> HIRSCHE NICHT AUFS SOFA (HNAS) Interview by Gil Gershman (2002)
Hirsche Nicht Aufs Sofa. A misunderstood proposition beginning with the name, variously translated as “No deer on the sofa” and “deer not on the sofa,” and wide open to interpretation. Is that a command? A rule of the house? An observation? Or just a kooky turn of Teutonic phrase adopted by two teens for their Surrealist rock n’ rumblings? Call it what you will, the spirit of lo-fi adventure that Christoph Heemann and Achim “Dr. P.Li Khan” Flaam invoked in their Aachen, Germany studio and dubbed HNAS has undeniably infused and influenced a worldwide network of underground artists. Willful obscurity and no small amount of infighting made the bulk of the HNAS catalog a cult curiosity, kept well within a very elitist circle of covetous collectors. Those with less disposable income had to be content with a serviceable likeness of the HNAS legend cobbled together with cuts scavenged from countless compilations. Even in the enlightened days of filesharing, one could still goggle at the princely eBay bids fetched by original copies of the obscenely limited (or so dubious rumors have it) LPs.
Apparently fed up with Heemann’s terse dismissal of HNAS in interviews, and with such collector-baiting games as expensive CD-R reissues limited to less than 100 copies, Achim has made the meat of the HNAS discography available to all who would open their ears to its many delights. No stingy art editions, these CD reissues are remastered, generously expanded, moderately priced, and seemingly here to stay (though you never know with these folks). Your reaction to such bounty may fall somewhere between “huzzah! ’bout friggin time!’ and “I should care why, now?” It’s unlikely to appeal to everyone, but the music of HNAS is fun, often fascinating, and certainly worthy of investigation.
Following dozens of self-released tapes on Dom (“the cassette label that should not have existed”), HNAS took its act even further underground – literally. 1985’s Abwassermusik LP found the duo, amalgamated with the enigmatic Mieses Gegonge, recording in an Aachen sewer main. An exercise in extreme claustrophonia, the reverb-drenched set of guitar klang and synth wibble, sparsely thumped and hammered pipes, histrionic moaning, and even the occasional ringing chord or horn honk add up to an uncommonly focused HNAS offering. Whereas Heemann’s homebrew dronology and Achim’s savant sampling would come to define the fatally split sonic personality of HNAS, here the two principals are not yet at loggerheads. On the contrary, both sound equally enthused drumming up this impressive cod-ritual racket in the dank, echoey space beneath their hometown streets. Musically, HNAS’ “waste-water music” burrows comfortably into the space carved 15 years earlier by Tangerine Dream and later shared with projects as diverse as E.A.R., Sonic Youth, and Fushitsusha. The reissue loses the gorgeous gothic woodcut that graced the LP, but gains ample bonus material salvaged from those notoriously unobtainable Dom tapes. How unobtainable? Try limited edition of one, in a clay jar.
If Abwassermusik invited a contemporary comparison, it was to the cosmic mind-melt music being brewed by Nurse with Wound’s Steven Stapleton and his United Dairies label associates. So it was no surprise when HNAS’ Melchior (Aufmarsch der Schlampen) LP hit the streets in 1986 – in a preposterously large edition of 1,000! – bearing a UD catalog number. The Dom tapes and less introverted Abwassermusik moments such as “Die Gloria Hose” had featured HNAS’ experiments with record samples, pitch-spindled, folded, and mutilated in beautifully Dada-damaged fashion. In Stapleton, HNAS had both an admirer and an obvious mentor in the finer points of sonic Surrealism. A diehard devotee of Krautrock, he must have been tickled to work with such direct descendents of the discipline as Heemann and Achim. Both Stapleton and his better-half Diana Rogerson contributed to Melchior, as did Achim cohort Lorelei N. Schmidt and other members of the growing HNAS coterie (Andreas Frantek, Martin B. Klaeren). HNAS reputation is based on albums like Melchior – perhaps Melchior in particular – and with good reason. UD’s relatively broad distribution made the album semi-accessible, so it’s one of the more familiar HNAS opuses. Melchior also happens to be an extremely musical piece of work, crammed with odd instruments, ragged grooves, and endless surprises. Jags of expertly cut-and- pasted sonic strangeness disrupt kaleidoscopic raga-rock motifs. Weird, weightless drones and wind-warped chimes are sucked into a Neu!Wave hell of slowed Suicide synthpulse and exorcised in cackling bursts of technopagan revelry. An a cappella hymn from Frau Schmidt calls up a free-jazz furor of synths, sax, and slide whistles that engulfs her like glittering motes of Merlin magic. To divulge any more would chance spoiling the sense of surprise that HNAS worked so carefully to cultivate. For those seeking a crash course in Krautrock’s weirder byways, the echoes of such revered obscurities as Limbus 4, Annexus Quam, Kalacakra, Carol of Harvest, Exmagma, and Anima are all plainly audible here, as are the more familiar touchstones of Faust, Can, and Amon Düül (I and II). Reference could likewise be made to obvious kindred spirits in France, Italy, Japan, and elsewhere. Yet, like Nurse with Wound, Melchior manages to be so much more than a composite homage to very cool influences. A legitimate masterpiece of modern Surrealism, bolstered on the reissue with ten choice bonus cuts culled from the same fertile period, this is an ideal place to start exploring HNAS. Look for the telltale B&W collage of curious smiles, beaky birds, and wide, twinkling eyes.
