From his first recording, The Tribe, it was clear that Caspar Brötzmann was something more than a mere guitarist, he was a guerilla, prepared to use any means necessary to free his instrument for unknown purposes. Listening to the awesome wall of guitar sound he creates, turbulent forces and frightening beings emerge and struggle to free themselves, to find a shape. All in all, Brötzmann is probably the greatest unknown guitarist in the world—and maybe the greatest known one too. As Neil Kukarni wrote in Melody Maker, “Let’s see Brötzmann is God scrawled on a few walls.”
The intensity, and volume, of Caspar Brötzmann’s music may be partially genetic—his father Peter Brötzmann is one of the world’s leading free jazz players and his explosive saxophone is the reed equivalent of Caspar’s guitar. Caspar was weaned on the music of his father. As a child, his mother frequently took him and his sister to see his dad’s shows. Over 30 years later, it was the atmosphere rather than the music that remained clearest in his memory. And he says the constant presence of musicians of various cultures in their house in Wuppertal, Germany had the most lasting effect: “Growing up, from the time I was three or so, there were always black people sitting in the kitchen, talking in French, or English, or Dutch. That helped make my understanding of the world a lot more open. I learned to respect other people.”
When Caspar was 13, he heard Led Zeppelin’s single, “Communication Breakdown.” It was his first guitar epiphany. He was captivated by the sound an electric guitar could produce. It wasn’t long before he got his first instrument, an acoustic guitar. But, eventually, he began hanging out at the Jugendclub in town, a local activities center for teenagers, that had electric instruments. He started jamming with other kids, and by the time he was 16, he had formed his first band, the Caspar Brötzmann Band. On his 18 birthday, when he was legally of age to entera contract, he signed the papers for the bank loan, went down to a local music store and bought his first electric guitar. That guitar, a beautiful Fender Stratocast–er, was his first official act as an adult. A clerk at the store gave Brötzmann the only guitar instruction he ever had—a quick tour of the controls, strings, body, electronics and neck of his new instrument. Otherwise he is completely self–taught. “I can’t even read music,” he said, “[but] it’s not important. I’ve always played with my ears and my feelings.”
By the late 1970s, Brötzmann had acquired a reputation as one of the hot, up and coming guitarists in Wuppertal. Punk was the rage throughout Europe at the time and when he was 18 he was asked to join a punk band there, Die Alliierten. Punk music wasn’t exactly–what Brötzmann was looking for, but he was proud that he was able to persuade the band to perform political songs, “about the war, about skins and punks living together like human beings.” Die Alliierten played about thirty shows and cut a seven–inch single entitled “Die Alliierten,” but after a year Brötzmann was ready for something else.
He realized clearly for thefirsttime, on the evening of his second guitar epiphany, that he could find his own musical voice. “I was alone in the band’s rehearsal room, playing by myself. Suddenly, I said to myself, ’ That’s it, Caspar!’ I knew I had to find my own freedom in music, to make my own name, to work on expressing my own emotions. I really remember that night!” As he began to find his own sound he knew next to nothing about Jimi Hendrix. Ironically, Hendrix is the guitarist with whom he would most often be compared. When he listened to him for the first time—the Isle of Wight concert recording given to him by his mother—he didn’t especially like the music!
In 1981, when he was 20, he moved to West Berlin. The city had numerous advantages for a young musician: for one thing, while Brötzmann had exhausted the possibilities Wuppertal offered, Berlin had athriving underground music scene. Berlin was full of musicians, new wave was taking off, Einstürzenden Neubauten were becoming popular, and Nick Cave was starting to spend time in
Born October 13, 1962, in Wuppertal, Federal Republic of Germany.
Acquired first guitar, age 13, 1975; formed Caspar Brötzmann Band 1978; took out loan to purchase first electric guitar, October 13, 1980; joined Die Alliierten, C. 1980; moved to West Berlin and formed Caspar Brötzmann and the Bunkers, 1981; formed Massaker, 1986; released The Tribe, ZENSOR Musikproduktion, 1987; released– Black Axis, ZENSOR Musikproduktion, 1989; signed with Rough Trade, 1991; released Home, 1994; toured USA with Massaker, 1994–96; released Mute Massaker, 1999.
Addresses: Home —Berlin, Germany; Record company —Zomba Records, Eicklerstrasse 25, 44651 Herne, Germany.
the city. Another incentive was that the West German military could not draft a young man living in West Berlin. But Brötzmann had another reason: he was in love and his girlfriend was living in Berlin. Within a year he had formed anotherband, Caspar Brötzmann and the Bonkers. He made his first European tour with the band, a guitarbass–drum trio and won a Berlin rock award. Soon afterward, the band broke up. “The bass player and drummer were interested in a funky sound,” Brötzmann recalled. “I wanted something else.”
