Boris Blank Talks
After our recent interview with Dieter Meier, we knew we had to speak to his partner, Yello’s musical mastermind, and one of the true Godfathers of techno; Boris Blank. Blank has been keeping busy over the last year, with the twin projects of his new Yellofier app (a kind of mini sampler/ sequencer packed with Blank’s own sound palette) and compiling a huge multi-disc retrospective spanning 5 decades of his work .
The retrospective, titled Electrified, was selected from mountains of material, curated with the aid of Yello’s long standing engineer and studio collaborator Ian ‘Inky’ Tregoning. A day after Blank came to town to preview the boxset in the somewhat sterile environment on Shoreditch House – and the much less sterile environment of Rough Trade which featured an indepth Q&A with him afterwards – we were lucky enough to catch up with him and Tregoning, to talk about how the box set came to be. What we weren't expecting were the truly hair raising stories of gangster record label negotiations, mafia encounters, murderous Sikhs and drug abuse…
R$N: So tell us how the Electrified Box Set came together?
Boris : First of all I have to say that I know Ian since the early 80’s. He was the guy that brought Yello from the West Coast of America to London. He was the man that was one of the first people that believed in our work at the time. Since then we were in contact, he’s not the boss of the company doing any records anymore because he makes his own music and started engineering and recording bands. We are always in contact and every few years he comes to Zurich or I come to London. He was more often in Zurich the last few years, but a couple of years ago he was in Zurich and, as usual I invited him to my studio and played him some new sounds. At the time I was actually trying to reconstruct the whole studio and finding old media, like tapes and hard disks with all the sounds on from the Fairlight. I have to clean up every once and a while and archive all of the things that are important to me.
But during the clean up we found dozens of tracks from the last 35 years and we were so fascinated about lots of them, and you can still listen to lots of them because it’s timeless music. So we decided to make a box-set, at first not with that many tracks, but at the end we had 100 tracks that we then reduced to 60 tracks. So we had 60 tracks to put on 3 vinyl or 2 CDs. Then I worked with some video artists to see if they’d do some short pieces that were like 2/3 minutes and that came out as 12 very interesting videos which are included in the box set as well. We also found a whole box full of cassettes, but we didn’t have time to go through all of them. Some of the cassettes still sounded amazing, some of them sticking like glue – those we threw away – but lots of them were very high quality tracks which went on a Yello vinyl or CD. So the concept, if you will, was to put together all these soundtracks from ’77 through till…
That’s when I was born!
B: You’re a 77?!
I: Wow! So this is a soundtrack to your entire life, not just your youth.
I think my first memory of you is seeing you on Top of the Pops. Well not you, but seeing the video on Top of the Pops.
B: Do you remember which one?
I think it was The Race. I have a clear memory of seeing you on Top of the Pops. It must have been strange to be part of the pop world –
B: Of course, I’d never thought about this, but as you said we were worldwide in the charts with The Race and Oh Yeah and stuff like this and it’s still surviving with electronic music today.
I: It’s interesting actually, someone asked a question about this last night, but when you first started it wasn’t really considered or even regarded as music.
I: Yeah. But now, it’s so ubiquitous. You’ve always been creating something that is identifiable as Yello. Even from using the same samples, there’s a writing approach there. It’s almost like the world has caught up with what he’s doing.
How many times has Oh Yeah been in a film?
B: I have no idea. But I can tell you that it has supported Yello. Downloads and physical sales of records are shrinking, as they are with all bands. We are still in a happy situation that most of our fans are not very flexible with computers because they are older and still buy something. And there are people now going back and collecting all of the old vinyl, I think that we still sell enough when I see what David Bowie has sold from his last album.
I: It’s the live shows. It’s come back to the live shows.
B: We’ve never understood ourselves as a pop band. We see ourselves as arty farties. As a brand we are still very famous and of course if we continue the development of this app, I have to sign a developer account, which is a very difficult thing.
Yeah, it’s very hard.
B: They absolutely jack your background and you have to send a register and it takes days. Then if you try to contact them via email it takes a couple of days and then you just get a robot response, so I had a phone number and I called them directly and one of the big centers is in Texas. It’s such a big company and such a big thing to go there. I sent dozens of emails and then called and then a lady answered and said ‘This is Apple Company how may I help?’ and I just said my name is Boris Blank and then she said ‘Alright, can you give me your number Boris?’ so I gave her my blah blah number and she came back with ‘Yellofier right?’ and then asked me what music I made so I asked her if she’d heard of Yello. She hadn’t so then I sung to her and she shouted ‘Of course I know that song! Boris, yes!’ From then on the door was open and everything was absolutely positive.
I: There’s a whole history of events behind that track. The track was with Electra Records and they weren’t really the right label. There were a couple of people at Elektra Records, the boss and another guy, and they really loved Yello. But the company, they wanted to sign Motley Crew on the same label. The thought of that!
Anyway, it wasn’t going very well. Electra was part of Warner Brothers and Warner Brothers hated Electra. All the execs at Electra were earning more than the execs at Warner Brothers. So we were dead in the water. But I’d done this deal with John Hughes and got Oh Yeah into Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and was like ‘Fantastic!’ but we had a dead company. So I was staying in New York working and managed to get the rights out of Electra but when you sign to these companies it’s forever. In case you do anything in the future they hang on to your rights. So I knew Bob Krasnow, took him for dinner, and said ‘Look Bob, we’re dead here. We’ve got another idea, can we buy out.’ We worked out the numbers and it went through. But, and this is the big but, we’d already done a deal with Polygram to release Oh Yeah as part of the soundtrack for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Basically, if you do that to record companies you end up in the East River. That is rubbing their face in the dirt. Don’t do shit like that, especially when you’re with Bob Krasner. Krasner was represented by a guy called Marty Machat and Marty Machat used to get the mobsters like the Soprano’s off the hook. Me and Dieter met these guys in Frank Sinatra’s flat, we had a meeting with them. They’re incredible! The New York music industry was shitting their pants if these guys moved in.
