Former Faust bassist and singer Jean-Hervé Peron wants to clear the air about his old band, particularly the time in the early 1970s when they were living in a commune in Wümme, a rural region outside of Hamburg. Faust’s time in Wümme is one of the great sagas in experimental rock history, beginning with their wily late manager, Uwe Nettelbeck, persuading Polydor that they were signing a newly formed collection of Hamburg musicians who would prove to be the most uncompromising band in an uncompromising era for German rock – even by the standards of fellow travelers Can, Kraftwerk, and Amon Düül II, Faust’s eponymous 1971 debut album
Hans-Joachim Irmler, Faust’s keyboard player, believes their manager capitalized on the fact that Polydor had lost both the real Beatles, who had been signed for a year while still performing in Hamburg, and Jimi Hendrix “because they didn’t care enough,” focusing their attention on the light, upbeat Mitteleuropean bubblegum pop known as schlager. Faust decamped to an ancient school in Wümme after extracting a rumored DM 30,000 (approximately £160,000 today) from the business, at which time the tale becomes even more legendary. Huge amounts of narcotics were consumed, and clothing was not required.
The band’s original drummer, Arnulf Meifert, rode a donkey naked through a neighboring hamlet during one of their meals.
At one time, German police arrived, mistakenly believing that the girlfriend of one of the band members was Gudrun Ensslin, co-founder of the Baader-Meinhof organization. Even visiting artists were taken aback: Tony Conrad, an American avant-garde composer, used the word “strange” to characterize life in Wümme, claiming that Faust’s members were so stoned that none of them remembered creating the collaboration album Outside the Dream Syndicate during his stay.
The problem, according to Peron, is that the tales about Wümme are so gruesome that they obscure how much work Faust performed there. “Of course, we had a great time and were completely naked.”
We got a lot of stoned and had a lot of fun. But we spent the most of our time in the studio.
We never practiced; instead, we jammed, improvised, and produced music: we were in the studio 80% of the time. We got a chance, and we took advantage of it.
I mean, it’s not like we did nothing except squander the money. We were cash-strapped.
Another Faust myth is that we were pelted with hundreds of marks. It went toward hiring a sound engineer and purchasing new equipment for the studio.
We had an old rusted vehicle and sometimes ate dog chow, among other things. There isn’t any celebrity there.
We did, however, have a wonderful life.”
To be honest, this contradicts Irmler’s assertion that Faust were “the laziest band ever.” In one Wümme tale, Irmler uses a lengthy wire to connect his keyboard to his computer so he doesn’t have to get out of bed to contribute to recordings. However, you can’t deny the music’s pure visionary power.
Faust from 1971 and So Far from 1972 still sound amazing after five decades. They’re included in a massive new box set of their early work. The first is a three-track deluge of tape experimentation, synthetic noise, distorted guitar playing, abstract piano interludes, and marching band music.
In Irmler’s opinion, the latter is “poppish,” which is a highly relative term: it still ranges from Velvet Underground-esque drone rock to avant-funk to gloomy ambiance, while being more straightforwardly arranged.
Faust’s members came from a variety of musical backgrounds – Peron was a folkie, and Irmler was an electronics enthusiast who built his own keyboard – but they all agree that the band’s revolutionary sound arose from the postwar German cultural landscape, particularly the political and social turmoil sparked by the 1968 student protest movement.
“Hitler annihilated music,” Irmler adds. “It was forbidden to play this or that, so when the Third Reich fell apart, there was nothing left to build on except the incredible English and American musicians.”
‘Let the British do what they can accomplish since they are great, but we don’t have to produce the same – that’s nonsense,’ we reasoned. I don’t see why I should attempt to imitate Cream or anybody else.
We didn’t want to follow the usual music concepts, therefore Faust is a unique concept.”
“We weren’t interested in conventions, and we weren’t looking for stardom,” Peron explains. “We were looking for our own music, and by that I mean European, specifically German – music that would express all of the needs, worries, and dreams that German youth had at the time.”
The three-chord blues and rock was not what we were looking for. Because I am French, I am experiencing the same difficulties with the Algerian conflict on a national level. We, too, do not have such a lovely past.
And the popular music of the period in France was unsatisfactory. There was nothing but nonsense save for the great chansons – Brel and Piaf, those guys.
Nothing was there. It has to be done by someone. “It was something we wanted to do.”
