Interview with CHRISTOPHER BLENKINSOP, founder of 17 Hippies, the independent and democratic music collective - Jul 6, 2009
“We are totally independent - Kiki does organisation and management, our clarinettist does our taxes, our violin player coordinates the different labels, our guitarist does graphic design and internet, and I do recording and studio production.”
Any band wanting to sustain a successful career in the music industry will likely face innumerable threats to their ideals, sanity and existence, from to label pressures and crippling debts to artistic compromises and arguments over songwriting credits. One successful and acclaimed Berlin band are living proof that braving such obstacles is not part and parcel of ‘making it’.
17 Hippies not only pursue a totally independent, creatively free, and financially viable career in the music industry, but do so with 13 band members! And after 14 years they are still managing to tour the world, have fun and pay the bills.
HitQuarters visited the Hippies HQ – home to their record and publishing companies – and was able to pin down the ever roving founder and musical director Christopher Blenkinsop to ask him how it is all possible.
Even before you founded 17 Hippies in Berlin you led a rather nomadic existence – where did life take before you established yourself in the German capital?
I was born in Manila, went to kindergarten in Cairo, started school in Tehran, then Singapore and Jakarta, before my family moved to Germany where I finished high school. I left the day after. I tried Paris, but my French was lousy and I found it a difficult place to live. So a friend of mine in Berlin, who had a spare settee in his one-room-no-bathroom-no-kitchen apartment, invited me over. I stayed there for two years.
Do you have a musical background?
I come from a musical family. I had classical music training - played the flute, sang in choirs, played in orchestras. Then when I was 14 my mother died and I stopped all classical music. I let my hair grow long and started playing bass in rock bands. But I found that through my musical background I could easily play other instruments too. So in Berlin, people would often say, “You sit in with this band and play whatever is needed”.
I played clarinet in one band, accordion in another. I played in a pick-up band for US artists touring in Europe - we did acoustic or electric set-ups where I played guitar, or bass or piano. But I got sick of that and moved to Ireland with the intention of staying there. But when I went back to Berlin to pick up my stuff, I was offered a job at a theatre.
And you took it …
I thought, “OK, just this one job”. I started playing for this off theatre in Berlin, and suddenly all my energy and time went into this. I moved on as musical director to the big theatre in Brandenburg for three years and started directing musicals – like the Rocky Horror Show - until I was invited to direct a play at the Kammerspiele theatre in Munich. I didn’t think twice - and stayed at the Kammerspiele, where I even got to write my own plays – I had a lot freedom there to do weird stuff! I loved it - working with actors and the whole theatre machinery. I then moved on to the Bayerisches Staatsschauspiel theatre, also in Munich …
With such a busy schedule at the theatre, how did the seeds of the 17 Hippies manage to get sown?
In Berlin I would discuss with my music friends, why do we Germans not have a musical repertoire like they do in other countries? The French can sing you French songs all night long, and the Brits and the Australians! So I decided to change this and I organised a get-together of all the people I knew with instruments. Everybody was asked to bring three songs along so we would learn to play them. The idea was not to start a band, it was more like a mission. I wanted to collect beautiful and easy to play tunes and put them together in a reel book.
When did you decide to give up German high art for the 17 Hippies?
We started in 1995 and over the course of two years the same people would come together and play - anything from three to twenty musicians at a time. We did not even have a name. When our rehearsal space became too small, we went public with our rehearsals and an audience would just show up, sometimes bringing their own instruments.
And still wherever we go, we play with people. We always like to invite local musicians to join us on stage. We have played with Japanese, Algerians, Indian musicians, all sorts. Our clarinet player was in the audience once, joined in and never left!
Back then we played on a boat in Kreuzberg, any tune that was brought along, mostly instrumentals, all acoustic, no microphones. Then people asked us to play at their parties, weddings, funerals and we played a lot, still changing members (9 of the original musicians are still in the band).
When did the whole thing become ‘serious’?
Some band members, centred around our bass player Carsten [Wegener], wanted to do it ‘properly’. They wanted to really practice and play the complicated stuff. And I had gotten really tired of German theatre. Kiki [Sauer], our accordionist, discovered she was a great organiser and through her contacts in France, we managed to release our first album.
How was that album recorded?
