"I certainly won't become Federal President"
Hubert Achleitner alias Hubert von Goisern has written his first novel. A conversation about music, homeland and holy mountains, about Sebastian Kurz, Jörg Haider and Andreas Gabalier.
Mr von Goisern, or Mr – what's the right way to address you?
"Hubert" would be fine. Otherwise, it would certainly be "Achleitner", even if I hadn't written a book.
Mr Achleitner, are you a late bloomer?
Absolutely. Otherwise I would have done better at school. I left year 6 at the grammar school with three fails in German, English and Latin.
And that's how your schooling ended?
Yes. I started training to be a chemistry laboratory technician, although I would much rather have been a musician. But my father, and my then girlfriend talked me out of it. As someone who needs harmony, I acquiesced, but I wasn't happy. On top of all that, everything was unbelievably difficult for me. Then I wanted to see whether I could make ends meet with the one thing that came easily to me: playing music and being creative.
In fact, you only found fame as a musician in your late thirties, now you're making your debut as an author of fiction at the age of 67. So, you're a classic late bloomer.
It evidently took music and writing lyrics for me to find confidence in my own ability to formulate. I came late to reading too. It wasn't until I was 30 that I started reading a lot and really gaining knowledge from books.
Which book was the beginning of it all?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. Olga Tokarczuk fascinates me at the moment. It's great how someone can write such terrible things in such a calm manner. That's how it is for me with music. I pick up an instrument, be it a guitar, accordion or piano, and I can immediately make something from it. It flows. That's how people like Tokarczuk or Ransmayer write – I've read everything by the latter. I'm ten leagues below them. But it would probably be the same for them if they were to make music.
Lyrics live on brevity and pith. Why now a novel?
I could do it if I wanted to, is what I've been thinking for 20 years, though I've only said it out loud within the family.
And now you wanted to prove to your family that it wasn't just empty talk?
First and foremost, I wanted to prove it to myself. The first note about the plot of the book comes from 2003, but somehow something always got in the way. The big Danube ship tour from 2007 to 2008 for example. I wrote my first book about that, Stromlinien. But afterwards it was clear: I'll never write non-fiction again. You have to do right by everybody, you can't call an idiot an idiot. Whereas in a novel I can knock someone off, hurl him off a bridge, I can kill him. Interestingly, nothing like that happens in the book. All the characters resisted being violent.
The holy Mount Athos plays a role in the novel. Have you been there before?
Yes, many times. It's like travelling back to the Middle Ages. The monks there are just people, some of them recently went to the hospital on Saloniki with coronavirus. This "women may not enter" thing is strange and not a good topic of conversation with my wife. But she granted me the trips to this strange world. Mount Athos is basically the coronavirus as a permanent state. A shutdown. And now we've all experienced how cool it can be too.
So, you thought the shutdown was cool?
Yes. And I only know people for whom what they gained from it outweighed their suffering. For me, it meant being able to work on my new record in peace.
In the book, a woman is shipwrecked and ends up at Mount Athos and is cared for by a monk. Though not even female animals are tolerated there.
I don't know a single monk who wouldn't save a woman. I've met monks in Greece for whose grandmothers it was an act of courage to spend a day on Athos undetected. I wanted to take a woman there too, even if it was just in fiction.
Flüchtig is about wrong decisions, fateful events and readiness to take risks among other things. Looking back, what do you regrets do you have about your life thus far?
If there's anything I regret, then it's more the things I haven't done. If something turned out to be rubbish, I just didn't know better, or I was naïve. Over the years I've put my foot in it a few times. But I don't regret it, it was just learning the hard way.
Do you have a specific philosophy on life?
Respect. I want people to be respectful towards one another and that requires me to show respect towards others too. Being able to let go, not clinging to things for apparent security. Tolerance is also important. There are things that I think are unpleasant and bad, but as long as they don't become overbearing, you must tolerate them. And you can only tolerate what you completely reject. Otherwise it's not tolerance, it's acceptance.
What does "overbearing" mean exactly? If a certain party spreads inflammatory slogans, is that okay, but if a member turns out to be a Neo-Nazi, it's too much?
You have to keep evaluating it. Mind you, in cases of doubt, I think inflammatory slogans are offensive too, because they're attempts to tell someone how to be or think.
You were born in Bad Goisern in 1952. What shaped you more, the effects of the post-war period, or the societal awakening of the 1960s?
Both. In 1952 the war had been over for seven years; people didn't talk about it and there were no buildings that had been bombed or damaged by gunfire in the Salzkammergut. I was very sheltered growing up. When I was twelve, rock 'n' roll music by The Beatles came onto the radio at lunchtime. "Are you crazy, what is this?", I thought. "Sounds like the record's broken", my father said. And bam, he turned off the radio. First the music and secondly, his reaction – that's when I knew – this is it!
In 1968 you were 15. How did the revolt come to Bad Goisern?
Via the television. I can remember these black and white pictures that I didn't understand. I felt this resistance and this sensation of awakening myself two years later, when I had long hair and was treated like a leper. That's why I left the brass band too. "Get your awful hair cut!" the band leader said. "People are saying that we've got a girl in the band." That was taboo back then. "That'd be good", I answered. So, one thing led to the other. Then I ended up with another band leader.
Who tolerated your hair?
Yes. He was gay and had possibly hoped for something, which in my naivety I didn't realise for a long time. It didn't occur to me until the first time I didn't come home at night. My father knew how good my relationship was with the band leader. He thought that I'd spent the night with him. My world fell apart.
I'd spent the night with a woman, and he said to me: "If you'd been with Werner, you'd have had to leave the house." It still makes me tear up when I think about how there would have been no support. That he wouldn't have liked me any more if I'd been gay and he would have thrown me out of the house. It took me a long time to reconcile with my father.
How is it that you've ultimately never lost your interest in traditional Austrian music?
