Goethes Erben

Door Xavier Kruth

02 maart 2024
When one is young, one does not think about the fact that one day everything will be over. And that is also beautiful and exciting, because as you get older, you look at the past differently.

Goethes Erben has been very creative in recent years, but that is now coming to an end. The story has been told, says mastermind Oswald Henke. It sometimes seemed that the attention for their work in Belgium had faded away. The band’s successful performance in Waregem in February 2024 made it clear that the group has not yet been forgotten. We had a chat with Oswald Henke, and discussed the entire career of Goethes Erben, from the early days in the emerging German Gothic movement, to his announcement of the end of the group.

Let’s start with the concert in Waregem on February 15. It sold out very quickly. It was – in my opinion – a great success. Did the success surprise you?

We were surprised that it sold out so quickly. We hadn't played in Belgium for a few years, and the last time we played in Belgium, there weren't that many visitors. It was a festival with few people, so we had relatively low expectations.

Yes, that was the Black Easter Festival, which was organized in memory of Ward De Prins. I don't know if you knew him...

Yes, he had organized concerts for us before. But of course it was also a very risky bill, with very different groups that played there. Apart from that, we met Matt Howden from Sieben there, and we invited him to accompany us on the tour, which unfortunately took place very diffusely due to the pandemic and everything surrounding it.

You already had success in Belgium in the nineties. In a way, I always thought the success of Goethes Erben in Belgium was something strange, because you made very experimental music, with long, complex lyrics in German. How do you explain that that was possible?

I believe that not every word is important for the audience. They will rather look to what emotion comes from the stage. That is the great strength of Goethes Erben, and it also worked in non-German-speaking countries. We played in Mexico City, and the people were completely euphoric, although I highly doubt they understood every word. And I think it has been similar in Belgium. As an audience, you do not understand every word, but you do have an impression of the feelings that are unleashed on the audience from the stage. I believe that's the secret.

I agree. I was there in the nineties, and you sold out large halls like the Vooruit. Those are great memories for me and my friends. On February 15 you played in Waregem. I don't know if you are aware that Waregem played an important role in the Belgian gothic scene. Do you have special memories of Waregem?

We have played there many times in the past. I think there was a series of shows at The Steeple. Could that be? We played there several times, but also at many festivals.

Can we talk a little about the beginnings of Goethes Erben? You started as a duo with Peter Seipt in 1989. How did you decide to make music?

Peter was a colleague of mine. I then worked in the hospital and trained as a nurse, just like him. We were both interested in music. We started making a very strange form of music, with German spoken words and structures that were not exactly made in the usual schemes of verse, chorus, verse, bridge and chorus. The music was really incorporated into the text. There was also the dramaturgy of the music. It was already clear then that the German language was the focus. I am a German. German is my mother tongue. I feel and think in German. That is why I have always only written texts in German.

From the start, we were… I wanted to make something dark, because I experienced the world as I show it in Goethes Erben… as not very hopeful. Not completely without hope, but the hope is often well hidden, and it is very dark. In the trilogy I wanted to highlight the borderlands of life: death, the psyche, dreams, nightmares... Hence ‘Das Sterben ist ästhetisch bunt’ (Dying is aesthetically colorful), ‘Der Traum an die Erinnerung’ (The dream about the memory) and ‘Tote Augen sehen Leben’ (Dead eyes see life). Those were the three border areas.

The music was very dark. You were part of the gothic scene, but you made something different than The Sisters Of Mercy or... well, one can argue about Nick Cave. It was something completely different from what existed before. That's my view anyway.

Yes, we simply created our new thing. We didn't align ourselves with other bands. We just wanted to make very dark music. That is why I have chosen the most different means of expression. We hadn't decided at all whether we wanted to make electronic music, or something with electric guitars, or with violins and cellos. We allowed everything that expressed the mood we wanted to express.

In 1992 your debut album ‘Das Sterben ist ästhetisch bunt’ was released, and it was… Well, I don't know, I wasn't there at the time, but I think it was a success from the start, wasn't it?

Yes, we were lucky that we struck the chord of the zeitgeist from the beginning, in the then young goth scene. It should not be underestimated that the wall had fallen in Germany. That meant that Germany almost doubled in volume, and in fact there was an enormous hunger for music and new impressions in the new ‘Bundesländer’. Before that, it was very regulated. Due to the SED dictatorship (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland, the communist party that ruled in East Germany, xk), people had no chance to listen to ‘dissenting’ or ‘critical’ music, or to visit concerts. As a result, we have experienced a huge surge overnight, because the audience has suddenly doubled. This new form of music was absorbed like in a sponge. As a result, groups such as Goethes Erben, but also Das Ich or Lacrimosa, had a very appreciative audience.

