11/2021, Chrom Records • GERMANY: Odyssey Music Network/Rough Trade • INTERNATIONAL: Prophecy Productions
At some point during the course of many artists careers, there seems to come a time when they feel the urge to record their own interpretations of other people’s songs. Over recent years, one could get the impression, that some new acts covered top hits specifically to catapult their own names onto heavy rotation radio playlists on the back of their success. That said, covering other artists songs of varying degrees of popularity and success is a longstanding tradition in the world of popular music. It picked up big time during the beat era with bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and it is not unheard of, that a cover version became more successful than the original. But it has only been on very rare occasions, that artists have set themselves the task of releasing a whole album of covers.
On the bonus disc of their 2003 album, “Sleeping With Ghosts“, Placebo presented ten cover songs from a broad range of artists, including the likes of Boney M, Depeche Mode, Kate Bush, The Pixies, The Smiths, Serge Gainsbourg, and T-Rex. Similarly, Scotland’s Simple Minds recorded the album “Searching For The Lost Boys” which, alongside two traditional songs, contained tracks by Magazine, Siouxsie & The Banshees, Neil Young, Massive Attack, The Call, and Nick Lowe, and came with the limited edition of their 2009 album “Graffiti Soul”. In 2010 Peter Gabriel elevated the art of cover versions from something largely looked down upon and banished to bonus discs to something that can stand its ground as an art form. On his album “Scratch My Back” he focussed completely on his role as a performer and interpreter rather than a writer and composer. Not to forget the matching “And I’ll Scratch Yours”, featuring various artists covering Peter Gabriel Songs.
Alexander Veljanov and Ernst Holm are not immune to that desire and have been toying with the idea of a cover album for a while. In 2018 the project was starting to take shape, but just as with previous releases, “20 Years Of Electronic Avantgarde”, recorded in 2007 with the Neue Philharmonie Frankfurt orchestra and released as an expansive media book with two CDs and three DVDs, and the two anniversary samplers, “XXX. The 30 Years Retrospective” and “The 30 Years Retrospective: Live”, as generous packages complete with rarities and extensive booklets, they wanted to go further with their cover album, break new ground and push boundaries.
The working title was “Dual” and Alexander is here to explain the connection between the implied ‘duality’ and Deine Lakaien’s project: “We had been discussing a cover album every now and then, but as the idea of a pure cover album seemed a bit boring to me, we came up with the concept of original compositions based on cover versions. We started working on the first songs in 2018, adding more as we went along.”
The selection of songs Deine Lakaien took on for this extraordinary project is highly interesting, eclectic, challenging, bold and surprising. With no less than six singles, three pairs including the Patti Smith/Bruce Springsteen rock classic “Because The Night” and the matching original composition “Because Of Because”, the early dancefloor hit “The Walk” by The Cure and Deine Lakaien’s own club-ready answer “Run”, and the flower power-tinged Kansas ballad “Dust In The Wind” with its counterpart, “Unknown Friend”, the charismatic duo have prepared the ground for a double album containing many more unusual song-pairs.
Not only did the eloquent Alexander attempt a unique interpretation of Jacques Brel’s chanson “La Chanson Des Vieux Amants” and “Song Of The Flea”, a piece by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky with lyrics based on a poem by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, but also the playful “Spoon” by Krautrock legends CAN and “Suspended In Gaffa” by British singer-songwriter Kate Bush.
The diverse, decade and genre spanning package is completed by Cat Stevens’ love ballad, “Lady D’Arbanville”, and two true gems of rock melancholy, “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden and “My December” by Linkin Park.
“What we certainly were not trying to do was to produce a tribute album to the artists we admire, but to pick songs from a range of genres and eras that people might not necessarily associate with us, but that we wanted to give the Deine Lakaien treatment to see how they would work in our sound aesthetic, with my voice and Ernst’s sounds. Ernst mostly left the choice of songs up to me and what I wanted to sing, and apart from two or three pieces, the project has turned out pretty vocal-oriented.”
