"My music is the echo of my call…“ - Interview with Ambient Drone Pioneer Mathias Grassow
- Tiefweite Stille (1999)
- The Fragrance of Eternal Roses (2000)
- Bliss (2001)
- AeroAreA (2010)
- Interstellar Gravity (2010)
- The House on the Borderland (2005) with / as Nostalgia
- Mosaic (2012) with John Haughm
- Closing the Eternity & Mathias Grassow (2016) with Closing the Eternity
First of all I’d like to introduce Mathias Grassow to those who don’t know so much about him yet: Mathias was born in 1963 and grew up in Wiesbaden, Germany. After first musical steps with drums and guitar in the late 1970s he started to get involved in electronic, especially ambient music. While his first albums initially were released on cassette (there was a well-developed underground cassette scene in the 80s) LPs and CDs followed soon.
His international breakthrough came with “El Hadra” (1991), his collaboration with ex-Popol Vuh musician and Sufi mystic Klaus Wiese, one of the founding fathers of the original new age movement (before it was sold out and turned mostly into elevator music). Ever since, Mathias kept refining, deepening and expanding his initial musical concept with an ongoing stream of excellent releases.
Mathias Grassow is one of the pioneers and most important figures of drone ambient, his trademark are hauntingly introspective, at times somber, minimalist soundscapes of remarkable spiritual intensity.
While he initially was fascinated by German electronic music icons like Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, among other things reading the book “Through Music To The Self” by Munich composer Peter Michael Hamel (who has also grown into a personal friend over the years) shifted Mathias’ interest to the more meditative and healing aspects of music. In addition to Klaus Wiese and the albums of Peter Michael Hamel also the early work of Georg Deuter or of American ambient artists like Steve Roach have certain aspects in common with parts of Mathias’ music.
While most of his sounds are electronically generated, Mathias actually is a multi-instrumentalist and also makes use of singing bowls, tamboura, zither, flutes or overtone singing for his vast and immersive sonic creations.
After his successful cooperation with Klaus Wiese (which resulted in two more albums), Mathias kept on joining forces with many more well known (ambient and other) musicians, like Rüdiger Gleisberg (who is, together with Carsten Agthe, also his partner in their side project “Nostalgia”), Oöphoi, Alio Die, Bruno Sanfilippo, Jim Cole or the guitar player John Haughm (of the metal band Agalloch).
Live performances have been quite rare in recent years and concentrated on a few well-chosen specific venues and events; the next concert on Mathias’ schedule however is at the festival Spectaculare in Prague, Czech Republic, on February 6th - See Event Details Here
Michael Brückner: To me it’s always interesting to learn about the complete picture, including how an artist arrived at his particular way of making music, therefore I start with my questions at a very early point... ;-)
Can You still remember, on which occasion a drone – as a noteworthy sonic or musical event in itself – ever grabbed your attention? Or else, some other musical key experience from your childhood?
Mathias Grassow: Well, that were probably sounds which rather reached me on a subconscious level, and it’s hard to remember any of them consciously. The sound of the ocean surf…? Faraway church bells…? Some vague memories arise, similar to those triggered by fragrances, but I can’t really tell why, for example, those bells ringing from the distance touch me so deeply. Certainly there must have been also musical experiences very early on… But I can’t recall which songs or albums that had been, either.
Michael Brückner: Were there any artistic influences coming from your family or wider social environment, e.g. were your parents or other important adults around you musicians? And since spirituality plays an important role in your music, or goes along with it, I’d also be interested how much influence your parents had in such matters.
Mathias Grassow: There hardly had been any spiritual or religious influence. Also, I don’t come from a family of musicians. My brother wanted to take piano lessons, and later my parents offered the same to me as well. However I wasn’t interested in walking the path of a classical musician or visiting a conservatory. Which turned out the right decision, because when finally the wish arose to play keyboards I already was 16 and felt more clearly what I really wanted to do...
Michael Brückner: So You didn’t learn any instrument during Your childhood? How did You like musical education at school: was it helpful and stimulating – or rather limiting or repressive?
Mathias Grassow: Right, no musical lessons as a child. Making music for me started in the late seventies, with a self-built drum kit, followed by guitar and later synthesizer. Music at primary school was dull – only German folk songs like "Im Frühtau zu Berge….“ In high school things started to get boring again, but with Schulze and TD, to just mention a few, I successfully opposed to that. ;-)
Michael Brückner: You grew up in the seventies and thus have received the "usual musical socialization" of that generation. I’d like to ask you about different genres, or groups of bands or musicians, who probably had some influence on Your own musical creations: 70s "progressive" rock / hard rock / metal (and similar)?
Mathias Grassow: Quite a strong influence until today, although it’s not very obvious in my actual work. Any kind of music influenced me in some way, but I also drew lines; rock and electronic music always were present. For many years, I used to listen for hours to music every evening, the choice depending on my mood. Somewhere there was a sense of making differences, then again everything happened at the same time.
Michael Brückner: "Classic" 70s electronic (space) music and Berlin School (first of all Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream, but also Jarre, Vangelis, Cluster, Kraftwerk etc.) ?
Mathias Grassow: A surprisingly small influence – except for TD and Schulze obviously. The old German electronic music and also the "Neue Deutsche Welle“ that later came out of it always was too strenuous and experimental for my taste and rather got on my nerves (e.g. NEU !). I liked La Düsseldorf or Kraftwerk only partly and preferred to listen to the "Munich School“ instead...
Michael Brückner: Brian Eno, Fripp & Eno or related...?
Mathias Grassow: Eno’s music did never touch me a lot; I never really did understand the hype around him… I like Fripp though, especially his work with David Sylvian, for example.
Michael Brückner: Popol Vuh, Klaus Wiese & Peter Michael Hamel (and related)?
Mathias Grassow: An extremely strong influence. Especially Hamel is one of my creative idols and sources of inspiration.
Michael Brückner: As you say, German composer, electronic musician, author and university lecturer Peter Michael Hamel, who is also a personal friend of yours since many years, was an especially important influence to you. Incidentally his book "Durch Musik zum Selbst" (Through Music to the Self), but also his early albums, impressed me a lot as a young person, too – so I’d like to ask some more questions about him: How did You get to know Peter’s music?
