Free Association is a recurring feature where we ask artists to share the deeply personal stories that drive their songs. On deck today: electro-folk auteur Gajek, who explains the early ’90s, East German roots of his recent ‘Vitamin D’ record, a magnum opus inspired by everything from the ‘The X-Files’ to Mark Ecko….
“PRESENT YOUR WORK”
With an intro, you want to set the mood for the album. Earlier versions of the album had a different beginning: a very free and exuberant improv track. It was abrupt, almost shocking, which I liked – like a jump scare, a shot of adrenaline, hitting the ground running.
But at the same time there was a numbing effect to starting on this energy level. So I changed it. I decided to choose a piece that describes the album as much as possible. To establish the world we are about to explore. Live I play a longer version of it. With the name I am addressing the audience. Making clear that what they are about to listen to is a piece of work and inviting them to show their own.
“THE SHAPE OF PIPES TO COME”
This was one of the first tracks I worked on for Vitamin D. It took quite a while. At first it was an instrumental track. Then it slowly mutated into its current form. Credits for this go to my friend Paul Barsch, who made the artwork for the album. I played him the instrumental version and he was like, “You know it sounds like a blues song; you should sing on it.”
Which was correct, and also led to a whole lot of new problems. It took me time to make it work.
The structure of the song is more complicated than it sounds. The rhythm is off and the loops do not run in regular grids. I wanted it to vibe and feel effortless, but still be unpredictable. Like: where does it go next? How many parts are there? How long is it? Will the vocals come back? How does time even work?
The lyrics are inspired by small town images. Archetypal in some ways and very specific in others. (My father DID make wine that tasted like cheap perfume!) The solo, like everything really, is programmed. It’s computer music.
“DOUBLE BIND AVENUE”
This is perhaps my favorite piece on the album. It is a very personal track about the dreams that came true for my grandfather after the wall came down. Having lived his entire life behind a wall his concept of freedom was an open road. Highways, motorcycles and rock ‘n’ roll. He bought a Harley Davidson in 1995 that we would ride together through the ruined landscapes of East Germany in the late 1990s.
For me, this childhood memory is a strong picture of some of the contradictions of this time. Sometimes people described what happened in East Germany in the 1990s as a Wild West scenario and as a kid I always wondered what that meant. It seems to be a gold rush metaphor, an image of relative lawlessness and land grabbing — a situation of uncertainty where some people accumulate wealth really quickly while others lose their place.
On my grandfather’s bike we travelled like we were exploring an empty and unknown land, looking for adventures and new potential. But of course, like in all of colonial history, the land was never really empty. And the people who had lived and worked there before, who were left behind to create this potential for exploration and capitalist exploitation: that was also us.
The story about the man with the broken bicycle is true. The way he tried to tell his story but couldn’t find the words to describe this unknown horror that had happened to him haunted me for a long time. He looked incredibly sad and lost, fallen out of time. If my life was a movie, an obvious twist would be to find out later that this man was also me. That the child on the bike and the drunken stranger in the rear mirror were one and the same, crossing paths while travelling through time in different directions.
I also think the track has a chill Talking Heads vibe, which I think is neat.
“DOORSLAMS AND ROCKSLIDES”
I guess you could say this track is about the mystery of cause and effect. About the little shifts and changes that can make a world of difference. Tiny movements that bring you from one part to another, always evolving, gaining momentum, leading to unexpected outcomes. It’s very textural and vibrant and one of the more literal references to Krautrock musically. I think it has a good energy — makes you want to ride a bike really fast while hallucinating. Which I would never do, because it sounds dangerous.
Balcony Development adds a new layer to the tracks that came before. Like finding a new room in a house you spent some time in — a room that makes you question everything you thought you knew about the building’s structure. Perhaps you thought you were on the ground floor in a slightly weird wooden cottage and then suddenly you find a window (or a balcony) and you look outside and realize that you really are on the 56th floor in a tower made out of glass; and that this tower simply has some interior design that looks a bit like someone’s distant dream of what a wooden cottage looks like.
Once you realize this, you cannot unsee it. No matter how cosy the fireplace or the 20th century furniture or the gentle synthesizer sounds (that may or may not be guitars), you will always see the cracks in the illusion because it was never a very convincing illusion to begin with. You always knew there are no wooden cottages anymore, perhaps there never were any. And if there were they would not look (or sound) like this.
