Heathen Harvest: Can you begin by discussing how Werkraum was originally formed into a band?
Axel Frank: It all was conceived out of different, partly excessive Post-Industrial projects from the early to mid-nineties. When we just couldn’t go on anymore, my former singer and lyricist coined the new name … Thus is came into being. Our parting ways some years ago was the end for this traumatic yet interesting period, and after this cathartic cleansing I was able to mould WERKRAUM according to my own thoughts, at first alone, then with the support of other musicians. And that is the way it still is today.
HH: Who are the current members and what role do they play in the band?
AF: Antje Hoppenrath, my singer, and Falk Hartwig, a well-versed drummer and pianist among other things. We mustn’t forget Nick Nedzynski and Jason Thompkins from Lady Morphia and Harvest Rain respectively. Their work is very crucial to me. Antje and Nick, for example, are great singers, and their voices will get even further room in WERKRAUM. In addition, they are all very good friends and are part of the ‘family’, and that is the basis for any fruitful work in WERKRAUM. A dividing of responsibilities isn’t the essential factor here but the human level that above all is important to me and the band. The local distance between us makes things a little difficult, but on the other hand makes it exciting as well – and it works!
What musical experience / training did these members have before joining Werkraum?
All of us, especially Antje, can look back on some years of musical training. When all is said and done, this is reflected in the music. But the decisive things are the diverse influences, roots and ways of life, the experiences and impressions that each of us brings into the band, and the authentic part of it is essential for WERKRAUM.
HH: Werkraum had seven years of history behind the band before you released your first album titled “Unsere Feuer Brennen.” Can you discuss your musical activities leading up to this debut album?
AF: In the first period, we played several concerts and released two deleted CD-Rs via Bucranion. After that, I was initially totally on my own, which proved to be salutary as I was able to act at liberty. Various contributions to compilations and my studio work during the past years then acted as the prelude to the current phase.
HH: What inspired you to create an album at this juncture in your musical career?
AF: At any time I am inspired by all kinds of things. Hence, I had collected a lot of material, useable and less useable. A full-time album became an option when I was motivated by Cold Spring who really wanted to release something. Justin asked me if I had enough songs for an album. I hesitated for a moment, but then decided on a series of new recordings and remixes of finished tracks. To me, the songs are connected via various bridges, invisible threads and secret stories. There was something that made the songs on “Unsere Feuer brennen!” ‘relatives’. It was obviously time to release them in conjunction.
HH: Can you explain the title “Unsere Feuer Brennen” for English speaking persons and discuss how you chose it?
AF: “Unsere Feuer brennen!”, “Our fires are ablaze!”, is the final verse of an old Croatian song by Mile Budak. I love the archaic spirit of this song, and I therefore kept the name for the album as these three words unite the strength and vehemence that every track ought to contain in itself. Strangely enough, or should I say crazily enough, there is enough of a ‘blaze’ even without this title – metaphors and symbols of fire in the lyrics themselves. However, I only realized this afterwards and it served as an even greater affirmation to me.
HH: The music of Werkraum invokes a sense of history, and remembrance. Where you inspired by a specific historical epoch while composing “Unsere Feuer Brennen”?
AF: In a historical sense, there might be influences from Classical Antiquity and the Mediaeval period, but that is a consequence of the images we have tried to generate. On the other hand, these images may find their place in every era. There are shades of Biblical and Babylonian elements as well … But to sing about a specific epoch – I don’t know if I would succeed in that …
HH: The music of Werkraum also seems to be striving to communicate a feeling of exalted humanity or spirituality. What if any spiritual or religious ideas or ideals inspired the music of Werkraum?
AF: My parents were professed Protestants but that doesn’t mean that I am still one, too.
This is something I often think about. I can’t deny our cultural and my individual roots, nor can I conform to dogma or the claim to orthodoxy, let alone the many things that the church as a historical institution is responsible for. Sadly, however, I don’t feel a strong pull of Heathen-Germanic roots within me, simply because these roots are not present for me and, apart from that, they are very disputed in a historical sense. To me, the tangible and really spiritual elements that I grew up with are much more feasible. Yet there are paths outside the prescribed ways of a council-formulated and regulated faith. The music of WERKRAUM may or may not be influenced by that. That isn’t a conscious decision. One thing that was conscious, though, was the reference to St. Augustine’s ideas in “Dignitas Dei” and “Civitas Dei”. That was something that preoccupied me back then, and thus I succumbed to the idea of creating something counterfactual that is relevant in current politics as well, since conceptions of theocratic states and whether these are really a credit to the ‘honour’ and worship of God is a highly controversial issue – one that has even caused the failure of revolutions. To put it another way, politics and religion are two incompatible paths. If they cross, problems and dangers arise, as we have seen and can see now.
