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  • Writer's pictureMarkus Brandstetter

HELGE SCHNEIDER (Interview): "As An Improviser, You Really Have To Fight All The Time"

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

© Helge Schneider

Für die deutschsprachige Originalversion des Gesprächs hier klicken.

Markus Brandstetter visited the unique musician, improviser, filmmaker, humorist and universal artist* Helge Schneider at his home in Mülheim an der Ruhr - and talked to him about improvisation, jazz, expectations and his new album "Die Reaktion: The Last Jazz Vol. II".

It's one of the first sunny days in a long time when Helge Schneider greets me on the street in front of his house in Mülheim an der Ruhr. The weather makes the terrace the perfect place to talk, the mask that has long since become routine during the Covid 19 pandemic can thus stay in the bag. He made a new record, Schneider tells me. It happened relatively spontaneously and he did it entirely on his own. This time, he didn't want to make any funny songs, but instrumental music. Jazz, sure - but by no means only jazz.

The studio where he recorded his latest work is about a two seconds' walk away from the patio. After our conversation, he shows me his studio, sits down briefly at the analog mixing console and plays a few new tracks. There is a tape machine standing around (Schneider records analog), of course lots of instruments. Among them is the red Flying-V-like guitar played by his character Doc Snyder in the 1993 film "Texas - Doc Snyder hält die Welt in Atem”. Schneider and I talk about his films only briefly that day. At some point I ask him what his favorite film (out of his own films) is. He doesn't want to commit himself; there are things about almost every film that he still finds good today, he says, but at some point the title "Jazzclub" comes up explicitly. He also briefly mentions that he can imagine making another film.

Speaking of jazz. "Die Reaktion: The Last Jazz Vol. II", his new record, in a way the continuation of his 1987 album "The Last Jazz". Schneider plays almost all the instruments by himself - his son Charlie can be heard as a guest musician on drums. The longplayer was created as occupational therapy - after all, Schneider, who was always on tour, had to postpone dozens and dozens of concerts several times, but sitting around idly was not an option for him either.

Read the full interview with Helge Schneider below.

* For any attempts to classify the artist, I recommend (in addition to Schneider's complete works) the book "Helge Schneider" by Peter Kemper, which places the artist between Thelonious Monk, Grock the Clown and the philosophical tradition of the Cynics.

© Helge Schneider

Tell us something about the making of your new album "Die Reaktion: The Last Jazz Vol. II".

Helge Schneider: Among other things, it was simply to keep myself busy. During the pandemic, I had 75 concerts that had to be postponed - some of them not just once, but three times. I thought to myself: Before I sit around at home, I'll just use the possibilities I built up years ago, namely my own studio, where I can do what I want, day and night. That's a real luxury. Other bands have to rent a place for a week, which costs a lot of money and you're under pressure. I don't have that here at all. Here the only pressure I have is the one I put on myself, because when I start something, I want to finish it.

At some point I also realized that I've actually been touring constantly for the last few years and have always worked very, very hard. I thought that a break like that would do me good, because I was somewhat overworked. I was always doing a lot of things at the same time: touring, records, books, painting, TV appearances, talk shows, sitting for hours, hungry, thirsty, finally almost asleep and suddenly: "Mr. Schneider, do you still feed your cat yourself?" But thanks to Corona I stayed at home and worked on recordings. In this process, I also became aware of what I've actually been doing for a long time. I improvise music. I work in the sense of improvisation and jazz - I call it jazz now. For me, jazz also means movement, my comedy is also jazz. I just play on it, bring in my experience and always have the desire to learn new things. That's the main thing about music: that you never stand still, never look back and say, "That’s it“. It always has to go on.

You mentioned earlier that you wanted to move away from humurous singles and back more towards instrumentals.

You can always listen to instrumental music. When one is sitting here at the Ruhr like we are now: It makes a difference if you listen to a song by Grönemeyer - or if you just sit here and listen to Händel, Bach or Beethoven. When I'm sitting here, I want to hear piano music without someone singing and me having to listen to the lyrics. I think Bach and Beethoven improvised a lot. That was written down afterwards and then of course it's no longer improvised when you learn it and play it.

Markus Brandstetter with Helge Schneider © privat

That brings us to the topic of improvisation.

I remember when, a long time ago, I was doing film music for silent films at the Filminstitut Düsseldorf. I always improvised, I never had sheet music with me. There were old silent films from 1916, very old, French, German or American films. I simply played along with them. My colleague, a professor, also played the cinema organ. With that instrument, you imitated certain sounds with buttons. When it rained, for example, you heard peas pattering into a funnel. The sounds were multiplied, not by loudspeakers, but just by these same funnels. That was actually a phenomenal thing. He used to put down notes and play after them - and got hired. I only played when he couldn't, I think. That was the decisive experience for me: People who sightread are better. That was simply the way it was presented. I was his substitute. At some point I didn't go along with that anymore. As an improviser, you really always have to fight. Against the façon. Thelonious Monk already did that: when he stayed in a hotel, he said he was a "composer" because that was more important than being a musician or an improviser. That's actually true of Monk, he truly was a composer. But somehow, especially in jazz music, a lot, almost everything, is created through improvisation. Then you remember that and then you can reproduce it, of course. And you always do it differently, as you feel at the moment. That's the beauty of it.

