Interview

Living in the Forest — An Interview with Anja Huwe of Xmal Deutschland

Of all the bands in 4AD’s orbit, few have been as near and dear to our heart as Xmal Deutschland. Formed in 1980 by five women who at the time, did not play any instruments, the band quickly developed a sound that was immediately captivating, tapping into the underground German post-punk scene. After a string of early singles, the band relocated to London and signed to 4AD, releasing two trailblazing LPs (1983’s Fetisch and 1984’s Tocsin) and a series of singles, including a re-recording of club staple “Incubus Succubus,” which quickly became a club anthem. The band then signed to Phonogram and released their third LP, 1987’s Viva, which expanded the band’s sound and achieved further international success, driven by the Hugh Cornwell-produced single “Matador.” After a key lineup shift, the band released their final LP Devils, in 1989 before parting ways officially.

Since then, vocalist Anja Huwe has been focusing her efforts on visual art and painting, remaining mostly quiet on the musical front, aside from a 2019 collaboration with the legendary Mona Mur and Malaria’s Bettina Köster. However, just this year, there has been a flurry of news from Huwe and Xmal Deutschland, centered around two prominent March releases on New York imprint Sacred Bones. The first collects Xmal Deutschland’s first two single releases (1981’s Schwarze Welt and the original Zickzack recording of “Incubus Succubus”) and two rare compilation tracks, all of which are woefully out of print and have been fetching high prices on the collector’s market for many years now. The second is Codes, a brand-new (and delightfully unexpected) solo offering by Anja Huwe, featuring collaborations with original Xmal Deutschland guitarist Manuella Rickers, Olaf Boqwist from Blue Kremlin, and of course, Mona Mur. Codes is a stellar offering and one of our favorite releases of the year thus far, featuring blistering guitar work, modern electronic flourishes, and of course, Huwe’s arresting vocals.

We had the chance to catch up with Anja about the recording of Codes, Xmal Deutschland’s legacy, and what the future holds in store after her most triumphant return to music. Enjoy!

—–

So, it was rather early on that Xmal Deutschland were signed to 4AD. There was a pretty immediate crossover/cult appeal in Europe and the US. How do you feel about the reception in those countries over the years? 

Well, I’m used to it. From the beginning, we were better known and more written about in other countries compared to Germany. I find it really bizarre, as it’s still a bit like that these days, even with Codes. I have good press here in Germany, but there seems to be more interest in these other countries. The respect for local artists seems to be a bit missing here in Germany. The German audience adores bands and artists from abroad, and not as many who are local. That said, I’m very happy to have this kind of response in general, especially in South America. It’s all amazing.

Well South America certainly has a rather devoted fanbase to this music – it seems like they truly live and breathe it. I’m sure you’d have a great opportunity to play there at some point, should you wish to…

Yeah, definitely. I think that has to do with most of the countries in South America being closed off in a way in the eighties, they were not as connected as we are now. It’s a different time now – the people in these areas really enjoy discovering bands like us.

Xmal Deutschland in 1982. Photo by Ilse Ruppert

It’s not quite the same, but for me, because of my age, I feel like I missed out on so many first wave bands like Xmal Deutschland, as well as other artists I wasn’t able to discover until I was older and the internet was more prominent… It made me really appreciate finding things for myself over the years, really being able to fall in love with a band in that way. Speaking of discovering the band, I am not in any way fluent in German, but I’ve always found the way that you emote on your records to be extremely powerful – I feel like I am able to connect with the material, even if I don’t immediately understand the meaning behind the words. Was that something that you considered when you were recording?

Yeah, I always use words that no one uses here, more or less. The German language is a very hard language, and we have more words to communicate in terms of poetry and lyrics. It’s very difficult to sing in German in a way, but I have found my way how to get this across. While words are important to me, I felt like in Xmal Deutschland, I was always the fourth instrument in a way, so I wanted to fit in. The way how I worked at those days was the music was first, and then I came in and had to sing on top of all of the instruments. The way I work today is different because we start from scratch – I have poetic lyrics and we create atmosphere, and then I fit in, and then we put stuff on top. So it’s a completely different way of working, you know. It’s not a whole band, it’s a team of people who give what they have.

In this case you can work differently with words. The way I do things these days is more structured, and I understand how to write music and how to sing to music. It was different in the early days, because no one knew. We were not musicians at the time. We loved doing music, but we were not familiar with the process. I didn’t even know what a verse or a bridge or a chorus was! How I write songs today it’s quite different.