The crucial moment was in the Philippines. I was 29 and was living in the middle of nowhere. There was no electricity, no running water, no radio, no records. People had to make any cultural events themselves. We sang and played music together. That was so cool that I thought, I must dig about at home and see if there's anything else other than what was sold to me as folk music. Mind you, on one side there was music that was totally occupied by stick-in-the-muds, who didn't allow any changes, and on the other side of things was Musikantenstadl. I found that really painful. And then I thought: I'm going to play music that makes it painful for them! You've got to destroy this folk music, break it and make something new out of it. For an artist, there's nothing better than discovering a taboo. But it took until the beginning of the 90s for me to really find a suitable form.
Back then the term "new folk music" emerged for artists like you and the Linz duo Attwenger. Did this renewal work in the countryside too, or was is an urban phenomenon?
It virtually exploded in the countryside; people had evidently been waiting for it. But obviously it couldn't have happened without an urban influence and without people for whom the world is bigger than that of the village.
Folk music is political in itself, new folk music even more so, because it's all about not ceding the term "homeland" to the right wing. What has driven you to pursue this for all these decades?
I'm just made this way, it's not an accomplishment. But traditional music forms don't just have political connotations here in Austria, it's like that all over the world. People have an identity and they have a fear of losing this identity if they let in too much otherness, too much of the unknown. You only need to look at how country and folk music is fostered in the Bible Belt of the USA to know that we're not in a unique situation here in Austria.
What does yodelling mean to you, having previously held an important place in your music?
When it comes to singing, I sometimes get the feeling that I can't hear the voice of the singer, what I'm hearing is how they would like to sound. Perhaps I'm idealising it, but that's not possible with yodelling. Of course, it's connected to practice and technique, but ultimately you open your mouth, press on and you can't disguise your voice. When I sing a song, I know in advance what the first note sounds like. With yodelling, I never know. It's like taking a leap and flying. It takes effort. Perhaps it's similar for a Wagner tenor.
Sarcasm aside, there's also a certain amount of patriotism in your stage name Hubert von Goisern. Does being progressive and connected to your homeland at the same time work?
Certainly, otherwise I wouldn't exist. Mind you, it doesn't work for everybody. Many people have a hard time with what I do, or can't get on with it at all. And that's the way it should be. The progressive is always searching for the new, the unknown, perhaps the better. It is said that "perfect is the enemy of good". If tradition is the good, it's clear why traditionalists are afraid of what's better: because change is happening.
Are you still treated with hostility, or does your celebrity status protect you?
Most of my critics have died out, in the truest sense of the word. The last time I was attacked was during the election for Federal President. People attacked me on the street, because I campaigned for Van der Bellen. "How have we got to this point?", I wondered, but we all know that there was a rift in the country at that point.
Do you ever play a political game of "What if...?"
We'd be the laughing stock of Europe with the Freedom Party's Norbert Hofer as Federal President. And of course, when corona erupted, I thought: "Imagine if Ibiza hadn't happened!" Although I don't want to assume that they wouldn't have enacted sensible regulations. However, barely anyone would have bought the decrees that this government made if they had come from them instead. "Typical right-wingers, typical Kickl, curfews – exactly, and then an app of all things?!?" With the Greens in government it was possible to soberly discuss and consider all that.
Van der Bellen will probably be too old for a second term in office. Could you imagine becoming Federal President?
Not now, I still need to make music at the moment. But let's put it this way: it would be the only political job I could imagine doing. You get attacked so much in every other position and office. Since I always take everything so personally, I wouldn't be able to deal with it.
Because you get wound up quickly? Or you tend to doubt yourself?
I would just be offended. When I do a good job, but I get criticised for not being able to do everything at the same time. I would probably shoot back at everything and say things that I don't even want to think about now.
Aren't you exposed to criticism as a musician too?
That's bad enough.
Don't you learn how to handle it over the decades?
Not me. And I don't forget either. I don't have a problem with opinions being expressed, but I do have a problem with low blows. With the journalistic air of "this is bad, people shouldn't like it", for example.
You're regarded as an "alpine rocker", the most commercially successful entertainer today calls himself the "folk rock 'n' roller". Sounds like there is a connection.
There certainly is, but as we know, we can't choose our relatives. In the early days Gabalier covered my old piece Solide Alm. I think I really offended him by distancing myself from him. I was probably something of a role model to him – and then he managed to go further than I did. Measurably so. He fills the Happel Stadium, he fills the Olympia Stadium and he's sold more records than me.
Gabalier wants to modernise traditional music too. In contrast to you, what comes out is something narrow-minded, lacklustre and heavy-handedly patriotic. Why is he successful with this?
I have no explanation for it. Though I also don't have any explanation as to why the FPÖ got so many votes either. In this world, the simple thing has substantial potential. The fact that Gabalier has so many fans is also down to a feeling of belonging together: people want to get absorbed into a big community. He relentlessly fulfils this legitimate wish; I've always struggled with it. Because it's not about the mass, but rather the quality of the gathering.
You are one of three Austrian pop stars from Bad Goisern. The others were the musician Wilfried Scheutz and politician Jörg Haider, who were both born in 1950. You were born in 1952. Did you all know each other in your youth?
I was proud that Wilfried came from Bad Goisern, though he was living in Graz when he came to my attention. I still remember when he played with his band Moses at the Kurhaus in Bad Ischl: at the end of the concert, the bass player threw his bass into the audience, only to subsequently go and look for the person who had caught it, because he wanted to get it back. "That's no good," we said. "That's not rock 'n' roll!" Back then Wilfried had a beard and long hair – and of course his cool voice. We met later on, I asked him to give me a bit of support with my early recordings.
And Jörg Haider?
I never met him, which is a miracle. I met his father, he was incorrigible. I only knew his mother by sight, but she must have been even worse. Even in the 1980s she was of the opinion that everything in the Third Reich was right and history would go on and teach us a thing or two. "But it had long since done the opposite," I thought.
You're evidently one of the few Austrians of your generation who never met Jörg Haider personally. Even though you're from the same town.
