Dieter Meier and Boris Blank are back with a new Yello album. Four years in the making, it’s a collection of typically sassy and surreal electronic pop songs, including one with a mysterious fruit reference… 

“Sounds are my world,” says Boris Blank, one half of the Swiss duo Yello. “Whatever occurs on the planet, I can use for inspiration.”  

With vocalist Dieter Meier as his co-conspirator, Blank has changed the shape of electronic music many times. Hunkered down in his Zürich studio like a professor in a laboratory, fragments and snippets and samples of sound are the raw materials with which he conducts his experiments, obsessively testing his hypotheses until they’re ready to reveal to the public.  

“Whenever Boris finishes something, after years of working, he’ll tell me, ‘Now I will take a big break’,” says Dieter Meier. “But a week later, he’s already back in the studio, because that’s his life.” 

Yello are one of the most recognised electropop groups. They are also among the longest-running. They’ve worked together for over four decades and have lost none of their lustre. Their 1985 song ‘Oh Yeah’ has featured in multiple Hollywood films and they made an even bigger splash in the UK charts with ‘The Race’ in 1988, an unmistakable sampledelic potpourri of motoring excerpts, funk rhythms, Latin American percussion and Meier’s whispery vocals.  

Meier and Blank also had an impact on the birth of house and techno. Tracks like ‘Bostich’ and ‘You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess’ powered the sets of late period disco DJs, influencing everyone from Mantronix to Derrick May and providing early building blocks for electronic dance music. The extraordinary mixture of pop appeal and experimental savvy is the secret of Yello’s success. And it’s a balance that is evident again on the duo’s latest album, ‘Point’, their first studio outing since ’Toy’ in 2016.  

‘Point’ is loaded with memorable hooks, intricate details, and musical twists and turns. In places, it has the Afro-Cuban swing of Yello’s classic song ‘La Habanera’, simultaneously suggesting more surprising influences like spy thriller soundtracks or enigmatic Berlin electro.  

Boris Blank says the process behind the new album’s construction was the same as with all his other creations. An articulate and courteous interviewee, he is happy to explain how he forms his tracks by meticulously combing through his vast collection of sounds and gradually finding things that fit together into patchwork symphonies. 

“My computer is full of folders, which one day I open and take everything out, and then I put a song together,” he says. “Like a painter is using colours, I use sounds. I’m like a squirrel. I hide my nuts in the folders and one day I pick them out. No notes and no ideas for harmonies. I just start like a child, to put patterns or fragments of music together, and most of the time I surprise myself. It’s how I’ve been making music for the last 40 years.” 

Blank’s creative approach has changed a little due to advances in technology, though. He works mostly on a computer now, with just a few boxes of tricks to help him sculpt his masterpieces. 

“Compared with the studio 10 years ago, there’s limited equipment,” he notes. “There is a mixing desk from Audient and two sample machines — an E-MU E64 Ultra, which I hardly use anymore, and the Ableton Push. There is still the ARP Odyssey, a good old friend, but it’s for decoration. I have a keyboard from Native Instruments as the master keyboard, then I work with Symphony from Apogee, and I’m still using Logic as a sequencer. I use a lot of software synthesisers.”  

Dieter Meier only comes into the studio once Blank has sketched the songs, writing his lyrics, harmonies and melodies to fit with Blank’s initial work.  

“We are the perfect symbiotic people,” says Meier. “Boris loves to be in the studio, he loves to be alone for years to develop his beautiful sonic paintings, but then eventually I’m invited to dive in. The lyrics and the melodies come to me easily, because the sounds that Boris makes are very original and they suit my voice.” 

This division of labour and the fact that the band’s two members only meet periodically have been important factors in their musical partnership. 

“That’s the secret behind our 40-year collaboration, that we are not speaking to each other in our work,” says Blank. 

Dieter Meier is often otherwise engaged anyway. A successful businessman in the food and drink industries, he owns the Ojo de Agua vineyard and cattle ranch in Argentina, as well as walnut and hazelnut plantations. He is currently building a chocolate factory in Switzerland based on what he describes as “a new cold extraction pattern”. In between, he’s been working on a novel and playing with his acoustic band in St Moritz.  

