Cassis B. Staudt and Chris Kobusch met in a Berlin basement, where else? And found that the 80s alt music scene had had a lasting impact on them both. The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, dancing all night in gay clubs (where you'd find the best dancers and the best sounds). Rolling through the years their musical journeys have been disparate, Cassis was at Juilliard and worked with the Swans and on a plethora of soundtrack material and movie stuff with the likes of Jim Jarmusch. Chris was harboring plans... The resulting twisting of dissolute backcloths into an entirely new fabric has produced the debut Berlin Banter EP of carefully curated cover versions, All Too Familiar. Featuring five tracks, Why Can’t I Be You? (The Cure), Dangerous(Depeche Mode), Winter Kills (Yazoo/Yaz), Left to My Own Devices(Pet Shop Boys) and Tanita Tikaram's Twist In My Sobriety. With the All Too Familiar available at the end of November. Cassis and Chris talked it out with OUTSIDELEFT...
OUTSIDELEFT: How did the idea for Berlin Banter evolve?
CHRIS: Over the years, I have developed ideas for various music projects I would love to get to. Often these ideas are fuelled by an umbrella theme for a concept album, such as composing an imaginary soundtrack for a book I like, so one could read the book while listening to the music. Or another idea was around recording an album that integrates recorded sounds from different cities, so that each song captures the atmosphere of each place and becomes like a soundtrack for that place.
One idea I kept coming back to is the idea for an album with reinterpretations of songs that somehow belong together or tell a story together. It took me more than ten years of kicking around this idea when, finally, in late 2019, when I had a few months of free time, I actually started arranging these songs that I had selected. During that time I also shaped my opinion of what I consider an interesting reinterpretation that is actually worth recording.
There are so many 'cover songs' out there and sadly many of them are really not needed as they don't offer a new perspective on a song. In order to make that differentiation, this is also why I always use the term 'reinterpretations' for what we do with Berlin Banter.
The name Berlin Banter came quite naturally, I liked the sound of it and also what it expresses. To me, it stands for how this project evolves and also what Berlin means to me. Berlin is an abundance of inspiration and you have a network of open minded and like minded people that you can collaborate with.
OUTSIDELEFT: How did you choose the songs?
CHRIS: Since my childhood, music has had a deep impact on me. I listened to a lot of music and much of this music has shaped my idea of music and also reflects who I am. There are many artists and countless songs that mean a lot to me. Over time, for a few of my favorites, I developed ideas around how the songs could be reinterpreted without really changing anything about the music, but just revitalizing the songs and giving them a different spin. So, over time, I have been keeping lists and then short lists of songs that would be good candidates for reinterpretation.
Why these particular songs? Well, on the one hand there is a common theme that connects these songs. Besides all of them being from the same decade, they all share a similar mood and are also all about somewhat warped interpersonal relationships. On the other hand, there are aspects that connect some of these songs on a different level as well. For example, Twist in My Sobriety and Winter Kills were both written at the young age of nineteen by Tanita Tikaram and Alison Moyet, respectively. This is impressive and I generally enjoy the early output of artists for being very pure and unspoiled. Left to My Own Devices was always a song that resonated with me strongly. I like how it is retrospective and autobiographical. I personally have always been very reflective. Besides being stunning songs, Dangerous and Why Can’t I Be You? have always impressed me for the twisted journey they take you on. There is both joy and frustration in these songs! Wicked!
OUTSIDELEFT: So how did the two of you meet?
CASSIS: Just before Covid set in, Chris and I both attended a tiny underground gathering at a Berlin GDR museum that actually is underground. Danielle de Picciotto was playing and Chris and I happened to be sitting next to each other. One thing led to the next and Chris sent me his tracks, most of which I was already very familiar with.
As a student in Hamburg in the 80s, I used to go to gay clubs by myself (gay clubs had the best music!) and dance frenziedly for hours to The Cure, Depeche Mode and so many others. I had so much fun with too much hairspray and a wild hairdo like Siouxsie in Siouxsie and the Banshees. This look of mine allowed me to be one of the few who were able to pass the poker-faced bored bouncer.
OUTSIDELEFT: Cassis, how did you connect with these songs that Chris selected? Do you identify with the songs?
CASSIS: The Tanita Tikaram song Twist in my Sobriety was one of the songs I took with me to New York when I left Hamburg. I used to play it on repeat and was drawn to its velvety atmosphere. Plus, and this is a big plus, there was an oboe in it! This was rare for a pop song and for me, as a kid with a classical music background, pretty exciting.
With these five songs, I made it my mission to sing them as relaxed as possible. Having internalized the words, I sang them late at night in my studio to come up with an intimate, honest and immediate take. All of these songs allow me to explore parts of my voice that I had not dared to access before - dark, intimate, very personal. I finally felt ready to show that side of me.
