Lüül and Chris Franke in their early, pre-AF days
Interview with Lutz Ulbrich
by Jason Gross
Even music fans who know bits and pieces about Kosmische music (aka Krautrock) probably have at least HEARD of legendary names like Can, Amon Duul, Faust , Cluster, Ash Ra, Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Popul Vuh (do yourself a favor and get very familiar with them if you haven't) but there's another one of their contemporaries that doesn't get mentioned as much though they should. Agitation Free were a psychedelic band in every sense of the word, one that would have fit in well with the original U.S. jam bands of the '60's. AF was certainly well connected, working with, colliding and swapping members with a number of the German bands mentioned above. After a number of line-up changes, they preserved for several years from about 1967 to about the mid '70's to only put out two albums to their name (their 1972 debut Melesch and 1973's 2nd) before calling it quits. The appropriately, posthumous titled Last appeared in '76 and there have been some archival live recordings from the mid '70's which saw the light of day decades later and the occasional run of brief reunions but that's been it for AF. Luckily, their small recorded legacy stands large in Kosmische lore and is available digitally (you might have to hunt around and shell out for physical copies on vinyl or CD).
One mainstay of the band has been guitarist Lutz Ulbrich, who we managed to track down in a tribute to the late Edgar Froese. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to talk more about his own career, we managed to interrogate Lüül (as he's sometimes known) about his beginnings in music and the early years of AF. With the recent passing of Dieter Moebius, maybe it's time we honored some of the Kosmische heroes while they're still among us.
PSF: Before you were in any bands, what kind of interest did you have in music when you were young?
LU: Well, I began learning guitar at the age of 12 when I had listened to "Roll Over Beethoven," the Chuck Berry song played by the Beatles. My father bought an acoustic guitar for me and after only a few lessons I decided to form my first band "The Tigers." Meanwhile, I had got an electric guitar from an elder musician and without knowing too much about music we started jamming.
PSF: What was the music scene like then in Berlin at that time?
LU: In the early '60's not much was going on in West Berlin. There were only a few clubs and not many bands around. All of these bands were mostly trying to copy American or English groups, so nothing really new happened. That changed in the late '60's when Agitation Free, Ash Ra Tempel, Tangerine Dream started the "Berliner Schule"- the beginning of the later called "Krautrock."
PSF: How did you meet up with Manuel Gottsching and Chris Franke early on?
LU: To begin with Chris Franke, who I knew form the kindergarten already. We were neighbors in Charlottenburg - Eichkamp. So when he heard that I was starting to play electric guitar - amplified by a radio - he came by with some "microphones" he had got out of a telephone! He then became our drummer. In absence of a drum kit, playing on laundry detergent boxes.
During my guitar lessons at the music school, I later also met Manuel Gottsching, who happened to have the same teacher. But these were only short encounters. Then both of us did not know that we would join (together) playing with Ash Ra Tempel later on. We really got to know each other at the "Beatstudio" which Agitation Free had installed together with avant-garde composer Thomas Kessler and what became the meeting point for innovative bands like Ash Ra Tempel and Tangerine Dream.
PSF: Did other bands that started in the late '60's in Germany have an effect on you and your music?
LU: I remember going to a Tangerine Dream Concert in the late '60's, I think it was at a school party. That indeed had an impact on us as we saw Edgar Froese playing a furious guitar and trying to explore new frontiers. That gave us courage to also try to find new ways of sounds. When all of us were rehearsing at Beatstudio, each band influenced the others, but more importantly was the inspiration of Thomas Kessler, the Swiss avant-garde composer who really helped us developing in showing us methods and music from composers like Terry riley or Steve Reich. And of course Amon D üül who came by when we were rehearsing at the Kommune I. These musicians were a bit older than we were and we adored them. Kraftwerk, Neu and other bands from West Germany not so much. Later in the '70's, Can and Kraan became friends with us and we became fans of each other.
PSF: Did you have the feeling that your work was also influencing others in other bands?
LU: I cannot say, you must ask the other bands
PSF: Was there a feeling of camaraderie/friendship between these bands at the time?
