Interview with Maximilian Hecker about the album »I Am Nothing But Emotion, No Human Being, No Son, Never Again Son«

I’d like to start with your new album. Of course there’ve been some big changes in your life since the last one, but before we go into those in more detail, how do you feel about the new album from a purely emotional viewpoint?

The most important thing is that I can really enjoy listening to it, which wasn’t always the case with previous recordings. Unlike its predecessors, the album is not an attempt to achieve something, or prove something, or compete with other musicians. Every part of the creative process is imperfect, fragmentary and sketchy: the use of the microphones, the mixing and overdubbing, even the cover artwork. The photographer, Stefan Sappert, only took one picture, and although it’s brilliant, it does have some »faults«.
I’m a perfectionist, and this deliberate imperfection had an incredibly exciting and liberating effect on me: it brought out an energy I didn’t know I had. The album is not a traditional collection of songs, it’s a document about feelings. It’s a naïve and innocent expression of my soul, which is the soul of a six-year-old. Basically, it's a very private document. It invites listeners to look through the keyhole as I make music; it gives you a glimpse of a private, sacred, unadorned space that actually is not meant for public access, and some listeners will probably be ashamed by seeing it.
The songs were recorded as soon as they were created, so the feelings I talk about in each one are exactly the ones I felt when I recorded it, and the stories they tell are the things that were happening to me at the time. »Glaslights«, for example, is about the woman in »Blue Soldier Night«, and I improvised it during the recording, the day after we spent the night together.
I describe the album as a »gift to myself«, because it expresses the sound of my soul, and that sound is just as real and vibrant, and has just as many faults and rough edges as my soul.

Would you say there’s a dichotomy between the old and the new Maximilian Hecker? If so, how would you describe it? What are the differences between the two Hecker eras?

I wouldn’t put it quite that dramatically. The »new Hecker« is the same person, but he’s had the courage to break free. From a purely financial point of view, it might seem self-destructive to ignore all the often superficial things people expect you to do in showbiz – like glossy studio productions, artists that are easy on the eye, entertaining, well organised gigs and form that reflects content – and swim completely against the tide. But it would have been even more self-destructive if I’d gone on denying my fears and weaknesses and playing the role of a functioning, romantic bard and heartthrob.
I’ve found it incredibly liberating to tell the truth and show my vulnerability. If I show myself to be open, vulnerable and naked – on the current album, at gigs, in interviews, intimate relationships and other social situations – all the narcissistic ballast drops away. If I put all my cards on the table, I hope that my audience or whoever I’m with will put theirs on the table too and, by that, will avoid all danger that might have lurked in the future contact and will bring an end to all the power games.

So what about the title of the new album: »I Am Nothing but Emotion, No Human Being, No Son, Never Again Son«. What’s that all about?

The title derives from the stream-of-consciousness lyrics of the album opening track »Blue Soldier Night«. That night, I felt I was abandoning the cosy middle-class society represented by my parents. The lyrics are about sophisticated Berlin nightlife, drinking, lack of sleep and an intimate encounter with an exotic artist who is a couple of years older than me and very »un-middle-class«. I saw all this as a kind of rebellion against the civil society that impedes spontaneity, against inhibiting structures, and during the »Blue Soldier Night« my ego structure just dissolved. I was overwhelmed with intense feelings – which is quite an experience for me, because I find feelings very difficult in my everyday life – feelings of bliss and at the same time the fear of death. Freed from my super-ego, I was able to look into my soul and see bliss and pain as united; there was no more ambivalence (in my eyes, perceiving ambivalence is just one particular kind of rational thought). As all these feelings flooded through me, I felt I no longer had a body (»no human being«) and to be »nothing but emotion«. I also felt that my union with this woman was an initiation ceremony that liberated me from being my parents’ son (»no son, never again son«), and by joining with someone who appeared as the very opposite of my mother, I executed some kind of virtual »mother-exorcism«.

The album notes said that you felt you rarely managed to achieve »authentic feelings«. How would you describe these authentic feelings?

Simply performing my music without any internal or external distractions, such as fear of failure, narcissism, perfectionism and pressure to meet people’s expectations, so that the sound of my music expresses my state of oneness with myself.

The notes also say that when you started work on the album, you’d reached an absolute low. What did that feel like?

