PANZERBALLETT - na Wackenu na nás házeli pivo

PANZERBALLETT - at Wacken they threw on us beer

Panzerballett on Marast we admire from the times when we discovered the album Starke Stücke. Their conglomerate of metalic jazz fusion heavily influenced by Meshuggah has no precedent in the world. Interview with their brain Jan Zehrfeldem was created in the spring before the first concert of Panzerballett in the Czech Republic. Jan talked civilly and modestly, and in 30 minutes we discussed the history of the band and where he was looking for inspiration and his wacky ideas. Six months passed. Meanwhile, the band managed to release a new album that promotes a small tour over the winter. The good new is Panzerballett on 5. January will play in Prague!


Could you describe the beginnings of your band? How did you find band members for your rampaging?

It was 13 years ago. We started as a quartet, I was looking for the musicians and they were all from Munich where I live. They were from the music scene in Munich actually. I wanted a quartet and I wanted to have a keyboard to play fusion but I didn’t find a keyboard player. I played in a lot of bands, so I knew a lot players. So I asked Gregor Bücher, who was the first saxophone player and bass player (Florian Schmidt) – he was one of the main jazz players who also played electric bass, not only upright bass. He doesn’t play anymore which is very sad, he stopped playing. Then it was Max Bucher, he was a hobby musician, but he was really into it, into this fusion, he wanted to do it... And then it evolved into a kvintet with some new guys. No one besides myself from the original line-up.
Are you satisfied with saxophone instead of keyboards?

Yes. The keyboards would be great as well, but I found a good way to write saxophone and this kind of musical set-up and I managed to continue with this (2:45?) and I still have the ideas.
Will you tell us about the band members and could you describe their musical background (music schools etc.)?

Now, all the musicians are studied musicians.
Does the music make your living?

But it’s not only Panzerballett, I think.

No, no. Sebastian, our drummer, is the only guy who plays, but he doesn’t teach. The others also do some teaching. I do it as well, I like to teach. It’s mixture of everything like we have other projects and bands or studio jobs like sidemen and stuff like that.
Do you produce the bands, too?

No, no. Just Panzerballett.
Do you do it in your own studio?

No. I mean when I do some demos I have the possibility to record something but not like real producing in studio like Sebastian has his own room....but when we record an album, we go to studio. There’s one main guy who is sound producer and editor, but that’s not myself. I am just like...
...big brain...

...the big picture.
PanzerballettThere is a great difference between your debut and Starke Stücke, especially in the overall compositions conception. The debut sounds more conventional in comparison with the nex albums. At that time you were searching for your musical language, am I right?

Yeah, that’s right. Well, the language like ... the debut was the first step. But then, there was ACT Music that signed us. Siggi Loch was the head of ACT – it was his idea to do like fifty percent the covers. I thought - well, maybe I could try to transfer the style that I established on the first album like doing something more of the original stuff and also some cover tunes, but rearranging them with the same compositional tools as I arrange my own compositions. I think, it was the good idea, because indeed the listener has better reference to it. He has better idea what’s happening in music if he already knows something. But I‘m still and always searching and trying to develop and trying not to repeat myself or trying constantly to incorporate new and more complex elements or to experiment with different rhythms and polyrhythms. I always want the music to sound fresh to myself and not like being a copy. But the general way of course – you have these instruments, you have the limitations to ... you cannot do anything, but still, I think I found a language from over the years. It was not like „right now I found it“. It’s just constantly evolving process which has been lasting like thirteen years now.
How did you figure out the principles of Panzerballett songs? I mean using well-known popular songs and transforming them into some kind of “meshuggah jazzrock“?

I just tried it out. The principle was, first of all, that it has to be the song which is really known and everyone knows it. And then I thought – oh, what could I do to the melody like slightly changing a little bit so that the whole rhythm get fucked up or something like that and I tried to find a way back into the original - like slightly disturbing something and then finding back a way and like changing, experimenting, putting them into a new musical or rhythmic surroundings. So actually, it’s still to be recognizable, but still doing something to it so that it sounds different. And you don’t get it, what it is, it sounds different. To me, it has to be a good mixture of recognizability and still, like complexity...
Did you ask the Swedes about their opinion on Panzerballett’s music?

