Switzerland: In the creative spirit

“If people are really creative, it inspires other people around. It’s not about the network, it’s about the spirit.” These are Julian Sartorius’ words as the echo through the receiver from a rehearsal studio somewhere in Bern, Switzerland. His music is a collage of polyrhythmic percussive elements that fuse into texturally rich compositions through purely acoustic methods. Julian is a drummer and performs everything live, but the influence of electronic music is also accounted for according to the artist. “What I’m looking for are sounds. This is more developed in electronic music, in electronic music they use any sound to create a rhythm.” Julian is part of a surge of artists that have spilled over the Swiss borders, and he represents the experimental faction of a group of artists that epitomise contemporary music in Switzerland. “If you’re part of a scene in a country, maybe you don’t see the connections between different bands.” Rico Baumann struggles to see the similarities between his band True and other bands emerging out of the same region, but he acknowledges a definitive increase in activity that is currently bubbling up in places like Zurich and Bern. “It’s really just independently that these bands started doing that stuff and we realised, we are not the only ones, that’s great.” Sombre melodies, lying on a hot bed of electronics, and vocals delivered in popular forms are at the heart of most of these bands. I first encountered the anomaly with Len Sander and was promptly introduced to similar artists in the form of True and Kamikaze. Many of the musicians involved in these groups share a faint connection, from their days at school or playing together in the past. “We all make music and we know each other and I think we are part of something that’s growing here. “ Fabio Pinto from Kamikaze forms a big part of this rising anomaly, but throughout the various interviews, I get the impression there’s nothing really that denotes anything like a scene at the same time. There’s no one particular venue or label that’s been the Petri dish from which this music has spawned nor has the loose connections between artists offered anything in the way of a community influenced from within. It appears that each band, musician and artist is a unique amalgamation of personal ideas and influences that happen to have come to the fore at the same time. So how is that so many artists have arrived at similar ideas in music from the same region?

In Switzerland it starts with an education. Each child is expected to learn an instrument during its formative years. “We have great schools here and they’ve improved in recent years. We are still forced to play an instrument but it’s changing. Many schools are now introducing the concept of a producer. Jazz schools are becoming more like new music schools, introducing production courses.” Like everybody I’ve interviewed for this piece, including Len Sander, Fabio’s musical education is ingrained in Jazz and started from a young age. In some cases, like Julian, the musical obsession took hold even earlier. “When I was two years old I started hitting everything and I wanted to play drums, and by five my education started. When I was 15 I was clear about doing it as profession.” And while Julian moved into uncharted territories with his solo drum shows many of the musicians moved from Jazz into electronica. Rico Baumann was on tour with a Jazz quartet in the States when we got the chance to speak over Skype. Speaking from a diner somewhere on the east coast, the occasional interruption by a clattering of plates sets the scene. “My love for pop was first, but I really like playing Jazz too. It was like coming back to something I love, my first love.” Influenced by the sound of Sweden and the UK, True manage to capture a melancholy in their arrangements without losing the accessible dimension that many of these artists have in their music. Although it can be narrowed to playing a prominent role in Switzerland’s musical landscape, it’s probably a reaction to a global phenomenon that’s currently sweeping across the airwaves with groups like Snow Ghosts, HVOB and Cloud Boat – artists that bring the human element back into minimalist electronic music through acoustic instruments and the human voice. This came easy to the Swiss musicians, whose background in Jazz meant that fusing live instrumentation with electronic arrangements was a natural disposition, but for a group like Kamikaze it also meant simplifying their sound. “When we first met at a rehearsal room, we started playing this complicated stuff – like, let’s try this 13/8 groove; stuff on the rock/noise spectrum. I started to write songs and wanted to bring electronic sounds into the music. We had to go in to the simple stuff – verse/refrain – to learn how to do that stuff.” The popular structure inherent in the verse/refrain form is a common thread that runs through many of these artists and a signifier that removes them from somebody like HVOB, who through-compose their music in the way dance music has a tendency to do. For True, the popular form was inherent in the way they like to compose music too. “We like songs that you could play on a piano or a guitar, and we put it into an electronic context.” Along with incorporating English lyrics, it has made their music far more accessible to bigger audiences, transcending the Swiss border.

