Best known for their synth-pop hits “Forever Young” and “Big in Japan,” Alphaville has now released Eternally Yours, a double album containing symphonic versions of classic songs. Alphaville founder/frontman Marian Gold teamed up with film and television arrangers Max Knoth and Christian Lohr and the German Film Orchestra Babelsberg to re-imagine the music in orchestral form. The album also includes one new song, the title track “Eternally Yours.”
Alphaville was formed in Germany in 1983 by vocalist/lyricist Gold and keyboardist Bernhard Lloyd. The line-up has changed over the years, with Gold being the consistent member throughout. Alphaville continues to perform regularly, and the most recent album of new material was Strange Attractor in 2017.
Over Zoom, Gold talked about Eternally Yours and the long career of Alphaville.
What inspired you to do a symphonic album at this point in time?
Marian Gold: Well, it was an idea that flew around for quite a while, and we were basically waiting for a golden opportunity to get all the things together. We needed an orchestra that we like; we needed additional arrangers and a location. We need also a company that is really interested in supporting this kind of idea. So it all came together in 2021. And the only problem was the pandemic. And so finally, in 2022, at the beginning of this year, we could start with the recordings. It was a really fantastic experience for everyone. It’s a very unusual situation for a musician to do a project like that because normally you go into a studio with a band, you’ll record the music, you’ll have these dialogues between the different members and the creative process will basically involve two, three or four persons. This time, it was just like we were next to a wishing well, and everybody else did the job. We had the arrangers; we had the orchestra; we had the conductor and we, as musicians, were only involved in a very theoretical way. Because the idea was that we would not perform personally on this album because we would let the orchestra do the whole job. It was not the idea like what bands like Metallica, for instance, did: to just play their music and in the background there’s a big orchestra and they follow the music. We wanted to have the orchestra as the main medium for the whole production, and then give the listener the impression that the music was almost recorded in the 19th century and played by an orchestra.
That is a completely different process because it means a lot of changes for the original songs. An orchestra is a polyphonic instrument with each instrument being monophonic. So you have to split up when playing chords. You have to split up each line to specific instruments. And it’s an absolutely fascinating process. And it reminded me actually a little bit of the early days when we started making music and we had these modular synthesizers, where we arranged all different kinds of effects and lines inside the synthesizer to perform a sound or a sequence or whatever. So the orchestra, in a way, is a gigantic biological synthesizer.
Given that, I’m curious as to how the song selection came together. Did you present ideas to the arranger to get feedback as to what songs would work best? Were there any you wanted to do that didn’t work out?
Marian Gold: The Alphaville repertoire is quite big because it’s been developed over almost 40 years. We had a wishlist of all the songs, which was much too big in the beginning. And we probably could have done all these songs because there is a kind of connectivity between Alphaville music and classical music in a way. It is very hard to explain … this idea that music could be a kind of film. You listen to the music and then all the music becomes suddenly a physical thing. That all plays a big role in our music. And it was really easy to transform the songs into that kind of scenery. That was something that we kind of expected, from the very beginning. And that was also one of the reasons that we actually did it, because it felt like there was this connection between our music and this fantastic instrument called the symphonic orchestra. So it was just obvious that we had to do it sooner or later.
Do you feel any particular tracks took on a new life with this instrumentation?
Marian Gold: All the songs. All the songs, they are in different windows. It is hard to name a specific song because they have all been transposed into this symphonic orchestra medium. And the way their stories, their contents, it is just a different language. It’s the same story, but … if you write a novel or something, and then you translate it into another language, it will perform in a different way. It’s not the same. Aspects and the subject of each song never changes. But the perspective; how you look at this, when you listen to it, in this new dress up is probably a very different angle and tells you astonishing things about the song that you didn’t know before.
What was it like doing the vocals for these new versions?
Marian Gold: Yeah. I re-recorded all the vocals and I had really some problems with the old songs. Because when I sang them, like “Forever Young,” or especially “Sounds Like a Melody,” for instance, these songs are almost 40 years old. And they are in an incredibly high range. And my task was that I really wanted to sing them in the original key. But “Sounds Like a Melody,” it didn’t work out. I couldn’t do that. But I think all the other songs were recorded in the original key. So that was the challenge for me as a singer.
I see there is a symphonic tour coming up. Could you talk about your plans for that?
Marian Gold: Yeah, I’m looking forward to this, to next year when we do this, because that also for me will be a completely new experience. I don’t know how it will feel like, playing with the big orchestra. And I’m really quite relieved that the band will be with me then. On this tour, we will also include the band in it, but it doesn’t mean that the band is playing all the time, or when they’re playing doesn’t mean that they play the electronic instruments. It might well be that … Carsten our keyboard is probably playing the grand piano. Maybe there will also be some additional songs we could not include in this production.
