It feels like I’ve known Flake for 50 years although we haven’t seen each other as much in the past few years as we used to. Since he began playing in Germany’s categorically most successful rock band of all, Rammstein, he’s made himself scarce. I’m not surprised, surely life as a rock star can be demanding. There’s always someone who wants something or wants to reminisce about the good old days when you were supposedly thick as thieves.
I remember that crazy time in the 80’s in East Berlin all too well. We partied and danced ourselves through the nights. The most important thing was the pretty ladies and the question of how to best win their hearts. Well, money had to be earned too, but we made it somehow. Flake and Paul played together with Aljoscha in Feeling B and had a tremendous amount of fun, as did their fans. Additionally, they made earrings out of silver wire, which sold well at the beaches of the beautiful Baltic Sea. Then came the West and the band, Rammstein, was born.
Since then, the band has released six studio albums: “Herzeleid” (1995), “Sehnsucht” (1997), “Mutter” (2001), “Reise, Reise” (2004), “Rosenrot” (2005) and “Liebe ist für alle da” (2009). They have done successful tours all over the world and received countless musical awards. Between recording albums and touring, the band members like to take time off and use it for their own projects. Flake too: he’s written the excellent book, “Der Tastenficker – an was ich mich so erinnern kann”. Good enough reason for me to once again meet up with Flake and ask him a few questions about the book, the band and life.
Why have you written a book, were you bored?
When I released the Feeling B recordings [“Grün&Blau”, 2007 – ed. note], I wrote a few lines to go with the record, some explanations for the songs and a few articles. Apparently, people liked it. There were a lot of people who thought so and asked me whether I could write some more. Books have always fascinated me and I wanted to see what it would be like to write a book. I thought a lot about what I could write about but nothing came to me. I quite simply had to write about what I already had in my head, as I couldn’t think of anything else.
Writing is quite a lonely process, completely different from playing in a band, right?
I actually write all day long, even when I’m doing the dishes, taking a walk, riding my bike or putting the kids to bed. Constantly, I’m thinking about what I’m going to write when I’m sitting at the computer.
In this regard, writing isn’t all that lonely, as I spend most of a normal day thinking about it, even when I’m around other people. This way, it’s neither hard nor tormenting. Logically, I’m not sitting with an empty paper in front of me and forcing something out of my brain, but rather, I write at the speed of my thoughts as they come to me. Then writing is a fluid thing.
How long did it take?
From May until Christmas, 2014.
Some critics are accusing you of being naive when you write so affectionately about your life in the GDR.
I have specifically pointed out that I can only account for my own experiences and my own conclusions. And those are the way I have described them. I have also said that I know that it was a lot worse for some people, but that has nothing to do with my life and it’s about my life that I’m writing.
And we did have a really good time in the old East Berlin, with all its depth and possibilities…
Yes, but not a lot of people want to hear about that anymore, since they may be forced to admit that it could have been the wrong decision to long for and embrace the German unification. Now concerning the issues the Strassenfeger raises – the many homeless – it’s something that I didn’t know about in the East. No one was sitting on the street corners, pan-handling, because he needed to in order to survive. Everyone had an affordable apartment and also some kind of social network for support; everyone was looked after. Some like to call it patronization, but I’d rather say it was welfare.
Will there be a second book?
Yes, I’d love to write another book, since writing was so much fun. In any case, I’d like to try to write a book about my time in Rammstein since I’ve had a lot of really amusing experiences there too.
Would your band mates participate? Would they be able to put in a veto, or would they chuck you out of the band?
Nah, I would have to show them the book. And if there’s something they don’t like, I’d have to edit that out.
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I composed the music for a documentary about Rainer Werner Fassbinder by Annekatrin Hendel. That was a lot of fun because I was able to play the piano.
Recently, you hosted the “Freundliche Übernahme – Musiker machen Radio“ show on Radio Eins. Your audience ratings were quite sensational…
Yes, I wanted to pay back a little to Radio Eins for supporting me through the years. I have gotten to know, and love, a lot of good music through Radio Eins that I wouldn’t have heard otherwise. I also got to know The White Stripes through Radio Eins, as they were the first to play interesting music on the evening shows. I found it convenient that there was a broadcaster who didn’t just play Top 20 hits, but a bit more obscure music. And I always want to support that.
You were received astonishingly well by the listeners, they were all quite taken with you.
I did make an effort and I sat down beforehand and carefully chose which songs to play.
Could we expect a second career as a radio show host or was this just a one-off?
I have stuttered since early childhood so I would think they were joking if anyone made me that offer.
Was there a lot of preparation before the broadcast, choosing all your favorite songs?