In your autobiography "Guten Tach. Auf Wiedersehen. Autobiographie Teil 1" you also wrote that improvisation requires much more talent than reading music.

That's true. It requires more talent.

You also once said that you toured with a big band in 1995 or 1996 and always took the sheet music away from them at the end. And you said that they were always pretty lost because of that.

Yeah, I used to do that back then. I can't write music that well or that fast, so I hired somebody who wrote the sheet music for the big band. I put down a chord and he was like, "No, you can't do that! That's dissonance. That's discordant!" So I had to convince him that it would work for me.

Improvisation also means playing with expectations. Because you just talked about talkshows: I've often asked myself why you actually do them. People always want to tease certain reactions from you and try to pin you down to something specific - and of course you never give them what they expect, and always play against that wonderfully. When did this actually start, that people always expected something specific from you as an artist? Did it start in 1994 with the appearance on "Wetten, dass..."?

In 1994 I had this TV appearance and all of a sudden I was famous. Take That also stayed in the same hotel. There were 15-year-old girls in front of the hotel, I gave them my hotel room and went home. I told them, "You can't do that, you have to tell your parents!" They hitchhiked from Freiburg to Bayern Hof with their sleeping bags. That's 500 kilometers! They didn't know where to sleep and lay down in the hotel corridor. So I said to them: "Here, take my room, but you have to call your parents.

But seriously, that must have been quite a shift for you. Suddenly you had people yelling the name of your hit "Katzeklo" [German for cat’s litter box, MB] all the time, trying to back you into a corner. That must have been a somewhat double-edged sword.

For a while it really got on my nerves. I was always rather the unpredictable one, the crazy one in my art. I wanted to stay that way. I managed to do that by simply not fulfilling these expectations. Maybe sometimes people went home disappointed because I didn't sing "Katzeklo". I really went through with it back then. Today things are different again. That is part of my history and belongs to me. By the way, I never denied that and I always make fun of it today. My children do too. They always notice that when I go somewhere and people don't say, "Look, Helge!" but "Look, Katzeklo!" That's really crazy.

© Helge Schneider

Back then, you introduced the so-called "punishment jazz: If people in the audience were annoying, you played half an hour of instrumental jazz.

To me, that was good music, but I knew that some people didn't want to listen to jazz. I also knew that this was a kind of punishment for them. Freedom is the most important thing in order to improvise. Freedom also means being left alone. When people are always yelling, you get distracted and sometimes you can't think straight. You can't fantasize anymore, you're suddenly distracted by a single heckle. At that time I was maybe a bit overworked, then I just couldn't go on with the things I wanted to start there. I was really pissed off. Then I said, "Well, I'll just play them piano jazz for half an hour," and then I improvised. Many of them liked it, though. I guess I have educated my audience over decades. If I had always done what was expected of me back then, I don't think I would be sitting here now, looking into the future, wondering about when the next concerts are. I probably wouldn't have any concerts at all. I wouldn't have fun doing the same thing over and over again, or repeating the 1996 tour in exactly the same way. But I stand by the fact that that was the way it was back then. Sometimes when I look at old recordings like that, I think: "Oh oh my". But from today's point of view, it's obvious that one has something. That's why you notice things strangely today, things that were so important to you back then. Then you think today: "Schneider was quite fussy back then."

With Bob Dylan, there are still people who walk out disappointed when he doesn't play "Blowing In The Wind".

I saw Frank Sinatra live once. There was a couple in the audience who only wanted to hear "New York, New York". They left right after he played it. That's just the way it is. But that's not necessarily a terrible thing, because these still are people who love what you do. And if it's just this one thing that they love. I have always tried to make my music accessible to those who have not yet occupied themselves with it. Or to those who want to do that. It would simply be the wrong way to say that all those who don't like jazz are stupid. It's not because of jazz, it's because of the way it's presented, including the way it's presented in the media.

Why do you think that is? Many people think of Robbie Williams with an orchestra when they think of jazz.

A lot of people also classify Rod Stewart as jazz. Or Michael Bublé. There is simply a lack of the attitude towards life that is needed to produce jazz. Jazz clubs are missing. The small stages where people meet, where unknown musicians jam. Nobody dares to open a pub anymore, with all the regulations that come with it. I sometimes toy with the idea of opening my own place where I make music myself. But that is not my mission. My mission is to travel all over the place and play music. And since I can't do that now because of this shitty virus, I make records instead.

