A self-proclaimed “uber-group/circus troupe”, London quartet The Umlauts dabble in wonky minimal synths, art-punk and industrial vibes. Thrillingly visceral it all is too, as their ‘Another Fact’ EP vividly attests

The leafy residential suburb of Wimbledon in south-west London is not generally known as a hotbed of subversion. True, Wimbledon School of Art graduate Pauline Boty, aka “the Wimbledon Bardot”, did go on to co-found the British pop art movement in the early 1960s, but otherwise, you’re left scratching your head… The Wombles? The birthplace of Oliver Reed? John McEnroe’s headband?

But wait. Also formed in Wimbledon, at the very same art school that Boty attended – but now called Wimbledon College of Arts – are a new breed of malcontents.

Calling themselves The Umlauts, they’re a fierce and fabulous trans-European collective, making stern, new wave/techno-inspired sounds peppered with German, French, Italian and English Sprechgesang. Their retro coldwave harks back to synthpop’s golden age while sounding startlingly new. And they are startlingly new themselves. It was only in June 2021 that the band released their first six-track EP, ‘Ü’, which included future classics ‘Boiler Suits & Combat Boots’ and ‘Energy Plan’. Up to that point, they’d been more concept than band, a joke that got out of hand.

“Yeah, I think it bloomed when we realised we liked writing together,” says co-founder Oliver Offord, speaking via video call from his home in Lewisham, south-east London, which he shares with Alfred Lear, his fellow Umlauts co-founder and school friend from Stroud in Gloucestershire. During our conversation, Offord is stationary and loquacious, while Lear is smiley, moves around a lot and says little.

“We started out as a tongue-in-cheek attempt at doing some kind of electronic music,” says Offord. “But it became clear quite quickly that our collaboration was working well musically, and it just carried on from there.”

Enter Annabelle Mödlinger and Maria Vittoria Faldini – Anglo-Austrian and Franco-Italian, respectively – who bring in vocals in four different European languages. As singers who frequently switch between tongues, often mid-song, they somehow find themselves sailing against the prevailing political winds of the country they’ve chosen to call home.

“I met Olly very early on the [Fine Art] course,” recalls Mödlinger. “It was quite funny actually, because somebody said to me, ‘Oh, you never stay friends with the first people you meet at college’, but I definitely stuck with those people.”

“We hated each other at first,” laughs Faldini, referring to Mödlinger. “I was very loud, and Annabelle was on her period, and she was really, really hating me.”

Somehow the pair got past their initial reservations and bonded, with Faldini joining as co-vocalist not long after Mödlinger had been drafted in to sing ‘Boiler Suits & Combat Boots’.

Initially asked to bring lyrics to Offord and Lear’s student digs one night after work, Mödlinger scribbled the words on napkins in between serving drinks at a cocktail bar.

“I can remember finishing my shift and going over to their place afterwards, so it must have been two or three in the morning,” she says. “I’d written down the lyrics that evening. I still have the notes – they’re completely illegible.”

She came, she spat and she conquered over some vintage Korg MS-20-driven bars. It was only supposed to be a lark at first – a gentle and satirical take on icy Germanic pop, with the title already decided – but what they got instead was proper alchemy. Still, nobody expected it to actually take off.

“We listened to loads of the same music, but I think going into the music world was never a consideration because we were studying fine art,” admits Mödlinger. “And then one evening we recorded ‘Boiler Suits & Combat Boots’. The guys did the music beforehand, which we found really cool, and yeah… it just happened.”

After that, they were quickly signed to PRAH Recordings, which has put out music by cellist Oliver Coates, Haiku Salut and others. Then came the follow-up single, ‘Energy Plan’, which proved ‘Boiler Suits’ had been no fluke. With a video of Mödlinger’s head being cooked in a microwave and then served up on a plate of bratwurst, it features the spookily prescient line, “Energy plan for the Western man”, on repeat.

The original ‘Energy Plan’ came out in June 2021 and was remixed later that year by Orbury Common, the hauntology duo comprising Emlyn Bainbridge and Josh Day-Jones, who was friends with both Offord and Lear when they lived back home in Stroud.

“We put it out very early,” says Lear. “We should have released it a bit later.”

“It’s Liz Truss’ plan now,” demurs Offord (although, given the rapidly changing political landscape, it’s obviously no longer hers, either).

If the start was audacious, then the future looks no less thrilling. The Umlauts went down so brilliantly at last year’s End Of The Road festival – at Dorset’s Larmer Tree Gardens – that they were invited back this year, and are now working on their first album.

“It’s been a bit slow, especially over the summer with doing so many shows,” admits Offord. “But we’re getting back into it now. Winter is the best time to write stuff, I find. You’ve got to keep warm by doing something.”

While we wait for the album – expected in 2023 – there’s the not-inconsiderable new EP, ‘Another Fact’, to ponder. Featuring six progressive tracks that take the listener on a bohemian journey through the lives and loves of Mödlinger and Faldini, the meaning is often obscured if you don’t happen to speak any of the languages of western Europe. Opening with a recording of an organ being tuned in Ghent Cathedral, it bursts into the erogenous ‘The Quickening’. So what’s the story?

