Photo by Errefotografia
Thanking Their Friends
interview by Richard Moule
Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke are grateful for their friends. So much so that this experimental duo decided to pay tribute to them the only way they could: through their music. It is also the reason why the latest from this Berlin-based duo, under their moniker HackedePicciotto, is titled Keepsakes. American-born Danielle de Picciotto is a multi-disciplinary artist (artist, writer, filmmaker, musician), who moved to Berlin in 1987. She is the co-founder of the Love Parade, a collaborator of the Ocean Club with Gudrun Gut and Crime and the City Solution.
Multi-instrumentalist Alexander Hacke is the bass player and an original member of industrial/experimental pioneers, Einstürzende Neubauten.
Keepsakes, their second on Mute Records, is a series of musical portraits. Each song is a thank you to a close friend who has had an impact on them. This marks a departure from the universal and spiritual themes of albums like 2016's Perseverantia, 2020's The Current and 2021's The Silver Threshold.
Musically the album continues the evolution of its "cinematic drone" sound: pocket symphonies of string-based instruments (violin, auto harp and hurdy gurdy), rumbling rhythms, experimental electronics and multi-lingual poetic lyrics.
Beginning in 2010, this artistic and romantic couple were musical nomads, allowing them to collaborate and record in unusual locations like the Mojave Desert (2016's Perseverantia) or the amusements parks of Blackpool, England (2020's The Current).
With the lifting of pandemic restrictions, the couple again chose an unconventional location: the Neapolitan studio Auditorium Novecento in Naples, one of Europe's oldest recording spaces, where Enrico Caruso and Ennio Morricone recorded. PSF recently spoke to the couple recently about friendship, gratitude, recording in Naples, their love of Ennio Morricone, and their concept of "cinematic drone" music.
PSF: 'Keepsakes' are usually physical objects that hold specific memories connected to friends and families. Where did the idea for the record come from?
de Picciotto: During the pandemic we were thinking a lot about what we were missing most and how it was affecting us. And we realized that basically because we're a duo, we can continue working together without a problem. And we didn't mind being stuck at home because it was nice for us not to be traveling. So basically, the whole situation of the lockdown was perfectly okay for us except for one thing: that was we weren't able to see our friends. And a lot of our friends are not in Germany, they're international. Our life is usually spent going from one city to the next performing and meeting friends that are important to us, but because of the lockdown we couldn't. So, we realized how important friendship is to us. And we thought we'd like to dedicate our next album to friendship. That's why we consider it an ode of gratitude to all the people that have been in our lives as friends."
PSF: You even have a song on the album called "A Song of Gratitude." How would you define 'gratitude'?
de Picciotto: Gratitude in general is something that's become more and more important to me. It's something that I have tried to really do all the time to say thanks for things in my life. Simple things like having a roof over my head, being able to eat, being healthy, being able to do art. And I say thanks very often for the people that I meet and even more so for the people that have deeply touched me, even influenced me or pushed me in a certain direction. Because as you evolve and as you develop, you don't do that in a vacuum on your own. You do that by and with people that you love or people that are important to you. And their importance to you makes you develop and makes you evolve in one way or another.
PSF: Other than "Troubadour," which you have revealed as dedicated to musician/artist Dorothy Carter, you decided not to identify the names of friends to whom you pay tribute to on Keepsakes? Why?
de Picciotto: Well, there are little secrets in each track that kind of reveal who the track is for, so the people that know those people they could find out who it's dedicated to. On one hand, we certainly want to do them justice and on the other hand, it's important that we maintain our signature sound.
PSF: There are some great vocal harmonies on Keepsakes. What made you chose to sing one song in French and one in German: "Schwarze Milch" and "La Femme Sauvage"?
de Picciotto: Well, one, because the French song is dedicated to somebody who's French. And my first language was French. I thought it might be interesting to sing something in French. And the German piece is because the person we dedicated it to is German. And also lately, I write most of the lyrics and I've been thinking a lot about German lyrics.
PSF: This might not have been intentional, but there is a lot of humor on some of the tracks, in particular, "Schwarze Milch" and "La Femme Sauvage." Can you talk about the levity in those pieces?
de Picciotto: It's interesting that you find them humorful because "Schwarze Milch" is dedicated to somebody who has a very, very dark sense of humor. And "Femme Sauvage" is dedicated to a woman who also had a very, very strong sense of humor, but we didn't realize that came through.
