"Good thing that I am tattooed. Because from what I read and saw, the women of Velvet Two Stripes, who I will meet in an hour for an interview, appear to be a lot of trouble. On band photos their arms are covered with tattoos, cigarettes are dangling from their mouths and they seem to drink beer and fancy whiskey a lot. I will have to show off my own tattoos to be credible enough to talk to them halfway at eye level.
These are the kinds of clichés that really piss off Sophie Diggelmann, Sara Diggelmann and Franca Mock, the three women of Velvet Two Stripes. Yes, we drink a shot of whiskey from time to time and we smoke cigarettes. Yes, we are loud and we like to laugh. So what! More annoying than this is only another widespread platitude: that Velvet Two Stripes is an all female band (or even worse: a girl group). Excuse me? Has anyone ever called the Rolling Stones a boy band?
Let us better talk about music and "Devil Dance” then, the new album by Velvet Two Stripes, before VTS will hit the stage tonight in Berne, Switzerland. The album was recorded in Berlin, in the famous Hansa Studios; it is the temporarily summit of a road that Velvet Two Stripes have traveled since their first EP "Fire". "The songs of 'Devil Dance' sound different than you used to sound,” I ask the band, “how come?"
Sara is the quickest to reply. “We are better at songwriting now. We have learned how to write better songs. This was the biggest step for us compared to before. Our new songs are very differently constructed than the previous ones."
Songwriting by Velvet Two Stripes is often the result of jam sessions; everyone joins in and eventually, somehow, a musical idea emerges which is followed up. Most of the times a guitar riff coming from Sara is involved. "How many riffs does a guitarist’s life have?,” I ask Sara.
She laughs. "I do not know if there is a limit,” she says. "RPL, riffs per life, so to speak. You can always play the same riff, but when the bass does something else then the riff itself will sound different as well."
Sara started her life as a guitar player with a Fender Stratocaster and later switched to a Telecaster. Today she plays a Gibson ES-335 from the year 1968. Big guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Dave Grohl play (or have played) the same model.
Franca’s bass, a Fender Precision, is vintage too and dates back to 1972. "Only your voice is relatively young and is made in 1993,” I am teasing Sophie. "Who knows,” she answers slyly, "maybe it is the reincarnation of an older voice."
"Janis Joplin maybe?"
"In any case, I already shouted in 1993."
Sophie Diggelmann knows her raspy rock voice well and knows how to keep it in shape. The important thing is, says Sophie, that she listens to her own body. Sophie senses how much her voice can bear and thus gets through the concerts without becoming hoarse. And should her voice nevertheless be a little knocked out then there is always tea. The cigarettes she smokes are not really good for her voice, Sophie is well aware of that, "but what else can you do if you must kill time before concerts?”
Sophie studies art and is also responsible for the artwork of Velvet Two Stripes. The cover of “Devil Dance” is her work. And she also designed the VTS T-shirt that was a goodie in the band’s crowdfunding campaign last year and which I am wearing for the interview tonight. "In Beirut they almost wanted to rip your T-shirt off my body,” I say, "my friends there loved it that much."
“Yes exactly, Beirut,” says Sara. “In one of your messages you asked us about the oriental-sounding guitar solo that I play on 'Sister Mercy'. The reason is that a few years ago I visited Beirut for two weeks and got to play the oud, the Arabic lute. I was inspired so much by this that I have played some oriental sounds in the studio when recording the album, but with an electric guitar.”
Indeed: the oriental notes of "Sister Mercy" could indicate a future progression of the band. And also the noise elements that are present in several corners of "Devil Dance", especially in the last 30 seconds of "My Own Game”. Sure thing, the blues will always be the musical root of Velvet Two Stripes, but if we dive into the blues even more that we already did, the band says, "we can soon collaborate with Philipp Fankhauser."
Anyway, Velvet Two Stripes don’t see themselves as a blues band, but rather as a rock band. As a blues garage rock band that likes to play hard and loud. With "Devil Dance" they have created the essence of this style, they have found the state they desire. The songs of Velvet Two Stripes have become more straightforward, without background vocals, pop elements and drum computers. VTS achieve a maximum effect with a reduced-to-the-max attitude.
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside."
Where is the musical journey of Velvet Two Stripes heading to? What's next in their career? I'm getting a rudimentary graphic out of my pocket that I drew in preparation for this interview. It shows Velvet Two Stripes in search of their true sound - which they have now found with "Devil Dance" - and the possibility, starting from this reference point, to further develop the sound of the band.
The three women like the drawing. "On the new album,” says Sara, "we've become bolder and dare to try out new things. Take 'Lizard Queen’ as an example: I have been playing this rolling guitar part with the deep bass sounds for ages at our soundchecks. So far, Sophie and Franca always found that it was boring. But now the time was right and we tried to build a song around this part."
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside,” Sara continues. "We find each other more and more."
Hell would rather become Antarctica than "Devil Dance" not becoming a success. Songs from the album can now be found on various playlists on Spotify. As a result, the number of monthly clicks for Velvet Two Stripes has jumped from 800 to 82,000. The band has only a limited idea of how this all happened, who in the world of Spotify digs Velvet Two Stripes so much and integrates them into playlists, even in Canada. They also don’t know who is responsible for giving VTS airplay on a Dutch radio station. They didn’t pay anybody to do this. But by all means it’s great.
