"You can't sing on the summit"
Austrian Hubert von Goisern has paved the way for the "homeland sound" like almost no other.
An interview with a multi-talent who has turned his earlier wild nature into artistic maturity.
The man fulfils the cliché of the alpine rebel like no other. Yet Hubert von Goisern is the real thing. However, the musician doesn't cut ties with those who are different from him. The 67-year-old, born as Hubert Achleitner, left his village of Bad Goisern as a teenager and moseyed around the world – later he named himself after his home town and was even eventually made an honorary citizen. The now matured artist talks about the security of the mountains, his definition of homeland and why it took a motorway bridge in Upper Palatinate for him to be able to learn to yodel.
Mr von Goisern, it's been four years since your last concert. Since then you've written a novel and recorded a double album. And you've taken a break. What did you do for a year?
Whenever it was possible – and that was quite often – I was in the mountains. It was during this time that I discovered the e-bike. I used it a lot to get around the mountain pastures of the Salzkammergut.
Following the trails like a young stag?
I leave the neck-breaking routes to the young people. I like riding the forest paths the most and then when you can't go any further, sometimes walking up to a peak.
Are you a competitive guy?
I covered the subject in the song Sieger. I'm puzzled as to why people constantly measure themselves against others. I've never needed to, never understood it. I can and want to beat myself time and again. But myself, not others. I'm basically a connoisseur. After all, I want to enjoy nature, wildlife and the environment. And whenever the weather wasn't good, I would find work to do in the house, or read books.
Have you also been climbing?
I did it for a few years. It was a challenge to confront my fear of heights, a real test of will. I was good at mastering walls up to difficulty level 3+. At level 4 I was stressed out, from 5 on, fear got in the way of pleasure.
At what point did you get the adrenaline kick when climbing?
For me it was never about adrenaline or getting a kick, as you put it, but instead it was about the feeling of being completely in the here and now. I clambered about in the Gosaukamm a few times. It's a wonderful, wildly rugged mountain massif west of the Dachstein.
I once went to the south Tyrolean Sella group with a friend after a tour. The main question was: "Who will take pity on me and climb with me?" Seriously though, I really enjoy climbing in the easier levels, but it was soon clear that I wasn't going to be the next Messner. Apart from anything else, the strain on your fingers is harmful to fine motor control. Nonetheless, I love the mountains and it gives me a sense of calm to see the Untersberg, the Göll and the Tennen mountains from my house in Salzburg. Mountains offer protection.
How can a heap of stone protect someone?
It can keep the weather in check, for example, and it helps with orientation. When I see mountains, they give me a comforting, pleasant feeling.
Could you live in a flat country like Holland?
No. Holland is nice. But the landscape lacks the third dimension. I've noticed that a completely flat landscape makes me feel depressed. I'd be permanently melancholic without mountains.
Why do you think that is?
I'm sure it's down to the fact that I grew up in the mountains. They draw my spirit into the heights. I find it freeing to climb up high, it helps me to stand above things and get an overview of what's "below". Mountains give me a sense of direction.
The South Tyrolean mountain climber Hans Kammerlander was once asked what he had learned from the mountains and responded: "humility, humility, humility".
How true. Mountains are simply greater than we are, Hans is completely right about that. But we should be humble in the face of all creation: the sea, the desert and all life.
Which mountains do you see from your house in Salzburg?
Aside from the ones I've mentioned, you can also see the Gaisberg and part of the Osterhorn group. Metaphorically speaking, they're watching my back. A two-day hike across the Postalm will get me to my hometown of Bad Goisern.
Why did you flee from Bad Goisern back then?
It wasn't a case of fleeing. Goisern spat me out. I wasn't digestible.
Because I rubbed people up the wrong way everywhere with my way of life and way of thinking. People didn't understand me or didn't want to understand me. The constant tension, friction and quarrelling: I had to leave.
How did you come to music? Your parents weren't so musical.
Music came to me. It's part of my DNA.
At some point, from Hubert Achleitner evolved the artist "Hubert von Goisern". Commitment to your homeland or an act of revenge?
I'd call it gratification. Nowadays, most young people can live out their individuality, but back then there was great social pressure on anyone who was different, thought differently, or wanted to be different. "You don't do that", was always what people said in the town. At some point, it was clear to me: I'm a foreign body here.
So you decided to leave as a teenager …
… without knowing exactly where my path would lead. The only thing I knew was: Hubert, you've got to get away from here. Afterwards, I spent years on very different continents, in very different cultures. And I was happy, because I wasn't able to really find myself until I went far away.
But your homeland wanted to give you a cultural award?
Yes, after I had found success. The same mayor who hadn't let me put on a show a few years before and who, in spite of all the protests, had torn down the last remaining events hall, now wanted to look like he had a knack for culture. Of course, I turned it down. But I've reconciled with my homeland in the meantime.
