the musical reinvention of wolfgang tillmans

As the Turner Prize-winning photographer marks the end of 2016 with a third musical release, we discuss the inspirations and motivations behind this year's most unexpected of career changes with the man himself.

by Felix Petty
14 December 2016, 7:10pm

In a year of dispiriting political defeat and turmoil — much of which he's actively campaigned against —  Wolfgang Tillmans's wonderful and surprising reinvention as a musician has been one ray of light.

While the German photographer has been associated with music since his early days shooting for i-D, this summer, Tillmans burst triumphantly onto the scene with his own EP, Make It Up As You Go Along. Its title track is a warm, slinking slice of 4/4 house. Weirdly, it felt totally natural that he'd be making music.

Rather than reinvention, maybe it's better to say re-emergence. On the B side, Tillmans revisited the work of the new wave band he was in as teenager in Germany with his friend Bert Leßmann. Looking back and looking forwards at the same time — bridging 30 years across the record's two sides — feels like a very Wolfgang way of announcing a new career. A fitting title could've even been cribbed from William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Experience. There's a joyful teenage innocence and exuberance at the heart of Wolfgang the musician.

His next offering, "Device Control," was a seven-minute techno banger that found its way onto Endless, the visual album that prefaced Frank Ocean's long awaited reappearance.

Now he has his own visual album to promote, last week launching a 30-minute long work under the name of his band, Fragile, on YouTube and at Maureen Paley gallery in London. Recorded and written primarily on Fire Island in the summer (post-Brexit, pre-Trump) it's the most considered and developed thing he's yet created — the sound of Wolfgang emerging as a musical maestro.

There's a gorgeous depth and versatility to it. Electro-infused opener "That's Desire" features a killer cameo from New Jersey rapper Ash B; "Fast Lane" is a pogoing-dance-punk reworking of a song Wolfgang first wrote when he was 17 that dealt with Cold War angst. "Anderes Osterlied" is another reworking, this time of a Christian Libertian protest song from the 60s; "Here We Are" is a tender love song full of orchestral swooning violins. "Naïve Me" deals with the year's political defeats; while "Warm Star," the album's final track, marries the two — a political love song with lyrics that also appeared in Tillmans's anti-Brexit campaign.

After the launch party at Maureen Paley, we caught up Wolfgang to talk about his year in music.

Hey Wolfgang, how are you?
I'm good. I've just got back to Berlin after the launch of the new record and film in London. I'm back and forth so much at the moment.

How was the launch?
Great! I'm always concerned about whether people will come but it was packed. There was a nice atmosphere and a good response I think. It felt very supportive.

Are you enjoying being a frontman and having a band? How do you find performing?
We did some things at Fire Island performance festival in the summer, and we played at Union Pool in Brooklyn — a really good, small, venue. I had never planned to play live, to be honest. When I released the first EP in the summer, if you'd have asked me, I would have said 'no way!'

Do you enjoy it?
To say performing came naturally is too much, but surprisingly, it didn't feel alien. I realized that it's not too different from doing a lecture, especially as I try to make the lectures I do as performative as possible. The only difference, of course, is with the band, you have to be tuned and on the beat.

How have people responded to your new career as a musician?
There's a natural tendency to be critical when people change creative territories, and I guess rightly so; I, myself, am often very critical when people do. But what I was so happy about was that no one really questioned the legitimacy of me doing this, I think it felt quite natural to people; they were aware of how involved I have been in music over the years.

And what have people said about the music itself?
I was happy people didn't say it was shit! Of course I wouldn't hear that, but I have a tendency to fish for criticism instead of compliments. The criticism I got was constructive, not damning.

Were you nervous, when you released the first EP, about how people would react?
I was trusting that the drive behind me doing this is real, that it wasn't an invented thing but a response to an inner calling. It was me going back to something I used to do in my late teens, and had always wanted to do again. I was nervous about the live thing, yes, and I was nervous about the run up to this release.

A purely electronic production, like the first two records, which also included the tracks I was doing 30 years, seemed safer somehow; it felt like something I knew, something I was comfortable with. But on this record, playing with a band, being in the video, it's a clearer acknowledgment that I'm performing. It felt like I was crossing a line in the sand.

When you did the first EP, did you plan to carry on? Or did it just feel natural to continue and see where the path led you?
It was never meant to be a one-off. I had years worth of musical ideas to work on, especially lyrics. For example, in the track on this EP, "Warm Star," there is this line, 'What is lost is lost forever' — which I had written down a couple of years ago, and it ended up in this song, which I wrote back in January. It was only after this that it also ended up as a slogan in the anti-Brexit campaign.

Where does the inspiration come from?
I think a lot of it comes from language and an interest in speaking and using words. It's a direction I want to explore further.

You're singing in German here, too, for the first time.
I'm aware that in some circles German is considered a cool language now, but for my generation growing up in Germany, it was particularly uncool. It was only when the Neue Duetsche Welle happened in the 80s that people even thought about speaking German again. For me, it feels like something I shouldn't deny. There are beautiful ways of saying things in German, it's something very close to me even though I've been living bilingually for over 25 years now. Some people are particularly taken by the German song on this EP; there's a different intonation in how I speak and sing in German, so maybe it suits me?

