"You might have called us the Mainstream of Progressiveness"

An interview with Joachim Schäfer, co-founder of the German Seventies Prog Rock Band Kin Ping Meh

by Frank Gingeleit

From Aural Innovations #24 (July 2003)

There was a short period of time in the early Seventies when a couple of German Rock Bands laid the fundamentals of what is still regarded as a special source of experimentalism and progressiveness in contemporary popular music. The so called Krautrock continued to be a style building factor for the development not only of Progressive Rock but also of Techno, Punk and even Grunge. The band names mentioned in this context are usually Can, Tangerine Dream, Amon Düül, Guru Guru, Neu! and Kraftwerk. But the early Seventies were also a period when the music and entertainment industry tried to find out how this new kind of music might be commercialized - by any means: records, fashion, film music, jingles for radio and TV commercials, and in general as some kind of a "soundtrack" of that time. One of the German Rock Bands trapped in this process of commercialization of Progressive Rock for a while were Kin Ping Meh from Mannheim in South Western Germany. Their carreer started when they won a series of band contests, which led to a record contract, their appearence in a movie about the teasing jokes of German high school students and to perform as a supporting act for bands like The Hollies, Golden Earring and others. Kin Ping Meh’s "heavy progressive riffing" is still appreciated by some (Dag Erik Asbjornson in his book "Cosmic Dreams at Play - A Guide to German Progressive & Electronic Rock", Oslo, 1995, for example) but quite a few contemporary reviewers of their records and concerts regarded them as well-behaved, upright and petty. But on the other hand, they did a lot for the proliferation of early Progressive Rock not only in Germany. Their first single was published in the US before it was released in Germany, and the four-CD-reissue "Fairy Tales & Cryptic Chapters" adds their early tunes and performances to the "historical body" of Progressive Rock. While writing this article I received an email by a young lady from somwhere in the US, in which she asked me whether I might be able to help her with some lyrics of Kin Ping Meh. What this was about is interesting enough that I’ll add this story within the story as an anecdotal illustration answering the question "Does German Progressive Rock of the Seventies still play a role in everyday life of the third millenium?" (see the link at the end of the interview).

Kin Ping Meh was founded in late 1969 by Werner Stephan and Joachim Schäfer. For a while Schäfer was the leading figure of Kin Ping Meh, their spokesman and philosophical mastermind. Though he left the band before their first LP release, he’s a serious and reliable witness of the "early days". After Kin Ping Meh he had a carreer as a singer/songwriter with songs in German. Two of his tunes of that period in the late Seventies are still known by almost everybody in Germany - popular songs in the best sense of the word ("Badetag" and "Damenwahl" for German readers of this article). Later he was successful with a couple of funny songs about his hometown Mannheim in the local dialect that made him a part of the folklore of this city. And he survived in the music business. He’s the owner of a studio for music and language recordings for commercial and educational purposes, and adding synchronisations and soundtracks to movies. And he is a successful composer and producer of sophisticated music for computer and video games sold all over the World. The last step in his career as a producer so far is a new CD series dedicated to the Mannheim school of classical music. The first issue of this series has just been released and carries two quintets by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who was a citizen of Mannheim for a couple of years.

Frank Gingeleit (FG): How did you start becoming a musician?

Joachim Schäfer (JS): I was the son of a musician and private music teacher. In Mannheim, Germany, where I was born and grew up you were going "to Schäfer" when your child wanted to learn - or was to learn - an instrument. And my father was my first piano teacher as well. But when the Beat music came up I completely lost interest in classical music and started to learn guitar. I left high school before graduation (the German type of high school called "Gymnasium" that combines high school and college education and enables you to go to university - F. G.) and started an apprenticeship as a piano builder at the Bechstein company. But I never worked in this profession as I was always crazy about Beat music and becoming a musician. In my mind I had already founded Kin Ping Meh during the time of my apprenticeship when I had to stay at a hospital for a while due to a car accident.

FG: As Kin Ping Meh was not your first band, let’s get a bit chronological.

JS: When I was 13 years old I knew that Beat music would become my kind of music as a musician. When I was 16 years old another door opened when I saw Jimi Hendrix in a TV afternoon show called "Beat Club". This really was a revolution. At that time the band I was playing in were the Thunderbirds. We were rehearsing two to three times a week and we usually had two shows a week. Our repertoire were Beat tunes by others, mainly British bands. Sometimes we heard one of their tunes on the radio in the morning and played it at a show in the evening. We were quite successful with this and in 1966 we won the title "German Beatmaster" in a nationwide competition. As I said I had the idea for Kin Ping Meh in my mind already at the time of my apprenticeship. But it lasted until 1969 when Werner Stephan and I founded Kin Ping Meh. We started with about twelve tunes of our own and like with our Beat bands - the mentioned Thunderbirds in my case and Take Five for Werner - we immediately started to play in band contests - and won them all. It was the time of the broadest proliferation and popularity of progressive music - there was even a Song version of Black Sabbath’s "Paranoid" in German - and everybody was looking for "Germany’s best band". Among those were a yellow press weekly together with a film distributor. When we had won their band contest we were playing in a couple of popular movies together with German TV and movie stars of that time. We not only supplied the music but we were to be seen playing on the screen. This again led to a record contract with Polydor, one of the leading record companies of that time, and we recorded our first single release "Everything My Way" for them. After the release of that record we were playing almost everywhere and we experienced all the heights and depths of a touring band. We spent one night in a first class hotel in Berlin and the next one in a youth hostel in Bremen...

