While the internet makes it hard for a band to maintain any sort of mysterious veneer around them, Faust, to this day, have perfected the actual sound of mystery. Though they had been honing their craft since the early ’70s, it took Sonic Youth to expose Faust by bringing the band to America for the first time in 1994. Still, without hard work digging deep in the crates at the record stores, the Faust mystery was still obscured from my white bread Middle American world until maybe 10 years ago. All sorts of bands site Faust as an influence, but that didn’t immediately make the music available to this flannel-shirted nerd.
So, where did the inspiration for Faust come from? While their body of work continues to grow with the new entry, Something Dirty, they remain relevant and still perched on the avant-garde. Nowhere near a nostalgia act drudging up old material with which to tour and watch the money roll in, Faust takes a chance with new members, a cement mixer on stage, and arguably more energy now than on “hit” albums like Faust IV. Something Dirty starts off with the explosive “Tell the Bitch to Go Home,” an instant reminder that these aren’t crusty old hippies—they are the fist of Krautrock. Don’t worry, though, there are plenty of weird noises and long droning songs, weird German and French lyrics, and enough echo to make you forget your name. I called founding member Jean-Hervé Péron on the phone to talk about the new record, opera, and the cyclical nature of aural influence.
I’ve been listening to a lot of famous operas lately and it occurred to me how similar some of the new material, specifically “Herbsstimmung,” resembles full-on orchestral music. In the same way Rimsky-Korsakov wrote for the bumblebee and the romantic natural world, does Faust sort of strive to write for the modern, post-industrial world?
Jean-Hervé Péron: I had a listen, and I was actually amazed by the fragility. It begins with a boom, and towards the end, it gets bombastic again. Towards the middle it’s really surprising how minute and how fragile everything is.
I hope this isn’t too much of a stretch here to compare the two, but I noticed how a lot of the Faust stuff, like some of that mid-17th century classical music, is very delicate, but it’s contrasted with these gigantic less-than organic sounds. I was wondering where that impetus comes from, to make those small sounds and those gigantic explosive sounds.
JHP: It would be wrong to think that, as we are in an industrial world or era, Faust composes industrial noise. That would be the wrong impression. It’s more that the industrial noise is part of our inspiration. That includes the cement mixer and printing machines and RAM noise, using discordant key sets and all this—it’s only one part of it. We let ourselves be inspired by everything around us. It’s the artistic part of Faust that is more relevant. You know, everything is art, and art is everywhere. So we try to reflect what we are exposed to.
The new record, Something Dirty, and especially the first song, “Tell the Bitch to Go Home,” is really tough and really confrontational. Did you deliberate much about the decision to present this new material in a confrontational manner first and work through sound movements?
JHP: First of all, with this recording, it’s a new line-up. James (Johnston) and Geraldine (Swayne) have been playing with us for about four years, and this is the second time we went in the studio with them. The first time was in London at Fortress Studios, and there’s a complete album that’s ready to go, but it won’t be in the market until later. In the meantime, the relationship between James and Geraldine and Faust, Zappi and I, has developed and they have become more secure with themselves. They now have this feeling that they can tell their stories as well, so that brings an aspect that is British and also feminine and which is also of two people that are a bit younger and have different energy. So we put all this together, and this is why we have a “dirty” Faust and why we have the “Tell the Bitch to Go Home.” This is Geraldine and James letting it all go, with Zappi and I backing it all up. This is why you’re noticing the change from the Faust that you’re used to.
It reminds me of some of the sounds from Tapes and Faust IV.
JHP: This is the magic of James and Geraldine: they can fully present their personalities, but still respect and feel and reproduce the aesthetic of the Faust spirit.
Speaking about that spirit, and pardon this if it sounds too mystical, do you feel a psychic bond with Zappi and the newer members or other collaborators in the band that lends toward a communication beyond words and gestures, like a primitive mind meld?
JHP: Absolutely, there is no doubt, and we’re not being mystical here or something. I think it’s a fact and a quite natural fact. I’ve been playing with Zappi for more than 40 years. You develop a sympathy that is definitely a psychic bond. Obviously, I feel what he’s thinking and what he will be thinking in a few minutes. It’s quite normal I think. Sometimes it’s really good, and it also has drawbacks. In the music world, it’s fine because of this instant communication. In a private relationship, I don’t want to dramatize this, but it is sometimes like a couple when one knows what the other one’s going to say, or how he behaves. You know, if he says one word, she will know he will have this answer, this kind of thing. This is not always pleasant because it turns into a very boring or even irritating relationship. What’s important is the musical aspect, though, so it’s grand to have this kind of relationship. With James and Geraldine, I admire this couple and their ability to capture what Zappi and I want to do and what we are aiming at. It’s really astonishing and great to have that high sensitivity about the group.
Since you’re working with younger artists in this new line-up, do you listen to their influences or listen to newer music and hear older Faust sounds in modern psychedelic rock & roll?
JHP: I do listen to a lot of new music, because I organize the Avantgarde Festival in Northern Germany, and lots of the groups are young. So yes. Am I influenced by this? I’m no more and no less influenced by this or any other type of sound of music. Any acoustic message or signal that reaches my ears and reaches my brain is somewhere in there, it is saved. I’m not sure this is an influence. I would say no, consciously no. I have many groups that I admire and respect an awful lot, but I can’t exactly say that Faust has been influenced by this sound or that band. It has been influenced by a political, social environment, but not by specific groups, really.
As a musician, I really like to know how different artists go about the songwriting process. I can imagine that it works as an exercise, to play and let melodies organically develop, but the finished product, what you present to the audience, always seems more deliberate after the fact. Do you guys just get together in a room and just play and then see what happens or do you work out each other’s specific ideas and build from there?
