When the new JA, PANIK record is going to be released on April 30, 2021, existentialist snobbery, disguised in black turtlenecks and Viennese accents, will once again be making music for thirty-somethings laminating their collected spex vintage of 2001 for posterity. Melancholic philosophy students, who are seeking their political revival in last century’s Hamburg school, will also be pleased. No kidding! Seriously. With Rilke under their arm. In the never-say-pop-without-discourse bubble there’s quite some excitement when JA, PANIK are releasing a new record. The left-over forever-young professionals from the gang of silverback scribblers of former voices of the so-called pop culture are now allowed to work within the mainstream and drool over the good news with sheer horniness for their FAZ. What can they expect? A new manifesto? Or even a new setting of Bernhard’s outbursts of rage as a subtle analysis of the present? Adorno, Nietzsche, Tralala – JA, PANIK aren’t giving answers, they’re only asking questions. ANDREAS SPECHTL talked to Christoph Benkeser about the breakout as a playing field, ghosts in capitalism and the fact that you have to forget things in order to learn them anew.
Forgive me for asking, Why does Ja, Panik actually still exist?
Andreas Spechtl: We can’t be killed, that’s what you’re thinking?
I don’t wish it upon you …
Andreas Spechtl: You’re right. Nobody would have been surprised if we hadn’t done anything again. But a long time went by during which we never said that we wouldn’t exist any longer. That we would have disbanded would never have been clear.
I first need to digest the subjunctive.
Andreas Spechtl: Seen from the outside, it was much clearer from a certain moment on that it had to be over with Ja, Panik. In any case, clearer than it ever was for us! At any time we would have said that we would be making another record – but we simply didn’t know how, when and where.
A lot has happened since the last record.
Andreas Spechtl: The long break was good for the continued existence of Ja, Panik, everyone found their place in this strange world. Back then we had done so much in such a short time … the classic thing was: produce a record, go on tour, take a short break and work on the next record again. Artistically and socially, we wouldn’t have lasted much longer. Maybe for one or two records, but then it would really have been over.
The rhythm had already worn itself out.
Andreas Spechtl: Absolutely. Everyone had to get out of it. Coming back and finding each other again as a group took some work, but it was worth it. Meanwhile I have the feeling that we can always make records and that Ja, Panik will continue to exist forever.
I thought that after “Futur II” your future – not only in the grammatical sense – had already been done with.
Andreas Spechtl: We had to finish with the old narrative of Ja, Panik. It was an intense period that passed, and closing the book felt like the right thing to do. Now we are in an euphoric mood, everything is starting again – with different omens, although the people are still the same. „Die Gruppe” will therefore be something like a second first record.
You already said “the second first record” speaking about “DMD KIU LIDT”. So this would be the third first record by now …
Andreas Spechtl: Didn’t I say that about “Libertatia”?
Andreas Spechtl: I still like the record, but you could tell that – after two people left the band – we were pretending that everything was the same as before. The signs of wear and tear became obvious to me for the first time then, because we didn’t know anymore who was in this band, actually. “Libertatia” therefore became a defiant insistence and confirmation that we still existed. Nevertheless, the album was the beginning of the end of the old Ja, Panik. We recorded at Thomas Levin’s studio in Hamburg, outsourcing some of the responsibility to him. With “Die Gruppe” I have the feeling that we brought it back to us.
Also because you recorded “Die Gruppe” yourselves.
Andreas Spechtl: Exactly, it is much closer to “The Taste And The Money” from 2007. Back then we recorded a lot in our old shared apartment, the album was our responsibility.
So the new record jumps back to the origins.
Andreas Spechtl: Before Ja, Panik existed for people, the group existed only for us. I went to school with Stefan [Pabst, note], we’ve been making music since we were 15. Somehow, with the new album, it feels a bit like back then. But finding that old way of working took up most of the work.
What does Ja, Panik still have to say after all this time?
Andreas Spechtl: I don’t know if we can answer that. It’s more about what people think we have to say. You are bringing up an interesting point, though: The record was made in 2020. We always were able to reflect on the result only afterwards. After all, an art product also tells a lot about itself. I noticed that a lot of the lyrics I had written over the last five years went into it. The year 2020 absorbed the lyrics, or: they were absorbed. Let’s take the track “Backup” as an example, with the verse “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” You listen to the piece and think: Gosh! What happened in this weird year?
The past pushes itself back into the present.
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, suddenly the world you’ve been writing about for five years catches up with you. Yet the weirdness of this crisis was already there before 2020 – the year and the crisis were just the combustive agent for all the issues that had been lying dormant for the last few years. Be it inequality in the health care system or in society, all of that washed to the surface.
The album sums up the chronotope of the current system by remaining atmospherical and vague.
