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Interview: Jan Lüftner (There's A Light)

18 January 2022

Photo by Dimi Conidas

Although the last two years have been trying, more and more artists are taking advantage of the situation to produce some of their best material. For Germany’s post-rock quartet There’s A Light, the burden of being beholden to touring or using the band as the sole source of income isn’t a consideration – this is a project that four friends use to get together every couple of years to produce breathtaking, mostly-instrumental soundscapes with the requisite ebbs and flows commonly found in this genre of music.

In the summer of 2020, long-time friends Andreas Richau (vocals/bass), David Christmann (guitars), Jonas Obermüller (keys), Markus Dold (guitars) and Jan Lüftner (drums) converged in a cabin in France to catch up, plot out a new album and start writing and recording what would become their second album, f̶o̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶m̶a̶y̶ ̶I ̶h̶o̶pe̶? for what must we hope? As the pandemic raged on, and the idea of getting together in a studio seemed more and more improbable by the day, the members moved forward by recording their parts individually at home or in nearby recording studios.

Clocking in at 60 minutes, f̶o̶r̶ ̶w̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶m̶a̶y̶ ̶I ̶h̶o̶pe̶? for what must we hope? is a beautiful sounding album that uses vocals sparingly, each member playing an integral role as the songs provide inspiration to early morning sunrises, late afternoon daydreams and evening stargazing.

As the busy year for There’s A Light came to an end, Lüftner hoped on a Zoom call from his home in Germany to talk about the album’s theme, shooting videos and the music that inspired him in 2021.

Thinking back to the start of 2021, are we, at the start of 2022, where you thought you would be as a band or did 2021 evolve in ways that you hadn’t thought of?

JAN: Back in January 2021, I think we were thinking about releasing this album. It turns out, we wanted to release it much more earlier than December. There are always so many things to do – music has to be written, recorded, mixed, mastered. It all takes a long time. Looking back, we didn’t have this big label in our back pocket for this album. We hadn’t thought that we could make it with the pandemic and record it our own way. I think we’re pretty happy right now with having the album out.

When did you record the album?

JAN: We recorded in 2021. I recorded the drums in February, I went to a studio in Frankfurt, Germany and the rest we recorded at home, by ourselves. We recorded everything in 3 or 4 days, the whole record. Because of the pandemic and lockdown, we couldn’t lock ourselves into a rehearsal space and record with five people so we split up into three different home studios and then we recorded simultaneously. Every session was on the Google Cloud. We had to manage when there were two of us working on the same session, we had so much fear that we would over write the other stuff from the other people. But, it turns out, it worked pretty good. It was interesting.

Was it difficult, mentally, not to all be in the same room while recording?

JAN: We’re not just a band, we’re friends for 15 years. It’s always cool recording, drinking beer, talking. It was kind of sad that we didn’t have the experience of hanging together in a room and having a good time. It was different but it was okay, it was the best we could do in this situation.

With mostly instrumental music, the band controls the theme and the narrative. The theme for this album could have been the last days of dinosaurs on earth and I would have been able to envision that through the ebbs and flows of the songs. The theme that I took away from the album is sort of a “coming out of the darkness and into the light; searching for and finding hope”. Is that what you were going for?

JAN: I don’t think we’re coming from the darkness and searching for the light. I think we’re all doing pretty good in life but we had a lot of conversations about “what is hope?” because we think hope is always something which is seen as positive. But, it’s not only positive. If you’re hoping for something, grabbing onto something that will never come, which will take you a lot of your life and not doing other things, then hope is not something cool. It’s something that breaks you or stops you. I wouldn’t say that we’re these hopeless guys who are looking for hope. It’s only a thing that we’re interested in.

Do those conversations happen while you’re writing the music? Before you’re writing the music?

JAN: It’s a mix of everything. We started writing this album in 2018. We’re living far from each other now so to meet each other, we rent a cabin in France for a week. We went there with our instruments to see what would happen. Everything starts there. There were discussions and writing, it all starts in this cabin but those conversations have been going for two-and-a-half years.

How do you come up with song titles for instrumentals?

JAN: It’s different. Sometimes we write a song and we have no idea what the message is behind the song. Not in many cases, though. Everyone has thoughts on the title and then we talk to each other and we try to match something that everyone is fine with. Most of the time, before we start writing a song, you have a quote in your head or a picture. For example, I wrote the last two songs and the last one, “Even in the Darkest Place,” was inspired by the Matrix movies. In the last one, there is this scene where Neo and Trinity are flying over Machine City and there is one scene where they are crashing through the clouds. It’s the only 7 seconds in the whole trilogy where you have sunlight and this was the starting point. The title, “Even in the Darkest Place” was born out of the idea of writing the music.

When you get together in the cabin, is there a leader in the band, somebody who takes charge?

JAN: We don’t have one lead writer, we do everything together. I wrote the last two songs by myself. There were a few changes that the other people suggested and we’re pretty open to everything. So, everyone brings his ideas into it and we try to write the song as a whole, as a collective.

There are a few songs that have vocals. Do you go into those knowing that they’ll have vocals?

JAN: We don’t plan, “Oh, let’s write a song with vocals.” It happens while writing, sometimes the vocals fit, sometimes they don’t make sense. I think we had five more songs with vocals but after recording, we decided that it didn’t feel right so we canceled it.

