faUSt’s Jean-Hervé Peron talks inspiration, improvisation and the band’s storied past

During the ’70s, Faust were one of the most relentlessly innovative, restlessly searching bands around. Releasing a handful of records that paved the way for experimental music of all stripes in years to come, the group often tempered their genuinely avant-garde attitude with a fragmentedly dadaist form of populism that resulted in their albums – particularly 1972’s ‘Faust So Far’ – frequently being both profoundly bizarre and deceptively accessible at the same time. Although the band’s original run was fairly short-lived, they returned in the ’90s and various incarnations of the group have been busying themselves ever since. Now known by the subtly altered moniker of faUSt, the group initiated their first UK tour in some time with a two night residency at Lewes’ Con Club – which we reviewed here – and we were lucky enough to talk with founding member and bandleader Jean-Hervé Peron on the second of the two nights.

Is audience feedback important for you? Last night you mentioned something about the smiles in the front row of the audience…

Yes – very important! It’s not [just] important, it’s essential. If the first three rows are sort of chatting and looking dull I would say “OK, it’s time to pack up.”

With faUSt’s current live show, how improved is it? Do you have a framework around which you base your sets or is it totally 100% improvised?

No, it is not totally improvised. Can you imagine sort of preparing a skeleton, or a frame, or a pattern and [then] you put [on] the muscle, the heart – you know, the meat – the hair. This could be a possible explanation. What we do is, a couple of hours before the show we get together in a bar, in a cafe, or in the hotel room; everybody writes whatever – names of songs, names of anything: colours, topics – on a piece paper and throws it on the floor. Then we have a large number of ideas and then we start telling a story. Yesterday we played this and we played that and today we wanted to make sure it would be another setlist so that people who come again to the show will be presented with something fresh. So we went into a cafe and did the same thing. That’s how we work. So it’s a mixture of putting improvised meat on a skeleton of thought.

Is that the same sort of process you’d use to approach recording an album?

When we go into the studio – which we don’t do much now, we prefer to do home recording because of the time parameter. When you are in the studio, it’s expensive – or not that expensive but it does cost money – you have a sound engineer who wants to record; he’s there to record, he’s not there to bore in his nose – and that puts pressure on us and Zappi [faUSt drummer and co-founder] and myself, we don’t want time pressure anymore. So we do prefer home recording. And when we do home recording we go with no idea of what’s going to happen and we record and then after that, every evening, we eat, we walk with the dogs and we talk and we play a bit more depending on the mood and then we listen to it and we edit. We say “OK, this is interesting” and from there we say we leave it like it is or we have an overdub here or lyrics could be nice here; that’s the way we work. We’ve stopped that real studio [process].

Is that how [2017’s] ‘Fresh Air’ was recorded?

This is how [2014’s] ‘jUSt’, the one before, was recorded. With ‘Fresh Air’ the original idea was [that] in 2016 we go on tour in the USA, so let’s make sure we record most of the shows. We have the privilege of being good friends with CalArts and Lauren Pratt, the sort of boss of this department. She likes faUSt and we like her so she said “OK, you have one day with our studio” and it’s so huge. It’s [as big as] this whole area here [gesticulates around the courtyard we’re sitting in] – or even bigger. With a top sound engineer and he’s got the whole day, so if we want to do nothing he’s fine with it – he’s there, and loads of assistants. We invited guest artists like Barbara Manning – she used to live in San Francisco [and] now she lives in LA somewhere – Ulrich Krieger, he works at CalArts, and Michael Day was there, Braden Diotte was there and of course the faUSt gang plus our roadies, most of them are musicians also. We had a few themes and also we did wide improvisation. In Texas we have also another friend Jürgen Engler – he plays with Die Krupps. He a German guy living in Austin, Texas and he’s friends with a French guy with a tiny studio, so we decided the three of us – Zappi, myself and Maxime [Manac’h] – [would do] improvisation. We had that material, studio time and live recordings – the original idea was to get one LP [of] live recordings, one LP [of] studio recordings. We dropped that idea and said “OK, less is more”, we’ll just take what we like from [the] live [material] and take what we like from [the studio material] and have just one [LP].

