Interview – Dead Guitars
You’ve probably seen me review these guys any number of times. Gigs, albums… whatever, Dead Guitars usually provoke a positive reaction here at [sic] Mag. Why then am I constantly surprised by the Netherland/Germany based band? Surprised and amazed. Is it me? Do I display traits of serial underestimation or forgetfulness? Or could it be them? Dead Guitars impress every time but it’s more than that. They go about their business with modesty and skill in equal measure. And yet, it’s more even than that. I think it has to do with the fact that they keep improving. The career of DG’s is like one of their songs, playful, spontaneous jams within song structure, they tend to start good but then layer-upwards into excellence. Dead Guitars are doing that now. I sometimes wonder if they realise how good they are?
I met the band’s main axis of Carlo van Putten, Peter Brough and Ralf Aussem to discuss their stunning new album Stranger as well as imminent North European tour with The Mission:
Brett Spaceman: How did you all first meet and what led to DGs formation?
Carlo : Pete and I met after I heard of a friend of the both of us called Kai that Twelve Drummers Drumming split up. The singer went back to Africa. I quiet liked 12DD. I met Pete after a Depeche Mode concert. We decided to jam around in my flat for a weekend. When Pete went home we had 7 songs on tape. I really like Pete’s style and song writing. Later he invited Kurt and Ralf. I was impressed by those two talented musicians. That’s how it started. Guess even without Kurt being part of the Dead Guitars we are still a unique combination.
Pete : Carlo and I had planned to meet for the first time at an open air Depeche Mode concert in Hamburg in 2002. It was bucketing down and there were something like 80.000 people there…we couldn’t find each other so we phoned and met in a bar in St. Pauli red light district after the show…it was there i think we’d decided there was no turning back…
Ralf : (I came in later) 2002 I popped into a kitchen-jam with 3 acoustic guitars. Pete, Carlo & Kurt played sketches of songs that later became material of debut-album “Airplanes”. After that they asked me if i would like to play bass and keyboards. I thought they were kidding ;)but i liked the songs, somehow they reminded me of very early Duncan Browne stuff. Actually i played some bass-, keyboards- and guitar-solo bits in studio. kind of Eno-ish part of the line-up ;)- funny for me, because between 1998-2002 I was mainly involved with electronic music. that time the DG-material was like a step into a totally different ‘romantic’ universe for me
Spaceman: How does it work logistically, with Carlo based in Utrecht and Pete & Ralf in Monchengladbach both in terms of songwriting and rehearsals?
Ralf : We have our “songwriting”-meetings and we record everything (with LOFI-tapedeck). I checked tapes on & on .. trying to find the best bits & lines for new songs. then transfer them to computer and jamming around for a while, sending possible songs as files per email. but in the past we also had the old-fashioned way to write & record. everything is possible, even the original rehearsal-jam-tapes are sometimes on CD. Somehow I like the way mixing all different production-styles on our CDs, it reflects our relationship.
Carlo : Well it’s even more complicated now with Hermann, our drummer from Switzerland, but somehow the music and friendship inside the band is worthwhile to travel a lot. It only takes about 2 hours driving from Utrecht to Gladbach anyway for me.
Pete : Personally i would prefer us all living nearer to each other just to be available for spontaneous stuff… jams and such. But it all works nicely as it is. File sharing is the common denominator and with this live lineup I’m happy to say that we don’t need to rehearse that much…it also leaves open spaces for our live shows….
Spaceman: Let’s talk right away about the new album. This is something pretty special isn’t it? How proud are you all?
Carlo : I’m very proud that even the third album is loaded with so much energy and passion. Ralf’s way to put sounds and effects into the music is of a high standard and quality. I love to have the privilege to be part of it and sing my lyrics on this amazing music.
Pete : The special aspect of this album is that it was solely produced by Ralf. I’ve been hearing these songs for ages…usually in my car or over headphones…you get very close to them and after a while you stop listening…after a recent show I heard a couple of songs over the in house disco speakers…really loud and i thought Yeah…this is special…and sounds pretty good…
Ralf : On “Flags” it was pressure to work with a deadline and this time with “Stranger” it was hard working without a deadline. As kind of producer you should know when you should call it a day, with mixing and compiling all tracks. Sometimes it’s a “kill your darlings”-situation, no fun, if you love the guys you’re making music with. At the end I’m happy that it really came to an album, living for more than two years with these songs , they became like part of the family, not always easy 😉 Maybe in 3years I feel a bit proud…
Spaceman: With Stranger, did you deliberately set out to make something expansive and ambitious? What were your motivations going into that record?
Carlo : Well for my part it all came together so tight and quick after the Flags release. I immediately started to write new lyrics and Ralf posted me new and old Idea’s. When Ralf and Pete came to Utrecht to jam around we ended up with a lot of idea’s on tape. It’s amazing really, about eight songs or so.
