I wanted to start by asking you, how would you describe Grobschnitt to somebody who had never heard of the band before?
Grobschnitt was a unique German band of the ’70s and ’80s, presenting outstanding music and show elements at first into our local German province and later all over Germany in the biggest halls and venues. The band was a self-developing, hard-working “family” in which everyone’s voices and opinions were welcome, regardless if they were a musician, roadie or friend. The motto “one for all – all for one” describes the group perfectly, but our internal motto was “one for all – all against one”.
The roots of Grobschnitt date back to the mid-‘60s where we started out as a beat band, later developing into R&B, underground, soul and psychedelic music. Grobschnitt showcased a wide variety of styles: starting out somehow swingy and jazzy in 1971, we switched over to more concert-oriented prog rock in the mid ’70s, got rockin’ harder in the early ’80s, also touching German new wave slightly and always had a great improvisational playground with Solar Music, a constant highlight on each and every Grobschnitt gig from the beginning in 1971 until the end in 1989. Most of all the band was known for their unique stage-acting.
We were voted in ‘78 and ‘79 as best German and best international act by many magazines and hit No. 1 as “best band of the year” in the 1978 Rockpalast TV competition. To the community of their fans, Grobschnitt was the most important German band of all times; for many even the world’s best act.
Three years ago, you released the 79:10 box set, featuring every live and studio album by Grobschnitt as well as a wealth of bonus tracks. How long did the project take from start to finish?
We started out in 2012, working as hard as back in the old days. Myself and our former guitar player and manager Lupo, my friend and schoolmate from the ’60s, spent days and nights, weekends and months to raise this project from our vaults, filled up with thousands of photos, live-recordings and memories from 23 years of making active music. Three years later in April 2015 it was released by Universal and went straight into the German charts on spot 24, among and above many contemporary albums of today’s famous acts.
The reason for the name 79:10 is that each disc in the set lasts exactly 79 minutes and 10 seconds. How were you able to achieve this?
Well, it needs some knowledge and experience to get a CD matching exactly the Red Book Spec’s length of 79:10 down to the frame. But since I am working in the professional studio field since 1971 and in the digital mastering field since 1999 it’s quite a regular task for me, especially with such an unbelievable amount of material like my live recording archives from Grobschnitt. Then you can juggle and adjust the tracks and if a few seconds don’t match 79:10 in the end, a precise fade or some applause may help. I think to deliver that collection of 18-CDs with each disc reaching the maximum length is another typical Grobschnitt idea and so great for the customers, who get as much music as possible.
Does the finished 79:10 box set meet your original vision? Is there anything you couldn’t put in the box that you wish you could?
We have more than ten times more photos being worth to be shown in that set. Same goes for the audio material. I have hundreds of recordings from our gigs which add up to nearly 1,400 all in all. Lupo and I were and are frenetic collectors and archivers; boxes with material were piling up to the ceiling when we started our search. To give you a clue: in 1981 and 1983 I even hired a professional photographer to follow us on tour, shooting each concert. In the end, I had more than 3,000 pictures only from that period. When we started the conception of the 79:10 box booklet, Universal offered us 40 pages or so. But we had boxes filled with photos and press clippings from the past 40 years piling up to the ceiling. Finally we chose about 1,000 pictures to be restored, which I did myself with Photoshop and similar tools. Same goes for the audio files, which were all completely remastered by me from the original tape-sources. Throughout the working process, more and more material was found and more and more old stories and anecdotes came back to our minds, so we ended up with 100 pages. Honestly said: it could well have been 500. On the other hand – it was breathtaking when the box was finished. To hear and see it all done, put together professionally by our friends in the art and graphics department at Universal, who did an unbelievable job, too, was in many cases far above our visions…
When did you first begin learning the drums, and who were your influences?
I started out drumming on old buckets and tin-cans in 1964. Together with a classmate who owned a clarinet, we performed songs by Mr Acker Bilk and Chris Barber. That sounded more authentic when I eventually got a real drum cymbal from my parents for Christmas. Later my influences switched over to Keith Moon and Ginger Baker and I got my first real drums (a used Premier kit) in 1966.
