Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto talk about new hackedepicciotto album, “The Silver Threshold”

Photo by Sven Marquardt

Comprised of Alexander Hacke (Einsturzende Neubauten) and Danielle de Picciotto (Crime & The City Solution, co-founder of the Berlin Love Parade), hackedepicciotto have generally followed a nomadic lifestyle and created music wherever they happened to be. But with COVID-19 keeping them in Berlin, they made the best of the situation and took a different approach with their latest album, The Silver Threshold. They utilized a full recording studio and engineer for the first time, and with Berlin free of tourists, found inspiration in the city itself. Over Zoom, Alexander and Danielle discussed the making of the album.

When I interviewed you about your previous album, you told me about how the location of making The Current inspired it. How did your environment affect this one?

Alexander: We found ourselves stuck in Berlin; originally, we were supposed to be touring all of 2020. The Current came out at the end of January, and we managed to play no more than four shows for it. And then we got locked down in Berlin in March 2020. So we immediately started to think about utilizing the special situation for our purposes. And we applied for grants, and we received a grant. Originally, we were going to give up our studios because we’d be on tour all year, which fortunately we didn’t do. And so we started writing immediately, and we were thinking about who we really are, being stuck in that situation. A lot of our other albums were influenced and inspired by those various circumstances and those specific geographies and stuff. And this time, we were in Berlin and we were in Brandenburg, and we wrote in our studios and then we traveled every day from the north of Berlin to the south of Berlin to record at a recording studio by the Spree River.

This time around, the photography used for the album was also an inspiration musically. Could you talk about that?

Danielle: Well, Sven Marquardt is an old friend of mine. He’s originally from East Germany, from East Berlin. I met him when I came to Berlin in 87, pretty early on because I met some people that always would go to East Berlin. There was a really great art and music scene there. And I had an American friend, actually, who took me over, and we would go back and forth. I met him in East Berlin, and we kept in contact because he did a lot of fashion photography back then. And he actually took photos of me pretty quickly after the fall of the wall. So, we’ve been friends ever since, and he became the bouncer, like the infamous bouncer of the club Berghain. He’s known to be like the most dangerous-looking bouncer and the strictest. He kind of looks like Karl Lagerfeld, but covered with tattoos.

We’ve always done our own covers up to now, but when we were going to do the album, we thought that we’d really like him to take pictures. He only works with real light. And he only works with black and white, and only works with analog cameras. He doesn’t work with digital cameras at all. So I thought it would somehow be fitting to do something in the pandemic, to go back to basics. We started recording in October, and I said, “You know, maybe we’ll take pictures in December or January.” And he was worried that there would be a complete lockdown, which there was, so he said, “No, I would like to do it now.” I said, “we haven’t done any music.” And he was like, “Well, we may not be able to do the pictures otherwise.” So we took the pictures before we did the music, which is really unusual. And so the picture itself actually influenced our music, which was interesting because we hadn’t expected that. So that was a nice turn, a different kind of routine.

The footage of the photoshoot works well as the video. At what point did you have that idea to utilize that as a music video as well?

Danielle: Well, actually from the start because he’s such a striking looking person and because the place that we were taking the pictures actually doesn’t exist anymore because everything’s being renovated here. And so that was one of the few last huge industrial areas that was still abandoned, but that was sold right after. And so Sven had an assistant who was taking pictures of everything and taking film. And I said, “You know, I’d really like to do a video of the whole making of,” so I told the assistant, and he kind of already filmed while we were doing it, knowing that we would be doing a short movie out of that.

So what factors went into deciding which song you would use the footage as a video for?

Danielle: Well, first of all, the atmosphere that song somehow has, I think, the feeling for such a forlorn space. As we’re all kind of in a forlorn space at the moment, it seemed fitting. So that was one reason. And also the length, because we tend to do very long songs, and it’s rare for us to do a short song. So that was another consideration.

Alexander: Yeah. “Kirchhain” is like a piece that is within itself, more like an architecture rather than a narrative, and the video kind of depicts the architecture of the place and the location. And so it seemed to be the fitting soundtrack. We work a lot with soundtracks anyway. And so looking at those pictures, we decided that would be the proper score for that.

How do you feel that the pandemic may have affected how you approached the actual making of the album? Did it change your working process? Did it lead you to spend more time on it?

