There's a crowd
Ah, the old country. In a German pub with Gemütlichkeit brimming, is giving the old-time house band much merriment. A slightly thuggish-looking patron slaps the waitress's backside appreciatively as she walks past his table. She turns around, not so appreciatively slaps him in the face, and walks on. The patron's male companion, who has been dawdling with a pocketknife, impulsively hurls it at the receding waitress. It enters right between the shoulder-blades. Pretty funny stuff, huh?
This sequence, from a video you won't see on MTV, is set to "Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha" by Germany's Trio. Flashing by in seconds, it's typical of the group's bizarre sense of humor also found in its recordings and live appearances. Is the US ready for Trio's stripped-down, dada-influenced music? Perhaps a better question is: Does Trio care that much about the US?
He sure looks like a punk. Stefan Remmler, Trio's singer/lyricist, sports severely cropped hair, an earring and, under his black sport coat, a T-shirt with a ripped collar. ("It's always tight," he explains.) But Remmler, like his band, can't be slotted that easily. For 10 years, he says, he would shave his head, go two years without a haircut "until I looked like a hippie," then shave his head again.
Such eccentricity and flirting with extremes fit right in with Trio. The band had an international million-seller last year with "Da Da Da I Don't Love You You Don't Love Me Aha Aha Aha." (Most people stop after "Da Da Da.") The song didn't sweep the US the way it did Europe and Canada, but no one who's heard it can deny its irritating appeal: How much more basic can you get than elementary electronic rhythm, simple lyrics (see title) and the guitar chords from "Louie Louie"?
Mercury Records obviously hopes Trio can add this country to its list of conquered nations. To that end Remmler is in New York and bound for Los Angeles to talk up his group's domestic mini-LP. Accompanying him is Trio producer Klaus Voorman, a celebrity in his own right thanks to his longstanding Beatles associations. (Voorman met the Fab Four during their Hamburg days, won a Grammy for designing the Revolver album cover, and has played bass on various ex-Beatles solo records.) Seated at a large conference table in Mercury's offices, the two tackle gargantuan salads - "colored white bread," Voorman sneers at the pumpernickel - and discuss the anomaly of a German band trying to "break" in the US.
Remmler, of serious mien, speaks virtually accent-free English; only occasionally obtuse syntax betrays his origins. He learned the language in school at Bremerhaven, and from listening to the US Armed Forces Network radio station in that north German city. The AFN station undoubtedly introduced him to rock music as well. He got involved in bands while in school, where he also met Gerd "Kralle" ("claw") Krawinkel, Trio's guitarist. It wasn't until 1980, however, that the two decided to make a living from music. Inquiring about pre-Trio activities ruffles Remmler's soft-spoken demeanor. "We don't talk about it," he says curtly. "What difference does it make when you hear a record, whether before I was a swimming instructor or a mailman or a teacher?" (The members, who don't look like they have to call home every night, are equally reticent about divulging their ages. "We are all 33," Remmler said last year. "We have all been 33 for three years and will continue to be so as long as Trio exists." In numerology there is strength!)
At first Remmler and Krawinkel had a conventional rock band instrumentation in mind. But after enlisting sad-eyed drummer Peter Behrens, a former circus clown, they found the three of them worked fine without a bassist or anyone else. Enter Trio. After rehearsing in a basement, the band made its live debut on Christmas, 1980. They also sent put demo tapes to record companies. One went to German Phonogram; Voorman, a freelance producer working as a Phonogram artist consultant, heard it and fell in love with the band.
"I thought it was great," he says in elegant British/German tones befitting his sharp features, greying wavy hair and trimmed beard. "I liked the rawness, the cheekiness to do something that simple. [Among the songs on the demo were "Sunday You Need Love Monday Be Alone" and "Broken Hearts for You and Me," both on the mini-LP.] It was not, 'You could do something with this'; it was just there."
Voorman went to see Trio perform and was even more convinced. "They go onstage and Stefan says, 'You know how awful it is when a guitar player takes a solo and the band stands around with nothing to do? We've solved this problem.' So they put up a little table with a net on it and play table tennis while Kralle's playing a guitar solo with rhythm boxes." Phonogram signed Trio to its Mercury label.
The band disappeared to Grossenkneten, a tiny village west of Bremen. Voorman knew of a farmhouse there whose pigsty had been turned into a recording studio. The resulting debut album, released in Germany in 1981, is searing in both its primordial music - Krawinkel strumming loudly against Behrens's thumping drums - and emotionally wounded lyrics, recited by Remmler in a burned-out monotone.
Trio had formerly "toured" only on weekends. With the album out they began gigging in earnest. But "Da Da Da" was still to come. The single appeared in spring, 1982, and was hastily added to the album when it began taking off. The relentless Casiotone that sets the song apart from Trio's earlier work was added by "coincidence," Remmler says; a friend of Krawinkel's who "couldn't get along with it" donated the instrument to the band.
The easily comprehended "Da Da Da" entranced Europe, made it to #2 in the English record charts, and went gold in Canada. The US, where "Da Da Da" never made it beyond dance-club cult popularity, poses more of a problem. The stateside mini-LP, not wanting to alienate monolingual Amerikaners, leans toward the English-speaking portion of Trio's repertoire. ("Da Da Da" had been recut with its terse vocal in English.) That a German rock band sings in English at all these days seems to violate the spirit of the neue deutsche Welle - the "new German wave" of groups free from verbal colonialism.