Meier’s colourful life dates back before Yello. For a while, he was a professional poker player. 

“It’s a very tough game,” he says. “There is no world behind the poker table. Every real gambler does it. Not to make a lot of money. They do it to escape the world.” 

As you might expect from a wordsmith, Meier’s conversational language is interesting and impeccable. When he writes his lyrics, he always uses a vintage Hermès typewriter. He enjoys the physicality of the process and it’s a method he has used for many years. 

“That’s for sentimental reasons,” he says. “As a young artist, one of the first things I was able to do was write articles, but I was never happy with what I did. The typewriter at least gave me a feeling of producing something. When you push this thing down and the letters fly onto the paper, it is a big satisfaction. My book that I published some years ago was called ‘Hermes Baby’, because this is a very typical Swiss typewriter, and people from all over the country sent me typewriters. I have about 20 now, all different kinds from all different sources. I could almost open a museum.” 

Meier’s debonair vocals give Yello’s music a distinctive character. Always charming, sometimes mysterious, sometimes humorous, his voice is an instrument capable of taking on multiple roles. Like the protagonist on Blank’s theatre stage, he sings, whispers, tells stories, makes percussive sounds and communicates in staccato grooves. On the opening track of ‘Point’, ‘Waba Duba’, Meier turns a meaningless phrase into a potent hook, like a modern-day Little Richard or maybe Fred Flintstone, crafting something that matches the sass and rambunctiousness of ‘Oh Yeah’. 

“I normally start off with a non-existent language, with nonsense lyrics, and then suddenly some ideas come up,” he says. “It’s like being an actor in a movie. I create characters and I have always impersonated different people in the lyrics that I’m writing.” 

Another track on the album, ‘The Vanishing Of Peter Strong’, is even more enigmatic. Over dusty drums, crackles of electrical interference and a bubbling acid bassline, Meier recounts the tale of Peter amid “Red curtains, red velvet / A man wearing a very strange hat / Came close to Peter / Looked deep into his eyes and said / ‘Holy banana’”. It’s funny, weird and inventive. Yello in miniature, in other words. 

“The lyrics came from nowhere,” explains Meier. “I went to the recording room and I was just improvising to find out what kind of sound my voice would have. When I was done, Boris said, ‘That’s it’. In all, developing this song took me probably about 20 minutes. In most cases, I’m immediately inspired and things come easy, but they can go easy as well. When somebody asks me about the specific songs, I can usually only tell them that I have forgotten.” 

Blank founded Yello during the late 1970s with Carlos Perón, recruiting Meier as a vocalist soon after. Prior to starting the group, Blank had been entranced by psychedelic rock outfits like Pink Floyd and the pioneering jazz music of Miles Davis. 

“It was a time when bands invented themselves and invented new music,” he says. “Nothing that they did was there before. Everything was original.” 

Herbie Hancock was another important inspiration for him, particularly his experimental album ‘Sextant’. 

“It blew my mind. The instruments! I read the credits of the record, saw the ARP 2600, and then went to the bank so I could buy my first synth. It was the initial spark to my music career.” 

The influence of Herbie Hancock can still be heard in Blank’s work. One of the best tracks on ‘Point’ is ‘Basic Avenue’, which is propelled by an electro-funk bass and a stop-start drum groove. There’s also a slick talk box vocal from Blank himself, exhorting the listener to “get back to that bass”.  

“This is a funk track, for sure,” he says. “I like funk a lot.”  

Just as Yello’s early pieces helped to shape electronic dance music, some of the material on ‘Point’ owes a clear debt to modern house and techno. Blank says he is an admirer of the current Berlin scene and tunes such as ‘Out Of Sight’ have a four-to-the-floor beat and a tight electro bassline. This is not the first time that the band have entered into a dialogue with clubland. Their 1995 remix album, ‘Hands On Yello’, saw them open their vaults to some of the biggest names in dance music, including Carl Craig, Moby, The Orb, The Grid and Oliver Lieb. 

“Lots of people were using samples from ‘The Race’, from ‘Oh Yeah’, from a lot of other tracks as well,” says Blank. “So we invited everybody to Zürich and told them they could sample whatever they wanted.”  