It is a freeing feeling. You understand that there is no going back but it is alright; you don’t need to go back. In fact, you really shouldn’t try to. Beware of nostalgia. It will kill you: throw you off a balcony that you didn’t see coming.
“AND YET IT FEELS UNPLUGGED”
Forget what I said before; I think this is my favorite track on the album. I made it early in the production of the record while still testing my muscles and moves in this new type of music that I wanted to make. It is very melancholy and sweet and kind of has a life of its own.
Everything is written in MIDI notes, but somehow it still develops a very organic impro vibe. I like that it’s folky and dreamy and psychedelic in a minimalist way. It came to me without a lot of control on my part, in a single take. It is a very lucky thing when that happens.
“PEOPLE WITH NICKNAMES”
Some coming-of-age poetry. At some point when I decided to work with my own vocals, I had to allow myself to be very German about it. So I just thought, ‘fuck it!’ and let the rough sounds of my mother tongue shine through, embracing it Falko-style. Generally I like it when art is unapologetic about its origins.
“WHEN YOU PLAY THE FLUTE, BUT YOUR MOTHER IS LIKE….”
As the title suggests there is an element of humor here. It’s earnest, but also campy, romantic and soft.
This track brings me back to when I was a teenager and took guitar lessons. I was into some German indie bands and always brought tapes with tracks I would like to play to my teacher. He was mostly okay with it but despaired of my laziness.
I had a soft spot for this kind of romantic music that came with some amount of shame. My friends were mostly listening to hip-hop at this time and as East German working class cis-het-dudes there were certain gestures of masculinity that forbid being into whiny, pretentious art-school music.
It’s funny that out of all the reckless and stupid things that I did in that time, I remember ‘owning up to the embarrassment of liking soft songs about love written by self-serious West German college students’ as one of my more rebellious acts.
Even funnier is that later, when I actually went to art school and met all these middle class and upper class people who I had always associated with this music, all of them just fucking hated it! They were even more embarrassed by it than we were! Maybe I was the only true fan. This track reminds me of that.
“SUMMER OF ECKO”
Kind of echoing balcony development. Both of these tracks were not easy to make. I wanted them to sound like they belong to the same world as the rest of the music while moving along a different set of references, kind of reframing everything.
The title refers to a very funny story a friend told me about a large amount of sportswear once stolen from a local skater store. Everyone wore Ecko in the summer of Ecko.
Another personal track revisiting the time I spent in a women’s shelter as a child, when my mother worked there as a social worker. There was a peaceful atmosphere in this place that also felt threatening; maybe only adults think that this is a paradox.
We used to drive around a lot, running errands, visiting my mother’s friends. I remember sitting next to her in her half-broken car when sometimes out of nowhere the engine hood would open up and smash against the front window. It was scary. But my mother would just keep on driving, sticking her head out of the side window to see.
I was very obsessed with aliens at the time; I still am. I think I watched too much X-Files when I was too young for it. Still now when I watch it I feel like a child, at peace and scared at the same time.
I made many different versions of this track. The vocals were not originally meant for this instrumental. Now it comes so natural, I can’t imagine it without them. The solo at the end was very difficult to do. I think it came out very nicely.
I wrote this track in the final phase of the album production. I was really deep into the world of Vitamin D and felt very close to the material and the production. So this track simply came up, kind of writing itself.
There is something spiritual and ghostly about it, so I called it “Baba Wanga,” who was a famous Bulgarian medium who could see the future. The socialist government did research on her abilities in the 1960s. It is said that she saw the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chernobyl, and 9/11, but she got some things wrong about sports tournaments and World War III.
She also foretold that the 45th president of the USA would face a crisis that would bring the country down. She died in 1996.
“NO PEACE IN STONES”
Just fit very well as the last track. I didn’t really want to do a classic outro track on this album but then I guess I accidentally made one. Like a lot of my stuff, it is inspired by Popol Vuh, the band Werner Herzog made all these lovely feature-length music videos for.
If I had to say what this track is about, I would say that it’s about men who try to find peace in nature so that they don’t have to deal with their shit. You know, these guys who have the intense wish to be eaten by a bear, or to suffocate on a snowy mountain or to drown in a storm.
I think that it is darkly funny to imagine all the dramatic deaths that happen because immature white dudes cannot bring themselves to pick up the phone when there is conflict but will gladly march into a desert wearing nothing but a Gore-Tex bandana and pants with too many zippers.
So this track is like an image gallery of skeletons in outdoor clothing seen from the perspective of a camera drone.