And of course these days there are a lot more tools to help you along… 

Of course, but you still have to know how it all works. There are certain rules you still have to follow, even if you do your own thing with them.

Do you ever break those rules as you go along? 

Oh, absolutely. It’s great if you understand how things work and make them work for you, but then it gets boring quickly. So you have to add different aspects, you know? It’s the same with art. I love to work with color as you can see behind me, but I always have to find different combinations. Where you think to yourself whether or not something really works, and if it does, you take it further and further. It’s the same with songs. Even when I get bored, I absolutely do understand how things work and have to work. Music has so many variations though, it’s not that easy to get bored!

Well, speaking of your art, I was wondering if your new record Codes is related to your art. You have a series called Codes of Color – was the album an intentional extension of your work in that medium? 

Not quite, but I mean, everything has a code. We have a code. How we speak. Art has a code. Poetry has a code. Politics have a code. So this term codes, we also have this on the record. I feel if you lose your codes, you lose yourself in a way, so I love this word. It’s a common word and an international word. Everyone understands this word. So I picked the word also for my for my art, because color has codes, too. I like that concept, so that’s why the album was named Codes as well.



Fair enough! So I’d love to talk more about Codes in general. It’s been awhile since we’ve heard from you in this medium, and I know that your friendship with Mona Mur has really helped ease you back into recording, starting with the “Sex to Go” track…

Well, she was someone that tried convince me regularly to get back into music, but I always said no. However, when she recorded that song, I was in the studio with them and she said she needed something extra on top. I was really reluctant at first, you know? But then I just did it quickly in five minutes.

Outside of that though, I had so many offers and I was always sure that I wasn’t going to go back to music. However, when the pandemic started, there was really nothing to do, no art, no gym, nothing. Someone from Tel Aviv approached me and asked me if he could send me a basic track, to see if I would be interested to sing on it. I said no of course, that I wasn’t really singing anymore, but he was very polite and asked me to listen to it anyway. So I did, and one morning when I was bored, I created some words and melodies and just sung them over my iPhone. I sent it all over to Mona in Berlin and she said “this is incredible, what is it?” When I told her it was me, she asked if I could just jump on a train and come over to give this a proper try in the studio. It was low pressure, she said that if I didn’t like it, we could just throw it all out.

So we did the basic track and sent it back to Tel Aviv and they loved it! So from there, we started talking about his family and where he comes from. He was talking about his grandfather, they lived in a Belarusian area during the war, and at some point he left his family and retreated into the Belarusian woods. He told me these stories about how people lived there, and I did a lot of research. I started reading a lot of books about this, and it was so fascinating to me, this concept of living in the woods and disappearing from civilization. What does that do to you? I know the area up there is dangerous, you know, it’s like swamps. You can get lost there. I told Mona about my fascination with this story and asked if we can create some kind of musical atmosphere that captures this, and that’s how it all started. We built music, I wrote poetry and we recorded things. They were not really songs in the beginning, but then I thought that maybe we should think about creating an album, just try and go for it. So we brought Manuela (Rickers) in on guitar and another friend or two, and then it all came together.

How long did the record take to make?

I think it took almost one-and-a-half or two years, something like that. I was in Hamburg. She was in Berlin. We recorded the guitars in Hamburg and I went to Berlin here and there maybe twice a month. We didn’t rehearse anything, it was all created in the studio from scratch.

That’s great, and since no one knew you were working again, I’m sure there wasn’t any pressure. Being able to work at your own pace must have been very freeing…

You got it. It was freeing! The funny thing was that I still have friends in Britain and everywhere that were asking what I was doing. I told them that I was in Berlin quite often recording an album, and they were like, “really? Ok, I see.”

Hah, yeah no big deal! I remember when the news broke that you’d be joining Sacred Bones, my entire social circle blew up with excitement! 

It was really funny, because I was in contact with Ivo from 4AD, who is just not in the business anymore, you know? We were just chatting and stuff. I told him I wanted to send him my Soundcloud, to see what he thought of what I was doing. He said ok, even though he’s very clearly not in the music business anymore, but when the single came out, he sent me a message late at night and said that he was completely blown away! Then the floodgates opened and lots of people wrote me, asking why didn’t I tell them, why did I say I was not interested…

Xmal Deutschland in 1982. Photo by Ilse Ruppert

Yeah, many of us were wondering if this would ever happen. Quite a few folks hold the Xmal Deutschland catalogue up in high regard, so it’s really wonderful to have you back. Thank you for that! Actually, speaking of Xmal, I was wondering if you ever get asked about the Devils record. I’ve always liked that album a lot. I love all four of the albums rather equally, but as a DJ, it’s always been cool to play something from Devils and have people really respond to it – asking what it is and sometimes losing their minds over some of the tracks. It’s been something of a secret weapon for me, depending on the night. 

