“I prefer to be as poor as a churchmouse, I’m not willing to lose my principles.”
The first time the former Malaria! drummer, singer and current label boss at Monika Enterprises Gudrun Gut and Hans-Joachim Irmler, organist of legendary Krautrockers Faust, first met in London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall. The two hit it off immediately (and not just because Irmer was armed with a bottle of some amazing south-German liquor under his arm). Their second meeting was the Klangbad festival, initiated by Faust, and led to the decision to collaborate on the album “500m” (released by Bureau B). Their output has been characterised by a fearless work ethic based on trust, the will to constantly develop in new directions – but most of all is an encounter between two very different concepts of sound design. While Irmer brings in the elegy of Krautrock, Gut is all about clarity, structure and rhythmn.
For Kaput Gudrun Gut and Hans-Joachim Irmler joined our to-be-ongoing “Insolvenz & Pop” discussion, where artists open up about the endless economic struggle, the cold hard cash and the business of pop.
Let’s talk pensions! Gudrun, you recently publicly posted your current statement from the German Rentenanstalt, (the German pension fund system) – could you remind us of the actual amount again?
Hans-Joachim Irmler: Did you make it over the 33€ mark yet?
Gudrun Gut: Something like 250€ monthly.
Irmler: Really? Such a young fellow and yet such a remarkable amount.
Very funny. You know how much you will get, Hans-Joachim?
Irmler: I doubt it’ll be more. Maybe twice as much – but then I am four times older.
Why did you post your statement, Gudrun?
Gut: Well, I looked at the statement and was really shocked. Facebook is a good place for this kind of spontaneous sharing. A lot of my friends are also living the typical, hard life of the freelancer. They know what I am talking about.
Irmler: These days the life of a freelancer isn’t really well respected.
Gut: We should all get jobs as postmen. They’re officially tenured German civil servants – so later on you get a huge pension. So the plan is: become a postie, call in sick and be a secret musician.
Do you remember when you first thought about your retirement days as an artist?
Gut: Back in the day, this was not really a subject I thought about. But then it started, when my mother had a stroke and needed to be moved from a regular nursing home to a full-on care. This is expensive, so expensive that even her ample pension wouldn’t be enough. So my sisters and I have to pay for this.
Do you have a private provision, like for example a life insurance?
Gut: A few years ago, the political system told us to do so – and came up with various encouragements. I signed up, as I thought there were tax advantages. But does it? Not for me as I do not make enough money. And then I had to lend some money on these insurances as I had to pay a huge amount of taxes, for whatever reason. Now they are deeply behind and I’ve lost interest in them.
Well, they duped a lot of people back then. You’re right: if you’re not super-wealthy, this doesn’t really make sense. It’s only an incentive for well paid salary men.
Gut: Each year I am end up confused that most of my living costs are not deductible – I spend more money than I earn after taxes somehow.
You mean you lose money every month?
Gut: Well, yes.
Irmler: In the system’s they’re going to deny you exist.
Gut: I don’t earn bad money though. I have well-paid gigs – but most of the money is going straight into my label Monika Enterprises. But I am not alone with my problems, you could ask most of the artists in my earning bracket, and at the end of the month, they’re all broke.
This seems to be how capitalism now ‘functions’. Ordinary people never seem to make more than 5% on top of their basic needs…
Gut: Exactly. Whatever you make, it’s only nearly enough. And if you make a bit more, and you’re about to buy a fancy coat, the tax bill comes in for some huge unexpected amount.
Irmler: It started to get this extreme back in 1975. I remember the old days though – when we worked for two weeks in the harbour and made enough money from that to live like Kings for two months. But I guess people were envious of that… and now the politicians have fixed it, so now we never make more than 5% on top.
Hans-Joachim, how is your situation? Are you also monthly in the red?
Irmler: It is always a close race. My wife keeps on telling me to do more concerts, but that is not really the solution: even if I work more in the studio and play live, at the end of the month things still get tight.
Is your wife also earning money?
Irmler: Yes, she is independent and makes her own money.
Well, when you are a couple and live together, that’s got to help?
Gut: Indeed, my partner Thomas (Fehlmann – also a musician), who has a higher monthly income, helps me out from time to time. Although sometimes he is not amused by this.
Irmler: I guess you also don’t like this situation.
Gut: Honestly, I don’t mind that much. But yes, we have a regular talk about this – he hopes that eventually I will earn more and we change position. We already had phases like that, but then again the taxes hit me really hard. It’s the same as with the little local bakery, the moment you don’t play the big game of capitalism, you’re going to struggle.
Irmler: The problem is: everyone is compelled to grow. But that growth is bollocks. So that everybody has three refrigerators these days… The economy is so hard these days.
