Interview: Element of Crime

Element of Crime - Photo courtesy of Element of Crime

Element of Crime - Photo courtesy of Element of Crime

As one of Germany’s most successful, tenured bands, Element of Crime has set itself apart because of the music the band makes: accessible enough to cross over generations, but distinctive enough to separate itself from being grouped under the label of “just another rock band.” And now, more than a quarter of a century after it first began, the band might show signs of slowing down, but certainly has no plans to call it quits anytime soon.

The history of the band predates the group itself, with members who took up playing music in their formative years. Lead singer Sven Regener first began playing music at a young age, beginning with the guitar at age 10 and the trumpet at 15. But it wasn’t until when he moved to Berlin in 1982 that he actually joined his first band, Zatopek, in which he played trumpet.

“That was when I came into rock and roll actually,” he said. “Before 1980 I never would have thought of it, because there wasn’t so much focus on doing rock and roll things.”

According to Regener, the fact that he played trumpet gave him an advantage over being just another guitar player.

“There was a bit of a fashion in the early 80s [in which] lots of bands wanted brass,” he explained. “[And] it was an easy way into the whole thing.”

Additionally, since most horn players around that time were saxophonists, Regener’s musicianship was in high demand.

Three years later, in 1985, Regener met Jakob Friderichs, who had been playing guitar since the age of 11, and was experimenting with music years before, thanks in part to a primary school teacher who encouraged her students to play music from a young age. The two first encountered one another while auditioning for the band Neue Liebe. According to Friderichs, the first impression was quite memorable because Regener arrived, having forgotten his trumpet, and after leaving to retrieve it, he never showed up again because he couldn’t find the rehearsal space.

Shortly after this, Regener started writing a few songs of his own and the two decided to pursue a new band together. Along with two other friends, they formed Element of Crime, taking the name from a movie of the same name by Danish director Lars von Trier. The two are the only original members remaining, although their current drummer, Richard Pappik, joined the band a year after its formation.

As for the sound, the group decided to take a pop-rock approach to music.

“We were never really punk and also we were never really new wave,” Friderichs explained. “We were more connected with Velvet Underground and those bands.”

Shortly after forming, Element of Crime was signed to German label Ata Tak, but because the label didn’t have money to fund recording, the band was then sold to Polydor, according to Friderichs.

Since the band’s inception, Regener has always been the lyricist, and most notable is the fact that he initially penned lyrics in English, but then switched to German after the first few albums.

“The point was that we just had a big thing in Germany that came to an end, which was called the Neue Deutsche Welle,” he said, referring to the German New Wave movement. “There was a lot of pop music made with German lyrics in a very special and distinct way.”

The movement against the NDW was for new bands to disassociate themselves from that type of sound, and one such way was to write lyrics in English.

“When you started a new band in 1985 you didn’t want to be mixed up with the other guys that did all this stuff before. So it’s like always when you’re a young musician and you form the band, you don’t want to be mixed up with anybody else. You want to be very very unique,” he explained. “[And] we thought that the kind of songs that we had wouldn’t work with German lyrics because of the sound of the language.”

Writing in English also provided Regener with a sense of security, because it wasn’t his native tongue, and sometimes the word choices didn’t seem as powerful or deliberate as they would have been in German.

“There seems to be more of a distance between yourself and those lyrics,” he said. “You don’t feel so observed when you write them and you sing them.”

However, the downside for the band was that native speakers of English would often criticize the lyrics, citing some of them were incorrect. This made it nearly impossible for Regener to experiment with the language or write songs in an abstract manner.

After the first few albums in English, Element of Crime included one German song, “Der Mann Vom Gericht,” on 1989’s “The Ballad of Jimmy & Johnny,” and found that it was well-received.

In the same year, the band was invited to perform some Kurt Weill songs at Switzerland’s annual Festival de la Batie.

“For the first time we were confronted with German lyrics,” Friderichs said. “And we tried to make this pretty complicated and sophisticated Weill arrangement into simple pop arrangements.”

The result was one that was well-received by audience members, and as a result, Tim Renner from Motor Music suggested the band try making German songwriting a more regular thing.

“It felt good and so we kept on doing it this way,” Friderichs said of their decision to pursue writing in German, which resulted in selling more albums than they did when they wrote in English.

Regener agreed, saying the band just needed a push in that direction for it to work.

“It had something to do with self-confidence,” he said. “[And] in the end it was a relief to do it in German.”

While the language of the songs changed, the way Regener approaches songwriting didn’t. Whereas many bands have different approaches to writing songs, he said he always waits until the music is written before he pens lyrics, and allows the music to motivate him.

“That’s the best inspiration that I find,” he explained. “The music seems to want words and then these words come.”

When Element of Crime first began playing together, the band was releasing a record every year, but in recent years, it has slowed down to an average of one every two or four years. Regener attributed this to the immediate need for a new band to build up its song library.

“It’s not so much because it’s a problem to write the songs or so,” he said. “It’s more like, one gives oneself more time. I mean, in the beginning, you need a lot of songs. You just don’t have any. I mean, you release your first record, you only have 10 songs. You can’t even make a proper gig with only 10 songs. You have to write more and more and more all the time.”

Now that the band has hundreds of songs to its name – some of which Regener laughingly admitted the members don’t remember how to play – they are much more precise about the songwriting process.

“It’s more like you have made all these songs already and you just want to find the other songs that are behind the songs you have already done,” he said. “And you take the time for that when you’re smart.”

Additionally, since the band is more well-known now than when it began, Element of Crime will often do multiple tours in support of one album. And releasing albums further apart allows the members to continue touring but spend less time on the road and more at home with their respective families or pursuing other interests.

Friderichs also mentioned that more time between the albums and tours gave the band more time to become comfortable with itself and learn the best way to work together.

“Coming up with ideas wasn’t the problem,” he said. “The problem was that especially in the first, let’s say, 15 years or so, we had a lot of fights all the time.”

Bands faced with constant fighting could choose to either part ways or work harder, and in the case of Element of Crime, the group picked the latter option. As a result, the members learned and grew based on their mistakes, and transformed the negative into a positive thing.

And having put in the time and energy to work through the major roadblocks of the first 15 years of the band, the members Element of Crime can now say they have reached a pretty good place.

“All in all, at the moment, I can’t think of anything which is really hard or difficult, you know,” Friderichs said. “Everything seems pretty easy, easygoing, and yeah. I’m pretty sure it’s because of this experience we have after this long time, this many records. So you try not to stress yourself or stress the others and take things easy.”

Regener agreed, citing that there is no negative aspect he can think of to being in the band.

“I don’t see any downside, actually. I think it’s the best thing you can do in the world, doing rock and roll,” he said. “It’s fantastic. There’s no downside to it. It’s just all good.”

Element of Crime play tonight at Zitadelle Spandau in Berlin. The show begins at 19.00.

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