Hacke: And, of course, the title: that's a pun, in a way, because there's Homme Sauvage, which is a perfume.
PSF: You have a long history of recording in different locations and spaces. whether it's in the Mojave Desert or in an old church in Austria or in Blackpool on the northwest coast of England. What made you choose Naples?
Hacke: Well, first of all, Naples is on the volcano and then the volcanic influence, you can certainly feel that. It has a certain energy that you don't find in other Italian cities like that.
de Picciotto: I was in Naples in '96 and it was one of the most extreme two weeks I had. There were bombs going off and everything went wrong and all our cars got stolen. It was complete insanity. So, when Alex said we're going to record there because he had fallen in love with the studio, I was very skeptical.
PSF: Keepsakes was recorded at one of Europe's oldest recording spaces, the Neapolitan studio Auditorium Novecento. Other than its vintage equipment and recording space, did you feel the spirit of the famous people who had recorded there?
Hacke: I believe in the concept of sacred spaces and I believe certain recording studios are such sacred places where certain spirits have been evoked and I think that is something that lingers in a place like that. Ennio Morricone and Enrico Caruso recorded in these places and I only remember that when we were in the studio and they told us that Morricone had left his celeste there and that there were these tubular bells. They even showed us the vaults underneath the studio where all the recordings were of the old opera singers of the '40's.
PSF: You have mentioned that you only had two weeks to record this album. How did that figure into your composing of songs?
de Picciotto: I think because it was so intense and all of these vibes were around us it did become a magical process. I don't exactly remember how we did it, I just know that we did it and we didn't have time to prepare at all. We were super stressed before so we didn't have time to prepare anything except the theme and then we just kind of immersed ourselves in it and then it was done.
Hacke: But that's what usually happens in our collaboration is we never have a lot of time or a lot of funds to produce our music so we have to be very efficient and very effective in everything we do. Also, the locations where we record always have a very important role whether it's in the Mojave Desert or in an old church in Austria or in Blackpool on the northwest coast of England or in this case, Naples. That's always a very important factor but once we immerse ourselves into the process, we leave our egos and our respective ambitions behind and become vehicles for the music. At a certain point working on any given piece, there will be the moment where the piece actually takes over and dictates what it wants us to do.
Photo by Errefotografia
PSF: What is it about music of Ennio Morricone that continues that inspires you?
de Picciotto: Well, for one thing, it's the first record I was ever given by my father, or the first record I ever had: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and I listened to it day in, day out. It's classical music, but it can also sound like a song, or like a traditional song. It morphs into all kinds of these different situations, or human beings, or characters. It's like life. It's one, but it's got all these different faces. And, it's somehow grandiose, in a way that classical music is for me.
Hacke: In Morricone's music, it's the arrangements that I really appreciate, because when you listen closely to the way things are combined, it is radical and inventive what he does. He does this revolutionary stuff, like these scraping sounds, with these really twangy, reverb guitars and string sections. The arrangements blow me away every time.
de Picciotto: What I really like about it too, and that's something that I always try to achieve in our music is like a small voice within a large voice. There is just little melody, and then there's this really big, big like soundtrack, and then there's like this little melody in it, and that's very similar to how we work too, because Alex does big sounds, big, big soundscapes. but with my violin, I create these little melodies within it, and that's something I really like in his (Morricone's) music, because it's unusual. It's really difficult to be able to compose that these loud, big soundscapes don't drown these little melodies and that they both can live within that universe.
PSF: Did you grow up with any other soundtrack composers when you were young?
Hacke: Absolutely. I was a big Bruce Lee fan. I loved Lalo Schifrin. Enter the Dragon was very important to me and lots of stuff which I probably can't recall right now. Of course, (Krzysztof) Komeda, all the soundtracks for the Roman Polanski movies and there is so much actually: John Barry, Bernard Herrmann.
de Picciotto: For me, I'm just not influenced by music. The only thing that really inspires me is language. It's really weird. When I hear my music or our music, I also see landscapes and stories. But that which inspires me most is language. Text makes me think of thought and words and thoughts influence everything I do.
PSF: Do you have any favorite authors?
de Picciotto: Yeah. I meana lot of the Southern writers. Flannery O 'Connor. And Carson McCullers. I really loved Carson McCullers. I loved Hemingway when I was small. I read Hemingway, all the time. Fitzgerald, I loved. These are the books that influenced me when I was young. I love books by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It's the descriptions. I like books with descriptions, with really detailed descriptions. They're very detailed artists. Alex can say what a perfectionist I am with every single sound. It really gives me bodily pain if the sound isn't the way it's supposed to be.
