A soundtrack to the history: Qntal’s Michael Popp interviewed
May 2018 19

Qntal, pioneers of mixing medieval folk music with impressive electronics, released their eighth album “VIII: Nachtblume” in the beginning of March 2018. We realised we have only interviewed (related band) Deine Lakaien, but never Qntal. So our Hamburg-based writer Jimi Nilsson had a chat with a cheerful Michael Popp, founder of Qntal, an interview entailing the band’s connection to poetry and historical artifacts, and Popp’s passion for new instruments. He reveals that Qntal was born prior to Deine Lakaien, talks about being like a brother to Ernst Horn and the darkwave scene.

Qntal became wildly influential with their pioneering sound in the beginning of the 1990:s. When they first appeared on the scene in 1992, with the previously unheard mixture of medieval melodies and electronic beats, they took the world by surprise and came to be role models in the darkwave genre. Although taking medieval to our day wasn’t new – bands like Corvus Corax had already released their first album – the novel mix of acoustic medieval instrumentation, darkwave, classical music and electronics added a new dimension, or rather at new genre.

The sound of Qntal has progressed over the years and to some extent they have left their branded sound. On new album “VIII: Nachtblume”, Michael Popp, vocalist Sigrid Hausen (Syrah) and the others find the club floor more interesting than the medieval imprint on previous albums.

The long wait for ”Nachtblume”

You recently released your eighth album “Nachtblume” after four years of silence. What happened with Qntal during these four years?

- Is it that long? Four years is a long time (laugh). A lot of things have happened. This is just one of the groups that I and Sigrid are part of. We have different groups, a classical one in VocaMe and Estampie, and I make records with those bands as well. On top of that we have Al Andaluz Project so if you imagine me sitting at home doing nothing it’s certainly the wrong image (laugh).

And ”VII” took six years.

- It’s quite often a lot of work and some projects are sometimes more urgent – four years are quite OK for us to wait for a new album. What happened before “VII” [six years break since "VI"] and the reason to why it took time to release the album was that we changed keyboarder and it took time to find someone new and get him in the band. This time it’s more normal, to wait four years to release an album, especially since I released at least three or four records with other bands during this period.

It sounds a little bit too negative to say that other bands take too much attention, it’s actually what I want to do. I don’t feel bound to one musical direction, I’m really someone who like to do it all. I’m a classically trained musician and have a deep love for classical music and it’s also needed for my creativity, to get new ideas from this overlap between musical directions – one project creates ideas for the other. This is what my artistic life is about, cruising in between these different worlds and sometimes I’m losing myself (laugh) but always find my back, but I think it also shows my love for the music.

It’s not only the music genres that inspire me, it’s also the contact with people in different music fields. Classical people are different in a way and talk about different things than people in other music fields, and sometimes it gets too boring and then I need a change (laugh). What I really like is to go back and forth between these different worlds.

The sound of Qntal has changed over the years and if you compare, for instance, “Nachtblume” with one of the most popular albums among the Release staff, “Qntal IV: Ozymandias”, today’s Qntal has to some part more club rhythms. How would you describe the evolution of Qntal’s sound since the debut album in 1992?

- Absolutely, it changed much I would say! It’s less classical music, but even when I say “less classical music” – you know what I mean, not classical parts – it still sounds more classical music but with a change in sound. I would be unhappy if you said we didn’t changed over the years (laugh).

Not long ago I was driving around with a friend and we listened to “Qntal II” and it really sounds different because of the equipment we used. We recorded the first Qntal with a Fostex eight-track recorder and used an Atari, so if you imagine that, you can understand it created a different sound – and it actually created the classic darkwave sound!

Technology not only limits you in what kind of music you do, it also directs your creativity in a certain way. I mean, to use a banal thought, techno wouldn’t be possible without good electronic equipment. It’s when the possibilities change that you can develop new fields of creativity and you develop new forms for ideas, and in the end you will use all these tools together, not only the technical means – it’s much more than technology.

I have changed as well and I’m far from who I was for twenty years ago when I still was seeking for my role in music; music was a way to express my way of life. Now I’m more distant, or maybe I should say more reflecting. Sometimes I want to find out things, I want to create new things, and I want to have new experiences – old things are a little bit boring to me. I know that the audience want to keep it as it was but I change as a person and I’m willing to take the risk to adopt to what is coming – to be open to what is coming.

If you allow yourself to compare your albums, when did you feel most satisfied with the end result?

- My favorite is actually the third one, “Tristan und Isolde”. When you look back it’s really difficult to compare older work because you don’t know if you like it at all (laugh). The first two albums were done in a very naive state of mind. It was much about trying and playing around with sounds. We were just like children, who played around and recorded and didn’t think that much about it. But the first two albums became really successful in terms of sold copies, and then me and Ernst Horn split up since he wanted to go more in the direction of Deine Lakaien and I didn’t and I said “You go with Deine Lakaien and I will continue with Qntal”.

