While most German-speaking bands typically only find themselves playing in German-speaking countries, Fotos is one exception to the rule. The Germany-based band, which writes all its song lyrics in German, has played – in addition to South Asia – in China, Mexico and Central Asia, as well as some Eastern European countries.
“In a lot of countries where we already played…they don’t even speak English,” lead singer Tom Hessler said.
But he maintained that not all of their fans outside of the reach of German need to understand what is being said in order to have a good time.
“They just enjoy the music and really get enthusiastic,” he said.
Of course, not every German band has the luxury of traveling around the world and playing to audiences that readily cling to their every lyric and note. But in this case, it’s because of the Goethe Institute’s cultural exchange program that Fotos was given the opportunity.
“It’s about playing in front of students that learn German to give them a practical experience of German culture, and to, you know, let them have fun learning German,” Hessler said. “But everybody’s allowed to come.”
The members of Fotos, a four-piece rock band, first met in the mid-2000s in Hamburg, a history that Hessler is loathe to repeat.
“It’s so boring,” he said of the back-story. “It’s so unglamorous.”
The four had journeyed separately to the town from various regions of Germany, in order to take part in a six-week course offered at a local college for classical music and theater.
“It’s like a meet-and-greet for musicians who don’t have bands,” Hessler explained.
Early on, it became clear to the members that they all had something in common with one another, whether the joining factor was their shared musical interests or their disdain for the other members in the course.
“We realized that we really don’t want to be in other groups,” Hessler said. “So we immediately started our own stuff and separated from the group.”
After the course ended, everyone returned to the towns they’d come from, with the exception of Hessler, who stayed in Hamburg. Inspired by meeting and melding with the other members, he immediately set to the task of making the band a reality.
“I started writing songs and wanted to convince the others to make a band with me,” he said, sharing that it wasn’t exactly an easy task. “[But] I got to know a producer and he was, he was really, I think, convinced of my songs, and wanted to do a record.”
And while the others remained reluctant, it only took a little push to get them to realize that their dream could indeed become a reality.
“In Germany, people are really unromantic about being a musician,” Hessler divulged, explaining why his future bandmates were, at the time, not entirely convinced that it could work.
But after they spent four weeks recording his songs in Berlin, they became convinced, and decided to stick with it for the long haul.
Now, after one slight personnel change, the band consists of Hessler writing, singing and playing guitar, Deniz Erarslan on guitar, Frieder Weiss on bass and Benedikt Schnermann on drums.
As for the band name, there isn’t much to that story either. It only involves a friend, a 99-cent record and some simple inspiration.
“I…thought Fotos could be a cool band name,” Hessler said. “It sounds really 80s.”
Which is all too fitting on more than one level, considering that not only is Hessler a product of the 80s, but that is – in a sense – the kind of sound the band currently seems to channel.
The first release, 2006’s self-titled “Fotos,” was more indie-pop than anything else. But Fotos’ second album, “Nach dem Goldrasuch,” is admittedly not the group’s favorite, considering what transpired behind scenes during the recording process.
“We went through a really rough time,” Hessler said, referencing the fact that former label Mute (then owned by EMI) went through a corporate restructuring of sorts, which put pressure on the band to put an album out.
“We had not enough time to finish the record or even write the songs, so we had to do everything at the same time in the studio,” he said.
As a result, after the album was put out, Fotos parted ways with record labels and set out to forge its own route as independent artists.
“It was a really important step for me, you know, to emancipate from all those major [labels],” Hessler said. “They want from you a lot of stuff you don’t usually want to [do].”
But in spite of the lukewarm feelings attached to the sophomore release, one thing that album did do is provide a backbone for a new direction for the band, which began splitting from the pop-rock song formula and pursing a more electronic-based kind of sound.
“I always want to use the German language to fit with the beats…the hard sounds of the German language usually are not really good for texting pop music,” Hessler said of the struggle to write lyrics that match up with the sound. “I try to text in a very rhythmic kind of way. Like hip-hop, but more German, less groovy.”
