Fans of krautrock, Canterbury music and ‘frogressive’ rock avant-garde often underestimate the extent to which these leading currents of the 1970s were influenced by the jazz giants of the 1960s. Berlin-based, but Swiss-related Guru Guru were among the bands whose key figures were critically exposed to free jazz, improvisation and Indian ragas. By the time rock music electrified Mani Neumeier’s and Uli Trepte’s ideas, their musical education was all but complete. Barely a month after its foundation, Guru Guru opened at a Festival in Essen. The Fugs closed the evening.
In 1972, Trepte left Guru Guru and over the next three years worked with Neu!, toured with Faust, auditioned for Henry Cow and played with Release Music Orchestra. He eventually settled to record some material with two musicians from northern Germany – drummer Carsten Bohn (ex-Dennis) and reed player Willi Pape, formerly of Thirsty Moon. Joined by like-minded musicians from Embryo, the formation cut several compositions at Conny Plank’s studio, but failed to formalize its existence. It was not until 1975 that two more musicians joined Trepte & Co to form the short-lived Kickbit Information. Within this format Trepte pursued his original (and allegedly “central European”) ideas of placing the melody content into the minor modal lower voice. He later spent some time in England, working, among others, with Daevid Allen and Lol Coxhill.
It took two more years before Trepte’s new formation could be consolidated. Supported by saxophonist Edgar Hoffman of Embryo and Julius Golombeck on guitar, the studio-phase Spacebox co-opted drummer Lotus Schmidt. The music, reliant on forceful speed control, was marked by dissonance and distortion generated with Trepte’s “spacebox” – a basic yet highly effective contraption containing a multiple input device, a filter and an echoplex. The result was power-fusion of the highest caliber. Although the packaging was electric avant-rock, the microstructure was heavily improvised. It is astounding that free jazz buffs entirely missed out on these recordings.
A self-declared existential musician, Trepte later experimented with modal blues, but never regained the artistic heights achieved in Spacebox. Stephen Stapleton repeatedly endeavored to document his unique talent, with little success. Opinions vary as for the exact reasons of Trepte’s eventual musical demise – some stress his frustration with art commercialism and with the pariah status of underground lifestyle, others point out problems with substance abuse, yet others blame his geographic dispersion and lack of focus. His output deserves attention beyond the walled circles of krautrock aficionados.
We are instantly confronted with Trepte’s claustrophobic vocal processing. As if confined to a metallic box, his voice contends with licentiously astringent soprano saxophone fingered by the inimitable Edgar Hofmann. Lotus Schmidt assumes full responsibility for the Vortrekker-type ‘caravan’ drumming. A little later the fourth – and equally unexpected – ingredient joins: Julius Golombeck’s electric guitar clangs lacerate the power chords in Jody Harris’s & Contortions’ style. Still, Golombeck’s Neigung is more jazz and less ‘punk’ than James Chance’s contemporaneous New York band and he will limit here his programmatic anger to spicy tremolos. By now the plodding “caravan” is in full bloom. Hofmann’s soprano gesture is nearly histrionic, with little, if any, of Embryo’s tarred, spicy exoticisms. The march of “Zonk Machine” is getting louder, courtesy Trepte’s ‘spacebox’ device, which mixes in savage blasts with short wave radio and tape switchbacks.
Sue ist ein
Here Edgar Hofmann appears on shenai (an Indian shawm). Its Rajasthani echoes bake the images of scorched, rusty desolation, in a shocking contrast to Trepte’s obsessively rolled “r”, borrowed from a South German dialect… Golombeck’s anxious, frustrated guitar continues to evince an anti-jazz bellicosity, but the rest of the band glides through this trap. Half way through, the ensemble erupts into a fast run, with abrasive, gut-wrenching vocal and cluttery junk noise.
Ich bin süchtig
The piece, dedicated to William S. Burroughs, opens with a flute part worthy of Yusef Lateef’s proto-Eastern, spiritual affirmation. Intimately tender guitar chords, sizzling cymbals and dry, tightened drumwork all tune up to the sensation of sandalwood fondness. It is Trepte’s Sprechstimme that abruptly changes the mood into an interrogation, as if exasperated by sudden time signature changes. Were it not for his vocal revulsion, the cascade of meter changes would recall classic Brainstorm. None of that referential comfort lasts. Spacebox overshoots into a raw, blinding blow-out. It takes Schmidt’s heavy drum roll to stabilize the band, which defaults back to the leadership of the orientalizing flute. Trepte mostly speaks, but when he raises his voice, the speed change is almost instantaneous. Thus far, the flute and guitar have been mixed in quite distinctively, but the spaceboxed vocal now densifies the texture. These noisy blow-outs mask the underlying structure and it is impossible to tell if the original ideas were antiphonal or entirely free-form.
