Interview: Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist

Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist - Photo by Oliver Niemann

Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist - Photo by Oliver Niemann

Bands christening themselves with literature-inspired aliases – ranging from plays on author names, lines from novels and poems, or actual books themselves – is nothing new. And Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist is no exception to this.

“I guess I wanted something more literary,” admitted guitarist Oliver Niemann of the homage to Irish modernist James Joyce.

Niemann – along with guitarist Mathias Furkert, bassist Brian Franke, and drummer Richard Lange – are part of the Berlin-based quartet which plays loud, experimental post-punk.

All four members have played in bands before, but eventually ended up taking a break on the musical front. When they started this project, the intent was to make music and have fun with people they liked, but not for the band to take over their respective lives.

This is because the members have already established careers, and in some cases, families: things that often fall by the wayside when a band is a focal point.

Being that the four have a handful of non-musical obligations, it’s rare that they rally together to play a show. Last weekend’s appearance at Schokoladen, for example, was the first show in a year for the group.

“We’re not so keen on playing live,” Franke said.

Additionally, Lange explained that getting shows can be somewhat difficult without a recording on hand.

The band does have an online release, “Our Cancer Years,” to its name, as well as a hardcopy single released this year, which includes the first and last track from “Our Cancer Years.” And in spite of its lack of regular shows, the group manages to get together twice a week for rehearsals.

To date, Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist has about 15 songs to its name. The four write the music together, with lyrics coming after. Naturally, the songs are penned in English, and not the band’s native German.

“In the early beginning we tried one song in German but…English is suited better for this kind of music,” Franke said, pausing to consider the Joycean moniker. “And it wouldn’t fit to the name.”

He did admit, however, that writing in English doesn’t come without its own set of struggles.

“Sometimes it’s hard to write lyrics in something other than your own language,” he said. “It’s not so familiar…you have an idea and you don’t know how to describe [it].”

And even when the lyrics and the music do come together, it’s not always easy for the band to say with certainty that a song is done.

“They are like kids,” Lange said, referencing the connection the members feel to the music. “It’s hard to say it’s done and don’t do any further mixing or additional keyboard parts and stuff, but sometimes you have to say ‘that’s it.'”

Included in that ability to know when a song is done is the trust that allows it to diverge from its finished state, slowly evolving over time – something which is possible because of the camaraderie between the four.

“In a special way, we know each other better and so it’s easier to write songs together and…there’s more confidence within the practice room,” Niemann said of something that only comes along with time and experience of working with one another regularly.

Lange agreed, sharing that the musical closeness shared by the group is a positive one, which allows the members, and in turn, the music, to thrive.

“I think a good band is like a relationship,” he said. “You have to care after each other.”

Along with fostering that connection is the idea that – in Portrait of the Young Man as an Artist anyway – each person is just as valuable as the next.

“I could imagine that it would be hard being in a band with someone who’s like the leader,” Franke said. “This is not the way that we are.”

At this, the others nodded their heads.

“We just are four guys who like to play music together,” Niemann added.

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