Interview: The Hirsch Effekt
When I listen to 'Calculating Infinity' by the Dillinger Escape Plan for example, I hear a lot of frustration and anger and despair; someone’s world is going down on that record. Bands who use chaos more as a “method” don’t really touch me. It’s chaotic, but for me it sounds like the band just wants to sound “noisy”.
As a band that transcends both genres and language barriers, The Hirsch Effekt are arguably one of the most interesting bands to come out of Germany in the past decade or two. Formed back in 2009 by three Hanoverian students, the band has quickly grown as a force to be reckoned with, melding the likes of hardcore, progressive rock, indie rock and even classical music into their cinematic compositions full of left-turns, cathartic builds and merciless downpours of aggression. As their fourth studio album Eskapist hits shelves this summer, The Hirsch Effekt prepare for new ventures in search for due recognition beyond the confines of German borders. As a follower of the bands’ studio output, I was thrilled and honoured at the opportunity to sit down for a conversation with Bass player and vocalist Ilja Lappin to talk about the talent, the language and the chaos behind the music.
(((o))): The Hirsch Effekt is a peculiar band to the international metal scene. You’ve got sounds coming from progressive metal, mathcore, alt-rock and even classical music. How did all of these styes end up merging together?
Ilja: All three of us write material and we all listen to pretty different music. Our guitarist and vocalist Nils comes from the punk scene and he’s more into the punk rock and post-hardcore bands whereas I originally came from metal, post-rock and progressive rock. When we write together, it’s pretty natural that our favoured styles meld into each other. We’re also pretty open minded, we don’t pay attention to genres that much, we listen to all sorts of music. We’re pretty open to trying new things out as well, we play around with that. We started the band because we wanted to make music that we ourselves would like to listen to, that was the goal. That’s why we started mixing strings with indie rock and adding some “math” elements to it.
(((o))): Did the band evolve within or alongside any particular scene?
Ilja: Actually, no. Nils started the band with our old drummer Philipp – who left the band in 2013 – and I met them when I started my studies here in Hannover, and around that time there was no ‘scene’. We were pretty much on our own. There were a few bands around doing some indie stuff but there was no local music scene really and there were no mathcore or progressive metal bands coming to this area. We had listened to The Dillinger Escape Plan and we knew that there were progressive metal bands out there, but we didn’t really get in touch with it. For instance, we hadn’t heard anything about the djent scene until a few years into forming the band. It’s funny because we get compared to a lot of progressive metal bands, but we really uncovered the scene and bands like Between the Buried and Me and Psyopus a few years after creating this band. The progressive metal scene just wasn’t big here.
(((o))): How did the classical arrangements and compositional tropes come into the picture?
Ilja: Originally, we thought it would be “boring” to simply have a three-piece formation. We wanted to add another layer to spice things up. Nils and I also grew up with classical music, him playing classical guitar and me playing cello. It was somewhat pretty natural for us to incorporate the elements that we actually liked from classical music.
(((o))): Do the classical arrangements fit in naturally with the bands’ writing style or do you need to break ‘classical tradition’ to mix it in?
Ilja: I wouldn’t say that. It’s very different, for example, sitting in the studio and bringing some classical vibe to the recording. Playing classical instruments in a rock band is pretty different than actually playing a piece by Bach. All of us prefer rock and popular music a little bit more, so we just thought it would be interesting to put these classical elements into the music and we were lucky that we could actually play them. I wouldn’t say that there is a different ‘vibe’ to the parts. Nils studied classical guitar and I played the Cello when I was small, but I’m in no way a “trained” classical musician.
(((o))): One of my favourite aspects of The Hirsch Effekt is that, whereas other German bands choose to sing in English, you write exclusively in German. Why do you sing in German? English skills are not an issue at all for you and the band.
Ilja: For sure. We sing in German for one simple reason: it’s our mother-tongue. It was totally natural for Nils to write lyrics in German. He also always said of himself that he doesn’t sound good when he sings in English, and there’s some truth to that (laugh). There’s also a different aspect to it when you start a band: you just care about the music, you don’t think about these issues, you pretty much do what comes out of you. This question wasn’t that big in the beginning, it was just totally normal for us. We never changed that because somehow the language became a part of the music too. It would be ridiculous after three albums in German to release and English-speaking album. It wouldn’t work and people would think that we’re trying to “sell out”; it can go very wrong very quickly. Besides, it helps set our music apart from other international bands.
(((o))): The flow and phonetic quality of a language has a particular influence on a culture’s music. Was this ever a challenge when shaping your music, as there are no references for music anything like yours being sung in German?
Ilja: In retrospect, that is true. If I think of the first demos and the first album, the phrasing and the way we deal with the words has been different. I’d say that it has evolved throughout the years. We’ve developed a greater understanding of the way we can use the language to work with these odd meters and this sound. Things that probably sounded a little bit weird on the first CDs or albums sound okay now, you don’t question it as much. Nils has become better at choosing his words and placing them in the phrasing in a way that sounds good. I agree though, it is a hard task. We always write the music first and the lyrics always come at the end, so it’s always a challenge to convey our message all the while making it sound good.
(((o))): You’ve also got to contribute to some lyrics for this album. Were there any instances where you’d notice something you’d hear from your favourite english-speaking bands doesn’t work in German?