It will be probably a wider range of interpretations of songs, not only by the orchestra, but by the orchestra, and then plus orchestra and band, or band plus a few classical instruments, or a few classical instruments and just maybe an electric guitar or a synthesizer or just a sequencer. We are still in the middle of promoting this album, and there are also a couple of [regular band] concerts to do in Europe in the near future. But, I think about wintertime, we will start rehearsing. And, when you do the rehearsals, it’s such a massive thing, to have the orchestra. It’s also a financial question then, you cannot rehearse forever and ever with the orchestra. So we’ll rehearse the band first and then really think very exactly about what we are going to do with the orchestra. Then we have the orchestra maybe for seven days or so maximum, and then everything must be finished. So the first couple of shows will be quite interesting.
Do you think this experience may inspire you to compose new material that would work with orchestral sounds?
Marian Gold: We are completely changed since we’ve done this production, because it is like you look into a completely different cosmos. It’s a really a revelation for us, for each and every one in the band, a real revelation. And it gives you so many options, additional options from what you thought before about possibilities in creating music. We are already working on the album after ‘Eternally Yours,’ that will be probably released in 2024, because 2023 will be basically the tour with the orchestra. So 2024 will be the release then of the next album. And we’ve already written a couple of songs for this, and now everybody says, ‘Oh yeah, we could include a double bass or we could include a trumpet or some solo instruments from the orchestra.’ It’s a very inspiring situation. It really opened up our minds.
When you first started, the electronic instruments were pretty limited compared to what we have today. Has the evolution of the musical technology affected your creative process over the years? Do you feel the tools available to you have an impact on your songwriting?
Marian Gold: In the beginning, it was very important because without the electronic instruments, we couldn’t have done just any song, since we were not accomplished musicians. Nobody could… We couldn’t play any instruments, neither guitar, nor keyboard. We were programming our music with these early sequencers and it was basically like typewriting, but these little toys gave us the opportunity to change our status from crazy fans of music and moving into the department of real musicians, which was kind of a dream come true. Then we were in this situation with these little toys, I call them that because there were not very many around, and the better ones we could not afford because they were too expensive. So we were very, very limited with these things.
My experience in creating music is always that it doesn’t matter what kind of technology you have in your hands as long as you try to limit yourself to just using a few things. You only have a few options. And with these few options, try to compose, arrange, or create an album. Then, creativity is the thing. When you have the canvas of all possibilities… I mean, this is my personal opinion, it would be too confusing so I couldn’t really do anything. Sometimes, we were in this situation because, from the very beginning, we were quite successful with our music. Suddenly, we had all the money and we could buy everything so we bought lots of stuff and said, “Okay, now we can do everything.” We went into the studio with all of these fantastic instruments, synthesizers, and the state-of-the-art instruments and the outcome of these sessions was just minimal. We created uninteresting music, and we stopped it. We understood that it was really important to limit yourself, to limit your possibilities, and then you can come up with really great ideas. This is my theory about it.
Obviously people come to your shows wanting to hear the hits, but given your extensive catalog, how do you decide what other material to perform? Does audience feedback or what you see people listing to on streaming services impact it?
Marian Gold: Absolutely. I mean, as an artist, you have these two situations. One situation is when we are in the studio, producing our music and we don’t think about anybody else. We don’t give a shit. Even sometimes probably our manager comes in and listening to us says, ‘Oh, are you really sure that you are going to do this? You know, it’s not what people probably like at the moment.’ Whether people have their doubts, we don’t care. We just create and follow our interests and our visions. As soon as we go on stage, the situation is vice versa because when I go on stage with the band, I want to please the audience. The audience is the first thing. So we listen very carefully with every new tour we do with new material, which songs work live and which don’t.
And then naturally we only use those that work on stage, and even try to improve so they even work better. I mean, this is absolutely necessary. I don’t have the slightest problem playing all of our big hits at every concert, this is what the people expect. And they have the right to listen to the big hits. It would be ridiculous not to allow them to do that. We are there to entertain, to give them pleasure, give them a great time. We do our best to entertain them. So we take these songs, that we are not caring for other people’s opinion of. And then we change them, to make them accessible in a way for the live shows. It’s another thing, what ends up on the album. The album is also a playground for us. We just put on the album what we do in the studio, but the stage is something completely different. This is for the audience, for nobody else.
Do you ever get surprised by what older material listeners gravitate towards?
Marian Gold: When writing a song, we try to make a statement, which in a way gives it a little bit of timelessness. ‘Forever Young,’ for instance, is a very good example of that. This song, people play it at weddings, at birthdays, at funerals, you know, on occasions that are even very contradictory to each other. The song has an elementary addition to make to these situations, to a birthday or to a funeral or whatever. I don’t know why it is so, but it’s probably because when we write a song, we try to make it have some kind of timelessness included.
So the situation, or the story, or whatever, inside the song is not connected only to the very moment when it had been created. It has content that’s across time and space, and has relevance, maybe even in different ways, years later or whatever. I think that is the thing with Alphaville music, I must have the feeling that I have to say something. I mean, if I do a cover version from artists that I adore and the song and the lyrics are a little bit stupid or whatever, I don’t care. I don’t have a problem with this because I love the artists. It’s a kind of love letter to that artist. But when I do my own music and I write the lyrics for that, I need to speak about something that has the feeling has some importance. And maybe that makes the songs, from the lyric contents, a little bit more timeless.