Gudrun Gut: Forever Going Her Own Way
Understanding the singular vision of a German music legend
Gudrun Gut knows what she wants. After all, she’s spent a lifetime doing exactly that: what she wants – no compromises. Hers is a career that spans decades and she’s showing no sign of slowing down. In fact, at 63, the German musician, producer, DJ and label boss is more sure of herself than she has ever been, and her sights are set on the horizon.
I consider myself a good artist,” she says, her face breaking into a smile that tells me she is saying this without ego. Just stating the facts. She’s wearing sunglasses. A ray of pale sunlight streaks through the windows of her country house in Uckermark, Germany, and shines directly across her face, so that even inside, the sunglasses are necessary. There’s a long silence. She puffs on an e-cigarette as she continues to think about what I’ve asked her: would you consider yourself a radical artist? Maybe I’m trying to nudge her towards a narrative I’ve come up with in my head, but as our conversation continues, I realise it’s fruitless. She is in control, I’m just along for the ride. “I don’t want to be radical. I discover something which interests me, and I do it. I just want to be excited about things, and I hope that others get excited by them too.”
Her music spans as many sounds and styles as her excitement suggests, grounded by warm basslines, purring vocals (whether in German or in English) and hypnotic synths. It has featured her own drum and guitar compositions. It can sound raw and strong, à la Neu! or Mittagspause. It can be looping, groovy, like The Field, one of her favourite musicians. It can be melancholy and moody, or it can be dreamlike and wistful. Gudrun has been exploring ambient atmospheres lately, too. Her music contains multitudes, always a little bit unpredictable, and that’s how we’ve come to expect it: unexpected.
A favourite interview of Gudrun’s came out in The Wire in 2008. Journalist Philip Sherburne wrote that she had become a successful musician “largely by maintaining her independence. Not in the rejectionist strain, but rather by creating and attending to niches and spaces of possibility in the interstices and the margins.” And his words, over a decade old now, still hold true. Gudrun’s interest isn’t in standing out to stand out. She simply knows what she likes, and this assuredness often takes her down paths less followed.
Gudrun blames this on what she calls a punk attitude. Growing up in West Germany in the 1960s, she was the “shy girl” of her family and her friends group. Raised by her mother (her parents divorced) in a mostly female household – cousin, sister, aunt, grandmother, and brother – and surrounded by creativity, her interest in music made her blend in rather than stand out. Her grandmother was a pianist and her father was into jazz. “My mother was interested in fashion, too. She wanted to become a fashion designer, but then the war came and she had to do something else,” Gudrun explains, “but she stayed interested in clothing, she was always ordering from mail order catalogues and she would dress me and my sister up in these wild dresses with funny colours. People would see us on the street and say, ‘Ugh, them again!’” She laughs brightly at the at the memory.
“Growing up, I didn’t really know what to do with my life,” she continues. As a teenager, Gudrun worked at a mail order retailer for Virgin Germany, a distribution centre where she got to listen to the records that were sold, everything from Mike Oldfield to Delia Derbyshire’s White Noise group. Her interest in music piqued, she travelled to Berlin for the first time with a friend from Hannover to see what was out there. “West Germany was very organised, very clean, very square and silent. You didn’t discuss things openly; everything was still stuck in the after-war kind of depression era. Finally everything was working again and they were so happy with it so… Berlin was totally out of context from the rest of West Germany. It was like the lost city.”
It was here in Berlin that Gudrun started to find her way, inspired by the sights, sounds, and smells around her on her first visit to the city. “It was so loud, I remember you could smell the kebabs, you could hear all these people speaking in different languages,” she muses. “It was alive and open. I had the feeling like here is somewhere you can do what you want.” Gudrun once said that Berlin was a city that gave her the anarchist spirit that she needed for her freedom, but when I read this quote to her, she shrugs it off. “Actually, the simple reason that I moved here was that once in my hometown, I was at a disco and I thought to myself, ‘There are no boys in this town for me anymore. There’s nothing here for me,’” she almost cackles, “so I had to leave and go somewhere else to find fresh blood!” I laugh along with her, wondering if she’s joking.
