Skip to main content
Source: I/e , nr.8, 1995, p.22-24
Author: Augustin Luviano-Cordero

Popol Vuh Fricked Out

Since 1970, the german group Popol Vuh has produced constantly changing sounds that repeatedly push the boundaries of contemporary music and challenge the listener. Their latest album, Sing For Song Drives Away the Wolves, is a beautifully representative collection of this magic art. Over the years, Popol Vuh has remained on the periphery of some of the most influential movements in popular music. They pre-dated and anticipated ‘new age’ and worldbeat, but never fit any of these classifications. The non-linear path of these Florian Fricke’s career has seen him collaborate with innovative musicians such as Daniel Fichelscher, Renate Knaup and Al Gromer Khan. While these talented people have had an effect on the group’s sound, the choice of styles and instruments has always been Fricke ‘s. These have ranged from the pure synthesizermusic of the first two albums to the almost clasical piano and vocal combinations of some of the later work. Director Werner Herzog approached Fricke to do the soundtrack for the movie Aguirre, the Wrath of God. The music was so different from anything previously heard in the cinema that it became to the attention of a much wider audience. It also had a profound effect on Herzog, who commissioned from Fricke soundtrack work for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, Heart of Glass, Nosferatu, Fitzcaraldo and Cobra Verde. A philosopher, writer and movie director as well as musician, Fricke has consistently sought in his music a timelessness and spirituality that reflects his pilgrimages to the world’s sacred places. He feels that music has the ability to change things, to call back the soul. ‘Popol Vuh’ comes from the sacred book of the Maya, written about 1555. This common book of the Quiche Indians contains the cosmological ideas, ancient traditions and history on the origins of this ancient people. This metaphysical awareness is what Popol Vuh’s music is all about.

i/e: I am interested to know why you decided to choose Popol Vuh as the name for the group.

Florian Fricke: Back when I started in 1970, it was customary to do music with a group of people, as well as to give the group a name. At the time, The Popol Vuh played a big role in my life. I had delved very deeply into the book, and used it to find the ‘mystery keys’ to other old texts. In a way, I could read sacred books with new interpretations.

i/e: And does the name have a connection with your music?

Florian Fricke: Yes, in a way. No one really knows what Popol Vuh actually means. It translates as ‘The Book of Counsel’. But because Vuh also means something like ‘sun’, you could translate it as ‘a gathering under the sign of the sun’. That would be another way to define it, and that should reveal a few things.

i/e: How did you begin with music? How did your music career build up to Popol Vuh?

Florian Fricke: That’s a long road. Music doesn’t just suddenly start after having graduated and after wondering what one should study next, but rather when one has a strong inner feeling and inclination towards it. And with musicians, that usually comes at a very early age. With me, these inclinations, and also the certainty that I would want to spend my life doing music, began when I was 11. Only after I finished my schooling did I know exactly what I wantedto do in music. That’s when I started to do what I had already done often early on: compose, with emphasis on pieces I wanted to release. That was a long road - from when I was 11 to when I was 26, when my first LP came out.

i/e: At first you used mainly electronic instruments, but then a move was made to acoustic instruments.

Florian Fricke: Yes, back then we were the first group in the world to use the first great Moog synthesizer (now legendary) to make a new form of music. Before it was used more for electronic imitations, like Walter Carlos did in America. And we did, in a way, make a new form of music. The two Lps, Affenstunde (1970) and In den Garten Pharaos (1972) created quite a whirlwind, but then this path became a little eerie for me.

i/e: That being the reason for chanigng instruments?

Florian Fricke: Yes, that’s when I realized that I’d problably be happier if I lived my life with music that had acoustic instruments.

i/e: How is it today? Would you say that there’s an ideal combination of electronic and acoustic instruments?

Florian Fricke: Yes, due to the sampling technology. Where it is possible to store nautral sounds working with electronics in the studio is now possible, before it wasn’t. But that has really nothing to do with whether or not I value the ‘electronic’sound. I actually don’t, because it is foreign to all spiritual vibrations. It is like a person without a shadow.

i/e: How does a Popol Vuh album come together? Is every piece composed note for mote, or is there also a lot of experimentation going on?

Florian Fricke: The exact way is the imagination first: it starts with the visions of what would be the answer to time. Andthe music builds itself. In the past it started withy the instrument itself, but nowadays it comes from an inner, melodic sense.

i/e: How does your music come about? Do you compose on a piano?

Florian Fricke: It varies. For years no, then yes, then no agian. I am, thank God, independent of an instrument while composing. I can compose when I’m in the garden, planting tulp bulbs, while walking around or when I sit in a pub. It’s dificult to say where you pick up your melodies, hard to say. I don’t consciously take a theme in the sense that I’m coping other records, not in any way. But on the other hand, how do you get this or that musical phrase? Hard to say. Why is there such a thing as Anglo-Saxon pop music? How is that possible when everyone plays the same, basically?

i/e: How do you select your musicians? It seems that the group does vary from album to album.

