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Faust: Hans Joachim Irmler

40 Years Of Krautrock By Tom Doyle
Published July 2010

In 1969, Faust used their massive record company advance to build a unique studio and a collection of weird, custom‑made effects units. The same experimental spirit lives on in their new album, Faust Is Last.

Hans Joachim Irmler built his own transistor organ 40 years ago, and is still playing it today.Hans Joachim Irmler built his own transistor organ 40 years ago, and is still playing it today.Photo: Manuel Wagner

Of all the diverse bands branded 'Krautrock' during the '70s, amorphous German outfit Faust were perhaps the most 'out there'. Many of the other groups concerned have rejected the label, but Faust embraced the term invented by the UK music press, to the extent of naming the opening track of their 1973 album Faust IV 'Krautrock'. Founder member Hans Joachim Irmler laughs hard and loud — as he does often — when recalling this fact. "Yes,” he offers, "I'm sorry about that.”

While other revered outfits such as Neu! and Can specialised, respectively, in repetitive grooves or warped funk‑rock, Faust were far harder to pigeonhole, taking the acid‑rock studio cut‑ups of early Frank Zappa as the springboard into an even further‑out sonic world. It's an approach they continue to employ today with their latest release, the double album Faust Is Last. Divided into a first disc of shorter, more angular pieces and a second set of longer, more atmospheric recordings, it's a record that stays true to their original experimental rock ethos, while updating it for the digital age.

Irmler, meanwhile, insists that the quintet who made Faust Is Last have finally given up on the idea of writing traditional songs — if Faust can be accused of ever having done so. Instead, the band see their tracks as being stücke, or 'pieces'. "There are finally no songs,” he stresses. "They're just stücke.”

What's more, given the unconventional ways in which Faust put together their music, Irmler worries that he's not sure if he can really convey in print how the band work. "It's not that easy to explain,” he laughs.

A Kind Of Chapel

The original Faust in their Wümme studio, 1971. From left: Werner Diermaier, Jean‑Hervé Péron, Rudolf Sosna, Gunther Wüsthoff, Uwe Nettelbeck, engineer and equipment designer Kurt Graupner, Hans Joachim Irmler, Arnulf Meifert.The original Faust in their Wümme studio, 1971. From left: Werner Diermaier, Jean‑Hervé Péron, Rudolf Sosna, Gunther Wüsthoff, Uwe Nettelbeck, engineer and equipment designer Kurt Graupner, Hans Joachim Irmler, Arnulf Meifert.Photo: Sigrid Rothe

If Faust's methodology is difficult to nail, how they managed to reach this point as a group is even harder. More a loose collective than a traditional band, the original Faust disintegrated after being dropped by Richard Branson and the nascent Virgin Records in 1975. Fifteen long years later, they reconvened as a touring outfit in 1990 with a revolving‑door membership policy, before settling into the current five‑piece that made Faust Is Last, built around founding member Irmler.

Back in the '70s, the group operated out of their own studio base, a converted schoolhouse outside Hamburg called Wümme (more of which later). These days, their current HQ, Studio Scheer, is located in a former factory perched on the banks of the Danube in Swabia, near the Swiss border. Irmler began building the studio as an operational hub for Faust and his Klangbad label in 2003, after outgrowing his basement home studio.

"My wife [said], 'Would you really spend your lifetime in the cellar?'” he says. "It was not too bad. Normally I work during the night. But then I decided, OK, if I really am going to have a studio, it must be a really different one. It's a very ancient sort of studio because it's a wide, big one and it has its own reverb [he shouts into the space to demonstrate a sizeable reflection]. It's about 100 square metres, and the ceiling is [from] about four to seven metres. It's a kind of chapel.”

In the preliminary sessions for Faust Is Last in 2006, the quintet — consisting of Irmler alongside Michael Stoll, Lars Paukstat, Steven W Lobdell and Jan Fride — swapped instruments and jammed, producing hours of material that was later edited into the pieces that made the album.

"In the very beginning, we just jammed it out,” Irmler says. "We try to jam it out and figure out if there's really something worth doing again. In the very beginning, all of us were fully running forwards. And it ended up that just two of us really were playing and the other ones were reading papers. But it was very important because, y'know, we needed to figure out, 'Aha, Jan is [playing] this way and Michael is this way and Steven is this way.'”

For Irmler and the other members of Faust, instrument‑swapping is an important part of the creative process. "We couldn't make it always playing the same instruments,” he states. "We have a lot of funny recordings that I took away because I couldn't bring them into the flow of the record. But there was some very funny things left over. We played violin, we played trombone.” Can any of them actually play trombone? "To be honest, no,” he howls. "But the song is really so easy to play, it was like a Bavarian 'bomp bomp' thing. So it's not that complicated.”