The ‘spacebox’ device offers a mélange of radio snippets, 1960s’ cool jazz, 1970s’ Schlager and such like non-sequiturs. A lethargic, loose groove throbs on, with a squealing shenai exploiting the relative dynamic freedom of this passage. Golombeck’s guitar hesitates between harmonizing and straight-on improvisation. Indistinctive, muffled tapes of male and female voices emanate through the ‘spacebox’. Drumming takes the cue from Trepte’s quasi-melodic bass, which seems to be straying into higher pitches, above G. Golombeck saws some slides, scrapes fast tremolos and yanks E-twangs on the bottom string. Some quaint voice tapes close the track.
Sing Sung Song
What begins like a skit in a Scandinavian language transmutes into Trepte’s incomprehensible harangue, stewed in a heavy anti-blues. This track is highly distinctive through its use of a fuzzed out mouth organ. Trepte’s shamanistic call-outs drag the rest of the band through velocity pick-ups and drop-outs. Zonked-out and wacked through, the band secretes a sense of subplinian drama. The drums knock and the mouth organ whinnies tragically with an intensity that even Don Van Vliet had never attained.
Spacebox’s 14-minute long tour de force is an amazing story of fits and starts. Tumultuous and unpredictable, this highly improvised piece opens with Hofmann’s intoxicated violin and Trepte’s self-assured recitation. I suspect that it is here that Winfried Beck joins on congas. Hofmann’s sustained legato notes on his epiphytic violin are struggling to avoid conflict with guitar outbursts à la Sonny Sharrock. Trepte induces slow, clamorous uplifts with his lair-dwelling, growling, feline bass. Lotus Schmidt and Beck double up on drumsets when Hofmann’s portatos take on a discordant, riffy quality. The basic beat is abandoned, resumed, waved off again. In this purposive bedlam, replete with tragic energy, the ride cymbal misleads us into expecting an eventual take-off. When it fails to materialize, a jazzy bass figure steps in, now ratified by a flute instead of the violin. Here again, Trepte’s “lyrics” end many lines with his rrrrolled “r”, whereby he successfully turns his dampened voice into a raspy, scraggly instrument. While the relentless drum pounding continues, a kamikaze guitar tremolo screeches right through the metallic shout. The guitar solo eventually skids into a tube distortion, yielding the top spot to the well-projected flute. Trepte’s tapes mingle with his live vocal input, in direct contrast with a loungey saxophone patina. Free fusion rock finally lifts off when the sax turns shrieky. Trepte proves that he can pluck his bass fast enough to keep the multifarious noise machine in check, yet without subjugating all of its cogs.
Here’s the last statement from this riled, impulsive, curmedgeonly display of animalistic free rock. The shamanistic voice distortion, the saxophone’s rancorous guzzle, the multi-percussive hail-like fracas and the ultra-fast Sharrockan guitar stitches all meet one last time to proclaim their emotional schizophrenia. Trepte’s declamation sounds passionate yet bored. The instrumental attack, sustain and decay impart both anger and indifference. The guitaristic wall of fuzz dodges any temptation to grandstanding. I am reminded of Pharoah Sanders’s “Izipho-Zam” – another piece of free mayhem which projected conflicting emotional signals through instinctive abstract expressionism. Until the very last drop of audible amplitudes, the saxophone soars, the drums roll and the guitar handcrafts its distinctive grunts.
Irene SCHWEIZER: “Jazz Meets India” (1967)
GURU GURU: “UFO“ (1970)
GURU GURU: “Essen 1970“ (1970)
GURU GURU: “Hinten“ (1971)
GURU GURU: “Der Zonk-In“ (1971)
GURU GURU: “30 Jahre Live“ 3CD (1971, 1998)
GURU GURU: “Känguru“ (1972)
GURU GURU/Uli TREPTE “Live 72. Session 74“ or “Hot on Spot / In Between“ (1972, 1974)
KICKBIT INFORMATION: “Bitkicks“ (1975)
SPACEBOX: “Spacebox“ (1979)
SPACEBOX: “Kick Up“ (1983)
Uli TREPTE: “Phenotype” MC (1987)
Uli TREPTE: “Jazz Modalities” (1989-90)
Uli TREPTE: “Real Time Music“ (1990-91)
I have never heard the last three positions listed here, but everything else is well worth investigating.
Early Spacebox also appears on compilation “Umsonst und Draussen. Porta Wesvorhica” (1978, unreleased elsewhere). Early Guru Guru can be found on “Ohrenschmaus – neue Popmusik aus Deutschland” (1970).
During the period separating the two Spacebox LPs, Trepte spent some time in the US and in Japan, but, to my knowledge, no recordings exist from this period. In the meantime, Lotus Schmidt appeared with Mani Neumeier and Edgar Hofmann in a highly recommended one-off known as LS Bearforce:
LS BEARFORCE: “LS Bearforce” (1983)