By the time Grobschnitt formed, progressive music had already achieved some popularity. Which bands were you listening to at that time?
Grobschnitt formed in early 1971 out of our former beat band The Crew, founded in summer 1966, which already had two of the later Grobschnitt-members besides myself on board: Wildschwein (vocals, guitar) and Lupo (lead guitar). In the late ’60s, The Crew performed mainly blues, beat, R&B, soul, later also psychedelic and underground material. Many acts of the sixties were our favourites. Lupo and I were initially digging those melodic instrumental bands like The Tornados, The Shadows, The Ventures and The Spotnicks. Later I switched over to Cream, Them, Yardbirds, Kinks, Pretty Things, Beatles and Stones, later to bands like Love, The Electric Prunes and always to Frank Zappa and his Mothers.
When Grobschnitt was formed we were mainly into swing and jazz and progressive music wasn’t on our list at all. That changed later in 1973/74 when the keyboardist Volker “Mist” from Bremen joined us. He was a huge fan of Yes and Genesis and brought that into the band. I myself was not so fond of these and called it “college rock”.
I’d like to talk a bit about Rockpommel’s Land, which quickly became my favourite album when I was listening to the box set. Grobschnitt was a notoriously comedic and satirical band, so when I saw the Roger Dean-esque cover of Rockpommel’s Land I was asking myself whether you were trying to write a parody of a Yes album, or just write a solid concept album with symphonic prog influences. Can you explain the band’s thought process?
The idea came from Volker “Mist”. As I have said, he was a fan of Yes and Genesis at that time and wanted to set up a solid concept album, according to his own visions. So he and Lupo and Wildschwein started out composing melodies and structures at first, later our bassist Hunter and me joined in for the basic grooves and rhythmic parts. It was a rough concept with some very nice hooks and melodies, but it was far from being perfect during the first months. We rehearsed each day for hours and hours more than half a year.
I worked on the lyrics in a very extraordinary way: Volker had the idea of a little boy experiencing adventures during a trip to a magic country. Wildschwein had the idea of singing ‘la-la-la’ phrases in many parts. And for me, the challenge was left to write an English (!) text fitting exactly on these ‘la-la-la’ notes and making a true sense by telling that particular story of a little chap in wonderland. So I invented terms like ‘Rockpommel’s Land’, ‘Ernie’, ‘Maraboo’, ‘Mr Glee’, ‘The Blackshirts’ and all that. It took me some weeks but finally, Wildschwein had his lyrics fitting exactly on his melodies.
The rest was rehearsing, rehearsing and rehearsing. We were so damn good at that time that one could have woken us up at 3 in the morning and we would have performed the whole Rockpommel’s Land perfectly without the slightest mistake. When we showed up at Conny Plank’s Studio in 1977 to record the album, the very first evening after soundcheck we warmed up playing Rockpommel’s Land completely through. Conny’s chin fell down and he said: “Well, I should have recorded that, it was absolutely great”. We laughed and then did it again just for fun with the same level of perfection. Conny had never produced any band before playing that precisely. Afterwards, he called us his “little health-resort orchestra”…
The level of detail and dexterity in this particular record sets it apart from other Grobschnitt releases. According to your liner notes, it took many more months to write, record and produce than any other album in the band’s career (rather like Yes’s Close to the Edge). For a band used to being silly on stage, how did the serious approach affect you?
Somehow, we hated it; at least Hunter and I did. I remember when we both took our walks around our rehearsal hall which was located near a high school in a park close to the woods. We rapped about the world, our girls and drank a beer or two outside, while Lupo, Wildschwein and Volker (we called him “Mr Cantor” because he was ruling us from above his keyboard castle with his cigarette-tip) were working like dogs inside the hall, so that we sometimes could hear the sound up in the woods. When we had to get back later we walked in holding hands, because we feared the next bollocking from Mr Cantor, asking why we lazy sows had stayed out so long.