PSF: Your sound is a fusion of electronic and acoustic instrumentation. Danielle, although your primary instrument is the violin, you also use instruments like the auto harp and the hurdy-gurdy. Where does your interest in these folk instruments come from?
de Picciotto: I honestly don't know. I've always loved odd sounds. The instrument has to have a character and that quality of the sound that nothing else has. Also, I don't like things that are smooth.
I did not like presets. I hate presets. I don't like pop music because it's too smooth. I don't like smoothness in general. I don't like art that's computer generated. I don't like things like that. I like stuff that's rough and real. I like the touch and sound of wood. It has a sound that hasn't been tamed. It's a sound that's outside of the regular accepted formula and that's why I stayed in Berlin because it was completely rough and people didn't want to follow the regular rules.
PSF: You have called your music "cinematic drone." Can you elaborate on what you mean by that.
Hacke: I am aware that is a contradictory term because a drone is a minimalist approach to sound, and 'cinematic' indicates that it is epic and grandiose. To me, 'cinematic' is actually a word that describes light, more than anything else, and also narrative, which also is a contradictory to the concept of drone, because a drone doesn't have a beginning or an end: it's like a continuous thing, and yeah, I'm perfectly aware of the contradiction.
de Picciotto: For me the cinematic part comes from us being nomads, and being travelers for over 12 years. When you're traveling, it's like a repetition all the time, you're repeating yourself. You're hearing repetition of the train and tracks, and all that, but you have the landscape passing you by. It's basically the mixture of the repetition and the colorful landscape at the same time, which is basically the story of our life, and that's what our music is.
Hacke: And I always have the feeling I can express it better with sound or with color. What I do or what we do is energy work and it is also a ritualistic approach to set free or to call up certain energies and to put ourselves into a state of liberty or perception, if you will, in order to create what we create and that happens within the interaction between the two of us and hopefully kind of bleeds into the audience and we get feedback from that also.
PSF: You have mentioned in earlier interviews that Danielle provides the melody and harmony and Alex provides the rhythm and that intersection, and this is what makes your music work. Danielle, what is it about the melody and harmony that you love so much? And at the same time, what is it about Alex's rhythm or his sense of rhythm that you are drawn to?
de Picciotto: It's not necessarily rhythm with Alex. I mean, it's definitely rhythm too. But it's also the, I don't know how you call it, the largeness. I've always admired Alex because I always had the feeling that he doesn't feel fear. He's like a force of nature. He's like an ocean or he's like a loud thunder. He does things that are immense or huge. And I'm smaller and more concentrated and more specific.
Hacke: It's like that specific voice in the roar of the universe. It's like those two things which for me are the fascination. Like everything else would kind of bore me. For me, I'm all about resonance. So, if we take for granted the fact that everything that makes up our reality really is vibrations and everything else, what we perceive as solid or liquid is just our way of sensual perception of it, then the one thing that unifies all this concept is resonance. And if you can create resonance by the clash of really different tools or really different sounds, then I think we have achieved our goal. I think that for me that is the essence of all I'm trying to do. It's to create a one large vibration.
PSF: Your music is very immersive, as if you are taking the listener on a spiritual journey. Is that your intention?
Hacke: Thank you. Well, for me, it is really important. Music in general is my favorite art form. Music has influenced and accompanied me my entire life and has helped me make decisions. Therefore, when we create music, my wish is that the listener can find a way to make the music their own and that it really enriches their life. And when that happens, then what you call a healing, will happen and will enforce the music.
de Picciotto: And that's why I'm so perfectionistic in doing them. It really has to be in a certain way to make me happy. And I do feel that it is healing when it reaches that point. It feels like it heals me. Like for instance, especially when we're singing, when we're singing harmonies, if you really hit that one harmony and it resonates, it's like I'm being healed. It's like a bodily feeling. And same thing when for instance, I'm playing the violin and it's like this really piercing melody within this wall of sound that Alex creates. For me, I can feel it vibrating within my throat because the violin is really close to the throat. It's the instrument that is the closest to the human voice. And so, it's for me the same vibration as when we're singing. I feel like I'm being cleansed. And that's what I try to achieve with everything that we do.
Our 2009 interview with Alexander Hacke
Meg Wise-Lawrence's review of Neubauten live
Our interview with Blixa Bargeld
the HackedePicciotto website
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