For a while he played solo gigs. For Brötzmann, playing solo means playing solo—just him and his guitar on stage, with no back–up at all. In 1986 he formed Massaker, another stripped–down power trio, anchored by Eduardo Delgado Lopez and Frankie Neumeier. “Massaker was the first real band of my own. I came into my own with that band,” he said, “everything up till then was just development.” The band recorded its first album for Zensor in 1987, The Tribe. It was a powerful blend of punk and Berlin New Wave, heavy metal, and the trademark style Brötzmann was still perfecting—the wall of guitar sound that mocked the boundary between musical tones and white noise. The next album, 1989’s Black Axis, was the first pure Caspar Brötzmann record. All the vestiges of punk and heavy metal are gone and recognizable riffs and normal rock chords are nonexistent. Instead his droning open strings and fierce hammers and slides up and down the neck created layer upon layer of guitar sound—orso it seemed, because everything on Massaker albums was played inreal time.
Audiences at their concerts heard all the pyrotechnics of Massaker’s recordings, charged with Brötzmann’s energy and sheer volume. Caspar continued to play solo in Massaker’s early days. Concerts around the time of Black Axis’s release would open with the mounting sound of Brötzmann’s guitar in the darkened hall followed by his appearance, unlit at the side of the stage. The guitar rose, screamed over the audience, blanketed it, two, five, ten minutes, before the drone and thump of Massaker sounded and the curtain finally rose on Delgado Lopez and Neumeier. Brötzmann’s solo sound was so overwhelming you were left wondering why he even needed a band.
Brötzmann signed with Rough Trade in 1991. Black Axis was followed by Der Abend der schwartzen Folkloreanà Koksofenin 1993. Preparing for its first tour of the United States, Massaker went into the studio in March of 1994 and cut Home, a collection of five pieces that originally appeared on The Tribe and Black Axis, records that were never released in America. The new recordings benefitted from greatly improved studio quality as well as six years of playing together. Home presented a mature, confident Brötzmann. He had found the freedom he first glimpsed in Die Alliierten’s practice room fifteenrecorded Zulutimewih Page Hamilton after recorded Zulutime wih Page Hamilton after years earlier. Massaker spent most of the next two and a half years touring the United States, visiting every state along the way except Alaska, Hawaii, and Florida, playing all of the big cities a couple times. “We made five tours, four of them by car. It was difficult. The toughest trip was driving from New York City all the way to Austin, Texas and going straight on stage as soon as we arrived.”
Brötzmann didn’t limit himself to playing with Massaker. He has performed with a number of artists from various genres. Soon after he formed Massaker he toured with Henry Rollins and Lydia Lunch on the Spoken WordTour in Europe. He has recorded with his father Peter Brötzmann, once as a duo on Vodka King, and once as part of the März Combo. He has performed with Pigface, Les Tambours de Bronx, and drummer/percussionist Hamid Drake. He accompanied vocalist Diamanda Galas on a piece on F.M. Einheit’s Stein, and recorded Zulutimewih Page Hamilton after Massakertoured with Hamilton ’s band Helmet. He has worked most frequently with Einheit of Einstürzende Neubauten, including the CD Merry Christmas.
In July of 1999, Brötzmann released a CD, Mute Massaker, that shows the guitarist exploring a new sound. With drummer Robert Dämmig and bassist Ottmar Seum—a member of The Bunkers fifteen years earlier–backing him up, Brötzmann sounds more like Hendrix than ever before. The rough–hewn jackhammer sculpting is toned down in favor of long–lined, liquid improvisations that Hendrix might have used in one of his blues explorations. Nonetheless it is neither blues nor jazz nor even rock—none of the familiar structures are there—it is just Brötzmann, creating his own structures. He describes the CD as “a guitar record.” Not that he means his older records weren’t, just that on Mute Massaker he does not sing at all. His concentration on playing guitar could lead him back to occasionally playing solo again—something he gave up in the mid–nineties.
Ideas for new projects abounded—Brötzmann says he had enough material leftover from Mute Massakerior three follow up CDs. The only thing holding him back was money. The market for challenging music is a small one; he couldn’t even find a record company willing to release Mute Massakeñn the United States. You get the feeling though that for Brötzmann the most important thing is that he’s able to play. “I’ve been paying guitar 23 years now and it’s like a little baby,” he said. “I really care for my work. Sometimes I feel like I could be a good painter, but I’m not! So I paint with music. It’s a kind of love situation—to find a way to talk to the people.”
The Tribe, Zensor Musikproduktion, 1987.
Black Axis, Zensor Musikproduktion, 1989.
(with Peter Brötzmann) Last Home, Deutsche Pathological, 1990.
Der Abend der schwartzen Folklore, Our Choice/Rough Trade, 1992.
Koksofen, Homestead Records/Rough Trade, 1993.
(with F.M. Einheit) Merry Christmas, Rough Trade, 1994.
Home, thirsty ear, 1995.
(with Page Hamilton) Zulu Time, Atavistic, 1996.
Billboard, December 3, 1994.
Melody Maker, March 4, 1995; August 24, 1996.
Telephone interviews with Caspar Brötzmann, July 3 and July 12, 1999 contributed to this article.
—Gerald E. Brennan
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