Peter Leopold tried to bring us together for News magazine. There was meant to be a discussion between Haider, me and Kurt Ostbahn. I accepted. Two hours later, they said, "It's not happening." Haider would meet with Kurt Ostbahn, but not with me. It was clear that we had the same language and back then I was a hero for many people. If he had attacked me, he'd have been attacking his own people.
There is a sequence in your novel in which, while pot is being smoked, jokes and complaints are made about Sebastian Kurz, without calling him by name. How do you feel about the young chancellor, who is winning over so many people?
Kurz is as much a politician as I am a musician. As a musician, there comes a point where you have to decide what style of music you want to play. As a politician you have to constantly know all about the lowest common denominator, but serving it is another matter. We've met a couple of times, most recently when he had just said that Australia had an exemplary refugee policy. "Excuse me, Sebastian, but what are you thinking?" I asked him. "You misunderstood me, I'll have to explain to you sometime," was the response. Then he left, so perhaps the answer hadn't come to him. But he had evidently recognised that this statement was not exactly kosher.
So, you talk to the Chancellor?
Now and then. I think he's able to learn. And I like how he acts in discussions. He looks at people and gives them his attention. He is polite, his choice of words doesn't hurt, he doesn't want to alienate anyone, he wants to win people over to his causes. He can of course drift off in the wrong direction as well.
Many people speculate that Kurz is able to learn more in the direction of autocratic rule.
I don't see it that way. I don't get the feeling that it's only about power and success with him.
Aside from becoming Federal President, what other plans do you have in life?
I certainly won't become Federal President. What do I actually have planned? I don't know. At the moment, it's all about finishing the album. We're on the home straight. Then I'm looking forward to rehearsing with my band, because translating the songs for live performance is going to be exciting. For the first time, I've produced something where I gave myself the freedom to do everything the way I wanted, and not to ask whether it would work live. Including the children's choir, more than 60 people contributed to the album. It can't be brought to the stage in that form, but I don't care. I'm curious to see what will come out at the concerts.
"Homeland, what is that?", asks Maria, the female protagonist in your book. What's your answer?
Homeland is where I get involved. Being a guest is the opposite of that. "It's not my kind of thing, but I won't say anything", you think in that case. But when you've been somewhere for a long time, there comes a point when you say something – and then possibly it becomes a bit of homeland. Personally, I have the feeling that I have multiple homelands. Among them is a village in the Philippines, where I lived for a long time. Canada and Greenland too. Whereas South Africa isn't, although I was there for four years. Though perhaps there are homelands that you reject and yet they are homelands nonetheless. Homeland doesn't necessarily have to be something wonderful.
Where do you feel most at home in Austria?
Everywhere, actually. Even where I've never been, I somehow feel like I belong. But for me, being connected to home doesn't mean that nothing can change. "Leave it as it is" also means: let's leave the crap where it is.
"Reading better" with Falter
Many know Hubert Achleitner better by his stage name under which he performs as musician: Hubert Achleitner is Hubert von Goisern. A literary late bloomer, only now has he published his debut novel, flüchtig, at the age of 67. It's about Maria, she's 55 years old and she's gone - suddenly, without a farewell letter. She leaves behind her 60-year-old spouse, their love had become a marriage of convenience, and she heads south with no destination in mind. Chance and the hitchhiker Lisa become the travel guides, the latter leads the way through flüchtig as narrator. Hubert Achleitner talks to Petra Hartlieb about the book, its genesis and, of course, about life.
"Kurz is young and able to learn"
At the age of 67, Hubert von Goisern has turned his artistic life upside down once more and now presents his first novel, "Flüchtig".
After 35 years of marriage, Maria leaves everything behind: her husband Herwig (Wig), her job, her flat, her old life. She sets off to Greece in Wig's Volvo, accompanied by hitchhiker Lisa. The book is a trip through everything fleeting in life - were it not for firm value systems.
As a novice author, are you more vulnerable than as an experienced musician, as far as answering questions on this new work is concerned?
The thing about vulnerability is right, but everything is new with each album too. You can't rest on your laurels just because you've come off well with the critics a few times. I've seen how some journalists, who thought I was great one time, then had to demonstrate a certain distance the next time by criticising me. Critics are their own people, I feel everything from great respect to fear in the face of them, because you can't fight them. I have no problem with someone saying: I don't like this. But in many cases, the critic doesn't say that, they say: this is not to be liked. I have a problem with that.
And what do you expect when it comes to your book?
I'm shitting myself even more, because music critics can be vicious, but the knives go even deeper in literature. So, I have to expect that people who are concerned only with literature will make the accusation that as a musician I've just come along and appointed myself to write a novel without having ever learned literary writing.
To what extent does the method of writing a book differ from writing a music composition?
A book is perhaps something like a symphony, although I've never written one. When working on a music production like Zeiten und Zeichen, I'm processing ideas that I've gathered over the course of a year in a short period of time. The pure production time amounts to maybe six months. I worked on the book for two years, although there were ideas and sketches from before then too. And believe me, it is lonely work. With music you can feel during its development and from the band too, whether something works or not. With a book, you're asking yourself above all whether things are working.
From the start, it feels like your style is similar to Michael Köhlmeier's. What role did Köhlmeier play in the publishing of the book?
None at all in the writing of it, because I was concentrated on finding my own language. But afterwards he played a very important role, because we met at the ceremony to mark the anniversary of the book-burning in Salzburg, and he asked me in passing what I had been up to. People hadn't heard anything from me in a while. At first, I just told him that I'd withdrawn from public life. Being a musician who was venturing to write a book, I didn't dare tell an author whom I greatly admired. But he guessed and said: "Don't tell me you're writing a novel." So, I admitted it.
How did he react?
He immediately encouraged me and offered to help look for a publisher. He was the first, after my wife, to be given the manuscript and just a few days later he got in touch and asked if he could pass the text along to Zsolnay Verlag. I was really delighted – and that was it.
Where did Maria and Wig go wrong in life?