Florian Fricke: Well, there is the ‘main core’, consisting of myself, Fichelscher, the second most important figure in the group, and Renate Knaup. These three are the main components of our group. Every now and then we have other musicians.

i/e: Does this depend on the instrumentation?

Florian Fricke: Not the core of the group, for they are people who have been touched by the spirit of this music. The instrumentation, of course, changes and that’s why other musicians are added. Sometimes it’s a choir, or a sitar player and others.

i/e: Could you tell us a little more about your last album, how it came about and what’s behind it?

Florian Fricke: Sing, for Song Drives Away the Wolves is a remix of two Lps Heart of Glass, and Eins-Jaeger, Siebenjaeger. In the past on numerous occasions record companies have put together their own compilations of Popol Vuh music and I was not asked. A little ove a year ago, I had the idea of doing a remix of pieces that would be reworked to include percussion, bass and various other instruments, so that the essence, a very important part of the Popol Vuh music, could be expressed the way I interpret it; and with that I mean the inner fire that exists in this music.

i/e: When listening more closely, it seems that several pieces appear on various albums over and over again. Are these pieces significant?

Florian Fricke: Yes, some of them have a very strong significance in my life, but I’ll just say that when I feel a piece hadn’t been produced the way it was originally meant to be, then I allow myself the liberty of picking it up again three years later and making another version of it.

i/e: You have used the same song in several albums, though. For instance, on the albums Einsjaeger, Siebenjaeger (1975), Last Days, Last Nights (1976), Nosferatu (1978), Agape, Agape (1983) and now the latest album , the same song appears with different titles. Is there a reason for doing this?

Florian Fricke: May I say the following to that: I don’t make music for collectors; I make music for the people. When I release a piece that I love very much, be it in Germany, in Italy, or in France, and the record company then changes or no longer extists, I see it as my right to use the piece and go to an American company, where none of it has been heard. I take advantage of the vagaries of the industry. And why always ‘Little Warrior’? That’s the signature piece of the guitar player. If you think back to the early opo concerts, every group had a signature piece. If one wanted to announce a pause, this piece would be played. With us, it’s the guitar player, Daniel Fichelscher, who does that. And his piece is ‘Little Warrior’.

i/e: You have worked with various record companies over the years. How come? Doesn’t a group usually stay with the same company?

Florian Fricke: Yes, that would be a dream come true for any group. However, what do you do if your radio station suddenly goes belly up, or flies to the Bahamas the next day, does a tax evasion, and never comes back? Then this company no longer exists. And I’ve outlived significantly more record companies than vice versa. I’m happy now that I’ve been able to work consistently with Milan Records for five years. But before, there were various companies, including United Artists, that were suddenly gone, liquidated, or just non-existent. And what can you do? The tax department confiscated some of the originals, and for that I had to get a lawyer. It’s kind of like the first steamboats; your Lps go under and then end up as wreckage somewhere on some shore, and if you love them, you try to get them any way you can.

i/e: How do you find titles for your pieces? Are they out or the Bible or some type of religion?

Florian Fricke: Yes, in the past, some of the titles were. But otherwise, I don’t know. It’s inspiration. It’s like when someone has achieved something it’s inside them, just as a pregnant woman doesn’t constantly check to see if the child’s coming. At the right time, a title will fall into place. Maybe years later, you’ll find it to be extremely unfitting, but still, that ‘s how it works.

i/e: You’ve remastered your Lps and Cds now. Did that go smoothly or did you come across any technical difficulties?

Florian Fricke: It actually went really well. It was definitely time that the old tapes got digitally dubbed, because tapes don’t hold their sound all that long, and they were over 20 years old.

i/e: In your music one can hear many foreign styles. It is also very remarkable how the music has unfolded spiritually over the years. Are there any traditions, cultures, ofartists, that have been of particular influence?

Florian Fricke: Without question. The encountering of other cultures happened simply during my travels. And travelling itself is also very important in my life. I’d say I value the musicof different cultures, but not necessarily the religious and political thinking of their nations. I love Arabic music above all and I love the simple, honest, humane music of people from cultures that live with the basics - day by day, under God’s sky. For example, people who live in mountains anywhere always have a very good, sincere, honest type of music that’s based on the number four. It contains endless numerical mysteries. I see a great goal in communication between one another and the idea of how to be human in our materialistic world, with just the basics. How can one live one’s life in the simplest way? That’s what I learn from people who live in the mountains of Africa of Nepal and perhaps that’s the reason for me trying to get a new, very dangerous world to face the simplicity of a very ancient one, to show how a person could live on this earth.

i/e: Would you say that your music has something identifiably German about it?