Whatever the story she tells about her reason for moving here, she arrived to Berlin in the mid 1970s, studying communications at the Universität der Künste. Immersing herself in the city’s music scene, she discovered the punk movement – a subculture where she finally felt true belonging, unafraid to test boundaries, experiment with music, and come out of her shell. “I made a lot of friends at university and we were always talking about music,” Gudrun explains. “I kind of had a coming out in a sense, going from this shy girl to an artist. Back home, it was more about discussion. I was never so good with that. But here in Berlin, suddenly it was like, ‘Let’s do it!’ and that was very different. Punk for me meant you can do whatever you want. Just do it!” Her surroundings had, it seemed, finally caught up with her creativity.
I kind of had a coming out in a sense, going from this shy girl to an artist.
Gudrun’s ideas were unstoppable. Whatever she wanted to do, she tried it. She says this was instilled in her by her mother, who would always tell her, “Du machst das schon” whenever a young Gudrun would try something new or experiment. “You’ll be fine.” It’s a philosophy that has stayed with Gudrun all these years. “I think my mum always reassuring me that I’ll be fine really gave me confidence in what I do. You’ll be fine…” She pauses, takes another puff on her e-cigarette. “And I was!” One of Gudrun’s earliest endeavours was a clothing store called Eisengrau where she and her friend from university, Bettina Köster, would sell everything from zines to knitwear. “Me and Bettina were both of the same mind that we wanted to get things done. She is more the outgoing personality, and I’m more of a thinker, so it was a nice combination. A balance.” The shop doubled as a meeting place and shared space for her friends and other young people in the then-emerging electronic music community. A “scene” was beginning to form.
Gudrun was invited to join a new wave band called Mania D (she played the Korg MS-20 synthesizer and, later, the drums). They threw parties. She and Köster went on to form their own post-punk girl band called Malaria! with friends Christine Hahn, Susanne Kuhnke, and Manon P. Duursma. Mania D had been, as Gudrun tells it, “a bit too much for people”, and Malaria! carried on the tradition – Gudrun played mostly drums and a bit of guitar; their sound was honest, raw and powerful, especially when they played live. Their lyrics were in both German and English and touched on real-world issues such as capitalism, love, sex and humanity.
You’ve probably heard the term geniale Dilettanten, a term coined by the media to describe Gudrun and her musical contemporaries: ingenious dilettantes, artists who experimented, who worked between genres, who came from the underground. I read about the term and the 1981 music event that inspired it, Festival Genialer Dilletanten, at which Gudrun was a performing artist. That research was how my earlier “radical” narrative was born – but for Gudrun and her friends who played there, it was nothing more than a media buzzword. It might have been radical to do things differently, to “forget everything and start from scratch” as Gudrun puts it, but breaking those expectations was all that they knew. It became the norm for Malaria! Their music wasn’t punk, but it came from the same traditions, born from its spirit and infused with a feminist twist. Even today, years later, their music somehow sounds new.
“With all these bands, we were always independent. We never had a big record deal where we could spend €20,000 in the studio,” Gudrun explains. By the late 1980s, Malaria! was behind her and, true to form, she started up another band with Duursma and Bartel called Matador. To cut studio costs and avoid expensive rehearsal rooms, the band bought Atari computers. They experimented. The sounds that came out were part industrial, part new wave computer pop. “We were interested in catching a moment or an idea and making something out of it. We’d all go into this tiny room inside my apartment and we would program our stuff together with MIDI and Ataris, then we would add in our guitars and live instruments, vocals in the studio… That was much better, we had more control.”
Making the music she wants in the way she wants has long been a goal of Gudrun’s. Even in her earliest days, she knew how she wanted things to sound, and she would do anything to get them there. “I’m much easier now,” she laughs. “I’ve done so many albums and been involved in so many albums at this point, but I was much more insecure before. With Malaria! we were very strict on little things, on how things should be. I had a clear idea of how the drums should sound, for example, so that’s why I played them myself. Then when I started Matador, adding in the computer was great because it changed the sound but it also made us more happy with the production.”