HH: The music of Werkraum has very specific European orchestral elements. Is the music intentionally Eurocentric?
AF: Do you really think so? I’m not sure … there are elements of Early Music that may have a typically European vibe, but there are also Slavic or Russian-Orthodox influences that push things slightly towards the East, to the ‘fringe of Europe’. However, there is no intention in that. Maybe there are hidden or simply unconscious things responsible for it.
HH: Do you feel a strong association to your own Germanic and European roots?
AF: I believe that I’ve partly responded to that question already. For me, it’s simply too far away in the past, and I would first have to discover whether I am of Cimbric or Teutonic extraction in order to be more precise about it. I think that ‘Germanic’ as a general term is too unspecific for me and it rather seems to follow a trend. Maybe I have Roman, maybe Semitic, maybe Norman roots? Who can say? This question makes more sense to me if I make myself conscious of that which leads me toward the essential cultural signs that move me and situate me and which tell me, “This is where I belong, this is my very own ‘Heartland’, here I find a deep familiarity …”
HH: Werkraum has a discernable Imperialist feel in the music and in the artwork. Both the music and artwork seem to be striving for the glorification of a certain classicalism. Can you discuss how classical art and music has influenced your life and the music of Werkraum?
AF: No, I wouldn’t call it a glorification. First of all, it’s a style that fascinates me and that is subject to my development and my taste, of course. I love Antiquity as much as later eras. With reference to Antiquity we are still able to define ourselves and at the same time generate contrasting images. WERKRAUM contains both …
HH: The music of Werkraum drifts about between acoustic folk driven tracks and song that exude an orchestral grandeur. What inspired you to merge these classical and folk stylings?
AF: These are my own personal musical predilections that partially resurface in my music. I have to stress, though, that this is not calculated. Instead, many things emerge because one can sense whilst working on a piece that this or that element belongs together.
HH: The music of Werkraum is also accented by distinct electronic elements that are not very often related to classical or folk compositions. What influenced your decision to break with convention and merge such musical elements?
AF: I don’t consider it a real break as I’m not fond of these conventions. The use of certain avant-garde elements dates back to the tradition of various sixties and seventies Folk bands. Additionally, I would never limit myself by totally rejecting different modes of instrumentation just because they are electronic or otherwise obscure. Plus, I love the ‘sucking’ sound of my Oberheim’s filter. I wouldn’t want to let it gather dust …
HH: How much of Werkraum’s music is played on authentic instruments and how much of the instrumentation is sampled?
AF: What sounds electronic is of course electronically generated. Everything else is ‘real’. It is also a question of what you consider as ‘sampled’. Others cut whole sequences, phrases, what have you … In our case, an authentic instrumentation is the priority, but this includes electronic elements. At least in WERKRAUM, I reject pure sampling.
HH: Would you prefer to work solely with live session musicians or do you like the flexibility and editing potential of sampled instrumentation?
AF: If I were a good composer and knew how to direct a group of professional musicians, then definitely musicians! But that is expensive, and I have my own way of working which surely isn’t easy – the good folks would probably have to suffer a lot …
HH: When composing the music of Werkraum do you begin to build the foundations of a song starting with lyrics, an idea, or with music?
AF: That depends. For the most part I live with many finished or half-finished, let’s say, ornaments and secrets inside my head. I call them ‘emblems’. They are obviously the signposts of something that won’t let go and which challenges me, but that doesn’t always reveal itself to me. Out of that, songs are born, and sometimes I am shocked and astonished how much the final version differs from the ‘original’ … but that is the mythical and seductive part of it. It’s similar to the ‘medial membrane’ that changes and also de-mystifies everything that comes into reality, and that demands a constant desire to pierce through the invisible and the irreconcilable. The sensuous moment is of equal importance here. Usually, the lyrics come at a later date.