Ilja: Actually yes. For this album, I wrote a few lyrics for some songs for the first time, and because I’m not familiar with writing in German, I wrote the lyrics in English. There are demos of songs which actually have English lyrics for the first time. We decided to then translate the lyrics into German. ‘Lifnej’, our first single, was actually originally sung in English, but we couldn’t use it. I would have had to write the song for a different band because the song sounded completely different. It didn’t have much to do with The Hirsch Effekt anymore, it was weird. We agreed that if we wanted to use the song for this band we’d need to make the effort to translate the English lyrics and see if it works. It’s funny, because if you compare the two versions, they sound very different. Neither sound unnatural and it’s the same message, it was translated pretty much word-for-word, but they leave very different impressions. Nils was the one who translated the lyrics. That was definitely something new, we had never done that before and we had no clue whether it would turn into total crap or if it would actually work (laugh). It’s hard for me to say which version I like better or what actual the difference in the vibe is, but it definitely comes down to language.
(((o))): Your music tends to veer towards chaotic riffs and structures. What does this chaos represent for the band from a tonal standpoint?
Ilja: That’s a hard question. I would actually say that I don’t think that much about it. If I write a chaotic song, I’d say that it’s probably because I’m angry or having bad thoughts or because I really feel the chaos. People sometimes think that you just “make chaos” or “dark sounding parts” or “brutal music” because it’s fun to make, but the reason why we write these chaotic parts is because this is what we’re feeling. If I write a depressive song, then I’m depressed. We don’t make it up. We still reflect our feelings or the way we see things through this chaos. It rarely has anything to do with harmonic figures that I’m writing on guitar. It’s more of a feeling that has to get out which eventually transforms into this chaos. That’s how it comes out naturally. That’s also the reason why we don’t only write chaotic music; we don’t only feel hate or anger. All of the sadness, all the happy moments… Whatever it is, we put it into our music. The chaos is never something that we’re able to bring in with “ease”. We don’t jam around that much with those sorts of parts, it’s about the way we felts when we wrote those parts at that specific moment in time. When I listen to Calculating Infinity by the Dillinger Escape Plan for example, I hear a lot of frustration and anger and despair; someone’s world is going down on that record. Bands who use chaos more as a “method” don’t really touch me. It’s chaotic, but for me it sounds like the band just wants to sound “noisy”.
(((o))): Moving unto the subject of your song titles. Where do they come from and what is the idea behind your choice of a song title?
Ilja: (chuckle) That’s actually something we also argue about in the band. It started out with the first album, which already had titles from different languages; we incorporated Latin and Dutch for example, as well as a few German words that are not that well known. We went in that direction because we like things to be a little bit cryptic, we like to tease our listeners; we like the idea that someone actually has to start thinking about the titles, look the word up and figure out why the song is called like that. We’ve always had that aspect to our music. We like to demand something from the listener. You can’t just read the song titles through and understand it. You have to look it up. Maybe it’s just another way for us to get people to get involved with the music and the meaning behind the songs. Sometimes I guess we also get bored of “normal words” and we actually look up interesting words on the internet (laugh), words that convey the meaning of the songs better than some more common word. Sometimes you just find words in another language which may have a similar meaning, only it goes a little further and hits the core message of the song a lot better than the term in your own mother-tongue. It’s just a sort of tradition that we’ve kept at. For the new album, we were actually thinking about choosing only German song titles, but we ended up going against that decision simply because we’ve been doing it this way for three albums and there’s no reason for us to stop. It’s a sort of trademark now (laugh), we’ve continued with it and I guess we will continue with it in the future. Some of the interludes on this album are actually terms from classical music as well. We thought it would be funny to bring those terms in as a nod to classical compositions.
(((o))): This is the first album that breaks out of the Holon concept framework, which granted you a certain degree of freedom as to what to preserve and what to leave behind in your approach to writing. Were there any specific aspects you did decide to leave behind after finishing off this conceptual arc?
Ilja: Musically, not much. The thing we had within the Holon trilogy was that we sometimes cited ourselves musically. There were a few figures on ‘Agnosie’, which we borrowed from a track from the Holon : Hiberno CD. We like to have this ping-pong game, bringing up themes that we had used on a previous album on the new record. For this record we did refrain from that, it would have made no sense. Nothing really changed that much overall though. There was simply no need to make another album to be included into the Holon trilogy. I would have made no sense, thematically. We would have been simply sticking to one idea and we would have had to adapt themes and concepts to something we’d already been tied to for the past three records. We just said “Let’s just leave this Holon thing out, start something new and see what comes up. We might just find a different overall concept that will work differently.” and I guess that’s what ended up happening.
(((o))): The German language is known for its extensive vocabulary and its detailed, specific and evocative words. Could you name one of your favourite “unique” German terms?
Ilja: (laugh) There are quite a few, but actually one of the easiest and most common terms that doesn’t have a direct translation in English is “doch”. It can mean “No, but yes indeed”. There is no direct equivalent or anything that comes close to it. We use that word in German all of the time. If you’re answering a question and someone throws “Doch!” back at you, it will always have a different translation in English. It’s quite funny. It’s an affirmative contradiction, but in some cases it can also mean “no”. It doesn’t make sense (laugh). When english speaking people ask what the word means, you have a really hard time explaining it; most of the time it means “yes” and/or “indeed”, but sometimes not, but it all depends on the context.
(((o))): Closing off: could you name one of your favourite albums, movies and books?
Ilja: I just recently bought again and listened to The Fragile by Nine Inch Nails. It’s an excellent album, definitely one of my all-time favourites. Sticking to an all-time favourite movie that I can watch any time and still be entertained, I’ll go with Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas as my movie pick. Choosing a favorite book is also a very difficult. I’ll probably go with some book by Hermann Hesse. Maybe Demian or Steppenwolf.