Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Caspar Brötzmann: Headfirst Into The Flames

But Brötzmann bridles at such relegation to the guitar pantheon, however illustrious.
"In the end, though, I am not a guitar player - I work for the atmosphere. I use my guitar as a tool - just as a tool to say what I have to say. It could be a piano or a trumpet, I don't care. The instrument is not important - what is important is whether you have something to say or not, a way to bring out what you feel, what you think, what you're angry about. That's why I always say I'm not a guitar player."
Merry Christmas begins and ends with tracks called "Panzerketten" (which translates as "Tank Convoys"). There's a tank pictured on the cover and the finish is gun-metal grey. There's also a track called "Solingen", the name of the German town where racists fire-bombed an immigrant hostel and killed four people. Brötzmann is wary of taking to the political soap-box.
"It's not a big thing. On Merry Christmas I was making the cover and all the titles, "Solingen" was just - you have to excuse my English, it's not so perfect - look this has happened. Just a kind of give-hands-to-the-families, if you can buy this record, there is the word, "Solingen". It's a very simple way, it's not a very theoretic thing - just to give something, that's all. But in the end, I really mean: to listen to this kind of music you don't need titles. If you listen to the music, you know. Especially for Solingen. I can look at all these bad things that are going on, you look at the world, all these bad things from South Africa to Yugoslavia or whatever - to play, to say 'no' in your music to all these bad things, that's what I do. To give my feeling a kind of way, the emotions."
Despite Brötzmann's limited English, he seems to have found the words to describe militant music that is political in its very texture - dub, early PiL, Revolutionary Dub Warriors - rather than in well-meaning lyrics added as afterthought icing. Perhaps it is better this way, as Brötzmann's verbal politics tend to be limited to the kind of pious wishes that feature daily in any liberal newspaper:
"All I can say is that I try to find a kind of freedom that means that the next day I can say, I was doing my best - making music talk. Freedom - I'm not a person who is going on the street and shooting down someone else because he is bad; if I read a newspaper and see what's going on in the world, all these wars, it's so stupid, so silly - what can you do? You can play - that's my turn, I can play what I think. This is my answer to all these problems, to what's going onŠ"
I tell him that whatever my sense of the limitations of art as a political tool, I am glad that he makes music.
"But it's not easy. But I was so young and found a kind of work, that I knew I really wanted, that was a lot of help. It's a lot of help to have something straight in your life. It makes a lot of things easy, but it makes a lot of things heavy too. It was straight ahead."
Blast First have flown Brötzmann over to London from New York especially for this interview, but he lets drop that, for him, the exercise has little point.
"I did millions of interviews over the last year and a half in America, in England and in Germany. Lots of the time the question is, music is a language - I'm just a musician, that's all. If you really try to explain music in wordsŠ It makes more sense just to play music. All the time I'm saying the same thing in my life, all the time I'm trying to find a way, a kind of freedom in my music and people who are working with words are trying to do the same, different expressions or whatever."
"It's my own way to follow my own vision, to live like a musician. It's heavy enough to live my own life. I don't care if people understand it or not. All these things, how to make music, how to talk about music, it's all not the point - the point is that I can go on stage and play. If I'm on stage, then I can talk - but all these other things, they're not really necessary."
Towards the end of the interview, Caspar impresses on me that he wants me to think deeply about the life experience behind the words, "On stage is where I feel at home".
"If I say in English, for example, that on stage it feels like home, you have to think of what it means - it means that I'm 32 years old, I've been playing for 18 years, I learn one step after another. I've found friends, I know friends, I follow my way - that's the reason one of the records is called Black Axis. I follow my own path, my own vision - I can hear music, I cream music, for example. For me to say that the stage is like a home means a lot. Behind these few words, there's a lot of life behind. To follow your own vision, to follow it through, for a long long time, that makes you a little bit strong. You know what you're doing."
Merry Christmas sold 4000 copies within two and a half weeks, a staggering amount for music that would be equally at home on Derek Bailey's tiny Incus label. Not that Brötzmann is a plutocrat of Sting proportions: his extensive live work lets him pay his rent on his Berlin flat, but he can't live "in luxury". But, in a way, his Neo-Primitivist romanticism, his insistence on the absolute freedom of art, the home he has found on the stage, his disinterest in how his music is disseminated, serves to occlude one of the most inspiring aspects of his art: his spanner-in-the-works function in pop, his (and his record label's) ability to project free jazz into the rock clubs, his unsettling of niche marketing. Neo-Primitivism, in all its tongue-tied 'creative' purity, cannot acknowledge such a wish to épater the commercial order. It means that, for example, Brötzmann's hatred of fascism remains just that - he cannot see how it links in with capitalism's need for a 'radical' movement that will leave property relations intact, how the daily processes of exploitation demand an enemy, a scapegoat, that is not the system itself.
How do you feel about the state of rock, I ask him - "I don't care," comes the reply. Between punk and Grufti, oh what a gulf! The paradox is that Brötzmann's utopian art - like Captain Beefheart's, another rock artist who paints - makes most sense when infiltrating the commercial machinery he disdains to talk about. It means more to listen to Brötzmann's music - and check out his stunned reviews - than to rehearse his art ideology. In these over-conscious, over-ideological, over-theorised times, that's a plus. The Wire March 2007