HH: Which members of the band are involved in the foundational compositional aspects of the music and songs?
AF: That depends as well. In collaborations, it is a very equal thing as we often place (half-)finished arrangements at each other’s disposal. In some cases, as for example the piano in ‘Todtentanz’ on “Security of Ignorance”, I haven’t worked on the piece at all. That was Falk’s doing …
HH: At what point are the other members brought on board in the compositional process?
AF: As I said, it is a matter of the mode of working. If Antje sings, then she brings her experience and style with her, and also changes or advice. Some of the lyrics and melodies of new songs that have recently been recorded with Nick are penned by him. At the stage of production, however, I decide on a great deal alone … that’s a liberty I take. The important thing is not to forget the initial instinct.
HH: The lyrics of Werkraum are poetic and elusive as far as being definitive in nature. Many of the songs seem to speak of conquest and war. Did the “Unsere Feuer Brennen” album have an underlying theme or narrative that you can share with us?
AF: The stories that the songs tell are not just martial ones. And if they are, then it’s a metaphorical war, maybe the war of Juenger’s retreat into the forest, maybe that of two lovers … maybe it’s a tale about a path to ‘Ewigland’, the Everland, who knows?
HH: What is your interest in the wars, struggles, and conquests of humanity?
AF: This interest is about everything and nothing at all. Everything consists of wars, struggles, and conquests of humanity!
HH: “Unsere Feuer Brennen” features lyrical content taken from the writings of J. Dowland, J. A Rimbaud, Ch. Baudelaire. Can you discuss your interest in classical literature?
AF: Well, it’s not bona-fide classical literature. Dowland is primarily known as a composer and especially as a lute player. To me, he is the embodiment of a fascinating era that is of interest to WERKRAUM. The lyrics have long accompanied me and constitute a part of my fictional world. And to be honest, they reveal a passion that is not unknown to me.
HH: What inspired you to focus upon these particular authors writings in Werkraum?
AF: Apart from Dowland, the language and symbols of both Rimbaud and Baudelaire are very close to each other in relation to “Unsere Feuer brennen!”. They are both décadents, both are celebrating death and soul, sun and fire. I like them very much …
HH: What inspired you to merge the music of Werkraum with classical literature?
AF: The moment when you immediately feel, “I just have to do something with that.” There’s a big difference between setting your own lyrics to music and adapting passages from literature. And it’s always an experiment. That is one side of it. On the other side, it is a way to remind ourselves of ‘older’ writers. But I wouldn’t fix WERKRAUM’s interest to specific movements in literature. Sometimes it’s just curiosity about the person, as it was in the case of Hielscher or Benn.
HH: “Unsere Feuer Brennen” features numerous references to towers. What do these towers represent you personally?
AF: Possibly these towers are a secret obsession. Is the tower representative of power or tranquility, is it a fortress or a pillar? It gives you physical safety and the advantage of having a vantage point from which see the enemy first. It guards secrets. Without towers, there would be no cities, no residences of rulers. In chess, it’s a decisive piece corresponding with the king. It represents physicality as well as inner composure, an imaginary ‘tower society’ …
HH: The songs “Holy War” and “Stand Up, North Wind!” invoke images of the holy crusades. Were these songs inspired or are they reflective of the crusades?
AF: This interpretation hasn’t come to my mind yet! But you are right, it may be true. For example, “Steh auf, Nordwind!” is a song from the Romantic era, and yet it contains adaptations from the Song of Solomon. That might be another context, but you could think of this call-to-arms as a crusaders’ hymn. A nice idea …
HH: If so what is your personal interest in these events?
AF: Just a glimpse into our own past. Apart from various historical facts that we are not discussing here , it is difficult to judge faith and religious convictions, motives, cultural peculiarities and mentalities from today’s perspective. That is what we call the alterity of an era. The crusades are a phenomenon unto themselves. There were those that failed in bringing Jerusalem into Europe’s hands. And there were those that brought doom to a heterodox freedom in Europe itself.
HH: You are joined by a number of guest musicians on “Unsere Feuer Brennen.” These guest musicians include Jason Thompkins of Harvest Rain, Nick Nedzinsky of Lady Morphia and Antje Hoppenrath. Can you discuss your relationship to these individuals and discuss how you came about working with each of them?