The problem we have in Switzerland is that we have an extremely small market and we have to export music.” Andreas from Mouthwatering Records, a label both True and Kamikaze have associations with, highlights the problem with making- and distributing music in Switzerland. Switzerland is small and it has been re-iterated in every interview I’ve conducted for this piece. Julian and Fabio likened the country to a big city, while Rico suggests this has an adverse effect on reception. “Switzerland is so small. If you make something that is niche, it’s hard to get a big enough audience.” This forms part of the reason independent labels like Mouthwatering seeks an audience outside the country. “You have to export to make a living.” It creates a chain reaction that eventually filters back into the conscious of the Swiss public. “Swiss people are always a little scared of being proud of themselves.” According to Andreas it’s this disposition in the Swiss psyche that means the Swiss public will only acknowledge their own artists if they’ve been acknowledged elsewhere, something Rico experienced first hand with True. “If you’re a Swiss musician people don’t take you too seriously until you get some good reviews or a warm reception from other countries. When BBC radio played our music, people in Switzerland noticed us more. You have to get heard outside and then Swiss people notice you too. Swiss people don’t have the highest opinion of themselves.” Getting your music exported as an independent label however is not easy for a small outfit like Mouthwatering. “The major companies are not really signing artists. Basically they are working as distributors. They have no intention to export Swiss artists.” It means that those coat tails independent artists invariably need to get more exposure to the scene are not there and proliferating a sound becomes much harder without the foundation laid by bigger labels. But Andreas suggests that their hard work has started to pay off. “We even have international pros coming to scout for Swiss artists specifically and I think there are a lot of people in Switzerland currently working to get more exposure for the music.” This exposure filters back into Switzerland and national radio play and publishing has become an invaluable source of income for Mouthwatering.

For the artist however this is not entirely the common consensus. Julian Sartorius’ own experiences are quite opposite in fact. “I’ve played a lot of concerts inside Switzerland and just recently I’ve started playing all over Europe as a solo artist. Fabio has noticed a change in perception for Kamikaze’s indigenous audiences too. “We always had this separation between French and German and Italian and now I think the young people are getting over this.” Perhaps this unified approach in the Swiss population is also the reason behind the surge of artists coming to the fore. Something that Blanka from Len Sander said in our last interview corresponds with this. She mentioned how the Swiss audiences are more open-minded to new musical ideas today and this should invariably have effected musical exploration in the country. Aided by cultural funding, the musicians in Switzerland also get the opportunity to work mostly uninhibited by the constraints of fiscal awareness. “If you are a musician you get good support from government. There’s a good opportunity to get money if you want to put out some music or go on tour.” It gives musicians like Rico free reign to explore their talents without the pressure of a label breathing down your neck. State-funded contemporary music projects are something that has completely changed the face of cities like Amsterdam today and is sure to have played a significant role in the Swiss musical environment. It doesn’t directly do much for independent labels according to Mouthwtareing boss Andreas, but definitely has a positive effect on the music in the long run.

What’s clear now is that there is definitely social circumstances that have all had a hand in the music currently coming out of Switzerland, but there’s no crucial genesis that tie all these threads together. Some have likened this surge to Berlin at the start of the new millennium, but Fabio was quick to dismiss this notion, once again highlighting Switzerland’s size against the German city. “Something is happening but its not like Berlin. Here it’s pretty much flat all the time even if it’s moving.” It still doesn’t quite explain where it came from either. They might all be Jazz musicians who work in pretty close quarters with each other, but I never get the sense that they feed off each other creatively. Fabio for instance went to school with the keyboard player from Len Sander, but is still largely unaware of their output rather citing influences from further afield for Kamikaze. True’s Rico is a drummer like Julian, but their music is a world away from each other. I found that it starts with the individual and their influences. While Rico’s influenced by early eighties pop music from Sweden and the UK, Julian calls on influences closer to home. “In Switzerland there’s a major tradition in drumming. The military march stuff is super tight here.” Julian Sartiorius, who’s lived in Berlin also finds inspiration in his natural surround and the open spaces his hometown of Bern has to offer. “I like to be on the side of everything and not in the middle. Have a bit of solitude to really concentrate on my music. I prefer to live in Bern than Berlin. It’s good for the mind and creativity.” In complete contrast again, Fabio is spending more time in Berlin and already sites an influence form that metropolitan city. “We are often working in Berlin. It gives our project a chance to expand. Alex, Kamikaze’s drummer, is really influenced by the electronic music coming out of Berlin. I think it effects our music”

At the end of all these interviews, were back at square one. There’s no venue like Berghain or label like Warp that have given rise to anything comparable to a scene in Switzerland. The only thing that’s concurrent is the social circumstances from which this, often contrasting, music has risen. There’s thus nothing we can lump together in a single package for the public to digest easily. No, I think to sum up what’s happening in Switzerland we’ll have to go back to the beginning, because it’s all in Julian’s quote from the start: “If people are really creative, it inspires other people around. It’s not about the network; it’s about the spirit”