I just know that they know us. Our sound guy once met the light guy of Meshuggah and he told us they are kind of aware of us. But I don’t know who of them knows us more or whatever, but once I met them in the backstage room and they said „yeah, we know your band and it’s great“. But I don’t know more details. They are aware and this makes me kind of proud, because they were one of my main musical influence. I wrote thesis on Meshuggah, actually.
Could you tell me something about it? What exactly was it you wrote about?

It was about development of their style and where in metal they are located, musically. So how they did all these crazy elements that they once found, how it changed and how their style changed.
PanzerballettYou are the main composer in the band. How do you pick the original versions that form the basis? Do you have to agree on them with the other band members? Or does the leading tune simply have to be powerful?

They don’t have to be powerful. I mean, they have to have something catchy and no matter what style they are.
How about Michael Jackson, for example?

Yeah. That’s an idea! I find some songs right away which I would know what to try to do with them. (he sings the song from Michael Jackson) I could syncopate it already I could fuck it up. Some melodies are hard to change, sometimes it starts getting cheesy like doing very happy song with major melody which is like folk music or whatever. Sometimes it’s hard to transfer it into a new style and not make it sound cheesy.
What made you think of the football tune in Friede, Freude, Fussball?

It was only this rhythm which is clapped. I thought „well, what can I do with this rhythm?“ And I tried out the several things ... like how can I incorporate this rhythm into the several musical styles, what happens when I shift it by like sixteen note? OK, it kind of sounds like latin music more or it sounds like disco, funk, or whatever. It’s like showing that doing tiny little rhythmic changes already defines a new style or makes it to something recognizable or links it to a new style. I want to go through several styles just on this rhythm.
Do you compose for everyone in the band?

I write out everything except drums, then I hand it to them and they play it more or less their way. I am not a drummer, what I do is I programme drums. And their part sounds like in about the way I want to sound it like, but Sebastian has his own ideas. He actually then takes over and makes awesome drum part which I could never write. He tries to push the boundaries in drumming and he is really doing it great. I am really grateful to have him, because he’s making these drum parts that I write so much better.
PanzerballettYour shows mostly take place at jazz festivals and in clubs. Isn’t the unprepared audience a bit confused and taken aback? On the other side, you played at Wacken festival. Were you scared? What was the feedback?

Jazz audience says „well, it’s loud, it’s heavy metal“ and metal audience is like „what the fuck is this? it’s 100 percent jazz, I don’t like jazz“. At jazz festivals you see people are not prepared, they just leave the room and at Wacken they threw on us beer (laugh). No, they don’t, but they look like „what’s going on here“. Many people don’t understand what’s going on. But there is like always a decent group of audience which actually digs it and stays with us and this is great. But there are always polarizing. There are always those who don’t like and all who want to dig it a lot.
Do you feel to be a jazzman or metalguy?

I studied jazz, but I always... doesn’t mean you are a jazzman.

It doesn’t mean it. I just took a deep jazz breath. I really got into jazz for five six years and I know what’s the idea of jazz, at least I know what it is and I like much of it. But still, I always need the metal elements. But I am not a metal musician as well. It’s both worlds which I try to combine. This becomes a part of myself like being neither of it and both of it.
An integral part of Panzerballett’s production is humour. What kind of humour do you personally prefer?

I like the humour that is basically as spontaneous as possible. The situations that happen, I think that’s the most funny things and how to deal with these situations ... Most of the times I am improvizing when I am doing the announcements and this the best? fun... Humour that is prepared it’s not funny for me. It always has to be spontaneous.
Panzerballett - X-Mas Death JazzI think it would be a pity if your music degenerated into collection of imitations or pastiches. How do you think you can prevent this happening, so that the band remained “respectable”? How is it possible to find the balance?

The answer will be similar like the question before. Because humour has to be a little bit hidden, it cannot be very obvious, it has to be subtle things that happen in the music that make it funny. It’s not by not exaggerating this and not doing it too often. Maybe I have one idea spontaneously when I am arranging „well, I could exploit it, but I don’t need it to be ... now, it has to be funny and I want it to sound funny.“ It’s never my intention to make it funny. Just what I kind of hear and I think „wow, that could be funny and I try to do something funny. I never want it to be necessarily funny. I am not exaggerating the fun factor, it just happens naturally.
So it depends sometimes on your mood...