We had all sorts of recordings done by others - live concerts or rehearsals - with DAT recorders, and so had stuck them on a CD and sold them at concerts. We sold something like 2,000 copies because we were playing almost every other day. These French guys decided it was good enough to make a proper CD out of.
They also got us a booking agent in France, so we went on tour there. We could not really believe it. Also, for an odd reason that I don’t remember, we were invited to the South by Southwest festival (read the HitQuarters SXSW interview here) – we went with 35 people. After that a farmer invited us to play on his ranch and then someone else invited us to Houston – it was a circus on tour! Commercially it wasn’t exactly a success – it took us 2 years to pay off the tickets and travel expenses …
Then you decided to do the first proper recording?
The band members decided to go for it and invest in a proper second album. That was a live album. Recording was a challenge because we still played acoustically – no microphones on stage. There is hardly any singing on it because you can only yell out one song and that’s it.
Why did you then decide to relent and use microphones and amplification?
When you play with no microphones you tend to play fast, loud and rowdy so people can hear you. Often the audience was louder than us. People in the back of the audience could not hear a thing but still got it and partied. We did that for ages. At some point we wanted to take more care of the sound and actually be heard, and so we started using amplifiers.
So what were the big steps that led to the success you enjoy now?
In 2001 we did the music for a German movie called ‘Halbe Treppe’ – the band was in the movie and played all the way through. No one was expecting that movie to go anywhere, but it received a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. So we got in the spotlight too, and so decided to tour Germany.
No one outside of Berlin seemed to know the movie and it was hard to find a booking agency who was interested. We also could not find a label to publish the movie soundtrack, so we hired an ‘aggregator’ label to release the record. It features our first original song. Up until then we had only covered ‘folk’ songs.
Then we did weird stuff – a sideline album of improvised electronic music. Then another ‘French’ album (‘Sirba’), which contained an original song in French (‘Marlène’) that became a minor hit in France. Kiki wrote the lyrics and I wrote the music. Suddenly we were on heavy rotation on French radio ‘France Inter’! That motivated us to do a whole studio album of originals – ‘Ifni’, followed by ‘Heimlich’, and a live album with electric guitarist Marc Ribot.
Were you ever expecting the Hippies to get so popular, so big?
No - although it was always big in an emotional sense. I had made enough money in theatre to keep me afloat for a while, and I thought, “Let’s see what happens”. I was not banking on this thing working. But it was such fun to do. And something happened – with the others, with the audience, with myself.
It is very existential and you cannot half do it. It took all of me, both physically and mentally. But although it is draining and exhausting, you get so much back, and all the energy you need comes from the audience. This re-cycling of energy was unknown for me. It never happened in my rock bands. Then it was always “us on stage and you the audience down there”. But the Hippies were not like that. They were all about the energy flow.
Now when people ask me, “Hey, you’re called 17 Hippies but you are only 13, where are the other 4?” I say, “They are in the audience.” For me this is about how can we connect to an audience and tap their reservoirs and they tap ours. Even after the average gig I come out ‘more’ than I was before. This is new, it does not drain, it taps, it is enriching and it works wherever we go.
It works wherever you go, but you must still get very different reactions in the various countries you visit?
If you ask me what is the difference between audiences in China or Algiers, or Berlin, I would say, expectation. Here in Berlin, audiences are almost bored because they have seen and heard so much, so it takes them a while to let go. In China they have to practice being an audience because they have only seen how people act at a gig on MTV. In France there is this culture whereby you go to a gig and it doesn’t really matter what happens because you go there to have a great time. In Algeria the audience waits for you after the gig because they want to talk to you for another 2 hours.
As you’ve inferred, you must get a lot of comments about your band name - how did it actually first come about?
This friend from London played a gig in Berlin with his punk band. I came along with a couple of people to be his support act - upright bass, bagpipes and me on ukulele. As he was going to announce us, he asked me the name of our band. We didn’t have one, so I said – kind of out of the hat - “Uhhh … 17 Hippies.” And the name stuck.
In the US people say, “What a great concept this name is!” In the UK people say to us, “Do you really want to go round the world with that name?”
Who is it that actually writes the songs?