Then I made the third album but not until many years later and I like it very much since it’s much of myself in that album – my inner thoughts – which makes it the best album to me. I know it’s not the best album from a musical point of view but it was a spiritual expression of the state of mind I was in at that point in time, so it’s very close to me. When I listen to this album today it really moves me and many memories from my life is brought forward.

A one man avant-garde project

The production process in Qntal is much different from Michael Popp’s other projects Estampie, VocaMe and Al Andaluz Project; there the music is the outcome of communication and rehearsing. In Qntal, Popp is experimenting with new instruments in isolation – not in loneliness. The passion for sounds and how different instruments can be used in different contexts evokes the playfulness in a child that experience the world for the first time, and it is the playfulness combined with curiosity that keeps Popp’s spark alive.

I’ve read in another interview that work in Qntal is much more “one man’s work on his own” and the songs are not the result of rehearsing together with band colleagues as in, for instance, Estampie. Is the creative process in Qntal more of one man’s reflexivity and contemplation over everyday impressions?

- Yes, I would say that. The social aspects of being in a band – playing and communicating music together, creating something together, do things together – it’s very little of that in Qntal. From that point of view Qntal is very personal and more serious than my other projects since I’m always confronted with things coming out of my efforts. Of course it’s not only me making music in Qntal, there are other people, but it’s my idea and I make much of the work on my computer before we start to work on songs together. It’s lonelier, but I don’t feel lonely – it’s contemplative. Qntal is much more of reflecting than in the other projects which involve more communication.

Considering your pioneering role, I would say that to some extent your music is avant-garde in terms of being innovative.

- Now it’s over but I called Qntal avant-garde pop music or something similar when I started, and I’m also aware of the link to avant-garde music. It came out of occasional meetings with Ernst Horn in the beginning of the nineties, we were quite different and being like brothers at the same time. The music just came out of this connection we had, a spiritual feeling from our meetings and ended up in that we created a new kind of music.

We didn’t just look at ourselves as band members. We were aware of what we did was something completely new but we thought that there wasn’t going to be an audience wanting this kind of music, we thought it would be something to be play in a private room for our friends. We would of course be known in this small field of music but no record label would be interested in this kind of thing – that’s what we thought (laugh).

It would probably had ended like that if it wasn’t for our other band Deine Lakaien. Qntal was actually called the side project to Deine Lakaien which it actually never was since it was musically quite different, but it was handled as such by the marketing division. That’s how we slowly became known. Everything just seemed to happen by chance somehow, and that’s also a feeling that has followed me through life, the important things just happen by chance. All your life you plan different things, you want to do this and that, but the important things just come out of nothing.

But Qntal started while you were on the “Dark Star Tour” with Deine Lakaien?

- Yes, or actually a bit earlier which very few know about. Deine Lakaien was a two-piece studio project, Ernst Horn and Alexander Veljanov, without any releases and I met Ernst Horn because both of us worked at the Munich theatre. That’s how we initiated our companionship and we actually planned for Qntal first and then Ernst suddenly asked me if I wanted to join Deine Lakaien. So if you ask me, Qntal was initiated earlier than Deine Lakaien actually. I think I never told this story before (laugh)!

Bands with as long artist history as you often point out that it’s difficult to restart the creative process. Qntal has been on the electronic music scene way past 25 years and you yourself have been very productive considering the other projects you work with. What drives you to continue?

- That’s one thing which is very simple to explain. I may be different from many electronic musicians because I like to play, really like to play like a child. I pick up an instrument and really want to know how it sounds like, what you can do with it, what other people do with it, what kind of sounds they created with it. I’m also much interested in experimental ways to play instruments – it’s about trying out to play in different ways.

I just want to play and have always been like this, it’s my life and I do it every day, just playing around even if it’s not always with instruments. At the moment for instance I’m working a lot with foot controllers and things like that just because I want to try it out, what I can do with it and how it can sound – just because it’s interesting! And then I can suddenly turn into a grumpy child being bored and leave everything in a corner and somebody may say “Hey, why do you have that really nice theremin in the corner, what don’t you use it?” (laugh).

This is one reason to go on with it, it’s just how life is and has been. Other people have other motivations or interests – family, money, meeting people – but for me it is music. The other reason is more serious; it is sometimes like when my wife stand in front of me confirming my existence or a mirror that reflect that I exist, like I’m alive. Somehow it’s part of my body and my mind which give sense to life, a higher consciousness that makes me aware of being alive.