1986 also saw the release of Küttel Im Frost, this time without Stapleton in tow. Küttel tones down the Krautrock content in favor of a twisted lo- fi pop aesthetic. Exit jazz-tinged grooves and sitar guitars – enter drum machines and goofy vocals. Don’t be misled by the humorous surfaces, though. Heemann and Achim were working some serious sound science in their adept handling and manipulation of wide-ranging musical and non-musical elements. Going by catalog numbers, Küttel postdates Melchior. On sonic evidence it’s also the more audacious of the two albums, and therefore quite a bit more uneven. Yet Küttel contains one of HNAS’ most beautiful diversions, the straight (well…) acid folk of “Grundgütiger! Der Drang Verstärkt Sich (K.I.F.).” Granted, the folk-rock movement of the ’60s and ’70s had notable impact in Germany, spawning Fairport Convention sound-alikes by the bushel. Still, it’s startling to come across such a brazen throwback to the heyday of Hölderlin and Lang Syne amidst Kuttel’s woozy mash-up of samples and song. Kuttel additionally shows the first indication of its two orchestrators’ incompatible approaches. For the time being, Achim’s flashy sample splicing and knack for Cluster-like melodies complement rather than combat Heemann’s delicate drones and decomposed sonics, especially on the dizzyingly detailed “Man Warf 2 Stunden Möbel Aus Dem Fenster.” But the cracks were beginning to show.
The rift widens with 1987’s Im Schatten der Möhre, though still not damagingly enough to send simmering tensions boiling over into conflict. New blood in the person of Heemann’s brother Andreas may have both hastened the inevitable dissolution of HNAS and held the project together for a little while longer. His fingerpicking and diplomatic chime/strum guitar stylings are a refreshing instrumental element that splits the difference between Heemann and Achim’s divergent intents. Andreas subtly fortifies Heemann’s wrought drones and weighted textural shifts against some of the more blustery tape manipulation. Cry nepotism if you must, but HNAS created some of its most enduring work with Andreas in its lineup. As mighty as Melchior is, Im Schatten der Möhre more effectively embodies all that was great about HNAS. This is sonic alchemy of a rarefied sort, encompassing the sublime “Bobbejaanland,” which abandons Alice deep within a Dada wonderland illogical enough to disorient Dali, and the Morr Music pre-image of “Poppelsdorfer Sequenzen/Lottoglück Unt With Cannons.” Even Heemann still speaks fondly of the album, and his Streamline label widely reissued Im Schatten just prior to Achim’s private Dom reissue campaign. At the risk of playing favorites, the Dom reissue is the one to seek out. Not only are the tracks indexed separately, but the seven bonus cuts are every bit up to the standard of the album. Another triumph. For some, The Book of Dingenskirchen (1986/87, released in 1988) is the HNAS masterwork. One wonders whether such high regard owes as much to the scarcity of the original LP as it does to the quality of the music contained therein. Though compellingly odd, this isn’t one of the easier HNAS albums to slap on the deck and listen to straight through. Dingenskirchen sounds like an especially uneasy compromise between Heemann’s increasing concern with sparseness and Achim’s flair for mischief. The centerpiece, 16 minutes of stark and creepy exposition that anticipate Heemann’s solo recordings, contrasts with the romping German New Wave of “Die Gretchenfrage.” Some of the juxtapositions are just plain bizarre, even within the permissive limits of Surrealism. “Gurka,” for example, plays a free-music guitar tantrum off sequenced electronics straight out of Berlin. File under: things that make you go “Huh?!” There are some real gems among the ten bonus tracks, including a WAY wiggy big-band jazz workout in the classic “Silvester-Effekte.”