“It was the right approach in this case”, Ernst agrees. “After all, the vocals are the basis of a pop song. As an arranger, cover songs give me the freedom to take a different perspective, but it is absolutely critical to see the quality of the songs, irrespective of where they come from. That was an interesting learning experience for us, especially for me, who was pretty radical in his youth and is also quite a bit older than Alexander, some of these songs I did not recall as being particularly interesting initially. But then, as I was working through the material, there was something about them, that they were structured differently than we would have done it, for example, or than it would have been common from the 1980s.”
As varied as the origin of the cover songs and bearing in mind they span more than 100 years of musical history – from Mussorgsky‘s “Flohlied” from 1879 and a whole host of folk, rock, krautrock, chanson, and wave songs from the fascinating 60s, 70s and 80s of the 20th century, to Linkin Park’s melancholy ballad “My December” from the year 2000 – so diverse and colourful the presentation and the way, Ernst and Alexander have incorporated this multi-coloured bouquet of songs into their own musical universe, using their unique approach to turn some of these gems into true Deine Lakaien tracks, preserving integral elements such as the exotic rhythms of the CAN song, the galloping, electronic rhythms of The Cure’s “The Walk” and the acoustic details of the Brel chanson and the Kansas anthem in their corresponding compositions, thus establishing a real connection between the covers and the respective original songs.
The simple album title, “Dual”, refers to the juxtaposition of cover songs and associated compositions, as well as reconciling the different electronic and organic-sounding musical elements, and, ultimately, two personalities that come from different age groups and whose musical socialisation was very different.
Deine Lakaien have pulled off the rare feat of bringing together influences and inspirations from classical and popular music, different forms of expression, styles, languages and vibes, and combining them in a way that, despite the diversity and complexity, ensures a homogenous and coherent result. Ernst and Alexander invested so much energy and creativity into this project, that they ended up with a total of over 30 recordings, which would not even fit on a double album.
Having earned Deine Lakaien their third top ten success in the German album charts after “Kasmodiah” (1999) and “White Lies” (2002), the remaining songs that did not make it onto the album, “Dual”, also deserved an adequate format for their release. And there is a reason the title “Dual +” makes reference to its predecessor.
“We came up with and developed the idea, got to work, and in the end we had 32 finished songs”, Ernst recalls the beginnings of the production of the “Dual”-cycle. “Alexander was pretty much in charge of choosing the songs to start with and also deciding, which of the finished songs would make it onto ‘Dual’. To be honest, he is better at keeping track of those things, while I am up to my head in the production process. The selection of singles influenced how ‘Dual’ was put together, of course, but the intention was not to gather all the hits on ‘Dual’ and for ‘Dual +’ to be like the bargain bin of leftovers, so to speak. Maybe ‘Dual +’ comes along as a bit more experimental as it contains more of my cover songs and lyrics than ‘Dual’.
The first single-pairing, “Nightfall” and “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun” by Pink Floyd, who made a huge impression on the young Ernst Horn with their album “A Saucerful Of Secret” in 1968, is testament to that.
“I was 18 at the time and totally into psychedelic music. Before that, there was beat music, which was rather tame, but then a wave of young bands appeared, such as Pink Floyd, Cream, and Jimi Hendrix, who kicked the door wide open, spearheaded of course by George Martin, who started experimenting as the producer of The Beatles. ‘Set The Controls’ is a very psychedelic track and kind of represents my world. It was a lovely experience for me to take these sounds, that meant so much to me at the time, and to play around with them in my studio and introduce them into my environment”, Ernst says, explaining his personal connection with the Pink Floyd track. “I see the song as an intricate ode to the sun, which gives life and, above all, love, and which we should recognise as such and turn towards.”
The first single-pairing shows that “Dual +” has its unique qualities and can stand on its own as an album. With “Nightfall”, Alexander and Ernst have created a seductive prologue for their cover of Pink Floyd’s “Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun”, a wonderful, psychedelically tinted track with a hypnotically pulsating beat and wistful chorus, which finds its perfect continuation in the Pink Floyd cover with its minimalistic arrangements and soft vocals.
