80sObscurities: Tape Traders – Die Werkpiloten

While I was recently in Chicago on business, Jim Marcus of old-school scene stalwarts Die Warzau (et al.) invited me over to his place for dinner. Jim is quite a charismatic character and conversationalist, who’s worked in this scene at least as long as I have. Accordingly, as one might expect, many stories were told.

Mostly, we talked about the “good old days.” Neither of us are industrial elitists or reverse ageists; we don’t propose to say that the only good industrial is old industrial. Yet, we both agree – as I think would many others – that the *scene* then, the milieu of the underground electronic uprising of the 80s… well, it was simply more inspiring and inspired. The music was not only new; it was unnerving. It was confrontational and opinionated. It was true art; not everyone “got it,” nor did we want them to.

I remember being one of maybe three or four people in my suburban high school who knew who the Smiths or Joy Division were. Wearing all black was not a fashion trend; it was an invitation to harassment and an onslaught of insults like “freak” and “faggot.” One didn’t simply live in the scene back then, he survived it.

On the upside, enduring one’s own isolation engendered a certain pride in achievement. It also led one to recognize and appreciate the beauty of nonconformity in others when he or she encountered those from the same outcast social class. Bonds were made. Bands were shared. Dark culture proliferated in the black hearts of its warrior souls. Most of all, art begat more art. That artists and their audiences were constantly breaking rules not only meant that boundaries kept being pushed farther beyond what the conservative majority would consider acceptable, but also – contradictorily – that a collectivization of consciousness occurred.

In the end, being alone brought people together.

This phenomenon is illustrated in earnest by the cassette culture of the late 70s and early 80s. As multi-track recorders (such as those developed by TEAC/TASCAM) became portable and affordable, and drum machines and synthesizers became more compact and capable, home recording studios sprung up around the world. In each one of them sat a new – and usually young – artist ready to make his mark on the world. Tapes were made then sold or traded, often in exchange for a blank cassette plus a self-addressed stamped envelope. Many of the early industrial pioneers took advantage: Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Clock DVA to name but a few.

With the floodgates opened and everyone a potential artist, music evolved at a furious pace. This was not your father’s rock ‘n roll, but rather, a true alternative to the stoic sounds of commercial radio and major label muck. Purveyors of this new wave of audio experimentation and integrity fed the frenzy. Never satiated, they succumbed to the constant need to consume. Fueled by a desire to continuously dig deeper, these fans broke both barriers and borders. Obscurity was opulence.

“We felt like absolute beginners,” remembers programmer/keyboardist Stefan Caesar of Germany’s Die Werkpiloten, today’s official 80sObscurities artist. “Right after the first release we found ourselves as part of that 80s cassette culture. It was certainly an exciting experience.”

“A tribute to that scene (was) the third cassette-release, ‘Werkpilot 2’ (WP-IR 014). It was a real compilation with real bands, extending the local boundaries all the way up to London with Nagamatzu. This could only happen due to a wider spreading, professional distribution network and, of course, the resulting worldwide response.”

The “Werkpilot 2” compilation, like other works from the principal band itself, was self-issued on cassette by Caesar’s own Werkpilot Industrial Releases. While the label’s catalog lists over a dozen releases, the early numbers weren’t musical in nature. Instead, they were design objects that the young artist sold in local stores. While this approach might be unusual for a traditional music label, it was entirely in step with the overarching aspirations of early industrial artists, many of whom were nothing if not masters of mixed media. And Caesar’s work was particularly outstanding; Die Werkpiloten’s cassette covers were hand-crafted collages of structured design and prose, impressive in presentation at the time and even moreso today for the nostalgia they invoke. As such, it’s not surprising to learn that Caesar has gone on to a successful career in graphic design, where he’s become an award-winning typographer who has worked with such global corporations as Audi and Bayer.

While more traditional art forms may be his first and final calling, Caesar always had an affinity for music. From a young age, his school days in rural Germany were spent learning and practicing the guitar and piano. At night, he patrolled the radio waves for fresh sounds from foreign lands. “The John Peel Sessions on the British Forces Broadcasting Service was a great resource in those days,” he remembers.

“Taped in the early morning hours, on the way back from a club called ‘Zeche’ in Bochum…those songs were rehearsed over and over again, filling the gap between the weekends. Especially all the Factory-flavored stuff was welcome, not to forget the inspiring ‘Some Bizarre’ compilation which introduced the early Depeche Mode.”

The castaway camaraderie of which I spoke earlier was critical to Caesar’s music canon and career, too. For example, his friend Ralph Ehrenberg, who he describes as more of a punk rocker, introduced him to “Unknown Pleasures”. Ehrenberg would later team up with Caesar as the vocalist for the track “Sad Youth” released under the project name Landungsbrücken on the first musical release from Werkpilot Industrial Releases, the “Der Werkpilot” compilation (WP-IR 005). Another example would be his collaboration with drummer friend Martin Breuer as Der
Vorkriegsrausch on the same record.

Similarly, it was a friendship born out of shared musical experience and orientation that brought about Caesar’s finest work – and today’s showcase selection – the collective output he created with vocalist Christian Aufderstroth (aka Krischi) as Die Werkpiloten.

“Christian was one of the guys I regularly met when I was out at the clubs,” Caesar explains. “After writing and recording on my own for a while, I asked him and a few other musically-skilled friends to join me on one or another track. In time, Chris became a regular coworker for creating lyrics and vocals.”

