Septuagenarians definitely have more fun. Just ask Dieter Meier, one half of perennial electronic duo Yello, who – believe it or not – are back with album number 13, Toy. The Swiss duo, who rose to prominence with their 1985 single Oh Yeah and the 1988 Top 10 hit The Race, have been making albums since the ’70s. To judge by Meier’s enthusiasm and the new album’s lead single Limbo, will continue to do so for some time yet.
Even down a phone line, Meier cuts a cheery figure. “It’s a lovely late summer day here, with sunshine and clouds,” he announces, bringing us into the room with him. He immediately reveals that he and Yello partner Boris Blank have been planning their new album for some time. “Well we are recording all the time, and Boris literally lives in the studio. People think we take a huge break between albums, but that is not true. For Boris the studio is his Toy – hence the album title – and that is when he digs out the child within himself. His working material is unusual, and the best analogy I can use is that he is like a painter, with one hundred canvases, and he works on these pieces with an unusual process. He does it not by composing notes but by mixing the colours of the piece. He gets the character first to lead to the song.”
It is soon apparent this won’t be an ordinary interview. Meier has a view of Yello’s music and of life in general as a series of artistic works, and he talks about each with great enthusiasm, revealing almost at once the reason for his young at heart demeanour. If Boris begins with the sound painting then, does that mean the lyrics are at the end? “Absolutely, yes. When the music is finished I am allowed to go to the studio, and I become enchanted by his pieces. For me it’s like music in a film that does not exist. I see sounds, words and emotions, and then I create characters and get busy with a singing melody.”
Meier’s characters are distinctive. “That’s because I let myself fall into the sounds and invent characters who were not in my mind until I heard the music.” And how do Yello, after nearly 40 years of songwriting together, keep the music fresh? “The secret is that Boris lets himself be driven by every single brushstroke, and he cannot predict what’s coming next. He thinks after 500 brushstrokes that he is working on a flower or a rose… but there might be a camel there in the scene too, and he might end up with a donkey! You’ll have gathered this is a process that leads to the unexpected.”
Humour is an important aspect, too – and keeps the two in check. As Meier says, “When we become bombastic there is a mouse that comes into the studio and gets us back to the right level.”
Yet the two will shortly be doing something for the very first time – playing live together. The first four gigs the band has ever done will take place at Berlin’s Kraftwerk venue, at the end of October. Having seen Meier charm an audience at the Jazz Café in London a few years back, in support of his solo album Out Of Chaos, it is a natural assumption that he was enjoying it and that playing live is a real thrill. The reality, however, is a little different.
“I was a little more eager at the beginning of the Toy announcement, because Out Of Chaos has existed for five years. I was quite nervous to start with, but you lose your fear and have the pleasure of the dialogue with the audience. You give something to people and they hopefully enjoy it. I felt the audience carried me on a wave of pleasure, and the concerts were easier because of that. I’m not a natural performer. I get used to it of course, and by the time you saw me I had 30 concerts behind me and was not afraid. It was like walking into a welcoming place with your friends.”
Meier reveals that Yello will in time extend their tour beyond Berlin and Germany, including the UK. “I think so, we have some international bookings. I think 50 concerts would be too much, but I think we will be doing around 10 to 15 concerts. We will absolutely visit the UK. The UK has always been our preferred territory! With Frank Sinatra it was New York, New York, and if you can do it there then you can do it anywhere. We had this success in Great Britain so we would love to play there. One thing I can tell you is that it will not be a normal concert hall. Our gig at the Kraftwerk hall is at a building that is like a Deutsche version of Blade Runner, and it accommodates 3,000 or so people. We like to use a whole room with projections, and we would do about three numbers which are hits, five or six from the new album, and five from over time that nobody has heard.”
The new album Toy illustrates the flexibility of Yello’s sound, for it brings in a number of guest vocalists, including Malia and Fifi Rong. “Boris always works with the singer, and for our live concerts we will have four, along with 12-14 guest musicians on stage. Boris loves to have other people enjoying his sound base, moving into it and finding themselves in the process.”
The live concerts feel like something of a miracle given Meier’s revelation that “Boris never wanted to play live. He would have felt that a painter does not belong on the stage, and that he should be alone in the studio for five days a week. Yet because he invented the Yellofier app, a pocket studio where he creates live music from anything, he realised we could do things with it live. It will be a real live concert with the fundament of his sound.”
Yello may be Meier’s main discipline, but he has a lot of other irons in the fire. His Puro wine from Argentina is “a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot”. He has a chocolate factory, built for the extraction of the cocoa bean. How then does he prioritise his creative ventures? “I’m working with a lot of people, and all the things I do besides writing are with people. Only in writing am I travelling alone, where I am trying to finally finish a novel. With chocolate I work with a German engineer, in Argentina I have knowledgeable people that manage the wine. I have been very lucky to find people who do what I want them to do and these people have become my friends.”
He warms to his theme. “Even this is just the tip of the iceberg though. It is not very time consuming, and so I have time to concentrate on my artistic ventures. I have an exhibition in Berlin, which dates from 1974 when I impersonated 40 different characters. I scripted them and took a picture of myself, and now I have acted them out myself. They are in effect an extension of a Yello song, and could be characters in a novel.”
There’s more. “I live and I have to write, this is the biggest challenge. The written mirror can be the most brutal. With music and painting the criteria are more diffuse, and you are not confronted with limits. With conceptual art I have a lot of exhibitions, as documented. I also have a big passion with movies, with my last one I had more bad luck but I am releasing two in the next two years.”
Yet in amongst all this, music remains Meier’s foremost art, and the duo collaborated with Jean-Michel Jarre on the track Why This, Why That And Why, from the French electronica figurehead’s recent album Electronica 2: The Heart Of Noise. “It is one of the big joys of my life. Boris always surprises me, because he is full of humour and craziness. I cannot imagine I would ever stop this. It is not an option for us to create music; it is like taking breaths for me, like being in an oxygen tent. Since we were little boys there is not a question of ever stopping what we do. We enter a new area of new territories, we are climbing new mountains, and this is what keeps you awake. You cannot look back at the footsteps of the past, you have to look at the new terrain and make sure you don’t fail.”
Yello’s new album Toy is out now through Universal. They play Berlin’s Kraftwerk on 26, 27, 29 and 30 October 2016. Further information can be found here.