Mixing By Foot

The current Faust line‑up: from left, Michael Stoll, Jan Fride, Steven W Lobdell, Lars Paukstat, Hans Joachim Irmler.The current Faust line‑up: from left, Michael Stoll, Jan Fride, Steven W Lobdell, Lars Paukstat, Hans Joachim Irmler.Photo: Manuel Wagner

Studio Scheer is centred around an Amek Big By Langley console. "I was starting with a simple in‑line desk,” Irmler says, "so I was used to not having it spread out. I like to have it easy to manage by myself. That's why I thought the Amek Big By Langley was not too bad. The first time I came close to a really huge desk was in '75, when we got access to Giorgio Moroder's studio in Munich. I think it was a Harrison and I was able to use it OK — using my feet also...”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that he began making music in the '70s, Irmler still has a love for tape, despite the fact that he now runs Logic Studio on an Apple Mac G5. "I still love having analogue systems and digital equipment that's not part of the computer,” he says. "Logic is not too bad. I was wondering at the very beginning if this might work, so we went along both ways.”

In terms of tape, Irmler remains devoutly old‑school, recording band performances to quarter‑inch on an AEG/Telefunken M21. "It's a modern [version] of the same machine we used in Wümme. The difference is you can easily find your location, because the monitor is digital.”

In Faust's world, however, the original recording platform is employed for ease of use rather than sonics, since almost all of the sounds featured on Faust Is Last went through an extreme amount of post‑processing. "I'm a big fan of bringing stuff to the desk again and really destroying it,” Irmler says. For example, he explains, he spent many nocturnal sessions doctoring the Faust Is Last drum sounds.

"Everybody knows drums, so we're trying not to find ourselves back to Phil Collins,” he stresses. "Apart from Lexicons, Eventides, all we're using really is bad effects. These days you really have to try to get the best out of something. But that doesn't mean too much to me. OK, there might be noise or hiss, but if you have a not‑too‑bad desk, you can figure it out.

"I still really love the TCs [M5000 and 2290]. You can get really amazing digital feedbacks out of those. It's so astonishing because nobody is really aware that you can get something like that out of that equipment. It goes down to even Alesis [Quadraverb II and Midiverb]. Sometimes I'm using a spring system from Tapco [4400]. It's a stereo system and it uses different types of springs so the reflections are different.”

In their more extreme moments, Faust — early pioneers of industrial music — still rely on treated recordings of cement mixers and chainsaws to augment their music. "Y'know, where is the point from melody to noise?” Irmler wonders aloud. "It's still very, very interesting to me.”

Conquering Germany

Faust IV was recorded at Virgin Records' Manor Studios in England, an experience the band found difficult. Faust IV was recorded at Virgin Records' Manor Studios in England, an experience the band found difficult.

When the scattered groups of musicians who would make up the Krautrock bands first emerged in the late '60s, the German music scene was dire, as typified by the easy‑listening sounds of mega‑selling orchestral band leader James Last. Then the first stirrings of a counter‑cultural rock sound akin to what was happening in the USA and Britain began to emerge from Cologne, with Can.

"I saw Can as a sort of conqueror of a new land,” Irmler recalls. "There was nothing [like them] in Germany before. We had this total [musical] blackout with Adolf Hitler. There was nothing left except folk music. But in the '60s the British music was so, so fantastic.”

The musicians in the original Faust were brought together by journalist Uwe Nettelbeck in 1969 and sold to Polydor — ironically the home of James Last — as a German Beatles or Rolling Stones, for a huge advance of 500,000 Deutsche Marks. "Uwe, thanks to him, he really made it work,” Irmler says. "It was a big, big, big thing. Really fat money. Just to let you know, we're still paying it back. We have something like 38,000 DM left to pay.”

With part of the advance, Faust and Nettelbeck built the Wümme studio in a white‑walled, single‑storey schoolhouse outside Hamburg. The simple equipment setup featured a Studer eight‑track recorder and an eight‑channel desk, built by Faust engineer Kurt Graupner during his previous tenure with Deutsche Grammophon.

Faust ensconced themselves in Wümme for two years from 1969‑1971, experimenting with tape‑loop collages, spontaneous composition, hypnotic grooves and ground‑breaking sonic manipulation. More often than not, their red recording light would be left on, resulting in hundreds of hours of music. Some of this was edited down into their eponymous 1971 debut, released on clear vinyl in a clear sleeve featuring an X‑ray of a fist (the band took their name from the German word for 'fist' rather than the central, devil‑pact‑making character of the German legend of the same name). It sold poorly but was hugely acclaimed by critics.

Irmler clearly has nothing but fond memories of the period and the studio itself. "Wümme was a certain kind of nowhere,” he offers. "We had a really important idea. We had not at all been musicians. Only three of us had had something like a musical education. But it doesn't mean you are a musician. To be stupid people on instruments was OK for us — having an approach to any instrument that was really frank and free. 'Cause we thought, 'We have to change something in the musical world.'”