What was the Ruhrpott jazz scene like when you were socialized with jazz?

There was a jazz club in Mülheim, but only old men sat there and only Dixieland and mainstream was played. But I wanted something different. Back then, I always went to Düsseldorf. I wanted to see the cracks, Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon, Count Basie and his people. They played in the Downtown [a famous jazz club in Düsseldorf, MB] a lot. When Count Basie was in town or Lionel Hampton, you'd see Curtis Fuller in the Downtown - and he'd bring Art Taylor, who used to be Charlie Parker's drummer. When Art Taylor came to the Downtown, I thought: "I want to play there". I actually played with them, but I played the wrong chords. Harry Sweets Edison, who also played trumpet with Count Basie, came over, very tenderly took my hands and said, "No, no, that was the wrong chord!" Those are the kind of moments that no one would be able to experience today. That's exactly what's missing: the touch, the experience. Also unforgettable was Arnett Cobb, who was a tenor saxophonist from Texas who played rhythm and blues. When I saw him in Duisburg, I knew: "I want to play the saxophone now, too". Of course, something like that only happens when you're up close and personal, when you experience something like that. I can still see that today.

How did you actually teach yourself to play jazz on the piano?

I just started playing. I started pretty early, first with A minor. Then F major, C major - I played a chord with my left hand and always a blues with my right. I figured out pretty early on that you can play blues on anything, on any chord. I explored that for myself, without any influences. Then I had a few twists and licks that I sometimes still play today and remember how I started. Then it just grew. And of course I learnt by playing live, by jam sessions, by just playing. I was lucky enough to meet a great drummer, Charlie Weiss. What a great fit. No matter what I played, I felt like Charlie could smell what was coming next. You don't get that with a lot of musicians. When you play with someone like that - him on drums, me on organ or piano, you can learn a lot that you can't come up with on your own. Rhythm is very important to me. I have about ten drum kits myself. My youngest son Charly also plays drums. He couldn't even walk when he started. He’s sometimes playing with our band. I've played with a lot of drummers, but with him I get a similar feeling like the one I got with Charlie Weiss. He smells when a break is coming. You can't learn that, you just have it or not. I am convinced that he is very, very talented. It's tremendous fun to play with someone you can do anything with. Where you don't have to be prepared for him to ruin everything. It all fits together. The guitarist in my last band, Henrik Freischlader, was also like that: with him you could just play away. Without knowing what the chords were called. With me it was quite characteristic: I started with sightreading, but at some point I couldn't read notes anymore. Today I sometimes look in the Real Book and think to myself: "I could play a piece from that. But it always sounds different from the original, and sometimes the chords are not reproduced correctly.

But you never practiced scales, checked out the modes of harmonic minor or something like that?

No, that's a big mistake when you do that, I think. When you learn scales, you can't get out of that corset. It's like the guy writing the scores telling me, "You can't do that." I've never heard that in music, that something doesn't work. Unless you're doing pop music, you want to play a funny song, and you only have minor chords. Then it really doesn't work. I find my own scales. I practice in my head, and then I try to get that on the piano. I'm 65 years old and I've been playing the piano for a long time. My development was very slow, so I don't forget anything. I'm still learning, very slowly. But if you study something and learn scales with all your might and great speed, but you haven't internalized them yet, I don't think you can play the scales in a way that anyone can understand. And that's the point.

© Helge Schneider

Let's get back to the new album. So it's all instrumentals?

All but for three songs. One sounds a bit like Fehlfarben. I once played on a record with them, I thought that was great. Their music was never my style, but I thought that Peter Hein and the lyrics colossal. But most of the album is instrumental. Sometimes I want to be able to play Bach, and then I pretend to play like that. Then it sounds a bit like that, like classical music, following the harsh harmony specifications. You might think that that could be Bach but you don't know it, because this Bach didn't exist yet. Perhaps those are lost compositions.

Like the legendary art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, who has thought the work of famous artists further and "invented" new works.


Your former keyboard player Buddy Casino once said about you that you have the talent to imitate people incredibly well - Miles Davis, for example. Because you can totally internalize their style.

That’s not just about the music. When I see people, it's a whole different story. When you hear Miles Davis and you've never seen him, there's something really big about that. Something grand. But when you see Miles Davis playing, it's a whole different thing. Or his musicians, Ron Carter, plucking the bass with his eyes widened in fear, scared to play a wrong note. You wouldn't believe that these are normal people. You only realize that when you see them live. I once saw Freddie Hubbard with the WDR Big Band, and I was totally impressed. He had a blue suit on, sunglasses on, played almost without a microphone. He was just cheeky, didn't even say "hello." That's how I met Jimmy Woode. Jimmy was a bass player with Duke Ellington, he was on the road with Odetta at the time. They played at the Westfalenhalle. After that, there was a session that I was at. Jimmy played at that session, that's when I noticed him. I was 18, 19 back then, he was maybe 40, 45. Decades later Pete York brought him on and then Jimmy was our bass player for a few years. I learned a lot from him. But I didn't realize that until later. His way of playing, he had everything already in his head and his bass lines were very melodic. I understood then how musicians can inspire other musicians.