Andreas Spechtl: It takes a questioning stance and is not a manifesto, yes.
Because there are fewer answers?
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, and because it’s less about youthful cleverness of the past. The questions are more interesting here than the answers. Still, you end up formally with our first record. “Die Gruppe” is denser than “Libertatia.”
How do you mean that?
Andras Spechtl: Especially with the lyrics, there’s a long period of time between the moment they were written and the moment they are used in the songs. It was like with the first record. We wrote stuff for it for years, while the other albums were created over much shorter periods.
Were there already that many questions back then?
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, but unlike today, they arose from our own lack of experience and from our youthfulness. They were questions about life from the perspective of a twenty-year-old.
Isn’t it a problem that at some point you’re asking too many questions – and are getting too few answers?
Andreas Spechtl: Aren’t we asked more questions than given answers in this world anyway? After all, for every question there are five answers from different people who all claim to be answering the question – often even without being asked.
Of course, it has become easy to state an absolute truth about questions that aren’t absolute at all.
Andreas Spechtl: At the same time, there are irrefutable truths, aren’t there? I believe in science, you have to insist on that.
Hence your request to the doctor to finally take care of “The Cure”.
Andreas Spechtl: Exactly! Nevertheless, you have to ask yourself the question: A cure, what for?
Or from what?
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, that’s why the piece mentally connects to “DMD KIU LIDT”. Illness and healing coincide. Those who are destroying you want to heal you at the same time, so that you can be reintegrated into a system that is destroying you. At the end of the piece, the chorus enters, pretending that perhaps it’s better not to let yourself be cured. The question of illness depends on which doctor you visit.
“The cure to capitalism is more capitalism”, the chorus sings. The over-affirmation of acceleration as a swan song to capitalism, hasn’t this idea worn itself out and become obsolete?
Andreas Spechtl: Exactly, that’s why there’s the postscript “that’s the real capitalism.” I don’t believe in its actual acceleration, because this actually is the true, the real and constantly self-renewing capitalism.
Which internalizes everything it pretends to heal.
Andreas Spechtl: It builds the symptoms into itself. How that can be changed, I don’t know. I’m only depicting the subject matter as a kind of extrapolation of my own thoughts. The mental breaches between the records appear to be larger than they actually are in my head. After all, from the beginning, our pieces revolve around similar themes which we are examining from different perspectives.
The overarching theme is revolt, being against?
Andreas Spechtl: How to criticize, how to protest, how to emancipate? Questions about topics that are slaving away at the problem that everything that is against the system only makes the system stronger. Breaking out of this cycle is the challenge.
“I’M FEELING A SPIRITUAL KINSHIP IN HIS BOOKS THAT I HAD HARDLY FELT WITH ANY OTHER AUTHOR BEFORE”
To me, the thoughts of the late K-punk theorist Mark Fisher are resonating in your wording. You have read him, I assume.
Andreas Spechtl: After “DMD KIU LIDT” a friend gave me Fisher’s hauntology book [Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures, note], and then I got his other books. It was a discovery: I realized that there was someone out there who had written about things that were bothering me and that I was working through – depression and healing of the symptoms as reintegration into a depressive system. To this day I’m feeling a spiritual kinship that I had hardly felt with any author before.
I have always found his books to be expressions of feeling. Subtle topics that surround us like an atmosphere, but are not visible – until Fisher wrote them down.
Andreas Spechtl: The stark thing about his books is that in writing about moods and ghosts, he was able to articulate something that is surrounding us all. When I read his books, I realized: we are living in this madness. Somehow I knew that before, too, but it was there only subliminally, sort of hauntologically. His skill was to capture this feeling within a few slim books. That led to a revelation for many, because all of a sudden you could talk about this vague feeling.
Formally, I find this vague feeling on “Die Gruppe” as well. Gimmicks on modular synthesizers seem like the hauntological contrast to the reverberated saxophone, which opens up a Lynch-esque dream world.
Andreas Spechtl: The synthesizer sequences and atmospheres were almost always there first, in the new songs. By Ja, Panik standards, until now we only had a few pieces that were based on just a drone or a chord, breaking with the songwriting structure. However, by working with old lyrics that didn’t have any music to them, a lot of the pieces evolved into a spoken word direction. After all, I’m writing in my notebooks every day, and over the years, that’s taken on quite a bit. For the album, I took two months off with the lyrics to create a soundspace for myself in which I could find out which lyrics were made to be sung. Finding my way back to a singer’s voice was not easy at all.
Because in the meantime you had moved away from lyrics with your solo projects.
Andreas Spechtl: Exactly, there was a fatigue with regard to indie rock and the classic band structure. While creating the album there were a lot of discussions because of that, especially about questions on how the drums should sound and how we could get away from a rock sound. This resulted in glitches and shifts. In the end, “Die Gruppe” is still a group record – interestingly, even more of a group record than “Libertatia”.
