Viennese Velvet Underground
Sausages instead of bananas, Schwedenplatz instead of Lexington Street, and Vienna 2016 instead of New York in the late 60s. As the band project Buben im Pelz (Boys in Furs) the bustling musicians and radio broadcasters Christian Fuchs and David Pfister beam the legendary farewell to the hippie era – The Velvet Underground & Nico – into the 21st century and into the world capital of grumpiness.
Our editor Werner Sturmberger met with Christian Fuchs and David Pfister at the ORF broadcasting studio in Vienna. In the conversation they explain why German isn’t groovy, why they can’t get into Austropop, and why the hype around Vienna is justified.
Both of us aren’t vegans, but we don’t slaughter animals everyday either
Werner Sturmberger: What’s your opinion on the subjects of eating sausages and wearing furs? Both are rather disputed cultural techniques.
David Pfister: Even with the creative freedom we have, you have to live up to a few things when you interpret The Velvet Underground and “remain true” to the original at least a little bit. For example, “Venus in Furs” as “Venus im Pelz” (The “Venus im Pelz” video – and a couple others – can be found at the end of the interview – editor’s note).
Christian Fuchs: Velvet Underground “light” doesn’t work, not just a soft version of something that once was. Either all the way or not at all. People actually said: “Really? Why don’t you call yourself Buben im Kunstpelz (Boys in Fake Furs)!” Lou Reed took Venus in Furs from Sacher-Masoch. You can’t just stick her in a fake fur coat. I don’t have a fur coat at home, but I wear leather shoes and a leather jacket right now. Both of us aren’t vegans, but we don’t slaughter animals everyday either.
The fur remains, but the banana on the famous Velvet Underground cover has mutated into a sausage...
DP: The sausage is a fitting symbol for Austria…
CF: … and Vienna. We even ironically used a cucumber on the cover for the first single – although we are far away from any form of irony, of course. That was vegan, so to say. But Vienna, after all, is more like a hot dog stand.
You sing in Austrian dialect. Why “Buben im Pelz” and not “Buama im Pöz”?
DP: The name just happened. We were talking about the project in a train and as a joke called it Buben im Pelz for the meanwhile. Then the name just stuck. “Bub” isn’t exactly a High German word. So I think the name sums up the Austrian roots pretty well.
CF: We operate in a gray zone. It’s not important that we have a Viennese dialect dictionary under the arm and try to reproduce the Ottakring slang as best as we can. We also switch over to High German sometimes. As a band we don’t make any claim to preserve a dialect. Language is constantly changing.
Are you “true Viennese”?
DP: I’m born Viennese. I grew up in Kagran, live in Kaisermühlen. So I know the Viennese dialect very well.
CF: Styrian. I’m a fake.
"The Viennese dialect is nice to sing. It has many facets when it comes to ambiguity and nuances"
So you’re more a “trained Viennese”?
CF: Right. The Viennese dialect is the one in Austria that I was always attracted to the most. Normally, people from the countryside hate Viennese. But I always found it totally cool, so I became a fake Wienerlied song singer. (laughs)
What’s the allure of Viennese for you?
CF: For me, it is one of the coolest dialects in the entire German-speaking area: Viennese has a certain harshness, but it’s soft at the same time, and in terms of charm, aggression, and succinctness it is very close to English. I’m extremely anglophile.
One of our first translated songs was “Fuck Forever” or in Austrian “G’fickt Für Immer”, at that time still with the “Neigungsgruppe Sex, Gewalt und gute Laune” (the Sex, Violence and Good Mood Special Interest Group, together with the musicians and journalism colleagues Fritz Ostermayer and Robert Zikmund – editor’s note). This came quite close to the English version. Even Tocotronic – whom I deeply admire – couldn’t have done it so well. With the Velvet Underground album as our reference point, the task was even bigger because it’s such a musical monument. It definitely wouldn’t have worked for us in High German.
DP: The Viennese dialect is nice to sing. It has many facets when it comes to ambiguity and nuances. That’s fun. Boris Bukowski often accompanies us on the tour. We often cover his “Kokain” song.
CF: High German only works for me – and I have to say something now contrary to the whole music scene of the last ten years – when the music also responds to this language, and then it is brilliant. When it is exactly so rough – like Einstürzende Neubauten, for instance – or when the music is art music and the language an artistic language and has a connection with German Romanticism or the like.
But there’s a lot of now-established German language music that I just can’t listen to. German isn’t groovy and can’t do so much. I simply don’t like German. Also the argument that it is much closer to you, I find that totally wrong. In pop you escape precisely from things that are close to you. That’s the whole idea behind pop culture. Maybe, for me as a Styrian, Viennese is simply a matter of fact. It’s smooth.
"I don’t need a city where the trends change every 15 minutes"
Is Austropop important to you in some way?
CF: I grew up with Kottan and Qualtinger records. My parents never played Austropop. In a certain phase of my development Austropop was the “absolute enemy”. I preferred to listen to DAF and Fehlfarben over Stefanie Werger. With all of the revivals and hypes today, it’s all being rehashed, suddenly it’s all brilliant and cool, what used to be embarrassing. That doesn’t work for me at all.
