Genres often have a very strong tie with a place – New Orleans boasts being the home of jazz, and Bristol claims drum and bass as its own. And while Berlin has always been a hub of art, creativity, and many myriads of music (David Bowie, among many others, relocated to the German capital), it has become increasingly apparent that a huge number of artists from the rapidly expanding neo-classical genre (also known as ‘indie classical’) are making Berlin their home. Headliner set off to this intoxicating city to speak to some of neo-classical’s best known artists, to find out how and why all of this seems inextricably linked to das kapital.
After getting slightly lost in Berlin, I manage to flag down a cab, which gets me to the office of 380 Grad, Lambert’s management (who also manage fellow composer, Ólafur Arnalds), based in the Kreuzberg district. Of all of these musicians playing minimalist, ambient piano music, Lambert is certainly the most mysterious. He never performs without his horned mask, and his website offers no biography, home town, or personal detail. I was keen to use this opportunity to unravel this mystery, however our conversation began by discussing how ludicrously expensive London is next to Berlin.
“It does affect my mood when I have to pay five pounds for a coffee,” Lambert says. I ask if he at least got a decent rider for his show in Dalston, East London, in January. “Well, we organised that show ourselves, so the deal was that we had to buy our own beer at the bar – that would never happen anywhere else in Europe! [laughs] Then we went to Ireland, and everybody was like, ‘what can we get you?'"
Despite Lambert’s career going from strength to strength of late, he is very modest about the success of that European tour.
“So for that London show, we organised it all ourselves and put it on Facebook,” he explains. “And 80 people showed up! I thought this only happened in the days of MySpace [laughs]. And even when we played small towns in Germany, we’d get 200 people coming along.”
Since then, Lambert has released The Lost Tapes, an EP of unreleased material, following on from his quite excellent album, Stay In The Dark.
“These songs are all just ones which I didn’t release, or were used for a soundtrack, but never put out there. And then I have a new album which will be out in January – right now my management are talking to labels, doing the deals! [smiles]”
Lambert’s first, self-titled album was purely piano, with a very impressionistic, Chopin style feel to it. Then Stay In The Dark expanded on this with the addition of electronics and some woodwind. I’m keen to know how all this will evolve with album number three.
“This is extended for the third album,” Lambert reveals. “Sometimes it’s almost symphonic in character, but it always comes back to being a very plain piano record.”
BEHIND THE MASK
The masked Lambert persona on stage, and even the music of Lambert himself, was in fact something that came about almost unplanned.
“When I started writing the music, I didn’t have a concrete plan of releasing it,” Lambert continues. “I also didn’t know about this upcoming neo-classical scene, which was already there by that time. I was listening to other music, and was involved with other stuff. I was in bands, working as a hired musician, but nothing was really working out. So I was playing some of this music at my house while a friend was staying – he was still sleeping because he had been drinking the night before. He said, ‘that sounds really nice, even though you woke me up! Why don’t you release this music?’ I said, ‘nobody is interested in instrumental music! Are you crazy? [laughs]’ He told me to check out Nils Frahm (who, we should add, also lives in Berlin) and Ólafur Arnalds. In fact, we both knew Nils, as we’re all from Hamburg. He was a friend of a friend, I just had no idea he was a star already.”
Lambert’s mask is a way of easing the process of playing such raw, personal material on stage. Although he also tells me he believes anyone who performs wears a mask, in a sense:
“I was researching it, and one day I had in my hands a book on Sardinian mask culture during carnival. I went through the book and saw the one I wanted, so then I searched the internet for ages for someone who could make it. In the end, I found a guy in a tiny Sardinian town, close to where the mask culture originated. I spoke to him about how I wanted the horns, and the patterns, and he was really happy to be part of the project.”
Lambert has an interesting take on why Berlin has become the hub for this particular style of music.
“I think for some years Berlin has been an attractive city for musicians in general, because you have space,” he reflects. “You can live here for not as much money as other big cities in Europe, you can find studios and working spaces at an affordable price; I think that’s why so many move here."
While I agree that Berlin’s great capacity for frugal living is certainly a big part of it, I ask if he feels maybe there is more to it than money?
“Well, apart from techno, I think neo-classical is the only music that is known in other countries. In Berlin, there are a lot of rock bands, but people would never care about that," he laughs. "Neo-classical and techno both fit the cliché of the German artist: someone who is really into his instrument, and all the technical parts of it.”
As Lambert finishes telling me about his touring plans for the year, he has to shoot off and pick up his repaired car. He kindly directs me to Berlin’s Neukölln district, where I’ll be speaking to fellow composer Ben Lukas Boysen. We part ways, and I go off in search of the U-Bahn.
This Berlin series will continue in Headliner’s interviews with Ben Lukas Boysen and Dustin O’Halloran.