"We dare to be different!" Remmler jokes. "All three of us were raised on American and English music. We all loved the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan - we didn't buy any German records, we bought English-language records. It was normal for me to write songs in English; when the guitarist played a riff, my head was in English. "Later I also started to write in German. I looked at my songs and said, 'This is crap. Why do I do this in English? The second verse is good; we keep that. The first verse is crap - cut that out, we do it in German.'"
Remmler says his choice of language wasn't dictated by commercial concerns. Anyone who's heard Trio can bear that out. But the band shunned the other end of the hip spectrum as well.
"It took some cut in the head that we three said, hey, we do what we want to here, and we don't give a damn what's happening in Hamburg or Berlin. We were not trendies; we didn't read avant-garde magazines or were selective record buyers."
"Me neither," Voorman chimes in suddenly.
Remmler claims his musical taste encompasses Waylon Jennings, Bing Crosby, Foreigner, reggae and punk. Only the last of these influences makes it to Trio's minimal music, although Remmler and Krawinkel's slurred vocal harmonies sound midwived by the Rolling Stones.
"I think my music is very German," Remmler says. "The drummer is definitely German, with the stress on the first beat. [Behrens also plays standing up. Why? "Hemorrhoids."] Rock music always stresses the second and fourth beats, march music the first and third. We cut out very much on purpose this so-called 'groove' - what either blacks or California people like the Eagles can do better. It's no use our trying to sound like a California band. That's not our reality."
On the other hand, any band professing to play rock or rock-derived music can't escape certain influences. "All musicians who picked up a guitar 10 years ago have been influenced by Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, by Americans and funk," Remmler states, possibly indicating Krawinkel's experience. "Because there are no Vorbilder, no adequate idols in Germany, we have a great problem of not being stuck copying. We live in Germany now, and we've been raised on American rock 'n' roll music. That's what you hear."
That, and Remmler's mostly downbeat lyrics. Why so glum, chum? "Look around!" he exhorts. "What happy things are to be described?
"It's not true that I'm a sad and disappointed person," Remmler resumes after this mock-pompous outburst. "It's just reality. The things that really bother me are not stuff like the atomic threat, but 'I met this girl, and….' That's what it's about. Happy relationships never bring out songs.
"I would not bring out a totally private song. Who cares whether my foot is broken or not? When I write about relationships I think in a way that people can say, the same thing happened to me or to a friend."
Does he think his lyrics are funny?
"I'm afraid they are!" Remmler emits a rare laugh. "Some are not at all meant to be funny but are taken funny. I didn't see no funniness at all about 'Da Da Da'; I really meant it. It was only later that I realized lots of people thought it was very funny."
Intentionally or not, Trio has been propelled into star status in their native land. Voorman mentions that on the Lufthansa flight to the US, the steward, recognizing Remmler, greeted him with "Aha aha aha!" Trio's Grossenkneten residence has turned into a business office, forcing the band to rent a house in Switzerland to plan the next album.
"It sounds luxurious," Remmler apologizes, "but I would lay in bed at night thinking about the last contract and not the last song. We had to move just to get off the telephone and get down to the music again."
At least Trio's rapid ascent - from tiny clubs in tiny villages to an open-air concert in front of 30,000 people - hasn't affected their dry, self-mocking wit. They ingenuously printed their Grossenkneten address and phone number on the front cover of their German LP; a subsequent live cassette adds their bank account number.
"We were playjng small places even on our last tour," Kemmler says. "We could have gone big but we said, no, this is all too normal."
Voorman's involvement with Trio extends beyond the recording studio. The producer feels very committed to the band.
"They didn't have anybody who had connections. I'm not the perfect manager - I'm not the manager," he corrects himself; German law forbids bands to have managers. "Well, let's say you are the manager but you're not the perfect one," Remmler kids him. "It's not an easy task, 'cause I think I know it all. He's done very well." "Thank you," Voorman replies.
Whatever Voorman's position, it's a curious one, straddling both artist and record company. German Mercury would certainly like Trio to issue a second album while they're still hot, but both Remmler and Voorman deny the label has exerted any pressure.
"Maybe they're not that pleased," the producer suggests. "An album doesn't come out when they want - but they see we're very serious about the work."
For his part, Remmler has doubts about a second Trio album. "Maybe we have five, six, seven songs we record. So what? I don't care. We have a new single ["Anna - Let Me In Let Me Out," also on the US mini-LP] which everybody thinks has potential." Voorman raps on the wood tabletop.
"We realize we don't have to follow rules," Remmler continues. "We can create much more excitement and puzzled-ness if we don't stick to those rules. So far it's worked."
This unconventional attitude may explain Trio's loyal German following - and Remmler's doubts about this country.
"In Germany we are very close to the audience. When I talk [between songs], little gags reflect what people experience as well as what we experience 'cause we live in the same time. If we would succeed in the States, we gotta know more about the American audience. I'm very scared of what most bands do, which is just fly over to New York, do one media gig and fly away again. It's like a zoo: You watch, but it's not like on Monday you've seen the same television show which on Tuesday you talk about with people.
"Of course, I cannot pretend I don't think about getting a foot on the American audience. But I don't think too much about it. I remember our success was not that we had a concept, and did much thinking trying to be clever. Success came from our being ourselves."
And their music proves Trio's not like everybody else.