Tocotronic's 10th album - "Wie wir leben wollen" (How We Want to Live) - still has some elements of the German indie sound they helped to shape. But two decades on, they're taking a lighter approach to things.
Now in their 40s, the three founding members of Tocotronic are bound to feel mature. But with the release of the Hamburg band's new album, a few critics have complained the band has lost the spunk of their early work, marked by tongue-in-cheek political tunes like "Ich möchte Teil einer Jugendbewegung sein" (I Want to be Part of a Youth Movement). It's no surprise that singer and songwriter Dirk von Lowtzow disagrees, saying he's keener and more political than he was in his 20s - he just expresses it differently than he used to.
"Becoming more mellow with age is not something I can say about myself," he says.
Since their start in the early 90s, Tocotronic have been known for reinventing themselves, and their new album "Wie wir leben wollen" (How We Want to Live) is no exception. In the past, the band has delved into punk, put out complexly composed, endless elegies, and even done hardcore rock. The idea for this release: Its tracks were to be produced just like at the beginning of the concept album age. That means completely analog, on tape, with only four sound tracks rather than the 48 or more common for digital recording in this day and age.
"We were really excited about making a certain kind of psychedelic, quirky, playful pop," von Lowtzow says, adding that the band "recorded the album like the Beatles or Beach Boys or the Zombies once did."
Tocotronic heads in new directions with their latest release
The 'Hamburg School'
"Wie wir leben wollen" may mark a musical departure, but Tocotronic still sounds familiar. They can't seem to shake their melancholy, and the lyrics remain less than accessible. What may surprise long-time fans are the country music flourishes and some unusual horn arrangements. At the music's core, listeners will recognize what's known in Germany as the "Hamburg School" style - alternative guitar music with intellectual lyrics.
Working with the four-track system "makes you consider very clearly how you want to go about something," von Lowtzow said. "You have to develop the sound architecture beforehand because you can't change much later."
From critics' choice to everybody's darling
The band's brushes with mass popularity in recent years remain inexplicable to its members. Tocotronic was long just a band for insiders - at the top of critics' choice lists, but far from seeing a warm welcome in the charts. But their last album "Schall & Wahn" ("Sound & Delusion"), released in 2010, sent the band straight to number one on the charts for the first time. Well-intentioned critics of former times, on the other hand, have largely abandoned the group, saying von Lowtow's lyrics - so praised in earlier days - are incomprehensible. Perhaps another case of art not being allowed to go commercial?
Head songwriter Dirk von Lowtzow says he can't get behind the criticism of the lyrics, especially given his focus on the quality of texts on "Wie wir leben wollen." He says they were not only written with a lot of love, but also with a good dose of humor. "It was a lot of work out of pure fun. If you don't have that, things can get quite kitschy - if it's all only melancholy or only sad or only desperate."
Critics jumped all over Tocotronic when they published 99 theses on "how we want to live" as part of a marketing gag for their new album - chastising the band's perceived arrogance in making a reference to Martin Luther's "Ninety-Five Theses." The theses range from number one, "As cartoon characters," to number 99, "In silence."
Von Lowtzow responds that the theses were not supposed to be taken seriously. Then again, the songwriter adds, humor is hard to come by in Germany - "especially when it doesn't hit you over head with a sledgehammer