Every band’s front man or woman has probably had to deal with varying degrees of stage fright at one point or another in their career. For some, the feeling can be assuaged with an alcoholic beverage or two, while for others the thought of facing a crowd of any size requires something a bit stronger, and may involve multipble trips to the bathroom to void their stomach contents. For Lacrimosa’s main man Tilo Wolff, the cure before his band’s first show was a bottle of whiskey, an all too common remedy in the entertainment industry. But there was nothing common about Lacrimosa’s first gig.
How many bands have made their live debut in front of a festival crowd of 15,000 pairs of staring eyes? That’s not exactly open mic night down at the local booze dispensary. So how was Lacrimosa able to forego the years of paying their dues? It wasn’t so much a conscious decision as it was Tilo’s aversion to crowds that led Lacrimosa, which for the past 16 years has been headed by Wolff along with his collaborator and wife*, Anne Nurmi, to delay their first concert until the release of their fourth album.
TILO WOLFF: For many years people offered me to go on stage and I was always like, no. Then when I finally said yes it was a festival in front of 15,000 people. And I thought, ‘If I do it, I do it the hard way.’ Because then there’s no turning back. It was the only way for me. After that concert I knew I survived; with a whiskey bottle and drinking hard, but still I survived.
And since then, Lacrimosa has been able to do much more than survive, carving out a career that is fast closing in on the two-decade mark. During that time they’ve written 10 albums, never going more than two years between records until the four-year gap between 2005’s Licthgestalt and their latest effort, 2009’s Sehnsucht, their musical style running the gamut from gothic to symphonic to rock and metal, making many an eclectic stopover along the way. They’ve toured the world, and have spawned local fan clubs from South America to Europe and Asia, and enjoy meeting with their fans after every show. Given Wolff’s initial fear of crowds, this might seem a bit odd. But it wasn’t that Wolff had some sort of fan phobia in the early days. He always wanted to play live, and since he made the choice to conquer his fear, the live show has become one of his favorite parts of the Lacrimosa experience.
TILO WOLFF: Now it’s one of my biggest joys. I always want to talk to the people because they share so much with me so I want to share something with the people. The second reason was I realized that Lacrimosa won’t have a future if I don’t go on stage. I needed to jump down this mountain into some empty space where I didn’t know where I would end up because I had no idea if I could be on stage.
That is not to say that the man has completely gotten over the feelings of nervousness that come over him when he takes to the stage with Anne and their backing band. Rather, he has found his own way of dealing with being stared at on a near nightly basis. He simply closes his eyes.
TILO WOLFF: I’m quite a shy person and sometimes I don’t want to be watched. Whenever I close my eyes I’m there like a small child who is like (puts his hands over his eyes): ‘Nobody can see me!’ Of course
I know there are people there, but I close my eyes and think, ‘Don’t care, just don’t care.
This is how Wolff has forced himself to become comfortable with himself while performing. And watching him today, there is no hint of awkwardness in his movements, and he has even come to incorporate theatrical hand movements and dance into his performance routine. In between verses, the heavily made up singer can even be seen rhythmically mouthing the drum beats and waving his arms about like a cross between an orchestra conductor and the sad clown in the band’s logo. The dancing came about almost as a matter of necessity for Wolff.
TILO WOLFF: When I went out on stage, the first time I realized the songs are pretty long if you are on stage and you don’t have anything to sing, so what shall I do? I can’t stand around, so I started dancing. That was how it developed. In the beginning I thought it must be totally foolish, so I just closed my eyes and just did what felt right. Now I don’t think about anything, just do what I want. I just dance and listen to the music like I would at home.
And it was back home, in the gothic clubs of his hometown of Frankfurt, Germany, that Wolff first started putting the different musical pieces together into the ever evolving puzzle that is the unpredictable and experimental Lacrimosa sound. For him, it all came down to that old cliché: If you want something done right, you’d better do it yourself.
TILO WOLFF: When I used to be in the gothic clubs in the eighties I always asked for Guns ‘n’ Roses to play and the guys were like, ‘Are you out of your mind?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t care. I like this band.’ I just wanted to combine different music styles that I liked and I never found any bands that really do it, whether they were metal bands or gothic or electro. So I thought I’ll just have to do it on my own. I just try to piece everything together.
What’s truly interesting is that, in its most nascent stages, Lacrimosa began as a musical project without any actual music. In a process that remains unchanged to this day, Wolff’s songs, in his teenage years, began as tuneless written passages, which music was written around at a later time.
TILO WOLFF: When I started with Lacrimosa it wasn’t because I wanted to become a rock star or anything like that. I wanted to have another dimension around the lyrics that I was writing since…I can’t even remember. I’m always writing down my thoughts. But I came to the point where I realized it’s not enough anymore. I wanted to play my girlfriend something. It started for a simple reason, just for that. Out of that it evolved and became a band. When I continued I didn’t want to cut the roots. That was the beginning—why I did it. Why should I change this? That was the main idea. That’s why I still do it. It’s wonderful like this because it’s like writing a score to a movie. The words are the movie, they are the pictures in my head, and I just need to write the music around it.
