Yello's Dieter Meier Direct Link
One of my interviews from my old Rip It Up days when I was working as assistant editor and ignoring all sensible trends in favour of interviewing the people who interested me and me alone. I conducted the interview on the phone from a house in Rotoiti in the middle of winter and had to hold the microphone wire to reduce static on the line.
Yello are one of the last good reasons for buying records. As Kraftwerk are to Germany, so are Yello to Switzerland; distant observers of other musics who hatched out their own original sound and followed it to its zenith. Yello, says frontman Dieter Meier, make movie music for your head, and the movies are warped tongue in cheek, exotic dazzling and funny. And sexy also.
Dieter is on the phone from Zurich, his hometown. The front man for Yello, he writes the lyrics, sings and scowls like a disgruntled banker during the band's videos. But he happily shares this center stage, inviting other singers to take his place; One Second featured diva Shirley Bassey crooning over 'The Rhythm Divine' and Associate Billy McKenzie on 'The Moon Is On Ice'.
"I am the the promoter of this idea," Dieter muses. "Yello really is soundtracks for your head, and these movies sometimes employ different actors. On the last album we concentrated more on me again, but you can never tell what you will do."
Less famous is the voice of Rush Winters on tracks like 'Angel No' and 'Vicious Games'. But you might remember the songs themselves: rumbling, evocative tracks that blend Eurodisco, Latin beats and cartoon Africa rhythms. Yello's music literally take's you around the world and it's a crazy tour - Carmen Miranda and Maria Callas; African missionaries and jungle tribes. You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess took us "up the jungle river... to the lair of the jungle king... the mighty gorilla". The ape's face also adorned the cover of the album. Not your average sort of pop song. Yet a lot of people know Yello's music and a lot of people - in New Zealand and aboard - buy their records. Yello's latest single 'The Race' made it into the Top 10. This is a good reason for living.
This is the third of June, 1988, a highly unimportant day.
Some airplane is riding into one of the bigger clouds over Manhattan
And the wall street boys are wearing their tires around their necks like boxer's towels on fire...
Yello began in Zurich in 1979, formed by Dieter Meier and comrade Boris Blank. Their first single 'I.T. Splash' bought them attention but it was 1980's Solid Pleasure and the dancefloor hit 'Bostich' that got them noticed in the UK and USA. The second album Claro Que Si spawned two more hit singles: 'Pinball Cha Cha' and 'The Evening's Young'. Dieter directed the video for 'Pinball Cha Cha' which ended up alongside clips by David Byrne in the Museum of Modern Art's 1985 Music Video exhibition. Like Byrne, Dieter immediately used the MOMA endorsement to raise the money for his first film, Jetzt und Alles, ("a Zeitgeist movie") which screened at film festivals in Manila and Italy.
Yello's next, You Gotta Say Yes To Another Excess was the template for their future. A fusion of Eurodisco, rock, funk ('Pumping Velvet's' rap crossover pre-dated the of the Beastie Boys' white-boy strut) and Meier monologues, Excess was an international hit - a remarkable achievement for something so completely off the wall. Its successor, Stella grappled with then-new sampling techniques and almost lost but managed to produce two good singles ('Vicious Games' and 'Angel No'). One Second and the latest, 'Flag' polish and re-invent the Yello sound.
Dieter and Boris steal from themselves, fine-tuning or even completely overhauling old or passed-over tracks. They're Switzerland's most creative industry. Unlike most groups who start of sounding interesting and end up straddling the mainstream, Yello started off weird and got weirder. Sampling technology was still in its infancy but by using heavy disco synths and cut-up tapes (a similar recipe to the one Arif Mardin gifted to Scritti Politti) Blank and Meier arrived at their own version of musique concrete, a Dada-ish mish mash of snatched conversation, throbbing synth rhythms, manic guitars and what have you.