With this mindset, the band set out to write, record and release 2010’s “Porzellan,” which distinguishes a new direction for the four. This time, it’s one comprised of a lot more legwork, but that effort is also a lot more rewarding. Instead of letting the labels call the shots, Fotos makes all its choices as a band, from executive decisions about recording down to funding albums and tours all on its own.
“It’s my favorite [album], yes. I think it’s the first time that I could do what I wanted to do in the studio,” Hessler said. “We didn’t have to fit any kind of radio format…we could do what we wanted.”
Which includes one of his greatest desires: to bring in German producer Olaf Opal, who has traditionally worked with German/Austrian bands, including the Notwist, Slut and more.
Together, Fotos and Opal experimented with sound in order to find a space that would create natural reverb, as opposed to the synthetic sorts of sounds that recording software can fill in, which is what many bands tend to rely on in the production process, much to Hessler’s shagrin.
Eventually, they found what they were looking for in an old bunker from World War II, located in Hamburg, with concrete walls, wooden floors and high ceilings.
“We tried to work with the room and the reflections, and I think you can hear that on the album,” Hessler said.
As for the songs themselves, they beg to be taken seriously. This is largely due to the stripped-down, darkwave, minimalism they possess, which force the listener to take a more active role in absorbing the music.
“Actually, the whole album is like a concept album,” Hessler explained. “It’s like a trip through the night, journey through the night, with all those references to rave culture and drug abuse and techno music.”
He qualified this statement by explaining that all of those things were huge parts of his life during the two-year time period between albums.
“I was quite lost and I tried to translate that in the sound. And after that, we tried to translate that in the live show, with, you know, only white lights coming from behind the musicians, very dark stage, and you don’t see the faces of the musicians,” he said. “It’s like an atmosphere you don’t associate with rock and roll music, and I just didn’t want to just tell about it in the songs, but I wanted to, you know, transfer the atmosphere to the music.”
His rendering of that feeling comes across in a listen of the album as a whole, and the live show is the band’s way of attempting to recreate that feeling for audiences.
“What I most associate with this feeling, going to such a club like [Berghain], is standing in front of it, and it’s an old power plant from the Nazi times, and it looks really creepy actually,” he said. “And you hear those sub-basses coming through the walls, and the windows, they make those noises, you know, because the sub-bass is so loud, and it’s very threatening. And I wanted to bring this threatening atmosphere and this fear you get and the respect you get standing in front of this almost living creature…this parallel universe. That’s what this record is about actually.”
And just like the first album, it was also released on vinyl, which Hessler admitted he loves, namely because of the feeling of taking the fresh, finished product out of the box and being able to appreciate that tangible outcome.
“[A CD] just looks like trash, feels like trash,” he said, highlighting how vinyl is a higher-quality creation.
Hessler’s lyrics also align with the overall mood “Porzellan” attempts to generate, and even someone who speaks little-to-no German will likely walk away from the listening experience with that kind of impression.
That organically-occuring alignment between the music, the lyrics and the ambiance work together toward transcending the barriers of language that singing in German might erect.
But at the same time, Hessler admitted he sometimes regrets not having started writing in English. His reasoning is that, although he naturally feels he can express himself better in his native tongue, he would have been good at it by now, and that it would have opened more opportunities to play shows in English-speaking countries, like the UK or the U.S.
And although Fotos has not yet been given the opportunity to play in those countries, the members can’t complain for lack of shows, or a following. Particularly with the festival season approaching, the foursome will log a lot of hours on the road this year, which seems to be the status quo.
“The first three or four years we were touring all the time, and it got a bit rough on us,” he shared. “You’re never at home. When you’re at home a few days a year you get depressed…but you have to because it’s the only way…to earn a bit of money.”
While that’s still somewhat the case, Hessler said they’ve scaled back a bit on the touring, although admittedly, not by much. Yet while the other members work jobs when they’re not touring, he considers himself lucky because he writes all the music and gets paid for every play Fotos receives, as well as getting advances on publishing rights.
And while he admitted that part of his drive to make music comes from “a secret obsession to get as much love as possible,” he maintained that at the end of the day, it exists for personal reasons.
“I really need to do music because it makes me happy. And when I finish a song I am as happy as can be,” Hessler said. “So that’s the most important part.”