orchestra with young musicians. They are very popular, they tour around the world and they are interested in performing E2-E4. I was just talking with an arranger from New York to write some arrangements for jazz instruments. I'm still trying to write a symphonic version for another orchestra...so I always try to go and expand in different directions.

Also, with E2-E4 we will perform a kind of ballet based on a chess game. The stage will be a huge LED - chessboard and the dancers will perform a historical chess game from 1840 or so...a legendary game. We have a famous ballet choreographer and right now we are raising money for it. The people are sitting around the big chess board-stage and I would perform it live with them sometimes.

Will you also tour with this performance?

MG: Yes, I think so. We think about taking for the main actors maybe 5-6 special dancers. We need 32 dancers for all the chess pieces, so they would also take local dancers from the place where they will travel, and of course, it's a big thing, to rehearse with them. I would also play with them sometimes...sometimes not.

Do you also play chess?

MG: I did, yeah; I like it very much. My father taught me and he liked it very much; he had a very nice chessboard, which I still have it. He tried to play without seeing the chessboard, just by remembering the figurines by the name - E2, E4, G6, or so, and so he would have it all in his head and he filled a chess board with all the numbers and letters to learn it. I still have that one... But I didn't play for a long time, because it was a long time ago. The games.... they lasted 2 days, 3 days...they never stopped.

6. Further

Do you have any important lessons or encounters that changed the way you see and write music?

MG: I remember I saw some tours of Jimi Hendrix in Berlin and I loved the way he played live because he made some very interesting studio productions. He was completely different playing in a concert, and for me this was very interesting, because he played very simple and he made completely different versions live. He was improvising and so this for me was real music. I don't like to go to a concert and listen to a musician or a band that reproduces an album in the same way they recorded it; it makes no sense. You can listen to the album. In the beginning I liked Pink Floyd for example, but I wasn't very thrilled about their performances, because they tried to perform exactly like on the record and so I preferred Jimi Hendrix, who played very differently. That's what I do with my own things, with every concert. It doesn't matter if it's with a band or solo - I try to make it different, to make a live version, to experiment with it.

Looking back into your life, what do you wish you knew before?

MG: I don't know...I am very happy with everything that happened, it was in a quite logical way. One thing happened and then the next thing, so everything that I wanted to try out happened...It's also a development in my musical taste, and so this also changed a little bit...

Today I'm trying to further develop my own music. I recorded a lot of music in my studio, I still have around a hundred tapes from the times and I'm still looking and trying to work on them...maybe with new technology or with new ideas. There was a film score that I composed, Le Berceau de Cristal in 1975 for a French director, Philippe Garrel, with the singer Nico and Anita Pallenberg, Dominique Sanda...

So there's still a lot to do with this old music, to change it, to rework on it...enough to do.




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