The opener of “Dual +” is a heart-warming lullaby. “Cradle Song” comes along as a typical Deine Lakaien piece with delicate instrumentation and Alexander’s hauntingly soothing vocal delivery. Together with the closing “Wiegenlied” by influential, Russian composer Michael Glinka (1804-1857), it provides a reassuring frame for an album that is rich in styles and atmospherics. It is also a nod to the Russian contribution on “Dual”, Mussorgsky’s “Song Of The Flea”.
Between these two comforting lullabies, a whole world unfolds – playful, diverse and exciting – with Ernst Horn exploring his early roots in psychedelic music as well as the new wave/ post punk scene.
As a result, the final constellation of cover songs und original compositions on “Dual +” posed a particular challenge for Alexander. Interestingly, Devo’s “Mr. DNA” is only one part of the six-minute double track, “Smart Patrol/Mr. DNA”, of their 1979 sophomore album, “Duty Now For The Future”, with its almost spoken, existential lyrics about the faulty design of the human race delivered at break-neck speed.
“Ernst has always been passionate about the intellectual electro punk of Devo. I did enjoy listening to Devo, but there isn’t a lot of actual singing going on, as far as I can tell. It’s more like shouting”, says Alexander. “Ernst’s arrangement is very much in keeping with the tradition of experimental Deine Lakaien tracks that have been making regular appearances throughout our career. And although I wasn’t sure about this track at first, I gave it a shot and Ernst liked my interpretation.”
The next song, “Altruist”, is a nod to the “altruistic pervert” from “Mr. DNA”, but its sound is much more contemplative and thoughtful. “There are certain people, whose life seems to revolve around helping other people and who tend to be taken advantage of, but they can’t get out of that situation, because they would feel guilty, if they were to express their own wishes and needs”, Ernst explains. “The song is about a person who tried to please everyone and it ends up destroying them.”
At the heart of the “Dual”-cycle is the fascinating dialogue initiated by Deine Lakaien through the creation of their own songs, which are, for the most part, based on selected cover versions. They are inviting their audience along for a surprise party, which is rooted in familiar concepts, developed by Alexander and Ernst over the course of their long career. The impression that everything comes together so seamlessly can be attributed to the fact, that Ernst did not allow his arrangements to be overly influenced or even constrained by the originals. Instead, he quickly started to transform them into the familiar Deine Lakaien setting.
“I tried to forget about that or push it into the background”, says Ernst about how he approached the originals. “First of all I looked at the material and analysed the harmonies and composition, because we wanted to preserve the characteristic structures of verse, chorus as well as the melodies. But apart from that I started from scratch and rebuilt the songs from the ground up with our own sound and style.” Alexander’s approach to his vocal interpretations of, in many cases, pretty famous songs from all over musical history was similarly relaxed.
“Most of the songs I picked, I was already familiar with from my childhood and my youth. I avoided researching other cover versions that might already be around. That is something I only found out afterwards. There are several cover versions of ‘Because The Night’ and ‘Dust In The Wind’, some of which I would not necessarily have been very keen on. When it came to artists I admire particularly such as Jacques Brel, I made an effort, not to be totally awestruck, but to be as relaxed as possible about it and to wait until the actual recording to make up my mind if it felt right or not. For songs with female vocalists like Kate Bush, for example, I had to come up with a completely new approach, but without intentionally changing the character, the aesthetic or the mood of the original. We definitely wanted to treat the material with respect and not to turn them into dark wave songs just for the fun of it. It may even surprise some people that we stuck with the song structures of the originals.”
“That was the really interesting aspect of our work”, Ernst continues. “As a classical composer I know how to approach a song when I have the written music, and how to treat it without having an exact strategy in my head in terms of having to make changes to a particular track or to transform it into dark wave or even to keep it exactly as it is. It was a true adventure.”
“It was also important not to be paralysed with respect for some of the really big names. Some of these artists are absolute music icons and a number of them are already dead, like Chris Cornell”, Alexander says. “So we did our best to be respectful, but not timid or awestruck, or even to worry about the reviews, that would follow. We’re used to criticism. Deine Lakaien tend to polarise anyway because of our unusual sound aesthetic and my vocals. I think it is a good thing to have enthusiastic fans on the one hand and rejection on the other.”
