Interview: Düsseldorf duo Grandbrothers are Open-minded

Few places in Germany have exerted as much influence on modern music as Düsseldorf. From Kraftwerk and Neu! to Die Krupps and D.A.F., the city has spawned several bands who have pushed the envelope, especially when it comes to electronic music.

It’s fitting then, that Düsseldorf is where the two musicians who make up Grandbrothers first met. Both Erol Sarp and Lukas Vogel were studying at the Institute For Music and Media when they encountered each other, and the seeds of a unique musical project were sown. Utilising the engineering skills of Swiss software designer Vogel, they created a machine that would allow him to play the inside of piano (via a system of computer-controlled hammers) while German-Turkish pianist Sarp sat at the keys. The technologically advanced yet emotionally rich results can be heard on Grandbrothers’ 2015 debut Dilation, and on the forthcoming follow-up Open.

Judging by the singles released from it so far – the beautifully fluid ‘Bloodflow’ and the yearning, fluttering ‘Long Forgotten Future’ – Open will likely expand Grandbrothers’ fanbase even further when it drops on City Slang this Friday (October 20th). As such it seemed like a good time to ask the duo about the development of their methods and the musicians who have inspired them…

First off, tell us how you met and how Grandbrothers as a project began…

Erol Sarp: We first met almost ten years ago, when we both started at the Institute For Music and Media in Düsseldorf. After we had been hanging out together and became good friends, I approached Lukas in 2011, asking him if he would be interested in starting a musical project which focuses on the grand piano. After a while we thought it would be cool to somehow work with sounds from the inside of the piano that weren’t generated by someone, but rather something mechanical. This idea led to those mechanical hammers that we built ourselves. We also wanted to work with so called live-sampling – so after we started experimenting and building, we wrote our first songs in the summer of 2012.

Can you give us a basic explanation of how the Grandbrothers set-up works?

Lukas Vogel: We only use the grand piano as a sound source. While Erol is playing it [in] a normal way, I’m sitting behind some controllers and a computer and control a self-built machine that we attach to the grand piano. This machine consists of 20 little hammers which hit the grand piano at different places like the strings or the wooden and metal parts. So it is possible to use the piano as a kind of drum machine to create beats or melodic patterns. Besides I record every sound that is generated in the piano and add some effects, loop it or cut it in pieces and play it back directly. So very artificial sounds can be created, and though it doesn’t always sound like it, as I said, every sound has its origin in the piano.

Lukas, did you always have an affinity for the piano, or was it something that developed after you met Erol?

Lukas Vogel: I also play the piano since I was 14. While attending university I had piano lessons as well but I focused more on the technical part of the study. So my piano skills weren’t that good, especially compared to Erol’s but the fact we both played the piano connected us in a way.

It’s been two years since Dilation, which was very well received. How does Open differ from it?

Lukas Vogel: The concept was still the same – we only allowed [ourselves] to work with the piano as a sound source. But there has been some development. The most noticeable thing is that we use more and stronger effects like distortion, bit crusher or reverbs and delays. Sometimes the piano even stays in the background and gets overlapped by these effects. This gives the tracks more power and density. We wanted to work with these effects to give the mellow piano sound a contrast by destroying it slightly. Another improvement is a new mechanical element. We call them bows. They are attached over the strings like the hammers and can set the strings in vibration without touching them. It is the same principal as the way E-Bows are used for guitars. They create an organ- or flute-like sound and can be played by the computer.

There have been many piano manipulators down the years, from John Cage to Hauschka – are there any you find particularly inspirational?

Erol Sarp: In fact those two have had an influence. We liked the approach of not only playing the piano the way it is meant to be played, but also to explore and create sounds that you cannot get out of it when you’re just using the keys. These guys put screws or everyday objects inside the piano and it sounds very captivating. Steve Reich also was a huge inspiration. He doesn’t prepare the piano, but his way of working with so-called patterns is something that has inspired us a lot. Also there’s Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto who have these wonderful records where they work with live sampling, which also had a huge impact on our works.

What sort of music were you both exposed to growing up?

Lukas Vogel: I grew up with mostly classical music, because my father was listening to classical music a lot and enjoyed playing the piano sometimes when my sister and I already laid in bed. As a teenager I mostly listened to rock music, also played in a school rock band, and later discovered electronic music, went to clubs and tried to produce some own tracks with the computer.

Erol Sarp: When I was 6 years old, I had to take piano lessons, so classical music has accompanied me from the very beginning. I stopped when I was 13 and then somehow ended up playing the guitar and drums and was listening to Heavy Metal for a while. When I was around 20, I discovered Jazz, which led me to electronic music and hip hop and now I listen to a combination of all of that – expect Heavy Metal… that’s not my thing anymore.

You used to be based in Düsseldorf, a city with a strong musical lineage. What Düsseldorf artists past and/or present would you recommend?

Erol Sarp: There’s obvious bands like Kraftwerk and Neu. Hauschka is from Düsseldorf as well.
Then there’s friends of us, Marton Harvest and Sine Sleeper and we like the stuff Jan Schulte and Lena Willikens are doing.

What are the top things you’d suggest visitors to Düsseldorf should go and see/do/drink/eat, and what are the best venues and record shops?

Erol Sarp: There used to be a record store called Flipside, that I used to visit a lot when I lived there… but it’s closed. A&O-Medien has quite a nice collection of leftfield records… There’s a big Japanese community, so food-wise we would suggest to go there.

Where is the best place you’ve performed to date, and what would be your dream Grandbrothers gig?

Lukas Vogel: It’s hard to tell because they were so different but one of the most remarkable gigs was at the Fusion Festival where we played in a big old circus tent right after the big DJ sets on the other stages came to an end. So it was quiet and the people came in our tent and it was a very special vibe.

Erol Sarp: Mine would be at the legendary Pudel Club in Hamburg. That was a world of its own and almost everyone inside there had a unique (not to say crazy) personality.

Considering a dream gig, we’ll be playing at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam during Amsterdam Dance Event soon, so that will definitely be something special.

What’s the best piece of music you’ve both heard this year?

Lukas Vogel: Mount Kimbie – Delta.

Erol Sarp: Tigran Hamasyan – Luys I Luso (the whole album).

And finally, you may be called Grandbrothers, but what’s the most brotherly moment you’ve shared together?

Erol Sarp: Actually there has been quite a brotherly moment a few days ago: I was in Berlin until
Sunday and we had to be in Paris on Monday. And I was really sick and wasn’t able to drive the whole 5 hours home, so Lukas took the train and picked me up half way – truly brotherly!