What's that song about?
It's a song from the 60s — from the Christian protest movement — about inequality. I find it very powerful in the way it rallies against these things.

Can you translate the words of the song actually? My German isn't up to par.
It goes: 'It would suit the lords and masters of the world just fine if everything on earth would stay the same, if only after death there would be justice, if only the slavery and serfdom of the paupers would continue for ever.'

To change direction a little, what is it that made you want to revisit the music you made in the 80s? Why mix it up with the newer material?
I recorded one cassette back then but I never listened to it much in the ensuing 25 years. I lost confidence in music when the collaboration with my friend Bert ended. He left town and I felt upended by it; I was really sad, and then my interest in art really took over.

There's something in me that is always interested in my motivations; if I feel something today, where did it come from in the past? Where was that feeling before? I believe that nothing comes from nothing. I also have a healthy trust in my teenage mind. That stage is obviously very confused, but it's also very emotionally charged, full of amazing energy. Strangely I felt, some of things I'd written then had an energy that really resonated with me today. I actually still have a book of lyrics that I wrote in 1986, I still draw from it today. It's an incredible thing to be able to have, to see into a different version of myself.

What was it that made you decide that you wanted to start making new music this year?
It was about two years ago almost to the day that I suddenly had a desire to start exploring music again, to start DJing again. I suddenly felt there was something very strong and relevant going on in music. I did a DJ set at Panorama Bar that year too, which was something I didn't take lightheartedly, which one shouldn't of course. I did a lot of preparation for that, and I realized just how much I really cared about music.

I'm interested in immateriality and different ways of distribution; my visual art is always bound to objects and galleries, it's very physical, but there's something about the immediacy of music — the performance, the speaking of words — that I realized was a relevant and appropriate medium for me to express myself.

Talking about different ways of distribution, the "visual album" is a very 2016 way of releasing music.
It really wasn't a nod to more famous colleagues who've also released visual albums this year! Initially I only ever wanted to do a pair of videos for the two title tracks, but then I decided we might as well play the entire EP to every performer. That's when I started to see it as one piece, and while editing we realized we'd made one long video. This kind of release, via YouTube, is incredibly direct, and so it is also very expressive.

What's it been like working and collaborating with a band?
I'm extremely into the idea of collaborating with different people. I even surprised myself with the ease I took to the microphone in the company of strangers. When Juan Pablo, my guitarist and assistant, and me are abroad installing and working on exhibitions we check into rehearsal spaces, find some local musicians, it's like a blind date.

It is only really through the encouragement, enthusiasm, and collaboration of others that I've had the courage to do this. Juan Pablo Echeverri, Jay Pluck, Kyle Combs, there's so many more, Tom Roach, Daniel Pearce, Tim and Klaus Knapp who have the recording studio we work with. I'm incredibly fortunate to have these people, who took my fears away and took my ideas seriously. That collaborative process was the biggest revelation to me. My art is largely solitary, it's so different from making a record where you all depend on each other. I find music very liberating in this respect.

This is a very "band" focused EP. Most of it was written during your stay at Fire Island, right?
Four of the six songs were written, played, rehearsed, there over three months. Then we recorded them in New York, after we played our gig there. We brought in a violinist, a sax player; it was a real, proper, recording session! But the German song, we recorded that on Fire Island, just a live take. That's something where there is a connection between my approach to photography and my approach to music.

I believe that music cannot always be reproduced, I've found that musicians feel like they can just do another take, but I know from photography that there is not another take; or at least, the way I work. There are intangible ingredients to an image that you can't reproduce them. You can make something similar — it's not all chance — but my approach is to allow control and chance to coexist. That is a reality of life. So whenever I ever play music with people, I make sure it is recorded somehow, even if it just a simple voice recording. "Device Control" for example, the lyrics I made up in one take one morning, and sung it into my iPhone. I didn't want to go into the studio and sing it again, I want to be faithful to that original idea and preserve its texture. Texture is everything, it's what makes things exactly the way they are.

What are your plans for music? Where do you see it going?
There is of course this project, which can't really be separated from me re-emerging as a musician, which is called Playback Room. At Between Bridges in Berlin, for six months we installed a listening room. That was about giving space to recorded pop music to be appreciated as art.

So for the Tate Modern exhibition next year, I'm giving over space to Playback Room, showcasing the work of London duo Colourbox. I find this kind of thing very interesting, it's a project I want to carry further. And in March, for nine days, I will take over the south tank of Tate Modern, for that I'm developing a sound, music, and visual installation. Part of that will focus on the field recordings I've been making over the years.

Then finally this year, on December 30, I'm going to DJ for the first time at Berghain. A two and half hour set, so that's something to really be nervous about.

It's a great thing to tick off the bucket list.
It will be something really special, I think. 


Text Felix Petty

visual album
wolfgang tillmans
Device Control
music interviews
make it up as you go along
here we are
maureen paley
that's desire