I guess it wasn’t too easy picking tracks from such a vast catalog of music, but your first pick was “Comme Si C’Était La Dernière Fois” from the eponymous debut album The Young Gods. Among countless other honors, the album was labeled the Melody Maker’s Album of the Year in 1987, and it’s basically regarded as an absolute classic until this very day. How in the world did a band from Fribourg, Switzerland basically end up revolutionizing rock music?
It’s actually thanks to the technology, because me and Cesare, we were both playing in different bands before doing The Young Gods. He was playing bass, I was playing guitar, and we had our sound, we had our thing going on. After a while, when you see differences of orientation that people want to take and so on, our band split approximately in the same year. We were living in the same flat, so his story was, like, “I don’t want to make music anymore.” He was disgusted about the split of his band, and I felt the same way. I still wanted to do music, but I didn’t want to start a band right then because I had just ended one.
It was the very, very beginning of four-track machines, so the technology helped a lot. I had a four-track set, and I was fascinated by a piece of gear that was very, very expensive at the time. It was an emulator. It was something like 25,000 Swiss francs or something. I heard about a guitar pedal called Super Replay, and it was meant to give the guitar player the opportunity to record his riff and then do a solo on top while the riff was on loop, and that was revolutionary. At the time, that didn’t exist at all. I thought this could replace somehow what an emulator does. I could take from vinyls, from drum parts and some guitar intros, and, with my little four-track, do some kind of a collage.
That’s how it started. I was doing this home studio thing in my room and doing this collage, and that was the core of what became The Young Gods. To go back to your question [laughs], of course, we had British journalists going mad, like, “How come nobody is doing this here in England now?” And they were flying over. They were coming to Fribourg to interview us in Bahnhof Buffet, like, “You guys, how is it possible from Fribourg? What we know about Switzerland is the clichés like the chalet, the clocks, and the banks, and the cheese.”
Little by little, some of them were, like, “Yeah, but Switzerland, that’s the place of birth of the Cabaret Voltaire.” There was this surrealistic and Dadaistic tradition way before in beginning of the century, so there is a connection there.
What makes “Comme Si C’Était La Dernière Fois” special for you?
It’s the repetition. And there’s only one sound. The rest is a bit of production with delays and things or harmonizer. There is no drum. It’s just this loop and the slowed down guitars and this groove. For me, I was listening for about three days, and Cesare, [laughs] he was just sleeping next door. I was, like, “Hey Cesare, am I boring you?” “No, no, I love this riff. It’s great. Can we go home?” [laughs] I will say if a loop can stand three days, it’s a good loop. [laughs]
Another track you’ve picked from the debut album is “Irrtum Boys.” What’s the story behind this track?
My lyrics, they always relate to the band. “Irrtum Boys” is like the band. We don’t exactly know what we’re doing and we don’t know where we’re going. That kind of nonsense I like a lot. I like this line as well, “Don’t want any answers, just want the right questions.” We always expect the answers all the time. We want to have meaning. But sometimes, if you formulate the right questions, you already have the answers. “Irrtum Boys” is just the fact that we’re starting a whole project and it goes very fast and we make mistakes and we go on. That’s the story of the band basically.
What had you been up to musically up to this point? What had you been doing before The Young Gods?
Well, I grew up in the ‘60s. I was born in 1961. I had an older brother. He was five years older than me. When he was 14, in the early hippie days and all that stuff, he was playing me records and stuff that normally, when you’re eight or nine, you’re not exposed to, and I discovered Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, all that good music, and that influenced me a lot. Then when I was 15, 16, I was really energized by the punk movement. If you take “Comme Si C’Était La Dernière Fois,” for example, it’s a sample from The Ruts. I really love The Ruts. They were a bit technical compared to the Pistols and The Clash, but it’s a really, really good record, “The Crack,” their first record.
Punk was very important for me. In the ‘70s, things were getting out of hand. I was learning electric guitar with a friend of my brother. He was into this space rock kind of stuff, but they tons of gear, and you had the impression you could not do music if you didn’t have that amount of money. When punk broke, actually, they went broke, so that was great. You had to take a guitar, go on stage, and that’s it. Everybody is a musician.
But one thing I have to tell you is that in parallel, I started studying classical guitar because my guitar hero, my brother’s friend, told me, “If you do a bit of classical, it’s going to be better for your fingers. Your technique is going to be better,” so I just went to the conservatory, and I fell in love with classical music as well. I was doing this electric thing in a way and the classical in the other way. People were asking me if I wasn’t a bit schizophrenic, but I made it. It’s okay. I survived. [laughs]
You guys used samplers in a rather radical way to basically reconfigure rock music.
