The Notwist: Comfort in Confusion

Music Features The Notwist
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It took two years, two producers, hours of self-editing and a change of perspective before Markus Acher felt comfortable with The Notwist’s latest album. The songwriting is great, so a listen to any single Close to the Glass song won’t shed any light on the problem. The production is beautiful, too. From the cold, arpeggiated pulses that open the album on “Signals” to the shoegaze grit that rings throughout “7 Hour Drive,” these songs are studio beauties that would have any forward-thinking studio engineer foaming at the mouth. But a 12-track spread of good songs from one of Germany’s most beloved indie bands doesn’t mean much to its frontman if they don’t fit together.

“When we recorded for half a year, we found out that in a way it didn’t fit,” Acher tells me by phone from his home in Munich. “We were really torn apart by our different options, and we were a little depressed. Everything sounded so different.”

Different, at least within the confines of an album, is untraveled ground for The Notwist (read: in overall cohesiveness, not in willingness to experiment). The Notwist’s American breakthrough, 2004’s Neon Golden, blended indie’s version of the kitchen sink—Martin Gretschmann’s inspiring electronic work, xylophones, banjos, synthesizers thrown in with the mandatory guitar, drums, bass—into an unexpectedly uniform blur of beauty that gained steam from Acher’s own lyrical directness on “Consequence” and “One Step Inside Doesn’t Mean You Understand.” Its follow-up, released after a momentum-slowing six years, saw the electronics taking a smaller role for a guitar-led collection, The Devil, You + Me.

But as a whole, Close to the Glass is really none of those things. You’ll see flashes of 2002 in the warping, twisting “Lineri” or slow-burning “They Follow Me;” you’ll catch hints of 2008 in “Kong” or “Casino.” But with few exceptions, Close to the Glass is a wildly different listening experience from track to track. The album might have turned out differently if the outfit hadn’t struggled with the push of untangling a common thread, but after all that frustration, the answer was tucked away in the big-picture discord.

“[After six months of recording] we talked to our engineer and producer,” Acher says. “He couldn’t work with us anymore—he was already booked for another band. So a second producer came in. He had fresh ears, so he listened to the songs, and we got the idea of making this record: [it would be] a big collage, [and we would try] to find some sort of way to bring it together with raw cuts and put songs together that maybe normally wouldn’t fit together. But I think, in a way, this brought the songs together. From the beginning to an end, it makes sense.”

But every collage has to have a base, something to hold the individual pieces. When Acher is pressed further, he states that the album’s foundation is in storytelling itself. He likens the album to reading fragments of short stories or flipping through TV channels—Close to the Glass is 12 different glimpses at beauty without all the context. “You don’t know the beginning, you don’t know the end, but you get into something and you have a picture,” Acher explains. “You’re in a movie, or you’re in a story, you’re going through a small town and looking through the windows of the houses and see one family, or one guy, or one woman. You get short clips from different sides.”

And to follow suit, Acher’s cast of characters speak decidedly different voices. There’s “Casino,” a direct narrative dreamed up after Acher saw a pride-filled, drunken couple standing outside a casino near his house (“it’s more a picture of cheap lives and glamor that’s kind of cheap,” he says. “But in its own way it had some strength and dignity”). The album’s first two tracks—electronic in instrumentation, but clear reminders of the band’s aggro-punk past—show a more abstract approach (“With [the electronic songs], I tried to collage the lyrics in a way. I found references that I liked, I combined them with sentences I collected and tried to get some sense for me into this”). And at its most personal and playful, Acher brought a piece of his childhood together in the dreamy ‘90s throwback that is “Kong.”

“I think I was around 11 or 12—I can’t really fix the date, and my parents couldn’t remember,” he laughs. “We lived in this apartment with lots of different families, and there was a river nearby and the streets were flooded. It’s something that happens quite often here, but this one time the streets were so flooded that you couldn’t drive cars or bicycles anymore. I was really nervous and it was exciting in a way. Something happened that was so unusual. We couldn’t go to school anymore. It was really exciting in a way. I stayed at home, and I read lots of comics: Superman, like that. I thought of this story of a superhero rescuing people from the house. The story crept into my mind when we were playing the song.”

With Close to the Glass finally out, it puts an end to a six-year wait between The Notwist’s last proper full-length. Between touring and side projects, recording and re-recording, it’s clear that time was necessary for the band to pull a new collection together. But Acher laughs when asked if we should hold our breath until 2020 for the next Notwist release.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says. “We always hope that it’s not six years again until the next record. And now that we have a lot of music that’s more instrumental or experimental for movies or radio-play. We want to make a more experimental record out of it. But I hope we can make another one earlier than six years, I’m quite sure.”