© Helge Schneider

How do you look back on your time in the band with Jimmy Woode?

I decided to have a go at synthesizers back then, which was a rather unfortunate story. I thought we needed that kind of friction. We did a lot of gigs, but it was actually too short a time. Today, I could play with Jimmy in a much better way, because I could relate to him more. It has to do with trust. As a pianist, if you don't really trust the drummer or bass player, you play too much rhythm yourself. You sometimes don't know what the problem is that it doesn't really swing. And then suddenly you have someone with you, everything works, and you don't know why. It's just because of a certain sense of timing.

So the difference between a band that works and a band that doesn't work so well is a hard-to-define feeling that can't be academicized?

That's hard to say, it also depends on the day. Miles Davis certainly didn't always have a good day with his band. But at least they always tried very hard.

Miles Davis certainly didn't always have easy days, to put it mildly.

I don't know. This image of him in the public eye may just as well have been invented. But one thing is certain: none of the musicians were allowed to take their wives with them. He once said that clearly: If Wayne Shorter has his wife with him, he plays like shit. Because he always thinks he has to play for his wife. The stories started back then when he played with his back to the audience to hear his band better. He was immediately accused of not liking the audience.

© Helge Schneider

Is there any truth to the myth that you found your first Miles Davis record in the trash?

Yes, that's actually true. Someone threw it away, it can happen! It was a bit scratched. After Herbie Mann, Roland Kirk, Elvis Presley and Louis Armstrong, I suddenly had Miles Davis. I listened to that all day.

What was that album?

"One Way" was its later name. Late '50s, with Red Garland on piano, Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Rollins, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones. The classic line-up. After that, yes, he became a world star because he invented this cool thing with "Kind Of Blue." His trumpet was not yet as groundbreaking in that sextet as it was afterwards.

I was never sure if the story about the record in the trash was true, I always thought it was a nice biographical trick.

No, it's really true.

Because you mentioned Roland Kirk: "Serenade For A Cuckoo" was a seminal piece for you. What fascinated you about it?

I also knew Jethro Tull, "The Witches Promise". Ian Anderson played the flute and sang. At some point I realized that Roland Kirk had been doing that for a long time. I thought he was incredibly good because he played several saxophones at the same time. For me, Kirk was not a clown, as many people saw him, he was not really taken seriously in many places. I saw him live once in Dortmund, he had a stroke shortly before. I used to just sneak into concerts. There was an empty seat next to Roland Kirk in the front row, he sat there and took it all in. To his right sat a guy who was guiding him, Kirk was blind. I sat next to him. I was there with Charlie Weiss and we sat next to Roland Kirk. That was a great experience. Kirk was smoking one joint after another. A true pothead, like Louis Armstrong, he smoked all the time too. Charlie Weiss told me that. Kirk had a tape recorder hanging around him when he was performing. Every now and then he would turn it on and hold it up to the microphone. I read once that everything was always turned on at his house. Television, record player. Like with me also. Then he played to it. Music came from there, news from there, the TV was on. His concert was exactly the same. I found that incredibly fascinating.

Thelonious Monk was also important to you, wasn't he?

Very much so. I discovered him in a record store in 1970, when his latest record came out. I think it was called "Revolution". He was there in a combat jacket on the cover, next to him were hand grenades and a machine gun. He later thought the cover was shit himself. I thought: I have to go in there and listened to the record. I didn't think it was bad, but I didn't really understand it at the time. I bought the record "Thelonious Alone in San Francisco", where he plays solo piano. I thought that was incredibly good. And I got another one in this store, a record with Art Blakey. I saw them live together once. A lasting experience. Unfortunately, I never saw Monk live. Peter Thoms, with whom I also played a lot, saw Monk live once.

On your first release, "IKEA Jazz Festival presents" you covered "Blue Monk".

Yes, exactly.

Peter Thoms is also such a strong drummer figure in your biography.

Absolutely. A very stubborn guy!

What are you like as a bandleader? How would your colleagues describe you?

I had a mixed big band, there were some who played well and some who were real amateurs. They couldn't really play at all, but they managed to pull off a few notes. Like Sergej Gleithmann, who is actually not a saxophonist at all, but then played baritone saxophone. I'm not interested in how someone describes me. And as a bandleader, I'm just as good or bad as the band.


"Die Reaktion: The Last Jazz Vol. II" by Helge Schneider will be released on July 16, 2021. More information about the artist as well as current tour dates can be found on his website.

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