Yes, I tried to raise the bar a little so it would be fun to listen to.
Did you have free rein, or..?
Absolutely free rein. I could do whatever I pleased. I could have invited guests too, but what I really wanted to do was the thing I love Radio Eins for: to play music that not everyone has heard.
What did the professionals have to say about the broadcast?
(Flake laughs). They were already in on it. I don’t believe that they would’ve said anything if they didn’t like it.
Do you have an absolute favorite song?
Favorite songs are hard, they keep changing. I really like The White Stripes and Jack White. Actually, I think every song he’s ever made is good. He has that something special that cannot be obtained through practice, diligence or intellectual effort, but rather something that you either have or you don’t. That’s what makes a great musician in my opinion. That they’re explicably good without even knowing it.
You also played a song from one of my own favorite bands, Interzone.
Yes, Interzone is fabulous, since we’ve listened to them before… For me, that is a band that’s written some astonishingly good German lyrics, and that wasn’t all that common in the 80’s. It was all about Westernhagen and Grönemeyer then. Fehlfarben and Interzone expressed themselves in a way that at once hit the bullseye, one hundred percent. That really moves you. With “Karl ich bin schwanger” (Interzone) – the problem is so universal and so familiar.
Who are your musical role models?
Well, I used to be a huge fan of the Rolling Stones because they made music that I found fascinating: white blues. That is blues, that’s really black people’s music, but played by white musicians. That made for a new mix of emotions. They had this fuck-all feeling, they simply did their thing and that was a refreshing contrast to other music. At first, I thought “Street Fighting Man” was a totally rebellious song, calling for a revolt. Not until I translated the lyrics did I understand how stupid that was. It did not have anything to do with street fights. And with “Under My Thumb”, I thought: “Under My Tomb”; I misinterpreted it because my English is so bad. “Under My Tomb” sounded quite dramatic and sinister to me. But it was a song about how to conquer women.
And when will Rammstein continue? Will you continue at all?
Yes! We’ll begin rehearsals in the fall and then we’ll try to make a new record, of course. When or how is too soon to say.
Who decides in Rammstein, when something should be done, and what?
We decide that together, in complete democracy. We all have to agree. Otherwise the one with the objection would feel bad since he’d think he’d get run over. Only when everyone agrees do we move forward. That works with all things, for example, to where we’re going to record, in which studio. Everyone has to be in on it, so that no one can say: “But I …” This is why we are still around. And most other bands aren’t.
How do you work when you’re making a new record?
We meet every morning, and then we chat a little to begin with; who has done what, what was done yesterday, what happened on latest episode of “Tatort“. At some point we begin to try out the ideas we have brought with us. Then we evaluate whether a song could come out of it or not. This goes on from 9 AM to 4 PM, every day.
That‘s not very long…
You can’t keep your focus longer than that!
Could anyone bring lyrics and melodies?
Anyone can suggest anything he pleases. He has to present it to the band and then also accept the band’s verdict.
Does that have to be unanimous too?
Nah, it’s more a majority principle then.
How do you prepare for a tour?
If you can hold your alcohol well, a tour is much like a holiday. You can sleep and recuperate in a way you cannot do in your everyday life. You’ve got the whole day free, in principle, since you only play in the evenings. The parties used to be the most exhausting! We played from 10 o’clock ‘til midnight, and then we partied until four in the morning. By then, you were drunk off your butt once you got to the hotel or, worse, sleeping it off on the coach. This dancing and drinking the whole night through was really exhausting. Sometimes, I had to just stay in bed for a few days after a tour just to detox. But if you don’t do this, a tour is really not all that strenuous.
So there is something to this whole Sex and Drugs and Rock’n Roll-thing?
Yes, and that is also the hardest part! But it’s part of it, I suppose. And I think that when you have made music for so long and as a professional, you gradually grow out of it, since you physically cannot do it anymore after a certain age.
What is your favorite song with Rammstein?
I have a favorite album, which is “Rosenrot“. I still think almost everything on it is really good, since it was created at a special time and there’s a lot of emotion put into it. I also think the record is really interesting, musically.
Do you care what critics are saying or do you turn a blind eye?
There are always people who want to complain no matter what you do. Some say the record is too long, others, that it’s too short. We’ve learned that you cannot please everyone. Never. There will always be some, fans too, who are displeased. They say: “The record is too slow, the record is too fast. Till sings too normally. Till only talks.” This is why you should never try to please people, but make the record the way you want to. Then, in a way, we can be sure that the record is good, since we made it in the way we like it.