I can certainly believe that. Another element is Bayreuth. That's where you come from. You had the club Die Etage in Bayreuth. Can you tell me more about that? You were a DJ there, and that's where you recorded your first albums.

We recorded the first albums in the Etage Studios. We recorded the very first one directly in the Etage, and the others in the Etage Studios of Jochen Schoberth (the man behind Artwork, who also played on the first records of Goethes Erben, xk). The discotheque belonged to him then. I was a DJ there on Saturday nights, and Mindy was at the box office. (Mindy Kumbalek was a member of Goethes Erben from 1992 to 2014, xk.)

Is this how you met each other?

That's how I met Mindy. I was a DJ and she was a visitor. She then lived near Würzburg, in Kitzingen. Her parents were Americans who had arrived here in the flow of American soldiers. They had nothing to do with the army, but those large military bases were a bit of a city in themselves. Her parents were in there. She was actually from Wisconsin. She was completely gothic at the time, and came to the Etage. That's how we got to know each other.

I had turned away from Peter at that time, because Peter didn’t like this music too... Actually, the music wasn't the problem, it was the people that scared him. He had nothing to do with the goth scene at all, and then suddenly he only saw black. And the goths were dressed and painted much more strikingly at the time. He didn’t know how to handle that. That wasn't really his world. He then went his own musical way. He has made more commercial things. We didn't break up because of an argument, but just because he wanted to. He didn’t know how to handle that. Then there was no point in continuing.

Then I, Mindy, and Conny R. re-founded Goethes Erben as a live band. We started performing in that line-up, and we also performed together in Belgium.

That was in 1992, if I'm not mistaken...

Indeed, and because we couldn't afford a lighting technician, we brought two hundred candles on candle stands, and that gave a very special flair to the concerts. We destroyed every stage with candle wax. (Laughs)

Das Ich and their keyboardist Bruno Kramm were also present in Bayreuth. He helped you with the first recordings. What was his role?

I played keyboards in another band at the time: Le Coup Sauvage. They were under contract with Bruno Kramm. They wrote ‘Nightmare Home’ and recorded it at his studio. I first gave the demo recordings of ‘Der Spiegel’ to Stefan Ackermann from Das Ich. It was something going against the grain, in which language was the central focus, and they absolutely loved that. They then played ‘Gottes Tod’. They had already written that back then. Then Bruno Kramm asked if I would like to release a cassette on his Danse Macabre label, and we did so. Peter and I went there to record ‘Das Ende’, ‘Stumme Zeugen’, ‘Der Weg’ and ‘Der Spiegel’, and that's how it happened.

Bruno Kramm also contributed. He wrote the music for ‘Der Weg’.

He then wrote the music for ‘Der Weg’ and ‘Stumme Zeugen’, because that was exactly the moment when Peter Seipt stopped playing with us.

There was also the CD ‘Leben im Niemandsland’, which was a kind of ‘Best Of’ from the trilogy...

Absolutely, that was a variation on the trilogy pieces, but with different instruments. There were many more instruments. We had violins at the time. There were no violins on the first record, nor any cello. That was still purely electronic at the time. There was no percussion yet, that only came with ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’. Before that it was always drum machines.

For ‘Leben im Niemandsland’, you collaborated with Vladimir Ivanoff, who also played a role on the later ‘Blue Album’. How did you decide to work with him, and how did the work go?

We then played at Popkomm in Cologne. That was the international marketplace for the music business in Germany at the time. We played there together with Das Ich and another band. Vladimir Ivanoff was there. He then had great success with Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. He was nominated for a Grammy. He saw us there by chance and thought that what we were doing there was fantastic. He asked us if we didn’t want to work together. At first he wanted to do this story of ‘Leben im Niemandsland’, practically based on the pieces from the trilogy. He helped us to arrange the pieces, for example with the violins.

After this live CD, we told him that we would like to make a studio album together, and then we made something completely different, namely the ‘Blue album’. That was the complete opposite of ‘Leben im Niemandsland’. There was no warmth, no feelings, everything came from computers, was ice cold, the voices… The highlight was then that we could invite Gitane Demone as a guest singer. She sung the voice of the mother for us.

