Andreas Spechtl: The Outsider Looking In
Image credit: Jenny Schäfer
‘Thinking About Tomorrow, And How To Build It’ is the story of the outsider. Forming the heart of this new release, by Andreas Spechtl, is Tehran. Spechtl places the city at the centre of the 10-song record, exploring questions of fear and uncertainty, of a new tomorrow. “In all places, at all times,” he sings, “the future will collide.” The music has a careful sense of restraint, resting furtively in ambient spaces with heavy layering in the background adding a gentle forward motion to the sounds — both electronic and acoustic. His own voice is consigned to the far off distance, melding with the swirling synth swells and often indecipherable.
Last year, Spechtl spent two months in Tehran as part of a Border Movement Residency, performing shows, writing music, and just trying to navigate life in a city with cultural values far different from his own. That disconnect — the perspective of a stranger glancing briefly at a new way of life — lies at the core of ‘Thinking About Tomorrow’, which was written almost entirely in Tehran (he rearranged the structures and added a few drum parts and a saxophone bit upon returning to Germany) and released in November this year. “I started off with a blank page,” Spechtl tells me over a Skype call. He’s in Mexico right now, an escape from the turgid winter of Berlin, his adopted home. His girlfriend teaches German for half the year in Mexico, so he’s spending the cold months there. “Berlin winters are awful. Here, it’s nice. The sun is shining.”
“I tried to adjust to the environment and the city,” he tells me. What struck him at first was the liveliness, the life of the city, a constant buzz which forms part of the album’s narrative. “At the same time,” he says, “this trip was really about being in a silent movie. I felt quite muted, just because of the language—I wouldn’t call it a ‘problem’; it turned out to be a possibility. Instead of talking, I was listening. I had to stay silent, so I really had to think a lot. The album title refers to this as well; it’s about thinking, not talking.”
Spechtl has an inward-looking, almost literary approach to writing music, where he’s trying to tackle philosophical roadblocks through sound and words. It’s a fascinating way of looking at music, and one that allows him the privilege of exploring motifs in great detail. This underlying theme of ‘listening’ runs through the album, compelling him to restrict the vocals to a bare minimum. The fact that he was listening to people speak in Farsi — a language with a soothing cadence that seems almost inbuilt — informed the low-key musical direction of the album.
What he’s presenting, really, is the incomplete perspective of an artist dropping in for a couple of months on a world previously alien to him. And instead of going overboard with the cultural dissonance, he instead underplays it. He tells me how he wanted to steer clear of any sense of ‘exotica’; he bought a bunch of tapes and a few vinyl records of Persian music while there, but he refused to sample any of those sounds. He explains: “This is the way things can come together: understanding you’re a western musician but you’re still interested — not on a big scale; let’s keep it small — in Arabic or Persian music. And I treat it with my heritage. I didn’t want to behave like a colonialist or something, where I take all these tapes out of Tehran and make a sample-album out of them. I wanted to find a way to see how things could come together, and make something new out of it.”
The album rarely, if at all, sounds ‘eastern’ or fusion in its aesthetic. Instead, Spechtl practises restraint when using the field recordings he made or the Persian melodies and rhythms performed by his friend Saba Alizadeh (and by him, although he confesses that he’s not quite nailed the quarter-note playing so common in Persian music — “I was only there for two months; it takes a lifetime to learn”), providing a counterpoint performed on the keys, adding his own sensibility to it. There’s a clutch of collaborations on here, but he finds a modest, unpretentious aesthetic to tie it all together.
While Spechtl has mixed feelings about political music, especially when that element has been crowbarred in for the sake of it, there’s a political undercurrent running through ‘Thinking About Tomorrow’ as well, in part informed by the different in private and public behaviour he noticed in Tehran, and the politicised nature of a lot of music in the underground there. The “tomorrow” he speaks of, in a way, is an acknowledgement of the European migrant crisis as well. He chooses, again, to use the word “possibility” instead of crisis, conceiving a future where migration isn’t treated with the “fear and angst” it currently evokes in Europe. He tells me of ‘hauntology’ — the album also has a song called ‘The Age Of Ghost’ — where the present is haunted by the ghosts of the past that never existed. “The question is: How are we handling it? It’s about just not always being so pessimistic about the future. Everything will not necessarily be good or fine or easy. But things just feel so ‘settled’; we have this fear of building something that’s really different from our today. Every tomorrow is just a change of date somehow.”
written by Akhil Sood