What struck me about it is that abstraction of things. Because when you watch a band, you can anticipate most of the time what’s going to happen because you physically see the guitar. You see he’s going to play. If you have all this on the keyboard, you never know what’s going to come next. Is it going to be a wall of guitars? Is it going to be violent? Is it going to be pleasant? It puts you back to a state where it’s like the first time you’re listening to music because you don’t know what it is. That’s what I really liked about it. It’s like the element of surprise all the time.
The Young Gods are cited as a main influence by internationally acclaimed musicians such as David Bowie, Mike Patton, and many others, and your music obviously had a great influence on groups like Nine Inch Nails or Ministry. You’ve mentioned a couple of your very early influences before, but what were your personal main influences in the early ‘80s?
In the early ’80s I was listening to Einstürzende Neubauten, for example. Me and Cesare were huge fans of Kraftwerk, especially the Computer World area. Early hip-hop, they were using samples also, like Eric B. & Rakim. A big influence but maybe not directly musically was Yello. They were the first band that said, “Yes, you can be Swiss and do music you want to do and if you believe in it and if it’s got something original, then yeah, you have the chance to…” Basically, they had the same approach.
Next up, we’ve got the track “L’Amourir” from The Young Gods’ second album, L’Eau Rouge. What makes this one a standout for you?
I think it’s the most representative song of the first three records. It you could pick one song from The Young Gods, it would be this one for a lot of people. I think production-wise, it’s one of the best things Roli Mosimann did with us. I can still sing it with full passion. It’s very intense and it relates to my state of mind at the time, being in between – having to go away from the relationship to concentrate on the music but this impossibility of loving the person and going and leaving and coming back. I think it’s a good example of what you can have in your guts and heart and brain, all mixed up together.
You mentioned producer Roli Mosimann. You worked with him on the first five Young Gods album as well as the latest two. What exactly is it that makes Roli Mosimann your producer of choice?
I was impressed because when we started, we had no clue. I could watch Roli and the engineer of … We were in Zurich, recording with Voco Fauxpas, who was a top engineer. They could spend, I don’t know, half an hour choosing a sound for a kick drum. So I would go away when they started and then I would come back, and they would tell me, “Listen, it’s much better.” I couldn’t see the difference. [laughs] I was, like, “Yeah, you guys are crazy. What are you doing?” Roli helped me tune my ear and to consider the studio as an instrument.
It’s a gift when you have a working relationship with a producer like that because sometimes you’d rather concentrate on the lyrics that you haven’t finished yet or work a little bit more on the voice. If you can trust that someone is going to make the thing sound good, then it’s much easier for you as a singer. The studio is always a bit weird. It is much easier to play live.
The next track you’ve picked is “September Song” from the album The Young Gods Play Kurt Weill from 1991. Could you tell us how you encountered Kurt Weill’s music in the first place and how you then ended up deciding to reinterpret his work?
I was introduced to Kurt Weill at school. He’s maybe a classic that you don’t want to hear about it anymore, but I was impressed by him and Bertolt Brecht. Together, they represented the godfathers of pop music because they have topics like the street, the hookers, criminals and priests. I choose “September Song” because it was the first time I sang a ballad, a soft song. Before that, I was always thinking, “You have to be intense, and you have to go all the way, all the time.” For “September Song,” I had to calm down because the song was wanting this. I realized you can have this intensity without screaming and without the big machinery and the guitars and all this stuff. I learned a lot singing that song.
“Riversky” from the album Heaven Deconstruction from 1996, an album that saw The Young Gods meander further into ambient territories. Could you tell us something about your particular influences for this piece and the album in general?
The ambient thing, I have different influences. The godfather of ambient of course, Brian Eno. There’s a couple of records I really love, probably not the most well-known that he released, but Ambient 4 is fantastic. The Shutov Assembly is fantastic as well. Aphex Twin, of course, Selected Ambient Works II. Plastikman. I was listening to lots of that music when we wrote Only Heaven.
My first desire with Only Heaven was to make a double CD, the one like it is right now but including the Heaven Deconstruction stuff, because those were soundscapes that we used into the Only Heaven record. I wanted to show the people this ambient music I was so enthusiastic about, to expose it to a rock audience. But the record company didn’t like the idea [laughs], so we had to wait, and actually, we released it as a side project on more of an independent label.