The interesting thing was that Gitane Demone didn’t understand German, and I had to keep explaining to her what these words meant. She tried to put her feelings into these words, but she didn’t quite know which word meant what. That has given this album a very special charm.

On the record, you can't really hear that she barely understood German. I listen to it regularly. But it was an important record for you. You were a bit frustrated that it didn't have the success you hoped for.

People were of course fixated on the way Goethes Erben should sound because of the first albums – the trilogy, and then the EP ‘Die Brut’ – and the ‘Blue Album’ was something completely different. There were only three pieces on the entire record: ‘Pascal’, ‘Blau’ and ‘Rebell’, and moreover ‘Blau’ was twenty minutes long, it was an epic. It was extremely cold, and dark and distant in a completely different way. It was probably ahead of its time, but people simply did not understand it, also because the language had changed. It wasn't that direct anymore.

But there was also the packaging: the transparent blue CD case with the lyrics on microfilm. Do you believe the record would have been more successful if it had been packaged in a more mainstream format?

We released the second issue with an ordinary cover and booklet. I simply believe that the music was very, very inaccessible. People simply had to be able to confront themselves with the ‘Blue album’. You couldn’t listen to that as background music. Songs as ‘Märchenprinzen’ and ‘Das Ende’ could be listened to on their own, but ‘Blau’ for example, with these different segments, and ‘Pascal’, were very unusual for people. I think they were just a bit overwhelmed. The fact is that it only sold half as well as ‘Leben im Niemandsland’.

Then came ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’, which featured more instruments. You had FM Einheit from Einstürzende Neubauten acting as producer. I assume the Neubauten were an important influence for you, right?

Let's put it this way: we don't sound like Einstürzende Neubauten, but the Neubauten were one of the German-speaking bands that I really liked at the time. ‘Haus der Lüge’ is one of my favorite albums. I liked FM Einheit because he was the drummer at the time. He had already left the band by then, but I wanted to strengthen the rhythm section. That was not something we had considered particularly important in the previous years. FM Einheit was actually interested in working with us because of the ‘Blue Album’.

And he created something completely different...

Yes, in the end I wanted to make the exact opposite again. I wanted to put feelings and humanity first again. We recorded ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’ in parallel in the studio. This means that we worked on the basic structure of the songs simultaneously with the whole band, in different rooms, and then we worked on it further.

I believe that ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’ sold well, but you were still disappointed with the sales figures. You then stated that this was due to illegal copying of CDs.

It went completely wild at that time. People copied the CD. Although the popularity of Goethe's Erben increased during that time, although there were more spectators, sales figures continued to decline. That’s a difficult situation. We had put a lot of money into it. ‘Schach’ was a very expensive record. FM Einheit did cost us some money as a producer, and the studio was expensive. It is of course a problem if the recordings become more and more expensive, and ultimately fewer people buy the product as a physical sound carrier.

You have always had the ambition to make musical theater. This was fully achieved for the first time with ‘Kondition: Macht!’ from 1998.

We have also succeeded in this to a certain extent with ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’, but not as consistently as with ‘Kondition: Macht!’. ‘Kondition: Macht!’ was really written strictly as musical theater, with a different role for the text, and also a role for dance and dramaturgy. The musicians also had roles. We performed it for the first time for three evenings in a row in Berlin. That was a huge task. We rehearsed and prepared for one year for something that was then performed during three evenings.

I also remember the concert of ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’ in Belgium. That was in Mechelen, and it was very theatrical. You gave jam to the people, there was the crown and the throne. So that was already staged as a musical theater?

Absolutely. That was not a normal concert. And our concerts today are still not normal. When we made this ‘dystopian time journey’ in Waregem, through the history of Goethes Erben, there was also a certain dramaturgy in the way we presented it all. There was a ‘chest of memories’ on stage from which I practically retrieved these memories.

You have to explain that further. So it was a dystopian journey? What was the concept?

It was a dystopian time travel through 33 years of Goethes Erben.

I noticed. You have really played songs from the entire chronology of Goethes Erben. You haven’t played anything from the ‘Blue album’ and ‘Schach ist nicht das Leben’, though. Did they not fit into the concept?

I don’t think we played anything from 'Kondition: Macht!' either.

No, you didn't.

And we also didn’t play anything from that other great musical theater piece, ‘Menschenstille’. We did this deliberately done because we especially wanted to show the musical side of history.

You have played a lot of ‘Nichts bleibt wie es war’. I believe that was also your biggest commercial success. Did ‘Nichts bleibt wie es war’ also have a dominant theme?