LU: Yes and no. Living in Berlin made it a bit difficult to have close contact with West German bands, but of course in Berlin, we helped each other, listened to each other, organized and played concerts together. We liked each other, but also were rivals. For instance, at a time Edgar was looking for new band members for Tangerine Dream and as we had lost a guitar player with Agitation Free, he asked us to join TD, but of course we preferred to stay in our own band and (we had) better look for a new guitar player.
PSF: What were the audiences like for these early shows?
LU: You can see a typical audience in that fantastic video which shows what was going on at the time, on YouTube "Tangerine Dream bath tube session."
PSF: Was there a feeling about this generation that they wanted to distance themselves from what happened in World War II?
LU: Of course!!! It was all about it, especially in West Berlin with all the student revolutionaries. That is also were the name Agitation Free came from. In those days, we were playing a lot at universities and for students and had contacts to the whole scene with anarchy movements and all that stuff. We wanted to break down old cliches and pattern and open up for a new, better, tolerant and open world.
PSF: How did Agitation Free come together at first?
LU: We started in autumn '67 in Berlin when two bands - The Sentries with Chris Franke and me - and Ugly Things with Ludwig Kramer and Michael GŁnther came together to try something new.
PSF: Was there any idea about what the band would be like at the start?
LU: Yes, we wanted to create something new after we had copied English and American bands to learn how to play. We thought it was about time to find our own music. The revolutionary atmosphere was in the air and had a big impact on us as well.
PSF: Where did the band's name come from?
LU: Our light show man - Folke Hanfeld - put his finger in an English dictionary with his eyes closed and found "agitation"! We liked the word right away. After we had played a free concert at the Quasimodo and they had written "free" behind Agitation to announce "free admission," we kept it that way as we thought that Agitation Free is even better and matches exactly what we were trying to do, even if the spelling might not be correct English.
PSF: Talk about the light shows that the band was famous for early on- were they unique at the time?
LU: I think we were the most advanced band in that area and Folke Hanfeld was a very innovative guy who also made fantastic super 8 short movies. Here excerpts from the agitation-free.de website.
"Intermedia" was launched in the winter of 1969. It was to be multi-media show with all the trimmings, and in fact Folkes used it for his A-Level thesis in his major of art. We chose the auditorium of the Waldschule in Eichkamp as the location, it being the only place we could get for free for a whole month in advance of the show. We needed that much time for preparation, as the stage sets were immense: Agitation Free was to play inside a huge box covered with transparent cellophane, upon which slides and films would be projected. Canvas screens were affixed to the walls and ceiling, also for film, slide, and liquid gel projections. A wall of television sets was erected; in front of the TV sets discs powered by tiny electric motors constantly rotated. Numerous tiny holes had been punctured in these discs, resulting in constantly shifting patterns. The floor was covered with half-inflated truck tires, and live mealworms and ants, slowly melting under the heat of a projector's lamp, could be seen by the audience on one of the screens. It was a gigantic Happening!
The first performance (this we had to promise in advance) was only for teachers, the director, and invited guests. The chaos began the following day with the second performance. At least 1500 people turned up for the show, although the hall could only seat 400. Outside the auditorium a state of siege prevailed - now and again attempts were made to "storm the barricades". Was the school director (and my French teacher) Herr Riemer ever cross!
PSF: Did the light show affect the way that the band played?
LU: Well of course it all was meant to interact with each other. Mixed Media was the new thing like what Andy Warhol did with the Exploding Plastic Inevitable (with the Velvet Underground). We wanted to explore new fields - not only in music - and light show was part of it. Though we only did that in Berlin and not when we were touring later.
PSF: The band played many shows at the Zodiac Club- what was that like?
LU: The Zodiac was a innovative club where bands, art students and people from the left wing political scene hung out. Konrad Schnitzler was one of the owners, so you might imagine what that was about. There also is a short movie about it on YouTube
More excerpts: "Shortly thereafter Ludwig and I met Volker Cornelius. Volker was a flipped-out architecture student living in a tiny storefront near the Berlin-Charlottenburg elevated train station. Like Roland Paulik he was an organizational genius, and soon became a kind of political guru to us. He assumed our management, took incredibly good photos, and printed posters and admission tickets. Through his connections we became the house band in Berlin's first underground club, the "ZODIAC". At this time Michael Hoenig was already part of the "scene" as a co-editor of the underground newspaper "LOVE".