Spaceman: What do you think of the term “Goth”? Are DGs Goth, in your opinion? Is it a limitation to be considered Goth in North Europe? (It is in UK)
Pete : Well somehow we’ve been shoved into that “Goth” category for reasons I’ve never understood, and I’m not saying that i dislike the “Goth” scene at all…in fact most of the Goths I’ve experienced or met are really rather charming folks who love to dress up…a dark exterior with very warm hearts…
Ralf : Honest, I never used the term “Goth” for our songs. we have some pop-songs and some “others”. I once said to Pete that we sound like psychedelic folk 😉
Carlo : I never have been really into the Goth scene really. Well I loved the Cure, Siouxie and the banshees, Cocteau Twins, This Mortal Coil and many others, but I never saw that as Gothic music. It was deep mellow stuff that I liked a lot. I never looked like a Gothic either. Didn’t like uniformly behaviour, but I loved some of the stuff like the early Sisters, Joy Division and Current93. I would see our music in a less limited style that is lyrically wise more inspired by poetry and less than by other bands
Spaceman: You guys are often lumped in with the likes of The Church, The Cure, The Chameleons etc which isn’t a criticism at all, those are great bands. But you have your own identity. Isn’t it frustrating to be pigeon holed in that way?
Carlo : I hope one day there will be bands who sound like us ;-)I know people compare our music to these bands, because I worked with members of these bands. There is not such a big scene anyway to compare our music to anyway. I personal don’t mind that at all. I love these bands, so I am even proud though.
Pete : Well… the fact that we have had collaborations with the “C” bands you mention we are often seen in that direction…I think we’re in pretty good company…and come straight after them with a “D”…
Spaceman: For me, Stranger is much more than just a Goth or even dreampop record. In fact I would go as far as to say it is one of those few, timeless, era and genre defying, classic rock albums. (Like Grace, or Urban Hymns) Was that the intention? To defy expectations?
Ralf : Thank You :)like i said, some pop-songs and “the others”: ..trying to find a unique form for that certain track. . .An old 12DD-tradition: we like hymns.
Carlo : Thanks Brett, I am flattered now to be honest. I always wanted to be part of a band who created some timeless piece of music. If it’s true what you say and you compare it to Urban Hymns ore Grace my work is fulfilled. Did it 😉
Pete : Blushing all over…
Spaceman: Are you making the records that really please yourselves, now? Rather than fan expectations.
Ralf : Try to develop our song-style & some kind of band-own zeitgeist, I never think about fan-expectations. we are just listeners.
Carlo : yes definitely! Without any limits we create something fresh and new for ourselves. Off course we are happy if people love it too, but it’s our baby in the first place.
Pete : Yes, definitely it has to please us…it’s an added bonus if the folks out there like it too…for example, I never expect my friends and family to “like” my music…it’s all a matter of taste…
Spaceman: You have changed personnel. (Bassist and drummer). What can you tell us about that?
Pete : At this point I’d like to mention that our ex rhythm section Patrick Schmitz & Sven Olaf Dirks decided to go in other directions, musically and for their own private reasons…we had a really great time with them and they were a very important part of the extensive European “Airplanes” tour 2008 amongst many other shows after that…also they co-wrote and performed on the “Flags” album as on some of the “Stranger” songs… they will be dearly missed and we all wish them all the very best for their future ventures…
The current rhythm section have been with us before…Hermann & Peter both drummed on the debut “Airplanes” album…all part of the big family tree going back to bands like 12 DD and SUN…
Carlo : It’s like a travel, some people join the train you are in, you spend a time together and at some station they leave. What says is the spirit you’ve shared together. The music business is a tough one. Not meant for everyone really. We still keep the spirit alive. With Hermann Eugster and Peter Körfer we found two excellent new friends/members.
Spaceman: You like to invite guest performers onto your records. The latest has Michael Dempsey of The Cure, Can you explain the reasoning behind that motivation because as a band you lack for nothing? Why the need to work with others?
Carlo : It’s a fantastic way of sharing talents and influences into our music. I always loved to have members of bands that I love and admire to work with. The results have always been unpredictable and fresh.
Spaceman: Wayne Hussey appeared on Flags. And you’re about to go on the road with The Mission for the second time. How important have Wayne and The Mission been for DGs?
Pete : I’m really looking forward to the shows with Wayne…since we met he has always encouraged us…
Carlo : Wayne gave us the chance to go with The Mission on tour and to play our music to a wider crowd. During the tour and afterwards we stayed in contact and became friends. I liked The Mission a lot back in the eighties, but lost touch. When we played together we had a great time on tour.
Spaceman: Can you have a kind of breakthrough with a record like Stranger? Or will some markets (I’m thinking again of UK) remain too snobbish and trend obsessed?
Carlo : The reviews for Stranger are really great and amazing. It seems that we made a lot of new fans. If we ever will break through? I don’t know man. As I said, it’s a tough business. You never know, do you?
