We’re not hippies!

FROM THE ARCHIVES. Interview: 17 Hippies. The multi-lingual Berlin/Spanish/French faves 17 Hippies hit Kesselhaus on May 14. We found an old interview from May 2007.

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Photo by: Andreas Reidel

FROM THE ARCHIVES. Interview: 17 Hippies. The multi-lingual Berlin faves 17 Hippies hit Kesselhaus on May 14. We found an old interview from May 2007.

Often described as a ‘heap of crazy Prenzlauer Berg musicians’, the 17 Hippies are proof that Berlin can produce great music outside the boxes of either classical or techno/electro/pop, but also that a band can be successful without conforming to the tyranny of global trends and the music business.

The superband’s 13 (not 17) players started out over a decade ago, by jamming together on traditional instruments (brass, woodwind, acoustic guitar, hammered dulcimer, accordion – but no drums!) to create a unique sound, at once orchestral, folk, gipsy, jazzy, rock and klezmer. They sing in German, English and French, and are at least as popular abroad – especially in France and Spain – as they are in Germany.

The Hippies are also a self-grown business with 23 shareholders – and do virtually everything themselves, from recording to publishing, design and marketing. They’re insanely busy: 120 concerts a year and endless collaborations with other artists, theater and film directors (their work with Andreas Dresen, on the film Halbe Treppe/Grill Point, boosted their fame).

EXBERLINER visited their spacious headquarters in the Kulturbrauerei to chat with three Hippies – Kiki (manager, accordion), Christopher (singer, Irish ukulele, bouzouki) and Dirk (guitar, hammered dulcimer, graphic design) – about their new album Heimlich, their rise to fame and fellow Berliners such as Rammstein.

What are hippies in 2007?

Kiki: Not us, at any rate! ’17 Hippies’ is just a name. You could just as easily replace ‘hippies’ with ‘fairies’ or ‘dwarves’ or whatever.

But why ‘Hippies’?

Christopher: It just stuck with us. Twelve years ago we were just this group of people who made music together. But when it became clear that people wanted to hear us, we needed a name. Back then, ‘hippies’ meant people who were a bit older and made an effort to do something, but which wasn’t anything really cool. People would say, ‘Oh, hippies’. We never called ourselves 17 Hippies – it just happened at some point and we can’t get rid of it anymore. The number ’17’ just stood for ‘a lot’ and at some point there were more than 30 people involved.

Kiki: There was this boat in Kreuzberg and we showed up and asked to play there. They asked what we were called, we said ’17 Hippies’, and they said, ‘That’s seriously uncool.’ But then so many people came – three or four hundred – that the boat almost sunk! Only 40 or so actually fit on the boat. More and more people came to our shows. We thought, ‘We’re not doing anything, and people come.’

So success came just like that – without PR or advertising?

Christopher: We weren’t a band and we just did all the things that we weren’t allowed to do in other bands… Once we went into a bar where someone was celebrating their birthday and just played although they didn’t want us to. Afterwards, they were glad and from then on we played there every other week.

Dirk: When we played in other bands in the past, we all did the same things that tens of thousands of bands do: knock on the front door (of the music business). And you’d hear, ‘Cool band, cool name, cool music – nobody’s interested.’ But then we discovered a trick – don’t go through the front door, go through the garden gate – which is open!

And the other thing is, when you start making music, you have these role models in your head and you try to copy them. And then I realized, that’s total nonsense, it’s much better to create something new. The thing is, the music of the 17 Hippies wasn’t my music – I had experience in rock – I would never, ever have talked to half of the people I was playing with (in the Hippies) in my life.

Like Christopher, for example?

Dirk: No, Christopher and I both formerly enjoyed a career as lamp-assemblers. For years, we screwed together lamps at a lamp company and at the same time we always played in bands.

There are so many musicians who want to make it big, but they never succeed in selling more than a couple hundred CDs. How did you make it?

Kiki: What’s ‘big’? We know bands who were darlings of the press – they had big articles in magazines and newspapers – and then you go to their concerts and there’s no one. The press always ignored us. At best, we were a ‘local phenomenon’. But people would come to our concerts through word of mouth. We’re never in the charts, we’re never the hot topic, and we’re astounded at how many people know about us and we wonder how they know about us.