Andreas Spechtl: We did very little editing this time. A lot came out of improvisation, playing over drones and out of the moment. Some of the vocals, I never got them right again the way I did the first time when I took the lyrics-notebook into my hands. The result seems more immediate, jazzy and improvised – especially compared to “Libertatia,” which was fully produced.
It is fitting that the journalist Joachim Hentschel writes in the press release of a “sound channel of fantastic intermediate states”. Much as we’d like pathos, doesn’t that contradict your principles?
Andreas Spechtl: What do you mean?
I’m remembering one of the more serious passages in your book “Futur II”. You write,”If you have a longing for intermediate zones in your life, you should book a club vacation in the Caribbean.”
Andreas Spechtl: The passage is less related to music, but has more of a political and social meaning. “Futur II” is about the heterotopian, about the assumption that you can live freely within unfreedom. I don’t believe in that at all, but in music the thing about the spaces in between is different. I do believe that as a musician you can build a world in which you are forcing yourself to break out of patterns. That’s what we tried to do on “Die Gruppe”. It was about how we still can be Ja, Panik and at the same time react to everything we’ve done in the meantime. That required the spaces in between.
You’re alluding to an artistic outside.
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, creating a time out and an outside is important from an artistic point of view. After all, you’re stuffed with all the world’s influences, and you are right in the middle of it. In order to process them, I need to withdraw briefly into a kind of utopian space. At the same time, you can’t remain there. This space functions as a playing field, not as a world.
The playing field as a temporary escape, in order to take the experiences made with you into the real world, as an after-effect.
Andreas Spechtl: Yes, nevertheless one must not remain in the playing field. The after-effect has to integrate itself into the world, otherwise it would be escapism.
How does that show in your life?
Andreas Spechtl: In the attempt not to stand still. I could say that I’ll always stay in my house in the Burgenland, where I have converted the stable into a studio. But: That’s not of interest to me, neither artistically nor socially. The temporary time-out, on the other hand, in which the breakout opens up a playing field, is important. After all, the world is crying out for a time out.
Many are just wishing to live full-time again, I think.
Andreas Spechtl: Still, some found the last year to be a good one, out of strange, romantic thoughts, because they suddenly had an alleged time-out.
Yes, people who were suddenly baking bread and stacking toilet paper at home.
Andreas Spechtl: Actually, some perceived the lockdown like, “Yes, finally!” I just think to myself: what kind of life are you having that you need this?
That’s why some people distinguished themselves by seeing the crisis as an opportunity.
Andreas Spechtl: That’s like going on an all-inclusive vacation. I don’t want to live my life in such a way that I have to go to Mallorca for two weeks every year, to avoid losing my mind in this system. But I also don’t want to live a life where I need a pandemic every 50 years to get some peace.
“MAYBE THE PANDEMIC HAS MADE SOME PEOPLE FITTER”
The only opportunity that the crisis is offering is self-reflection – to question the nature of one’s own life.
Andreas Spechtl: At the same time, this brings us back to the beginning of our conversation. That’s real capitalism – because: Vacations are pretending to make us fitter. Maybe the pandemic too has made some people fitter.
And you’re coming along with a record that will have the silverback fraction of the feuilleton teams licking their lips. I can already see the headlines: “Discourse-pop record of the year.”
Andreas Spechtl: How you define the discourse issue for yourself, that’s the question. If it’s a record that goes beyond simple artistic navel-gazing, a few blunt melodies and love songs, for it to end up in headphones where people feel addressed in a different way because things – like earlier when we were talking about Mark Fisher – are being concretized, then I say, “Yes, I like to be that kind of discourse!” If it’s just about silverbacks writing clever sentences in their feuilleton columns, I don’t give a shit. After all, we’re not making music for journalists, but for an imagined audience that may get something out of it.
So the discourse-pop label doesn’t matter.
Andreas Spechtl: Yes and no, I don’t know … Right now I’m just happy that the record is done.
Andreas Spechtl: Totally. You realize how many skills are needed, for songwriting, recording and finding a group. We have forgotten some things over the past years, but have learned others anew – and therefore differently. I know in the meantime that making a record will never be this exhausting again.
Until the next one comes along someday …
Andreas Spechtl: The next pandemic or the next record?
If the pandemic thing becomes a routine, the next record will show up in 50 years.
Andreas Spechtl: The way it is now, we’ve worked out things that we needn’t acquire again in the same way for the next record – who knows when it will come along. This may sound hippy-ish, but everyone was happy that we brought off this record, that we had so much fun doing it, that there were no rifts. It was just beautiful that it all worked out again.
Thank you very much for the interview!
Translated from the German original version by Julian Schoenfeld