The issue was that no one wanted to listen to it, at least not in Germany in the early 1970s. The German Beatles’ debut performance in Hamburg, a big unveiling replete with quadrophonic sound equipment that devolved into mayhem, heightened Faust’s record label’s concern that they were selling tiny amounts of albums.
The sound system was broken, and the technical issues were exacerbated by the fact that each member was outfitted with a black box that could not only offer electronic effects but also turn down any other member if they didn’t like what they were performing.
“Now that I think about it, it’s unbelievable,” Irmler shrugs. The show’s tin can sculpture was “completely destroyed at the very beginning,” rather than at the show’s conclusion. Peron relished every moment of his life.
He chuckles as he says, “Experimental music, man!” “Not every experiment is a success!
The experiment is intriguing in and of itself. There wasn’t a lot of music, but it was a party. It was a lovely catastrophe.”
Faust decamped to the UK and a new contract with the nascent Virgin label, allowing Polydor to cut their losses. They let Faust record Faust IV in their idyllic studio, The Manor.
“One of the girls who worked there mentioned that her boyfriend was a musician and asked if he could use the studio while we were sleeping,” Irmler remembers. “That’s how Mike Oldfield recorded Tubular Bells,” says the narrator.
In the meanwhile, they produced The Faust Tapes in 1973, which was even more difficult than their debut, with 26 fragmented, radically contrasting songs packed into 43 minutes. However, it sold 60,000 copies, perhaps because it was priced at 48p, despite Richard
Branson’s odd aversion to the band’s suggestion that the album be given away for free. “We were very pleased,” Peron adds. “We were ignored in Germany.”
When we landed in England, they welcomed us with open hearts, ears, and arms, greeting us on the street.”
Certainly, despite – or maybe because of – the band’s unusual approach to live performance, a number of shows were greeted with thunderous applause. Their bus was held up by roadworks at one performance, Irmler recalls.
The band exited the building and invited a construction worker with a pneumatic drill to join them onstage that night. Despite his refusal, a pneumatic drill and a pinball machine fed via a synthesiser became part of their onstage armament, all in keeping with Peron’s conviction that “a live performance should not only reach the audio centers.”
Strange things should happen, such as a tenor vocalist being placed on a scaffold and the scaffolding catching fire. Something in your psyche gets unbalanced, and you become susceptible.
Then you begin to wonder, ‘Why?'”
He chuckles. “We were approved!” ‘What the heck is going on out there?’ people would exclaim at times.
We were playing pinball machines in the dark, and unlike our first performance in Hamburg, there was no ‘Boo, get off – you’re rubbish’. Faust was born in Great Britain, especially in London, the birthplace from which we might develop.”
However, everything went wrong: manager Nettelbeck, Irmler, synth and sax player Gunther Wüsthoff, and guitarist Rudolf Sosna all left and returned to Germany. “A guy who was our first roadie, Ruud Bosmer, said ‘Faust were their own worst enemy,'” Peron remembers.
We had a tendency to deny, to demolish, everything good that came near to us. Virgin didn’t want to deal with us since we were too much hassle.
Richard had had his fill, and I don’t blame him. We were a tough band to work with. We didn’t earn any money, and we didn’t want to make any concessions.”
Faust reunited in Munich for one final hurrah, with Irmler persuading producer Giorgio Moroder to let them to utilize free time at Musicland Studios “after Donna Summer went home at night.” They recorded an album that is now available for the first time as part of the new box set as Punkt.
“We split, we disappeared” when Virgin refused to pay the band’s expenses, recalls Peron. We didn’t have any money, no aim, nothing. “And that was the last word.”
But it wasn’t the case. Faust’s music had a significant impact on post-punk and beyond, with fans ranging from Stereolab to Simple Minds, from rapper-producer Madlib – who sampled 1974’s The Sad Skinhead – to Radiohead, who named their 2007 album Faust Arp in their honor. Ex-members or later versions of Faust have worked with Sonic Youth, Dalek, and Nurse With Wound. Despite this, Peron rejects any discussion of the band’s significance. “I had no idea about that.”
Never – and never will. It warms my heart to hear certain bands say things like, “Ah, Faust changed our band’s life, you inspired us so much.”
My favorite moments, though, are when my grandkids appear to like some of our tunes. That’s fantastic in my opinion. But, of course, when they hear Faust, they usually exclaim, ‘Argh! No! No! No!’
Thanks to Alexis Petridis at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.