Rockpommel’s Land was nothing but hard work and perfection. On stage, I hated it because it consisted of so many breaks and rhythm changes and stood miles away from Solar Music, which was the true musical playground for every one of us each night. But we were professional enough to perform it with the same passion and pride like all of our other music. And when I hear it again today, decades later, I really love it!
The band are well known not only for the astounding music but for their energetic and lengthy live shows featuring theatrics and pyrotechnics. When was it decided that this would be the norm for Grobschnitt?
Our “stage-act” presenting costumes and fireworks and much more was pure development. In the late ’60s The Crew started out with “happenings” on stage beside the music, because we wanted to entertain our audience more than other bands. And since I spent my apprenticeship at a chemical laboratory at that time I showed up with all kinds of self-mixed coloured fire, fog, custom designed bombs and other goods on stage, which were rather frightening at the time. We ran slide-projectors, we messed around with religious costumes in some show-acts and performed complete nonsense with The Crew, besides performing our music. And that wasn’t forgotten and was developed when we reformed to Grobschnitt.
Did the three hour shows never wear you out?
Never!!! The first half of the shows were tightly arranged with Rockpommel’s Land and structured songs like Father Smith or Mary Green, while the second half was our “freestyle” ruled by Solar Music. And every musician was looking forward to it each night, expecting new happenings and musical adventures.
For example: in 1978 we played 98 gigs throughout Germany and Switzerland, each night a 3-hour show or longer. And each concert was always new to us because the German mentality of the audience differed a lot throughout the country. In the Ruhr Valley area, for example, people were sometimes slightly bored by the political gags we made. In Bavaria they laughed about it a lot and in Switzerland we got frenetic applause for exactly the same insert. And same for the music: while some people yawned during Rockpommel’s Land, urgently awaiting Solar Music, others did it just the other way round – they gave standing ovations at the end of Rockpommel’s Land and fell asleep or even left the hall during Solar Music. That was really stunning for us all the way through.
Before reading through the notes in the 79:10 box, I had no idea just how much Solar Music meant to the band and its fans. The piece clearly went through many changes, as can be heard on the many versions featured. What do you think stayed the same over time, that kept Solar Music from being something else altogether?
Solar Music was and still is our signature piece. For us musicians and for most of the audience every single version each night was a new adventure. Limited by very few arranged parts we had our playground for spontaneous ideas and “risks” on our instruments, pushing the whole thing so many times into new and unexpected directions, especially in the early phases from 1973 to 1978. And the fans knew and felt how we lived this sometimes up to a one-hour “event” on stage, combined with visual effects like light shows, fire, fog, costumes and much more. Lasting all of the years with Solar Music was that typical theme in Dm, invented by Lupo, our lead-guitarist, somewhere in 1968 in the days of The Crew, together with some composed structured parts building the “basement” of Solar Music. These were changed only a very few times in 18 years.
The box set also touches on your passion for recording music, as evidenced by the brilliant Solar Music – Live album. How did you get into recording and remastering?
I started out recording in 1963 when everyone in my class had his own tape-recorder to get the latest hits cheap and fast from the radio. I got my first Schaub-Lorenz SL 100 (4-track, 2-speed) machine at the age of 12 from my parents for Christmas and was the hero of our school because that one was the ultimate dream of everyone: it was technically great and had an outstanding design. And I had a vision: for copying the latest hits for my friends without carrying my beloved tape-machine through half of the city I needed a second one. So I convinced my parents that I must get a second identical recorder and in 1965 this dream came through (see picture). Not only that I now could copy tracks for my mates – I also invented stereo (with one tape running across the two machines) or the phasing effect by synchronizing one machine to a turntable and much more. From that day on one of the recorders followed me each afternoon to our rehearsal and many times to our gigs. Today I have a huge archive with songs from between 1966 and 1969 from The Crew, the predecessor of Grobschnitt. Later in 1970, another dream came true: my first professional Revox A 77, bought from my first earnings at my first job. And later they all followed: Revox A-700, Revox B-77, Tascam TSR-8, ITAM London 16-Track, Studer A-80, Studer A-810, Otari MX-5050, Otari MTR-90 24-track and some more.