"Of course," says Dieter, "sometimes people, especially in England, tell you that since the first Yello album, [our music] all sounds the same, and I am very proud of this because if you have found your style, how can you change over the years? When a painter has found a way to dance, a way to express himself - how do you call it - on canvas, that is a very slow process and there it is not a dramatic change each year. Only people who have got no style change their style every year. If you listen to the Cure it is always the Cure. And if you listen to Mozart - even if you have heard only three pieces by the chap - you can immediately say, 'Aha! This could be Mozart!' "
Aha! Dieter talks like a cartoon Swede over the phone - very serious, considered, self conscious. Yello will be making a movie in Brrrrrres-low, he explains. "I hope to make it sooner or later to your most beautiful country," he attests. "I hear it has one of the last resorts. Is this true?"
A last resort - like suicide? The pun is pure Dieter, who delights in cutting up the English language in order to make completely new word pictures from it. I suggest that this crafting of images and atmosphere is part of the reasons for Yello's mainstream success - listening to an album is like a tour of the world.
"Ya, of course. But it is intentional to be very open and use all kind of musical subjects. It's not our intention to write, say, an African or a South American piece. It's like two kids sitting on the beach, building a castle made of sand, an opera sand castle, a South American or African sand piece - it's not an intention based on a technological piece of music.
"When there is a rhythm, you land in certain territories, and not in others. Like, a rhythmical piece is not likely to sound Norwegian..."
Yello have no fear of the studio - ?
"Ya. Boris is of course responsible for this. I never touch any equipment; Boris touches it every day for 10 hours. Our advantage is, probably, that - starting with little cassette recorders and later a four track machine - we really grew with the jungle of technology. Boris at ease with it. It's not an enemy we have to overrun -- it's a friend with whom we are talking. I always say that for Boris, all this technology is nothing more and nothing less than a bungle of the 20th century. For him, the whole studio is one big instrument."
Count on me, I'm gonna win the race!
Count on me, I'm gonna win the race!
The winding track is turning but the race is in my head
I'm attacking the illusion but the stopping drives me mad
The race as a recurring theme in Dieter's lyrics; Boris likes to sample the sound of revving engines and Dieter likes the idea of competition. What does he think of modern music around him as we turn the corner into the 90s?
"Well, in Classical music everything stopped in the 20s and 30s, with the new school - the other things that came out of this century after the 30s were, to me, endlessly experimenting. Of course it is very good to have music that experiments, but this sort of John Cage approach gets very booooring. If you are destroying a piano, if you are fooling around with sounds that's important - but I think nothing really came out of this.
"In pop and rock I believe that, until the 60s, this was a very slow movement. Then rock and pop made this incredible step with the early Beatles and Rolling Stones and Jimi Hendrix, just like an explosion. Now you mainly see the last little tiny glowing fires of this explosion. There is not much happening for me. If you listen to the English charts, for example, it's more and more producers squeezing out the last drops of blood from young musicians - young musicians bleeding for a producer's musical non-impact. It's a very dull moment right now. Of course there are always exceptions."
Yello being a major exception themselves.....
"As I say, I think we were very lucky to grow with all the technology. We were also lucky not to come out of a country where the last drops of life were being squeezed out of the rock circus. We truly had to invent ourselves, because of course rock music has no tradition here [in Switzerland] If people and bands are moving in the traditional rock and pop direction, then they are like yodeling Japanese; technically very good but doing something that is not their thing, their spirit, their movement. They become ridiculous.
"Because we never started as a commercial band, we just did what we had to do to become like this. We had all the freedom because the commerciality of it at the beginning was a highly unimportant sideline. If you aim at becoming an international act then you should be sent to loony home straight away - it is impossible.
"So we had nothing to lose, and a lot of time to become ourselves, because we didn't belong to any traditions. Being alone in a territory was an advantage to us."
Born to a family of bankers, Dieter's unhurried attitude to commercial success is understandable. But he's known slouch - when he was turned out of home and told to earn his own living, he did so by becoming a professional gambler.
"Mm-mmm... That was years ago, I stopped when I was 23. I don't gamble seriously now. If you gamble, you are either a professional or a hobbyist free-loader. If you really do it, you do it like a job an everyday's work."