That’s that’s really interesting, because I don’t like that one!

I wondered!

When Wolfgang (Ellerbrock), Frank (Ziegert), and I first recorded the tracks, they were a lot rougher. The producer brought some people in what that I did not like at all. They changed things, like the drumming, for example. They brought in a studio drummer that softened the drumming, the original tracks were tough, you know? The basic tracks were so much nicer to my ears. The record came out on a German label called Metronome and they missed releases in in Britain and the US. It was mainly released in Germany and Canada. That was it. I don’t know why. That said, it will be out again, all our records will be out again, you know? There will be a 4AD box in the summer, and we will hopefully get Viva out again too. It’s a bit difficult with those last two albums, because they were on different labels.

Will Sacred Bones be involved with these reissues, or will they come out through different channels?

I’ll be in New York soon, so I will speak with them about it. I have a lot of ideas, some really nice ones. So we shall see what happens!

Well, I’m sorry to hear that Devils had so much interference. There’s some tracks on there I really do love, like “When Devils Come,” “Dreamhouse,” and “Searchlights,” – those are the ones I gravitate towards in my sets. Are there any old mixes of the tracks, maybe some demo recordings? Could be a good opportunity to release a bonus disc with a more true-to-concept mix on it. That’s the kind of stuff that makes me excited about reissues.

Well, I had a look to see if we still had these tapes, but I cannot find them. I still have old demos and have digitalized many them already. Not sure about anything from this era, though.

Do you have a favorite era from the band? 

I like our beginning very much, because it was so naive and so thrilling. Every aspect of it, from getting letters from people and reading all the music press, and things like that. Then, it was also exciting when we moved to London and got to connect with all these British bands that we liked and meeting different kinds of people than those we met in Germany, where we felt it was more conservative. When we recorded Viva, we were touring the US and Japan, but then at the end of the day, shortly before we split up, it was getting difficult. We didn’t have management, so no one cared about us anymore. No one could tell us anything, and we had a very closed group. In the end, this is a job, too, and lots of people depend on you to get things together, and some couldn’t, unfortunately.

It’s not just a job, but it’s also like a family, too. So you have to basically be creative and run a business with people you aren’t related to, but still are bound to in a deep way. So many interpersonal minefields there!

Yeah, it is hard work definitely, but also very fun being on stages and traveling and such. You get to hang out 24 hours a day sometimes. But it was really our age and how we dealt with problems. Everyone developed in a different sort of way, you know? Some of us wanted to be in more and more bands, some moved away to be in relationships. Things just change.

Yeah, I can see where that could get chaotic as well. Did the lineup changes that Xmal Deutschland went through over the years alter your sound naturally, or was your evolution more calculated? 

It was more natural, but things definitely changed. For example, when Peter (Bellendir) came into the band, that changed things for sure. He was a fantastic drummer. He played the Tocsin material in I think two days, or something like that. It was amazing. Unfortunately, he died about ten years ago. So it is.

I’m sure everyone is asking this as well, but do you think you’ll do any live shows in the future?

Everyone is asking me this, of course, and the thing is, we worked on the record right up until the announcement. We were working all the time. Then the announcement came and the embargo was over. Suddenly, my mailbox exploded, with everyone asking about playing live, with lots of invitations all over. I keep saying no, that this isn’t the plan. We don’t really have a band, you know? But now that the record is out, I have to say we will see… I’m not sure if I’m able to. I can still sing. My my voice is still there, but to perform is different. I wouldn’t be able to tour like we did in the early days. If we do something, we will do a few odd spots, maybe in combination with art.

Right, one thing at a time, I suppose!

I mean, it’s not that easy, because not everyone is really up for it. You know, Manuela’s not up for it at all, but she is very important. I’m not sure if we’ll give it a try, but we will talk about it, you know? We were working so hard on the record over the last two years, we didn’t have much time to think about anything else. The response has been very surprising, and I’m very thankful for it all.

It’s just great to have you back in whatever capacity that is – whether it be just this record, or more in the future.

There will be more, I mean, we we already did a few very interesting things and created a few more songs. We will do another video as well. I’m really in the flow right now, and have been really enjoying it, I have to say.