Why did you choose to leave Grobschnitt after Razzia?
I had earned quite a lot of money with my instrumental hit Wolkenreise in 1979/80 and bought a complete 16-tracks studio equipment. So we could start recording and producing our albums with the most important factors “unlimited time and space” on our farm. The result of that period were Illegal and Razzia and my own Eroc 4, all of which I recorded and mixed with my equipment. During the work for Razzia, our keyboarder Volker Mist suffered from private problems and wanted to change some things in his life. He intended to settle back to his hometown in Northern Germany with the result of coming down 150 miles once a week for rehearsing with the band. But that was definitely not the way which had brought us up to what we were in 1982, and so the band decided he had to leave Grobschnitt forever.
We finished the album Razzia without him and I played all the keyboards on it. Later we tested new keyboardists and when I was on holidays the band decided (without asking me) Jürgen “J.R.” Cramer from Bremen to be our new one.
Since Volker Mist and I had spent the most time together in the band (I remember our parts in Solar Music when we well performed like Hardin & York, or countless rehearsal hours where we two developed melodies and rhythmic parts for future Grobschnitt songs), I had lost my “right hand” when he was fired. That was the first piece for the bucket…
The new keyboarder who hadn’t been my first choice was the second. And some more followed which in the end forced me to leave. Honestly said, with Grobschnitt I had reached everything I had dreamt of in the ’60s: popularity, albums, playing the biggest venues, TV, radio, musical milestones and a lot of money. In German, there goes a saying “just leave when it’s on top”. So I made up my mind to stay for one more year in the band, to enable a “smooth” takeover. It was a parting in friendship and I left Grobschnitt all my parts of the technical equipment, except my drums and my studio gear which I needed for my next step in life: founding a pro recording studio…
How did it feel listening to and remastering the Grobschnitt albums that you didn’t appear on?
When I first listened to Kinder und Narren in 1984 and later to Fantasten, I wasn’t amused, so to say. For me, this wasn’t Grobschnitt any more, and maybe for a number of the old fans, too. The band had recorded these albums in my own new studio with my partner on the controls while I was absent. The sound was okay, but the music and the messages made me sometimes head out into the woods to cry bitterly.
Today my wisdom of elder age and the blankets of time make it much easier for me. I’m professional enough to give each kind of music and style the perfect sound it needs. And some of the songs from 1984 to 1989, for example Könige der Welt or Go For Love, have grown on me and I really like them. So remastering these was as much challenge and fun, just like doing all the other albums from Grobschnitt.
You also recently remastered the entire Novalis back catalogue for the Schmetterlinge box set, released last year. How close were Grobschnitt and Novalis back in the ’70s?
On one hand, we were very close because Hartwig Biereichel (drummer of Novalis) was the A&R at our record-company Metronome at that time and we’re still friends to this day. On the other hand, we hated them because they were far too polite and stiff on stage and didn’t carry guns and knives like we did. We were a rough and tough bunch of soldiers and they were wearing frilled shirts. That couldn’t go together.
What is your favourite Novalis recording?
None. I still don’t like them.
What is your favourite Grobschnitt recording?
Razzia. And maybe Drummer’s Dream. And also a piece called About My Town, which we performed in 1971 including a long solo by our two (!) drummers.
What is next for you?
To make ends meet, like all those decades. I’m working on mastering, remastering and mixing projects each day, even on weekends. Last year the number of productions I have done since 1999 reached 2,000 complete projects! You can see them all on my website by clicking on “mastering ranch / productions”. For me it’s the best job I can imagine and I hope to can carry on for many more years…
[You can read Basil Francis’ review of Grobschnitt’s 79.10 boxset HERE.]