Set up in 2006 by Bettina Bormann and Michael Krüger the German formation Oberer Totpunkt doesn’t release new albums at regular basis. They this year strike back with their sixth opus “Totentanz” which is the band’s first album in five years. It became an eclectic work although dominated by an interesting mix of ‘Neue Deutsche Härte” and EBM. The work is their most accomplished production to date revealing multiple great songs. I talked about this masterpiece with both core members.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: Oberer Totpunkt is now active for numerous years so what have been the main facts in the band’s history and how do you see the band today compared to the early beginning?
Bettina: We started in 2007 as a duo. A friend of us suggested us to bring our creativity together –that was when Michael played in bands as a drummer for years and I have been writing stories for years. So we tried it out –and Oberer Totpunkt was born! Just the two of us made the first shows on stage. Later we worked together with double bass player David Nesselhauf who accented our brand as a kind of sophisticated band.
In the next step we wanted to experiment with performative elements, so the idea of a ‘living stage design’ was born. We worked together with Gunter Laudahn on guitar and harp who since years is touring with artists like The Gregorians and Sarah Brightman. Then we had a longer period with Stefan Frost, who influenced our sound with his metal guitar. Also we have the live-keyboarder Denis Scheither and Performer Reaktor 4 in our staff for big stages or videos. Unfortunately Stefan could not accompany us when we were touring with the band Das Ich in the USA in 2019. This circumstance at last brought us back to our roots: Performing as a duo.
Each album is a contemporary document which shows the themes which we deal with in a certain phase of our creative work. The psychedelic-hypnotic song “Dystopia” describes the mood I was in while dark and disturbing incidents happened. What I appreciate is the fact that we present our very first song “Scharlachroter Schnee” on the new album “Totentanz” in a new dark-romantic shape. And for the very first time we made love songs!
Michael: All Oberer Totpunkt-albums are conceptual albums with a master-idea. Every album is a cocktail of music, lifestyle, experience you make. I´m always looking for the next song and album. “Totentanz” has a lot of tom-based drumbeats, melodic and dark elements and danceable songs. Emotional, dark, kicking and also experimental stuff like “Dystopia” (Psychedelic-Rock) or “Rien Ne Va Plus” (Jazz). By the way, our first song we ever made was “Scharlachroter Schnee”.
Q: What kind of work did you want to compose with “Totentanz”? What is the album all about and how did the production took shape?
Bettina: In my eyes “Totentanz” is our most poetic album. The songs tell about human basic themes like fears, loneliness, fear of loss, fear of life, fear of death, but also love and longing –it tells about the demons in ourselves and around us. A line from the song “Rien Ne Va Plus“ describes the basic melody of the content: ‘We long for hope –and for the end of darkness.’
“Dystopia“ is about crisis, “Fake Leben“ tells about embellished life plans, flattering self-portrayals, skillful poses, staged images –behind this is the question: ‘Do we still feel who we really are?’ Or the song “Die Krieger”; so many self-proclaimed warriors roam our time coordinates, fighting for ‘what’s right.’ Bossiness, inability to tolerate and loss of a healthy sense of proportion included. We considered whether this song could be misunderstood in the current global political situation. But ultimately it is probably obvious that the ‘warriors’ are meant here in an ironic way.
Tracks like “Dia De Los Muertos”, “Totentanz“, “Fake Leben” or “Die Krieger“ clearly show: The spoken word rocks and lures onto the dance floor!
Michael: I love classic arrangements and loop songs with rhythmic shifts! For most titles the song comes first. Bettina selects which pieces she can relate to or has an idea for a text. For other titles like “Auf Der Dunklen Seite Des Mondes“ (“On The Dark Side Of The Moon”) and “Mitten Ins Herz” (“In The Middle Of The Heart”) she had ready-made ideas for the lyrics and ideas for the song. I usually start with the keyboard, then play the bass and then the drums. Most of the time, the song gets fatter and more complex –that doesn’t always work. With “Mitten Ins Herz”, an emotional framework turned into a wall-of-sound bombast that crushed the great lyrics. Then I went back and just used the piano with organ and soft strings –less is sometimes more. We also took out the beatbox on tracks like “Totentanz” and “Scharlachroter Schnee”. Of course, the song is less pushy, but once you get used to it, it sounds a lot more interesting and complex to mine, Bettina’s and Tom’s ears without the obligatory dancefloor dance drum.