Mathias Grassow: By chance rather. The first album I came across was "Nada“ and over time I bought the others as well...
Michael Brückner: What’s your favorite Hamel album?
Mathias Grassow: As a complete album it’s "Organum“. Otherwise different tracks from different albums, especially those with church organ and PPG synth.
Michael Brückner: What is it, to you, that makes his music so special? What had been the difference to other music that had influenced you up to this point?
Mathias Grassow: Not easy to put that into words… Somehow some of his tracks touch me so profoundly, that it just leaves me in total awe. That hasn’t changed until today and I’m surprised that a well-structured, academically trained composer is able to reach me in this way. Before discovering Hamel, I only knew similar effects from improvised music…This, together with the background that was provided by his book, made me realize that he was especially gifted.
Michael Brückner: Did his thoughts on music (especially from his book) influence you directly, and open up new ground for you? Or were you already familiar with the topics that he speaks about (Asian music, meditation, ragas and so on), even before you came in touch with his work?
Mathias Grassow: No, his book really was the initiation and did show me new paths, as well as making me see how all these things correlated. J. E. Behrendts book "Nada Brahma – The World Is Sound“ later was a welcome addition and further exploration of these topics.
Michael Brückner: When did you meet each other in person for the first time?
Mathias Grassow: Well, that was in the late 80ies via the "Frankfurter Ring“, where Peter held workshops and gave concerts.
Michael Brückner: Did You ever create any music together?
Mathias Grassow: No never. That idea just never came up. Until today, our friendship is purely on a personal level.
Michael Brückner: Did you receive any further musical impulses from your conversations with Peter when you met in person that added new aspects to what his book and his actual music already had given you?
Mathias Grassow: No, not really… Being together, and also his letters probably did, in some way, but there were no ‚insights‘ or ‚impulses‘ as a direct result of our actual conversations. It’s just an interesting thing to see how a person turns from being a detached, distant composer to an “ordinary” friend. Our meeting in 2016 was disillusioning in a way, but I also received a lot from it. (see also below)
Michael Brückner: Did you meet other musicians (or maybe producers / labels etc) via Peter, who inspired you or were otherwise significant for you and your work?
Mathias Grassow: No - in the 80ies he was already more at home in the world of academic music, and this world was quite different from that of his Kuckuck-Albums and his book. He often mentioned names that were familiar (e.g. Michael Hoenig, as an example from the electronic scene), but it was rather through Klaus Wiese that I met interesting people.
Michael Brückner: Can you tell us one or two anecdotes about, or interesting things that happened around Peter which were especially memorable?
Mathias Grassow: Well, the most intense encounter was our meeting at Easter 2016. It was very personal, open minded and close. I got to know Peter as a human being, beyond his persona of a well-known musician. That was a perplexing experience and characterized by such a – partly tragic - profundity, that I don’t want to disclose the details here…
Michael Brückner: Before we get back to a very important topic which we already touched when we spoke about the "Munich School" – the spiritual aspect of music, and music as a means of healing – I’d like to take a look at your musical career for those who don’t know it closely yet:
Do you still remember the first piece that you ever recorded and were satisfied with? Is that on any of your albums?
Mathias Grassow: My first pieces were just weird guitar noise and strange synth sounds. On one of my albums…? Heaven help…! (laughs) Even by the most well-meaning standards I couldn’t call that stuff at least “experimental music”. Sheer dilettantism – but also great fun!
I thought my first multi-track recordings were OK, that was around 1981…
Michael Brückner: What was Your first label release, and how did that contact come about?
Mathias Grassow: That was "At the Gates of Dawn“ on cassette, recorded in 1985 and released in February 1986 by Aquamarin from Munich. They were a mail order bookstore specialized in US New Age who also had discovered the music market and produced cassettes which mainly were sold through esoteric shops. That way, for me spirituality and music were quite automatically linked from start. However, I left this kind of New Age behind at the end of the Eighties – the music from that scene finally had transformed into faceless, over-sugared kitsch which wasn’t my cup of tea.
Michael Brückner: The title brings Pink Floyd to mind; has your early music – or that special album – been inspired by them...?
Mathias Grassow: Well, the music in no way – but I liked that particular title, and so I have borrowed it… ;-)
Michael Brückner: What happened after Aquamarin, concerning labels and distribution?
Mathias Grassow: Aquamarin was followed by the rise of the CD from 1990 on. Because I already had a name, and also via connections, I was approached by different labels. AIM from Munich and also the cult label "NO-CD-REKORDS“ from Spain, later AMPLEXUS from Italy and so on. In the early Nineties there was a little “golden age” of ambient. Especially Steve Roach, Robert Rich and Michael Stearns had some serious success in these days. I’m still very fond of these three guys until today!
Michael Brückner: Which of Your albums is the most commercially successful so far?
Mathias Grassow: Without a doubt and by far "El-Hadra“ with Klaus Wiese. I don’t know the exact sales numbers, but 100.000 wouldn’t be exaggerated.
Michael Brückner: How is your situation concerning releases and distribution today – especially given the by now almost familiar crises of the music business?
Mathias Grassow: Unfortunately, it grows worse and more and more frustrating: On the one hand the costs of production are lower than ever; but CD sales are also much lower than they used to be. At the moment the shocking truth is that production runs of 200 copies are sufficient. And I don’t do a second run after that usually. With better promotion and over time I see up to 500 sales in some cases, but that’s it...
Michael Brückner: You are a very prolific musician and your catalog is filled with an impressive number of releases. Could you pick four of your albums, which are especially close to your heart and briefly tell us, why these albums are important to you?
Mathias Grassow: Four? Ummm, well "Psychic Dome“ really was something special, and "Ambience“ – the title says it all, this album also paved the way for many which followed. Also "Himavat“ set standards in the late nineties. In the new millennium everything seemed to happen at once. It’s hard to highlight any particular album. At the moment I like "Harmonia Mundi“ a lot; but I need time - 10 years at minimum – to really rate an album with hindsight. Certain other albums I probably wouldn’t release anymore from today’s point of view…
Michael Brückner: You also collaborated a lot with other musicians - again, could you please name two or three examples of which you have fond memories?
Mathias Grassow: Well, certainly "Arcanum“ with Rüdiger Gleisberg and Amir Baghiri; and the albums with John Haughm of Agalloch and my work with Jim Cole.