They overlooked the point at which matter-of-factness entered their lives. It happens when you talk to each other too little and avoid conflict. At this switch point, one person goes left and the other goes right – then at some point they realise that they're alone on their own tracks.
Faith and religion play a large role in Flüchtig. Are these areas becoming more important as you grow older?
It has little to do with my age. Engagement with faith started for me when I was three or four years old. My grandmother often took me to church with her. I liked going with her and the church was only 100 metres from our home in Goisern. I was fascinated with what went on there - viewing it with a certain degree of fear as well, which the Catholic church plays on too. But above all it was the rituals. Nobody tells you that you have to kneel, and you just do it. Like standing up or crossing yourself – and you're thinking that if I do all that, something will happen. Then perhaps something will come to me that wouldn't otherwise have come to me – the Holy Spirit or something. Over time of course it occurred to me that nothing happens. But it could. Faith can give us strength to deal with certain situations. And I'm a little suspicious about people who are incapable of transcendent thoughts, who don't believe in a divine superiority – because then they lack humility.
On page 286 there's the sentence: "Perhaps religions are something like a placebo." A placebo for what?
For community, because there's no pill for feeling close to each other and having respect. But you need something. If we fortunately don't have faith in heavy psychotropic drugs that calm us down and inspire us, we can have faith in God.
You portray the alternative rainbow hippie movement, which Maria comes to through Lisa, with an ironic distance. What parallels do you see in this movement with the flower power movement of the sixties; to those who wanted to tear down the world to build a new one?
The rainbow movement is not about destroying things. But it's correct that it's the same energy. I thought that this energy no longer existed after the movement of '68 – and I think it's wonderful that it still exists. Because I also think that naivety – which turns up time and again in the book – is endearing.
Wig's father Lothar was displaced from the Sudetenland and has been living in a home since the death of his wife, from which he runs away. He joins Wig on the journey to Greece to look for Maria. Why was the character of Lothar important to you?
Because Lothar is important for Wig. He is someone to talk to. There's nobody else in his sphere with whom he can talk about the meaning of life and other existential things – like growing old and death.
When Wig and his friend Koni meet up to smoke grass, they also discuss the Sebastian Kurz's entrance on to the political stage and his later coalition with the FPÖ. How do you judge Kurz's work?
These are exceptional times right now and I think they've all done really well. More or less good as well was Ms Lunacek, but she had too little initiative. She gave the impression at least that she was waiting for everything to be over before she got going. But Sebastian Kurz is doing well. He has my respect, which he has always had, in part for his style of communicating. I like that he looks at his conversation partner when he talks or listens. He perhaps has politics in his DNA just the same as I have music in mine. It was questionable in this centre-right coalition, because in his ideology-free style – with which I also sympathise – he didn't keep the Blues on a short enough lead. Ideologues are unbearable in the long run. They only see ideology and not what ideology is doing. It's great that Kurz now has someone else at his side, which adds a different energy. And, as I have Wig say in the book: Kurz is young and able to learn.
How have you spent the corona crisis, has any form of fear crept in for you?
Not fear, but certainly concern. Not so much for myself, though I have thought about my finiteness: but my father is 92, and isolation and distancing played a large role for him. Our daughter also lives in London, where the crisis was not exactly handled in an exemplary manner. But I must say that the corona period has been more of a gift than a burden.
Hubert von Goisern: "Everyone should live out their own craziness"
Like music, a novel has rhythm and melody. Was the sound of flüchtig there from the beginning, or did it not crystallise until writing was underway?
I was probably conscious of it or felt it from the start. Music is part of my life and the novel has a lot to do with me. A novel is like a dream. Jung's dream analysis says that: you are everything in a dream – the one who goes through the dream, everyone you meet, you're the sky and the earth. It's the same in the novel. They're all things that have either happened to me, someone has told me, or that I was able to spin from the synthesis of all these thoughts and experiences. Of course, none of the characters are real. But you can find me in every character. Since that's the case, my musical world is in there too.
You always meet your many characters at eye level, sketching out the secondary characters very precisely too. Is this respectful interaction something that you've taken from your many journeys?
Yes, I think it's connected to travelling. When you travel, you're always a guest and dependent on people accommodating you – even if you're paying for it, when you're renting a room. Someone lets you in and engages with you. Politeness and respectful interaction are the fundamentals of people coming together. The banal expression "tit for tat" is experienced very intensely in this way. I've become acquainted with different lifestyles on these journeys, which made me think: that's not my thing at all. But as long as people aren't offensive or say that I should behave the same way, I don't have a problem with it. Everyone should live out their own craziness, I do so too.
One comes across religion or faith in the novel too, in various forms. What role does it play for you?
It's a fundamental element. Faith accompanies me through life, just like the weather or temperature. It's exciting to think about what our life means beyond the material. I've spent a lot of time with people who practise other religions. From Muslims, or Buddhists to Inuits. To some extent they have a very different lifestyle or very different notion of transcendence. With all these people I felt that faith connected us too. I like people who live a spiritual level. Even atheists do that – you can only be that by concerning yourself with it. Togetherness works best when you're respectful. I'm drawn to mosques, synagogues, churches. They are oases where you come away from the huffing and puffing of constant errands; they're places where it's all about nothing. I find this nothingness exciting.
When composing a song, it's not least about the right moment to let go and find your way to the end. Was it difficult to find the end of the novel?
I couldn't imagine the ending until I had it. The novel wrote itself in a way. You have a basic idea, develop the characters and then at some point they come to life, because you've focused on them so intensely. Then they're there and don't always do what you want them to do. There were a couple of situations in which the characters turned left instead of right. I had to take note that there's something in my head that's pulling the character somewhere on a string. Your own curiosity is aroused: what's going to happen now? A couple of times I really had no clue how things were going to proceed. So, you force yourself: write something! And suddenly you're heading somewhere. Picasso said: the muse is always on the move. It goes where work is being done. The muse won't kiss you sitting in the armchair, it needs heat and energy. When you start doing, ideas come.
