Later this week, long-running German experimental outfit The Notwist will release their ninth album, Vertigo Days, featuring fourteen cuts of dreamlike, omnivorous pop that find frontman Markus Acher and co. fusing jazz, krautrock, and electronic influences. Some of these songs began a few years ago, but the project really came together during the frightening first stretch of the pandemic.
“The situation, which everybody experiences at least once in their lives, that everything can change from one moment to the other, and nothing is guaranteed, got a whole new and global meaning as the world was upside down,” Markus tells American Songwriter. “But also the strange, surrealistic atmosphere of the first lockdown [and] our isolated, concentrated working on the music while the world around us seemed to collapse, influenced the music very much.”
The final product feels like a series of visitations, alternately enchanting and unmooring. Importantly, it’s a collaborative effort, featuring contributions not only from Markus’s current bandmates (Micha Acher, Cico Beck, Andi Haberl, Max Punktezahl, and Karl Ivar Refseth), but also from international guests (Tenniscoats’ Saya, Zayaendo, Ben Lamar Gay, Angel Bat Dawid, and Juana Molina). Markus met most of these artists through Alien Disko, the festival he and his Notwist pals founded in Munich.
Lyrically, “Sans Soleil” seems to capture Markus’s main concerns of the moment: “From this room into the dark / I knew right from the start / No one will I find here / But I know I’m not alone,” he coos in the track over layered strings, synths, and percussion. “This way I stumble / and step by step I roam / a planet that you call home / no more runaway from now / no more runaway from here.”
We caught up with Markus and Cico over email about Vertigo Days, what the band has been up to since their last album, and their wide-ranging influences. Check out the full interview and listen to a selection of The Notwist’s recent singles below.
American Songwriter: It’s been about six years since your last album—2015’s The Messier Objects—was released. What have each of you been up to in the interim?
Markus Acher: Together as the Notwist, we composed and recorded music for a few movies, which we really liked—like “One Of These Days” by Bastian Günther, a very German-American co-production, which we really recommend watching, or “Roads” by Sebastian Schipper. All these movies were very interesting and brought us new ideas and sounds, which we also used on the new album. One song, “Night’s Too Dark,” was actually composed for a TV series, where we did the soundtrack, called “das Verschwinden,” by Hans-Christian Schmid. We re-recorded and re-arranged it for the album.
We also worked a lot for our festival Alien Disko, which for four years invited international bands we like to Munich in December. This was an incredible and special experience, as we got [to become] friends with some wonderful, creative people, but also learned a lot about music. Especially Saya and Ueno from Tokyo, who together are Tenniscoats, became close friends and visited us every year, also with their acoustic brass band Zayaendo. Cico and I founded the band Spirit Fest with them (also with Mat Fowler from Jam Money / Spillage Fete-records), released three albums, and toured in Europe and Japan. Their songs and their way of making art and music out of everything they find was very inspiring and so we are very happy. Saya and Zayaendo are part of this record, too.
AS: When did the songs of Vertigo Days start to take shape?
Markus: We started to meet in 2015, improvised and recorded these improvisations, as this was our idea to start this time without songs or fixed compositions. But because of touring, other bands, and soundtracks, etc. there were really long breaks between recordings and we somehow never got an idea of what it could sound like in the end. When Covid came and the first lockdown, everything stopped all of a sudden, and we were shocked and couldn’t be creative somehow, as our heads were occupied by many other problems. So we met and started editing, arranging, and overdubbing the recordings we had collected over the years, just to do something.This was like a therapy, and helped us a lot [as] we got an idea.
AS: In a press statement, you say the album’s lyrics “feel more like one long poem.” How do usually compose lyrics?
Markus: It is very different, but normally I don’t like the lyrics to be a direct personal statement. [Instead, I] think of a character or story, a movie, or just a situation for each song, so that the one who sings is not necessarily me. But this time, I just wrote down what came to my head in these strange days and so some things or pictures repeat like in a dream (like most people, I dreamt a lot since the lockdown and this mixed with reality in a strange way). But also some lyrics—like [those in] “Into Love”—I had actually written before Covid, without knowing what would come, and what was originally dealing with personal experiences all of a sudden sounded like it talks about [the pandemic].
AS: What are some themes or feelings that drive Vertigo Days? As you were crafting the record, did any songs help guide or clarify the direction of the project as a whole?
Markus: The situation, which everybody experiences at least once in their lives, that everything can change from one moment to the other, and nothing is guaranteed, got a whole new and global meaning, as the world was upside down. But also the strange, surrealistic atmosphere of the first lockdown [and] our isolated, concentrated working on the music while the world around us seemed to collapse, influenced the music very much. On one hand [it felt] very real, with too many problems at once to digest, on the other hand [it felt] like a dream or a cheap B-movie. So the album is like a soundtrack to these times—like a surrealistic dream, but also very awake and real.
AS: How’d you get connected to the guests who appear throughout the record? Can you walk us through some of those collaborations?
Markus: Everybody on the album we got to know because of the Alien Disko festival. Saya and the band Zayaendo, we already were friends for a few years, and so they were the first people we asked. Zayaendo also were the only collaboration that we recorded together live in one room, during the Alien Disko festival in December 2019. We gave them the melodies and chords and they thought about the arrangement themselves, and we recorded it with a mobile-telephone as we played and just overdubbed some voices and instruments later. It very much captures the intimate and special atmosphere and the friendship.
Cico Becker: With Ben Lamar Gay, Angel Bat Dawid, and Juana Molina we were unfortunately not able to meet in person for the recordings. The contact with all of [these artists existed] through the Alien Disko festival Markus already mentioned. Though Ben Lamar Gay was the only one who performed on the festival, we had contact with Angel and Juana for possible concerts but it didn’t work out yet. We still kept the contact that was always very nice and at some point when we thought about possible guests on our record we decided to send the songs via [the] internet. It was a very open process and we didn’t tell them [what] to contribute. This was very natural for us as we appreciate their unique music and styles very much. Ben added some wonderful vocals and lyrics to “Oh Sweet Fire.” Angel did great clarinet and vocal improvisation on “Into The Ice Age,” and Juana composed and arranged a proper song out of pretty loose and open fragments of beats, organs, and basses we sent here. It was a great experience of international collaboration especially in these times.
AS: What are some recent inspirations or influences? Can you hear or feel any in Vertigo Days?
Markus: We invited some of the greatest and most unique musicians we know at the moment, [and] you can hear our biggest influences very clearly on the album. We are huge fans of the International Anthem label and especially Angel and Ben and their open-minded, genre-transcending way of mixing styles and sounds were a big influence. Juana is a constant inspiration for many years now and with every new album, she surprises us and gives new ideas. And Saya and the whole scene around her opened up a whole new universe for us… their DIY-spirit and experiments are very encouraging to never stop and look for new ways, and their music is always very touching.
Cico: During the last [few] years we listened to many records in a wide range [including] experimental-electronic, library music, krautrock, jazz [and] indie music. Besides the music Markus already mentioned, records like Foam Island by Darkstar, Unlimited Edition by Can, Iowa Dream by Arthur Russell, the Here It Comes Again EP by Cate Le Bon / Group Listening, the music by Carl Stone, and many, many others have been important influences to our music.
Vertigo Days is out Jan. 29 via Morr Music. You can pre-order it here.