Michael Brückner: Speaking of Rüdiger Gleisberg – just recently you made "The House On The Borderland" by Nostalgia available again via Bandcamp (as far as I know it was out of print for some time) – and much to my personal delight, since it is one of my favorite albums of all times, and I think that it deserves much more attention as it has received so far! Would you like to tell us about the making of this album, and maybe also about the project "Nostalgia" in general? As far as I know, it’s a cooperation between yourself and musician / composer Rüdiger Gleisberg in the first place, with changing additional guest musicians? Do you have plans for further Nostalgia albums in the future? Where you already familiar with the novel by William Hope Hodgson, which the album is an adaption of, before that project (for info on the book, click here)?
Mathias Grassow: As far as I remember, "House on the Borderland“ almost was elected "Album of the Month" in the big goth magazine "Orkus”. If we had had better distribution and a record label who was willing to fund a tour, this album would have been a huge success, I think.
It had never been completely out of print, though, if we count also the rather poor intermediate EC release. Today I offer the album only as a digital release – which makes it basically available to an unlimited audience.
It’s important to point out though, that although we can say it was a collaboration by me and Rüdiger Gleisberg plus guest musicians, in the case of this particular album the third protagonist, Luigi Seviroli, was the main "creative director“ and also the one who initially came up with the concept. In this case it was Rüdiger and me who completed the work, most of the orchestral parts were composed by Luigi, who, I think, did a great job and congenially realized the all-over concept.
When we recorded the album, I still didn’t know the story, but I knew about the dramatic and tragic life of it’s author. All in all, "House on the Borderland“ was something of a 'chance project', which was released under the "Nostalgia“ flag, but actually it was a deviation from the style of the first album. We released to more albums – four in total; at the moment the project is hibernating; how long, I don’t know. I think to be perceived as a "real“ band and to satisfy a larger audience, we needed to go on tour, but we live too far apart from each other to do so, we all have families and the three of us (Grassow, Gleisberg and Carsten Agthe) don’t really want to take that effort with our (all in all) more than 150 years on Earth. Directly after the first release of "House on the Borderland“ there should have happened some systematic promotion on the part of our producers, labels and music publishers, to make us stay on the scene. In the meanwhile Nostalgia is – except for fans like you – mostly forgotten; and to prevent that, we had needed better management, and touring. But I have no hard feelings because of that; all of the four albums had had their time, and were a joy when we recorded them.
Michael Brückner: How did you meet Rüdiger?
Mathias Grassow: More than 25 years ago, at the birthday party of an electronic music fan in Wiesbaden…
Michael Brückner: What else did the two of you do together, music wise...?
Mathias Grassow: Except for some guest appearences by Rüdiger on my albums "Expanding Horizon" and "Lanzarote Concert" only Nostalgia.
Michael Brückner: Who took the initiative in the case of Nostalgia?
Mathias Grassow: I did…
Michael Brückner: And what’s your own favorite album of the four that You released so far?
Mathias Grassow: "House on the Borderland“ is my favorite, too, but I also like our debut, "Arcana Publicata Vilescunt “ a lot and think it’s quite a timeless album...
Michael Brückner: What can you tell us about the other guest musicans?
Mathias Grassow: Well, I guess Rüdiger Gleisberg needs no introduction, (percussionist and didgeridoo player) Carsten (Agthe) also appeared as a guest on several of my albums, and Luigi Seviroli is a well-known Italian movie soundtrack composer.
Perhaps we’ll also make a musical adaption of Poe’s "Fall of the House of Usher" one day, but that’s just a vague idea so far. At one point there were also plans for a movie version of "House on the Borderland“, with our music as a soundtrack, but I never heard again from that director, except for the usual "independent filmmakers – no money etc." talk. We will see what the future will bring...
Michael Brückner: Can you tell us about two or three of your concerts that were especially memorable?
Mathias Grassow: Well, the festival in San Sebastian was tremendous: organization and support were first class!! Same thing with the Lanzarote concert - unforgettable regarding the huge effort that went into it, technical equipment, and professional organization. The Prague concerts were well prepared and organized, too.
And of course I have to mention the memorable performance that Oöphoi (Gianluigi Gasparetti, Italian ambient musician1958 – 2013) had organized in his place in 1999 – however that was more or less a ‚private concert‘. It was there where I also first met Robert Rich and Alio Die. Steve Roach and I already knew each other from Paderborn, where he worked with Elmar Schulte on different albums for their project "Solitaire“.
Michael Brückner: When did the concerts in San Sebastian and Lanzarote take place, and how did you get the chance to participate?
Mathias Grassow: The organizers gave me a call. I was already rather well known back then, and people involved in the scene and with some degree of interest couldn’t quite ignore me… ;-) But I also remember a fan from those days, who promoted me in Spain. Sadly, he has passed away a while ago...
San Sebastian happened in 1993 and Lanzarote in 1994.
Michael Brückner: Do you remember any reactions, letters or conversations from or with listeners, or at concerts, that mean a lot to you, or seem "typical“ or otherwise remarkable?
Mathias Grassow: Sure… there were many. For example, I was quite surprised, how irritated, even almost hostile fans can get when you don’t play the star, but just behave like an average person. Many are confused by that. They want to meet an icon. To them, you are always just your music. That made me quite sad. I started to realize how lonely real stars must feel, in spite of the fact that everyone wants to be like them...
Something that once really hurt me was some abysmally negative and personally insulting review, that even haunted me in my sleep. Before that happened, I wouldn’t have guessed that such a thing could affect me so much. However, that thing could be sorted out later on.
Fan mail and reviews have grown so much over the years that I stopped at some point to collect and memorize them. There were some touching letters or emails by people who experienced a breakthrough by listening to my music, or even who’s chronic diseases got much better; most of the listeners however are hunters and collectors, who just follow that passion. And why not? But every "You are the best!“ and "Keep it up!“ is encouraging!
Michael Brückner: Klaus Wiese was an ambient musician who I know by name, however I don’t know much more about him. Would you like to tell us a little bit about him? Where have you met him, and how did your collaboration come about? Have you stayed in contact also beyond your musical project? Were you already familiar with his music before you met him – and if so, had it already been an important influence?