Christopher: The way we started was by saying, ‘In every country on this planet, there’s a repertoire of songs that everyone can sing. Before we began, we were in Ireland and there were people from around the world, from France, Japan, South America, who would sit down at night, drink too much alcohol and sing. And the only ones who would just sit there and watch were the Germans, because German was somehow an uncool language. Then we saw a Japanese guy who sang ‘Sah ein Knab’ ein Röslein steh’n’ totally drunk and in German. The Irish flipped out. It was so fun.

And when we got back to Berlin I said, ‘Look, we should ask everyone who plays an instrument to meet up and we’ll learn each other’s songs. I learn yours, you learn mine.’ We pool our songs and make a book of standards. What we wanted to do was a Real Book – like in jazz. When jazz musicians from around the world get together they can play music together if they know the Real Book. A shared repertoire. Now we’ve got two of them. That’s why, at the beginning, we had this strange repertoire which wasn’t any particular style. I had a song from my mother in Northern England. And someone else brought some klezmer, which I would never have played in my life.

So that’s the concept of your albums?

Christopher: In the new album they’re all original songs. Since Halbe Treppe, we’ve been writing our own songs.

Kiki: We tried everything. We always thought we had nothing to lose. With so many people the whole thing goes a bit awry sometimes, but then it gives the whole thing a bit of soul and life. I come from a classical background. In Germany, the people always ask ‘Did you study that instrument that you’re playing properly?’ And if you didn’t study it properly, they don’t take you seriously. And so we started playing other instruments that we didn’t normally play. And that also gave it a lightness. Because with another instrument you take a totally different approach. And this made a big difference with us. The rock musicians always wanted to start bands and be successful, while the classical musicians no longer felt like making music, because it was always so serious. And with the 17 Hippies, it took me a while to get used to the fact that with so many people it didn’t always sound totally perfect, but that it had something else, a ‘soul’.

So you don’t have any particular models?

Christopher: Each of us has his own. If you asked our clarinetist Henry, he would say the names of some crazy people in the mountains of Albania who play some homemade clarinet-like thing you’ve never heard of. We have all kinds of role models. There are also people who are doing things in France, where you just think: ‘Great!’

You’re very popular in France! You had a radio hit there.

Christopher: They also play our songs on the radio in Spain. But in Germany they don’t because they don’t know how to label us. In France they’re not quite so rigid with their labeling. Radio Multikulti doesn’t play us because: ‘They can’t be world music, they come from Berlin.’ That’s a quote from one of the bosses there. The nice thing is that we don’t have to prove anything to anyone. It’s fun to do things with the audience. We’re a live band and we do things with people, whether it’s with Marc Ribot (guitarist for Tom Waits) or Andreas Dresen (director of the film Halbe Treppe).

Dirk: We’re not dependent on the expectations of some record company who would ask us to do this or that… We’re unbelievably free when it comes to what will be on a CD; what the design looks like – it’s not like we have a product that we have to present to someone. We thought that maybe we would need a label to help us with promotion, but instead we decided to do everything ourselves. We coordinate everything from our Berlin office. We write, rehearse and record our songs here. We have partners across Europe and for the first time we were able to publish a CD at the same time in all of Europe. We have a label in France and in other countries we have distributors we work with.

You didn’t start a band, you started a musical empire!

Dirk: Starting a company is the only way you can do something like this in Germany. When we first decided to make a CD, we suddenly became a record label and we sold a few thousand CDs. And it grew from there. We’ve been a proper band with 13 people for three years. Of those 13, nine have been on board since the beginning. A lot of other people are involved. We have someone who does our Internet merchandising, and other stuff – they belong, too, but they’re not the band, but they belong to the expanded group of people affiliated to the 17 Hippies.

That’s the great thing about our Internet era …

Christopher: Without the Internet, it would be impossible. We have a distributor in Germany. There’s a pressing plant somewhere in the country and you ask them through the Internet to send 500 CDs here or there.

Kiki: Things have become a lot easier. Not that long ago we still had to phone people and leave messages on their answering machines. Back when the band started, nobody had a mobile phone. We’d have to phone people up from home, ask them if they could play, and some people didn’t even have an answering machine.

Dirk: Also in the production process, for example. I can do everything on my computer: the label, the cover, everything. I can just send it off to the pressing plant, a huge factory somewhere, and it all just happens online.

And you operate everything from Berlin?

Dirk: It wouldn’t be possible anywhere else. Simply finding a space like ours. A place big enough for our headquarters, where people can go and meet. Whenever people come from England or America, they come in here and say, ‘This is your office?!’ That’s just something that can happen in Berlin. And it’s incredibly important for the way we work.