Is the process of releasing albums easier now than it was in the ’70s? I could be mistaken here but I’ve heard that Faust used to have a disputes with their their labels. Was that the case?

Always. Yes, for sure. See the thing is, the record company has totally divergent goals than Faust had – than any band, actually. Bands want to play music, their music, and they basically don’t care or it’s not important to them if it pleases the record company. This is exactly what happened with Faust. First with Polydor; they thought we were the new Beatles – the German Beatles – how wrong! How far away from truth they were.

So it’s actually true that Polydor wanted Faust to be a very commercial band? I’d heard that before but was never sure how true it was.

Yeah, it is true. Our producer managed to take them by the nose [for] one year and that’s [the] year where we produced the first one, which we called ‘Faust Clear’. So when they heard ‘Faust Clear’, [with it] being pressed in clear vinyl and all this crazy design, they said “what’s happening to us?” – it was too late! You can’t turn back. OK, so they kicked us out – as easy as that. We did another [and] they said “you must be more commercial” – so we did ‘Faust So Far’. It is, in a way, more song-ish, so it’s approachable but it’s also not mainstream. So they kicked us out – that was it. No more Faust – go away. Uwe Nettlebeck – may his soul all rest in peace – was an excellent producer. At the very origin [of the band], Faust was not only musicians but also producer, sound engineer and we had the privilege of having our own studio in Wümme where the sound engineer would stay 10 days in a row, day and night and we would work day and/or night. Anyway, we got kicked out and Virgin was just [coming into] being. There was a little place on Portobello Road – now he travels to the moon. And the same story happened with Virgin – our first production [for the label] was ‘The Faust Tapes’. Quite a revolutionary cut and paste thing and Uwe and Richard [Branson] managed to find a very tricky commercial thing – to sell it [as] the LP at the price of a single; it worked well, had a strong impact and this is why, actually, that the UK is more our heart home. In [the] UK we were accepted, appreciated, all this – it worked. In Germany? No. But then Richard had something very clear: money. I mean, that’s OK, that’s cool. Some people play with music, others play with finance and he does well, so he wanted us to [act in] the classical British way of having a group play, play, play until you’re known and then they make you famous. We didn’t want this, so we were kicked out again, after having produced ‘Faust IV’. They kicked us out – OK, we went to Munich and went to a fancy hotel with a real big studio and pretended [that] Mr. Branson was going to pay for all this. It worked for about 10 days or something like that; long enough, anyway, to have material that was then released by Recommended Records, which is Chris Cutler’s – a good friend of ours [from] Henry Cow, we toured together. He said “OK, give me the tapes, I’ll do something”. [This was] about ’80 something and then we disappeared.

You mentioned a few things that I want to ask you about – the first was ‘Faust Clear’. Was there one person within the group that conceptualised the innovative clear packaging or was it something that the band came up with a group?

OK, first I must stress the point that this is my personal view and memories are treacherous sometimes so I will tell you now my memories and they might not be correct but they are correct to me. In the group Faust, we were the musicians, the producer, the sound engineer Kurt Graupner and there was also a large community of friends: filmmakers, photographers, painters, artists. One of them was Andy Hertel, who was, at the time, a young filmmaker. I would say if there was one brain behind the musical approach, it would be Rudolf Sosna, who also passed – now long-time dead so may his soul rest in peace. On the more conceptual [side] and in [terms of] how we approach the music industry, Andy Hertel certainly played a great part in this, combined with our producer. If I put two names [forward], it’s Rudolf Sosna and Andy Hertel. Now, I must admit, I may be wrong and obviously we all played a role in this.

Was it a challenge to convince Polydor to actually press the first album on clear vinyl and in a clear sleeve? It was so new that technically it must have been a challenge.