FG: Could you already live on your royalties at that time?

JS: No, we lived on the concert wages - which were sometimes pretty small - and, in the beginning, on the goodwill and support of our parents. Otherwise it would not have worked. Only when we played in TV shows we were paid a bit better.

FG: How did you as a band handle the transition from Beat to Rock music?

JS: We as a band lived through this transition. Our early tunes were completely arranged in the style of a Sixties band. When we met the producer Achim Reichel this meant a withdrawal from the Beat sound of the Sixties. Quite influential for us were Uriah Heep. We didn’t like all of their music but we liked their energy and their way of playing. This helped us to play rather "free" on stage and gave our arrangements almost a similarity to Jazz. The tunes became longer, there was more aggressivity in the way of playing and people were no longer dancing during the shows. And there was also this special "Krautrock" element: The tunes had different parts that were put together from several distinct compositions giving room for lengthy improvisations. And this meant quite a bit of work on one’s personal soloistic skills.

FG: You left the band before their first LP was released.

JS: Yes, I played on the single releases "Everything My Way" and "Woman". I left the band in 1972 and there were some of my tunes on the first LP that I was not credited for. But this is a different story and I don’t want to get deeper into it. Just one word about it: I don’t see any "criminal" background with this. We simply were not able to find a democratic way of dividing and crediting the musical contributions. Kin Ping Meh changed completely after I left the band, mostly due to Gerhard "Gagey" Mrozeck, the new guitarist who had played with Twenty Sixty Six and Then before. I think that this was a completely new band that should have had a different name. But maybe Kin Ping Meh was the first of the bands who had different "phases" in their carreer. The members of the first "phase" really lived their music, we spent much time together also in our private lives... some of us might be even signified as "male virgins" at that time. We really didn’t match the cliché of a Rock band - we only looked like it. You might have even called us the "mainstream of progressiveness" as in our core we were rather a mainstream band with a strong orientation toward success. And to play progressive music was a demand of that time to become a popular and sucessful band.

FG: Just a few words about your musical career after Kin Ping Meh.

JS: In 1974 I released my first single in the Mannheim dialect. In 1975 I was the composer of the official song of the Bundesgartenschau (the German national gardening exhibition - F. G.) in Mannheim, and I was singing background vocals and second voices in innumerable song productions. That brought money in so that I could found a music publishing company. In 1977 I released my solo LP "Badetag" at the German division of CBS. This production was a big jump, almost a shock. It was a big and expensive production with a full orchestra with harps, strings and woodwind instruments - and our budget allowed only one take for most of the orchestra recordings. Musically, it went a bit into the direction of the Pasadena Roof Orchestra with lyrics in the style of the German singer-songwriters of that time. But altogether the collaboration with CBS was unsatisfactory for me. So I didn’t make the opted second LP and was even payed out by them. Later I added a record company to my music publishing company - Mouton Records (the French word "mouton" means "sheep", and Joachim’s family name "Schäfer" means "shepard" - F. G.). Mouton Records released a lot of Folk and Jazz music, mainly from the region where I live. And the club "Miljöö" was founded at this time. I was its manager for about seven years. During these years there were about 700 concerts in this club, among the bands and musicians was almost everybody who later became a "name" in the German Rock scene of the late Seventies and early Eighties.

FG: Let’s return to the first "phase" of Kin Ping Meh. Some observers at that time even argued the "progressivity" and the general "credibility" of Kin Ping Meh in the political and societal climate of the Seventies.

JS: As for politics: Most of us were very interested in political topics and had even read a lot about the political theories of those days. But when we were talking about politics among the band members it usually ended up that we returned to musical topics within ten minutes... Our lyrics also partly reflected the political and societal climate - "Don’t you know that we all are brothers" for example - but, of course, we didn’t go "too far", no protest songs against the Vietnam war and the like. In general we did the compositions first and added the lyrics later. As far as our musical progressivity is concerned: We were aware that our music was a follow up of the Song and Beat music of the Sixties. We didn’t understand the musical "message" of bands like Eloy (Eloy, besides Jane, were the most sucessful progressive band in Germany at that time - F. G.).

FG: And the garments, symbols and aesthetics of that time - which role did they play for you?

