We spoke to Hauschka–the moniker for Duesseldorf-based multi-instrumentalist, experimental pianist, and composer Volker Bertelmann–on a day that he described as “kind of weird.” “These days that don’t really start and don’t really end, you know?” he elaborated. “You want to have a nice result, but you’re fighting for it the whole day. There are other days that go easy and you get a lot done and you’re happy about it. Today is an in-between day. You are included in it. When I’m finished with this interview, I’ll feel better about today.”
We felt better about the day when he started to speak. It is obvious that the man has great talent. He’s an eloquent speaker, who has all but mastered his command of the English language. He has many years of experience in music, beginning when he was signed to a rap label as a teenager. His fondness for music hasn’t changed, although the way that he approaches it has shifted consistently over the years.
Now, with decades of experience under his belt, Hauschka has re-released his debut album with FatCat Records on their experimental sister label 130701, complete with additional material on a gorgeous vinyl pressing. Room to Expand (Expanded) is an updated version of his 2007 recording, and is just as gorgeous as it was at release. We had the pleasure of sitting down with him around the release date to discuss the album, his musical journey, and Gandhi. Check it out.
We read the background behind the moniker “Hauschka”. When did that idea strike you?
When my deal with Sony Music was finished in 1996, I was done with the hit factory kind of music. I didn’t believe in something that wasn’t honest. I didn’t like that it was ruled by selling and show and expectations. I stopped all of my music making and I became a father, my two daughters were born. At that time, I didn’t want to make anymore records. I waited about 4 or 5 years before I started to record again. The first things I did were a couple of techno records with dance music that had no form. One of them became a big dance hit and inspired me to get back on track because I felt like I could have success with indie music.
I wanted to create a new piano record and while I was thinking about that, I was considering what to call myself. Should I use my own name? Should I use a synonym or a band name? And I thought it would be nice to find a band name that has an Eastern European approach because, in a way, my music has a lot of Eastern European melancholy. It’s hard to describe, but it’s sadness while always celebrating. Even though you’re freezing cold and in -50 in the park, you’re dancing with a woman and you’re feeling OK. Something like that. I’ve always felt attracted to that idea.
Hauschka is actually a Czech last name that was changed when Czech people went to Vienna. They were called Haruschka with an “r”. It changed to a German version, which is Hauschka. I was attracted to that name. I found it by researching an Austrian composer family from the 1900s who had the same name.
We know you formed your first rock band at the age of 14, but when did you decide that music was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
To be honest, it sounds a little weird but the first time I asked my mom for piano lessons. There was a teacher in the Christian community in which I was raised who played a Chopin concert. I fell in love with the instrument. I felt such a strong pull to music, and felt a very deep connection. There were always phases that I got closer to it. When I was 18, I did my first music for a television series in Germany. It was very weird because normally you don’t get the chance at that age. But I got asked by the parents of a friend of mine because they were directors. They asked if they could use some of my music for the series. That financed parts of my schooling, because I got money every year from that music. That was the first time that there was an income/job relationship coming into place with music.
Before that, I was in love with music. We rented an old cellar in the school basement and all the girls from the village were hanging out there. Is there anything more you could wish for? It was paradise.
At the same time, I was participating in sports. I was a tournament champion in handball. So it was really strange that all of these things worked. Maybe because I was good in sports, I am quite discipled.
Since then, you’ve worked on several film scores. Do you have a favorite?
The films I score are getting better and better. The very first ones were very experimental, and they were films done by students and the like. This January, I did my first Hollywood movie which will be coming out Thanksgiving weekend in America. I think this is one of the best films I’ve ever worked on, and I got to do it with a very near and dear friend of mine, Dustin O’Halloran. We have been friends for 15 years already. When I saw this movie, I was totally stoked by the picture and the story.
Right now I’m working on a movie directed by James Franco. I finished the score yesterday, actually. Suddenly all of these things are coming into my life that aren’t planned, but they give me a chance to try things out, and at the same time I can work on my experimental records. This balance is very nice.
How did you get the James Franco opportunity?
I got asked. My manager is in LA and he got called by a friend of his who liked what I have done and had heard I am a fast worker. They had a time restraint. I need a little pressure to start, so it worked out. For example, in three weeks I have to finish a cello concerto for a famous German cellist. I have three weeks, and I haven’t even started. Once I’m in though, I have quite a clear momentum. Things fall into place.
The [James Franco] film is based on a John Steinbeck book called In Dubious Battle. What I like about that is that I have always had a very strong love for America. I have always felt comfortable there. I am very happy that there is a part of American culture that I can take part in.
How has the writing process and collaboration dynamic changed from when you were in bands to now, as you work (mostly) solo?
Music has never given me as much energy as it does now. When I was younger, dealing with all the people in the band–all the characters and all that–was very disoriented. Now, I enjoy the orientated aspects. I love raw improvisations and taking things from there. I love creating from small ideas. Great ideas I work on, and others I set aside and may recycle later. A lot of times I can tell what is strong. It leads to efficiency in my work, which I really like.
I’m also aware of the fact that people have strengths and weaknesses. I tell myself, “Don’t run away from your weaknesses” every morning. Right now, I’m writing music that is notated and I’m trying to find a way to make it as dense and fun as improvised music is for me.
You re-released your 2007 debut album with 6 new songs. What made you choose to add to the already stunning collection?