Since you've been made an honorary citizen?
Longer than that. Not least since my opponents have no longer been around. Mind you, I wasn't unanimously named as an honorary citizen. Haider's party were decidedly against the award. I think that's brilliant! It makes the award bearable again.
You could have refused the award.
"There's only one thing more embarrassing than accepting a distinction and that's turning it down", Teddy Podgorski (Austrian TV journalist, editor's note) once said.
How often do you go to Bad Goisern nowadays?
Mainly in the summer, as there's only one heater in the whole house. I bought the little house in 1992 with my first money. The hit Koa Hiatamadl paid for my house in my homeland.
What does homeland mean for you?
First, I'll tell you what homeland isn't: a place on a map and a synonym for comfort. Homeland is where I get involved, as a person. It's where I'm talking to people, discussing, where I'm present, participating – that's homeland. Homeland isn't necessarily a place. People are homeland too. The feeling is strong in the Salzkammergut, in the melody of the language and in the music and not least in the mountains, up on the summits.
Because that's when you can stand above things?
When I stand atop a mountain, that's when I notice how small our problems actually are. I don't just mean societal issues, but our personal ones too.
Do you sing up on the summit?
It simply doesn't sound good. You need a room for singing – summits are just vast openness. There's a scene in Fergus Fleming's book Killing Dragons: The Conquest Of The Alps in which the Englishmen climb Montblanc and proudly sing God Save The King at the summit. It doesn't sound majestic at all, on the contrary, it sounds completely lousy and so they swear never to tell anyone about it.
You didn't yodel at all on your first records. Why didn't you do so until later?
Because I couldn't do it before.
When and how did you learn?
At the age of 37 on a motorway bridge in Regensburg, on the way to the Kulturzentrum.
If you can't really yodel, it sounds ghastly. I lived in a sub-let at the time. How was I meant to practise? I sounded like a wounded animal.
So why on earth do it on a motorway bridge?
It was so loud there that nobody could hear me. I would have preferred a rushing weir. I thought, you would want to feel what happens to your vocal cords when you change registers. And my way of thinking wasn't that dumb. Years later, I learned that Tibetan singers go to thundering waterfalls to learn and improve their singing techniques.
Do you yodel and sing when you go hiking?
No. At first my thoughts are still loud, disordered and wild. They flatten out over time. There comes a point when every walker becomes free. For me, walking is like meditation. Not holding on to thoughts but letting them run free and just observing them as they come and go.
You once said in an interview that you constantly "hear music inside yourself", you don't need the radio.
Yes, that's right. I can always hear music. Harmonies, melodies, rhythms … Both familiar things and stuff I don't know at all. But even the best earworm can get annoying. Then I have to get rid of it as soon as possible – drive it out with another melody, like driving out the devil with Beelzebub.
You put together a collection of music from the alpine region for an exhibition on the Großglockner High Alpine Pass, your Steilklänge (Steep Sounds). How did you go about tackling the musical heritage of alpine culture?
Steilklänge is a musical anthology of the alpine region. It's not exhaustive. The soundtrack of the mountains is really powerful.
Do you compose out in the natural world too?
No. Nature is already perfect. The birds sing, buzzards circle, the wind and marmots whistle, the mountain streams rush along. I don't think you need to add a conductor from the valley. Nobody can top the symphony of the mountains, so I don't even try. Nature is enough in itself.
How would you describe your music yourself?
In the 90s people described it as alpine rock. Lou Simon from TEA Records called it "alpine grunge". In the 90s it was my intention to free folk music from folksiness and the dust of national socialism.
You sing in Austrian dialect. Not many people in the world understand it. Nonetheless, crowds of up to 90,000 people come to concerts in Egypt, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Greenland or Paris, Texas and New York. Why is that?
It's my passion to take people on a journey with me with music. Perhaps they won't fully understand what I sing. But they feel the power, the rhythm, the harmony and tenderness. It's exactly what constitutes music. If there is a universal language, it's music.
Have you ever tried singing in another language?
I haven't just tried. I sing a total of three songs in dialect on the new album, the rest is dialect-free.
Your father wasn't exactly delighted that you became a musician. How are things today?
He always grumbled that "musicians live like gypsies". If I were to speak to him about it, he'd have to admit that he was out in his estimation. I don't want to do that to him. He's very proud of me.
How long will you keep being creative?
Creativity is part of life. Things and circumstances change all the time, and we have to keep finding new ways to overcome tricky spots. And I'll do that as long as my mind and body allow.
A few days ago I visited my father in Goisern. I rang the bell, but nobody came to the door. I was worried that something might have happened. Then I heard noise up on the roof. I looked up and couldn't believe my eyes: my 92-year-old father was standing on the roof, changing a couple of roof tiles. At that age you're not working with strength any more, but with ingenuity.