Two of the songs on “Dual +” deserve particular attention, because they showcase once again the versatility and uniqueness of the band. “Run (2nd Version)” is an acoustic take on the band’s single “Run”, which was created as a counterpart for the The Cure classic “The Walk” on their predecessor “Dual”. With its gentle piano intro, exotic rhythms and string arrangement, the new version is a far cry from the original. It was created very late in the process and almost didn’t make it onto the album.
“While we were working on it we realised that the new version was giving a whole new dimension to the first version with its electronic character”, Alexander says. “This more acoustic version gives the song a unique twist, which we thought was very exciting. Even though the vocals on the second version of ‘Run’ are exactly the same as on the original one, to me it sounds as if I had re-recorded them completely differently.”
But Deine Lakaien have another surprise up their sleeve and that is their version of R.E.M.‘s timeless classic “Losing My Religion”, which opens with a solitary piano melody before Alexander, who chose the song, dominates the listening experience with his wistful vocals.
“I myself would never have thought of picking that song”, Ernst admits. “But that’s what made the album so exciting. You engage with material for the first time in your life. It struck me how the singer repeats himself a lot in the song, which is very different from the structure of our own songs. There is something manic about the original. My work wasn’t so much about turning it into something Deine Lakaien, but about being open to something new and unfamiliar.”
“I think we took this song into a whole new direction, sterner and less sweet than the original, partly because of Ernst’s classical approach and piano-heavy touch, which is not to say that it is a piano ballad, but rather, it has an experimental feel to it. The piano is almost like a musical sewing machine, driving the melancholy, restless lament”, Alexander adds. “It is a stark contrast and we had a lot of discussions about if we were on the right track with what we were doing. But now it is done and we are looking forward to the reactions, which I’m sure will vary a lot, because the song is so timeless.”
The notion of timelessness is present throughout the “Dual”-cycle with its impressive selection of cover versions, that are rooted in classical music as well as French chanson, psychedelic pop/rock, avant-garde new wave and American rock. Inspired by this diversity and richness, Deine Lakaien’s own compositions convey a spirit of adventure. On “Dual +” they no longer felt committed to the strict concept of pairing a cover version with an original composition, instead, making room for tracks such as the hysterical, rattling “Fork” and the galloping “Self Seeker”, a get back at a selfish person, that oscillates skilfully between tempi and moods and was created to go with an unreleased cover.
Considering the large number and the quality of the recordings, it was a no-brainer to complete the Opus Magnum, “Dual”, with a third instalment, which continues the concept of its predecessor, but allows itself certain freedoms, which would simply not have been possible within the framework of “Dual”.
“Luckily, we were not going in circles. We made the first recordings, and then the next, and just carried on until the end of 2019 and until the pandemic interrupted us”, Alexander recalls. “When we got back to work in the summer of 2020 it soon became clear, that we had a double album on our hands. We had not intended for there to be a third one, but we were so happy with the results, that we wanted to release more.”
“During the selection process, we were guided by the context and were certainly not trying to separate good songs from weaker ones”, Ernst stresses. “Our criteria was that the songs should fit into the context of the ‘Dual’ album and others simply didn’t work that well in that setting. But the songs that did not make it onto ‘Dual’ were by no means any less good.”
The “Dual”-cycle demonstrates an enormous musical range, but also a kind of “duality”, which underlies the concept title, and that is that special connection between the acoustic world, Ernst is creating from his massive wealth of experiences and collections, and Alexander’s versatile voice.
“We are totally aware that we have a unique way of making music, both in terms of the sound and Alexander’s characteristic singing style. With that in mind, we wanted to develop as big a range as possible and to step outside of our comfort zone”, Ernst confirms. And especially on “Dual +”, there is an enormous thirst for adventure, which is only partly attributable to Ernst Horn’s early and longstanding fascination for unusual compositions and arrangements.