Ordinary people find this stuff hard to grasp right? It’s crazy that the European Central Bank is pumping 3600€ for every EU-citizen into the market, just to act against deflation – most of which is caused by the global oil price falling – hardly our fault. And you musicians are not alone out there, everybody working in culture is struggling for money. Everyone’s losing their economic power and yet we’re supposed to support these government economists desire for a higher inflation rate!
Irmler: Absolutly absurd.
Gut: When it comes to my concert fees, the ones in Germany are the worst paid these days…
Irmler: I couldn’t agree more. I mean, look at this room, it says quite a lot about the respect for artists!
You’re referring to this backstage room, here at the FFT Düsseldorf?
Irmler: Oh, yes… I quite often think about filming a documentary about clubs’ backstage rooms and toilets…
Gut: We are living the life of gypsies. Szary of Modeselektor, they’re a well-known group playing quite big venues, he actually just released a book about backstage areas called “Backstage Tristesse”. I remember very well when we played Studio 54 in New York with Malaria!. The cab driver was impressed, “You play in there? Fantastic!” – well, backstage I guess we had the chance to hang with the rats. There is such a huge gap between the image and the truth. Even superstar actors are living in a fucking trailer when on set. Our life is not exactly glamorous.
Okay, straight-talking: do you imagine you’ll have a functioning pension at all? Like old-school retirement?
Irmler: Doing nothing, no! Let’s call our pension something like ‘counseling’.
Gut: How could it work? With 250€ I couldn’t go anywhere.
Irmler: Not even to the supermarket bus stop.
The pension statement is simply saying: you are a pauper.
Gut: And even welfare isn’t working for artists. Firstly we really don’t want to have anything to do with the authorities…
Irmler: You are not poor enough for them. As long as you got a guitar…
Gut: Right on. I would not get a penny. Also because Thomas and I own a little country house in the town of Sternhagen, outside Berlin. It’s our security – somewhere to live. When I was around 30 I started to realise how important owning your own place is – I guess I could have changed my life back then, but I didn’t, my path was chosen.
Irmler: It is all about the freedom to move the way you want to. When you live by paying rent, your individuality is not the same.
Do you own your house on the Schwäbische Alb?
Irmler: Yes, but I had to mortgage…
Gut: Also it’s not easy to get credit as an artist, the bank is not as willing to lend you money, you lack the steady income.
That means, that Thomas and you had to buy the country house so cheap you could pay it off in cash? And in Berlin you are paying rent?
Gut: I moved in with Thomas. But I also own my old Berlin flat. The credit was arranged via someone else and is still to be payed off. Also I did rent it to an artist, so the money I make is just enough to pay of the credit.
Talking about unsteady income – do you have to define your lifestyle permanently new?
Irmler: You have to be able to adjust. Sometimes you play a poker game that things will work out, but you can’t do that all the time.
Gut: There was a time in the past, when I was just being offered benefit or charity gigs – so no fee. At one point I had to say: “Enough! I do not make money from selling records anymore, I need to get cash from these concerts!”
Irmler: It seems to be a contradiction these days: making music and wanna make a living from it.
Gudrun, do you talk a lot about this with the artists on your label?
Gut: Absolutely. For all of them, cash is an important topic.
And you and the artists around you are not the bottom of the whole field. You are well known. How do all those artists below that level manage to keep going?
Gut: There are so many unknown ones actually making good money by producing music for the movies, or replaying a well known song with a little twist so it can be used in adverts. I guess you could tour playing cover versions of popular hits or something. This is a result of the missing pop education of the Germans. You have to be able to understand art to visit an art exhibition. And you can’t walk in on one of our concerts if you listen the whole year to…
Irmler: … mentioning no names. This is not just a problem of the listeners, also of the journalists. The research skills are not good any more in our country – I know they get paid so badly. But still, when I travel to other regions, people are so well informed.
Gut: In Germany they still call a female DJ a “djane”.
Sad but true. True across the media generally, really. It’s a conveyor belt making ‘content’, rather than employing people to think or reflect… But as you just dropped the name Modeselektor, how is it with collegues who are really successful? Do they realise or remember how tough it is for everyone else?
Gut: We had a glass of wine together last week and chatted about all of this. They were curious why I hadn’t released any records for such a long time. Well, the last few years were super tough for me, with all the distribution companies going bankrupt, I lost a lot of money when Hausmusik collapsed. Back then my decent income as an artist was lost. Since then structures are somewhat rebuilt and hence I’m giving it another try. But we didn’t get much deeper into this – which I totally understand, they’ve got their own pressures too, for sure.
You mean the pressure to keep the sales going upward with every record? Understandable but that sort of the capitalist idea of once you go up you should never go down… But should artists draw that conclusion, or not just accept sometimes it’s just luck, not some kind of new standard?