In 2020 we recorded my 70s-Staccato and Northdrums. They are single-headed and so they can´t create a various and deep sound like a modern maple-kit. So we had the idea to record the drums acoustically with a modern PDP maple kit. Songs like “Totentanz” and “Scharlachroter Schnee” with the powerful tombeats simply make the difference to the drum-to-midi recordings with triggers and BFD/Affinity drums. The toms sound more complex and the snare simply punches more –the rim sound is also more poisonous. The real cymbals also convinced me –especially the ride and the hihats. Some songs like “Auf Der Dunklen Seite Des Mondes” or “Tänzer Im Regen” both have a classic songwriting structure with verse, bridge, chorus, etc. I worked out a second bridge and chorus variant for both of them –atypical for Oberer Totpunkt, but we enjoyed it. The overly long song is also an Oberer Totpunkt-classic. That’s two songs this time. “Rot, Schwarz, Herz” and “Rien Ne Va Plus”. We only separated them because we were afraid that with typical song zappers who only listen to a minute of a song, the jazz variant would be lost. Also typical of Oberer Totpunkt are loop-oriented titles, on a theme without change or refrain, such as “Dystopia” or “Die Krieger”. For “Zeit Verfliegt” (“Time Flies”) and “Jetzt Oder Nie” (“Now Or Never”) I used Simmons samples.
By coincidence we chose the title “Totentanz”, reminding the name of our label, Danse Macabre Records. First of all, we are happy to hold this multi-faced album in our hands. It’s a conceptual album again and like all our albums it’s actually a double LP with more than 60 minutes playing time and 16 songs! According to normal playing length, that would be our twelfth CD. We hope there’s something in the selection for most, depending on whether you prefer the quiet, hypnotic, lyrical, rock, or danceable side of Oberer Totpunkt.
Q: “Totentanz” reveals an interesting mix of influences reminding me to KMFDM and ‘Neue Deutsche Härte’ with extra EBM elements on top. How would you analyze and define the production? And did you handle specific criteria and references in the composition- & production process?
Michael: That’s a good analysis. We like EBM, Rock-elements like in Neue Deutsche Härte-Stuff and… KMFDM? Never heard that, but I like them and we are friends of the KMFDM-drummer Rudi Naomi. “Totentanz” opens musically with a rocking intro that we composed for the 2019 US-tour as support for Das Ich so that the audience can remember our name. That was a good idea –and that’s exactly how we wanted to start the album with “Oberer Totpunkt” and end it with “Unterer Totpunkt” with five bass lines grooving in competition until the double bass takes over and the whole thing then on the piano ends with the poetic finale by Bettina. With “Totentanz”, “Dia De Los Muertos” and “Scharlachroter Schnee” I have built three pieces on mystical sounding and different percussive tombeats. The album starts rocking, gets bombastic and more and more electronic and minimalistic until it ends in a quiet ballad. Then it gets Pop-Rock, Psychedelic and harder and harder until “Die Krieger”. Then comes our long song, which we have divided into two pieces this time: “Rot, Schwarz, Herz” and “Rien Ne Va Plus” –a crazy Jazz track… we always wanted to do something like that. This is the song for Bettina with top hat and tuxedo! We have again combined many genres from purely Electronic to songs with a classic Rock line-up, for which I played all the instruments on some titles because of Covid-19. Last but not least, our guitarist Stefan Frost can be heard again with many cool Metal and Rock riffs.
Q: “Totentanz” clearly sounds as your most accomplished and successful work to date. So it’s not really surprising the album became number one in the famous DAC. What does that mean to you and how important are the ‘Deutsche Alternative Charts’ for German artists? Is there a kind of impact on sales, live shows etc?
Bettina: Of course we are very happy about this ranking which indicates the opinion of professional DJs and Radio-DJs. So that’s a creative statement which really means something. Yet we don’t know if this will have any impact on sales; let’s wait for the end of the year. In relation to live shows we don’t see a lot of possibilities this year. Because of the pandemic a lot of concerts and festivals were cancelled so there are still some line-ups to be caught up since 2020…
Another fact is that many small clubs and festivals didn’t survive the crisis, which means that there are fewer locations for live concerts. We hope for the next year!