I was talking to FatCat about the option of re-releasing on vinyl. I suppose they felt it would be nice to give it special momentum, so we used the tracks I had recorded that didn’t make it onto the original album. I usually send a label 15-20 tracks with each album, and then there is always something to choose from. I still had mine me those tracks back, and initiated it.
It’s great to dive into a period that is already over. But in my case, every record is a stone in my development and I hope that one day I will look back and be able to see exactly how my path went as I added elements. For example, Room to Expand was the first time I added cello.
I work constantly and I always put things to the side because I’m not sure it’s the right time yet. I have three albums ready right now. I don’t know when I will release them.
Off that album, I must say that “One Wish” struck me as very soothing. What was the inspiration for that piece?
The prepared piano song on that album is very fragile and puristic in comparison to the sound on my last album, Abandoned City. Whenever I felt some dissonance in the sound, I stayed there and just waited for the next chord to come my way. What I love about the momentum of this record is it has some wandering and maybe some curiosity to the music that I had as I played the instrument. I thought, “How can I approach something that I feel inside but maybe am too shy to show?”
“One Wish” was a track that was created during that period. I still know how I felt when I wrote it. I had all the baggage of my past inside of me. There were phases where I stumbled and failed, or people told me that I would never be a star. People were trying to tell me what to do, and they were telling me how average I was. At the same time, I thought, “I’m not average. But I’m not sure if I can show that.” “One Wish” is a wish of maybe finding out that there might be people out there that are interested in what I’m doing.
Do you ever listen to your own music?
Sometimes. But not too intensely. I am sometimes asked to make a score or people ask me to send temp music or examples and I have a hard drive that I take with me everywhere. It’s full of my music. Unreleased, released, folders organized by emotion, albums, etc. A lot of times I listen back to albums. As much as you look forward and you progress with visions and ideas, it’s always good to have the past in your back pocket so you can be aware of what it was. Then you can look at it often to address your progression.
Some people are afraid to look back because they look at things they have done and they don’t feel good about it. In a way, you can also see the roots and you can travel back and know where you started. In a way, where you are now is the same moment as at that time, just on a different level. Because there are so many levels. There is a long way to go, and we are never finished. So I think it is always good to be aware of the path in front of you, as well as what’s behind you.
Word on the street is your live performance is stunning. What do you love the most about performing live?
The surprise, randomness, and uniqueness. Most of my performances are only planned in fragments. I have a few ideas for the evening, but I have no idea where to start or where to go with it. So at the venue, I imagine how it could all play out. Sometimes I’m in a church, temple, concert hall, indie club, cultural center, and every room has a different vibe and needs different music. I have the impression that in the past, I would go to places with the same program and they tried to force me to play the program in a room that it didn’t work in.
For example, a percussion set in a church doesn’t work because there’s so much reverb. But if you slow things down and you use the reverb as an element of your music, things get better. So I try to find a way of incorporating things like that. I’m pretty happy that it works so well. People feel the risk and they consider me a man on a wire with a challenge.
You are a wordsmith. Everything you say is so poetic. Do you write lyrics?
No. But I’m addicted to stories. I think stories help you to describe something without losing the poetry. You can tell something serious and sad or happy, but you can find a way to tell it so that people can be touched without feeling a cliche. For example, I have a short story included in every record. You can close your eyes and listen to the music, but you can read the story and it can help you understand the music differently.
Who is your favorite superhero, and why?
Maybe Gandhi is my superhero. All the action and fighting against criminals is of course a wonderful topic and I love it. It’s very entertaining. But in the end, it doesn’t solve the roots of violence and confusion. You need people like Gandhi to help you to solve those things. Some of his ideas are awesome. I’m trying to find a way of establishing some of these ideals. It’s important to find people who show you good examples like that. I want to know what I can do to grow. Gandhi is that guy in the pacifistic sense. Even though I’m not Buddhist, there are many awesome ideas from Buddhism that help you to be strong in your mind and aid you to find more strength in yourself.
Last year, I did a horror movie soundtrack. I loved the darkness so much and getting into worlds that are crazy, where people become heroes and find a way to get over things. I think that’s awesome.
What else is in the works for you?
This year, I didn’t release a record. I wanted to make space for other things like movies and writing more music for other musicians. So right now I’m writing this concerto for Nicolas Altstaedt who is a Berlin based cellist. It is based on a script from Italian film director, Fellini. It is a wonderful script that was never filmed, called The Journey of G. Mastorna. It’s about a cellist that dies in a plane crash, but doesn’t realize it and lives on in a kind of limbo world. He’s reflecting on his life and it’s very interesting.
I’m writing some music for a string orchestra in Germany, which is near Duesseldorf where I live. It’s a chamber orchestra of guys who have finished their string studies but have yet to find an orchestra. They’re in a really good chamber ensemble. I am writing a 30 minute piece for them. I’m also in touch with an American composer and we want to write a piece together, but it might be next year. There’s a lot of development in there. I also have three more movies on my plate until next year. There is a lot of stuff happening and, at the same time, I’m preparing a new album for April 2017. This might be an onward development from Abandoned City. My approach is to find more clarity in my sound, because Abandoned City was dense and cloudy.
I work on so many things at once because I don’t like to get stuck. Every day, I’m working on at least two things and they aren’t always the same. I know it’s difficult for men, especially, to do that. It’s not so easy to do several things at once. But I think musicians can do that because they learn to work with different parts of the body at the same time.
Room to Expand (Expanded) is available now via 130701. 130701 will release Eleven into Fifteen: a 130701 Compilation on July 15th, which has a previously unreleased track from Hauschka as well.