Electronic and experimental music legend Jochen Irmler talks about his work with pioneering krautrockers Faust in the 1970s and his recent series of collaborations, the latest of which is an astonishingly powerful album with Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit 

I really didn’t mean to be so English about this. I’m on the phone to Jochen Irmler, legendary keyboard maestro of pioneering krautrockers Faust, and the first thing I do is talk about the weather. It’s a soaking wet day in the UK and I’m worried he might struggle to hear me over the loud clattering of the rain against my window pane.

“Don’t worry, it’s raining hard here too,” he says, with immediate avuncular warmth. “Wait, I’ll take the phone to the window!”

After a short pause, he asks me if I can hear the noise, which I duly confirm. It certainly is belting it down in Germany as well, the heavy drops adding to the audibly swollen flow of the great Danube river passing just below Irmler’s Faust Studio, which is housed in part of an old paper factory in the rural Bavarian town of Scheer.

I’m calling Jochen Irmler to talk to him about the latest in his series of improvised collaborations with noted German percussionists – the likes of Gudrun Gut, Christian Wolfarth and Einsturzende Neubauten’s FM Einheit – which all aim to explore the “hidden” potential that lies dormant in the clash between prepared organs and drums. Starting in 2010, Irmler and his chums have produced a body of hugely compelling work, the ‘No Apologies’ album with Einheit in particular. I first ask about these collaborations, wondering if they worked as you would probably imagine, with lots of pre-discussions and meetings and rehearsals.

“The narrative generally develops slowly and it takes some time to work your way through,” says Irmler. “With FM Einheit, it took a lot more working out and practice, with more rehearsal time. But I have to also say that he is a wonderful cook, so some of the rehearsal time was a little bit of an excuse to eat his knoedels [a type of Bavarian dumpling].”

The latest release in Irmler’s collaborations series is called ‘Flut’ and it stands apart from the rest – and not simply because this album sees the Faust man partnered by none other than Jaki Liebezeit, Can’s living god of the sticks. Those two names – Irmler and Liebezeit – are exciting enough in themselves. But when you hear the music they’ve created, with such ineffable chemistry and apparently telepathic instinct, you realise they’ve magicked-up something very special. 

There’s such a strong sense of musical understanding apparent on ‘Flut’ that, given the stature and history of these two and their respective bands, it seems sensible to assume it’s the result of a lifelong musical friendship. But when I mention that it’s easy to hear how well they know each other, Irmler simply laughs.

“Oh no! I’m just so happy that we met at last after all these years!” 

What?! So you two haven’t been pals since the revolutionary days of communal living in the early 70s? You didn’t smoke and drink together in the free-loving squats of Hamburg, Cologne and Berlin, talking about your common aim to transform the sound of contemporary music and change the world? No way! 

“No, we never met, even when we were in England,” says Irmler, referring to the time when Faust and Can were both signed to Virgin Records in the UK. “Can left London just as we arrived.”

It seems incredible, impossible even. In actual fact, the first time they properly met was in 2010, when Irmler invited Liebezeit to perform at the Klangbad Avant Garde Music Festival, which he curates each summer in Scheer. The following year, Irmler and Liebezeit recorded an album together with Robert Lippok of To Rococo Rot and flautist Clive Bell under the name BILL, before performing two concerts in Germany as a duo in the summer of 2013.

“Those two concerts went really well, it was like a gift,” says Irmler. “You know, it’s so hard to describe. There was this trust and I knew I could really lean on Jaki, because he just so… straight ahead. So I could do exactly what I wanted to do musically, with no limitation. It was a miracle to achieve such a level of understanding.”

So is Jaki Liebezeit everything that people say he is?

“Oh yes. He’s one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. His mind is open to everything, to every facet of percussion across the musical spectrum, right across the world.”

‘F lut’ is drawn from more than two hours of material recorded during the preparations for Irmler and Liebezeit’s German concerts in 2013. When the pair listened back to the rehearsal recordings, they acknowledged their singular quality and decided to release six of the pieces. Simple as that. So there was never any plan to put out an album before the rehearsals?