JHP: No, it would be ridiculous to just say yes or no to that. Composing and creating is a complex matter and there is no black and white answer to that. For me, it is a mixture of everything. Basically, we get together, we book a studio for something like five to 10 days and we have no preconceived ideas. I am certainly sure that each one of us has, on our own, a few ideas in the back of the oven, but when we get together it is simple. We set up our gear and the microphones, though that’s more the recording engineer’s job, then we start jamming. So now we are in an area where you could use the word “dilettantism.” This is an adjective that has been used in relation with Faust, like “Faust are a bunch of dilettantes.” They don’t mean it nicely when they say that. Now, I am keen on words, and “dilettante” is a word that comes from “delight.” So dilettantes are people who are delighted with what they do. They do it for fun. They do it for the pleasure of it, and this is absolutely what Faust is all about. We have no pretension for being great virtuosos on the guitar, keyboards or bass, and we certainly don’t have great voices, so there’s no real pretension. We just enjoy what we’re doing when we get in the studio. As we are a gathering of strong personalities, we sometimes get confrontations, and confrontations lead to creativity. Or we have this psychic communion, like we were talking about before, where we reach more harmonious phases. In the midst of all this, we have little pieces that one or another of us had in mind. I’ll put this poem here or I’ll do this riff here and play it. Maybe you pick up on it, and we see what happens.
When you’re recording, at what point do you say “this song is over?” There are live songs that are 22 minutes long, and there are a few songs that are only 22 seconds.
JHP: Yes, there a few phases here. When we are jamming, actually playing in the studio, when it starts, sometimes it’s like “bam!” and we’re on, like the beginning of Something Dirty. Or it starts cooking, and nothing happens, and then oh! Something happens, bang! And then we play on, play on. One of our philosophical rules is don’t give up, you know, there is always something in what began with just a session. So we don’t abandon, because something is bound to happen. We keep on playing and after a while, which is sometimes a matter of minutes and sometimes a matter of many more minutes, we feel it has been said, it’s finished. So the next phase, we tell the engineer to stop rolling tape and we go into the control booth and listen to that. Then we have to decide where the essence of the take is. What is worth it to show? It’s not worth it to show the whole thing—it doesn’t make sense. Like one piece with three or four minutes of solid unrest—to show all that is pointless. This phase, we edit everything and distill everything down to its essence and decide what is presentable.
Can you talk a little more about the concept of “art-errorist?” This is what pops up when someone googles your name.
JHP: Art-errorist was born in 1994, when we first toured the USA. It was “art” and “terror.” There was no emphasis on “error,” it was “terror.” At the time, it was okay to talk about terrorism or terror. The 11th of September had not happened, you know, so when you said you were doing art terror, you were saying, “I’m an ultra-punk. Watch your ears, we’re gonna shake you.” Then after the 11th of September, I realized that the word “terror” would mean something completely different to 99% of the population. So I thought about it for a while, to change the name. I like the thought that art is nothing but a big mistake, but a mistake that you take seriously without having it be deadly serious. You grab onto it and say, “I like that.” It was simple to emphasize that part. I made a separation with the word art on it’s own, the little dash and the big E errorist. So it’s like we are the ones making errors in art and let’s hope you enjoy my errors. It has become my thing. It is Jean-Hervé Péron. I don’t use it for Faust anymore. It’s my personal thing.
You’ve had involvement with other projects outside of Faust, my favorite being Slapp Happy...
JHP: Oh yes, that’s funny. I was just talking with Peter (Blegvad) yesterday. I have some of his drawings in my office because I love them. His father was an illustrator. Peter is an illustrator, and his daughter is actually in New York now selling drawings to the New York Times, so it seems to be a family thing. So yeah, we worked with Slapp Happy. Uwe Nettlebeck, rest in peace, he’s departed now, but he had the idea of introducing us to a couple of people. The main people were Dagmar (Krause), Anthony (Moore) and Peter, and later on Tony Conrad. So we did record the Acnalbasac Noom album, and for some reason it didn’t work. Then Virgin signed Faust and then Slapp Happy later on. They were like, “Oh yeah, we like these Slapp Happy recordings, but we have to do them new.” And they called it Casablanca Moon. Now though, there is a big issue in the world, discussed furiously between about 12 and a half people saying, “What is best, the Virgin production or the Wumme production?” Chris Cutler, from Recommended Records and Henry Cow and who is the man who knows about Faust and everything, he says there’s no question that the Wumme recordings are the best, and he’s going to keep on releasing them, and to make sure there’s no confusion, we’ll reverse every word. It’s the same songs, the same musicians, just a different producer.
Yeah, you can hear the slight differences in takes and the grooves are a little weirder on one. I have the Virgin one, Casablanca Moon, it’s one of my favorites, but...
JHP: Yes, some people prefer the Virgin version.
It’s also nearly impossible to find the other one in Ohio.
JHP: Well, I don’t even have a copy and I was on it! You can find the compact disc, but not the vinyl. Go to Recommended Records, they have all the CDs there.
Faust isn’t exactly the kind of American pop music that youngsters would be exposed to easily. I was given Faust IV by a bandmate in the early ’00s, and I actually regret the amount of time I spent not listening to Faust because of the affinity I’ve developed for the music since then. It’s nice to hear that you guys still have the spark with this new record, that you’re not beating a dead horse or something.
JHP: Well, thank you. Of course it flatters our egos. But nobody wanted to listen to Faust at the beginning. It seems like we’ve reached quite a few people in a positive way. It gives us motivation to go on in this direction. I mean, we have gone through changes, but we have not lost our spirit of being experimental. We are open to an osmosis wave, I guess, with new artists like James and Geraldine with Zappi and I. We welcome change. Maybe people will be surprised if we have a new album that sounds totally different, but don’t expect anything with Faust. It is always changing.