They say that history books are written by the winners and for the winners. But if that’s true, who’ll write about Germany’s great 90s wave of experimental rock and pop musicians who discovered and embraced the tools of techno? Few have made it into pop’s Halls of Fame, but you can hear the ghosts of their work at play all over the field of electronic music. They were a disparate set of indie oddballs who, in the years between Krautrock’s final capitulation and before Berlin’s rise as a techno-fied utopia, came under the spell of technology and created sonic statements outside the accepted language of rock. They were, if you will, radical connectors, even though they didn’t regularly top the polls.
The groups fusing these strands of past and future came from all sorts of creative camps, mostly on the Western side of Germany and Bavaria. Or these were at least the homes of the two bands whose trajectories made the greatest impacts and instigated musical activity among their friends and neighbors: Mouse on Mars and The Notwist. Some listeners might say that the only thing they share are German passports and the dates of their respective discographies; but their influence on late 20th century musicianship (Radiohead and Tortoise) and worldly experimental pop (Björk and Stereolab) is, in history’s eyes, undeniable.
(Mouse On Mars)
Mouse on Mars (Jan St. Werner and Andi Toma) constituted that generation’s art and electronics wing, almost by design. They were brought up under the shadow of both the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf’s pantheon of living modernists, and the heritage of Stockhausen’s Studio für elektronische Musik des Westdeutschen Rundfunks. MOM’s kitchen-sink approach to sounds meant that, within their synthesis of samples, beats and live instruments, their soundtrack could explode into anything: space-age bachelor pad music for homemade robots; schizophrenic lo-fi techno for indie kids; experimental glitch noise for everyone; and all of it as comfortable with bloody earnestness as it was with silly gut-busting comedy.
Just a roll call of MOM’s co-conspirators through the years affirms this proclivity toward the serious and the light-hearted, while illustrating a historic moment of collaborative possibility: Moondog, Kraftwerk’s Wolfgang Flür, Jörg Burger, Stereolab, Mark E. Smith, Matthew Herbert, Oval’s Markus Popp, among many others, shared publishing credits, studio and tape with Andi and Jan during their first 15 or so years.
MOM began life on two of the 90s’ great experimental indie labels (London’s Too Pure and Chicago’s Thrill Jockey) before bringing business in-house with their own Sonig in 1997, and becoming a focal point for musicians. Throughout, Andi and Jan (often augmented by drummer/vocalist Dodo NKishi) were creators, sounding boards and conduits, part of the foundational wing of German electronic music’s new century, and at the same time completely outside of it.
The Notwist, on the other hand, were always on their own journey of discovery. Other passengers were invited strictly based on their own creative needs. Founded by the brothers Markus and Michael Acher and drummer Martin Messerschmid, in Weilheim – a small town in southern Bavaria – the trio began life like every other indie band in 1991, aping Dinosaur jr. and Metallica with just enough knowingness of Nirvana’s melody and post-hardcore power. Almost instantly though, Markus and Micha’s odd streak (of the industrial and free jazz variety) began to protrude.
By the time of The Notwist’s 1998 album Shrink, this growing song-craft and experimentalism found an ally in electronic producer Martin Gretschmann, who joined as a full-time member and instantly gave their experimental indie-ness a modern edge. Shrink was a blueprint for Radiohead’s Kid A two years early: layers of electronics and mechanized rhythms guiding songs seething with pre-Millennial dread. The album also gave the individuals a new creative direction. Through it, the Acher brothers became cornerstones in electronic jazz experiments (Tied & Tickled Trio ), post-Stereolab electro-pop (Lali Puna, led by Markus’ wife Valerie Trebeljahr), and live electronic hip hop (13 & God with Anticon’s Themselves). Gretschmann followed a straighter techno-pop path, creating microbeats as Console, and producing tracks for Bjork’s Vespertine, before fully embracing the rave as the weird uncle Acid Pauli, making awesome slowed-down, catchy club music for the likes of Crosstown Rebels and Nicolas Jaar’s Clowns & Sunset.
In 2014, neither group represents anybody’s idea of “avant-garde”, The Notwist recently put out Close To The Glass, a wonderful contemporary distillation of work they’ve been doing since ‘98 (Side note: the album was released by Sub Pop in the US, allowing them a place next to J. Mascis on the Seattle label’s roster, a circle completed). Mouse On Mars are celebrating their 21st birthday with a trio of collaboration albums on Modeselektor’s Monkeytown label. Another fitting home: Modeselektor could, in theory, have taken a chunk of their direction from MOM’s 2001 album Idiology, with its messy dancehall-techno vibes.
Listeners have, by now, pursued these albums if they cared to. But neither Mouse on Mars nor The Notwist have won cultural lotteries like their progeny. They are too old to be new and too unknown to be regarded as truly iconic. Yet, since their DNA appears everywhere, if they won’t have their own books of ages, they surely deserve a hefty chapter?
Both Mouse on Mars and The Notwist are set to perform at the Monkeytown Fest in Berlin on December 5th.
To get in the mood listen to Mouse on Mars’ exuberant Carhartt WIP Radio show, and download the app for iPhone & IPad | Android.