Uncompromising and unorthodox, Volker Bertelmann is the one-of-a-kind composer and pianist from Düsseldorf, who is better known by his stage-name Hauschka. He grew up in the countryside, formed his first band when he was a teenager, and by the age of 18 he was writing music for television shows. After moving to Cologne to attend university in 1992, Bertelmann and his cousin formed the hip hop crossover outfit God's Favorite Dog, immediately scoring a record deal and touring with German rap stars like Die Fantastischen Vier. The group’s dissolution happened nearly as quickly as its ascent, and for a while, little was heard from Bertelmann. But behind the scenes, he continued to create, culminating in him launching himself as a solo artist in 2004, under the moniker Hauschka, and working under the once Cologne-based label Karaoke Kalk. After three albums in three years, he moved on to the British label 130701 – a sub-label of the Brighton based FatCat Records.
Today his music is spread around in-demand independent labels and major companies like Apparent Extent, Deutsche Grammophon, City Slang and Sony Classical. Many of them are solo albums, but some are also collaborative works with artists such as Icelandic cellist and composer Hildur Guðnadóttir and US violinist Hilary Hahn. Besides making music, he also founded and continues to run the Düsseldorf based Approximation Festival – a happening for piano musicians and other instrumentalists. Additionally, in recent years, Hauschka has returned to one of his earliest musical passions: soundtracks. In 2017, he received an Oscar nomination for his and Dustin O'Halloran’s score for the movie Lion, and he is also currently working on music for the TV series Dublin Murders, as well as a a score for the movie Summerland starring Gemma Arterton. In February of this year, Bertelmann released his latest solo album A Different Forest – a tender, romantic effort by Hauschka’s standards.
Despite his hectic schedule, Bertelmann found some time to conduct a Carhartt WIP Radio show, exclusively comprised of his experimental and moving piano compositions, from his early works through to more recent releases. As always, we sat down with him to talk about his art, life story, work, relationship to his piano and his fans.
How much have things changed since you first launched your Hauschka project in 2004?
Hauschka: Well, about three to four years ago I started to make a living from it. Before I played for years up to 100 live shows per year which definitely built up my career. Now, since I do soundtracks a lot of things have changed in a positive way. Many people reach out to me. The whole way of how my artistic persona exists has changed. In general, I can be more decisive.
How important have live show been for your career?
Hauschka: When I was around with my first band God’s Favorite Dog, which was a very early semi-successful German hip hop band, I always heard the story of how the German punk band Die Toten Hosen traveled with their records in the car to sell them during the shows and I saw in that a principle of success. You have to somehow gain from the extraordinary position you’re in when a lot of people come to your show. With God’s Favorite Dog we had a very easy start as we played two shows and then we got a record deal. At that time I thought, ‘That’s it! We made it!’ But after the first record it all fell apart. Back then in the mid of the 1990s, I found out that it takes a lot of work to build a loyal fanbase. So when Hauschka started I drew upon that knowledge. From 2007 to 2014, I played around 700 live shows around the globe and established my fanbase. You have to always present yourself and share your development with people. I think that is the nature of being an artist.
Like Guns N’ Roses who toured in their early years for about three years in a row.
Hauschka: [Laughs] Yes. But you also need the right people around to do this. And you have to be young to tour three years in a row. I started my Hauschka project when I was 38, I already had two kids. I did not want to have a band back then and tour the whole year, but I also did not want to do my job as a music teacher all the time. I wanted to play concerts with my music.
But you need a special drive to do this. Especially when you start out late.
Hauschka: Sure, but I have a lot of fun in what I do. And when I do shows, I always leave some room for experimentation. I think people are fed up with always hearing the same stuff. When I played 100 shows per year there was not one that was similar to the one before. When I go on stage I think about what I’ll play. I’ve had situations when I was in front of 1000 people and I suddenly got a bit of stage-fright, but I also have my rituals to make me calm. I think real risk is when you have no plan.
But to do so, you need to know how to play the piano!
Hauschka: Sure, but that is what I learned since childhood. But you need a mix of both. I would say that there are many paino players that are technically better than me. But you need also intuition and love for melodies and rhythm. And with this combination you can find a lot of options to compose.
You started Hauschka on the label Karaoke Kalk. How important is that label for your career?
Hauschka: Very important. In the beginning I had to convince Thorsten, the owner of Karaoke Kalk, that a piano record would be a nice addition to his label. At that time it was not like today. Nobody released piano records, it was totally uncommon. And my records are not romantic piano seducers, they experiment. Which remains important to me, to keep experimenting.
Your work is not as romantic as other contemporary, in-demand, piano-only artists.
Hauschka: Maybe it’s not so accessible. That was never my cup of tea. I couldn’t focus only on the repeating patterns of pop music. Basically pop music is routed on models that work. And these models get renewed all the time. Format, chords, melodies: if something works it gets looped. For instance at the moment all vocal melodies are based on one or two tones. That is it. Chords do not vary at all. You hear only music that caters the taste of the audience. But this does not attract me. My music is not so much in touch with trends or the Zeitgeist.
