Great music often originates from small local scenes. It only needs one person to start a label, open a record store, put on shows or improve the qualitiy of the university radio station. That might spur on others to follow the example and start their own band, their own label or do anything else that supports the scene. All of a sudden you have more great artists and labels in a town of 50.000 citizens than in a place ten times as large. Some examples are well known.
The Kammerflimmer Kollektief proves that you don´t need to live in a town with a vibrant local music scene to achieve great results. All members of the band hail from the mid-sized town of Karlsruhe, Germany, close to the French border and just north of the black forest. “Karlsruhe is not really a common place for a band to come from”, Johannes Frisch tells who plays upright bass in the band, “when I think about it, we´re the only band I know in which all members come from Karlsruhe.” In the beginning, the Kammerflimmer Kollektief was just the one-man project of Thomas Weber, responsible for guitar and electronics in the collective. Soon it grew to a proper band. Weber remembers how the band got together: “Our first record ‘Mäander’ was initially my solo project. In 1998, I had produced some songs with just electronic means. For the release of the album, I got the idea to record the songs with an actual band. And at the same time, we all met because we had similar musical interests.”
‘Mäander’ came out in 1999 on the now defunct Payola label in Germany. Defying any categorization, ‘Mäander’ nods to free and traditional jazz at times, but also reminds of Cluster in their period in the second half of the 1970s. While there are already acoustic and electric instruments like piano, guitar, woodwinds and bowed instruments, the electronic origin of the album is clearly noticeable. Most sounds are treated, stretched, distorted, played backwards or looped. Shortly after the release of ‘Mäander’, the band recorded their second album ‘Incommunicado’, which radically reworked the material of the first album, as Weber explains: “Incommunicado was based on the material of ‘Mäander’, but was fully improvised. It was entirely played live and pressed on disc without overdubs. It´s very free jazzy compared to ‘Mäander’”.
By the time of their third album ‘Hysteria’, which originally came out on the Japanese P-Vine label and was re-released by Staubgold´s sister label Quecksilber in 2004, the electronic and the live playing elements of the collective´s sounds had blended into an organic mix. Frisch describes the balance of electronic and non-electronic elements: “The Kammerflimmer Kollektief is sort of a joint venture of live playing and electronic arranging. Those elements have grown together over the years, so that the differences are not really present anymore.” When listening to the music of the Kammerflimmer Kollektief, the electronic elements are hardly perceptible anymore. All instruments join together in a way that is earthbound and cosmic at the same time. While the instruments might be treated with effects on the computer, one doesn´t hear it on record.
The band name refers to a heart-disease called Kammerflimmern (ventricular fibrillation) and seems to hint at the idea of the band playing another kind of chamber music. At least the instrumentation of their music bears some resemblances to classic chamber music. The collective currently consists of six members playing drums, vibraphone, guitar, upright bass, violin, viola, harmonium, saxophone, electronics and other instruments. When I meet up with the collective, they´re playing in the Nachtasyl bar of Hamburg´s historic Thalia theatre as a trio with Frisch and Weber joined by Heike Aumüller on harmonium. The live show mixes reinterpreted older material with entirely new songs. It starts out slow and gentle, but quickly gains momentum. For the last long song, the band jointly engage in an ecstatic performance. It´s exciting to watch the three treating their instruments with growing intensity, which translates into a hypnotic sonic experience. Improvised and rehearsed elements interchange.
As they explain to me, live playing is often an essential part of the collective´s recording process. “Most of our songs originate from playing live shows. Tonight for example we are performing a new song that we started working on a few weeks ago based on an idea we had recorded on tape. While playing the song live and improvising based on the original idea, we try to take that idea further and see where it´ll lead us”, Frisch specifies. The finishing touch to each song is usually carried out by Weber who arranges it on the computer. “I love to play live”, he tells, “but I tend to be very perfectionist. I always want certain elements louder or more pointed. Obviously that doesn´t really work live. Playing live always involves a lot of aspects you can´t plan. At the same time, said uncertainty is also the starting point for new and exciting ideas. In the band we like those imponderabilities.”
