Hubert von Goisern: "I'm not getting any more thick-skinned"
In his younger years, he occasionally turned people upside-down with his musical ideas. Nowadays, it's impossible to imagine the Austrian music scene without him: Hubert von Goisern has enjoyed great success with his unconventional and cosmopolitan style. The multifaceted musician turns 70 on 17 November. To mark the occasion, the APA spoke to him about his definition of success, his almost insatiable curiosity and what the future holds.
When you look back at your long career, which experience in particular comes to mind?
There are many of course. What comes to mind right now is the Frankfurt music congress at the end of the 1980s, where I met Jon Hisemann, the drummer of Colosseum. Over a meal I asked him for advice on how to make it in the music business. He said: there are two rules. Firstly: whatever happens, never give up! And secondly: never play at parties! (laughs) I took both to heart and both are valid.
A main theme in your work is the constant search for new things. How difficult is it to remain faithful to this self-image?
I'd find it much more difficult to keep doing the same thing because people want me to or because it's been rewarded with success. If I don't get that kick that's associated with taking risks, it's not good enough. There needs to be adrenaline: will people get it, will they want to get it, will they still come? I need that.
Are there things you've not done because they were ultimately too risky?
No, but there are things that require great effort and so I've put them off. I've been talking about producing a big stage production for ages. The dream is to produce a Tibetan opera for the West. But the people I need live in North India. And I keep having other ideas meanwhile. I'd like to do something for a big orchestra too. Perhaps that's a winter job for a time when I can no longer ski. (laughs)
You're known as a tenacious person, you've already delivered on your novel Flüchtig ...
Yes, but I also have the intuition or feeling that nothing good comes from something that has to be forced. I've kept this balance, thank God, that I'm not really stubborn – I'm determined. (laughs)
Do the best ideas come incidentally?
There are these stars in the night sky that you can't see if you really look. You have to turn your head a little to the side, because you have this blind spot in your eye. Ideas are like that: nothing will come if you stare at them. You always have all these questions stewing in your head anyway. Sometimes the bird flies past and you catch it.
Why are you particularly receptive to these moments?
Curiosity is the best way to put it. Curiosity about new things, the things I don't know yet. And that's never stopped. For every answered question, ten more crop up.
What makes a project successful for you?
The moment where I personally decide that my work is successful is just the first step to success. There are infinite steps. You could make playing in stadiums your end goal – which would have been the next step for the Alpinkatzen back then. But I wasn't interested in that. I preferred to withdraw and see what came next. Of course, for an artist who makes a living with their art, it's important to be heard. I want to initiate and stimulate something. If that doesn't happen, something's missing.
In this respect, is live music like a dialogue with the audience?
Yes! I also think that live music is the only true music – because it happens in the here and now. The moment that the next note comes, the previous one is gone. What is music, what is a melody? A memory! The arc that makes a melody is only formed through the memory of the notes that came before. This shared experience between the audience and the musicians creates a memory of the whole.
What is the limit of what you can demand of the audience?
Attention is all I want. It's always said that applause is what artists live for. But attention is much, much more important. It's a gift to have someone listen to you. I'm a firm believer that we are all societal creatures – even if there are perhaps a few hermits who manage to stay that way. But I'm on this planet, I live together with a lot of people and want to give what I can.
You've also been a listener on your many travels and have become acquainted with many different cultures. What unites us as far as you are concerned?
The longing for a feeling of security is what unites us. As well as curiosity, even if it reaches no further than some people's field of vison because they think that's enough. What unites us is the wish to celebrate a party and celebrate life from time to time. And then it's not a big step to singing and playing music. A community develops through sounds, singing and dancing and the individuals become one organism.
You can also get to know each other through music because - unlike language - it has a more direct effect. Have you experienced this?
Yes! It can be very stressful when you're confronted with a language you don't understand. Someone's talking to you, but you have no idea what it's about, even if the facial expression lets you know that the story is really exciting. (laughs) In turn, stress falls away with music. You can listen to it and follow along, even when it's completely foreign or uses other rhythms or scales. At the same time, you get a feel for the people playing the music.