Well, you’ve got a great label behind you, Sacred Bones really has some of that same unified spirit that 4AD had back in the day. You don’t see that much anymore, that kind of camaraderie and cohesive spirit… 

It’s interesting that you say that, because, when I was in New York in November, I visited them in in the in their office, and it reminded me so much of 4AD at the beginning, a small, but excited team. Very up for things. We had lots of offers – there were many labels interested in signing us. We even offered the singles collection to 4AD because they wanted to do this box set. I also told 4AD about the new album, and they just weren’t interested. At some point, my inner voice said to go with Sacred Bones. It just felt right to me.

Have you heard the remixes of the very early singles?

No, I haven’t! Tell us more…

Well, there’s this band from Germany called No More, they did remixes of the early tracks for us.

Is this the same No More that did “Suicide Commando?” 

Yes! They are nice people. I’ve known them for many, many years. The remixes they did are great, especially considering the early singles are all so sparse, you know? These remixes should be out by the end of May…

On a related note, did you know about the No Songs Tomorrow box set on Cherry Red? I picked both “Sickle Moon” and No More’s “Suicide Commando” for that box. 

No, I had no idea!

Well, it must have been licensed from Universal, but point is, there are many of us, Sacred Bones included, who are trying to keep this music alive. There’s such a renewed interest in darker music, and while there are so many good new bands, there are also hundreds of original bands that are ripe for discovery. With that in mind, do you get a lot of messages from new fans in recent years? 

Yeah, from lots of young people who are excited to have discovered the band. Everyone is looking back, it seems. Of course, these people have never seen the band and have only heard about us after the fact, as part of the goth movement. Well, I don’t call it goth, but you know… It’s just the spirit and the energy, it feels new and fresh to them, which is interesting, isn’t it?

Well, of course your origins are quite interesting as well, those early days of the band coming together. Five women picking up instruments for the first time and carving out your own vast microcosms of sound. It’s really inspiring to people, I think. It really resonates. 

You know, that’s especially interesting because we were never that present on the net or anything over the years. We were not keen on posting things and doing selfies, or promoting the band in that way. Now I’m on Instagram of course, because they made me, but I’m not too keen on sharing things. I’m an artist, you know?

You do seem really private in that way… 

Yeah, it’s more of a private thing for me, but then again, times have changed. Everyone has to give a bit.

From Anja Huwe’s Codes of Color series.

As far as your artwork – have you always been a visual artist? How did you start working in that medium?

Well, I started at the same time I started music, the same. I went to university but had to make a decision – music or illustration. I thought it would be more interesting to move to London and be a musician really, but I always stuck with art, I worked on booklets and album covers for people. I’m a photographer, too. I just love visual art of any form, really.

The good thing is that no one says that you have to do only one thing, especially these days. Being able to express yourself in so many different ways is pretty fantastic…

Yeah, it would be boring for me to do just one thing.

With that in mind – what are you doing next? Are you working on new paintings?

I work on my paintings constantly, but I did lots of paper work like scribbling and cutting out stuff and doing scenes. Right now I’m thinking about something bigger, since I have a lot of photo material. I did the designs together for the album with Olaf, who is also a designer, so we will start working on things. I plan to either work more on my art or my poetry at the moment.

I’m glad you have that freedom to explore your passions, and am so delighted that you have found a place for your music. Is there anything else you wanted to share about Codes?  

Well, I think it’s important to say it was good work, you know? It was a very straight and constant process with Mona, and I’m very happy to work with her, as well as with Olaf, Manuela, and John Caffrey, who did the mastering for the album. He really brought the album to a different level, added a lot of edge, really. I think we are still up for more work together, between us and the label. It’s such a small, independent circle, and it really feels like a breath of fresh air after those last Xmal Deutschland. We will keep it independent, and keep working independently and creatively.

Well, I think I speak for everyone here – we can’t wait to see what’s next! 

Same here! §

Anja Huwe’s Codes and Xmal Deutschland’s Early Singles (1981-1982) are both available via Sacred Bones and Bandcamp. Check below for the full artwork and track listing:

Anja Huwe- Codes
1. Skuggornas
2. Rabenschwarz
3. Pariah
4. Exit
5. O Wald
6. Zwischenwelt
7. Sleep With One Eye Open
8. Living In The Forest
9. Hideaway

Xmal Deutschland – Early Singles (1981-1982)
1. Schwarze Welt
2. Die Wolken
3. Großstadtindianer
4. Kälbermarsch
5. Incubus Succubus
6. Zu Jung Zu Alt
7. Blut Ist Liebe
8. Allein

Header photo by Katja Ruge

Frank Deserto

Bassist of The Harrow, curator/writer at Cherry Red Records, and blogger at Systems of Romance.

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