Over the years and most notably starting with the release of Kammerflimmer Kollektief´s fourth album ‘Cicadidae’, the band´s sound has become more harmonic. Trademark Kammerflimmer Kollektief songs like ‘Neumond Inselhin’ or ‘Unstet (for Jeffrey Pierce)’ start and end with a soothing melody that gets taken apart in the middle part by tense and haunting improvisations. “That structure of many tracks often happens automatically when we play together, but sometimes I also create that tension while arranging a track on the computer. I like dynamic music that has different levels to it”, Weber explains. Despite the aforementioned abrasiveness of some of the later songs´ middle parts, there are rarely outright harsh and repulsive moments as on ‘Mäander’. When mentioning that development towards a growing harmony in their recordings, Weber laughs: “In the worst case that development is due to our growing age. It wasn´t really our intention to become more harmonic on our later recordings. That rather happened intuitively. There are just too many aspects to why our music sounds like it sounds. We don´t agree on making a quieter record. It just happens naturally.” Aumüller adds: “The mood of each record comes naturally when we play together. That way we usually find a common direction.” Another specific feature of Kammerflimmer Kollektief records is the mix of short and long tracks. The 3 to 4 minute pop song format is none that the band adheres to. “That mix just adds variety to an album”, Weber clarifies, “I like long meandering excursions that don´t really start and stop anywhere as well as short and concise tracks with a melody and a song structure.”
Allocating the Kammerflimmer Kollektief sound to a certain genre is next to impossible. Not just their cryptic songtitles, but also some elements of their music bear similarities to Krautrock bands like Neu!, Cluster or post-moog Popol Vuh. Free Jazz and classical music are noticeable references as well. The last two albums also featured some country music elements, which might have motivated the band to describe their sound as “Cosmic Country” on their Myspace website. This blend of styles is due to the different musical backgrounds of the band members as Frisch describes: “Two of us have an explicit jazz background, but one of them also plays in a country band. Heike Wendelin who plays violin also plays in a country band and our sax player performs in a band with ten other saxophonists.” Weber emphasises: “That´s what I like about the band. All members have roots in different styles and that makes it interesting to play together. I like jazz music, too and would like to be able to play it, but until now I just didn´t have the patience to learn a wind-instrument properly. Getting some influences from jazz is fine for me.”Photos by Sebastian Mader
Since the release of ‘Cicadidae’, the Kammerflimmer Kollektief has found a permanent home with the renowned Staubgold label that also released 2005´s ‘Absencen’ and re-released ‘Hysteria’ on their Quecksilber sister label. The band and the label got together in a rather traditional way as Weber remembers: “At a certain point, Payola that had released our first two albums quit their business. I had finished ‘Cicadidae’ and wanted to send it to several labels that I found to be suitable for releasing the album. Staubgold was the first label I called and Markus Detmer who runs the label immediately agreed to put the record out. We´re very happy with being on the label.” Three Kammerflimmer Kollektief albums were also released internationally on the Temporary Residence Ltd. imprint. In retrospect, Weber doubts it helped the band very much on an international scale though as he tells: “We do get quite a lot of international attention, but I don´t think that´s due to having had releases on non-German labels. The problem with releasing on a label in a different country is that you can only communicate via email which makes the cooperation more difficult. Also, Staubgold is set up pretty internationally anyway.”
Most recently, Staubgold released two 12” Singles with remixes of Kammerflimmer Kollektief songs. In the near future these will be compiled on a CD with two new tracks featured as well. “The remixes were an idea of Tim Tetzner who used to work for Staubgold and runs the Dense record store in Berlin”, Weber reflects, “We´re very happy with the results, especially because the approach taken by the remixers differs so much. Most remixers were picked by the label, but of course we had a word in it as well.” In addition, the band just started working on the next album as Weber reveals: “The new one will be better than anything we´ve done before. We´re confident it´ll be finished sometime next year, but we´ll take our time. We just put together a new live program with many songs we haven´t really played together before, so things still have to grow a bit.” Next to performing the new material live, the band also just celebrated the premiere of their rendition of Terry Riley´s ‘In C’ at the Austrian Donaufestival festival in Korneuburg. Frisch gives more details: “The organizers of the festival asked us to perform something other than our regular live program, so we chose to do ‘In C’. We´ll play it by the full score, but it is so simple that it fits on one sheet for each player and leaves enough room for interpretation and improvisation.” With so many projects to go around, the Kammerflimmer Kollektief already has put Karlsruhe on the map. What else will follow from that town, time will tell.
-- Stephan Bauer (10 July, 2006)