“Based on these early sessions, I decided to compile an album accompanied by a booklet containing artwork from some of my creative friends. In search for pseudonyms for the rather random tracks we had created, we picked the name ‘Die Werkpiloten’ for those on which Chris had recorded vocals.”

The band’s name has often been referred to by its literal translation from German: “Factory Pilot.” Since such a term has no real meaning in English, perhaps a better interpretation would be “Test Pilot.” With so many similar-sounding variations on the same theme – from the band to the label to the compilations – Caesar explains the distinction: “Werkpilot Industrial Releases, the label, was first, but like I said the first issues weren’t music. The first musical-release ‘Der Werkpilot’ (WP-IR 005) was a compilation of the first experimental tracks of Die Werkpiloten, plus a few separate ‘projects’ that featured other contributors, bundled with an artwork-booklet. This also had a couple tracks by my alias, Prinz Eisenhart (named after a character in a popular German comic book).”

“The second tape-release, DW’s ‘The Wonderful World Of…’ (WP-IR 013) was a structured cassette-album in a handmade hardcover. The third was the ‘Der Werkpilot 2’ sampler (WP-IR014) and the last one was ‘Half-Alive’ (WP-IR 015), which contained just four tracks and was based on demos we did for a planned single with Dean Records.”

Melancholic and moody – but balanced with a passion for uplifting melodies – DW was emotive and elegant, less dark than the musicians’ main models from Manchester. A German magazine review once described their work as “inner cinema soundtracks.” This analogy seems particularly apt for tracks like “New Arrangements”, “Junkers in Kabul” and “The Wonderful World Of..”, all of which are driving, pulsing instrumentals laden with intense feeling, the exact nature of which varies by track.

Those songs which feature Krischi’s plaintive emotional pining, however, are the most impactful. “Haunted” is a jittery, stuttering masterpiece featuring sweeping, trebly strings wafting throughout the singer’s repeated rejections of control, “this is still my life… get out of my life.” The majestic, danceable “Days In Grey” offers a similar sense of self-doubt and self-reflection as Caesar’s melodies and bass lines ebb and flow with Krischi’s deliberate delivery. The lyrics are primarily sung in English, unusual for many German bands of the era, making them all the more relatable to a wider audience.

“The use of the language may be due to the Anglo-American stuff we listened to,” Caesar says. “Fortunately, nearly everybody learned English in school. The phenomena ‘Neue Deutsche Welle’ was just evolving at that time. (Editor’s note: “Neue Deutsche Welle” (or New German Wave”, often abbreviated “NDW”) was a term used to describe the German genre derived from punk and new wave in the early 80s. It was first coined by journalist Alfred Hilsberg in the German magazine “Sounds” in 1979.) We didn’t consider ourselves to be a part of that movement. To us, the use of a CASIO keyboard and German band names was just cool and a lot of fun.”

Aside from their own self releases, Die Werkpiloten also appeared on a pair of highly sought after compilations, the “Life 85” and “Bolsche Vita” cassette comps, the latter of which also featured Front 242’s “Special Forces.” However, sadly, the band never recorded or released any material on vinyl or compact disc, though it seemed during the recording of the “Half-Alive” mini-EP in the latter part of the decade that they might. The band had been approached by Ed Ernst from Dean Records, a German label distributed in Europe by RCA/Ariola perhaps best known for releasing D.A.F.’s 1985 full-length “1st Step To Heaven”, the band’s only album in English. Ernst was a fan of “The Wonderful World Of…” and offered DW a roster spot, but things didn’t turn out exactly as planned.

“We made some demos and Dean supplied us with a producer,” Caesar recounts, “but they had some doubts over the international acceptance of the current project name. Then they wanted us to add a drummer. We realized we were more or less losing control over the thing as a whole. (The new tracks) sounded a lot different, compared to the older WP stuff.”

As a result, Caesar and Aufderstroth retired the Die Werkpiloten moniker and re-invented themselves as the short-lived Con Act. Under that name the duo released two 12-inches on Dean: 1986’s “Lucky Dog”, produced by Richard Barbieri of seminal synth act Japan, and 1987’s “Beautiful.” Within two short years, the band had been rebranded again, this time as Stac’s, a project name under which they’d release but one single, 1989’s “Best In Me”, produced by Ralf Ruppert (who was behind the mixing console for future 80sObs act Ellis, Beggs & Howard’s lone album).

So much happened so fast, but Caesar doesn’t exactly harbor any regrets. “I regard this phase as very exciting,” he says, “but it was completely separate from the things we did before. After splitting up during the last project, Chris and I lost contact. All I know is that he might still be working in the performing arts field somewhere as a lighting engineer. It’s unfortunate, because I couldn’t even tell him that our two most sought after cassette releases (‘Der Werkpilot’ and ‘The Wonderful World Of’) were just re-mastered and re-released in a beautiful gatefold package by Frank Mayer on Vinyl On Demand Records (VOD). We also compiled some unreleased tracks and demos combined in a ‘German Wave Box’ back in 2011. I’m sure he’d like to hear about that.”

It’s true that time stands still for no one. Sometimes our accomplishments, our partnerships and the friendships that we share are as fleeting as they are flourishing. But the bridges we build remain, no matter how deeply into disrepair they may fall. Though its grip might loosen over the years, nothing meaningful can ever truly lose its hold on us.

The things that attract and connect us, that bind us to an ideal… those echo on long after we become decrepit and die…like a childhood memory or a first kiss or a forgotten cassette at the bottom of a dresser drawer.

Originally published on February 20, 2013