And then the fighting began – over artwork, over releases, over label affiliations. Dom splintered into multiple factions, a measure that eased tensions just enough to allow Heemann and Achim to continue working together. Just barely. 1988’s Ach, Dieser Bart! LP is as bipartisan as Spacemen 3’s Recurring. Heemann and Martin filled one side with 23 minutes of lusciously imbricate synthetic and acoustic themes that spotlight Martin’s exquisite picking. On the other side, Achim and friends did their thing. The two sections have since been reissued separately, with the Heemann/Martin piece turning up on Lebenserinnerungen Eines Lepidopterologen, Robot Records’ essential 2CD retrospective of the brothers’ solo and collaborative works. Martin’s “Doppelpunkt Vor Ort” 10″ is simply fantastic, and a must-hear for any Füxa fan. Achim’s side of Ach, Dieser Bart! was ostensibly broken up and strewn across the Dom reissues. With such scant liner notes, it’s difficult to be sure. Even the most stalwart HNAS-heads have been unable to trace the sources of some of this bonus material.
Defying all odds, Heemann and Martin kept the HNAS convoy rolling throughout the next few years. Though quite patchy, and one suspects less than cooperative, the project’s final three CDs are much better than you might expect. Musik für Schuhgeschäfte may conclude with a series of irritating stereo pranks, but the digital clarity of HNAS’ first CD recording greatly enhances the Heemanns’ harmonic moire on “Zauberhaft Schöne Inseln” and adds depth of field to the disparate layers of mayhem and meditative music. There are many beautiful moments here – notably “Provinzielle Atmosphäre” – as well as one of the guiltier pleasures within the HNAS catalog, the ecstatically goofy “Das Dynamische Dreieck” (imagine the superhappyfunnest kid’s-show theme played on power tools). 1992’s Willkür Nach Noten continues the trend, with less antics, a somewhat higher dispose/treasure ratio, and an alarming array of elk imagery. Maybe this is the source of the popular mistranslation of HNAS as “Moose without a Sofa.” But then why wasn’t the project named Elch Nicht Aufs Sofa? No, “Hirsche” is definitely deer, not elk/moose. So what gives, guys? In any case, Willkür was pretty much the last gasp of HNAS. Achim’s Dom Elchklang (there’s the moose!) collected stray tracks, including the entirety of a choice 1989 LP ( Bitte Werfen Sie Ihren Müll Aus Dem Fenster) as the Gengenstände Fallen Zu Boden CD. Still worth finding, especially for Bitte… and the rapturous synthesis of Tangerine Dream atmospheres and Can lockgroove in “Welt der Getränke,” but definitely a disc that draws the curtain on HNAS with more of a whimper than the thunderous bang this unique unit deserved.
As HNAS gradually disbanded, Heemann gravitated towards collaborations, fortifying friendships with David Jackman (Organum), Jim O’Rourke, Masami Akita (Merzbow), and various members of the Nurse with Wound, Current 93, and Legendary Pink Dots camps. These alliances have paid off in recent years, with the Mirror (Heemann and Andrew Chalk) and Mimir (Heemann, LPD’s Edward Ka-Spel and Silver Man, and Jim O’Rourke) projects going especially strong. Achim recorded the bizarre solo Dropoutdrama album and kept himself busy in “avant-garde” electropop projects Anemonengurt and Rowenta/Khan. Aside from the odd Krautrock homage and the present reissue campaign, he has mainly focused on his arm of the Dom franchise, overseeing a label that went through several confusing name changes while scouring the four corners for unusual acts – like Windy City boy/girl punk poets Algebra Suicide, S&M performance artist Deborah Jaffe, and Japanese ritualist duo Jack or Jive. Meanwhile, Heemann’s Dom Bartwuchs evolved into the Streamline label, through which he has preserved such historical pieces as minimalist Ragnar Grippe’s masterful Sand and the astonishing albums of far-gone Canadians Intersystems, alongside newer works by under-appreciated German pioneers Ralf Wehowsky and Limpe Fuchs. Heemann has also built up a respectable solo catalog, with sparse ambient opuses inspired by filmmakers like Louis Malle, Andrei Tarkovsy, and Alain Resnais, as well as a pair of collaborations with Keiji Haino and Merzbow. And somehow, between activities, he still found the time in the early ‘90s to ride the rails around Germany, introducing his friends to a curious proto-glitch LP by Portugal’s Nuno Canavarro.