Alexander: Well, in our particular lifestyles, we spend 24 hours, seven days a week with each other anyway; traveling together and being a married couple and being partners in art. So that kind of actually just intensified our relationship and intensified our working process. It gave us even less leeway between the occurrence of everyday life and the realization of those inputs into our music and into our art. Everything was very imminent, very immediate, very intuitive. And plus, there was no way to be distracted by other things. You know, it wasn’t like, ‘Ooh, these, these friends of mine from so-and-so are in town’ and when you really need to go and see their show instead of working in the studio. So these things just didn’t occur. We were literally imprisoned in the production, and that was a good thing.

Danielle: The other difference was that we usually take the computers along and record anywhere. We don’t usually go into a studio, and this time we actually said, okay, well, if we’re going to be in Berlin, we might as well actually go into a studio and have an engineer work for us, which is something completely different. And we enjoyed that immensely because, in that way, Alex could be only a musician and didn’t have to do the engineering as well, which is good for the creative process. So that was really kind of like a luxurious thing that we really enjoyed.

Alexander: Yeah, absolutely. Because even though we do get to go to a lot of very unusual and strange places, we usually only have very minimal means of recording those spaces. And this way, we had a studio with a large live room, with a whole bunch of studios around it where I could borrow like tom-toms and percussion instruments. So a lot of the stuff that I usually sit down to program for us, I could just go out and play, particularly in the realm of percussions, so there was no digital programming needed. I could just like go, ‘Oh, Victor, please set up some microphones over here. You know, this is a very nice corner.’ And ‘can we borrow some drum parts from the studio next door?’

Did the fact that your touring plans got cut short have any impact on the album? Perhaps the fact that you had been preparing for shows in support of ‘The Current’?

Danielle: It did in a way because usually, we would start recording when we have a specific theme and we want to say something with the album. And in this case, we thought, okay, we have the time to do an album. We always like recording anyway, let’s do an album. But we didn’t really have a theme. And so that was a first, because usually our themes were always depending on our nomadic state of mind. Our first theme was perseverance with ‘Perseverantia’ and stuff like that. And so the fact that everything was cut short and we were basically left in this weird in-between space, together with the photography from Sven, gave us that atmosphere of being on a threshold of something. We didn’t know what was going to happen. So it did influence the vibe, that we were suddenly left in a situation we hadn’t expected.

You mentioned how there were fewer distractions; you couldn’t go out and see friends’ art shows and stuff like that. Were there any things that you did as artists to force yourselves to take a break from recording?

Alexander: Yeah, definitely, because I mean, we work very hard and we work very much on schedule, always, even on our previous productions, we always know we have, so-and-so much time to record. And we very rarely, if ever, go over time. What we did, and that was kind of amusing in a way even, is, you know, Berlin and the city of Berlin, particularly in the summer, it’s like a total hustle bustle of tourists and stuff. And this time in order to relax, we would take our bicycles straight into the center of the city, which was completely deserted most of the time. And you could just ride around with your bike and there was nobody on the street. It was like a weird apocalyptic set of Berlin. And that was quite enjoyable. I must admit I liked it. I liked Berlin without people a lot better.

Danielle: It reminded us of Berlin in the eighties, because Berlin in the eighties, the really striking thing about it was that there were very few people and it was usually empty. You had the feeling of it being empty. And the first time we actually did that, I don’t know when we did it, probably in May or April or something when the weather got a little better. We went to the city center; I had a total flashback. It was like when I moved to Berlin in ’87 because it was as quiet and peaceful. And we were like, ‘oh my God, this is wonderful.’ So we would just sit in the street, in a cafe that was maybe the only one that was open, and just sit and look at the city again. If there are not all those people, you just actually see the architecture again. And the whole feeling of what Berlin actually was, is, whatever. So it was, it was actually really interesting.

Alexander: And those kind of excursions, like the impressions that we took on those excursions actually did really bleed into the atmosphere and the narrative of the record, I think.

Are there any ways that you feel your approach evolved during making the album?

