“Clearly we couldn’t afford a next time” – Garish’s Thomas Jarmer

Photo of the band Garish (c) Reinhard Gombas
Garish (c) Reinhard Gombas

Garish has weathered the ups and downs of the music industry for over a quarter century now. The band, a cornerstone of the Austrian indie label Ink Music, has developed a musical language that has held up against changing trends. Their anniversary record Hände hoch ich kann dich leiden (“Hands up I can stand you”) is an album of self-covers, featuring a cast of special guest musicians. In this interview – possibly his longest ever – Garish frontman Thomas Jarmer tells the band’s story from the very beginning: good times, bad times, and everything in between.

What was Mattersburg like in the 90s?

Thomas Jarmer: Long before Commerzbank went bankrupt, it was a storybook town, with a lot of freedom. There was a club where youth culture – in the good sense – was centered; otherwise it was mostly blue-collar: darts and disco. That made it clear who our nemesis was. We immersed ourselves in music: in the summer we often worked at the Wiesen Festival. It was a great summer job; I saw a lot of concerts from the lighthouse. And when we finally stood on the main stage for the first time – it must have been 1998 – that was a great feeling.

You met in school.

Thomas Jarmer: We were in different years. Max [Markus Perner] and Kurt [Grath] were looking for a keyboard player for a band. I was taking piano lessons at the time, but they were exhausting. Playing in a band was a completely different world. From 1996 on, things went quickly: I got my brother Boff [Christoph Jarmer] and Julian [Schneeberger] into the band, and when the question arose who the singer should be, I was chosen – very quickly and unexpectedly. That was a huge challenge, to suddenly be the singer in a band. At the beginning, I stood there with my eyes half closed, looking up to the heavens in order to blot out everything else. Our first concert all together was in 1997 at the Cselley Mühle.

Is “The Mill” Garish’s power spot?

Thomas Jarmer: For a long time it was. We went there to work and we developed a powerful motivation there; during the day, the Cselley Mühle was quiet; at night there was more happening. We recorded almost all of our albums there, with Thomas Pronai. There’s no studio as such, but we rearranged the rooms to record. Pretty soon we moved to Vienna, first to study and then to play our first concerts in the city; we opened for Lauryn Hill and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and we started getting radio play on FM4. But we still rehearsed in Mattersburg, and when we were there, the time was devoted exclusively to making music.

“studying Music can Ruin you, Too.”

Did you study your instruments?

Thomas Jarmer: Everyone did except me; I’m self-taught in a lot of respects. That caused arguments every now and then, for instance when it was about our minimum standards for musical ideas. But then one time, Franz Bogen, the Wiesen promoter, said, “well, studying music can completely ruin you, too.” That stuck with me.

What did the others study?

Thomas Jarmer: Jazz. And then you have to deal with the jazz police and the indie police. They were both merciless back then.

You switched to German around 2000. That was really unusual. 

Thomas Jarmer: I grew up with Schlager and metal music. Broad melodies, broad gestures. Later, when I heard Element of Crime for the first time, everything changed. My ambition to write English lyrics disappeared. It was a dumb idea anyway. So, I left out the intermediate step and we started putting German lyrics together with English music. You can hear certain influences in our music from time to time; we had a thing for Placebo when we were younger, and the comparisons with Radiohead aren’t entirely wrong.

The first album is called Amaurose Pur; on the cover is a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. Is that a challenge to concentrate completely on listening?

Thomas Jarmer: We didn’t really think that far, it was more intuitive. Sometimes new words were the idea for a lyric ­– in that case it was amaurose, the condition of blindness.

The accordion always gave your British sound a Continental grounding. How did that come about?

Thomas Jarmer: The accordion came straight out of Kurt’s playroom. When we started making acoustic arrangements, I tried them out on it and it gradually established itself. That’s how we arrived at that mixture between Francophilia and distorted guitars that contributed so much to the band’s sound. At the same time, it’s influenced how I sing. I have to inhale while my hand goes its own way – at first, I almost felt like I was choking.