Irmler: It is not possible to make money with a label in 2015. As a musician this means that you have to tour to make a living. With Faust we did not play often live back in the days, maybe 25 times before 1990.
Enviable. Those were the days, selling enough that you tour only when you want to…
Gut: Malaria! played a lot. We loved it. That was the fun part.
You are back, right? I think I saw your name on a festival bill for the summer of 2015.
Gut: No. We have an agreement not to reform unless we get a pretty unlikely fee – a fee so big that it makes sure this doesn’t happen. We don’t really want to do this. I’d prefer to be as poor as a churchmouse, rather than lose my principles. Also I’ve established myself as a solo artist now. Malaria! is of another era. It would feel weird to play the old 1980s music again
A lot of bands seem to be tempted though…
Irmler: You have to look what kind of music someone did back then. At age 50 you can’t still act like a punk. That would be a pathetic sight.
When I met you in the 90s, you were still destroying television sets while playing live with Faust.
Irmler: Well, it was still okay in those days. Today I would not consider tthat anymore. There is no reason to do it now. Back then it seemed…
Well, there were still CRT tube TV sets for one thing…
Irmler: … absolutely, there is no sense of throwing something at a flatscreen. Boring. We destroyed those television sets as a criticism of television itself. That said, maybe we should still do so…
Hans-Joachim, I don’t know what life’s like in your hometown of Wümme. But in my imagination it’s probably a less active cultural world than the one Gudrun enjoys in Berlin. Do you have a lot of contact with the other people in Wümme? Do they accept you as an artist – or do they suggest you get a real job?
Irmler: Nobody ever tell me suggested that.
Gut: My brother did try once. This was a very long time ago – and since then we do not talk to each other anymore. He did not like the idea of me studying art. He thought of it as just a route to poverty.
Irmler: The question we have to confront is: does society need individuals like us?
Gut: By all means… yes.
Irmler: Well, I miss the discussion around this. A lot of people talk about the impoverishment of current thinking – but instead of reactivating the free thinking aspects of the 60s, 70s and 80s, people don’t refust to see the necessity of that anymore. Everything is concentrated, simplified. But if you’ve only got one shopping mall, it is not surprising that you don’t get such a variety of offers as if you had many.
Maybe this missing cultural depth is making people less curious too…
Irmler: But why is that so?
It feels like society doesn’t value open-mindedness and curiosity for the unknown anymore.
Irmler: There were times, when I thought this is a job for the state. But I can’t say that anymore. It is our mission to fight against the self-paralysis of society. The problem is that the huge music companies try to catch the kids from early on – so by the time they are raised up, they are not looking for alternatives anymore. If you are already sated you are not searching for food.
Isn’t it surprising that for example we live in such a multicultural society, but we don’t know what our Italian or Turkish neighbours are reading, listening or watching? We’re not talking to each other…
Irmler: You’re right, it is absolutely something special for me to go to the butcher and talk with him about his daily work. Normally he lives his life and me mine. We all have our own community.
So maybe you don’t have a lot of money for your retirement, but you’ve still got a real community.
Gut: Yes, the plan to live with a lot of musicians in a flat share community is still on.
What about alternative forms of pension, like a collection of records or paintings?
Gut: I was never a collector.
Irmler: I collect keyboards, but who wants to buy them these days?
Gut: I own a picture of Gerhard Richter. Actualy I wanted to sell it back when I had to pay so much taxes – but nobody wanted to buy it.
Gut: I talked to several artists and auction houses, but they all told me that I had to invest money in the restoration – I couldn’t sell it, even knocked down in price.
You know your monthly break even?
Gut: I need 2500€.
Irmler: I need double as much.
Because the Swabish roast joint is so expensive I guess!
Irmler: Exactly. Because of my studio costs, as a private person I guess it is the same as with Gudrun.
How often do you have angst about the future?
Gut: Let’s put it this way, if I’m broke, my mood suffers.
Irmler: But there are worse states than ‘not in a good mood’.
Gut: I am not that kind of person who gets afraid of things. I lived in my life quite poor thus far. There were days in the 80s I barely had something to eat. In New York I was thankful for each penny, each donut somebody shared with me. No, I am not afraid, but my mood is getting darker. It is not a nice state not to have any money to spend.
Irmler: I’ve also been quite poor. Who cares, even water cress cooked in butter is something to eat. But it is really frustrating when you have ideas but no possibility or money to make them happen.
Gut: It is not a state of angst. It is a state of anger! You get smaller and smaller – and in the end you are totally blocked.
Irmler: As an artist, angst is not a good state of mind. You are allowed to have stage-fright, but to keep on being able to take risks, you can’t have angst. We are used to tough circumstances in our artistic lives.