It was so new, yes. On a technical level, the manufacturing industry said “no, it’s not possible.” So, our producer really had to tell them “yes, it is possible, [so] you go and do it”. It was difficult, yes, but we managed. Polydor had no chance to back up, they had invested so much money [in us] that they had to go to the last point and hope it would sell – which it reasonably did, but not as well as they were expecting.

The next thing I want to ask you about is ‘The Faust Tapes’. As you said earlier, it was a really pioneering album – I’m not sure if this is true but I’ve heard that most of the material on that album was recorded beforehand and was not originally envisaged to be on an album. Was that the case?

That is totally correct – that’s why we called it ‘The Faust Tapes’. Remember, we are in the analogue time so we are recording on an 8 track thing to a 2 track to stereo – that’s where our sound engineer comes in. He was a mighty good sound engineer and very experimental; with very little means he managed to do something technically grand. When the deal happened with Virgin, we had to produce something quick and that’s where Rudolf [Sosna] and Gunther Wüsthoff and Hans Joachim Irmler come into play because they were very good at putting things together. Zappi and myself we were bass and drums – Zappi drumming, me bass – we were more into [walking] dogs and dope, we didn’t care about anything. This is how the tapes were born – “we have to produce something quick, have no time and no money yet to record something – do something: ‘Faust Tapes'”.

What did you think of the idea of the album being sold at the price of a single? Did you think the ploy would work?

Very personal answer because I have no idea of what the management had in mind. Me, I didn’t care; we were musicians, we were having fun moving to London, discovering all the good aspects and all the bad aspects of being in Great Britain. For me, it was all OK, you know? “Let’s play music, let’s meet girls, let’s smoke a joint, let’s have fun, let’s play music”. So I have no real solid answer on that, I didn’t mind.

What was it like for Faust in the UK early on? You mentioned briefly about the UK taking to the band sooner than most other places.

The British audience accepted us right away. They had heard about what they themselves called “Krautrock”. They said “it’s weird, it’s kraut, man – they come from Germany – bizarre, bizarre”. They saw, of course, other representations of Krautrock; when people talk about Krautrock the first thing they mention is Can, Kraftwerk, Neu!, Amon Düül – because they had good management behind them, so they knew how to get known. We were more unknown; we would play with no light show at all except for TVs flashing black and white. We changed everything, we didn’t want to be like anybody else. “Lights? OK, let’s do different lights. What’s now? TV is what’s happening”. We had Pinball machines [on stage with us], we wanted to be relaxing. We would meet a guy with a power drill in the street and we’d say “hey man, here’s fifty quid, you wanna come play with us tonight?”. There is even a philosophical movement called Fluxus which I had never heard before at the time, now I know about it. Dada, Fluxus and [Faust] fits in that philosophy… everything is art, art is everywhere, everywhere is art, life is art, art is life. This type of thing. This is how we work. The British audience who are keen on weird things, new things – [they’re] very open to new things. They say “Yeah, we like it – Krautrock, nice; Faust, nice”. We got self-confidence, you know? It’s OK, what we’re doing, we’re on the right path.

In retrospect, the ’70s German experimental scene is often painted as a very definite movement with a sense of community. Did you, as a member of Faust, feel a sense of community with the famous bands from the time, such as Can?

Well the answer is quite clear: it’s a clear no. See, when we were in Wümme, we had consciously decided to cut-off the influences of the outside world. I have, of course, heard of people like Stockhausen, Can – I heard the names on the radio or the papers – we didn’t have radio or newspapers but still, you are confronted… So, no, we didn’t have any contact – I, personally, didn’t know what they were doing, what was happening. Not at all. Faust has grown in a separate bowl – something was growing [elsewhere] and we were growing separately.

Could you tell me a little about the making of Faust V?

I don’t know that record. I’m sorry, I’ve heard quite a lot about it [but] I’ve no idea what this is. I’m sorry, I’m being honest – I don’t know about ‘Faust V’, I will have to listen to it one day.

[laughing] I haven’t heard it either.

[laughing] See? Maybe it doesn’t exist! I’ve heard [of] it on the internet, something Faust V – it’s us but I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s a compilation or something.