At the start of your career, you battled with a lot of criticism. Do you learn to grow a thicker skin after a while?
No, I'm not getting any more thick-skinned. On the most recent tour I sang about Coronavirus deniers with the song Meiner Seel'. They're people who are simply oblivious to facts and invent their own facts just so they can concoct a simple solution. I was on the receiving end of quite a shitstorm because of it. This hate and stupidity is very hard for me. Sometimes I feel the reflex not to talk about the subject anymore. But then the next thought is that if I can't be the way I am, then there's no need for me to go on stage anymore! It confuses me too. People know me; why do some of them come to my concerts and get het up about the things I say? People in Austria keep saying that I should just entertain – and nothing more. But it's no use them wanting that. (laughs)
You've addressed the climate crisis in some songs too. Do you think that we, as a society, can still change and accept the urgency of the problem?
I'm not so optimistic. The catastrophes will get bigger. It's really hard when I think about my children and grandchildren and what they have to deal with. It's so crazy! I saw a little note recently: plastic waste in the sea has increased sevenfold since 2004. How long have we known that we can't do that? But there's no reaction. Perhaps we're so overwhelmed by too many reports that should result in a need for action, that we've developed the reflex of playing dead. It's not until the pressure of suffering is great enough that we're ready to change our habits. Evidently the only thing that remains is for us to adapt to ever more dramatic conditions.
One repeatedly encounters faith in your work. What kind of role does it play in your life at the moment?
A large one, because I have faith in myself. (laughs) You have to! Of course, you can be sceptical too, that's part of it. You also need scrutiny to see if something still applies. As far as the figure of a god or an Almighty is concerned: it's so abstract that it eludes thought. Faith is therefore not a matter of thought, but rather a feeling that comes from your gut or heart. And it's certainly something that you can practise or train. For a long time, I associated faith with the Catholic church. Certainly up to the age of twelve or thirteen I thought: if I go to the Protestant church, I'll go to hell. (laughs) This religiousness is very absurd in a way. Perhaps it's most comparable to music: there are many approaches in how you can play music – and there are just as many approaches to find your way to faith. None is right or wrong. But in the end it's actually about the same thing, that is, a humility to see that you're not the be all and end all. It's the balance between not being responsible for everything, but nonetheless doing what is within my means. God helps those who help themselves – that's a great saying. I feel like I don't need religion – but I'm not sure I don't need religions.
The current music landscape is dominated by platforms such as Spotify and TikTok and their algorithms. How does the musician Hubert von Goisern deal with that? Does it influence you in any way?
No, it doesn't. With the Zeiten & Zeichen album, there were accusations from many sides that it was a complete mess. But if I'd released the songs individually, nobody would have got upset. Many people asked why I was making an album at all. I often think about not releasing anything anymore and instead just playing live. The only thing that has stopped me thus far is that everything gets recorded in my live shows anyway. It just ends up online in crappy quality. But maybe I'll end up not producing music in a studio anymore and instead just making music.
What do you recommend to young colleagues with regard to dealing with such things?
All I can do is advise them to find an audience. And you do that live. It also depends on personality. If you go on stage, you need to live the music too. You can't play punk and work in a bank. You have to be true to yourself.
Aside from the concerts already announced for 2023, what plans are there for the future?
I've already made a setlist for next year. The parameters are different, because we're only playing open airs, which is more difficult. There are great settings, but it frays at the edges. So the new programme will have fewer ballads. I have the feeling that it'll be the last time that I'll be really loud. I definitely want to take a break afterwards. I'd like to write again. I didn't want to for a long time because the success of the novel cowed me. (laughs) But the shock has worn off and I want to do it again. I don't know if I'll really manage it. And with music I really don't know what will come. It's really good to retreat a bit and not run on adrenaline all the time.
Hubert von Goisern turns 70
In 1992 Hubert Achleitner, born in Bad Goisern am Hallstättersee and better known as Hubert von Goisern, and the Original Alpinkatzen presented their new record on the Dachstein mountain. Today, one of the great figures of alpine rock turns 70 years old.