“No,” replies Irmler. “The rehearsals went so well from the very beginning, we decided to record them, then we decided to release them. It felt astonishing how close we were together when we played. We didn’t even talk about it during the rehearsal breaks. It just happened.” 

The album – bravura show of exuberant virtuosity though it may well be – comes across as carefully structured and thematically planned. Which it wasn’t. Not by a long chalk.  

“We counted in ‘1-2-3’ and just started. What you hear is what we played on the day. All the songs were played through from start to finish without any kind of editing. Just the organ and the drummer.”

Just the organ and the drummer indeed. From the off, ‘Flut’ goes straight for the jugular with thrilling, epic vitality. Despite the tethering of Liebezeit’s hypnotic percussive precision, Irmler’s organ possesses an almost crazed, Wurlitzer-like giddiness at times. I can’t actually recall ever having heard an organ sound quite like it. It’s as if Irmler got permission from CERN to fire a few jags from an old Hammond into the Large Hadron Collider and record them morphing into sonic demons – and the truth is actually no less interesting than this fantastical notion. The organ Irmler plays on ‘Flut’ is a keyboard he custom-made back in 1967, when he was 17 years old. It was the first instrument he made in what has been a lifelong search for exactly the right sound.

“To understand how to play an organ, you have to be trained as a pianist, which I was. But whenever I played the piano, I always wanted to add something to the sound. I always felt a little bored with just the piano, so I thought maybe if I get an organ it might help in my search for that different sound I was looking for. Even when I was nine and I was learning the piano, I always thought it sounded more interesting – and richer – if you beat the keyboards rather than just play the compositions.”

It’s quite astonishing to discover that Irmler’s ear for sound was first cocked as a small child. He learnt to play the guitar as well, but the organ was the thing that really hooked him.

“For an organ, you really need a church!” he laughs. “But I wanted to do something different. So I found a book called ‘How To Make Your Own Electronic Organ’. I was a little intimidated by the prospect at first, because you had to consider the tubes and valves, and the associated high voltages, and I had no idea about electronics…”

By 1967, though, transistors had been introduced to this nascent musical technology – and they only needed around 12 volts to operate.

“Which I thought sounded OK. I talked to a guy I knew who had some knowledge of electronics and asked if the schematics involved with the valves and the keyboard could work with these small transistors. We had a think about it and began to work things out. We found a manual in Italy and we got to work. I had no idea about soldering either, so I had to be very careful. Too much heat and the transistor is gone!

This is where it all began for Jochen Irmler. Within a few short years, his custom-made organ was central to the sound of early 70s experimental rockers Faust. Irmler now has a collection of around 20 keyboards that he has amassed and/or adapted over the years, as well as an impressive array of recording equipment both new and old that he uses for his production work, all housed at the Faust Studio by the Danube. He even fell back on his technical skills as a keyboard technician and opened a workshop soon after Faust disintegrated in 1975.

Faust were always one of the most out-there of the krautrock bands, both in terms of their heavy, avant-garde, free-flowing music and their wild antics. Yet when they signed their first record deal in 1971, with the then-German Polydor label, the story goes they touted themselves as being the new Beatles. Is that right? 

“A friend of ours introduced us to Uwe Nettlebeck [uber-connected German writer and scenester] and we discussed with Uwe how we could persuade a record label to sign us,” says Irmler. “So we had a few sessions of thinking and drinking together and we decided to approach Polydor because we knew they had lost The Beatles and we thought they must still be angry about it! So, yes, we decided to sell ourselves as the new Beatles. Unfortunately for them, we were very far away from making music like The Beatles!”

Is it also true that Polydor signed you without ever hearing you play? 

“Yes, they signed us not having heard a single note. Uwe just persuaded them – you could do that in those days. But we ultimately felt that Polydor were a sleeping giant that had got too involved with mainstream music like James Last. We sold about 20,000 copies of our first album, but they weren’t happy with that.”

The fact that Polydor were less than delighted with the anarchic experimentation of the two albums the band recorded for them – ‘Faust’ and ‘Faust So Far’ – is well documented. Not everyone at the label was pleased when they dropped the band, though. Polydor’s UK musical director at the time, for instance.