“It has always been one of our principles that our records have edges and cracks, and we have always tried to convey a whole range of emotions, apart from all the reflectiveness”, Alexander picks up the subject. “Maybe on this collection the variety of emotions and ways of expressing them is bigger than on any of our previous albums, simply because of the sheer number of songs. But that was one of the most beautiful things about it, this feeling that there were no limits, that no-one would turn around and say, this is too far away from what people expect from us. I guess, we also wanted to irritate people a little bit, but mostly, we were just having fun pushing boundaries, and we usually have a good sense of when we have taken things too far.”
Finally, with three full albums, the “Dual”-cycle is also a visual highlight, thanks to the work of the band’s longstanding and trusted graphic designer, Joerg Grosse-Geldermann, who was given more freedom than ever before for his visual reflexion of the musical performances. He skilfully encapsulates the diversity and depth of the concept with stylised black and white contrasts, blurred watercolour portraits and poses for black and white photographs. “The designers that work with us have a lot of creative freedom. It has always been like that”, Ernst explains. “Joerg experimented right from the start, taking elements and the occasional image of us, which he sometimes edits. Just like we approached the cover songs, he was free to experiment and develop his own ideas.”
“The album title, which I came up with, is another important element”, Alexander adds. “I thought ‘Dual’ suited the concept and I still think it is a pretty good album title. It was the same with ‘Crystal Palace’, ‘Indicator’ and ‘White Lies’ – the album title always inspire the artwork.”
The “Dual”-cycle is not just a consistent audio-visual concept of cover songs, original compositions and artwork, it also applies to the duo itself, having collaborated successfully for over 35 years now and constantly surprising themselves and their audience with their work.
“There are traditional duos who work together for decades, and others that fall apart after one or two albums. Often, duos consist of two very different individuals, which is only natural – one of them is the electronic nerd and the other one the front person in the spotlight. And in many cases, this combination of fire and water doesn’t work out or at least not for a long time. In other cases, it lasts for decades. The chemistry between us comes and goes in waves. It was good that we took time-off from each other to work on other projects until we felt like doing another album together. That’s why we have only released ten studio albums so far; eleven, if you count the silver album”, Alexander says, trying to describe the secret of Deine Lakaien’s success.
“It is that balance between friction and productivity, being able to rely on one another, not just rattling off what others expect from you, but surprising each other, and knowing that it is not the end of the world if you don’t always like what your counterpart comes up with. It is that combination of our musical personalities and the ability to respond to your partner. I think, the remarkable success we have had as an electronic duo since the early 1990s, starting with our acoustic concerts, until today, reflects how we work as musicians and as a project. If one of us slips the other one is there to respond and catch him. That’s how we bounce ideas off each other.”
The imposed break from live concerts has been pretty tough for Deine Lakaien. Under normal circumstances, the duo would have played a couple of tours by now. The direct contact with their audience has always helped them figure out, which songs were becoming fan favourites and often they were songs the band had not necessarily anticipated.
“It feels strange. I have never been away from the stage for so long”, Alexander describes the odd feeling of not performing live. “Our last concert in front of an actual audience was in November 2019. Sometimes I worry that I can no longer do it. No-one knows what the future will bring for indoor events, theatre and concerts. Of course, we hope that everything will return to normal, but I think things will change, at least in some respects. Many people have had to find new jobs, especially the ones that actually make sure that we can perform at all – engineers and all the people involved in the preparation of the events. We hope for the best for everyone.”
In any case, Deine Lakaien have delivered an expansive set with “Dual” and “Dual +”, which will make for an exciting live experience. What will come after that for Ernst and Alexander remains to be seen. Despite his 72 years, Ernst Horn still comes across as a passionate artist who is always open to new ideas, sounds and arrangements. After working continuously for many years, however, the duo deserve a creative break. After all, Ernst and Alexander have delivered their Opus Magnum with the “Dual” cycle – a conceptual work spanning many eras and styles, and a true testament to why Deine Lakaien have survived for so long, far more than three decades, as an institution not just of the dark wave scene.