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"People see what we do from different points of view."
Michael Stone talks with Markus Binder of the Austrian ensemble

Attwenger: Falkner and Binder
Photo: Solana Stone

I caught up with the Austrian duo Attwenger at the 2012 South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, and had the pleasure of seeing them perform at the Hideout. The afternoon before the show, I spoke with Markus Binder, the singer, drummer, and multi-instrumentalist, while his accordionist partner, Hans-Peter Falkner, chatted with some admirers. On only their second U.S. visit, Attwenger was touring behind their latest CD, Flux, with subsequent appearances in New Orleans and New York.

Attwenger has been making music for two decades now. One way to characterize their music is Alpine rockabilly, but that doesn't really capture the creative energy manifest in Flux. As Binder remarks about the opening track, “Shakin' My Brain” , “The clothes and the music, the cultural references, don't really fit together. The gold suits are Elvis's late phase, late sixties and early seventies, but the music is from 1955.”

The lack of logical or cultural “fit” is precisely what makes Attwenger so compelling, and as Binder observes, every audience seems to find its own resonance in their music, although the lyrics, sung in Upper Austrian dialect with occasional English-language injections, escape the comprehension even of speakers of high German. The mix is bare-bones, Binder's resonant vocals and frenetic drumming (along with digital beats, Jew's harp, and tuba), Falkner's wild accordion, and some superb guest spots on guitar, harmonica and vocals (e.g., “Duamasche” and “Swing”).

There's a droll seriousness to Attwenger's approach that takes their music somewhere beyond camp. No posturing, but rather, a serious experiment in mixing Austrian folk elements with a potpourri of global styles, most pertinently, blues, R&B, zydeco, early rock 'n' roll, and more than a little hip-hop flavor. The standard categories cannot do justice to Attwenger, and so much the better. This is an album whose immediate appeal sustains its charm with repeated listening, revealing new layers with each successive spin.

Here are Markus Binder's remarks:

We grew up in Linz, where people speak the Upper Austrian dialect or slang. It's very smooth and easy to combine with English, and that's what we do in our songs sometimes. The folk music there is rich in rhythms and melodies, and I became quite fascinated with it in my twenties. Before that I really didn't have much to do with folk music, but I thought it was really quite amazing, what's going on with the music, the lyrics, the melodies, the rhythms, the sound.

My parents bought me a guitar and sent me to lessons when I was six years old, and since that time I am always doing music. I took in all kinds of influences, growing up in the seventies. Later I learned a lot of different instruments, piano and tuba especially. When Hans-Peter and I play traditional music, sometimes I play tuba with him on the accordion.

Hans-Peter has played accordion since he was six years old, with his parents, who both play traditional Austrian music. So that's what we did, create a combo playing folk music, singing in Upper Austrian dialect, and bringing in all kinds of other influences. Our first gig was scheduled right after a rock band, so there was a drum kit on stage. I was playing double bass then, but somebody in our folk ensemble said, “Hey, c'mon, sit on the drums, try it.” The others played folk music, I played the drums, and it worked, really crazy, it worked perfectly.

Around that time I discovered this Cajun and zydeco thing, which also has accordion and percussion. Tomorrow we're going to New Orleans for the first time to perform, and I'm really looking forward to seeing a Cajun band while we're there.

There are always groups that try to combine things like we do, rock and traditional music, but in Austria I don't think there's anyone really doing what we do, trying to bring it to the point, you know, get the essence out.

Our audience is mostly a lot younger than we are, like here at SXSW, people 35 and under, mostly. It's the same at our concerts in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. And we are approaching 50 now! The funny thing is that, in Vienna, for instance, we can play five gigs in a week and there are five different audiences. Attwenger appeals to a lot of different kinds of people. Architects like us a lot, or writers, and then we'll play a punk club. It works well because everyone is hearing his own thing in what we are doing. We enjoy it a lot, I have to say, and people see what we do from different points of view.

We've also played in places like Siberia, Vietnam, Zimbabwe, and it works out fine everywhere. I'm interested in going to hear music I've never heard before. Even if I don't understand where it comes from or what it says, if I get to hear music that's interesting, that touches me, it doesn't matter whether I understand the words, I don't care about that. When we have played in faraway places, our experience is that people like the music, they feel it, they enjoy it, they have fun, they dance—and they don't understand a word!

Currently we perform 40 or 50 concerts a year, which means a lot of traveling, mostly by car. We might drive 1,000 kilometers [600 miles] a weekend to do two gigs. It's exhausting. We are not the kind of band that does monster tours, where you play for six weeks, every day. We did that once and we said, “No, it's not for us.” [Ed. Hear their “Trip” for what sounds like it could be a commentary on that experience.]

We've seen it with different bands—you cannot play well when you are performing nonstop. When you're exhausted, you're not relaxed, and then you don't find the groove. Rather than exhausting ourselves, we try to bring our music to another level by staying relaxed.

When we're at home in Linz, we're busy setting up future gigs for ourselves, answering email, communicating with venues, writing, working out new material and rehearsing. We don't have an agent. Of course, we also spend time with our families. We tried playing on the side, but it's too much. It's not easy to do anything else besides Attwenger.

With our latest CD, Flux, the title is not a message. It doesn't have anything at all to do with the Fluxus movement, you know, Yoko Ono and other New York avant-garde artists of the early 1960s. Actually, we have a formula for picking our CD titles: it has to be one syllable, and the vowel has to be “o” or “u.” Flux is very mixed up, running through all these different influences. Take “Shakin' My Brain.” It was inspired by mid–1950s rock 'n' roll, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. I found myself singing, “shakin' my brain,” so I Googled it, but didn't find anything. Of course, on “Great Balls of Fire,” Jerry Lee Lewis has this line, “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain.” Afterwards, I realized where it came from, and what come out for me was “shakin' my brain.”

On the “Shakin' My Brain” YouTube video, I have to say that the clothes and the music, the cultural references, don't really fit together. The gold suits are Elvis's late phase, late sixties and early seventies, but the music is from 1955. Doing this CD was something kind of new for us, to incorporate rock 'n' roll, blues, soul and all that kind of music from America that has influenced us from the beginning. We're getting into it a little more now, and we'll see what comes of it. Maybe we'll become great blues players! The rhythms, the funky beat, I love it so much. New Orleans is going to be a lot of fun.

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