As a band, you’ve reacted quite strongly to certain critics who accuse you of playing right-wing music, or, those who have tried to put you into the right-wing bracket. “Links 2 3 4” really says it all, doesn’t it?
Yes, but anyone with half a brain knows that this is bullshit. And we haven’t really had to do anything about it other than let time do our bidding. Anyone who’s been to one of our concerts or really listened to our songs would never even think of such a stupid idea.
But to make a song in this manner is a really cool statement!
It’s our way of expressing ourselves, and that’s why we are musicians and not politicians.
Do you see each other even when you’re not on tour or in the studio?
Yes, we all live close to each other. And right now, when a lot of our children have summer holidays, we see each other every weekend.
This sounds perfectly normal. But you are really celebrated rock stars!
We all knew each other before we started playing in this band. This friendship has persisted over the years. This was also our trick to building a band that still survives after 20 years, that hasn’t split up and had its members become strangers, but who still make music together.
How do you feel when you’re standing on stage in front of thousands of excited fans?
I actually have my eyes closed during the show. I have ear pieces in and I get a mix from the mixing board for me as a musician to hear. But I don’t really know what’s happening out there. It’s not real to me. I’m certainly not someone who has to be admired to feel good. And I don’t need screaming people to be happy. The people aren’t there for my sake, but to have a nice evening out and they come for the music. That they are happy has nothing to do with me as a person. They aren’t excited because they think I’m the bee’s knees, but because they think my band is good. It has nothing to do with me. I go out there and play, and I have fun when I notice that the band is playing well together and that the show is really flowing, then that is a good evening. If there’s two hundred or two hundred thousand people there, is not really important.
Is it a stroke of luck for you that you have a man such as Till Lindemann as a frontman?
Well of course that’s a stroke of pure luck! But we did put together the band in a way that worked nicely. If we had wanted someone else, we would have someone else (laughs). Till radiates complete authority in my eyes. When he sings or says something, you realize that he also means it. That makes the whole song a lot more precious. Especially since there are singers who say or sing just about anything because it sounds good. With Till, you know that he means it. With a guy like Till, we differ from a lot of other bands.
How do you handle fame and fortune?
I ignore it completely, and I even forget it on a regular basis. Whenever we aren’t doing anything with the band for a few days, I forget that I’m even in a band. The moment I’m not playing, I’m not an active musician and I don’t feel that way either. You have to define what success is; I feel successful when I’m able to get the kids into bed before 8 PM, or when I manage to clean out the soap compartment in the washing machine without flooding the kitchen. Otherwise, for me, success means that you are able to provide for yourself and your family. And that, I do. But I would have done that in some other way, too. Anything more than that is really just complete nonsense. You can only drive one car at the time. And everything that people say is luxury is really just stress. Even those who work a lot, these workaholics, don’t like to admit that the price for their success is that they aren’t seeing their families that much. So luxury for me is to make little or nothing, so that I can take care of my family and can go to bed instead of working my fingers to the bone all night.
But isn’t it a comforting thought when you, as a musician, don’t have to think about making money?
Generally, you always have to think about making money. We don’t make all that much as a band that you could say that we don’t have to care about it. A lot of people do think that is the case, but with increasing income comes increasing costs, starting with the insurance… And I keep paying double fares everywhere since people think that I have money. We’re not that rich, by comparison, that you could say that we don’t have to care anymore.
Strassenfeger works extensively with homelessness and poverty. How do these issues touch you as a musician and as a human being?
I find it incomprehensible that a country as rich as ours, cares so little about these people. That’s just fuel for the fire for my praise of the East. It didn’t happen there. Anything you can’t profit off of goes straight out the window these days. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the environment or caring for people who don’t have much. If you measure society by its weakest link, then there‘s little hope for Germany.
When you’re approached by a salesman for the Strassenfeger, do you buy a magazine and read it?
Yes, I read it! Or if I’ve already read it, I give him a Euro. I think it’s good to sell magazines this way and that people are actually doing it.
Are you sometimes thinking back on the carefree times with Aljoscha (Rompe) and Feeling B?
Yes, I like to reminiscent about that. But I think that every person who has come of age thinks back with melancholy on his youth, back to when he was fit and healthy and everything was just fun, when you could tolerate alcohol better and the cigarettes tasted better. I think that this has less to do with the band or the circumstances than the fact that you were young and that everything was a lot more fun in your youth, since the carefreeness stemmed straight out of that.
Any dreams, wishes, longings…?
I would really like to see icebergs at some point… Otherwise, I want a world that isn’t dictated by idiocy, as it is now.
strassenfeger | Nr. 12 | June 2015
Interview: Andreas Düllick
Photo: Andreas Düllick ©VG Bild-Kunst