Can 13 people work together in harmony?

Christopher: Of course not! But it works!

Dirk: There’s also this feeling, if you have a bad day, that you can trust the others for support. While in other bands, people would plot against one another, especially when money is involved. It can get pretty revolting pretty fast. And here it’s just not like that.

What’s your new album all about?

Dirk: It’s about working the field, sowing the seeds, watering it and then hoping that it blossoms – that’s what everything we do is about.

Kiki: Technically, we tried to develop things further. With the first album we just hung up a mike in a room and whoever was there played on the record. With the new one, the sound is the same, but we dealt more with lyrics and with songs – and that’s something new for us.

Dirk: You could say the album has a Romanian basic structure – the brass instruments are really fast. But in the first song, the brass instruments are employed in jazz formation. That’s why it’s hard to categorize these songs. For example, our older song ‘Marlene’ is more traditional songwriting – it could have been written 30 or 40 years ago.

People tend to categorize you as folky or world music, but actually the way the instruments play together is very contemporary.

Dirk: The instruments might sound traditional, but the way they’re used is not. There are a lot of elements that I’ve never heard mixed together in this way anywhere else.

Christopher: For me it’s like this: You walk the streets of Berlin and you’ve already got it. Down there you’ve got the Russian theater and you’ve got this form of music, then you cross the street and you hear them doing the sound check for Kim Wilde or whatever and there’s an Indian restaurant and you hear a 9/8 time signature and then you hear some kind of techno lounge stuff coming out of a basement. If all of that is my life and if I soak all of that up – how do I bring it all together? There also is a Berlin quality to it. If we lived in Paris, it would sound very, very different.

But there are some clear preferences, klezmer over techno for example …

Christopher: Of course, there are preferences: some rock and roll, chanson, or a Polish accordionist you heard at the station who played some old classics. But you don’t hear them as separate elements. There’s a piece on the album with some Indian tanpuras mixed with some Cajun things where you think, ‘Does that belong together?’ But it is together! For us it’s the search for how we bring all these things together. The French call it ‘Berlin style’ – they think it’s totally cool. It’s almost a genre for them.

So, who else belongs to the ‘Berlin style’?

Dirk: Rammstein, in a totally different category.

Kiki: Seeed are more ‘Berlin style’…They have their own Berlin language…

Dirk: Rammstein is just so much more German … more Teutonic. There are other ‘Berlin style’ bands – but it’s usually also Teutonic, artificial and ‘square edged’.

Berlin’s changed a lot over the past 10 years. Do you like the way things have developed?

Kiki: Generally, I do. I’m originally from West Berlin. I knew a lot of people who were really annoyed when the Wall fell, and they wanted to leave because Berlin wasn’t cool any more. I see it differently. Before Berlin wasn’t a Weltstadt. It was a village. People came from the West because the Wall was cool! People somehow convinced themselves that if they came from West Berlin, they were political hostages, or something. I thought it was just embarrassing. But now it’s a real advantage being here. Everyone wants to come here. Perhaps the hype is a bit too much: The winter is long, the summer is short, generally the people are in a really bad mood here, at least the Berliners.

Christopher: Not true any more! You hear lots of French, English, Spanish on the streets. And they aren’t tourists anymore. In certain areas, Berlin’s just not Germany anymore, in the same way that New York’s not the US. Of course the winter’s long. And of course people from southern France are going to be melancholic here. But the more we get around the world – last year, we were in Madrid, Paris, Moscow – the happier I am to sit in my corner café. I think Berlin’s just great.

Are there many East Germans in the band?

Christopher: Two in the band. And more who are shareholders.

Kiki: A lot of people think we’re all from the East. We also have a lot of fans from the East and they all think we’re from the East and that’s fine. Our trombonist Uwe had a proper East German upbringing from A to Z. He was in the military, he trained to be a cook, he wasn’t allowed to become a musician in the GDR. When we went to Russia he didn’t want to go, he wasn’t interested. He felt the same way about working with the old actors at Deutsches Theater (Kasimir und Karoline directed by Andreas Dresen).

Christopher: It’s just a totally different atmosphere, still. Like in Frankfurt am Oder, where we made the film with Andreas Dresen. We live mostly in the eastern parts of the city, but things here have changed a lot. Ten or 12 years ago… In terms of identity, I identify more with this new East than with the old West. I think this new East has a lot more to do with the new Europe…

Originally published May 2007