With ‘Nichts bleibt wie es war’, Mindy and I decided to include our side projects Still Silent and Erblast in the record. The song ‘Nichts bleibt wie es war’ actually comes from Still Silent. It was originally called ‘Shockwaved’. We made a German version of that. ‘Was war bleibt’ was originally a piece by Erblast, but we now wanted to play it with the band. We simply wanted to put that together.

‘Nichts bleibt wie es war’ was much more widely perceived at the time through the collaboration with Peter Heppner on ‘Glasgarten’. But in the end we also came to the constatation that the mainstream didn't want us. We were invited to ‘Top Of The Pops’ at the time, because ‘Glasgarten’ was rising as a German-language single in Germany at the time. We were invited, but two days later it was canceled again, on the grounds that we might polarize and people might leave. (Laughs)

That is very unfortunate.

That really annoyed me, and from then on the mainstream press didn’t matter to me anymore.

I can believe that. This was followed by the next work, even though there were still a few years in between: ‘Schattendenken’. That was a musical theater piece again.

That was very clearly a musical theater piece. ‘Schattendenken’ was also not released as such. The piece was over two hours long. We released ‘Dazwischen’ based on some of the pieces, but also on other pieces from this era. That was the last collaboration with Mindy, because we were frustrated after that and stopped. (Laughs)

Because of the disappointing reactions, or what?

Yes, that was it. We were disappointed that what we wanted to create was not perceived or valued as we would have liked. Then we said there was no point in continuing to create that. If the interest of the audience is too small, one should stop.

What did Mindy say when you first played pieces by Goethes Erben with Henke, and then later performed ‘Henke spielt Goether Erben’, and finally when you started again with Goethes Erben?

She had no problem with Henke at all. I also had contact with her when we played ‘Henke spielt Goethes Erben’. We both wanted to make a break then. I then asked Mindy when this break would end. I had been offered to play ‘Rückkehr ins Niemandsland’ in Leipzig for the twenty-fifth anniversary, with a very large budget, with two cellos, two violins, two voices, two grand pianos, with orchestral percussion... I told her that. Mindy didn’t want to participate at the time. I said I wanted to do that. Then we agreed that if I did that, Mindy wouldn't come back. That was my decision then. I said I wanted to do that. I told her that if she didn't want to participate, I didn’t believe she would come back two years later. The idea then was to do a one-off anniversary concert, and then nothing more. But I had so much fun with those people at the time, and I also wanted to make ‘Menschenstille’, a large musical theater piece with a lot of people and a large budget.

We also have to say something about your group Henke. Henke was truly a rock group that had no ambition to make anything theatrical.

It was a dark alternative group. It was also very different in musical structure. It was more rock, it was catchier, but it didn't work either, at least not in the way I expected it to.

But you have played pieces by Goethes Erben with Henke from the start.

Indeed. Henke's first concerts consisted mainly of pieces by Goethes Erben and Erblast.

Then came the single with Sara Noxx. That was the first publication of Goethes Erben after the re-establishment, in 2015 I believe. Why did you want to make that single with Sara Noxx?

She asked us that. She had requested a remix of Goethes Erben for an earlier single, ‘Weg zurück’. Tobi (Tobias Schäfer, keyboardist of Henke and later Goethes Erben, xk) and I made that. Then came the idea of this split single and a joint tour.

But the decision to start again with Goethes Erben had already been made?

Yes, it was taken. That came before.

Then you made ‘Menschenstille’. You also worked on another musical theater piece, ‘Narbenverse’, but that never saw the light.

No, ‘Narbenverse’ is the book on which ‘Menschenstille’ was based.

But there was another musical theater piece…

Yes, ‘Meinungsstörung’, but that is not finished. That had even less to do with music. At the time, that was mainly text, and the music consisted mainly of sounds. That would have been more of an Erblast piece. That’s why we just didn’t make that at the time.

‘Am Abgrund’ from 2018 contained a few pieces from the musical theater piece, I believe.

‘Am Abgrund’ was meant to be dramaturgical. At the time, like with ‘X’, we played everything live in one piece, from the first song to the last. There we worked with video projections for the first time. There were three projectors with three screen walls, which showed different images. It was a very distant performance. There was no form of communication with the audience during these performances. It was really encapsulated, as if the audience were not there, which is otherwise not the case with Goethes Erben.

And then came the pandemic…

Then came the pandemic. We've talked about that in our previous interview. Of course it was a hard time. Perhaps we should also talk about ‘X’, the last album from 2023. Does ‘X’ also have a general theme? I see themes in it like dreams and illness, but I don't know what the themes of ‘X’ are from your point of view...