They were sat there and said to me and Dieter ‘Hey Dieter, you’re in one of those electronic bands aren’t ya. You can do three albums in a weekend.’ He said ‘Here’s what you do when you sign with these guys, you sign the contract and then tear it up and start again.’
Seriously. I mean, it was fucking Soprano’s. Me and Dieter had a couple of meetings and Marty Machat stuck his head in the room and then everything in the room changed and they asked ‘Is he working with you?’ so we said that he’d expressed interest and that’s as far as it got. But I did the deal with Polygram and I remember when it was time to go home and I was living on West 16th and I remember going back on a Friday evening and I was really well dressed and it was summer time and I was just sat there thinking ‘They’re going to fucking kill me…’ But we managed to sneak the deal the through and it wasn’t until a few days afterwards that Polygram announced that they were going to be releasing it.
B: That’s such a good rock and roll story from the ‘70’s!
I: There’s a little part 2 if you’re interested. I was staying in this place, and it was the first time I’d seen a loft. Do you remember Fran Duffy? He had a loft and it was size of this square here, enormous. You could roller skate round it. He had lots of interesting friends, this guy used to manage Springsteen in the day. He had lots of space there and he liked me so that ended up being my base in New York. Anyway, I came back after this meeting and I was pretty ashen-faced, and there were three Sikhs round there. I don’t know if you know the Golden Temple of Amritsar, it got raided in the mid-80’s and about 40 people got killed. So there was this thing with Sikhs, and if a Sikh ever pulls a knife on you, run! They don’t pull it out to threaten; they pull it out to use it. It’s part of their religion, if you pull it out you use it.
Anyway, there were these three Sikhs there and they were interesting looking guys. They’d come to New York because there was a big meeting of Sikhs to try and sort out this massive tragedy that had happened in Amristar and they were going to go to war. They were going to go over en mass and kill all those police. There was this one guy that had come over and was doing this big talk and these three guys had arrived at Fran’s flat. They had a huge pile of cocaine and a huge bag of weed on the table.
I: The Sikhs yeah. They like to party. So it was about 5.30 and I was sat there like ‘What the fuck is going on.’ I didn’t partake because I was just thinking about loads of other stuff, but one of them came and sat next to me and said ‘You look troubled.’ Then I said, ‘Well, I think I might get killed from what I’ve just done. And he then came back with something really interesting. He was talking about drugs and whatever, and then he said ‘You’ve got a fountain of energy pouring out of you. I can see it.’ Then I asked them why they were doing the cocaine if you’re into your fountains of energy. He replied with ‘Well, we like to get fucked up now and again.’ Then he said, and this is the point of the story, ‘We’re deeply religious, and we’re using prayer and meditation to hopefully one day reach enlightenment and the thing with drugs is they promise you enlightenment but you’ll never get there because you’ll get slightly paranoid’ Then he asked me if I was slightly paranoid and I said that I was. Then he said to me ‘The thing with drugs, is that in your state of mind you don’t need drugs because you’re already there. What’s happening is, when you take drugs, they never get you up to enlightenment; they just leave you in paranoia. They take you so far but they never take you all the way.
It’s really interesting because I’ve always remembered that story. I didn’t do LSD until years later when I was in my mid-30’s, I didn’t smoke my first joint until I was 25 and coke 30. I was a really late arriver. But you’ll always get a bit paranoid when you smoke stuff or you’ve done a pill.
I went to the meeting with these guys and there was whole room full of Sikhs and the main guy was there and he was brilliant. He was going round the world unifying the Sikh nation and he told a very interesting story that was kind philosophical. He said ‘If you’re crossing the desert in a truck, what’s the most important thing?’ And of course all these people are going ‘Water!’, ‘’Food!’, ‘Petrol!’ Then he goes ’No, the most important thing when you cross the desert is the little needle on your petrol gauge.’
B: If you’re in India, where you’re on the streets, you see lots of trucks on the side that have had accidents and they just get left there. But over there, if you’re a truck driver you’re thought of as not being very rich so they are just looking forward to their next life because they believe in reincarnation. That’s kind of a joke really, but it’s kind of a philosophy about them as well.
Boris, can I ask about your photographic memory and constructing tracks. Ian was saying last night that you have a photographic memory and you always have about 70 tracks on the go at any one time. How is it possible to keep track?
B: Well, you have to be pretty serious with your archiving and organisation of folders. Those are the first things you have to take care of. I give the folders the name of the mood of the track or something like ‘Kandinsky’ if it’s got that kind of sound. The names of the folders are the same path that I go down when I’m creating the music. I know what’s in all of these folders going back 10 years or so. I could probably even tell you what’s inside of them.
I had a talk with Matt Johnson yesterday and said that I’m like a squirrel. In winter I dig some little holes, and I put my sound in there. Then I know exactly what sound is where.
Say if you’re working with Ian, how do you communicate? Does Ian have an understanding of that is it purely for your working purposes?
B: Well it’s mainly for me when I’m making sounds for tracks. Because of the Internet we can use this wonderful thing called Wetransfer and send the volume to each other within minutes. In the 80’s when we were making music together, he’s more clean and organised than me! I work in more of a chaotic manner, but in my chaos I know exactly where everything is.
Ian has just given up his company and he came to Zurich to work with me on a new project and he helps me with engineering and he was always more clean in his head and cleansed things. Although, he’s doing his own brilliant music now.
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