Mathias Grassow: The cosmos of Klaus Wiese is too vast to sketch our 22 years of friendship in just a few lines. Already the term "ambient musician“ doesn't do justice to who he was and what he did.
He was a world musician, very much influenced by Eastern philosophy, a sufi – and he had a very equanimous attitude towards music. He worked with sounds so very precisely, but at the same time he was rather negligent when it came to promotion, distribution and self management. Sometimes his ways were mysterious and incomprehensible. No goal, only the present moment did count - in one moment it was all about music, then it was photography or just sitting for hours and drink tea… We recorded several albums together, and each of us contributed his special sound. Being a Popol Vuh member was like living together in some kind of commune, and that way he had been part of the picture – that's how he called it. In the days of love and peace everyone was part of it who just showed up… And his music had a big influence on me – yes, indeed!
Together with Hamel, Klaus Wiese is my main inspiration. I met him via Aquamarin in Munich somewhere in 1987, because both of us released albums there and were fascinated by each other's music.
Michael Brückner: You have also called Klaus Wiese "my sufi mentor" – does that mean that the two of you also were in personal contact beyond actually making music, concerning spiritual matters? Or was it rather his music that conveyed such impulses to you?
Mathias Grassow: Yes, we indeed met in Munich one or two times per year, and I learned a lot on these occasions, but what it was exactly was never so clearly defined. The things he taught me transcendet music by far; it was about the wisdom of life, to discover the important among the unimportant, self-composure and equanimity… These were great years; and the music after all just a medium to transport deeper teachings.
Michael Brückner: Thinking of Popol Vuh also Alois Gromer (aka Al Gromer Khan) comes to my mind, who certainly also can be seen as part of the "Munich School" - do you know him, and have you maybe also created music together at some point?
Mathias Grassow: Yes, we've met at several occasions, but there never happened any musical collaboration…
Michael Brückner: Already for three decades you are active as an ambient musician, and during these years you must have witnessed many changes in this genre. You also always had been in touch with fellow artists, as well as with labels, magazines, concert managers, fans and so on – how do you think about that development, especially regarding "the scene", solidarity or a sense of community etc.? Is there a big difference between, let’s say, 1989 and today? Or has everything more or less remained the same, and only the name of the genre has changed (from space music to new age, new age to ambient, ambient to psy chill - whatever…) over the years?
Mathias Grassow: Well, I’d like to quote my friend Peter Michael Hamel here : "There is only ONE Lady Musica who I am married to!“. Those genre distinctions are created by others, and especially with our kind of music there’s a lot of pigeonholing going on. Less has changed that it may seem on first look. Always new wine in old bottles (or vice versa). Surely, there were some counterpoints in the evolution of ambient music, and the discoveries of the day brought changes of focus. But no style really had a time "from… – to…“, all such categorizations are artificial. Everything happens all the time – it’s only the focus of perception that’s shifting.
Something like a spirit of community didn’t really exist. Many people tend to glorify or romanticize such things – like I often do with the 1960s and early 70s. ;-)
Michael Brückner: It seems that today – especially due to the blessings of computer technology - an unprecedented number of people produces electronic music, including drone ambient and experimental electronica – a situation btw. that already had been anticipated by people like American composer and computer music pioneer Laurie Spiegel in the late 1970s. Your American colleague Robert Rich described that development in an interview with the words: "Everyone is pollywog in the puddle now".
I suppose, especially for musicians who had a taste of commercial success at some point, this situation is very difficult, or at least two-edged... What’s your position here? Does the growing number of ambient releases seem to be economically – or artistically – threatening to you? Do you see your own work losing significance or value? Or is it – on the contrary - rather some kind of acknowledgment, because it shows that there are so many people all over the world who, after all, take this music - which most of the time has rather been a ‘niche product’ - very serious?
What consequences had this trend since the dawning of the internet on your work?
Mathias Grassow: That’s quite a big question and calls for a long answer…
First of all, I never thought of any of my colleagues as a ‚threat‘ – however I was annoyed at times by certain musicians who thought it’s cool to do ambient just along the way as some ‚side project‘, just to add it to their portfolio. These guys don’t quite realize that the ‚required skills‘ in this genre are not so much virtuosity, or to use high-end equipment, but instead manifest in the ability to transport a sort of ‚spiritual sensitivity‘, and in the inner need to utilize drones for gaining and communicating deep insights into ourselves and the universe.
That may sound very idealistic, but that’s OK. To me, ambient, and especially drones, are no entertainment, also not a drug to kick you into oblivion, but profound inner work that I want to share with my audience.
A massive devaluation of the music happens at other places – for example:
I offer my music via Bandcamp, and that way my listeners have the luxury to pre-listen each track in it’s entirety, before the honest listeners decide to purchase the music – and then get real ‘value for money’.
That’s a good thing – but then there are dubious ‚Bandcamp downloader apps’ which are offered in a quite cheeky way via magazines like "Computer-Bild“ and others, freeware to rip Bandcamp albums without having to pay. In my eyes this is simply criminal, and there should legal steps be taken against such things…
I’m happy that it’s possible today to produce good music on a small budget. Electronic equipment is so many times cheaper today than 30 years ago! I also appreciate that talented people can present themselves and their music easily to a world wide audience today. The bitter downside of that is the almost pathological hunting and collecting of digitalized music, that more and more shifts from quality to a faceless mass, and the market is polluted with that; but that’s not only the case with ambient.
Economic success is a relative thing, and any genre has it’s good an bad times. And then, of course: it’s simply not possible to become skilled in everything – music, studio technology, self distribution, marketing and so on.
I have a daytime job, and to manage everything connected to music perfectly in addition to that is more than I can handle...
Michael Brückner: Well, that is – or was – the big promise of the internet: any creative person can successfully present and sell his or her art – without label, publisher etc. But like you said this "freedom“ turned out to be too demanding in terms of self-management for most artists to make a lot of sense. From that perspective, the way the "old“ music industry had been (and partly still is) organised may still be the better concept: the musician composes and performes the music, the audio engineer takes care for a clean recording, the producer for mixing and mastering, the management for promotion and concerts, there’s a distribution and so on. Perhaps in such a setting the artist had more of a chance to concentrate on his "core business“ – on music – of course only if he or she was lucky enough to get signed. On the other hand a lot of musicians seem to have felt they were slaves of their labels. A complex situation! If you had the choice today, what would be the ideal setting for you to receive the best results artistically?