AF: I have already said some things relating to this matter. These relationships are very important to me, if not essential. Being friends with Jason and Nick, it was quite a natural development to collaborate musically, as music was the initial thing that sparked our mutual interest. I have known Antje for a very long time. We are able to do recordings at the sea where she lives, and that is something special for me. I always travel via lonesome motorways with a wide view, and the further north you get, the more peculiar the mood, weather and landscape become …
HH: How did you and Jason work out the logistics of working together across the divide of the Atlantic Ocean?
AF: That isn’t as spectacular and complicated as it might seem. We just send arrangements to each other for the other person to work on, and technically, this is now working out brilliantly. This is no substitute for a real communion in making music together, but still there’s a lot of trust going into it, and inspirations know no geographical boundaries.
HH: I read in an interview you conducted with the Italian “Ritual Magazine” that some people had misinterpreted the albums title “Unsere Feuer Brennen” to be a political statement concerning the war in the Balkans. Can you discuss this controversy?
AF: I guess it has something to do with the Croatian link. Budak’s verse with the specific line about which we already have spoken is entitled ‘Herdfeuer’ (‘Fire of the hearth’) and is included in the “Za Dom Spremni” compilation. ‘Za Dom Spremni’ is a motto of the Croation HOS militia and thus of course has political connotations that annoyed a few people back then, understandably or not. If my memory serves me correctly, I read a review of “Unsere Feuer brennen!” which included a statement regarding the alleged affirmation of the title of the album and of individual tracks. This comment lent the whole thing a ‘neo-conservative’ air. I do not accept this formulation because whoever comes to such a conclusion just hasn’t understood it. “Unsere Feuer brennen!” has no intentions in this regard, let alone political ones, although I have recently felt tempted not to deny this anymore, albeit in a totally different respect …!
HH: Is the music of Werkraum meant to communicate political ideas or is it meant to be art that stands apart from the political arena?
AF: The definite answer to the first part of your question is no. At least not in that regard that would seem obvious to a superficial viewer. Additionally, I get no sponsoring from any political party and have no reason to toady to any people of that ilk.
HH: Do you strive to communicate a spiritual or personal narrative through the music of Werkraum?
AF: You can ‘explain’ a lot with music. Whether that is understood depends on every individual. If the whole thing possessed no passion, however, I would stop immediately.
HH: Do you think it is possible for German artists to work within the fields of neofolk or neoclassical music and avoid attacks from left wing censors and their incessant unfounded accusations?
AF: It seems that it isn’t possible anymore. I think that is extremely depressing and alarming, and I reject any form of limitation of freedom by these people. The important thing for all of us is a healthy self-reflection in tandem with persistence and the knowledge that we are not engaging in anything forbidden.
HH: Has Werkraum played live? If so how does your music translate on stage?
AF: We have already played live, as I hinted at before. It was partially good and partially terrible. At the moment, the matter is complicated by the line-up situation, plus I’m not so keen on a WERKRAUM live experience. But we’ll have to see.
HH: Has Werkraum gained attention outside of Germany and Europe?
AF: Yes, definitely. With the album at least, the resonance was fantastic! I received reactions from as far as Asia, South America, and New Zealand.
HH: What can we expect in the future from Werkraum?
AF: Just expect some surprises … If all goes well, the new album will be out this autumn. Various contributions to compilations have been finished, and my collaboration with Sturmpercht, with whom I played live at the recent Lichttaufe Flammenzauber Festival, will surely continue. There are many plans …
HH: I have one last question concerning the artwork on the front cover of “Unsere Feuer Brennen.” Is this statue from Russia or Hungary? Possibly from St. Petersburg? It looks awfully familiar to me from my travels in Eastern Europe.
AF: No, it actually is situated quite close to where I live. For the purposes of the cover it has been slightly stylized by Lea Mackie who has worked for Laibach, among others, and who also designed the WERKRAUM coat of arms. If you ever come here, I can show you the original in subject and pose.
HH: And lastly is there anything you would like to share with the Heathen Harvest audience?
AF: Thank you very much for your interest. Stay true to yourselves! Hoc est signum meum!
English translation by Andreas Diesel