By the time the Wall came down and the Berlin music scene was beginning to evolve, Gudrun had put out two albums with Matador. She was already ruminating on her next projects. Europe’s take on techno was brewing in Berlin and, as Gudrun tells it, the scene was becoming a bit stale. She was spending a lot of time at clubs like E-Werk, WMF and Tresor, where nights out were more and more DJ-oriented over live bands or music makers. Gudrun was frustrated. She had started a small independent label called Moabit Musik in the 80s to foster Matador’s projects and to rerelease Malaria! CDs and, in 1997, she had come up with arguably her most important idea. Monika Enterprise was established, a musical home that featured only female artists. “It started with a demo that I got from a band called Quarks, they wanted me to help them find a label. But at the time, all the indie labels were into hip hop, stage rock, that kind of thing. They were not interested in actually supporting the scene,” she says. “I founded my label Monika Enterprise when there was kind of a new scene coming up. Lots of new indie labels were forming, new magazines were coming out.
Maybe it took the years from the Wall coming down and reunification for the scene to stabilize, but it did.” Quarks’s 7” was the label’s first release, and Monika Enterprise has gone on to put out music by Manuela Krause, Barbara Morgenstern, Masha Qrella, Cobra Killer and, of course, Gudrun’s own efforts. “I am a woman in the music industry,” Gudrun explains of her choice to showcase female artists, “and it’s totally unfair that it’s ruled by men. I think if my father would have taken care of us, I might be different, but my mother took care of us and I’m very thankful for that. I appreciate the power of women, I’m proud of these female voices, and I want them to be equal. That’s all.”
Last year, inspired by the decree allowing women to drive in Saudi Arabia, Gudrun released ‘Baby I Can Drive My Car,’ a catchy, danceable single from her recent album Moment that features Gudrun’s own growling vocals. It’s a sort of anthem, a celebration of a move forward that other Western artists might not have cause to think about – but Gudrun does. “Freedom is a really big word. It is very, very important, especially when you go to a country where not everybody can do what they want. I spoke to a lot of women in Saudi Arabia, and they were very much looking forward to expanding, to not being held back anymore, not just in terms of women’s rights but also in art and music. Freedom, for me, is transcendence, to be what you want to be, and not everybody has the opportunity to do that so it’s important that we celebrate it when it happens.”
For me it’s really important to reach a state of mind where you really lose control, where you let go and just do your thing. That’s when the good things happen.
For Gudrun’s part, her music is her own version of transcendence. After years spent collaborating with other artists, she finally put out her first solo album in 2007, an iconic piece that treads the boundaries between dub, techno and experimental, featuring her own vocals and showing off her production skills. “I had actually started a solo album a few times but never finished it until then. My friends were pushing for it, and I saw people like Barbara Morgenstern doing it alone and thought more about doing that for myself,” she says, thinking back. The sun is just starting to set outside. She takes her sunglasses off. “I think you have to question yourself like that as an artist. It continued that way, all these questions with every track I made, and every move in the studio.” I ask if there comes a time when she just has to let it go. She laughs, as though she wishes it were that easy: “I’m a bit better now… A little easier. I’ve done so many records, and I’m more secure now because I know that in the end, no one really hears the difference if the mixing is this way or that way. You can’t be afraid to just let go because in the end it’s all a microcosm.”
While promoting Moment, Gudrun said in an interview that she has no fear to just jump in, experimenting with new sounds, new styles, and especially new instruments. “It’s not scary at all for me, it’s just really exciting,” she says, matter of factly. “For the last album, I bought myself an 0-COAST synthesizer from this little American company called Make Noise. I couldn’t wait to try it out, and I ended up doing it at a gig at Ableton’s Superbooth conference where all the artists I played with used instruments that were completely new to them. We did a live set, and it was so fun. The 0-COAST didn’t work immediately; it’s really hard to understand, and it took me a long time to get a good noise from it. But that’s all part of the fun of it.” The Superbooth event was part of a larger event series that Gudrun has been running for a few years called Monika Werkstatt, a sort of musical collaboration between female solo artists who come together for unrehearsed, unscripted live performances. It’s the kind of freedom that Gudrun loves, personified. It’s like the modern version of Eisengrau, a place for people to meet, exchange music and ideas, and be creative together. Gudrun calls it a futuristic extension of her label work.
A few Monika Werkstatt artists – Barbara Morgenstern, Colombian producer Lucrecia Dalt and Berliner Pilocka Krach – are meeting in Berlin to perform at the Silent Green Kulturquartier in Wedding. Gudrun is bringing her favourite synths, naturally. “For me it’s really important to reach a state of mind where you really lose control, where things just come out, where you let go and just do your thing,” she says when I ask her about the performance. She pauses, thinking. Finally, she smiles again: “That’s when the good things happen.”
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