Alexander: Well, it’s a lot more symphonic, and the production is just, it’s epic. It’s huge. And we kind of enjoyed that because it involves so many actual real time instruments, a lot more than it usually does. And also the way to be working with an engineer who is really focused on capturing what we do, and then processes it on his own. That’s his task. That’s the thing that he does. And we just concentrate on coming up with insane stuff that he then has the ordeal to capture it somehow adequately. That makes it sound a lot better. It’s basically like the difference between running around with a minimal documentary production film team, you know, like you have, like your camera man, and then you’d be like, ‘Oh, point at this, point at this,’ or doing like a proper theatrical style film production for us.

Danielle: Also, because we hadn’t really planned on doing it, we didn’t really know what the outcome would be. So I think we were extremely open, which is interesting too. Usually, we have at least two-thirds of the album, we were having an idea about what kind of songs we want to do. And this time it was just very intuitive, which was fun. And we didn’t know what we were expecting. So we were super happy with the result, especially because Victor is an engineer who always puts a lot of emphasis on giving each single track its own space. And he works a lot on that, which kind of really makes them all … it makes it sound fuller, and really everything sparkles. So we were really, really happy with that.

Do you think that the working process will present any challenges in adapting the material for live performance?

Alexander: It has always been like that since we started playing this kind of music together, and started to tour a lot together. We figured, you know, like usually we’re only limited by the restrictions of what airlines would allow us to check in, which is 50 pounds. And if we traveled by train, which we tend to do a lot lately because of the environment and all that, and we try to minimize our carbon footprint and all, it limits us to what we can carry physically, which is a little more than what we can check in on the plane. And then, of course, we both change instruments in each song on stage.

Danielle: We both basically have three to four instruments that we have to cover. And on these songs, of course, obviously there are places where we’re playing all of them at the same time, which is impossible to do live. So we had actually been thinking of maybe taking somebody along, but because the situation at the moment is so, you know, nobody really knows if it’s going to happen. We have a tour planned for February, March. It’s actually already all set, but we don’t know … everybody’s so scared, so we said, okay, this isn’t the time to enlarge the project. We just have to be super, super flexible. But in the future, we definitely do because it’s becoming impossible. I mean, if we would really have enough people to play everything, we would need four people, on top of us, and we’re doing it the two of us. So we’re doing a lot with looping and stuff like that, but it’s becoming too much, and it would be nice to have an actual trumpet player along with all those different instruments that we play.

Did you do any other projects during this time?

Alexander: We did. I mean, there’s no stopping Danielle. Anyway, so she did a whole bunch of other things at the same time she’ll tell you about. We did a few film scores together. We did two or three together. I did two more. And then I also did some workshops, like teaching music production online with classes and stuff like that. So that’s the things we do.

Danielle: I wrote a book, a graphic novel about the years ’87 to ’95, basically before and after the fall of the wall in Berlin because the difference between those times is so extreme. The eighties’ music scene, the eighties’ art scene, and then the nineties, the worldwide web, all the new technology. And I thought people who didn’t experience it back then don’t realize how it was almost from one day to the next that these things exploded. And I felt like I had the time. So I thought, I feel like drawing floppy disks and old tape recorders in comparison to the new computers, and Atari computers and stuff. So I did a really detailed [book], explaining what musicians were doing at what time and about DJs then and now and all that. So I worked on that. That was a lot of work. It was fun. And I did an exhibition of 80 pieces of art, too. I was really lucky. I had an opening in September last year and that was basically the one month where things were open. So I kind of showed what I’d been working on in the last seven years art-wise. And I did a film score on my own, too.

So this is your first album on Mute, is that correct? Did that have any impact on it at all?

Alexander: Yeah, we’re ecstatic about that. We’ve known Daniel Miller for a long time and we’re very, very good friends. We’re just really happy.

Danielle: We’ve collaborated with them on so many projects.

Alexander: There was the reunion of Crime and the City Solution, which was released on Mute. Then we did this project, like a theater band, “The Ministry of Wolves.” That was a project band that was created for a theater piece in Dortmund.

Danielle: Together with Nick Harvey’s music.

Alex: That was released on Mute. Then of course I have a long history with them because of Einstürzende Neubauten and of the old Crime and the City Solution and stuff. I adore that label and I think it’s a wonderfully curated record label. Because it’s not about niche and it kind of covers a whole lot of ground in various areas.

Danielle: It’s like a family, like the way work is family-wise. And we always said if we ever take a record label, we only want to work with Mute. We don’t want to work with anybody else. So it was kind of like a dream come true.

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