A soundtrack to poems and the history

What’s really special about the artful and emotional musical imagery of Qntal is the diversity of poetic influences and references to historical artifacts. Their artworks are filled with historical signs and symbols pointing out an interest of the pre-modern society. Combining a genuine interest in artifacts with a passion for “old school” poetry and poets as Yeats, Lord Byron and, in particular on the latest album, Eichendorff in the lyrics of Qntal, creates an aura of mysticism surrounding Popp. However, where most bands use such means as a branding strategy, Michael Popp has a very strong interest in poetry and historical societies.

The medieval and historical elements in terms of visual art, the character of Qntal’s music and references to old poets and writers are quite dominant. Where does this fascination for the medieval originate from? Where did you get the inspiration at first? It feels as it’s either a genuine interest in history and its artifacts or something sprung out of the world of fantasy and fairytales.

- That’s what I ask myself very often as well (laugh). I come from a very old town called Regensburg in Bavaria which has a lot of artefacts from the Roman Empire and even before that when the Celts were settled there, and I grew up with that. I remember when I was a child and the impression those relics made on me, and ever since then I have been much interested in history. At the moment I’m actually reading about the end of the Roman Empire and compare it to modern society, and it appeals to my imagination and evokes ideas about the past.

I think that history is much more present than we think – but we are not aware of it. We all come from somewhere, it’s not only the history together with our parents – I mean history that has much bigger impact. I can feel that my region, that the people who lived there and their customs, their relation to the nature, has a very concrete impact on me. When I talk about Lord Byron [used as lyrics] and the Romanticism I can see a very strong and thick connection between that and, let’s say, darkwave. And Eichendorff is gothic! His way of looking at nature, the mysticism behind his ideas, has a very strong impact on me. I really think that they would affect a lot of people as well but people are not really informed or in touch with them, that’s my experience.

When a friend of mine read it he said “Wow, I know the name Eichendorff from school but I was never interested in that”, that’s what they usually say (laugh). When they’re older they find it interesting.

Much of your work refer to poets such as William Blake or painters like John William Waterhouse on previous albums. This time you made Joseph von Eichendorff’s “Nachtbilder” into lyrics, you refer to Yeats, to Lord Byron etc. What is the idea behind turning poems into lyrics instead of writing your own lyrics?

- It’s very simple: it’s very good lyrics. It’s not that I’m doing a song to a poem, instead I read the poem and I can hear the music in my head. Probably many people have the same feeling when reading something they find interesting. It’s actually so strong that I feel that the music is in their words; you read it and I have the music in my head immediately, within seconds – it’s just there. It’s so simple that I sometimes doubt if I can publish it because I get the feeling that I have to work more for it (laugh). To get your money you need to work rather than take things that are already made. Sometimes I get this very strong musical and logical relation between things because the music is already in the words, that’s what is amazing with it.

In a way you can look at it as if you make soundtracks to poems rather than using them as lyrics to Qntal’s music?

- Absolutely, it’s a very good observation, that’s how it is! It is like a soundtrack.

Too many projects, too much touring

Despite being pioneers on the darkwave music scene, Qntal rarely leaves Germany or embarks on extensive touring around Europe. Save for some special events out of Germany and a few concerts in the Netherlands and Belgium, Qntal prefer to stay at home turf. Not even a plea from Release’s interviewer seems to change future touring plans.

Qntal passed through my current hometown Hamburg recently when you performed at Markthalle, your second stop on the album tour. However, you rarely do extensive tours. Is there a reason begins these smaller tours or, when also considering tours with your other projects, is it too much in the end?

- There are reasons and mostly private reasons, I don’t want to go on tour that much anymore. Also, with VocaMe – the classical band – we have six concerts in April, four of them in Belgium, and all in all it is already quite much for me. You feel that you’re getting older (laugh) although I like it very much – if it’s not too overwhelming for me. Going on ten or twelve or fourteen days on tour – I would make it if I really have to, but it’s not something I would look forward to.

Speaking of touring; most shows take place in Germany and you also had some dates in Belgium and the Netherlands over the years, but you rarely play farther away than that from home, save for some festivals you have been doing in, for instance, Spain and America. What is the reason for it?

- No, we never toured in other countries than those with Qntal if it’s not a special event as festivals or single shows that turn up. But it’s not easy for us abroad either. We may be known on the scene but we don’t have a big audience that would come to our shows, it’s a very specialized crowd and we are happy with that – I even want to say that I want to keep it like that.

I really don’t want to turn it into some pop music lifestyle. I had it with Deine Lakaien for some time and it’s really stressful. It was much better before Deine Lakaien became well-known; you were happier and felt free, you had enough money and in a way it was a much better life. With that experience in mind it’s OK that Qntal is where it is.