“This English guy, whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember, was one of the most influential people for us at the time. When we left the label, he came over especially to see us in Wümme [the band’s studio/communal living space near Hamburg] and told us to never stop making the kind of music we were making.”

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Irmler remembers Faust being emboldened by this and deciding to stick it out, despite being left almost destitute without a record deal. Before long, they had the great fortune to be signed by Richard Branson’s fledgling Virgin imprint, who were keen to be associated with leftfield acts – particularly those from the momentum-gathering krautrock scene.

“Branson was a businessman from the very beginning, but Simon Draper was his music man. It was Draper who said Virgin should sign Faust.  He said the time was right for us and we could make it in England. So we went over to London with an album we had already done pretty much in our back pockets.” 

The album in question was ‘The Faust Tapes’. Largely recorded live with no overdubs and the tracks woven together to fill the two sides of the original vinyl album, it was a huge commercial success thanks to a very clever marketing ploy.

“We wanted to release it but we wanted to get our name out there and get it into the charts, so we had to find a way to do this,” says Irmler. “So we agreed to make only 100,000 copies of the album and sell it at 49p [the price of a single in the UK at the time]. And it worked. We sold enough to make the Top 10.”

Faust’s relationship with Virgin turned out to be as uneasy as their Polydor stretch, though. The time they spent recording in England, at Branson’s Manor Studios, proved especially difficult, not least because of the 1970s English cuisine. It was all too much for the sensitive, organically-inclined German lads.

“We didn’t like the food,” confirms Irmler. “We couldn’t handle this lamb and mint sauce thing and the beef was not chewable. So we had to fly in a chef from Germany…”

As amusing as this little aside may be, it also indicates just how out of their depth – and far from home – the Faust guys felt. Insular at the best of times, it’s probably no surprise that things didn’t exactly go swimmingly. Irmler agrees.

“In the early days, Faust decided to leave Hamburg so as not to become too influenced by the big city. We were cut off from everything, never mind the German music scene. We stopped all communication, even of friends visiting from Hamburg or elsewhere. We just wanted to concentrate on ourselves and our music. To some extent, it seems that this habit has lasted over the years. And you know, Faust were probably the laziest band in musical history. We only played around 30 concerts. It feels incredible to even say that!” 

Faust released one more studio album with Virgin, ‘Faust IV’, before returning to Germany. They split up shortly afterwards.

“The split came when we recorded in Giorgio Moroder’s studio in Munich in 1975. This was after we’d had, shall we say, a certain kind of hassle with Mr Branson. We had no money to pay the studio and that was the point at which I said, ‘OK, it didn’t work’, but it was wonderful recording there. I have to tell you that I’ve been thankful to Mr Moroder all my life, as he was so generous. He said, ‘If you become rich and famous, you can pay me. If you don’t, it doesn’t matter’. He was such a very kind man.”

With the clock ticking down, there’s time to ask just one or two more questions. I especially want to know Irmler’s thoughts on the enduring popularity of Kraftwerk, by far the most successful group to emerge from all of that wonderful Teutonic experimentation. 

“It’s not easy to talk about this,” he says. “When we were developing our sound and our equipment and finding out what the possibilities were with regard to keyboards, we spoke with a couple of German companies, Echolette and Dynacord. An engineer came and we talked about our ideas, then he went away and designed an apparatus. It wasn’t bad and we used it in the beginning, in the first year or so, and Kraftwerk used similar equipment. But then they started to make pop music with only keyboards and went away from the so-called krautrock sound, perhaps with more commercial intent. I was really angry about that and stopped listening to Kraftwerk from that point.”

I initially feel quite shocked to hear this, but then I wonder what else I should have expected from a man who has always remained so unapologetically true to his artistic, innovative impulse. Not for Jochen Irmler, or indeed Jaki Liebezeit for that matter, the compromise of commercial strategy. Here is a man with a heart still blazing with the sheer velocity of creative possibility. 

“I just want to say to people to go forward and think like we do, to go forward and make new stuff,” he says when I ask him for a final thought to end the interview. “We aim to create a region that is like a movie in everyone’s brain. To create a cinema of the imagination.” 

Irmler & Liebezeit’s ‘Flut’ is released on Klangbad Records

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