Boris Blank is one of Switzerland’s most influential musicians. As one-half of Swiss electro pioneers Yello (who among many other gems brought us the anthemic “Oh Yeah” of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off fame), he’s often described as one of the true godfathers of techno music. In this interview for the Alpenflage show on RBMA Radio, Blank goes deep into the group’s history, revealing his building block style of composing and how he’s maintained such a good relationship with fellow Yello member Dieter Meier over the years.
We had a lot of tape hiss, but it was music where I thought, “That’s now what I would like to do.”
What sparked the interest in sound and making music for you?
I was fascinated when I was young with all kind of sounds, rather than instruments. I started at my home by recording things like pans from the kitchen. I worked at the time with a Revox tape machine. That was very interesting because you could have various speeds, and you had the possibility for interesting feedback and echoes. When I hit these pans and used the echo, you had a whole universe of different sounds coming out which you hardly can describe.
In 1979, you founded Yello with Carlos Peron, with whom you also started the Transonic Studio in Zurich. How did you guys meet and what was the vision behind Transonic?
As I remember, we first met via our hash dealer. We listened to music together, of course, and we just get closer to each other. He listened to more free jazz. I was into King Crimson or Pink Floyd and some jazz. Then later on, we met again. We lived in the same community in a house, in an old villa in Zurich. There were some other friends we started doing sessions with, but it was always very difficult to get everyone together. One guy would be in India on a trip, another guy would be in prison because he smuggled some marijuana from Poland. It was always very difficult to keep all of them together.
In the end, I decided to do all the recordings at my home. I had very little equipment, a Farfisa organ. Peron was more a mentor. He was not a musician. He sometimes made noises with a synthesizer, some kind of strange tape loops or whatever. I had a 4-channel mixing desk, and was doing a lot of ping-pong recording by the end. We had a lot of tape hiss, but it was music where I thought, “That’s now what I would like to do.”
I think it was 1977, and we went to San Francisco to meet people there that we liked a lot, like The Residents and Tuxedomoon. Those were our music idols in America. We decided to go with our promo tape to Ralph Records in San Francisco, and play them our music, in the hopes that they had a positive reaction. We came back, and we had already received a special delivery post envelope from San Francisco that said they were interested to do something with us.
A few weeks later we met Dieter Meier, because we all went to the same little store in Zurich that had import records from America and England. The owner of the store wanted to produce something with us, but he thought the music needed a singer. He knew one. That was Dieter Meier. We met him on a Saturday afternoon. We just spontaneously played him some tracks. He started spontaneously singing. Then, like two weeks later, we were Yello.
Why the name Yello?
That was Dieter’s idea. The idea was it should be a name which has a good sound, rather than having a story behind it. It should sound like a children’s toy. Like Lego. Yello.
One of the songs on your first album was “Bostich.” What would you say is special about that one from your perspective?
I don’t know. The way we made music was always the same. Even today, I just start with some noises, some effects, whatever. I collect samples and put them together like a puzzle. Sometimes I’m surprised myself what comes out at the end. We thought it was a beautiful track, but we didn’t think this would be our first little hit in America. Frankie Crocker from WBLS played it, more or less, in heavy rotation. That was our first little step to an international music market.
“Future Past” was written in 1984, if I’m not mistaken. It could probably be described as proto-techno. What were your influences at that particular time?
I don’t listen to that much music from the last 20 or 30 years. Of course, I listened to some Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock. What always fascinated me was the fusion between electronic and natural things. Of course, I listened to techno. Pink Floyd. I listened to “Warm Leatherette” by the Normal. That was a big influence for me.
“Oh Yeah” memorably appeared in the John Hughes classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in 1986. What’s the story behind the placement of that song?
Ian Tregoning, who runs Do It Records. He was the guy who brought Yello into the UK. We’ve worked for many years together. He was responsible for Yello in the States at that time as well. So he was the guy who brought “Oh Yeah” to John Hughes. He was also the initiator for my retrospective, Electrified.
I remember when we were recording “Oh Yeah.” Dieter came up with some ideas, and I thought, “Yeah, okay. Why don’t we do something unusual? Just think you are under a palm tree. It’s warm. You see the sea and you feel just very good. What you say is the whole song, ‘Oh Yeah.’” Then he said, “Boris, are you serious? Okay, if you want to do this, I’ll do it.” After he was done, I said, “Dieter, we have it. We don’t have to do anything else. This is so unusual.”
You’ve collaborated quite a few times with Shirley Bassey. How did this connection come about?