Photo of Thomas Jarmer (c) Reinhard Gombas
Thomas Jarmer (c) Reinhard Gombas

ChatGPT says, “Garish’s lyrics often deal with introspective themes, exploring topics like personal identity, relationships, and existential questions. Many of their songs have a poetic quality, with vivid imagery and metaphors that convey a sense of emotional intensity.”

Thomas Jarmer: Bam. That’s very flattering. It’s not only factually, analytically accurate; it’s elegantly put. My thanks.

The music press wasn’t so flattering.

Thomas Jarmer: That was savage. Magazines were still giving points for things; everything had its value. I can still remember them talking about the “Burgtheater German”, the “low point of the Neusiedlersee”. I can understand it in retrospect. We provoked it. At the time we felt wronged, because we basically didn’t want anything bad.

By the time the second album came out, the music industry was in a steep decline. It was the era of Napster, the dot-com bubble, and the second Iraq war. 

Thomas Jarmer: That may be what prompted the retreat into our own microcosm. In writing it, I was only concerned with the world the way I was perceiving it – it was an outlet, a way of dealing with it.

For years, there was never a ‘we’ in the lyrics – everything was ‘you and I’?

Thomas Jarmer: Right, it was all about the dynamic, the exchange between protagonists. I never had anything like a writing frenzy – sometimes I’d carry individual lines around with me for three or four days before I could move on to the next one. I was extremely picky when preselecting the lyrics, but you still produce a lot of trash. It was difficult and sometimes depress – for me, but for the band as well, because they were waiting for lyrics from me. And then sometimes it just clicks and something works in the situation. For that to happen, I need both a certain closeness and a certain distance, so that the lightness and the recklessness can do their part.

What does “Silber” mean to you?

Thomas Jarmer: “Silber” is basically the story of the eternal other.

Zum Mond” is Weltschmerz and escapism?

Thomas Jarmer: It has to do with the wish for a better place – the moon looks like a disc; I was thinking about what goes on behind the scenes. It was also a synonym for a place that’s real. For me, that was this music and writing.

Video: Garish – “Silber”

A longing for faraway places comes up a lot.

Thomas Jarmer: Now, I obviously didn’t grow up near the ocean, but that tranquility, that horizon made a fantastic backdrop. Years ago, while touring in Germany, we were on the Baltic Sea. I had this incredible longing and fear at the same time; it was bittersweet, morbid, and beautiful, like nothing else. The ocean becomes a surface onto which you project things. I really went through it.

The song “Teeren und Federn” [“Tarring and Feathering”] sounds like Lambchop, with those sweet strings and steel guitar.

Thomas Jarmer: Maybe. We thought an orchestra would be good for that classic break-up tune. That whole album was much more opulent than anything we did afterwards.

At the same time, “Alles nur Idee” [“Everything Just Idea”] is your ‘rockiest’ song.

Thomas Jarmer: That’s the zenith of rock’n’roll in our music, which we partly balance out with silly lyrics. I think it’s important to undercut this pose. On the other hand, we’ve always had a lot of fun playing the song live, even if I’ve had a hard time embodying it.

What is ‘Schoenwetter Schallplatten’ [‘Fairweather Records’]?

Thomas Jarmer: We wanted to start our own label, and since the sun supposedly shines 365 days a year in Burgenland, we dubbed the orchestra that played on the album Absender auf Achse the ‘Schoenwetter Orchester’ – and later, we liked that name for the label. We started it with Hannes Tschürtz; he was our manager, booking agent, label head, and publisher in one. Bands like Ja, Panik and Trouble Over Tokyo [aka Sohn] had their first releases on the label. A lot of times we were the prototype to try something out. But running a label really takes a lot of time and concentration, so after a while Schoenwetter Schallplatten became part of Ink Music.

The industry had no response to file sharing and digital technology.

Thomas Jarmer: Everyone was complaining. Every time we released an album, there was the question of what it would have meant a few years ago. But it worked out pretty well anyway. We were always an album band; it was always our goal to make albums with a concept and dramaturgy – we never questioned it. We started from scratch every time and then we’d go on tour with it, without any regard for losses – literally.