What's gambling like as a job?
"It's the most complete escape from the world possible. Like being a boxer. I only played poker, and with the very simple idea of standing in the ring to knock down your enemy - the sooner the better, and he wants to do the same thing. This is such a thrilling but simple parameter of existence that you can consider it an escape from the world. You are living in a hermetical situation, standing in this boxing ring - only when you play poker you can play it for 14 hours a day. You can't box 14 hours a day... Well, they did box 14 hours a day in the 19th century, but this would be crazy."
The painter Francis Bacon is a good gambler - a blackjack man.
"That's interesting. I never gambled in casinos - I was interested in poker playing, when you're gambling with and against individuals. With poker, when you sit at the table, you're given a new hand every few minutes, and you can work with that hand. You're carrying your fate in your hand, and this thrilling moment is the most total escape. It makes you feel good, makes you feel important, gives you immediate sense for those minutes."
Since Dada it's been a respectable to draw a direct line between chance at the gambling table and chance on the canvas, in the studio, in the camera.
"Well it has a lot to do with this. This, of course, is true."
"Count on me I'm gonna win the race!
Count on me I'm gonna win the race!"
The Dada references wash well with Dieter who turned to performance art at the end of his gambling days. This was the early 70s when gallery audiences could stomach events such as fish been dropped into buckets or art students shaving themselves to the taped strains of 'The Red Flag'. Dieter's performances were pretty notorious. One featured Dieter sitting within the fenced-off section of an Italian public square silently bagging 10,000 pieces of scrap metal - 10 pieces per bag. It took him four days.
"And I felt great when I did this thing - yeah, even greater than if I had just finished a 500 page novel.
"If you ask me now why I did this, I can't even tell you. It is to me a very strange wonder how I became a performance artist, how life succeeded in having museum exhibitions and becoming quite known in this area. I was obviously following a track where I somehow had to go, but I never started with the intention of becoming a conceptual artist or a performance artist - it just happened to me, like everything else. I never planned to become a feature film maker. I always wrote down little ideas and little scripts and someday somebody asked me to direct one of these little ideas, and I said, why not?
"I was a movie director overnight - I never intended to be one."
Is Yello an extension of what you did as a performance artist?
"Well ya, somewhere, in one way it is I think. Boris and my performance is always life in the studio, it is live. People ask me why don't Yello ever play live, and I say that we play live everyday. My role, which is very much that of a painter, is painting life - painting is always life. You're not reproducing, your producing. You're not like a band which is writing a piece, then rehearsing it and then sometimes bringing it into the studio to re-produce it - we only go into the studio to produce. We are a very live band."
"Take me on the highway, going much too fast
Lying's so much better when you drive a car
You're lying ( I love it)
You're lying (I love it)"
Now Dieter Meier and Boris Blank are working on a movie that will screen not only in your head but also at your local cinema. Yello are making a full-length feature, Snowball (which Dieter pronounces "Sni-ee-w-boll").
"This is going to be our little Yello opera. We are planning to film in Poland, in Brrreslau, in a big old film studio. Boris is definitely playing a part, I'm playing a part and the film stars an English actor, Paul McGann [Withnail And I]. And there are a lot of Polish actors too, of course."
What's it about?
"The film is a fantasy-type story, based on music which was written for it it is about a young man, a young musician who is kidnapped from planet Earth by the underground empire of the Duke of Shadows and there he is used to create images of the world with his music. He plays an instrument down there, and playing this instrument creates real opera scenes inside a snowball. The snowball becomes a huge opera set."
Are you directing?
That sounds like a very Yello storyline...
"Ya, ya, it has a lot to do with Yello. People call us film soundtrack makers and our music is very visual - this time we are fulfilling the visual side of things. It's the most a logical extension of what we've been doing. It's a feature story and hopefully strong enough to entertain people for 100 minutes. There has never been anything more Yello than this Opera. I think we will make more films like this. I'm planning some others in thriller area. I think this is gonna be the future for us."
-- May 1989
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