Back in the ’70s, when Vinyl and Tape were the main formats and digital recording didn’t exist, did you ever feel your creativity was limited by the constraints of the format? You know, only being able to fit a certain amount of music per side.

No, we didn’t feel at all restricted because we found ways to go around it. Now we have loop machines – they’re tiny [and] you can overdub and erase on them, do fancy things – so [back then] we did loops on magnetic bands which we would run across the studio. I guess all the bands – Can and everybody – I’m sure they’ve done that also. So we had this huge 20 metre long thing running around the studio doing a loop; it was a physical haptic loop. We used that technique and, again, our sound engineer was really good. We would record on eight tracks – he had a fancy way of recording, it was so good. We could hear our amps but they were on headphones, so we could hear the sound of what we were doing but there was no noise except for the drumming. We recorded eight tracks; he had the separate mix down of the drums, that would fit on two tracks, guitars – blah, blah, blah – then he would mix down those tracks and we could do more after that. That’s how we worked. All the cuts were done with scissors and gluing. We didn’t feel at all restricted. We would put guitars in radio instead of having fuzz. That’s where [Hans Joachim] Irmler would come in – he was a very ingenious man [who] built his own effects. Of course, when we were confronted with the digital world [for a] long time we would be reluctant to use it. And then we saw especially in editing and all this, you can do micro-surgery on music. If there is a wrong note somewhere – whatever a wrong note is – you could just [take it out] and you don’t feel it, you don’t see it. If the pitch is not right, you can pitch it up, pitch it down. All these fancy things. We realised how maybe we should consider coping and having the digital world come to us – so nowadays we use a lot of analogue pedals, though some of them are digital inside, we also use field recordings, which we play back – that’s where fluxus comes in; recordings of seagulls, somebody snoring, real things like this – somebody cooking, people [reading] poems – whatever. We had them as samples and we could play them so, bit by bit, we made a deal with the digital world and said – “it’s good”. On past [projects], we would record analogue on big tapes and then run though digital and then the end mix would be analogue again, to get close to the sound we had.

You mention using field recordings, which makes we wonder where your inspiration – if you would use that word – comes from? Could you, perhaps, hear a sound most people would consider non-musical and be inspired to create music from that, say?

Interesting question. I believe the artist in general – the musician in particular – are only vectors [or] carriers of something that’s above. Something that’s in the air and it gets into us and we sort of make it audible. So inspiration [is] very hard to pinpoint for me personally, I think inspiration starts when you’re in the womb of your mama – that’s when you first hear things and then you go into childhood and then you go into adolescence and then you consciously listen to music, to some musicians or some artists, and all this is inspiration. We’ve reached the point where we are very keen [in] faUSt of being influenced by everything. Here again, everything is art and art is everywhere.

On stage last night you made a few political comments – would you say faUSt make political music?

I will first talk in general; being an artist means – if you want it or not – [that] you are being political. Even if you play crap music you are being political in a bad way, you just put the mind of people in a fridge – you freeze them, they don’t think, they don’t meditate, they don’t react. But if you are [what I would call] a real artist, you are political. It doesn’t have to be a speech, it doesn’t have to be a theory, it doesn’t have to be a clear statement but remember how dangerous art has always been to dictatorship, because they don’t want the people to think much – only what they want them to think. Artists are not built this way, it’s a disease probably – and this is political already. Of course, you can go to any kind of level, like Bertolt Brecht – clearly being political – and some other groups are really clearly political, saying this and that clearly. Faust, at the beginning, was just being as political as avant-garde was in Russia. So, not a clear statement but dangerous for the system because it makes people think – wonder and think. I would say: yes, we are political but we are not clearly political. Sometimes yes – we need fresh air because look at what’s happening in the world – it stinks. [Fresh Air] is clearly political. [Some other times] we express [our politics] for us quite clearly; it’s not very clear to the people [listening] but that’s what’s good about it. It doesn’t give an answer, it just maybe suggests a question.