‘X’ is the end of a journey. It is the final journey of Goethes Erben. That’s where it ends. And it actually ends with the first scene of ‘Menschenstille’. Have you seen the DVD of ‘X’?

No, unfortunately I haven't seen that.

On the DVD, the ten pieces are told in exactly the same order as on the record, with musical interludes that are not on the record. That took a little longer live than what the studio recordings show. At the end, the protagonist enters the ‘House of Souls’. So ‘X’ ends where ‘Menschenstille’ begins.

That was the intention. Goethes Erben is like an endless story, in which everything is connected. And I inserted this trick as dramaturgy, so that a kind of cycle is created. So it doesn’t end. It just starts again somewhere else.

But for you this is the end?

Yes, we have told the history of Goethes Erben, the dramaturgy, to the end.

‘X’ is therefore not only the end of the studio recordings, but of the entire history of Goethes Erben.

The story has been told, yes. And if we ever make another piece – just one, because I will no longer make an album – then it will be connected to something in the cosmos of Goethes Erben. It’s a cycle, and it has reached full circle.

And do you have any other plans for the future?

Well, Goethes Erben will continue to exist for another five years. We want to give concerts for another five years. And at the end I want to make another musical theater piece, which will probably have relatively little to do with Goethe's Erben. But it is a kind of overview of the work. How does one look back on one's life?

Okay, that sounds interesting. I’ve asked about all my questions. Do you have anything else you would like to share?

It is exciting. We will be giving concerts for another five years. At some point, everything will come to a halt... You see, I don't stand still behind a microphone, but I move a lot. As you get older, you notice that you are no longer as resilient. After the tour I had to lie in bed for three days to recover from these acts. And then it does some good to decide to fix the end point at a certain moment. That means: it has an end. I make something that is finite.

That’s what I love about theater. Theater is about the moment in which it happens. Then it’s simply there. This moment will not come back, even if you go to see a play again. When you make a film, you always look back at the same thing. But a theater piece is just like a concert, it’s different every time. At Goethes Erben’s three recent concerts – and we have fans who were present at all three concerts – every night was different.

I am reminded of that piece that I love very much: ‘denn wir sind alle alt geworden’ (‘we have all grown old’). I don't know if that's the title of the song...

That is the song ‘Denn es ist immer so’. The clip is with those pictures from the history of Goethes Erben.

Yes, and when I go to gothic events I always realize that we have all grown old. If you look back to the 1990s, when Goethes Erben also started... It seemed then as if everything would last forever, but of course that was not the case.

Yes, but that's also has its beauty. When one is young, one does not think about the fact that one day everything will be over. And that is also beautiful and exciting, because as you get older, you look at the past differently. But I also have to say: even if you don't always make the smartest decisions as a young person, what you do as a young person is very important, because that is what you have sown. If you don’t experience anything as a young person, or don’t live your life in any way, don’t ‘ablebt’ (deteriorate), don't ‘erlebt’ (experience), then you have nothing to remember.

Okay, will this be the last word?

Yes, those are nice last words.

Picture : Luc ‘Who Cares’ Luyten

Delen op

Over Xavier Kruth

Xavier Kruth bekeerde zich al op jonge leeftijd tot het gothicdom. Toen hij begon te puberen, moest hij lang zagen om een zwarte broek te mogen hebben. Toen hij tegenover zijn moeder argumenteerde dat hij gewoon om een zwarte broek vroeg, niet om zijn haar omhoog te doen in alle richtingen, repliceerde ze dat als hij nu een zwarte broek zou krijgen, hij daarna toch zijn haar torenhoog omhoog zou doen. Xavier was versteld over de telepathische vermogens van zijn moeder. Hij leerde destijds ook gitaar spelen, en sinds 2006 speelt hij in donkere kroegen met zijn melancholische kleinkunstliedjes in verschillende talen. In 2011 vervoegde Xavier het team van Dark Entries. In Dark Entries las hij ook dat The Marchesa Casati (gothic rock) een gitarist zocht, en zo kon hij een paar keer met de groep optreden. Later speelde hij bij Kinderen van Moeder Aarde (sjamanische folk) en werkte samen met Gert (kleinpunk). En het belangrijkste van al: in 2020 bracht hij samen met Dark Entries-collega Gerry Croon de plaat ‘Puin van dromen’ uit onder de naam Winterstille.

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