Did writing thrill you, will the novel be followed by another?
I can imagine it, but have no plans. I was very happy when the novel was finished. In the middle of it I had the fear more than once that I wouldn't manage it. It's too convoluted, nobody will find their way through it. The main reason I didn't throw in the towel was my children: I always tell them: if you start something, then finish it too. It doesn't matter if you then say that it failed, you still finished it. And they kept asking me how the writing was going. So, I could never say, I've given up. (laughs) That was a great motivation.
"Learning to live with fear"
Hubert von Goisern is currently in the studio, where he is finishing off his new album. His first novel is already available. A conversation about crises and solutions.
You were last seen on stage in 2016. Now a new album and tour are coming down the line, and you recently published your first novel. So, you've been busy in the background.
Yes, you could say that. I've been working on the album for a few years, or at least gathering ideas and recording concrete fragments. And all this during a time in which I didn't want to be composing at all. But the ideas come flying and I have to put them down. Since November 2019, everything has been centred around the album, which will be released in the summer. Before that I spent a lot of time writing, finishing my first novel, which has now been published.
To music first: your album will bear the title Zeichen & Zeiten. What does that mean?
It developed from my personal motto of "the writing on the wall". It's the title because even before corona came along, we were living in a situation in which the writing on the wall was clear, as was what we needed to react to. But society is lazy and for a long time nothing happens. Until the concrete crisis comes along, then change is considered.
So, crisis as an opportunity?
I perceive the crisis as an important break that we shouldn't let pass us by. It's important for us to see what has happened to us. I know people who have been able to gain something from this time. By change, I mean slowing down, something which we have all always talked about. In economics, the claim was always that the only way is higher, faster, further, or cheaper – otherwise everything would fall apart. But nothing has happened. Now, we need to try not to want to catch up on everything again.
A number of creatives, including from the world of music, perhaps wouldn't share your opinion. For many of them, their existence is on the line.
Of course, I can understand that. As can my musicians, because our tour has been postponed from the autumn to spring 2021 and they won't be earning money during this time. I think there are only a few in the cultural world who are really living directly hand to mouth. But society can help those people too. It's time for solidarity. It's important to give people prospects. Resentment within the cultural world is still great, because there are no prospects. But the criticism had political consequences too. Incidentally, I'm delighted that Andrea Mayer is now Culture Secretary. She's a forceful woman, who doesn't have an easy task ahead of her. But I believe that we're in good hands with her. Nonetheless, we must continue to be creative – we're not called creatives for nothing – and must always find new ways to survive. There have been difficult times in every artist's life, including in mine.
You now support young artists with an award bearing your name. Is this an opportunity for you to give something back?
I can simply afford it. I founded the award because I've been receiving my pension from the AKM (Austrian Music Collecting Society) for a while now. First of all, I rang them and said that I didn't need the money and they should distribute it to those who do need it. But it's not that simple, so I decided to support young creatives myself. This year we received 171 applications and I'm deeply touched by the many great ideas and projects. I'm happy that I don't just help financially with the award, but can also generate attention for the award winners.
What other solutions are there in the crisis?
In general, it's about time that people's existential fear was taken away. I'm an absolute advocate of a universal basic income. We're stinking rich and can afford it. Not just for artists, but for everybody. I'm also pleading for more personal responsibility in the crisis. Morals, ethics cannot be ruled by laws alone. And we must ensure that things continue. Opening up the cultural world is important now, we must learn to live with the fear. If a second wave comes, we'll have to retreat, we must remain flexible.
Speaking of flexible, going back to your album, you're stylistically particularly flexible. Is there no central theme?
Plenty of people have already expressed this concern to me, saying that I should be more focused. But firstly, I always do what I'm ardently enthusiastic about, and secondly, I'm 67 now. If I don't do what I want now, when will I? There were about 40 song ideas, 17 of which have made it onto the album. Much of it is audibly related, many songs also stand on their own. I am the central theme.
What is there of you in your novel Flüchtig?
The story is fictitious, but as the author Paul Auster says: a novel that has nothing to do with the author can't be a good novel. I'm essentially in every character, in all these landscapes. Everything is a large part of me.
To what extent is writing lyrics different from writing a book?
Well, I've always liked writing, in spite of my bad marks in German. Mind you, I struggled for a long time and only gained self-confidence through writing lyrics. Later on, many novels left me thinking, I could do better than that. I went around for years thinking, "I could if I wanted to". The book is finished now, but I didn't believe until the end that I would make it to that point.
Into adventure with full force
New start at 67: Hubert von Goisern's first novel is published today.
In it he tells an exciting and multifaceted story of letting go, searching and the fleeting bliss of love.
Hubert von Goisern is a border crosser. He hates stale air and seeks out risk. He labels predictability as simply "unerotic". Now, the Bad Goisern musician, who once revolutionised folk music with songs like Koa Hiatamadl, has become an author. In so doing he has remained doubly faithful to himself.
Firstly, because it suits his nature to reinvent himself again, even at the age of 67. And secondly, because his novel flüchtig, which is being published today under his civil name Hubert Achleitner by reowned publisher Zsolnay, revolves around his life themes: departure and adventure, homeland and foreign lands, life and love. Or to put it another way: it is a story about the dangerous journey to oneself and about the courage to accept what you find there. Even if it hurts.
Brimful chest of life's treasures
At the centre stand Maria and Herwig. After 25 years, their childless relationship has grown cold. But an SMS, which Maria discovers by chance on Herwig's mobile, changes everything. The message reveals that he has a lover. And she is pregnant. From that point, Maria plans to do what Herwig had long wanted to do together with her: cut all ties in the Salzkammergut and start over somewhere else.
Maria quits her job, empties the bank account and sets off without leaving a note. But for Herwig, who still loves Maria, a period of uncertainty and worry begins. For Maria, who ultimately ends up in a Greek fishing village, her trip of a few months becomes an adventurous journey to her inner self. After a boating accident, which she survives with a great deal of luck, she finds new perspectives on her life.