At the end of our conversation Sara returns to my sketchy mind map. "Nobody has ever made such a drawing for us,” she says. "Now I'm really excited to find out where our journey will lead us."
Velvet Two Stripes will be on tour all summer in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. For details and dates check out the band's website.
“Let me tell you a crazy story”, says Taka Goto, head of MONO, the Japanese post rock band, shortly before their concert in Zurich on April 28, 2019. “A story that happened a long time ago. First I received an email from a fan in Iraq. He wrote to me that he is listening to MONO all night long because only thanks to our music he is able to cope with the American bombs that strike his city incessantly. One week later I got an email from an American soldier stationed in Iraq. He told me the same thing: only thanks to MONO he endures the war in Iraq. Crazy, no?”
Since 20 years the Japanese of MONO save the world. During this time they have released ten albums and played 1368 concerts. The concert in Zurich is number 1369. It is a special mix that distinguishes MONO and has always fascinated their fans. A mixture of breathless melancholy full of dramatic melodies paired with deafening musical climbs towards ecstasy. The music of MONO works on the principle of hope: our world is evil, but MONO gives you the weapons, gives you the therapy, to defeat the evil.
Also Taka is saved by his own music. When he composes, he tells me, he dives deep into that damned darkness that sometimes surrounds him, trying to find a light. His songs have become his own medicine. ”Why do you need so much salvation?”, I ask him. "Because the world is so complicated”, he says. "Actually, the recipe in Buddhism is quite simple: respect each other, love each other, help each other. However this can be very difficult. That's what I try to explain with my music.”
“I don’t trust what I see. There are things that we only can feel.”
MONO is an instrumental band but on their website (one of the richtest and most informative I've ever seen of a band), they are very eloquent with words. Here Taka describes the idea behind “Transcendental” in words that would suit a church chaplain. The track is about life and death and regeneration, Taka explains. When our bodies decay and decompose in death, and thus become the seeds for future generations, our souls will journey together into our new eternal life.
“Where does your spirituality come from”, I ask Taka.
“I don’t trust what I see. There are things that we only can feel.
The new album from MONO is called "Nowhere Now Here" and for Taka it feels like a second debut album. Two years ago MONO had huge problems with their management and at the same time the drummer left the band. The future of the band was seriously threatened; MONO was like a tired creature, Taka says: "No drummer, no management, no money." This dark period is also the reason why on the new album for the first time in the career of MONO there is singing. "One day Tamaki, our bassist, called me and told me I can’t breathe anymore, there are too many stories going around. And I told her, everything will be fine, trust me. The band will live on and we will also find a new drummer.” Finally, Taka wrote the song" Breathe”, based on the idea that Tamaki cannot breathe. And now she sings this song on stage!
The new drummer’s name is Dahm and he is American. He fits frictionlessly into the well lubricated musical clockwork of MONO, also at the concert in Zurich. The stage is dark and the musicians can be recognized only dimly, they are shady faces in the backlight of the spotlights. The concert starts with a crashing noise storm, with thunder and lightning coming from "After You Comes the Flood". We have just celebrated Easter, the feast of silence, where deep mourning is followed by the joyful resurrection. And now MONO come to us with their din close to the pain barrier. Are these opposites? No, not at all. The latter is just a loud version of the former.
Taka’s idol is Ludwig von Beethoven. “I understand each of his works”, he says, “and why he needed to write it.” Taka writes music because he must. Because he wants to create something, even as a child, that only he can create exactly like that. And even today, after 20 years of MONO, he is still grateful that he can fully concentrate on the arts with his life. He enjoys every day, even the days on tour, and there are many. "At the beginning of our career, in the early 2000s”, says Taka, "we played a large number of concerts, over a hundred a year, especially in the USA. At that time there was no MONO website, no social media and we had to somehow make a name for ourselves.” Only in 2008 did Taka Goto take a six-month break to compose "Hymn to the Immortal Wind," the album that fans almost unanimously call MONO’s masterpiece.
How does Taka survive MONO’s never ending tour? He doesn’t go to the gym and he is not twenty anymore either. “True", says Taka, "my body is slowly getting older. It is the energy of our audience that drives us forward. Sometimes we go on stage super tired and boom!, the energy hits back at us from the public and we go again. Maybe we will even reach a new record of concerts played this year.”
The French composer Nadia Boulanger once said (to Quincy Jones), "your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being". Nadia Boulanger could have said this to Taka Goto; he is a prime example of her theory. Taka (and Yoda and Tamaki and Dahm) is MONO and MONO is Taka. There is no difference between the artist and his art, everything is one, everything is melting.
However: with MONO there is no difference between the artist and his audience either. Anyone who attends a MONO concert comes out a changed person. It is this destructive yet creative power of their music that grabs you. After all the frustrations and the fear they went through, the band entered the studio to record their current album with a lot of rage; when MONO play live this anger is still perceptible today. But there is also this catharsis, through silence and through volume, that MONO creates and which lets you see the white light at the end of your own black tunnel. MONO concerts are mind blowing, in the truest meaning of the expression. You believe your brain is going to explode. You are transported and distorted, blasted and lambasted. You walk through damnation and receive salvation. You too are saved by MONO.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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