Florian Fricke: Big topic. We would first need to define what’s German. The problem is this: when you speak of German ‘folk’music, historically it plays a very minor role. Why? Because individual ‘art-music’developped in Germany very early and peaked with Richard Wagner and others. Thus we’re fairly different from other Saxon countries, in that we don’t have the influential strength of folk music on other forms. Instead, we have classical music in its higfhtest complexity. And I am certainly influenced by classical music. But wheter you call it German or not is up to you.

i/e: Is there a particular author or composer who has influenced you?

Florian Fricke: Yes, Gustav Mahler. I’ve loved him since childhood. Not everything, but some things in particular. And Mozart.

i/e: How did you get to know Werner Herzog?

Florian Fricke: I met him very early on in my youth, and our collaboration began with the movie Aguirre, The Wrath of God. He was looking for music in Italy, something appropriate by Ennio Morricone. Apparently the music didn’t fit too well, and he was quite frustrated. Then someone said to him, “You’ll have to ask Florian Fricke of Popol Vuh.“ He called, I watched the movie, made the music, and since then wehave worked together.

i/e: Which film for you is the best, where the film and the music worked the closest?

Florian Fricke: Fitzcaraldo. It’s special, more than Nosferatu, Cobra Verde or the others.

i/e: What kind of experiences have you had with Popol Vuh that might be considered highlights in your career?

Florian Fricke: Well, if you ask me like that, I’d only like to say that there have been personal high points with the group for everyone involved. This was the case with Hosianna Mantra and Agape, Agape. Of course, there have been things during my music carer which have made me very happy, but it is not so much the exterior things that are as exciting as when musicians can play together, no matter what style. And that’s the most important thing in the life of a musician.

i/e: What other interests do you have, other than Popol Vuh and music?

Florian Fricke: Greek philosophy, ancient texts and learning to understand what humankind is. Those are my hobbies.

i/e: Do you listen to any other groups?

Florian Fricke: No, none at all?

i/e: Could you tell me what you do between albums, other than compose new pieces?

Florian Fricke: Writing, planning films, homework, anything. One tries to maintain the level of creativity by changing one’s work. If you always do the same work, then at some point you’ll fatigue and collapse. When you go into a studio, this level remains relatively high, and you can maintain it more or less by changing your work. I love writing, and I love to think and imagine.

i/e: Do you favor any religion in particular?

Florian Fricke: Not really. I love philosophy because it allows free, provocative thinking and I don’t like religions in general because they do not allow this free thinking, with the exception of Buddhism. But I’m not a Buddhist.

i/e: Are you familiar with the works of Kahlil Gibran?

Florian Fricke: Ah, the Lebanese poet. Yes, he’s a good man.

i/e: Could there be an affinity between his texts and your music?

Florian Fricke: That is quite possible. I don’t remember now, I’ve done so much. I once did something based on Arabic texts: “Behold, the drover summons: why do I sleep?”
It was inspired by Rumi, the Persian poet, (13th century). Back then, Gibran really fascinated me.

i/e: On the album For You and Me, you have “OM Mani Padme Hum”. Can you tell me if this is a mantra, or an inspiration?

Florian Fricke: That’s one of the main phrases that crosses Asian people’s lips if’ they’re Buddhists. No matter what they do, whether they light a fire or put it out, they’ll say “OM Mani Padme Hum”. It’s a mantra, a prayer, used at everyday gestures, when one enters a room, or when one walks by a beautiful mountain. By the way, this is the most famous mantra of Asia. It’s almost like the ‘Kyrie Eleison’of the west.

i/e: Do you have your own philosophy about life and music?

Florian Fricke: I would hope so. If it reallt does take a lot to become one’s own person, then I hope that what I believe in matches identically with what I am. I hope the older I get, the more of my own thoughts I’ll have, and the less I’ll be manipulated, like one is, while growing up. The power to discern and to become free.

i/e: We see very little of you when it comes to live performances. Does it just seem that way, of is there a reason?

Florian Fricke: No, that’s quite right. Our last live coneert was four years ago. But that doesn’t mean that we might not suddenly play live again. The reason for not playing has to do with the life of the people that make up sich a group.

i/e: How does the future of Popol Vuh look? Can we look forward to a few more Cds?

Florian Fricke: Yes, we’re currently working on a new CD, and the production of a video with music based on pieces from the last few years. The film takes place in Greece, Asia and similar places. It’s about the confrontation of a very ancient world with a very modern one. We hope that this modern world will recognize itself in the mirror image of the ancient world. The current working title is Leuchtende Gärten (“Glowing Gardens”). I’m directing it with Frank Fiedler, a filmmaker who’s been a member of Popol Vuh for many. It’ll be about fifty minutes long.

i/e: You don’t do interviews often, do you?

Florian Fricke: Not for years, but more and more during the last year. Everything has its right moment. Now it’s important to address the people.

Special thanks for their assistance go to Peter Suciu from Milan Entertainment in New York, Burkhard Prael for interpreting and translation, and Brain Lunger