In 1991, following the release of a demo entitled Clamor the previous year, it came time to record the first Lacrimosa album, Angst. Wolff learned quickly that he was not the sort of person who enjoyed having terms dictated to him, and decided from the outset that the D.I.Y. route was the path for him. So he founded his own label, Hall of Sermon, which was founded at first simply to release Lacrimosa albums, but has since expanded to include its own roster of gothic and dark wave artists.
TILO WOLFF: When I did the first demo tape I sent it around to some record companies, and they sent me back some contracts with like, ‘We choose the songs, we choose the cover’ and whatever. And I was like, this can’t be it. So I did it on my own. The only problem was I had no idea what a record company is doing. So it took me a year to find out what I shall do to release an album and the reason was to be independent and make my own decision about everything I do. Nobody can tell me what I shall do.
LacrimosaThen, in 1993, Wolff’s heretofore solo project was transformed into a duo with the addition of the woman who would become not only his musical co-conspirator, but also his wife*. The world of music is littered with the corpses of bands that disbanded due to infighting and, in a certain context, a lack of respect between members. But the husband and wife team* behind Lacrimosa, according to Wolff, have never had that problem when writing songs.
TILO WOLFF: It’s a respect process. If she does something I don’t understand I ask her, but I never would say ‘I don’t want this.’ I ask her, and if she can’t explain it to me then I tell her, ‘Then please write it so that I can understand it,’ and the other way around.
The fact that the two of them tend to keep to themselves, at least on the musical side of things, while writing, has likely also done wonders for the longevity of not only their marriage*, but their musical union as well.
TILO WOLFF: In the end we come together, but actually we are working pretty separate which is important because both of us should reflect our own feelings and not try to please the other one. Even though we are one band, it’s very important to be focused on what the person wants to do.
Throughout the course of their collaboration, Wolff and Nurmi have always embraced the darker side of music, and though Wolff’s earlier solo albums were decidedly bleaker opuses, beauty has developed behind the veil of blackness, and to focus on the austere is to only see half the picture. As Wolff points out, though it may surprise many who hear his music for the first time, he has never been one to wallow in pessimism, and has even described writing music as the only time he can be one hundred percent open. As a case in point, the theme of Lacrimosa’s latest album is awakening from the coma of despair.
TILO WOLFF: I have always been a very optimistic person. Otherwise I would have killed myself many years ago. What I am trying to do is face the dark side of my own personality in order to get the strength out of it. I think it’s a weakness if you are trying to hide things and don’t have the courage to stand to it. I’m trying to stand to it and get the strength out of it. When I was younger and doing the first albums I didn’t know that so well yet. I was grieving. And the more I got older I realized in this grief there are two possibilities; you drown in it or get the strength out of it and I chose the second. This is why in music I’m always trying to look for the light.
And what a busy quest for the light it has turned into for Wolff. In addition to running Hall of Sermon, composing music and writing lyrics for Lacrimosa, and touring for every album, Wolff also involves himself in the design of each album’s artwork. Taking on so many responsibilities leads to a perpetual feeling of being overwhelmed seizing him. He’ll take a break eventually, he says, it’s just a matter of finding a spare moment to do so that proves easier said than done.
TILO WOLFF: Since years I’m like, I need to take a break, I need to rest. But I just don’t get to. For example, right now, actually I wanted to take a rest before this tour because it’s quite a long tour. So I didn’t find the time because the organization of the tour took a long time. But I was so exhausted after producing the new album. So I said, between the two tours, then we do some holidays, which is impossible right now because I’ve been away for a long time I have so much to do. So I consider the second part, the European part, as my holiday. It’s always like this. But I need to take a rest someday before I drop.
Wolff has also founded a side project, Snakeskin, which began in 2004. The sound is a huge departure from Lacrimosa, possessing a dark, electro-operatic vibe. Snakeskin started as a pressure-free solo studio project, but with two albums already released under the Snakeskin banner, Wolff has become a victim of his own success.
TILO WOLFF: Actually this is kind of a holiday. I can do something without pressure. I wanted to break out and do something totally different. Now it became that successful that everybody is pressuring me and asking ‘When is the new album coming out?’ I don’t know how it’s going to continue. It will continue of course. I love this project. But I don’t know when and how.
For the moment, Wolff’s focus is squarely on Lacrimosa. The band is in the midst of the touring cycle for Sehnsucht, but Wolff is already eagerly anticipating where Lacrimosa’s musical journey will veer off to next. Throughout the band’s career, the albums have followed a unique pattern of unplanned trilogies, wherein three albums were, in a way, fused together thematically and musically, according to Wolff. If Lacrimosa holds true to form, and all indications from Wolff are that they will, that would mean that Sehnsucht is but the beginning of yet another of these trilogies.
TILO WOLFF: When I look back upon the history of Lacrimosa there’s always three albums that are together. Now I feel with the new album, it’s a new chapter, and it’s a huge new chapter. I feel Lacrimosa, with this new album, is reborn. I sense a new way of Lacrimosa. I’m very excited to see how the story will develop with the next albums in that section of three albums. I think it’s really like rebirth for Lacrimosa.
2009 (c) Joe Henley, taipeimetal.com
NOTE: * — unconfirmed information
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