Mathias Grassow: Without any question to share the work with people who I can trust… To say that labels only make slaves of their artists is nonsense. Usually independent labels give a lot of freedom to musicians. And those who seek commercial success goes for it no matter what – including also the dark sides of the business.
I had success with "El-Hadra“. And Drake, some rapper, sampled a track by Bruno Sanfilippo and me for his million-selling hit "Started from the Bottom”. Success also means to be able to handle the shady side…
In both of these cases of success I never saw any money, by the way.
Michael Brückner: You just mentioned your daytime job – what do you do?
Mathias Grassow: I’m a commercial clerk, since 32 years.
Michael Brückner: Do you enjoy your day time job as much as creating music, are these two fields of interest on the same level, or is rather your heart beating for music, and the job is just a necessary means of survival...?
Mathias Grassow: Rather a necessary means, but when it comes to this, my perception is also changing. Live is day-to-day life in the first place, and the way I see and treat other people is the mirror of my own inner state, and evolution. It is a mutual interaction, and to feel a resonance is a wonderful thing! I’m not at all some introverted nerd, who drones along in the studio behind closed curtains… ;-) I’m happy that my daytime job is one of those things which saved me from ongoing isolation. Here are so many ‚normal‘ people with heart and common sense; musicians are in no way “better” than anyone else…
Michael Brückner: You also have a family, and from my personal experience I know that family life sometimes is hard to align with living the intense live of an artist. What is your point of view here?
Mathias Grassow: Actually, I can’t subscribe to that. I had my creative highs and recorded the best tracks right in the middle of times of “family stress”! There’s no such thing as a formula or "ideal“ conditions, which determine when the soil for good music will be most fertile. If I have any message at all, it’s so simple that it goes almost unrecognized or isn’t taken for serious. The kiss of the muse doesn’t care at all for our day-to-day life.
Michael Brückner: I’d also like to ask some questions about the technical aspects of the production of your music:
Can you briefly tell us which synthesizers, keyboards or other tools – like effect modules etc - you used throughout your career?
Mathias Grassow: Woha… it were so many over the years that I can hardly remember them all!
It all started with the Roland SH-2000, followed by the complete Korg MS series, and from then on at different times almost all of those big names: Memorymoog, Rhodes Chroma, Oberheim Xpander, the Jupiter series, Hartmann Neuron, Sequential T-8 and so on. The most creatively inspiring synthesizer to me in fact was the Neuron, the coolest sound came from the T-8 (I played most of my first CD “Prophecy” with it).
All other tools, like groove boxes, FX modules or software were too many to list them all in detail, and to be honest I don’t think that’s so important after all...
Michael Brückner: Has the way you produce your music remained more or less the same over the years, or did it change a lot with the evolution of electronic tools?
Mathias Grassow: It indeed changed a lot. Since about 10 years I work with a very reduced set-up and rather re-mix already existent basic tracks than recording new ones. At some point after 2010 I bought some synths by Dave Smith, however I didn’t feel much inspired by them – which wasn’t due to any shortcomings of these excellent instruments, but rather made it evident to me that I need to take a new direction. This new direction becomes more and more obvious to me, but I don’t want to reveal more about that at the moment... ;-)
Michael Brückner: Could you exemplify your usual process of composition / production with some track?
Mathias Grassow: My rather unorthodox production methods are like a good recipe – and I’m neither able nor willing to reveal them – give them away – in an interview. It’s a very simple thing, still very hard to describe and can maybe best be compared to a kind of score that has grown over the years and that culminates in the intuitive mixing of a given piece of music.
Much is happening ‚by chance‘, sometimes when I’m not even in the same room, and I just FEEL, when a drone has that certain magic.
This may or may not be a special talent, or gift – to me that’s irrelevant and I actually don’t want to discuss it. There are artist who touch me very deeply, and others who I’d rather tell: "Better try something else…..you lack the sensitivity to achieve the required depth.“ But because that can quickly sound rather arrogant, and because I don’t ‚construct tracks from A to B’ anyway, I’m rather reluctant to speak much about my way of making music. Maybe I have already said too much…
Michael Brückner: So, it’s rather not like You have a full idea of the music you want to record before you actually start with it? Do the synthesizers at hand or other tools also have an influence on the resulting music, do the tracks grow as you go along...?
Mathias Grassow: Sure, rather like that (see my previous answer).
Michael Brückner: Do you necessarily rely on electronic sounds to achieve the kind of musical aesthetics you envision, or could you imagine to create a music that would have the same vibe by using, for example, a choir, church organ, a string orchestra and a tamboura, without any electronics?
Mathias Grassow: In fact I have already done that – especially in the late eighties. There are entire cassettes (yeah!) exclusively recorded with gongs, singing bowls, zither, tamboura, harmonium and overtone or throat singing (which I learned 1987 in Italy). Some of these recordings were maybe a bit naive, and a bit quirky, but they have their own special charme. Parts of them found their way on several of my later CD releases (although mixed differently) for example on the two "Tiefweite Stille“ albums from Databloem’s ‚Practicing Nature’ series (Databloem is a Dutch label).
Michael Brückner: Well, so far we have amply discussed the "surface“ of making (your) music, now I think we might try to also fathom the depths, heights and endless space of the spiritual aspect of music (or life in general) – as far as words can reach there... :-)
First of all, is "spiritual" a fitting term from your point of view? Would you say you are a ‚spiritual’ person? Or if not, how else would you rather call that ‚realm’?
Mathias Grassow: Well, I don’t want to throw around buzzwords or other (once or now) fashionable phrases... ‚Spirtual’ is OK, but not the kind that is hyped for commercial purposes by the "candles on your bathtub“ / wellbeing esoteric shops (or whatever).
Inner work at many times is a painful process that takes away all your illusions and explores the very core of who you really are. Therefore, the answer is ‚yes’ however I don’t want to explain that further at the moment.
Michael Brückner: As a child or teenager, were you already interested in religion, philosophy, or maybe psychology or mental healing, before you got to know music (by Hamel or others) that gives expression to such topics? Or did those interests rather grow hand in hand with your own involvement in, and practice of, music?