OUTSIDELEFT: Cassis, you are a professional film composer. Does Berlin Banter stimulate a certain cinematic inspiration or imagination for you?
CASSIS: Yes and yes and yes. When I connect with music, it has to stimulate the visual part of my brain. The songs and Chris’s interpretation of them instantly created their own personal music videos inside my brain. I was transported back to the 80s where I actually shot a music video for Jim Jiminee, a happening English band that I had stumbled upon at Hamburg's legendary Kir Club.
OUTSIDELEFT: How would you even describe the music of Berlin Banter?
CASSIS: Chris’ tracks are kind of clear and blue-green with my voice adding some dark violet sweet and sour timbre - Cassis taste! In this project, we both feel at home at opposite ends - Chris diving deep down underwater into blue-green electronic spheres with me adding an analog breathy and visceral touch.
CHRIS: While I don't care much for genre labels, as a musician you are often expected to state what genre your music is - when you give it to your distributor, for example, or to a magazine. I always struggle in these moments. I can only go by what kind of vibe the music has and what genre is close enough based on the way the music is arranged. And this way I might name a different genre for each of the tracks, even though the production of the songs is fairly homogeneous. I guess one embracing term you could use for the whole EP might be Eclectic Electronica, haha! :) The only track for which the genre question is quite simple for me is Why Can’t I Be You? - that’s Trip Hop! :)
OUTSIDELEFT: Can you talk about how just the mechanix of collaborating worked for you both...?
CASSIS: Chris would give me his tracks while he was still working on them. They went a few times back and forth between the two of us - me putting down some late night vocals and Chris letting himself be influenced by them. At some point, I convinced him to work with the bass player in my band Beauty and The Bs, Greta Brinkman, who has toured with Debbie Harry, Moby and many others. You cannot imagine how many takes I recorded before I was satisfied.
OUTSIDELEFT: Speaking of collaborators - who else was involved in creating this EP?
CASSIS: We mixed and mastered most of the songs with Jeff Lipstein who is based in Woodstock, New York. He is a friend of mine and was David Garrett’s touring drummer for many years. Jeff has great musical taste, having worked with Martha Wainwright, Sandy Bell, David Johansen and the Mercury Rev, to name just a few. He is very familiar with electronic music as he experiments himself with modular systems. Jeff has a lot of expertise as a producer, a deep love for the 80s and was the perfect fit for us.
On the visual side the graphic designer Katja Clos created the ep cover typography for us matching that wonderful photograph by Gregory Crewdson. Her main speciality is creating movie posters, movie titles, filmgraphics for props and set decoration and there again - with our cinematic vision - she was the perfect fit.
CHRIS: Another example of great collaborations is the music video to Why Can't I be You? - my friend Lennart Frank happens to be a professional art and film director and together with DoP Clemens Barth he implemented a story based on the song lyrics as well as the abstract idea of being someone else. The choreography in the music video impressively captures the emotions of affection as well as rejection.
OUTSIDELEFT: I love Gregory Crewdson's photograph on the cover, how did that happen?
CHRIS: We had the album recorded, mixed and mastered and we still didn't have the cover art. For the single Why Can't I Be You? I had already collaborated with a Berlin tape-artist and that was a great fit. I believe in collaboration and that you only really create something new and unexpected if you collaborate. So, time was ticking and I was checking my network for artists that might be a good fit. Then, I saw this picture book of Gregory Crewdson on my bookshelf, which had been standing there for about a decade. I had long admired Crewdson for the unique atmosphere in his photos and for taking photography to a new level. I dusted off the book, went through it and realized that the atmosphere closely matched the mood in our songs. There is melancholy, intimacy, longing, darkness and even a retro design. I contacted Crewdson's studio and started a conversation with members of his team. I happily discovered they liked the idea of our project and they thought it was a good match. After some back and forth, we selected the 2013 photo The Den and, after Gregory approved the cover artwork, it was a done deal! Really cool, great collaboration!
OUTSIDELEFT: Moving on, moving on, moving on... That's our world now I can barely keep up. All Too Familiar is out now... What's Next? Where do you go from here?
Cassis: Chris and I have discussed coming up with some original tracks that bridge our two approaches - his deep digital beats with my touchy-feely analog. In these challenging Covid times, we have given our all to make this release happen. I am currently writing a climate film music symphony and a documentary soundtrack.
All Too Familiar cover art: Digital pigment print
45 1/16 x 57 9/16 inches (114.5 x 146.2 cm) © Gregory Crewdson. Courtesy Gagosian
All Too Familiar by Berlin Banter is available now. Visit Songwhip for your the streamer of choice
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