But this is just one of the many stories from Hubert Achleitner's brimful chest of life's treasures. Time and again new characters and their life stories crop up, they pass by the reader, some make an impression, some sink into oblivion. A little streamlining wouldn't have hurt here.
Here and there, Achleitner picks up political, religious and societal themes, now and then the tanker of stories sloshes dangerously close to the depths of esotericism. One of the best moments in the book is when Herwig, the music teacher, explains his philosophy of records to the students: "Vinyl is the orthodoxy of recording media and in contrast the MP3 is atheism. What incense and candlelight are to church, record players and the needle in the groove of a record are for music playback." Achleitner's language is clear and poetic, but sometimes so flowery that kitsch has a little laugh: "[Maria] was 25 and felt like a bud opening into a flower."
Ultimately, Hubert Achleitner's novel feels like Hubert von Goisern's music: raw and yet soft, earthy and yet light, naïve and yet so wise.
"You can only tolerate something you deeply reject"
He fused folk music and rock, and now Hubert Achleitner is releasing his first novel. Here he talks about growing up in a small village, patriotic sentiments, - and Andreas Gabalier fans.
You tell the story of a woman who leaves the flat and doesn't come back, without announcing her disappearance. Disappearing without a trace is usually a behaviour that is suspected of men. The guy who goes out to get cigarettes…
If I had written it from the viewpoint of a man, it would have always been me. And as far as leaving for cigarettes is concerned: I think we think that because women don't run away as often. It's down to the fact that women simply carry more responsibility in the family. Often because they are mothers, but also because they keep the household running. Women just bear more of the weight.
The protagonist of the book is born into the world in the cabin of a cable car on a stormy night. Did something like that really happen?
No, but as a young man in the seventies I was left hanging in this cable car for two hours because it couldn't go any further in the stormy winter weather. I had a crate of beer with me, but didn't touch it. I wasn't afraid at the time, but it was a life-changing experience.
A central theme in the book is homeland. "It's not a romantic relationship", you have one of your protagonists say. At another point it is said that homeland is what you'd be prepared to commit a crime for. What is your concept of homeland?
I heard the 'committing a crime' definition on the radio. I thought, that's pretty bad, but it didn't come out of thin air. You see people who defy moral boundaries because their concept of homeland is in danger. The subject of homeland has followed me for a very long time, due in part to my dealings with traditional music. I don't think that one homeland is enough. I have many homelands. I feel this restlessness within myself.
Your stage name as a musician is Hubert von Goisern. That sounds like a confession at first! Didn't you actually want to get one over on your hometown of Bad Goisern?
Yes, maybe. During my youth there was great social pressure in Goisern on all those who didn't move within the traditional milieu and familiar frameworks. I didn't understand why everyone couldn't simply live life according to their own ideas. But then I saw it for myself: if I don't think like everyone else, if I don't play music like everyone, I won't be accepted. I realised as a teenager: I have to get out. I didn't know why I was going. But I knew: I have to go. Once I was far away, I found myself, because I no longer had the feeling of having to conform to a community.
You trained to be a chemistry laboratory technician.
My father thought I needed vocational training. He thought that music wouldn't be smart. Of course, I was a terrible lab technician. I flooded the laboratory once and set it on fire twice.
How did you manage that?
My thoughts were always somewhere else entirely. I once set up two rows of test tubes, a metre and a half long, and filled them with liquid. I tuned them so that I could play melodies on them with two compressed air hoses. And while I was doing that, something exploded behind me.
You then travelled a great deal and over the years you've played with musicians from countries around the world. Can anything be well matched? Or are there styles of music that are mutually exclusive?
There's this expression, "Those who are open to everything, might have a screw loose." I was always able to lead these connections, these love stories I had with other cultures, other music styles, back to a personal relationship. There was a musician who had so fascinated me that I wanted to understand it. Then I wanted to belong. I wanted them to belong to my world. When I approached a different style of music without this relationship, it usually didn't work out.
You had your first big successes with the Original Alpinkatzen band and the fusion of folk music with rock structures. At the end of the eighties, the beginning of the nineties, you were suddenly a man in demand. Did you regain popularity in your hometown?
They wanted to give me a cultural award. But I'm unforgiving. I said to them: "I wanted to give concerts here, and you obstructed that." The "Chamois Hunting Days" take place once a year in Bad Goisern. It was always a weekend with traditional custom events and traditional and folk music. But they didn't want me there. I then arranged a festival on the same date in the neighbouring town, called "Aufgeigen statt Niederschiassen". We named our record after it.
Have you since made peace with Goisern?
Yes, the critics from back then are dead and buried now.
You pioneered the combination of folk music and rock'n'roll. Does it sometimes hurt to see how this style is transformed into something reactionary today, by artists like Andreas Gabalier?
I sometimes feel a certain disappointment about how simple people want things to be. You can't explain it any other way, that tens of thousands make the pilgrimage to such concerts to become a collective to which there is actually no substance at all – or if there is, then a very questionable one. It surprises me. But it's okay that these different tastes and approaches to life exist. I'm tolerant in the original sense of the word: you can only tolerate something you deeply reject. There are people who can't get on with me. And there are people I can't get on with.
In July your new album Zeiten und Zeichen will be released. One of the songs is called Brauner Reiter and is a rejection of nationalism. You sing: "Come, tired rider, you've been travelling too long and will not find the Holy Grail". Is that also revenge on political parties like the FPÖ, who over the years have repeatedly played your music at campaign events?
Yes, it of course has that ulterior motive. It's a very severe and heavy piece of music. But it is not carried by aggression towards these people. The message behind it is more: climb down from your steed. I simply see the ideas to which these people cling to as an utterly failed approach to life.
"The muse goes where it sees sweat running"
Musician Hubert von Goisern presents his first novel under his "civil" name Hubert Achleitner. A conversation about children as incentives, the meaning of dreams and characters in novels developing lives of their own.