I’ve listened to the album on my ear buds and it sounds great. But, when I listened with an over-the-ear headset, it was so much richer. Do you listen back to the recordings to see what it sounds like on various speakers and headphones?

JAN: I think we’re all a bit of sound nerds. We’re always looking for good speakers. Most of us have studio speakers at home, so we’re always looking for having quality equipment to listen to the music for reference. For me, I like to listen to music in general in the car because I think what sounds cool in the car sounds good everywhere. But, we’re don’t try to listen on this Bluetooth speaker and that Bluetooth speaker.

Where I recorded the drums, the guy from the studio who mixed and mastered the record, he played the record through 20,000 euro speakers. The whole record went through tens of thousands of euros worth of equipment and, I thought, “It’s pretty amazing but in the end it doesn’t matter if you listen to it on a mobile phone.” It’s pretty crazy how much you put into creating the perfect sound and then a lot of people listen to it on broken speakers.

You released 3 videos, one a month, leading up to the release of the full album. Was that part of the release plan?

JAN: Yeah. It was planned to have 3 singles with videos and then releasing the album. Then, after the album, we recorded a live session and put it out.

There were 2 videos that the band didn’t appear in. Did you have any creative input into those videos?

JAN: The first one, for “Elpis”, with the sunset, we have a good friend who is also in a post-punk German band, we met him some years ago. He’s working as a video creator. He filmed the second one, the one we’re in and he also filmed the live session. We had no idea, we gave him the song and said, “Make something.” He called us and said, “I’m going to holidays in Greece with my girlfriend. I said to her, ‘You’re the main actor in this video.’ Is this okay with you?” And we said, “Of course.” It was pretty amazing but unexpected cool video. For “Be Brave, Fragile Heart,” I did the video, the whole video. It was all D.I.Y.

In the “Dark Clouds Behind, Bright Skies Ahead” video, was it important to have a shot of each of you smiling during what was otherwise a pretty serious performance?

JAN: The video and the music is serious. I always say that our music is not easy listening music. If I think about what is the standard today for easy listening, for instance two-and-a-half-minute trap songs, that’s not our music. The concept of the video should sound and look like a serious video. But, I think we’re funny guys, we’re not like this totally serious band.

You were able to get together as a band to shoot that video. I know you recorded separately but have you had a chance to be together in the last 2 years?

JAN: We were in France, for the second time, in the summer of 2020 in a cabin. And then we didn’t get together in person again until March or April of 2021. Everyone was writing down what they needed to practice and play, and then everyone practiced at home on their own, and then we met together and recorded the stuff.

Is There’s A Light a touring band?

JAN: Not really. We play local shows in Germany and we plan to tour Europe but we’re not young anymore (laughs) and we don’t have the time to tour. Every one of us is working a day job. With making music for a living, you’re always risking a lot and I don’t know if we want to give up the safety we have right now.

As bands look for new ways to deal with a pandemic world, doing things like you did with a live session is pretty cool because I don’t imagine, even during non-pandemic times, that you might do a full U.S. tour. But, still, I can say now that I’ve seen you live … on my TV.

JAN: It’s a dream for us to play a U.S. tour and we get a lot of requests to play outside of Germany from people in Costa Rica and Australia. It’s crazy. We had one tour in our life and it was in China. We did 11 or 12 concerts in China, three weeks in 2018. Some were in sold-out venues. It was crazy, this was the only tour we’ve ever done and nobody knows us in Germany and in China they know us!

Did you do anything special to celebrate the release of the album?

JAN: We met on Saturday, the day after the album came out. We wanted to practice because we wanted to have our release show but we had to cancel it because of the Coronavirus. So, instead of practicing, we celebrated a bit – we had some beers and listened to music. It was fun.

Do you think you might do some more live recordings since you won’t be touring?

JAN: We haven’t thought about that. It would be cool to have a real live streaming concert. But, with this live session we filmed and recorded, on one hand it’s not very cheap to do and it’s also extremely time consuming. I recorded and mixed the live session and it’s only four songs. If we do an hour, from my point, it would be too much. Maybe we will do it and grab some people to do the recording and mixing for us.

Whether released in 2021 or not, what were things you listened to throughout the year?

JAN: I liked the Night Verses record. It’s a band from America, a three-piece that call themselves post-rock. It’s the drummer of Fever333 and it’s pretty amazing technical stuff. The album is called From the Gallery of Sleep. I think it’s from 2019 but I discovered it in 2021. I also discovered a British band called Sleep Token, they are pretty mystical playing with robes and masks. What I’ve also been listening to, because a friend of mine is playing bass, is a German black metal band called Der Weg Einer Freiheit. In English, that means something like “The path of freedom.”

Anything unexpected that you listen to?

JAN: I like the new Dua Lipa record. I think it’s so cool. I like the retro ’80s pop disco sound. It’s pretty interesting how old styles, like snare drums from the ’80s, can come back and how ’90s sounds took over modern music.

What does 2022 look like for you?

JAN: For the band, we want to play a few concerts. We’ll see what the summer and autumn bring. We have planned two concerts for the spring but I don’t know if we can play them. I think, for sure, we’ll start writing new things because we know how much time you need to get the records done. We’re writing new songs right now, right after the new release, because we like making music. For me, I will start to build my own studio, for hobby, and see what will happen.