Mathias Grassow: As a boy I had at best the notion to be ‚different’. I didn’t like school, I was neither interested in blind learning according to the system, nor in doing anything just because everyone else did so, or because it always had been that way...
However I was rather shy about my ‚protest’, and kept it to myself. I was not an active rebel. I hated both punks and their antagonists, the hipsters, at the same time. I preferred to escape to my world of Roger Dean images (illustrator of Yes cover art, etc.) and that kind of bands from the seventies.
Klaus Schulze was much closer to my romantic ideas than radical political activists and their music. Then again - I was quite fascinated by ‚Proletenpassion‘ ('Proletarian Passion') by Schmetterlinge, and also by Ton, Steine Scherben.
My interest for religion and philosophy was actually triggered by my love for fantasy and horror dime novels. The great 'Macabros' series by the legendary author Dan Shocker was one of the key experiences - but very soon of course also the music by Deuter, Hamel, Popol Vuh, Stephan Micus… Not so much the good old Berlin School though; that music was very good for dreaming and escaping the treadmill of the daily school routine, but not so much for supporting spiritual growth. For that reason, I always felt closer to the so-called 'Munich School'.
Music and literature were a great help to understand my 'being different' better and, with that understanding, to go deeper inside. However I don't think that there was any ONE key experience that had catapulted me into that direction. When I was only 16, I already read the "Tibetan Book Of The Dead" and the Upanishads. Certainly that was quite unusual, but it was also an escape from life...
Michael Brückner: So there was never any "spiritual initiation" that put that field of interest on the table at once, but it rather crystallised quietly and gradually?
Mathias Grassow: Indeed, like I already have said - no, there wasn't one such thing, but still some important points of reference:
Starting with Deuter and those great Osho quotations on his album covers (his album 'Aum' was a collaboration with my later sufi mentor Klaus Wiese, by the way), followed by some books I read at school (like "The Gold of Caxamalca“ by Jakob Wassermann) and finally one of the most important keys in 1981, when a friend who worked in the nearby 'Synthesizerstudio Jacob' in Wiesbaden introduced me on the same day (!) to Timothy Leary, Alan Watts and all those icons of the wild sixties AND above all borrowed the LP "The Voice of Silence“ by Peter Michael Hamel to me, which was a huge eye opener.
Until this very day I have rarely listened to a more intense album with a more striking spiritual message. I will never forget this day, it's a milestone in my life. Later on, a lot more things happened, including rather disillusioning experiences. Maybe I should write my autobiography some day soon…? ;-)
Michael Brückner: That for sure would be interesting! :-) I also think that when it comes to spirituality those disillusioning moments might be the crucial ones. Especially in your case: I understand you had such experiences, but after all you still stayed on that path. I believe as a young person it’s easy to fall in love with spiritual ideas – but a question that I personally keep thinking about is: is it possible to keep following a spiritual path when it turns out that life is more difficult and complex, and maybe also dryer and less romantic than I had believed…?
Mathias Grassow: Well, the unfolding of our spirituality is something very personal and intimate, and at the same time something we also should share with others.
Unfortunately, polarisations and misunderstandings happen rather quickly when it comes to this – especially when wisdom is involved that transcends the personal level, which is universal and actually also makes use of traditional patterns of relationships without misusing those – for example accepting someone as a teacher, or questioning religion and believe(s) per se and that way take away the foundations of our conditioning, of the things that drive us...
Disillusioning are, in that context, those moments that shake your fundaments and which are partly not very obvious or tangible, moments that reveal truths on an intuitive level – and which really make you doubt everything you thought you knew about yourself…
This is an essential thing, and it’s hard – but one doesn’t necessarily need to turn away when it ‘gets too hot’.
JUST in these moments we should cross the threshold and consciously encounter our fears – to transform ourselves. In the end, it doesn’t matter THAT we have to die – it’s important with which attitude we die. Having to die is an unchangeable fact – but our attitude towards it, how we are in that crucial moment, is something that is in our hands…
Michael Brückner: Could you briefly give us an idea what, in your opinion, exactly it is that music can do in the field of healing, or spirituality? And are this effects that music, or sound, do have per se – for everyone - or does it require a special sensitivity on the part of the listener?
Mathias Grassow: I’m unable to answer this question in just a few lines… However, I think that music can be a very important key to healing, because it is vibration, and humans consist to 60 % of water.
But because we are used to perceive music with our ears only, our brain acts like a filter and trys to understand, to pigeonhole, to categorize what we hear.
The healing effect that music COULD achieve is rooted deeply within our minds, but it’s buried, or not (yet) activated in our DNA. The ancient philosophy of Nada Yoga, which is one thing Hamel wrote about in his book, is all about one’s quest for his or her very own inner sound, and the resoncances to that. The ‚sounding‘ of the drones is what comes closest to this – and is the path and the goal at the same time. In the end, everything resolves into void. That ‚Magnificent Void‘ is the absence of any emotions or feelings. God is NOTHINGNESS.
Michael Brückner: Was there any specific experience that made these dimension, or this special potential, of music obvious to you – maybe when listening to music, or working on your own music or at one of your concerts?
Mathias Grassow: Certainly when listening to "The Voice of Silence“ by Hamel, and also to his "Bardo“, "Apotheosis“ and "Organum“, then "Hearing Solar Winds“ by David Hykes, or "Baraka“ , "Maraccaba“ and "Uranus“ by Klaus Wiese, to just mention a few.
Music in combination with mind expanding substances certainly – in an optimal setting – has the potential to open doors, but it’s up to each person to actually go through them – and not everything is meant for everyone. Therefore, I’d like to give a serious warning: blind and uninhibted drug use is a dangerous thing and hardly ever helps real spiritual transformation.
Michael Brückner: Well, there is certain music, and musical traditions, in which spiritual or religious experiences find a direct expression; on the one hand on a more intellectual level (music that tells us about such topics or experiences) – on the other hand music as a tool to induce certain modes of consciousness, which are suitable to bring the listeners (and the musicans) into a meditative or otherwise spiritually relevant state of mind – usually (also) with the goal to uplift everyone concerned and often to achieve a healing or purifying effect (on the mental or even physical level).
