Polarkreis 18 melt the lines between pomp and pop | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 07.02.2011
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Polarkreis 18 melt the lines between pomp and pop

Six musicians from Dresden make digestible, sing-along pop. For listeners who dig deeper there’s also symbolism and substance behind Polarkreis 18’s swooping falsettos, synth melodies and catchy electronic beats.

Members of the pop band Polarkreis 18

Making 'pompous pop' includes wearing all-white outfits

Once teenagers in a punk and metal band known as Jack of All Trades, the members of Polarkreis 18 eventually found their way to high-flying, pompous pop. They like their music haunting and grand, and don’t mind hiring in the Babelsberg Film Orchestra to help them sound that way.

The band became an overnight success when a song called "Allein Allein" (Alone, Alone) spent nearly a whole year in the German Hot 100 in 2009, including 20 weeks in the top ten and five weeks at number one.

The princes of pathos released a new album in late 2010 and are touring German-speaking countries in spring 2011. Deutsche Welle caught up with two of the band’s members – lead singer Felix Räuber and multi-instrumentalist Ludwig Bauer – to chat about why they wear white on stage, the accessibility of classical music to modern youth, and the band’s special bond to composer Franz Schubert.

DW: A couple of years ago your single "Allein Allein" (Alone Alone) was a major hit and there was suddenly huge interest in Polarkreis 18. How did you feel about all the attention?

Felix Räuber: We’ve been a band for more 13 years, so landing a hit after 11 years seemed like a very long time. Then it happened overnight. We never thought we’d experience anything like it. It was literally a surprise hit. Then we were thrown into one TV appearance after the next, performed many gigs here and abroad. It was a lot to process. Everyone around us kept saying "isn’t this nuts?!" but we ourselves couldn’t really fathom it.

Before producing the next record, we took a few months to settle down, come home and remind ourselves that we’re just normal guys and not any different than before.

Your latest album, "Frei," is loosely based on Franz Schubert’s "Winterreise" (Winter Journey) song cycle. What was the idea behind that?

Ludwig Bauer: Generally we feel a strong bond to the Romantic era with its themes and their transformation – subjects like dreams and desires, all of it very emotional. That’s very much how we approach artistic issues too. So Romanticism and Schubert are one link. In terms of content, the record tells the story of a kind of journey, the quest for those same themes from the Romantic period.

Schubert’s "Winterreise" tells the story of a traveler in several different songs that stand on their own but also work together as a song cycle. It’s similar for us: Each song deals with a different topic and works on its own, but as part of an overall construct they also convey a story from the first song to the last.

Does Polarkreis 18 place particular weight on classical music?

Bauer: All different kinds of music play an important role to us because we're fascinated by the various ways of expressing emotion. We've integrated more and more elements of classical into our music over the years because in our opinion it best underscores the feeling we want to convey. We're always looking for ways to formulate the fundamental concept of each song as intensely as possible. Our way of doing that tends towards great pathos, orchestral grandeur and preferably 300 tracks of sound per song.

What role does classical music play for contemporary youth in your opinion?

Bauer: For young people it’s difficult. It comes across as so cerebral to sit through a three-hour opera by Wagner. Many people simply don’t have the attention span. The times have become so fast-paced that it’s hard to come to terms with something like that.

In that context do you ever fear you’re expecting too much from average pop music listeners?

Räuber: If we go around announcing we’ve written "Winterreise 2.0," of course people are going to think it’s something intellectual. But our main intention was to make Polarkreis 18 music, which is catchy pop and very accessible. Regarding that other level of "Winterreise" and the subject matter, listeners can explore it if they want, but it's by no means mandatory.

You often perform wearing white outfits. Why?

Bauer: We’ve always tried to put our music first and keep our personalities in the background. The white suits are a projection screen for the music and prevent us as individuals from stealing into the forefront. Over time that has carried over into playing with masks and staging too.

Are the costumes and masks also a form of self-protection?

Räuber: The most dangerous part about gaining fame and prominence through your music is that you forget how to leave the stage behind you. If you spend your whole life on stage then you don’t know how things look off-stage. It’s important to us to stay grounded in reality. So undressing afterwards is the physical act of removing ourselves from it all.

Another of the band’s signature trademarks is the blend of German and English lyrics. What moves you to write a song using both languages?

Räuber: Back when we were writing the songs "Allein Allein" and "The Colour of Snow" we experimented and played around a lot. We thought it might be nice to write in our native tongue for a change. So we started writing completely in German – only to realize that consistently clear and easy-to-understand lyrics weren’t really our thing.

To a certain degree our style is mystical, mysterious, and (the lyrics) detracted attention from the melody. So then we back-translated, partially leaving certain catchphrases in German. That’s how it all started. Nowadays we look at the melody to determine whether a German lyric works here, an English one there, and play around and juggle the languages.

Marc Mühlenbrock interviewed Polarkreis 18 / daf

Editor: Jennifer Abramsohn

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