Pete : It would be great to breakthrough…but it’s really getting very difficult out there…there is a lot of music on the market and it get’s grows by the day…mostly it’s a matter of having the right song at the right time and having lot’s of luck…
Spaceman: Carlo, how does DGs compare with your previous (major) bands, The Convent or White Rose Transmission?
Carlo : Not at all, these are complete different projects. I am the singer, that’s all. I love to work with different people as I said before, I like to be inspired by others. The Convent is still a great band with excellent musicians. We decided to leave it for a while. Frank Weyzig and Rob Keijzer of WRT are good friends and great musicians too. I really like to work with them too, but it’s a different project.
Spaceman: Was it weird being in a project with two other lead singers?
Carlo : No, it was great. It was good for my confidence as well. Adrian always spoke with respect to me about my lyrics and about my voice. Mark has always been my elder brother and I felt safe having him in the recording room. Mark and Adrian made me confident enough to reach a higher level.
Spaceman: Ralf and Pete, you two first worked together in Twelve Drummers Drumming. For those who may have missed out, what can you tell us about 12DD?
Pete : Yeah…12 DD… a very important development in my musical career…i look back very fondly to those days…there are definitely elements of 12 DD in the “Deadies”…and when i first met Carlo he told me he had all the albums…as i said before…we’re all part of a big family…Hermann Eugster was the drummer for the 12 DD “Loveless” album…Kurt Schmidt Bass & Guitars on the Dee Gees “Airplanes” album was a founder member and main man of 12 DD…
Ralf : In 1983 I was substitute for Pete in first 12DD line-up. in 1988 he was in when i was in a different band (Rainbirds). In 1990 we were both in 12DD and now we’re surviving together in DG. We had TV-shows like Rockpalast, on the road all the time and gigs in the UK. I met some great producers (like Mick Glossop/Waterboys, Dave Allen/Cure/Chameleons/Sisters, Gareth Jones..) and we worked in the best studios in the UK. I was 20y old, for me it was like a trip. Until that heavy accident with our singer that stopped the band.
Spaceman: Ralf, when and how did you first get into production?
Ralf : I’s always into production-work and had luck that we had fine producers with 12Drummers and my 90s band SUN. i was always involved with mixing & mastering the albums. learned a lot from these guys. Did a lot of studio-sessions for others & when i was in “The Wirtschaftswunder” i lived in the studio like a hausmeister, maybe that was it? ;)one night I met German producer/icon Conny Plank, that was a magical night. But i don’t like the term ‘producer’, I prefer the French ‘realisateur’. You should have seen Dave Allen in studio… Inspiring fun. and it works.
Spaceman: (One for Pete) When I first met you I remember debating your live setlist and the wisdom of placing of Name Of the Sea first. Do you remember that Pete? It seems a long time ago and a bit silly. As though it were your only ‘great’ song! Now you have loads. Is it easier picking a setlist now or harder?
Pete : Yes…I remember it well…the thing with Name of the sea is that it starts with Ralf’s loop then the drums & bass start the rhythm followed by the acoustic and after that the electric guitar..and once we’re all in Carlo comes in with vocals…it gives the sound guy a good chance to adjust the settings if need be…we have started our shows with other songs that work in a similar way…but lately for the “Stranger” live shows we’ve gone back starting with Name of the sea…
it has become easier to choose set lists…we have so many songs by now to fill a 3 hour show…i think we choose the ones we can perform better than the others…
Spaceman: I can ask this now that he has popped out of the room – Is Ralf a genius? I mean, he plays guitar, produced the album and even took care of the artwork.
Carlo : Oh yes, he is a genius! Man that guy is the most multi coloured sound painter I ever met. I could write a book about this guy. You’ve got some time?
Pete : Yeah…I go along with Carlo on this one…very very special and an absolute honour to work with…in fact I get quite jealous at times…
Spaceman: Am I overreacting to the new album? Do you feel as though Stranger is in line with your previous records. Or would you agree that you’ve gone onto another level now?
Carlo : I really hope we took it to another and maybe even higher level than Flags and Airplanes. I do love the album a lot.
Pete: I personally like all 3 albums in one way or the other…but yes, i think this one has climbed up the ladder and is very special to me…
Spaceman: Can you keep going? Can you make money out of music anymore? Will there be a DG4?
Carlo : Who knows Brett, I’m sure we will create more in the future. First let’s celebrate Stranger.
Pete : Good question…i would love to carry on with this band…it’s a labour of love…money means nothing in that context…if it were up to me there would definitely be a DG4, DG5, DG6 and so on…….to the infinite….
[sic] thanks Carlo, Pete, Ralf and all ‘Deadies’ past and present. The album Stranger is out now on the Silverbird music label. Photography with kind permission from the various DG webpages and may be subject to copyright.
Dead Guitars on tour with The Mission