In 2006, Garish released the album Parade on Universal Music. Major labels were always the enemy – were you naïve in spite of that?

Thomas Jarmer: Hannes Eder came out of the FM4 scene; he was kind of our security. But as soon as they hand you over to the stylist at the photo shoot, as soon as the negotiations start, all the clichés come true. For those people, it was just another day at the office. They stuck us in Armani suits that had to be back at the store in pristine condition the next day. They made concrete plans for us without consulting us first, trying to market an attitude, a lifestyle. This distorted view of the band was troubling and humiliating.

The album cover looks like an accident.

Thomas Jarmer: A lot of people thought that. We had no concrete idea of what could graphically represent the sum of the songs; as such, I found the typographical solution very clever [laughs]. At Tapete, the partner label in Hamburg, they were also very skeptical about that puke-green color. It just happened that way. And then we started over again, with the attitude that oil and water don’t mix.

“It was like the sun coming out.”

The opening song on the next album was programmatic. “Und dann fass ich mir ein Herz” [“And Then I’ll Catch a Heart”] sounds much looser.

Thomas Jarmer: It was like the sun coming out. We left most of the decisions to Thomas Pronai, the producer, and that got a lot of things moving that the band wouldn’t have been able to do on its own. The songwriting roles dissolved, for example. Everyone was allowed to do everything, and we had fun working on each other’s ideas. There was a lightness, an attitude of not taking ourselves too seriously, and a generous portion of pathos. We had a lot of people in – horn players, string players; it added up to a nice opulence. The lyrics had to keep pace with the enthusiastic feeling of the music, and the voice needed a new sound; we experimented a lot with that. We sang certain melodies with a choir; that made the music a lot more personal, because it was embodied by people.

The choir creates a feeling of ‘we’ for the first time. Arcade Fire had already demonstrated that convincingly.

Thomas Jarmer: Their intensity was impressive. For us, live, it was a new experience. We were used to playing for ourselves; now we were playing for the audience. We were bringing a whole other energy. When we played at Popfest Wien back in the day, it took three minutes until the choir and everyone was onstage. The band and the audience were suddenly involved in a dynamic process together. And songs like “Spuk” guaranteed that people were going to dance. We wanted to savor all that, we didn’t want to leave anything out.

Coming out around the time of the financial crisis, the Euro crisis, the music industry crisis – the album was surprising in that form.

Thomas Jarmer: It didn’t have a lot to do with everything that was going on. We were – as so often – focused on ourselves; we were happy to have had that experience as a band.

“I wrote most of the lyrics with one hand on the baby stroller.”

And then your brother Christoph left the band, after almost twenty years.

Thomas Jarmer: The songwriting had changed; the five of us weren’t as much in agreement anymore. There were differences of opinion about the direction of the whole thing. Boff, my brother, had withdrawn musically, and it turned out that he was thinking of a going solo. The next album, Trumpf, took quite a long time; I wrote most of the lyrics with one hand on the baby stroller. It was a challenge, being a father; my head was somewhere else – when you’re needed, it’s non-negotiable. At the same time, we always wanted to go beyond where we had been musically, to explore. The lyrics followed the music here, too. That’s why the timing was so difficult. The need to justify everything within the band was extremely high, and it couldn’t really be satisfied. The constant back-and-forth tended to get loud. At the end we worked it out; we were able to appreciate the result and played a great tour together. But it was clear that we couldn’t afford a next time.

Which one of you misquotes Bogart? [in a lyric from the song “Auf den Dächern” from the 2014 album Trumpf]

Thomas Jarmer: There’s this phenomenon where people misquote sayings in the heat of the moment. You’re trying to say something smart, and sometimes it’s really entertaining. That was my inspiration to write a plea that not everything be weighed and judged. The song happened in a sort of high-spirited attack of Tourette’s. And then we continued it live with the audience.