“I’d gone to Ghent with my dad, who really likes cycling,” says Offord. “So while he went off for a bike ride around Flanders, I was left to my own devices, wandering around the city for the day.

“I made that recording for the ‘The Quickening’ on my phone and added it to the other music, which had sounded a bit shit up to then, to be honest. But when I put the organ over it, it became so much stranger and notes fell in weird places.”

‘Another Fact’ acts as something of a palate-cleanser after The Umlauts’ last EP, introducing a host of new sounds.

“Most of them are happy accidents,” admits Offord. “Sometimes you try stuff out and it works.”

Experimental or not, ‘Another Fact’ finds the band sounding much bolder and more confident. Take the blistering ‘Non É Ancora’, bolstered by a romantic ode to Italian punks CCCP Fedeli Alla Linea, or the sweet, wonky pop perfection of ‘Sweat’. The sound has been augmented throughout with the excellent violin work of Magdalena McLean, whose frenetic bowing takes these tracks to new cinematic heights.

“There were some things we were doing on the first record, on tracks like ‘Remedy Song’, that had quite an orchestral feel to them,” says Offord. “So when we started putting together the live band it made a lot of sense to have Magda play those violin sections, even though on that recording there isn’t any real violin – it’s all synthesiser. And then, through playing live, it became apparent that we needed violin sections on the next record.”

McLean isn’t available for the interview, but there are other Umlauts who grace our chat. The band has grown from a four-piece to a nine-piece for live shows, with members who have become increasingly involved with the whole process. There’s drummer and beat programmer Toby Kempner, for instance, a friend from Stroud who is now a full-time Umlaut.

“When we were younger, we would write songs together every Saturday because when you’re a teenager you’ve got a hell of a lot of time,” remembers Kempner.

“But this is totally different because the songs are written by the four-piece, and then there’s the challenge of arranging the live band with lots of electronic and textural elements. So you think, ‘How can we express those on the instruments we’ve got in the room?’. The violin can take melodic lines, but it’s also used rhythmically, while with the acoustic drums, you lose the timbre of the drum machine, but you gain all the expression your body can put into the acoustic instrument.”

Also on the line is Freya Tate, their live show percussionist, and yet another member of the Stroud mafia.

“I latched onto them as being interesting, creative people when we worked at the same arts centre, the Stroud Valleys Artspace,” says Tate. “But I used to see them walking around town as 14-year-olds in their drainpipe trousers.”

The title track from ‘Another Fact’ is a pulsing, caterwauling anthem of decadence that benefits from added percussion, while the accompanying video is a riot of oddness. Paul, the freaky dancer who gyrates through the streets of south London, approached the band one evening in the hope of becoming The Umlauts’ very own Bez.

“He came up to Annabelle at a show and asked if he could dance at a festival with us,” says Offord. “And we said, ‘No, you can’t do that, but you can do a video instead’.”

“It’s a long song to dance to all the way through,” adds Kempner. “The man’s got stamina.”

Although the group have worked with decent cinematographers, they’ve just failed spectacularly in trying to make their own video with camera phones.

“That definitely won’t be coming out anytime soon,” chuckles Faldini.

Thankfully, Faldini and Mödlinger have other discernable talents to bring to The Umlauts’ table. On the new EP, a righteous and raucous melange of vernaculars often front up to each other, as in the angry French and German of ‘Frightened’. It’s a mixture that Mödlinger says can become “really explosive, really quickly”.

Faldini reveals that she’s tried to write aggressively in Italian but it doesn’t work for her, so she finds herself reverting to French instead. It’s somewhat odd that it should seem political to be using different languages, but here we are.

“Yes, it does tend to become political,” nods Mödlinger. “It almost feels like it’s becoming fetishised in a way, but I think it’s a personal choice that we make in using lyrics that we both feel comfortable with.”

Faldini agrees. “I can imagine how, from the outside, it might appear very thought through and planned. But, to be honest, it’s about doing what feels natural and comfortable within a certain song. It makes me feel close to my roots to sing in Italian and French.”

I tell them that before The Umlauts, the only German rap I had listened to was Falco (he of ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ fame) , but I’m now finding myself enjoying Romano and Shirin David.

“As a kid, I grew up with loads of German rap, and I actually hate it,” laughs Mödlinger. “My brother loves it, but whenever he puts it on at a party or something, I’ll be the first person to switch it off. The intonation in German rap is quite different to what I do.

“When we were in Switzerland, I had a very interesting conversation with a guy who said what I do is German but I kind of do it with an English intonation. He was like, ‘I haven’t heard German lyric-writing like that before’.”

“It’s funny you mention Falco,” adds Faldini. “Last summer, I was at someone’s house in Austria and I randomly met Falco’s keyboard player. We just spoke about music and he ended up hearing the tracks from the new EP before they were released – he’d asked me for a little preview, so I sent them to him. We said we’d keep in touch, and he was like, ‘Oh, if I’m ever in London, it would be nice to go out’. Never heard from him again.”

‘Another Fact’ is out on PRAH Recordings

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