Another track that could be considered ambient, even though it’s of total different material than “Riversky,” is the song “F,” also from Heaven Deconstruction. What’s the story behind this one?
“F” is a funny story. Actually, “F” is a sample from an answering machine. It’s Björk. [laughs] She goes, “That F …” and I thought this “F” was so beautiful, so I made a whole song around it. I don’t think she knows about. [laughs] I used it for a dance company, a contemporary dance company, and they did a solo on that song. It’s fantastic. It’s just one person and the person is naked, but you have so little light that you see only parts of the arms and the legs, and you don’t know if it’s an insect or whatever. It’s going more and more into abstraction basically.
The next two tracks you’ve picked are from your solo album, Braindance, from 2001. It saw you travel deeper into electronic territories. Could you tell us something about the album’s concept and maybe the processes behind this record?
The album is a compilation of work that I did for dance companies, especially Gilles Jobin. I worked with this company for maybe seven, eight years, and I could develop things … Like you said, I could go deeper and deeper into the process of trying electronic sounds that, at the time, wouldn’t have a place in a rock band. It wasn’t actually designed to stand alone. I did many hours of music for dance companies, but I only picked bits here and there, the ones that I thought could make sense on a record basically. That was probably from ‘97 to 2003. Then I decided again to just concentrate on The Young. But I have very strong fond memories of this period of time. Once in a while now, I do it again. I love to experiment.
Your next pick is “Eregeen” from Music for Artificial Clouds, a rather experimental offering from 2004. What’s the story behind Artificial Clouds?
It was for the Expo.02. They had this artificial cloud there. There was a metal structure with thousands of sprinklers. They asked us to do a chill-out area, to do music for a chill-out area where people could put headphones on and sit or lie in rocking chairs [laughs] … and just watch the cloud and listen to the music. It was a “take five minutes for your health and relax” kind of thing. We gave them about 20 minutes of relaxing music.
The process of doing this was much wider, and there was more strange music on this record, which would be not that relaxing but still is ambient music. We had a working rule. We tried our best to avoid loops because electronic music is a lot to process, and the software most people use is mainly based on loops, where you stack loops and then you decide which one you’re going to turn on and off. With this record, we tried to avoid loops as much as we could, to think without loops.
Next up, it’s a live recording of your performance in Montreaux 2005, where you collaborated with The Lausanne Sinfonietta. How did this rather unorthodox collaboration come about?
Again, that was something that we were asked to do because it was the anniversary of the band, the 20 year anniversary. We used a lot of orchestral samples taken from here and there, so to add a real orchestra would be a lifetime experience because we had never did that before, so it was an offer we couldn’t refuse, although it was a lot of work because we had no clue. We had to ask somebody we knew, Frédéric Rody, who knew how to write for orchestra. His brother was an orchestra conductor, so it was an interesting team.
I was supervising because I wanted to learn, so Frédéric would play me three different propositions for each track. He could make it sound a bit more like James Bond or more like Ennio Morricone or more classical. I learned a lot just listening to his way of putting music on top. In the end, we kept the samples, but he added some parts that didn’t exist. I remember when we went back on tour playing "La Fille de la Mort" or “Kissing the Sun” without the orchestral parts, and I was missing them. I was, like, “Something is missing. That guy just brought another dimension.” That’s why I picked up "La Fille de la Mort" because I think the version with the orchestra is fantastic. It’s just sublime. It goes beyond what we wrote. It’s even a better version, I think.
Another rather surprising side of The Young Gods is showcased in an acoustic version of “Our House.” What is it that led you to the idea of acoustic reinterpretations of Young Gods material?
I think it comes from different influences. We learned with remixes that you can actually give a song a total different meaning. If you take the two versions of “Our House,” the one from ‘92, the rocky one, let’s say, and the acoustic one, it’s a total different world. But what I liked about it, is that we kept the intensity. I think now I will not be able to say which one I prefer, but I like the difference between them because the original was written in ‘92 and it was our classic Young Gods way to do things, with collage and abstraction. But with the acoustic version, it’s way more quiet, but I think the meaning of the song is still there. It’s just two extremely different interpretations of the same song.
I think it brings me to the question of fixed music. Brian Eno, when he talks about generative music, for example, what’s the future of a song? Is it what is fixed on the vinyl or tape or a CD or is it something that is going to, in the future, change all the time you listen to it? Maybe. Who knows?