One of our friends, Prince Hubertus Von Hohenlohe. He was a friend ever since he made a show about Yello for Austrian TV in our very early days. He mentioned that his father has a hotel in Marbella, where all these rich people go on holiday like Shirley Bassey. He knew Shirley, so he asked her whether she would like to do a track with us.
Of course I was a bit shy at the beginning. How do I get Shirley Bassey something that suits her style of singing? I invited Billy MacKenzie to help. He was, at the time, also a singer we worked with. He knew the range of her voice, so he sang the vocals for her. She’s obviously not a composer. She’s an interpreter. Her interpretation of Billy’s voice was two takes, and that’s it. We recorded it in half an hour and then we sat in the garden and had a nice dinner.
In previous interviews, you’ve compared your approach to painting or making sculptures. What did you mean by that?
Sometimes I have an idea for of a bassline or a tempo of a track or even an emotion. Basically, this idea is there before I start. Then it’s like a child who has Legos. He takes a red one, then a green one. “Oh wow, here’s a church tower.” I put this together. Somehow, at the end, something comes together.
We’re not a democratic band who plays or develops songs together in a usual process.
How do you feel about taking these creations that were meticulously built in the studio to a live stage? There’s been Yello live appearances every now and then, but you’re not particularly known for extensive touring.
Yeah, I always feel like if you are doing this type of music that it’s a little bit cheap to just work with tapes or hard discs on stage. Even Jean Michel Jarre, who has these huge synthesizer towers... You only would see my hairstyle. Two guys on stage always looks a little bit cheap somehow. Nothing against the Pet Shop Boys, but if you see the guys with laptops and these huge orchestral sounds, it looks a bit silly. Sometimes I think I should DJ, because that’s something where I can pre-prepare some ideas in my studio and go on stage. Perhaps I’ll do something like this, because then I won’t need a big environment on stage.
How have you and Dieter managed to get along with each other for such a long period of time?
It could be that we’re not sticking together. We’re not a democratic band who plays or develops songs together in a usual process. I’ve done the music for almost 36 years myself. When something is developed or a track is ready, more or less, then I invite Dieter.
Dieter has a whole universe of other things he’s involved in. Wine, meat, art. He’s happy to not be stuck in this studio every day, as I am. He’s one percent, but has a big effect. His voice is very important for Yello. This is the brand and the “yeah.”
“Time Tunnel” is another track that made it on your Electrified box set. What year was this track recorded?
“Time Tunnel” was recorded around 2004. When I heard Ian Tregoning wanted to do the retrospective, I freshened it up a little bit. The video for the track was made by a Swiss artist named Dirk Koy. He attached a GoPro to a car wheel, and cut all the footage together. Around the middle of the video, he changes the perspective from outside the wheel to inside. It’s a very unusual video, and already won a few awards worldwide.
It’s really hard to link your productions to a certain period of time. They always have a certain timelessness. What’s the secret?
Again, I think this is the very unusual way I’m producing things. I didn’t learn to play notes. I didn’t count rhythms. It’s just a child who has fun putting things together. It’s interesting, though, when my daughter was young and I went to her school, a few mothers came to me and said, “Boris, you know I like your music, but I can’t stand it anymore because my boy listens to it over and over. My nerves are...” I think maybe the music has something in it that is childish. You have some backing noises in there, which kids love to hear. I don’t know.
To be original is much more interesting than to copy something.
You’ve been very productive for many years. What keeps you inspired and interested?
I don’t know. I’m very happy that this is the case. I’ve never been bored with what I’m doing. I’m not doing something like a lot of... I’m sorry to say this, but lots of people in Switzerland, young people, they can’t find or don’t want to find their own roots. They just hear what’s going on in in Brooklyn or London, and they just copy it. They are not themselves anymore. They are not original. It’s hard to find yourself, of course. But to be original is much more interesting than to copy something.
Can you talk about the Yellofier app?
The Yellofier app was a tool I wish had been created for me many years ago. As I said, I like noises, sounds which you can hear everywhere on the street. I wanted to help people make music with these noises. Instead of getting a child to play guitar or piano or flute, they have the chance to make music with noises. Some people, like Puma Mimi, are even using it live on stage.
Whatever you want to record, it’s always your fingerprint. You can call your colleague in Tokyo or Amsterdam and say, “Tape this wine glass and do some sounds on it with a spoon.” And it will sound totally different to what they’re doing with the same things. That’s why I’m totally happy with this little machine. I fell in love with this little tool, and I’m still using it almost daily.