Anybody in the band can come up with ideas. For the last album we created an internal website where we could all put in a song, an idea, tune or even part of song, and you would have to convince at least two other people to go on and develop it. 27 songs came about using that method. Then we started to pick out songs until we had the 12 that went on the album. Not everyone is equally interested in that process, so at the end of the day, Kiki, Carsten and me are the main writers. The lyrics (mainly by Kiki) are in English, German and French.
What instruments do you have in the band?
Our simple lineup is bass, cello, 2 violins banjo, guitar, ukulele, 2 accordions, trombone, trumpet, 2 clarinets. As well as bouzouki, Indian harmonium, tenor sax, tuba, mandolin, sas, glockenspiel, santur - you name it, we play it!
Would you describe yourself as the conductor?
I am the arranger – but in such a way that we play and try out stuff and then I put together what we’ve decided to play. The arrangement is done around the people and not the instrument they play - it’s more the way they play it.
We have played around 2000 gigs, so we have the “same breath”, and our playing is very much in synch. That is what you find in folk music traditions – a family in some remote village in Switzerland doing their folk song will be “on the same breath” musically and rhythmically, and it is hard to join in on that. We found that now with our new bass player. He is a great musician but it will take years until we are completely “in synch”.
When did the Hippies properly set up their whole enterprise? And how does that all function?
In about 2003 we formed companies for our ventures. Both the label and the publishing company are set up as a GmbH (Ltd in UK and Ireland, and Inc in US). This revolves around 5 people, with Kiki and me being the very core of it. She does general organisation and management, our clarinettist does our taxes, our violin player coordinates all the different labels. Our guitarist does graphic design and internet, and I do recording and studio production.
The band as such however is set up as a GbR where we are all shareholders, and even former band members still are – we are 20 shareholders all together.
How many albums have you released to date, and how are they sold nowadays?
9 in Germany, and that includes the live albums, soundtrack album and a couple of sideline projects, and 4 in France. Two years ago we released the last 4 albums ‘globally’. We have license deals with France, and they supply North America and Canada. We have distributors in Japan, Spain, Portugal, UK, Switzerland - so we actually ship product to these countries. But of course a very big portion of sales is now done online.
In the US most of our music gets downloaded. Same in Asia – they don’t buy CDs anymore, they download. The odd thing is, with us, they actually download the whole album. However, the last 2 albums we released on vinyl and that sells really well in Japan and also in the UK. We tried it just for the heck of it and were surprised by the success! So far we have sold over 100,000 albums worldwide.
With a regular line-up of 13 band members, how does that work financially and how many of you can actually live off of the Hippies?
We play around 115 shows per year, among them lots of festivals - we have just been to China as part of a cultural/economic programme. Of course there is a lot to pay for - accommodation, travel, promo - but it works out financially. Seven people - who also work in our office - make their living out of it. Others just come to play and have other sources of income.
How is the money distributed?
We have this pseudo-socialist approach. A band member gets points for everything they do, like gigs they play, rehearsals, studio etc. You get a basic salary per gig. Every 3 months we decide what to do with the money left over in the pot after that – such as putting it into production, investing in gigs - such as in Jordan where we want to play but there is no money. And we allocate it according to the points people have. Everyone who has ever played with us will still get ‘point money’. Our theory is that even if you only played with us for 2 years, your energy helped us to be what we are now.
How do you allocate the publishing money?
We invented a person called Max Manila and he is the writer of all our songs, you will see it in the album notes and we all own Max Manila. The theory behind that is that so many bands break up because of money or arguments like, “I wrote that melody not you!” So from the beginning all Gema (German performing rights organisation) went to Max. It would not make sense to have just a few people benefit from what we all created together. Plus that was the only way to keep the whole thing moving and keep so many people together. You can only do 17 Hippies by focusing on the whole thing and not just your own ego. You need all the energy you can get. Only tribes will survive - you add up all your resources and do it!
What does the future hold for Christopher Blenkinsop and 17 Hippies?
My job satisfaction here is pretty high. We are totally independent. We come up with what we do and we make the decisions. And we can do projects that involve us with film, theatre, other musicians and cultures. I once saw the ancient Muddy Waters who didn’t do a lot on stage but did his thing beautifully. That’s what I want to be doing with the 17 Hippies!
Interview by Monica Rydell
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