DP: Austropop also didn’t play a role for me earlier. I just heard it on the radio as a child. I have an album by Ludwig Hirsch and one by EAV, but that’s it. I know Wolfgang Ambros’ work only faintly – and I’m also not interested.
What is the connection between the New York of The Velvet Underground and the Vienna of today where your adaptation resides?
DP: There’s definitely a parallel. The worn-down New York after the excess, shortly after the end of the Factory, when everything was threatening to fall apart. This feeling, which, looking back, one can only sense in films and music, is also reflected today in the European mindset. Everyone is tired of the escapisms of yesterday’s parties and awaits the future with a lot of fear. This doleful fatigue connects the two epochs.
I think it is a certain zeitgeist that connects today with back then. At the end of the 60s the dream was shattered. The Velvet Underground was the band that made a radical response to the end of Love & Peace. With Vietnam and Nixon came along something very dark. I don’t want to paint a black picture, but there is something not so pleasant – and hopefully not so bad – in store for us.
Was it difficult to find places in Vienna today that correspond with the New York of the 60s?
DP: That was actually a big task for us, to beam New York to Vienna, to find places and situations that reflect the original. “Waiting For My Man”, for example, was relatively easy. That all these places are in Vienna and the language is Viennese were always out of question.
If the aim is to write a song or a text that reflects a reality then I can only do it through situations and places that exist, that I have experienced, that I am familiar with. I don’t live in Dortmund and was never there, so it is Vienna and Viennese, quite simply.
"Austropop, with but a few exceptions, is for the most part conservative music"
Do you sometimes have escape fantasies in connection with Vienna?
DP: I travel a lot, so I “escape” for a couple months in the year. When I come back, I do notice time and again that Vienna is a sad, melancholic city. But I wouldn’t want to move away altogether.
CF: Me neither. What annoys me is the daily grumpiness, which we then stylize into the songs. You can use it as a weapon in the pieces. There’s nothing better than standing on the stage with this shield against the world built out of language and music. It’s a good feeling in this moment.
But in the everyday...phew. I was recently on the west coast in the USA, where everyone is so dreadfully nice. Then you come back, and the bus driver is grumpy, they’re grumpy at the airport and everywhere else, too. At the same time, Vienna is still a nice place to live and work. I don’t need a city where the trends change every 15 minutes.
What do you think about this image of Vienna from outside? Both the local bands and the city as well are pretty popular at the moment...
DP: Yeah, I think it’s totally justified. It’s true that Vienna and Austria in general – not just in relation to this dialect scene – are very creative, lively, and keeping pace on the cutting edge of alternative pop. It’s nice when you hear that internationally – meaning in Germany.
CF: I think so, too. There’s nothing negative to say. It totally doesn’t matter if we like one band or the other or not. Generally speaking, it is simply good that it is happening. Like with the electronic wave in the 90s.
DP: It’s great that there is a new generation of musicians that don’t have this weird inferiority complex because they come from Austria. It has evaporated in the last years, not least thanks to the work of the radio station FM4. I hope it also stays that way after the Vienna hype dies down. Cause it’s gonna die down.
Is something like an Austrian pop identity or tradition starting to take root?
CF: For me the biggest vacuum here is the lack of a rock ’n’ roll tradition of whatsoever kind. I don’t mean music necessarily rather the associated spirit, which doesn’t exist here or in Germany. That’s the biggest advantage that the Anglo-American countries have. Austropop, with but a few exceptions, is for the most part conservative music, and it was always anti-rock ’n’ roll in my eyes.
That’s why I’m thrilled that there are these Schnitzelbeat compilations, which collect really obscure rock ’n’ roll music from the 60s and 70s: It doesn’t have the slimy Kolonovits keyboards or the obedient and conservative character. All these bands are a bit nuts, and that’s what rock ’n’ roll is about – it has something antagonistic.
DP: Thanks to the groundwork of a lot of people, maybe a pop tradition is becoming visible just now. After three, four generations and a cautious beginning in the 50s, perhaps there is finally something of the sort.
CF: Naturally, I’m happy when a Wiener Lied band is successful in Germany. But it is even better when Schnitzelbeat compilations are selling like hotcakes at the Rough Trade store in London. Cosmopolitan is important to me. Not just this small and narrow-minded “Wir san wir” (We are we). That’s horrible.
So we can interpret your Viennese as cosmopolitan?
Christian Fuchs and David Pfister had their first experiences with cover versions in dialect together with Fritz Ostermayer and Robert Zikmund in the “Neigungsgruppe Sex, Gewalt & Gute Laune”. Christian Fuchs is currently tweaking his solo project; David Pfister just released the third full-length album with the psychedelic-wave trio “The Devil & The Universe”. As Buben im Pelz they are now writing for the second album and will play numerous concerts in Germany and Austria in 2016.
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