Your method requires a fanbase that is loyal.
Hauschka: That is true, but I think you need to develop rather than standing still – for your own good. A life sometimes needs a reset. I mean I do not want to play the same music over and over. It would kill me and my creativity to not move and not be flexible. I need resets. Otherwise you are in a loop. Do an album, go on tour, wait until the bank account gets empty, do another album, go on tour again. For me this would be very exhausting and boring, like a public official doing the same work everyday.
In order to stay fresh, you created the Approximation Festival. And you have worked together with different artists like the Icelandic cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, US-American violinist Hilary Hahn. How important is creative exchange for you?
Hauschka: It is essential. If you do not have it as an artist you are sooner or later at a very boring place. But you need to look around. You have to find the right artists. It is not good to use the typical crossover ideas of record companies. This is horrible. I always try to work with people who bring me into new territories. But in spheres that fit to me.
Are you still involved into Approximation Festival?
Hauschka: Sure. Not so deep as before but I am still involved. We hope that next year we get again interesting artist to come to Düsseldorf. We always want to add some details to surprise our audience. The festival is like my music: it is all the time moving. Sometimes it is smaller, sometimes bigger. Sometimes more experimental, sometimes less. And we always want to unite scenes. Sometimes you can see at one night a-tonal stuff and totally normal stuff which brings people together, makes them curious and opens doors for new audiences. I do not have to hear intellectual music all the time. Sometimes a touching singer/songwriter helps. You can’t listen to serious music for a whole evening but you also need some relaxed moments in-between.
Like in your live shows, that are dancing between those entities, too. When did you find out that your music touches more and more people. When did you feel the success comes in?
Hauschka: Oh, this was during my first US-American tour with the band múm in 2007. I played as an opening act and only for 20 minutes. After me came Tom Brosseau, a wonderfull singer/songwriter that at that time also released on FatCat. Then Mum performed as the headliner. It was nice and we all been together like a group. There was not really a difference between headliner and opening act. We felt like a group touring together. The only strange thing was: I sold a lot of records as the opener. On the opening night in Montreal I sold 300 records and this was the only merch I brought for the whole tour. The label did not bring more records. Nobody was prepared for success. So we did it like old school hip hopers: we burned each day 100 cds with an extra track and some handmade paintings and sold them. We told the fans that we have not been prepared for this and they been okay with that. Until today you can find me at the merch stand after a show selling my stuff and signing my records. I love to be in direct contact with my audience. This is not easy as you do a two hour show and after that you are one and a half hours at the merch stand. But hey: if I get something from a country or city I want to give it back. And this is my way to do it.
Tell us about your shift into scoring music for television and movies.
Hauschka: Actually, this is not new to me. I have done this since I was a teenager. It was always a dream of mine to compose scores for movies. When I was 18 I wrote music for the German tv series Ein Fall für zwei. I loved it. Back then my friend Oliver Kranz, who is still doing music for German tv series, and I had a band. His parents where movie directors in Munich. So, one day they asked us to get some music for a movie. When the movie was done, he continued to do music for movies but I was out of the game. I tried several attempts to get into the world of movie scores. When I moved to Düsseldorf I checked the telephone book and called all movie production companies and told them I want to make music for their movies. Everybody declined, except one who did not give me a job as a music producer but as a driver for a movie. So being now able to write scores is like a dream coming true.
So how did you get a break again in movies?
Hauschka: I played a show in Melbourne and Garth Davis came to see it. After the show he came to me and asked if I would be interested in doing the music for his next movie. I said yes, but there are many people behind a movie production that decide these things and it is not often that the newcomer gets the job. But Garth was someone who was fighting for us and we got the job. Nobody could predict that the movie would be such a success. We have been nominated for every big film award and won the Australian film award.
Hauschka: I would like to do a score for a movie with Denzel Washington. I like his acting a lot.
Any special place where you want to perform? Like in Russia or so.
Hauschka: I would love to play the Sydney Opera House once. But let‘s see. The future is unwritten. Once I played in a Buddhist monastery in Japan where the monks cooked for me and I stayed there the night before and we prepared the show and all around it together. This was a very special location and place. And people from all over Japan came to see me at this special place. And this is something I would like to do again. Creating a night with people that really love what you do and you are really close to them. These are the best concerts.
And to get to these places you once started to perform with a prepared piano!
Hauschka: Yes. Which was nothing new as John Cage and many others did it too but I did it more tonal and when I start to do it I did not really know much about John Cage! I did it intuitive. I was not interested in new music and Karl Heinz Stockhausen. I was interested in beats, bass, hooklines. And I wanted to get rid of the computer. I wanted to play the instrument I can play in a new way. So the prepared piano how I play it came alive. I never claimed I invented it. I know that Maurice Delage, Henry Cowell, Heitor Villa-Lobos and John Cage already did this. But I do it my way and that is unique.