But which one of you misquotes Bogart?

Thomas Jarmer: I’m not telling.

But to put that in a chorus, as a slogan for the album, when it’s about someone in the band…

Thomas Jarmer: When the band itself generates the material, it’s very helpful, and proof that you sometimes don’t have to look too far to find something to write about. But all too often, it’s about that first inspiration. The story that grows out of that often – like here – doesn’t have much to do with that first impulse.

Video: Garish featuring Ina Regen & Verena Altenberger – “Auf den Dächern”

How much of a statement of belief is “Zweiunddreißig Grad” [“Thirty-two Degrees”]?

Thomas Jarmer: “Fat, dumb, and happy, and somehow wrong.” The body temperature of 32 degrees is a synonym for the comfort zone that becomes passé at some point in the creative process. Making music, writing music, is a huge challenge, and in the best case it goes far beyond your expectations. I want to hold fast to my belief in that promise.

Is “Apollo” about the wave of immigration?

Thomas Jarmer: Maybe. I never thought of that before. The song describes a background – the inside of a car standing at a stoplight – and what happens between two people in front of a third. Being strangers to one another and recognizing, in spite of terrible circumstances, that you belong together. That’s how I’d describe it.

“You have to do something before your back is against the wall.”

The world plays a larger role on the last two albums. “Matador” came out after the first Facebook scandals and is about thinking in dichotomies of opposites.

Thomas Jarmer: Right. You had the feeling that some people wanted to explain the complexity of the situation with a few catchwords; it was the time of Trump, of fake news, and – I still remember it exactly – the coup attempt in Turkey. Things happened that I couldn’t have imagined. And they happened in broad daylight, though we always thought they only happen in back rooms. There was so much brutality in the rhetoric that I had to address it. I had never had such a strong external impulse before, and I wanted to write about it.

Several Pandora’s boxes opened up at once. You call the leaders of the world traitors.

Thomas Jarmer: Populist statements have become calculated; psychological barriers have fallen. That’s the outrageous part. On the other hand, an enlightened, open society has to have immense patience, composure, and alertness. And there’s no end to this agenda in sight; it’s continuing in the economy and finally between people. The title of the album Komm Schwarzer Kater [Come Black Cat] is taking the bull by the horns; you have to proactively do something before your back is against the wall.

Is Kater your last album?

Thomas Jarmer: I don’t think so! We’ve already got a lot of new material together and we’re working on giving it form. There are new aspects present that need to be refined. COVID prolonged the process.

The band has lived through at least two phases where it was stylish to sing in German – let’s call them the Christina Stürmer era and the Wanda era. 

Thomas Jarmer: It neither helped nor hurt us. Those phases just passed us by, probably with good reason – I never saw our music as having mass appeal.

Were all the albums equally good?

Thomas Jarmer: No. They were important for us at the time; you preserve a period in your life, document it.

Was Garish ever hyped?

Thomas Jarmer: With the album Wenn dir das meine Liebe nicht beweist [If That Doesn’t Prove My Love to You], a lot of people who had been very critical of us were able to like us with a good conscience. That was part of the reason that things went the way they did after that.

Video: Garish featuring Die Strottern – “Dei Wöd is a Scheibm” (studio session)

The anniversary album is coming out after the actual anniversary.

Thomas Jarmer: Yes, we fudged the date by a year. The album was Hannes Tschürtz’s idea; originally it was just going to be a cover of one of our songs with a guest. Hannes suggested Ina Regen and “Auf den Dächern”, and we were interested. We had always had Verena Altenberg in the back of our heads for something like that, and she also agreed to do it. We’re still amazed at how easily and naturally it came together, and while we were still working on it, we were making lists and asking artists – sometimes completely out of the blue – if they’d like to cover a Garish song. And finally, this new dialect song, “Dei Wöd is a Scheibm” [“Your World is a Disc”] found a place in this motley collection too. And there, we found excellent accomplices in Die Strottern, who recorded it with us.

Thanks for the conversation. 

Stefan Niederwieser, translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.