Elsewhere on ‘Point’, there’s a strong sense of espionage and intrigue. ‘Rush For Joe’ is like the soundtrack to a movie heist scene, where a bustle of Latin percussion meets louche jazz flute and trumpet. It’s reminiscent of a Lalo Schifrin production. There are suggestions of Monte Carlo, James Bond and continental sophistication. 

“It does sound very much like a robbery,” agrees Blank. “It’s like ‘Ocean’s Eleven’. That’s what motivated me.” 

The cinematic feel continues on the hypnotising ‘Siren Singing’. A dramatic piece written with frequent collaborator Fifi Rong, it has shades of both Massive Attack and Elizabeth Fraser. Precise, clear, and full of real world noises and sounds, Yello’s bold songs are strongly visual and instantly evocative. Boris Blank, who is blind in one eye, believes he knows why that might be. 

“I have a good friend who was a neurological doctor and he thinks that I compensate for my blind eye with the pictures in my music,” he says. 

Whatever Yello’s influences, they are put together in a unique manner. No one else has their singular sound, that mix of human warmth combined with a pristine electronic production touch, and all spiked with madcap humour. Blank finds it hard to narrow down exactly what he likes. There’s so much of it, he says he can’t choose. 

“This is so difficult. It could be an Afro-Cuban record that is swinging my hips. I like Frank Sinatra and I like traditional stuff from Kyrgyzstan. I like Miles Davis still today. He was a master of music in the last century. There’s The Normal’s ‘Warm Leatherette’. There’s The Orb and Depeche Mode. There are so many things that I love. I can’t begin to count them.” 

In many ways, the main driver for Yello seems to be the joy of discovery itself, the shock of uncovering something new through the application of ideas and experimentation. 

“Boris is like an artist who starts painting a rose somewhere in the top corner of a canvas, only to be surprised to find that there is no rose at the end, but instead there is a rhinoceros or a camel,” says Meier. “This makes his way of creating unique. He lets himself be inspired by what’s happening in the process. I wouldn’t call it improvisation because he works very hard on his next steps, but the steps are always sound bound. This is what keeps him fresh.” 

Beyond his album projects, Blank has also been involved in the development of an innovative music-making app. Yellofier takes any recorded sound and mangles, manipulates and transforms it, turning it into music. It has a voiceover manual narrated by The The’s Matt Johnson too. It’s another example of Blank’s ceaseless curiosity for sonic exploration. 

That Yello will return again in a few years with another sparkling gem seems highly probable. As Dieter Meier himself knows, there’s no keeping Boris Blank out of the studio, out of his happy place. 

“That’s his oxygen tent, to be in the studio creating sounds,” says Meier.  

‘Point’ is on Polydor 

You May Also Like
Read More

Irmin Schmidt: About Schmidt

With the imminent release of a bumper box set of his solo work, one-time Can man Irmin Schmidt looks back over his illustrious career and talks about fleeing war-torn Berlin as a child, learning his trade under Stockhausen, and his sonic adventures in the worlds of classical music, experimental electronics, film soundtracks and fantasy operatics
Read More

Radiophonic Workshop: Doctors of Radio Phonics

With an almighty album of analogue improvisations spread over four 10-inch vinyl discs about to remind the world that Radiophonic Workshop’s influence on electronic music is immeasurable, we meet them to find out how the old days shaped the future
Read More

Hinako Omori: The Soft Bulletin

Somewhere in the mid-point between electronic, ambient and classical, composer Hinako Omori creates potent “therapeutic frequencies”. Deploying analogue synths and binaural sound, her second long-player is  an experimental and deeply enchanting patchwork
Read More

Fever Ray: Free Radical

Always striving to challenge the status quo, Swedish enigma and visionary Karin Dreijer does things very much on their own terms, artistically and musically. Here, they open up on electropop experimentation, identity politics and the “visceral confection” that is Fever Ray
Read More

Hannah Peel: Permanent Waves

Hannah Peel has surely and steadily established herself as one of the leading lights of the electronic world, with the likes of John Foxx, OMD and Paul Weller seeking out her services. With her new album, ‘Fir Wave’, she enjoys the unique privilege of retrospectively collaborating with her idol, the late Delia Derbyshire