JS: To wear long hair was a part of my personal way to express societal protest; also my beard and my general presentation were important in this respect. This was my way of showing that I was different. My mother used to walk thirty yards in front me in the streets as she really felt ashamed by my appearance. To wear your hair like this certainly was a outcry against society, a provocation and a general statement that certain people could rather kiss your arse...

FG: You said before that your music was rather a follow up of the Song and Beat music of the Sixties. How did Kin Ping Meh manage to meet the demand of being progressive and experimental you’ve already mentioned as being essential for a sucessful band of that time?

JS: Well, it was the time of "flower power", and, of course, we had the appropriate light show and stage outfit. But we were different also in this respect: no drugs, no alcohol! We didn’t believe that drugs could help to become a better musician. Our only tune focusing on drugs - "Drugson’s Trip" - was about the risks and dangers of taking drugs.

FG: As a band, who were your musical examples?

JS: First of all, the Beatles although you don’t hear this on our records. Next were Procol Harum mainly because of their use of piano and organ at the same time. And we were pretty much influenced by bands like The Animals, Spooky Tooth, Redbone and Them. Among the progressive examples were rather their "academic" protagonists like Gentle Giant and Atomic Rooster. And there were also The Hollies and Golden Earring, bands we’ve been touring with as a support act. For me personally, also impressionists like Grieg and Debussy and the instrumental classics like Mahler and Bruckner were very important examples.

FG: For quite a while Kin Ping Meh were known all over Germany and partly abroad. Which role did it play for you to become "almost famous"?

JS: When you’re very very young you’re certainly dreaming of playing in front of many people and to delight them. It’s a part of your daydreams and of your nightly dreams. I had this feeling already before I was playing in front of large audiences but the reality was even more exciting. But on the other hand I still can’t understand why a person likes to have my autograph.

FG: "Live fast - die young" was one of the keywords of the Rock scene of the Sixties and Seventies. How did you feel about the deaths of musicians of that time?

JS: I was really shocked by the death of John Lennon, maybe because I look a bit like him. When I was in New York City a couple of months ago I took a rest in the part of the Central Park opposite the hotel in front of which he was shot. Somebody saw me sitting there on a bench and even talked to me as he was not quite sure whether he could believe his eyes as I don’t look like a person disguised as John Lennon... Two of the original members of Kin Ping Meh have have died. Willi Wagner could never overcome to be no longer a member of the band. He was working class and he thought that he was everybody’s bad ass then... and in the end he comitted suicide. When they found him he had a sheet with my address and telefone number in his pocket and the police came to me and asked whether I knew something about the reasons of his suicide. But I didn’t. Maybe I was too superficial to really understand his problems. Kalle Weber died of a heart attack in a restaurant. I think that he was the real backbone of the band and it was his groove that mostly stamped the music of Kin Ping Meh.

FG: How were the personal relationships within the band like when you were a member? You left the band quite early but you’re still considered as one of its most influential members. Do you want to talk about the reasons why you left the band?

JS: The relationship among the band members was very friendly, keen and family like but also spiced with little jealousies. Three of us came from the Thunderbirds and three came from Take Five. Especially their horn section never recovered from that split. But the main problem of that time was that our lead singer had a "double appointment" with us and with another producer. The latter might have led to a solo career as a singer. I considered myself to be the leading figure in the band and asked him either to give up his other engagement or to leave the band. But it ended up that they asked me to leave. I had gambled with high stakes and I lost. I was twenty years old then and probably a bit too egocentric. Today I’d rather solve a problem like this with more diplomacy and less stress.

FG: A word about the music industry at the time when you were a Rock musician?

JS: No complaints, except that they could have done more to earn money with our music. They were just too stupid to make more money. You don’t earn money by selling records alone but also by getting played in the radio. They simply didn’t do enough about this. Except for the very beginning we’ve always had money, sometimes more and sometimes less. For some of the Kin Ping Meh music I still get royalties today - mostly from England. It’s not really very much, but it’s a good feeling to know that our music is still played today.

FG: What does the name Kin Ping Meh mean?

JS: It’s taken from an ancient Chinese novel and it means something like a plum blossom branch in a golden vase - it’s as ambiguous as the Chinese language as a whole but we used it with a clear erotic connotation.

FG: Is there any advice you might like to give young contempoary Rock musicians?

JS: There are quite a few people over here who play Rock music. But I almost don’t see any passion and fanatism among them. When I was young I didn’t care with what I would end up. It was important for me that I could play music and would be able to get older in dignity. It was a one way direction. Today I won’t advise anybody to choose being a Rock musician as a profession. You’ll get older without being able to earn money. Today, being a Rock musician doesn’t provide an existence any longer. Everybody must be aware of this.

FG: Shall we really end this interview with a pessimistic perspective like this?

JS: Yes, I think so.

Contact Joachim Schäfer at: js@tms-multimedia.de

CLICK HERE to read "On Vacation With Kin Ping Meh: Or: "Does German progressive Rock of the Seventies still play an important role in everyday life of the third millenium?"

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