On the one side there’s for example the European tradition of church music, on the other side there are many forms of so called ‚ethnic’ music, or from non-European cultures, which for example Peter Michael Hamel, but also other authors (Behrendt etc.) think of as significant and healing, like shamanic music, (classical) Indian music, Tibetan music, music from North Africa and the Middle East (especially Sufi music) or Gamelan music from Java; or to some degree also the psychedelic music of the late 60s and early 70s, or trance techno in the 90s...
How important was, or is, this kind of traditional music to you – especially concerning your own work?
Mathias Grassow: Extremely important, back then and still today. Without the background I have acquired, my music would sound completely different. I always have tried to connect to all different musical traditions. One thing though I never really could get into was jazz. I just skipped most of the jazz chapters in Behrend’s book.
Well – I can’t change that; however I’m able to respect a musical tradition also without personally enjoying it.
Michael Brückner: Do you see yourself as being a part of this tradition of music, or one of the (specific) traditions (not necessarily regarding the exact forms, but rather regarding intention and effect)? If so, how does that show in your music? Or do you rather feel your path is parallel to theirs...?
Mathias Grassow: One thing is for sure: I always wanted and still want music to be something beyond mere entertainment. And so I ended up with drones; it also could have turned out differently by some other chain of coincidences, or a different walk of life – I might have been rock or classical music as well. As I see it, my path is parallel in some aspects, but still more of continuing a tradition.
I remember that when Klaus Schulze started to use the GDS computer system for his album “Dig It” in 1980, the spirit of his earlier work seemed to be lost, and I felt that urge to expand, and to articulate more precisely, what he had done during his high times in the seventies – indeed that was one very important reason for me to get involved in electronic music!
How this actually was taking shape I can’t really describe – unless I’d try to make a science of it.
“He who has ears, let him hear.” ;-)
Michael Brückner: In your opinion, what particular elements in music are especially potent to bring about spiritual, meditative or healing effects? Do You try to consciously make use of such elements – like having a plan or a concept before recording the actual music – or do you rather follow your intuition while recording and consider at a later point if a certain piece of music turned out to induce a desired effect?
Mathias Grassow: At some point I stopped trying to find a ‚formula’ or the philosopher’s stone. Just in the past few years I had some crises, but I also received impulses: “What good is all this, always sounds the same, people just consume, but don’t really understand it – and so on…”
I listen inside myself to see where all this wants to go, and I would love to connect this music much more intensly with other art forms, and also to do actual medical research and make more conscious therapeutic use of sounds.
I keep wondering why music – except for some singing bowl clanging and Om Shanti chanting – after all only seems to remain on the fringes in esoteric circles.
I firmly believe in the power that Nada Yoga is said to have, and in the ‚lost and fogotten’ ability of the ancient Indian masters to influence the weather and tame wild animals.
I had the good fortune to witness myself at three very moving and stunning concerts that such things really happen (oh yes – these also were essential key experiences!). First in 1987, Schirn Museum in Frankfurt, Pandit Pran Nath (Indian Dhrupad singing in the Kirana style) with Terry Riley on tamboura. And two concerts by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan in the early nineties. ALL three concerts were charged with a magic that I never since encountered again and that made me feel the inherent power of sounds and vibrations more than any albums that I ever owned!
Michael Brückner: Did you have the impression that you literally could "watch the power of music at work“ (maybe because the atmosphere at a concert perceptibly changed) – or is it rather a process that only can be experienced within the mind of each listener and isn’t visible on the outside in any way?
Mathias Grassow: Well, in the case of those three concerts I’ve mentioned everything changed: space, time, weather and perception. Without any drugs being involved. Of course, at such an event a basic open-mindedness and a general love for music is a requirement. There occur collective experiences that connect to people’s individual biographies. That way, it was both: highly personal, but also a group experience beyond that…
For example, if we look at Pink Floyd: any of their albums from the seventies was hailed a milestone. But apart from technical aspects, we have some songs which certainly were good as such, still there are bands today who are just as good at that, or even better. Yet, those bands hardly haven an audience today. Why…?
Well, in the 70s Pink Floyd and especially Waters were spot on the zeitgeist; Waters used the band to express his grief for his absent father, and to deal with his problematic childhood and school days. These guys were at the right place at the right time and had the right music, and other bands, too. People collectively could relate to that, and at the same time, their personal stories were triggered. Everyone somehow could see himself in “Wish You Were Here” or “Another Brick in the Wall”.
I don’t find that in that intensity in today’s music anymore, although there is still, or maybe again and again, music that does touch me deeply.
Michael Brückner: Do you think that music, or sound, to unfold it’s healing potential, needs to be listened to in a suitable environment or special setting? Is a concert the better place for such effects to be experienced, or maybe rather the attentive listening in the privavacy of one’s home? In your concerts, is it important to you to create a suitable surrounding in addition to the actual music, and if so, how…?
Mathias Grassow: It’s not like I consciously try to convey such experiences or effects – because ‚it’ just happens. It can happen anywhere, and that’s beyond my control. Of course, I’m happy to receive a concert offer that promises an unusual setting, but nothing ever guarantees a ‘result’. All I can do is to prepare myself and create a room – but it’s up to the free will of each listener to enter it, and by resonance and interaction, this room then can be sustained. On CD as well as in concert I don’t only want to give my listeners music, but also nourishment for their spirit.
Michael Brückner: So there is this this perspective on the healing or mind-altering potential of music that comes from eastern philosophy and different mystic branches of religion, but there is also a point of view that’s more inspired by science, especially physics. That train of thought says (roughly speaking), in the end all of the universe is made of vibrations that interact with one another, and therefore music – which is a form of art that’s about consciously creating an aesthetic gestalt by the means of vibrations – is a suitable tool to affect the human mind and body in a positive – and rather direct - way, because these too are constituted of vibration patterns. I especially think of the harmonic tradition (Pythagoras, Kepler, Kayser, Cousto) or the 532 Hertz movement.
What’s your opinion on that rather scientific point of view?
Mathias Grassow: Well, everything has it’s right to exist and is good for something.
Personally I can’t really connect to that stuff like tuning gongs to planetary frequencies and so on – even if they are based on some complex mathematics, because I don’t really believe in the universal validity of that.
At times I think the "scientific branch“ is something like the legalized version of the ‚drug gurus’ and their research; some of these people made their own profound inner experiences, but they are not allowed anymore to propagate that in public, like it still was in the sixties.