You first told me about your novel when you were despairing a little in the middle of your work and didn't even know whether you would finish the book. Now the novel is here. What prevailed when you were writing? Desire or suffering?
I couldn't and wouldn't want to put a percentage on it. It's like going up a mountain: every step is an exertion, but every step is progress, too. It's also a matter of overcoming gravity; in the case of writing, it's a matter of overcoming the gravity of the spirit. And furthermore: suffering and desire are pretty close to one another.
Knowing you, as a musician in particular, you're an artist who's ambitious for quality. Are you pleased with this book?
Yes! My great satisfaction comes from the fact that I wrote it, that I finished it. There were some low points when I thought: oh, it won't amount to anything, I can't manage it. I have to admit that at the end of the day, it was my children who kept my book alive. I always say to them: if you start something, then finish it! So, it would have been impossible for me to say to them: I've abandoned it. You have to practise what you preach. I didn't want to be a quitter in front of my children.
Then you gave the book to your wife and she was surprised. Why was that?
Because she had evidently expected a more exhausting, messy book. She said that she was happy that she didn't need a foreign language dictionary to read it. But I must admit that the book was initially written in a more complex and complicated way. Then I kept going over it and unravelled it. As a reader, I don't like sentences that stretch over an entire page, either. I like authors like Hemingway. They put down one image after the other.
So how should we imagine the scene? One day Hubert von Goisern says: ok, now Hubert Achleitner will write a novel.
I was always really bad at school, I scraped through in German too. I always had the feeling I hadn't mastered this language. On top of that was the fact that I grew up with dialect, in which I also felt comfortable. It was actually only through English that I came into a certain linguistic elegance, because I spent seven years in English-speaking countries. The idea for a book didn't come until much later, when I'd written a great number of lyrics, and through that my self-confidence grew too. I've written a non-fiction book. But you have to be hellishly careful that everything is correct. I swore at the time: never again! If I write another book, then it will be a novel. Then I can slap whomever I want; kill off whomever I want; put political incorrectness into someone's mouth, in short: I am free, I'm in fiction. But then, after 50 pages of the novel, I thought: non-fiction is so simple! You have something to hold on to. That is to say, both styles of writing have hurdles that you have to overcome.
How did you come up with the concrete idea for the content of the novel: a woman can no longer bear the closeness of her long marriage and literally goes looking for distance.
The original idea is in a diary entry from 2003. I wrote that I wanted to write a novel one day - about a woman who leaves the house and never comes back. Nobody knows why she leaves – and I always wanted to write it from the viewpoint of the woman. Otherwise you only hear and read about men who go for cigarettes and never come back. I thought it should be reversed for once. Women are allowed to disappear too.
Early on in the book is the sentence: "The relationship was out of balance." That is, the marriage between Maria, who later disappears, and her husband Herwig. While I was reading, I had the feeling that this marriage was never in harmony at all.
Perhaps I could have dedicated more room to the harmonious phase, but it didn't interest me. For me, what happens when that togetherness starts to crumble was much more exciting, when there's suddenly a recognition that it's not working, that something is wrong.
What does the journey, the odyssey that leads this woman via various detours to Greece, achieve?
I don't want to talk about that. I've written a book about it.
I can't spare you the tiresome question of the autobiographical proportion in the novel.
I think it was Paul Auster who said that any novel in which the author doesn't appear can't be any good. For me, a novel is like a dream. Dream interpretation says that everything that happens in a dream is you. You're the one going through the dream, you are everyone you meet in the dream, even the house you dream yourself into is you. That is: everything is a part of yourself and manifests itself in various people, landscapes or even objects. And that's how it is with writing a book too. I can only draw from myself. The wonderful thing was that this book actually wrote itself. Of course, I had a basic idea, but in the flow of writing, the characters suddenly developed lives of their own. I often didn't know: where is Maria going now? Or Herwig. I thought he should turn left, but the guy went right. It was unbelievably exciting. The fact that I didn't have control over everything as an author.
So, to exaggerate, you were only co-author of your book?
Picasso once said: inspiration exists, but it has to find you working. So, there's no sense in idly waiting for the muse. It will go where it sees sweat running. Then muse will grow curious and ideally, it will come to you.
You're evidently in a highly creative phase. Hubert Achleitner has finished his first novel, Hubert von Goisern will be releasing a double album in the summer with the title Zeiten & Zeichen, which is said to have breathtaking range.
It's turned out to be a very ambitious album with 17 songs, and each one stands alone. A few people around me who were aware of what I was working on said: You can't do that! It's all higgeldy-piggeldy, so many different styles. And I said: Sorry, but if I can't do what I want at my age, then when can I? I've always done what I wanted and of what I was convinced. Why should I stop doing that now, at the age of 67?
The journey to oneself
A road movie with many crossroads
"The possibilities of intermediate tones had been brushed out of him." What a wonderful sentence. It applies to a character in Hubert Achleitner's flüchtig – fortunately not to the author. For this man masters them astonishingly well for a novice novel writer, the very important intermediate tones and spaces in which life happens, those of the novel's characters.
Hubert Achleitner has written a coherent and linguistically sure-footed road move and along the way has only seldom wandered into the cliché trap that this not entirely new material has ready: a woman breaks free from the relationship and in leaving looks for paths to a reasonable future. Achleitner meets his characters with empathy and the knowledge that even the most adventurous journey, the most daring escape route ultimately always leads back to oneself. From this likewise not entirely new recognition, the world musician Goisern has constructed a worldly-wise novel that is more than a fleeting read.
"I would like to re-learn laziness"
Hubert von Goisern is known as Austria's figurehead for new folk music with global flair across the world. He has now written his first novel under his civil name Hubert Achleitner: Flüchtig. And a new album "Zeiten und Zeichen" will be out in the summer too. A conversation about leaving, staying, sitting out and starting over.
Have you grown used to the new normal?