Michael: But until then we are happy to present a video for each of our songs on the new album. We made 16 live-videos with 16 different outfits, 6 drum sets and 6 guest musicians! Not in 6 weeks or 6 hours! We needed 6 hours! We couldn’t agree on the songs so we said let’s take them all. Besides, a good opportunity to see how the singles of the whole album work live. We release them every week or month. Hope we can play the album asap live in a club.
Q: What’s the input of each member in the writing process of the album, the live shows, the artwork and who’s taking the final decision? And how does it feel to be involved with a music band as man and wife?
Bettina: The words are my part, the music is the part of Michael. Together we develop and rehearse for our live shows. Finding decisions is a process which we make together. Actually we are used to work together as long as we know each other. We started as colleagues working for a newspaper years ago. So it feels very common to share our creative work also.
Michael: That feels cool because when I played in other bands as drummer your partner asks you: ‘How was the show?’ and you answer ‘Great!’ That’s all and you know that means nothing! So we both know what it means and how it feels to make an album or to make a live show and know the hard work and creative process behind it, that most of non-music-friends and most part of the family never understand. They think it’s like meeting with a cooking club every week. At “Totentanz” I ran a beatbox on the loop songs and then jammed along live on the Nord Drum3P and my synthesizers. Just like a solo jam session. This is how you can use machines alive. If the songs are rough, I’ll get Frosti on board. He played the Metal riffs and good ideas for Grunge type guitar styles. His run to “Tänzer Im Regen’” is great. The Spaghetti-Western guitars are also amazing. Bettina had the idea of recording the flute on “Tänzer Im Regen” and “Liebeleid” and a timbale solo on “Totentanz”. What I find particularly cool are the acoustic hihats I play live with the electronics. On “Unterer Totpunkt” and “Zeit Verfliegt” the 16th and 32/64th hihat fill-ins bring a casual swing to the basslines, that a non-drummer or DJ would never or could never program. Speaking of thunderstorms of rhythm, on “Dia De Los Muertos” three bass lines work against four percussion tracks and the drums. In the last song “Unterer Totpunkt” five basslines are grooving. I love songs in which the grooves with different accents and rhythms with linear, triplet and half-time/double-time resolution create trembling beats and restlessness. To sum it up. I´m not the biggest fan of complete computer generated Electro-Music –for me it sounds always a little bit like plastic. Electronics are cool but the taste of real instruments, drums, bass, guitars, percussions, live played keyboards bring the mud and life into music!
Q: Bettina and Michael, when taking a look at your personal homepage I discovered a person who’s not only interested in music but also in traveling, diving, poetry… so I can imagine getting in touch with other cultures and artistic forms must be enriching for mind and body. Tell us a bit more about it and how do you find a balance between all interests and activities?
Bettina: Writing for music or for poetry is familiar –often I am writing and don’t know yet how I will use it later, and sometimes I am writing especially for a music track. Then I listen to the music to find out what it tells me. Then I only have to write it down. On the other hand I love traveling and diving. These items are going together perfectly. But of course I am not in every second of my life in a productive creative phase. It is necessary to experience things and then to let thoughts grow inside yourself before you can ‘produce’ and write down.
Traveling and diving are things that Michael and I are sharing as well. It took years for us to build up the life we want to live as writer and musicians and as travel journalists. The year 2019 for us was an awesome year in relation to traveling and live shows as the US-tour together with Das Ich. The pandemic made an end to this –there were several lockdowns, clubs and festivals died in consequence which means less chances for bands to play live. Now we have to build it up again as many other artists too. We are looking forward to the next years!
Michael: If you don’t dive and travel, you’ll miss half of your life. Those who don’t make music miss the other half. And if your partner doesn´t share these things you’re no really partners. In fact, we are passionate divers, worked also as dive masters and still as travel journalists. Once in a lifetime we had the possibility to combine both passions, when we joined Das Ich during the Gothic Cruise 2019 in the Caribbean. We hope to do that again! I would say our Soundtrack is “Letzter Gang” from our album “Erde Ruft” – here is an impressive video about it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qwwij1SmiRE
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