Because any experience is always a mix of collective consciousness and one’s own biography, there’s no such thing as THE book on music, or THE piece of music, or THE one "right“ style etc.
Perhaps my drones are ‘cosmic downloads’ that contain a certain message – but even if so: if perceived by our ears only, this message does not have the power to change our DNA and open up the way to more profound experiences of our inner self. Such music can, at best, give us a vague idea about who we are, and where our home is. Now we could have a long discussion about that, but I have the firm believe that if we manage to perceive music on more channels than just our ears – which are governed by our brain with all it’s judgments and categorisations – this will enable us to perceive it on a level which still is beyond our imagination, an expanded perception that might include the relativity of space and time, and the simultaneity of past, present and future, and more…
Michael Brückner: Could you imagine that it’s possible to categorize the effects of music, or sound, in an ‚objective’ way – like mapping a specific effect on the human body or mind to specific rhythms, pitches or sounds (or combinations of these)? And that way using music very much like a medicine?
Mathias Grassow: I partly answered this already in some of the other questions. It is imaginable, and would for sure be a good thing, but I doubt that there can be such a thing as a all-encompassing formula.
Some kind of ‚broad-spectrum antibiotic‘ certainly could be found by research and field studies probalby quite quickly, but each person has his or her personal history, and therefore we needed to specifically create personalised music for each ‘client’, which they listen to until the full healing potential has unfolded. At that point, each person needed a new combination of sound to continue the process – a neverending story. Also, both healer and patient had to resonate on the same vibrational level and to be connected in their hearts – in other words, it had to be a loving relationship. But since in fact our medical system is a brutal business for profit, I don’t so much doubt that ‚healing through music’ can be done, but I rather fear there is not enough genuine intention to really change and transform our world.
It’s only possible if we all unite and learn to feel our connection with the whole cosmos. Only then everything will become possible and paths and channels will open up which today we still call ‘extrasensory’ etc.
But CAUTION: a gift or special ability doesn’t necessarily mean that a person already is in touch with his heart, and with love…
Michael Brückner: Apart from effects on the mental or human body level, can you imagine that music has the power to influence other processes or events on the physical plain – like some scientific version of a rain dance?
Mathias Grassow: Ha-ha, well, if some piece of music for example would bring about ‚spontaneous healing’ of a person with a fatal disease, they would probably call it a ‚wonder’ and then just put that case into the drawer. That which must not, can not be, right…? Some others again might desparately search for a formula behind that and never find one... What is reality, and what is illusion? The only unchangable, constant factor in our universe is gravitation.
Michael Brückner: In the shamanic tradition, which we briefly mentioned, but also in psychedelic music and later in electronic trance music drugs played a certain role; if we look at meditation, dreams or other "expanded states of mind“ – including those that can be induced by musical techniques like mantra singing – we find striking similarities between those experiences triggered by psychoactive drugs which people like Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary or – in a more systematic way - scientist Stanislav Grof have described, and those triggered by music. (Grof experimented in the 1950s and ‘60s with LSD in a scientific setting – and interestingly replaced the drug later with combinations of different tactile simulations (or also sensory deprivation) and music, achieving almost the same effects).
Did you make experiences with psychedelic drugs at some point in your life, and did that influence your music in any way (…I remember Klaus Schulze stating in one of his interviews from the 70s: "LSD did blaze a trail for us.“) ?
Mathias Grassow: My drug experiences were much fewer than one might expect from my story so far. Without going too much into details here: life neither gets any better nor does it get worse when we make use of little chemical helpers, or if we don’t… No one is making better music ‘with’ or ‘without’. That’s just not the point. It all depends in which state of mind we are, and what our intention is when we take something.
Yes, I have some experience, but it didn’t make me a better, or in any way more enlightened person.
Michael Brückner: Do you think that the (moderate and conscious) use of drugs can enhance the spiritual or healing potential of music? Or would you rather agree to what many years ago a friend said to me: “The best drug is a clear mind”?
Mathias Grassow: None of us ever really has a clear mind - just a longing for our home. True is in the case of drugs: if dosage, surrounding and setting are right, they can have a positive effect, maybe even lasting – but we have that tendency to always act from our ego, which drives us to constantly crave for more and intenser sensual experiences. We use drugs for dis-inhibition, for socializing, party, escape and fun. Certainly that’s not really the sense of drugs. On the other hand, someone who truly seeks a deep spiritual experience - but only under ideal circumstances - can perhaps make an important progress by them.
Michael Brückner: My final few questions: I remember that there were times, like the late 1960s, but again also in the late 80s and early 90s, when there was a wave of hope (or at least I believed so) that by some kind of ‚spiritual evolution’ - maybe fueled by spiritual techniques and transformatory experiences - humanity could be purified, and this world saved or renewed. Certainly this optimism is reflected in Hamel’s book "Through Music to the Self“.
Did you, at some point, also have similar hopes or wishes, and how do you look at these things today? Do you think that music, and spirituality, has the power to change the world – or maybe at least the life of some persons – to the better? Or is it more like something beautiful for those who have a sensitvity for it, and our world just runs it’s course to a good and or a bad end, without music in the end playing a big role in that?
Mathias Grassow: Today I believe that it’s impossible to escape of this "matrix of illusion“ which constitutes our world, and the whole universe. At least not without feeling very deeply that all of us are just programs inside of still much more complex programs. We cannot see through this illusion within an even bigger illusion. There is no such thing as time, not in the sense of a linear stream of events, only different planes of ‘time’. To realise the truth means to feel that there is a real home – beyond all sentiments and emotions. The absolute void is so vast and beyond our grasp that it causes fear…
The only key to enlightenment and the only escape from this dilemma is unconditional and unselfish love. Here and now, there’s nothing else to learn. Our time on Earth is the school of life.
Our real home is not here. All music of the world is an expression of our longing for that place where we once came from; all imaginable emotions are an expression of that yearning.
That also means that I’m disillusioned, because New Age, the sense of departure towards a better world and everything which was so much idealised by the hippie generation turned out to be just another program to feed us humans; just a new toy in the old arena.
My hope is my memory, which hopefully will be strong enough to bring me home. I don’t want to stay here for another round.
My music is the echo of my call…
Favorite Grassow albums of Michael Brückner (so far...)
Collaborations with other artists: