German band Kristallin began simply enough: six friends united by a shared love of guitar-heavy jangle-pop-infused indie music joined together in 1998.
Now, 13 years down the road, only three original members – guitarists Jens Lameyer and Dirk Zöllner, and bassist/keyboard player and reluctant vocalist Mirko Zabel – remain.
“It was [always] very tough to get things done in our band,” Zabel said. “Music is just a hobby for us.”
He went on to explain that it always has been; working full-time jobs and having families has been a greater priority from the get-go. While it’s a choice all the members have made, the fact that the band still exists is a small victory of sorts.
“We are not able to practice regularly, to have gigs regularly…and that’s difficult to cope with,” Zabel said, citing the lack of free time as the largest challenge the group has always faced. “That’s very very hard. Sometimes it’s very frustrating, but…we try to make the best out of it.”
Yet in spite of how long it takes the band to get things done, Kristallin has always existed as a creative refuge for its members, which is why it still exists.
“I like the fact that every song that we make…it’s art. It’s something that lasts forever, even though not many people are listening to it,” Zabel said. “But for me, I wouldn’t care if nobody likes that or nobody wants to listen to it. [And] when I have the 7-inch on my…record player, that’s great.”
The beginning years of Kristallin saw the release of the band’s first 7-inch: a four-track single, the “Alain Prost EP,” on Hamburg-based Marsh-Marigold Records.
Shortly afterward, one of the original guitarists left the band – the first member to do so – turning Kristallin into a five-piece. But as Zabel explained, it didn’t affect the sound too negatively.
“There were [still] two guitarists left in the band, and so we thought that was enough,” he said with a laugh.
The remaining five members then set about to writing and recording songs for its 10-song CD, 2000’s “Station,” which Zabel said was always a collaborative process.
“The normal way of making new songs is that..someone comes up with a hook line or something like that and then we develop it together,” he said. “It’s not a thing that there’s one person who writes the songs.”
But after a song is written is when Zabel does do something separate from the band: he writes the lyrics.
Admittedly, this is a bit of a challenge for him, as Zabel said he is not entirely confident regarding his English skills. While he’d have preferred to have German texts, when the band first formed, all of the members (except Zabel) voted for English in the songs.
“I’m not used to talking English or speaking English or writing English. I never been to England before, I think in my life, so yeah, language is a problem. My lyrics are still that English I learned in school because I haven’t got any chance to develop that language, so that’s very hard,” Zabel said. “But I’m no poet, so this is not a great problem. I just try to work things out in German normally and then translate it more or less in English. Or sometimes I try to use words that sound good together or rhyme or something. And the meaning is not so important. I don’t have a message I want to give anyone.”
Instead, Zabel likened the songs to animals, with various personalities and temperaments special to each one.
“Maybe every song is a little bit like a pet or something,” he said. “It’s something you have to care about. And there are some pets [that are] a little bit difficult, and you don’t like them as much as the other ones…but it’s [still] nice. You have your own musical zoo.”
Even so, the band members aren’t quite cut out to be occupational zookeepers, and after the first few years of playing music together, Kristallin decided to take a break, not returning until 2006 with a 10-inch self-titled EP. This was followed by a second 7-inch last year, but again, the band lost a couple more members, when the rhythm section ended up having to part ways with the group for personal reasons.
Yet while the band becomes increasingly smaller in numbers, it doesn’t signal an end for the group, which recently played its first show in a long time at Berlin’s Indie Pop Days Festival. With the help of two friends who agreed to fill in for the live show, Kristallin took a step away from a suspended past, toward a future with the possibility of another single or the addition of more gigs in 2012.
Neither does it, Zabel added, suggest that the trademark Kristallin sound will undergo any kind of transformation, as that goes against the very musical idea the group stands for.
“Our music is very simple, and the [way we] play our instruments is very simple. And we are not good and nobody of us ever had a lesson on his instrument, and we try to cultivate this somehow, because I think with developing and with getting better, you change. You may change and that may not always have a good result on your music,” Zabel said. “So we still are as bad as we were at the beginning of our time. But I don’t think that is bad. I think it’s a kind of style we developed through the years, and that’s us. You can always hear that it’s Kristallin that are playing.”