Yes, of course.
I miss humour on your last album, Breaking Brain. There are not just the covers, but also your own compositions. Can we expect in future more your songs?

No. In the future or on next album there will be only covers. It will be Christmas album, only Christmas songs. That’s what I was doing for last year. Very funny, extremely. (laugh) I’ve been doing this for like 15 years now - every year sending out one minute versions of Christmas songs and I made the best of now and put it into eight songs. This is going to be next Panzerballett album.
There is one song from Frank Zappa on Hart Genossen album. He mixed pop, infantile humour and avantgarde rock. Did he inspire you? What is your opinion on him?

No, not at all. I’m not big Zappa fan, actually. I mean, I appreciate his music and I think he is maybe one of the greatest and the most important musicians of modern music. But I’m not big fan of his music. But still, I think the music has complexity and is great. Many fans of our music are also the fans of Zappa, so I wanted to pay tribute to them. This is how I would present his music.
PanzerballettYou wear a tousled wig at your concerts. Why? Is it just a funny props or is it a way of Panzer-thinking?

Not anymore. I don’t know, I just felt like I’m getting grey hair and... I just turned forty and I thought: Well, it’s been great time to have the wig, because it was like headbanging help or whatever, it had its time and now this time is over. I just feel more free without it and I think it’s not necessary to have it.
I don’t think you’ve made a long tour yet, just single concerts. Why is it so? You concentrate mainly on Germany. Is it hard to break through abroad? Or you don’t like to travel so much?

I love to travel more than anything but it’s hard to go across the border, because not enough people know us outside of Germany. And in addition, it’s always a big effort to go somewhere. You need time, you need money for gas to travel and plus there are not that many fans outside of Germany, or … Everywhere on the road there are some fans but not enough on one spot.
Who would you like to go on tour with? What band is in your opinion the closest one to Panzerballett’s philosophy? Like support for Meshuggah or what?

Oh, that would be great, but I don’t know if the fans would like us. But Meshuggah would be awesome. I think Shining would be awesome. Who else… Any of the bands that Virgil Donati has (laugh). Or maybe The Aristocrats, something like this. We’ve already played with them at the same festivals.
Trilok Gurtu was the guest on Breaking Brain album. How did you manage to allure him for cooperation?

That was a long process. I contacted him and at first he agreed to listen to it, but then he didn’t. And in the end, I think it was student of him shortly before the deadline for actually needing his tracks, shortly before I tried it once more and wrote him „well, last chance, you want to do it?“. And he played to his student and his student told him: „You have to do it.“ (laugh) So then it was very spontaneous, he came one week later into the studio in Munich and recorded his track.
What was his opinion on Panzerballett’s music?

Well, I think he likes it. But he likes anything that is kind of complicated and different. Unconventional – that’s what he likes the most, I think.
You’re noted as a producer of the second and the third album. The sound is amazing; full, dynamic, and what’s more, the instruments don’t sound synthetic at all. How did you manage that?

This was Jan Vacik from the Czech Republic, he has studio. He was our sound guy who helped us. I worked with him, it was a very good collaboration. I had just an idea and he just managed to realize. He is a musician and he already knew what I wanted it to sound. Well, I was the producer, but I didn’t make the sound. I just made the decisions about the sound.
PanzerballettYou’re German. How do you perceive your homeland as far as a fusion genre is concerned? What is it like in your country? Which bands and interpreters of this genre would you recommend?

Fusion in Germany is not very strong and not very popular, I think. There are just a few bands. And if you have the fusion band, it is likely they don’t make living of it. I know about the ones that are not below the rate – 7for4 and Counter-world Experience who actually have some success. But I don’t know any other fusion bands. But there is more popular fusion stuff like Klaus Doldinger, maybe he is the most famous fusion musician and legend, very old. It isn’t music for young people right know, I think. I try to reach young people as well. This is where fusion has to go. And it’s hard thing to do it nowadays.