I find it very stressful not being able to approach one another. I don't want to get used to that. But it is how it is. Like the weather. A condition that will pass.
Do you find there are positive aspects to the situation?
The positive thing for me was that I was able to work undisturbed. I had all the recordings for the new album in the bag. My sound engineer and I sat together as a cosy pair for weeks in post-production. I really enjoyed it. You could hear the birds singing, the sky was clear and clean. And people were very respectful. It was interesting how people who had in the past come across as dislikeable and grumpy, were very friendly during this time. And those who were always in a good mood were rather crestfallen. So you get to see the other side of things.
And you've been writing. Not you first book, but your first novel. How did that come about?
I always wanted to write a book – to prove to myself that I could do it, among other things. I was always pretty bad in German and I think I left middle school with a fail in German, English and Latin. I only acquired a confident use of language through writing lyrics. In 2009, I wrote a book about the Danube tour Stromlinien. I suffered with having to stick to the truth. That's why I wanted to write a novel, where I can let my imagination run wild: kill somebody off, give someone a thick ear, call someone an idiot. But I didn't do all that, although I had the freedom.
I wouldn't have given you a fail in German. It has turned out to be a wonderful book – about everything that makes up life, a kind of Eat Pray Love with music. Is the book a resumé?
I had the first idea for the book in 2003. I was dealing with why it was always the man who leaves. I wanted to write about a woman who disappears without a word. Over the years I sketched out characters, tried out milieus. I would have liked to have written it back in 2010, but music kept getting in the way. When I sat down to write, a melody would come to mind and then I'd go to an instrument. I was distracted for six months this time too. During that time, I composed a good half of the current album.
So the book and album are closely connected?
Actually they have nothing to do with each other. It was only when I had writer's block that I would go to my instrument to relax and noticed: oh, cool things are emerging. Then I kept hold of them. But then I locked away all the instruments, the accordions, the guitars. That way, I had to write.
What comes first with a song?
The music comes first. The music tells me the story. Then the images emerge.
Are the stories on the new album Zeiten und Zeichen connected?
They're connected because I wrote them. I have the feeling that I'm the only main theme. Many people have said: you can't do that, you should keep to one style, to one sound space. But I'm 67 now. If I can't do what I want now, then when can I? Besides, I've always done what I wanted.
Maria does that in your novel too, she escapes. Where would you escape to?
All you need is a cardinal direction. Most people have a plan in life anyway. If you're going to escape, do it aimlessly.
And in which direction?
I'm drawn more to the north.
You've been pretty much everywhere and have done an incredible number of things. Did you plan it like that, or did you catch the ball the way it was played?
I caught the ball, or rather the balls, I wanted to catch. The music ball for example, I dropped when I was twenty, because my entire sphere was against the idea of my being a musician. And in turn, just playing a bit of music didn't interest me. The ball came back at some point and then I caught it. Apart from that, I was an unbelievably lazy person until I was 30. Now I'd like to relearn laziness. I can't do it anymore. Corona was super in a way. You could be lazy without a guilty conscience.
Do you have difficulties with growing older? You seem pretty timeless.
I struggle with the fact that I'm no longer as fit as I used to be. I've never done sport, but always liked to have a kick around if there was a ball, or I went up the mountain. I can't do it anymore nowadays. Primarily because I then need a whole week to pick myself up again.
The characters in your book are all at a point where they're thinking: there has to be something else. The fear of finality plagues them.
I don't know if it's finality. I've seen how other people get on with age. Some I admired, some made me think: I don't want to be like that. I don't want to be grumpy just because I'm old, or to struggle with the idea of it. It's a disregarding of the situation. You can elicit something special from any age, which only exists at that age. I didn't have the abilities that I have now thirty years ago.
You tell a really lovely love story in the book. Are you a romantic?
For long periods you had a life of two parts: on tour a lot and the family at home. How did you keep things going at long distance?
Because I really wanted it and had the good fortune and blessing of finding a wife who could deal with the situation too. But I must say: the fact that I have a family is first and foremost down to my wife. I became accustomed to taking time out after each project. Then I was there, got on people's nerves at first, but then integrated myself into family life and did a lot with the children.
And now there's a real explosion of creativity: a new album, a novel, a tour. Will that take place?
It's being postponed. We'll go on tour in April next year and instead of 40 concerts this year and 40 next year, we'll simply play 80 concerts then. But it'll be fine.
Of the many, which was your most impressive artistic experience?
What really sticks in my memory is the encounter with Tibetan artists. We worked on an album for six months. It wasn't an easy birth, there were many tears, because the Tibetan artists in particular had to overcome so many internal boundaries. It was a very radical experience and I'm still very proud of that album.
Did your travelling bring you closer to Austria?
Homeland has definitely drawn closer to me, my Salzkammergut. In the beginning there was quite a clash, but I fought my way through it. The big opponents and critics are all dead and buried now. (Pause) Without my having to do anything.
There have been fierce discussions about the treatment of cultural creators during corona time. How can culture be helped?
I have no personal opinion; I trust the virologists and pandemic experts. But I believe that some things can be done outside when the weather is good. People need to react more spontaneously, and think on the small scale again - perhaps playing the odd open air in summer even though we hadn't planned any. There's something to be said for downsizing.
If you could wish for the people to take anything away from this situation, what would it be?
Serenity. Respectful treatment of one another. And we have learned that it doesn't take so much to be happy.
Mr Achleitner, can we also ask …
... if there's somebody with whom you really want to sing a duet?
Helge Schneider. A great guy, a super musician. I'd see every minute as a gift. Unfortunately, we've only met once, and very briefly.
... if there's an author you particularly admire?
It changes. At the moment it's Olga Tokarczuk. Just saying the name gives me goosebumps. There's an approach to language there, there are images – the words flow the way music flows out of me.
... what would you have been if not a musician?
An actor. If you leave out the arts, then maybe a politician. But I can't imagine that anymore now, because I've grown so sensitive. If someone doesn't like my plants, I take it personally.