In the ZODIAC club, we got to know the bands Cluster, Curly Curve and Tangerine Dream, whose onstage performances alternated with ours. When the ZODIAC had to close due to its resident drug scene, we relocated to the "Beautiful Balloon" on the Lehniner Platz (formerly the home of the "Kabaret der Komiker," the "Comedians' Cabaret"). We had a wonderful tenure there, often playing until the early hours of the morning; this naturally meant trouble the next day in school, when we could hardly keep from falling asleep in class!"
PSF: Did the Zodiac live up to its infamous reputation?
LU: Well, it surely was THE club at the time where it all happened as described before.
PSF: Why wasn't (singer) John L. a good fit for the band?
LU: Oh wow! Now you get me. Well, he was not a real musician in my opinion. He was just a lunatic coming from a small town, who was trying to fly in Berlin. I think he tried everything! Being on drugs most of the time and stripping during the shows it was a bit over the top I would say. Also, he contribution in music was not much. But of course, he kept going to the limit on every show, screaming and shouting, being crazy, but not really doing music. At a point, our guitar player Ludwig was checking his wah wah pedal during the sound check and when he stood up, he hit his head at John's penis as John was standing there naked - and that was it. But the funny thing was: even after John was thrown out of the band he kept coming on stage whenever we played and stripped. That went on for quite some time...
PSF: Why did Chris Franke leave the group?
LU: He decided that he had done enough drumming and was longing for further experiences. He had substituted in Tangerine Dream sometimes already, when they did have a drummer, and seemed to be pleased with the TD musical direction. So he sold his drum kit, bought a synthesizer when not one of us would even know how that is written nor what that instrument was all about. Chris was a fantastic drummer and we could not really see why he stopped playing drums, but history proved him right.
PSF: In the early years, the band had many line-up changes- why was that?
LU: Actually, I do not think that there were so many changes, not more than in other bands around. At our age, we were not so experienced and egos were quite strong, that might be the main reason, we did not work longer in the same line up. But 2 years for the first line up is okay, I find.
PSF: Agitation Free toured the Middle East in the early '70's?
LU: Yes, we were the first rock band touring the Near East, it was magic and an unforgettable experience for all of us.
PSF: What was that tour like?
LU: A big culture clash! So many new impressions it was just unbelievable, like a dream. That is what we tried to express on Malesch.
PSF: What are some of the high points and low points of that tour?
LU: Low: too much money to get our equipment out of the customs every time we entered a new country. And the general technical standard was extremely low, so we had to rely on our own equipment we had brought with us. High: everything, people, climate, food, concerts, just a wonderful trip for all of us.
PSF: AF finally put out their first album in the early '70's- why did it take so long for the band to do a first album?
LU: That was due to our split up in '69, when Chris Franke and Ax Genrich left the band right at the moment Rolf Ulrich Kaiser was offering us a contract. So it took a while to find new musicians to get Agitation Free going again.
PSF: For the first album, was that representative of the band's sound at the time?
LU: More or less, but at live concerts, we had longer pieces and played a bit wilder. It was difficult for us to get our music into a LP format with 30 minutes each side.
PSF: I know that AF shared practice spaces with other bands like Tangerine Dream- did you find that the other groups were supportive of AF?
LU: Yes, as I told (you) earlier, each band learned from the other and sometimes we were jamming together or helped out. It was like a big family as you can see the line up over the years in band like Tangerine Dream, Ash Ra Tempel and Agitation Free. Michael Hoenig played with TD and Manuel. Chris Franke played with TD and AF. I played with AF and A.R.T. (Ash Ra Tempel).
Also see Ulbrich's homepage, which includes information about his new book about Nico and his recent musical projects and the Agitation Free website and our 2007 interview with Lüül
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