I actually lost my voice during the recordings of »One Day«, and I no longer felt I could express anything with it. I had big expectations of the 2008 Asian tour, musically, spiritually and because I was expecting to meet up with a Chinese woman I’d got to know earlier. I was bitterly disappointed in every respect: no vibes on the stage, no vibes in my heart, no score. Also, I'd lost money because of the recession at that time, so I had money worries. Everything was up shit creek, and I was in despair, but when I spontaneously went on the road to busk, just as I had done ten years ago, everything suddenly had a purpose again. I got my voice back, and the vibes, and funnily enough a couple of prostitutes from »Oranienburger Strasse« [Berlin’s red-light district] spent time with me, trying to play »Chopsticks« on my entry-level Yamaha keyboard.
I realised that I’d lost my »outer glamour«, but in return, I gained an »inner glamour«. Outside I’d »decompose«, but inside I was flourishing. I stopped being narcissistic and deliberately flouted all the expectations that people traditionally have of you as a showbiz artist, I rejected everything that was distracting me from myself and distorting my self-perception, and all these actions and changes allowed me to see and ultimately find myself.
Once I’d realised this, I decided to record my new songs at home, in a totally unprofessional environment that didn’t enhance them in any way. I deliberately left the windows open, I often only used a single room microphone, and I sang through my guitar amplifier like I do when I’m rehearsing or composing. I didn’t want to change anything about my everyday musical setup which could put its authenticity at risk, or use anything bearing even the slightest resemblance to a studio.

One thing that keeps getting mentioned is your meeting with Nana, who one of the songs on the album is dedicated to. How do you come to meet a Japanese prostitute the way you did? She helped you to get over your depression, which doesn’t sound like the kind of thing that would happen after a visit to a brothel. What was, or is, your relationship with her?

I was walking back to my hotel on the final evening of the Asian tour – in fact the tour had actually finished, and I was in Tokyo with my manager, looking for a record company for myself. I felt a billion miles away from home, and from myself. I was drunk, frustrated, dissatisfied, and I saw the end of my career approaching. I felt like I was disintegrating in the darkness of Tokyo, going under in an Asian ocean, my ego was dissolving away, I was being sucked up by my own deepest subconscious.
Purely by chance, I ended up in the red-light district of Shibuya, and Nana came up and talked to me. She looked wonderful, she was expensively dressed, and wasn’t at all like the picture of a prostitute I’d gained from the »Reeperbahn« in Hamburg and »Oranienburger Strasse« in Berlin. I’d never had any contact with a prostitute before, so I acted like we were on a date: I asked her permission before putting my arms round her and kissing her, and I played her my music on my iPod. I realised soon that this wasn’t about sex for me, it was about being close to someone and holding them. I really did cling on to Nana.
I recently tried phoning her, and I also sent her a text message, but I didn’t get a reply. I’m thinking of flying to Tokyo before my next Asian tour in autumn 2010 to track down Nana and give her the album.

Let’s talk more specifically about the songs. How would you say the songs on the new album came into being?

A work of art is created in two phases: a »child phase«, in which an idea comes from somewhere deep inside you, and an »adult phase« in which this chaotic, impulsive idea is moulded into shape. Unlike my previous albums, I deliberately left the adult phase out of the new record. To that extent, the new recordings are nursery rhymes.

I've picked out a few examples from the album that I’d like to talk to you about. The opener, »Blue Soldier Night«, particularly stands out because of the samples at the beginning. What are these about? I was especially struck by the idea of the »Kafkaesque dungeon«.

After I met the woman that I've mentioned, the one the lyrics are about, I was writing my diary and »Blue Soldier Night« basically flowed out of me: in German at first, and then I translated my notes into English and sent a text message to my landline. I stored the computer voice reading that text message on my voicemail and then recorded it. Later on I sent the recordings to the woman, hoping there might be a future for us both.
»Kafkaesque dungeon« is a reference to my subjective perception of the woman’s apartment. During the dazed night I thought it was incredibly big, widely ramified and hard to find your way around. It was dark and uncertain, with lots of hidden depths, just like my subconscious.

The title of one of the tracks, »The Greatest Love Of All«, sounds like a total contrast to the low point you reached before the album. What’s this piece about?

It's about everything and nothing. I improvised the words during the recording, so I didn’t actually »write« these lyrics nor condensed them in any way, but, thinking about it, it does sound like I’m hoping and believing that »there’s someone out« there for me, and that I eventually »belong where the sun shines«.

Another interesting title, particularly in relation to the song I just asked about, is »Messed-up Girl«. Who is the girl, and what’s the song about?

»Messed-up Girl« is different to all the others, because it was on the 2006 album »I'll Be A Virgin, I’ll Be A Mountain«, so the lyrics actually are »condensed«. I had a brief affair with a woman – as her secret lover, and one day I sat down and put myself in her boyfriend’s shoes. The song is written from his point of view. He can’t be her sun because he can’t give her the excitement that perhaps a short-term lover can, but he can at least be her moon, brightening her nights with »borrowed« light. Somehow the song is also about me, because I don’t feel I have sufficient brilliance to make an impression on a woman, but what I can offer instead are loyalty and trustworthiness.

Looking at the album as a whole, what is its purpose? Is there something in particular you want to achieve, or is releasing it an end in itself? It sounds like just getting it out on the streets must be quite an act of liberation.

That’s the lovely thing about this album: I’m not trying to achieve anything. I just want to release it for myself and my career, and physically too, so that it can stand beside the others on the shelf on an equal footing and give the unorthodox recordings the respect they deserve.