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Interview: Alexander Hacke & Danielle de Picciotto of hackedepicciotto

Alexander Hacke & Danielle de Picciotto of hackedepicciotto
26 January 2020

Photo by Sylvia Steinhäuser

Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto are calling from Berlin, Germany – but they won’t be there for long, because they have been self-described “nomads” since 2010. Married since 2006, but partners for many years before that, their constant togetherness while traveling suits them personally, and also works well with their wish to create and perform music under the band name hackedepicciotto. Their songs are cinematic, experimental, cerebral, and often quite powerful – as might be expected, given their musical histories (he, a Berlin native, is a longtime member of the legendary experimental/industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, for whom he currently plays bass; she, originally from Tacoma, Washington, is classically trained and has belonged to such cult bands as Crime & the City Solution and Space Cowboys, playing an array of instruments, such as violin, piano, and hurdy gurdy). On January 27, they will release their fourth album, The Current (for Einstürzende Neubauten’s own Potomak record label), which brings together all of their separate and shared influences. Thanks to its emphasis on percussive and electronic elements, it is also their most sonically intense effort yet.

Your songs seem to have a very cinematic element to them. Is that deliberate?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: In the last ten years or so, ever since we became nomads, our music has become cinematic because we adapted it to our lifestyle, giving up your home and the walls makes you want to give up walls in music, too. You can compare it to it being cinematic soundscape to our lives. But also making music to the landscapes that we’re going through. And not only the actual landscapes, but also the inner landscapes that we go through, or that we see as we’re traveling. So that’s maybe why it sounds so cinematic.

So you actually literally live as nomads?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: Yeah. Well, we basically gave up our house in 2010, and we traveled a long time – constantly, at the moment. We have studios in Berlin, but we’re still basically traveling a lot and haven’t settled down yet 100%, so it is like a nomadic experience.

What inspired you to undertake that lifestyle?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO It was necessity back in 2010, where we had renting a four-storey building that contained our studios, and we just had to be on tour constantly in order to pay the rent for it. And after a while, we thought, ‘This is ridiculous – we have to make some major changes in our life.’ We were thinking of trying to find a place that has affordable rent, a community of artists such as ourselves. Originally, we wanted to travel for 18 months in order to find that place. And of course we didn’t find it, and it’s been more than 10 years now.

ALEXANDER HACKE: But then again, if you don’t have a home base, if you don’t have a place to return to, you need to develop a sense of home within yourself, wherever you are. That really is what we learned in the past couple of years. It’s something that has to be trained, that we developed, it’s not just there. You have to work for it. There are certain techniques that you can do. Meditation is one thing. But then, also, just the way of looking at the world and looking at oneself within that world, one’s mortality, and trying not to get too attached to materialistic things,. I have been on tour all my life, and I would always compensate the feeling of being uprooted by purchasing things, gathering things. But if there’s no place to carry it all, you have to refrain from buying all that crap because you cannot carry it around anymore. You have to find a way to just be happy without gathering stuff that you are then responsible for.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: It’s actually interesting: if you think of it, a home is the collection of things that make you happy, and the best thing against depression is to surround yourself with things that make your senses happy. So, colors, perfume, taste, all those things – and that’s basically what a home is, because you collect everything that makes you happy. So if you’re traveling and you give that up, it’s actually quite dangerous because you are not surrounding yourself with things that make your senses happy, and you can become very depressed. So we did have those phases, too, where we didn’t realize that. And every time we’d come back to Berlin – we have a storage room here, and I’d go into the storage room, and suddenly I’d have this wave of happiness, and it’s because I saw all these things that are very personal to me. And that is important for the human nature. But if you can’t carry it around all the time, you have to do a collection of things that make you happy that are basically non-material. So it’s a really interesting experience, because it really changes your perspective on a lot of things.

Does this lifestyle mean that you always write your music together, too?

ALEXANDER HACKE: We develop the music together, but we have different approaches in how we follow up on concepts. I personally really like making mistakes, or following things that happen involuntarily. Even if something happens that goes contrary to the original concept, I might pursue that road. It’s also a matter of communication, of throwing a ball back and forth and question/answer sort of thing.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: So it’s usually, I have an idea, and I put it on the table, and then Alex reacts to it intuitively. That’s the way the ball goes back and forth. He says something, and then I say something to that. So it’s kind of like ping pong. It’s interesting in the way that we are very different in many things. I play classic instruments, Alex is a self-taught musician, he plays percussion instruments, rhythmic instruments, bass, and guitar. I play violin, hurdy gurdy, autoharp. And so we come from opposite ends. He likes things that are very loud and heavy – I mean, I like it, too, but I’m not actually very good at that, I’m good at melodic stuff and harmonies. And so because we come from opposite ends of the scope, it’s like one throws the ball and then somebody throws something back that the other one wouldn’t expect, so it’s like always playing with a random third thing that none of us really know what’s going to happen. Which is nice, because it’s something that we can only manage together. We could not do it separately, alone. And that way, it’s kind of magical.

But how do you know, when you’re working on a song, that it should be for this particular project instead of one of your other projects?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: We do have a couple of pillars within which we try to move specifically for our project. We worked on it for a long time to find out what fit, what works together best. We did a lot of projects before we actually found what we do now. It sounds simple, but we discovered that if each of us does which is the most natural for themselves. For instance, if I would now say, “OK, I want to do the percussion,” that just wouldn’t make sense. If Alex would say, “I want to play really delicate, high melodies,” which I do with the violin, it would be taking away what I’m good at. So we said, “On this project, let’s concentrate on sticking to this specific kind of music style.” I mean, Alex has done all kinds of different things – he does stuff with Neubauten, he’s done a country album, he’s done many different styles of music, and he’s prolific in all of them. And so we said, “When we do something together, we’re going to stick to this one that seems to work the best for us, specifically.” We don’t do Americana. We don’t do dance music – we don’t do anything that’s classifiable, it really has to be our sound.

You recorded this album in Blackpool, England, which seems like an unexpected choice – what made you decide to do it there?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: We had been to Blackpool before. It’s an unusual place because it’s kind of a workers’ holiday place – it’s not really fancy, [it] never had the rich going there, and we liked that. And so we said, “OK, we’ll go there and let that influence us, and see what happens.”

ALEXANDER HACKE: It is not Disneyfied. There’s no hipsters. There’s no fancy gourmet coffee shops and brand designer clothing. It’s all very basic and very proletarian and very real, and dangerous, for that matter. Of course, it has a certain romantic element, too, about it. There’s a little melancholy there, but most of all, it’s just a very, very honest place. And when you create art in a place like that, you cannot really bullshit yourself, you have to be real with what you do. And I think that was the main influence.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: It kind of reminded me a little bit of Detroit in that it had a really big heyday, and then because of changes in times, it went downhill, and it’s just forgotten and there’s a lot of empty places. What I really liked about it was because it was so poor, it was kind of peaceful – there wasn’t anything except a couple of bingo places, and it was very family-oriented. You saw a lot of families, much more than hip singles with their phones, drinking their lattes. It wasn’t like that at all. And it kind of relaxed me. For me, it really brought a sense of humanity back, which I miss in a lot of metropolitan cities, that people really take care of each other and they’re careful with each other. That’s what I also put on the album, because basically it comes down to that friendship, empathy and compassion is probably the thing that could probably save our world, and it’s really important to remember that.

How did you know when you first met that you’d have compatible styles, both in terms of music and lifestyle preferences?

ALEXANDER HACKE: I suppose it’s trial and error. We have so many shared experiences that inform how we look at the world, and therefore, we also share certain angles and perspectives on things, and that also is something that we have developed over time, I guess.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: We’ve known each other for a very long time. I moved to Berlin in 1987, and we met shortly after, but we only started collaborating in 2001. But because we had known each other for such a long time, we knew a lot of things about each other. We had the same friends. So it was like we had a shared history, even though we weren’t together back then. And then, when we started collaborating, it was like a continuation of what had been before. It’s pretty intense. We’ve basically been in one room together for the last ten years. So you have to develop mechanics that you just don’t really annoy each other, and on the other hand, you have to develop patterns in how to keep healthy, because traveling isn’t very good for the immune system. We stopped smoking, we became vegan. We really changed our lifestyle together in a very drastic way in the last ten years. That is a pretty intense way of being together.

Will you play shows in support of this album release?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: We’re probably going to have a tour in February and March in Europe. Then Alex goes on tour with Neubauten. Then we’re hopefully going to be able to do a tour in November or December in the U.S.

What are your shows like?

ALEXANDER HACKE: We used to do this very meditative, drone-y thing. Well, actually, when we first started out working together, we would make a lot of emphasis on the fact that we are doing audio-visual performances, meaning that the visual element was just as important, and just as emphasized as the audio part of it. And we started leaning more and more toward the audio recently, which is good, I think. We start to create these worlds and these atmospheres just by interacting and playing together and creating this world for the audience.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: I don’t want to do visuals for these shows because I really want the people to concentrate on all the different things that we’re actually doing onstage, because we noticed that when we show visuals, people are always riveted looking at the visuals, and the music is just an accompaniment to the visuals. The things that we play now are so intricate, and there’s so many layers to it, that we want them to see what we’re doing. It’s interesting to watch it because we do so many different things.

How can you do so much and not run out of energy?

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: I do it because I just love it, it’s the only thing that makes me happy. I’m not one that goes out and parties a lot. The thing that makes me happy is to work on my art, my music. So it’s not work for me, in that way, it’s just having fun all the time. And if I can do it together with amazing collaborators, then it’s heaven.

ALEXANDER HACKE: And for me, apart from the fact that I never learned another trade, I just wouldn’t know what to do with myself if I wouldn’t make music. It really also is the thing that I feel that I can operate most freely within – I don’t feel limitations. Every other thing that I might be doing, I will run into a wall eventually. But if I play music, I can move around very freely and very intuitively, so that also has a relaxing quality for me.

DANIELLE DE PICCIOTTO: We think that art is vitally important for human beings. It’s a responsibility that we have to fulfill.

hackedepicciotto will release The Current on January 27.