Rocking The Haus

Tony Coulter

San Francisco Bay Guardian, 14 May 1994

The following article appeared in the "San Francisco Bay Guardian" for May 14, 1994 under the rather silly title (not chosen by me) "Rocking the haus." I have made only very minor changes, including correction of typos. Incidentally, this was written shortly before I saw Faust for the first time - in Hartford, Connecticut - TC

Twenty years after they first faded from view, German underground legends Faust have definitively resurfaced, and are now on their first ever U.S. tour. Their back catalog is in print again, and new recordings are in the works. How to explain this? Are they just another group of has-beens inspired to breathe life into an artistic corpse by the jingle-jangle of cash tumbling out of the '70s-revival bandwagon? Are they - to resort to that most condescending of pop fashion industry putdowns - "dinosaurs"?

Far from it. Faust has always existed far outside the normal bounds of pop music, not only because of their uncompromising recordings, but also because of several unique aspects of their history and approach. In relation to most of the supposedly hip, alternative groups of today, Faust is like a gunman for the Baader-Meinhof gang with a corporate lawyer for a son.

Germany in the late 60s was a hotbed of radical artistic and political ferment. This was due in part to the spread of the international counterculture, but in Germany the drive to question and reinvent the past was made particularly intense by the need to confront the Nazi era. Among German rock musicians, the more clearsighted began to realize that it wasn't enough to simply copy Anglo-Saxon models, to be second rate Beatles and Rolling Stones; if they wanted (however unconsciously) to build a new German culture, it would have to develop organically, from the ground up. As if out of nowhere, wildly original, challenging rock bands began to appear, among them Amon Düül, Amon Düül II, Can, Kluster (later Cluster), Kraftwerk (far more radical in their earliest incarnation), Guru Guru and the early Tangerine Dream (also initially a far cry from the purveyors of mind-numbingly bland pablum that they later became). As for the more "academic" modern classical types, composers like Stockhausen and Kagel had evolved in a few short years from serialism, with its roots in prewar Vienna, to extremely radical experiments with electronics and total improvisation. Thus the background was set for the emergence of one of rock's most innovative and influential experimental bands: Faust.

The actual catalyst was a mysterious figure, Faust's Svengali, a journalist and producer named Uwe Nettelbeck. There is a lot of confusion as to just how much he contributed to the band's development, some seeing him as the band's most important member, others as someone who merely packaged them cleverly. At any rate, he entered the picture in 1969 following a dispute between the domestic and international branches of Polydor Records. The international branch, unlike the home branch, felt there was a future in the music of Germany's underground rock groups, and to prove it they hired Nettelbeck, a radical jounalist with underground connections, to put together a group of musicians and form a band. Merging members of two Hamburg bands, some of whom had already been living together communally, Nettelbeck created what might have become a kind of avant-garde Monkees, if Faust's members hadn't had had such strong ideas of their own. They insisted they be allowed to develop their music free of company pressure, and that they not be asked to perform live until they felt ready. Amazingly enough, Polydor not only agreed, but to help Faust develop on their own terms gave them money to build their own studio. After converting a small schoolhouse in an isolated area near Wümme (between Hamburg and Bremen), the band, then consisting of transplanted Frenchman Jean-Hervé Péron (bass), Hans-Joachim Irmler (organ), Gunter Wüsthoff (sax, synth), Rudolf Sosna (guitar, keyboards), Werner Diermaier (drums) and Arnulf Meifert (drums) began to make recordings with the help of engineer Kurt Graupner.

Freed of all constraints, making hour after hour of tapes, playing their instruments lying in bed, wandering around naked, smoking a lot of pot, Faust mutated into something truly unique. They came to realize the importance of mastering the use of electronic technology, so as not to be unconsciously conditioned by it; they wanted to expose its inherent potential and find their own voice within. "In every country," they wrote in their very first press release, from 1971, "musicians are beginning to synthesize new sounds. The trouble is this hasn't been done consistently enough. As a musician one now needs enough understanding of electronics to systematically build the instruments which will produce exactly the sound one wants to hear. The ideal is for each musician to make his own instruments." This technological independence is still very important to Faust, who have now slimmed down to the duo of Péron and Diermaier, augmented for their U.S. tour by an American guitarist recruited for the occasion. In an interview in "Wire" following their October, 1992 appearance in London - the first important public appearance by the newly emergent Faust - Péron commented: "You could recognize Faust's sound because we don't use any samplers, we don't use any of the normal things you can buy in the shops. Everything was designed by ourselves, built by ourselves - which of course can bring failures."

Despite their imaginative use of technology, the last thing Faust are are cold technocrats. Their bending of everything to their own purposes is done in a very ad hoc way, and along with this comes an acceptance - even a welcoming - of chaos and confusion. Their first U.K. concerts back in 1973 were reportedly extremely disorienting, featuring multiple TV sets on stage, conversations in various languages between band members broadcast over the P.A. system in mid song, and musicians leaving the stage for ten minutes while their instruments soloed for them. Faust today is no more interested than they ever were in making concessions, though they are not self-righteous or humorless about it; they are simply being themselves and reacting spontaneously to their environment. "Maybe we're not avant-garde anymore," Hans-Joachim Irmler - then still a member - remarked in 1992, "but there is an attitude to the music that sets us apart - not backward, not forward, just apart - in that we are interested to react to the very moment. Of course we do bring material; we know we have a few possibilities, but we basically react to what's happening now."

On their groundbreaking recordings, Faust (1971), So Far (1972), The Faust Tapes (1971-73), Faust IV (1973) and the archival collection 71 Minutes of... (1972-75) many facets of Faust are revealed. Their debut and The Faust Tapes highlight their highly innovative use of the studio as a compositional tool; taking off from what Zappa had done before them, they created wild electroacoustic collages made up of electronic barrages, blasts of fuzzed-out guitar, meditative acoustic passages, strange, seemingly nonsensical chants and bits of random conversations, all somehow coming together to form a delirious whole. Another side of them can be found on So Far and Faust IV; these are more structured and repetitive, and tend towards a kind of droning gloominess, at times akin to the Velvet Underground at their most sinister. Faust's connection with the strand of American minimalism represented by the Velvet's John Cale - who developed his droning viola style playing with LaMonte Young's "Theatre of Eternal Music" - can also be seen in an interesting side note to Faust's career: the 1972 album "Outside the Dream Syndicate", on which three members of the group backed violinist Tony Conrad, another one-time member of Young's ensemble.

If it is possible to trace a few influences on Faust's sound, as original as it was, it is also true that their influence on other groups has been enormous. To mention just a few: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Einsturzende Neubauten, This Heat, Test Department, Chrome, Pere Ubu, The Residents.... It would be tempting to give them a glib title like "world's first industrial band," but the truth is that there was always much more to them then that implies. Faust never represented a single formulaic approach, like so many groups passingly in vogue, but rather a total, revolutionary outlook. It is this that makes them important, then and now.

Tony Coulter, "Rocking The Haus", San Francisco Bay Guardian 1994