Members at the time of Afternoons in Utopia and The Breathtaking Blue: Marian Gold, Bernhard Lloyd, Ricky Echolette
Interviewees: Marian Gold, Bernhard Lloyd
Occupation: Songwriters, producers
Current Release: Alphaville's Afternoons in Utopia and The Breathtaking Blue are re-issued as remastered deluxe editions. To buy or stream Afternoons in Utopia click here. For The Breathtaking Blue, go here.
Recommendation: Gold: Music: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, A Midsummer Night's Dream, because dreams are man's closest friends. Book: Raymond Roussel, Locus Solus, because difference is all that counts.
Lloyd: Book: Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life, a great novel about friendship - Music: Peter Gabriel, So, a stunning piece of music production.
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For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
Gold: I started as a fan of other artists. Gold standard was Bowie. But I never tried to imitate him or anyone else of my idols. Perhaps the main reason was that then I was too much distracted by the difficulties to create music that would satisfy my ambition.
As a non-instrumentalist my existence as a fan consisted basically in pure admiration for the artist and sensual consummation of their works. I never analysed their music, their cultural backgrounds or the way they played their instruments. And when we finally began our career as musicians and concomitant as Alphaville, it was not in the usual way like re-inacting the music of our role models, because we still weren't instrumentalists at all.
Lloyd: We started in a toy store, so to speak, with sequencers, drum-machines, arpeggiators and tape loops at absolute zero, but with our own compositions straight from the beginning. And it kind of worked out.
The second song, we ever wrote was "Big in Japan". In that phase we were probably closest comparable to bands like OMD or Blancmange. In a nutshell our path into the musical world was basically via the heart and not through the mind though my attitude towards music became much more analytical by and by.
The way I understood it, when you started writing and producing your debut album, you were still in the phase of finding yourself as artists. At the time of writing Afternoons in Utopia and The Breathtaking Blue, this had changed considerably. How do you feel your sense of identity influenced your creativity back then?
Gold: "Sense of identity" actually is the key word to describe our situation in those days. The extent of our limitation in really basic musical knowledge was only topped by our excessive hunger for grand melodies and the desire for telling elaborate novels on a three-and-a-half-minute basis. This discrepancy between entitlement and skill in combination with the perplexing and overwhelming success from our first release on, induced in deed a strong feeling of identity and reassurance and set us in a state of splendid isolation.
Lloyd: This seclusion enabled us to position ouselves off the well trodden paths of the music industry but nevertheless carry on to this day. That all started with the production of Afternoons in Utopia. It furnished the spatiality that FOREVER YOUNG had torn open. And then The Breathtaking Blue thrust us into a limitless space of possibilities. One could call it the ALPHAVILLE universe.
It would seem to me that there was a phase of constant development between the phase before your debut album and The Breathtaking Blue. What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how did they evolve over the course of these three albums?
Gold: It were the above mentioned limitations. Creativity was never our problem but skill definitely was. At least in our beginning.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first set-up with Forever Young to the set-up to The Breathtaking Blue? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment?
Gold: In the very beginning we owned a Revox A77 tape recorder, a Fender Rhodes 77 and a Roland 100M modular synthesizer that I had borrowed from a friend.
Lloyd: Later on, when we wrote "Forever Young", we had 3 monophonic synthesizers, 2 step sequencers, a Hohner string ensemble and a Roland TR 606 rhythm box at our disposal. We recorded our early material via a small 6-channel mixing console onto the Revox. With that, we already felt like we were in a big toy shop. We first had to find out what we could do with these little boxes since they were not self-explanatory.
When we produced The Breathtaking Blue, we were working at Lunapark, our own studio with almost unlimited possibilities. At least that's how it felt at the time. A multitude of synths and samplers, controlled by an Atari with a 64 midi sequencer, a 64 channel mixer, two synchronised 24-track tape machines and a big Quested monitor that made our trouser legs flap.
At the time, were there technologies which profoundly changed or even questioned the way you made music?
Gold: My dream-come-true was this most elegant looking Jupiter 8. The DX 7 in comparison was ugly and I hated its noises though Yamaha named one of the preset sounds "Alphaville" and admittedly it established the digitalization of musical equipment which made everything much more convenient for us.
Lloyd: In the very beginning, synthesizers, sequencers and drum machines were the only things that enabled us to compose and realise our sonic ideas. When we started recording at Lunapark from 1986 on, not much had changed in our approach towards making music. However, the possibilities had exploded and the availability of seemingly endless recording tracks allowed us to record "natural" instruments, which had a profound impact on Alphaville's sound.
With more bands than ever self-producing these days, the role of the producer has changed considerably. Can you talk a bit about the creative input people like Stephen Chase had on Afternoons in Utopia and what changed when you worked with Klaus Schulze on the third one?
Lloyd: On Afternoons in Utopia we worked with 3 different producers and production teams. This was based on the usual, classic distribution of roles in the studio at the time: producer/engineer/band.
"Dance with me" and "Fantastic Dream" we did with Steve Thompson and his engineer Michael Barbiero at Media Sound in New York. The main part of Afternoons in Utopia developed at the Hansa in Berlin in collaboration with Peter Walsh and his engineer Steven Chase. And eventually a couple of tracks like "Jerusalem" or the title track of the album were done with Wolfgang Loos as producer and engineer in personal union. There was lots of trial and error going on in the studio and all these ideas buzzing around somehow flowed into the production. We were always open to suggestions and spontaneous ideas from the side of the producers or the engineers. There wasn't any strict division of tasks.
Working with Klaus Schulze was completely different. First of all the production of The Breathtaking Blue lasted almost 2 years. Klaus held everything together and spurred us on to test the many possibilities of our new studio. As the months went by he almost became a fourth band member and at the same time he developed into a kind of mentor, giving us advice instead of ideas by categorically supporting whatever madness would cross our minds.
Collaborations can take on many forms. They have certainly played a vital role for Alphaville, especially with regards to your second album, Afternoons in Utopia, which involved a huge cast of guest musicians. How do you look back on these interactions and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
Lloyd: Most of the numerous guest musicians who contributed to Afternoons in Utopia were usually invited by the producers. We wanted to expand our sound palette and in the discussions with the producers, it became clear that guest musicians were a great option. It were not only the additional sound colours, but also the creative input from the musicians that made the songs what they finally became.
Most of the time, this interaction happened incredibly quick and the results of all the spontaneous involvements, especially on Afternoons in Utopia, appeared like small miracles to us. In retrospect I'd say the best strategies always depend on the actual circumstances. Flexibility and impartiality are the most important tools of every production.