Open Engineering

Faust: Hans Joachim Irmler

Unable to afford a Hammond organ pre‑Faust, Irmler had set about building his own version of one, which he continued to use after the band had been signed. "There was no chance to get one, because it was about 20,000 Marks,” he remembers. "That's why I got a book in my hand [about] how to build an electronic keyboard. The system was working by tubes. When I got this book in about '67, the transistor had come out. This was really leading the way, because I was really quite scared by the high tube voltage. I thought, 'If I can really replace the tubes with transistors, it would become cool.' So I built it and I'm still playing it.”

Further moulding the character of the Faust sound were the metre‑long 'black box' effects units built by Irmler and Graupner. Each featured tone generators and ring modulators, which each member of the band would plug into and control with footswitches — enabling them when they were linked in series to effect the raw sounds of the others' instruments in real time, to create sweeping stereo effects. "Kurt was God's gift,” Irmler says. "To us all these [other] engineers seemed really stupid, open to nothing. Kurt was quite young and he was really open. He didn't know what to expect.”

Equally inventively, Graupner built a tape echo unit using a turntable, around the outside of which ran a tape loop touching a record head and two replay heads that could be moved closer together or further apart to create different delay times. "I regret that we do not have this echo machine any more,” says Irmler. "It was so fantastic, because it even had compressors on board.”

For their second album, Faust So Far, in 1972, Graupner and the band purchased a Studer 16‑track, which lent better audio quality to an album that was noticeably more commercial. "To me, the first one is really great,” Irmler says, "but it was still missing some frequencies. It was not that fat. It was a bit of a problem. The [cutting] engineers in Hanover at Deutsche Grammophon said they could not bring out all the frequencies. So now I'm wondering if the sound of that record was just part of the mastering. The recording was very big, but the result is less than the original.”

In 1973, Faust cut a deal with Virgin in the UK and released The Faust Tapes, a collage of songs and sonic experiments from Wümme. It sold for 48p, the same price as a single, resulting in impressive sales of 100,000 for a such left‑field album.

"The stücke were recorded in Wümme, but it went much better in '73 than in '71. We were much more experienced, to be honest. The first one is not too bad. But when we started to record the snippets [for The Faust Tapes], we got totally new experiences. For the first record, we could not really cross the point of 0dB on the tape. But by then I knew we could really easily run over plus 6dB without any problems. For this kind of music, you understand. Then we went on and on like this.”

Dropped by Polydor in Germany, due to their huge debt and poor sales for their first two albums, Faust were forced to move out of Wümme in 1973. Still signed to Virgin in the UK, owners of The Manor Studios, Faust were given some time in the Oxfordshire facility to record their fourth album, Faust IV. Irmler, however, doesn't remember it as a positive experience. Struggling to record outside of their normal environment, the group floundered.

"It was not that easy, because we were working with new machines — the Ampex 16‑track — and it was really totally different from the Studers. We were used to the Wümme system we made ourselves. But then we were in a real studio, so it was really a big difference to work there.”

Faust IV remains a fascinating mélange of ambient soundscapes, mantra rock and retro psychedelia, but for the group themselves, the writing was on the wall. The tapes for a fifth Faust album were rejected by Virgin — apparently alarmed by the band's profligate spending — in 1975 and the band began to fall apart.

Done With Pop

In 1990, Irmler was invited by fellow Faust founder Werner 'Zappi' Diermaier to join him in resurrecting the band as a touring operation. "I went back to south Germany and then I was called up by Zappi,” he says. "He still lived in Hamburg and he said, 'What the hell are you doing there in the south? Why not come back to Hamburg?' Hamburg is really the music capital of Germany.”

More Faust albums appeared later in the decade, namely the industrial/musique concrete of Rien in 1995, the acoustic cut‑ups of You Know Faust in 1996 and the abstract noisescapes of Ravvivando in 1999. The last spawned the tribute remix album Freispiel in 2002, featuring electronic reworkings by fans including Daniel Miller, Dave Ball and the Residents. "It was amazing to me that so many people said, 'Why not?'” Irmler enthuses.

Which brings us back to Faust Is Last, the band's first new studio album in over a decade. Not originally planned to be a double album, Irmler explains that it simply turned out that way due to the sheer amount of material produced.

"It finally became very difficult because we had something like 140 gigabytes [of recordings]. It was really a big problem — how to figure out what to select or what not to select. So I started to make CDs just to listen to whilst I'm driving in the car, just to find an easy solution. I was following the idea from CD to CD, to be honest. Then I tried doing a sort of selection and it became Faust Is Last.”

And so, in 2010, Faust remain as intense, otherworldly and uncompromising as they ever were.

"I don't know how to settle down,” Irmler concludes. "I am really very, very interested, still, even though I'm getting older and older. Is it too noisy? Is the melody going forward enough? I'm done with pop music. Pop music is something that works for about three months and then someone remembers it after five years. I would like to leave something lasting when I'm gone. I don't know if time will show that.”