Interview with Jan Reetze (Music Journalism Insider Newsletter)

by Todd L. Burns, 16 November 2020
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Jan Reetze is author of the new book, Times & Sounds. It’s all about Krautrock, a subject that Jan is intimately familiar with. He grew up in Germany, and has been writing professionally since 1987. Times & Sounds, however, is his first book in English, and is specifically geared to Krautrock fans outside of Germany.

How did you get to where you are today, professionally? 

Originally I’m from Hamburg, Germany. In the 1970s, I completed a sound engineering traineeship and was co-founder of a light show group. Later I studied Sociology, with Political Science, Journalism, Systematic Musicology and Social and Economic History as subsidiary subjects, ending up in 1992 with a doctorate from University of Hamburg for “The Reality of Media”. It was about the interdependencies between digital technologies, media, and music and the beginnings of artificial intelligence: What does “reality” mean in this upcoming digital age, and what is the influence of arts on how we will experience it?

I’ve been writing professionally since 1987, my first book was about the changes in music production after the appearance of synthesizers, sound samplers and computers. I have also written radio features and documentaries for NDR Radio and Deutschlandfunk, mainly about music, art topics, media history and media research. And yes, some screenplays for crime series and a court show, and for a while I wrote storylines for a daily soap.

Besides this, I jobbed as a project manager at a polling institute, I was a collaborator on a research project at the Institute for Sociology at University of Hamburg, I was a freelance collaborator at music publishing house Erdenklang Music, I did media work for some independent record labels in the Electronic and Gothic scene. In 2004 I started a music publishing house myself with a partner, Sternklang Music. We produced and distributed music and audio books.

I’ve been a fan of Kraftwerk since their first album. In the mid-1990s, when the internet was still a relatively new thing, there was a mailing list about this band (if somebody remembers what a mailing list was). There was one thread that brought me into a discussion with a woman. She happened to live in Pittsburgh, and to make a long story short: Since 2008 we are happily married to each other. Of course we had to decide whether she would move to Hamburg or I would move to Pittsburgh. The decision was made, and—well, here I am. And now, Times & Sounds is out. It’s my first book in the English language, written especially for Krautrock fans outside of Germany.

Can you please briefly describe the book?

Times & Sounds is a ride through the depths of Germany’s modern musical roots. At the beginning of the 1970s, experimental and progressive music in Germany developed far from the mainstream. Although few initially noticed it, it is now internationally celebrated as a cult phenomenon called “Krautrock.” Today, bands like Kraftwerk, Can, Amon Düül II, NEU!, Cluster, Tangerine Dream and some more are considered pioneers of groundbreaking sound experiments. But Krautrock didn’t fall from the sky. It developed out of something before, and it became the impulse for music that followed when the Krautrock wave was over. 

In order to understand the Krautrock era and its impact, I thought it might be interesting for readers to delve deeper into the history of German rock music. You get the story of the mechanisms of post-war Germany’s music industry and the diverse musical styles we had and their mutual influences and connections. 

All this is combined in a sort of cross cutting with the political and sociological key events of the respective decades—the economic miracle, Sixty-Eight, student riots, New German Film, Baader-Meinhof, the hippie movement, the alternative scene, the movement against nuclear power—all this stuff the Germans went through between the 1950s and the early 1990s.. You will read about German early Jazz and Swing orchestras, schlager, the first rock’n’roll bands around Hamburg’s Star-Club, agitprop and left-wing protest songs, the avant-garde compositions of Stockhausen and his presumed disciples of Krautrock, the electronic bands, and finally the Neue Deutsche Welle. All this stuff is interconnected, and the musicians needed to be fit in several genres to survive. Times & Sounds is what the title says: a journalistic diary tracing Germany’s dynamic culture from the late 40s to the early 90s.

How did you come to this subject for a book? What made the topic so interesting to you?

I lived in Hamburg, and as this is Germany’s second-biggest city, all the bands played there. Between the 1970s and the 1990s I heard nearly all of the bands that go under “Krautrock” today, live and from records. I discovered Can and Kraftwerk when I was 14, and I fell in love with their music. Music was always something I loved, especially electronic music, but there were also interesting things going on in jazz and avant-garde, and I was endlessly curious. Later at university I was even able to make this part of my studies.

Tell me a bit about the process of securing the book deal.

This was indeed not easy. My first book came into existence by pure chance, but it opened the door to NDR radio, and so I slid into the writing business. Times & Sounds is my first book in the U.S. I wanted to do it in English and tried to find an agent or a publisher. But I learned very quickly that nobody here is interested in what I did in Germany, and they didn’t trust in the topic. 

In the end I was already thinking about self-publishing, but then something unforeseeable happened: You might have seen that I have a blog, mainly about music and media. One of the most-clicked posts there is an article about the adventurous story of the German music producers Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser and Gille Lettmann aka Sternenmädchen. It’s based on a manuscript from the mid-1990s which was commissioned by a radio station, but has never been produced, so it slept in the drawer for a long time, and finally I decided to put it on my blog. Another thing I did is a website about the British music producer Joe Meek. I did a lot of research about his tragic story, intending to make this a screenplay. But no film producer was interested in this story, so I finally put the stuff online, just for fun.

One day last year, I got an email. A certain Thorsten of Bremen got into touch with me. He had the idea to start a book publishing house, and as he had seen my online stories, he asked me whether I would be willing and able to write something for him. And I said: If you could imagine it in English, then I might have something for you. And so it happened! Times & Sounds is the first release of Thorsten’s newly-founded Halvmall Verlag—which, by the way, is Low German and means something like “half-crazy”. That’s probably what you have to be when you plan on starting a publishing house in these times. I’m completely happy with the result. It would have been impossible for me to do the book myself that professionally.

What did the research process look like?

I heard all these bands when they were around, live as well as on records. I have a very good library and a good archive. That’s the main point. And what I didn’t know, I simply asked. Most musicians are open for questions as long as they have the feeling you take them seriously. And I do that. 

Besides this, as you might guess from the things I did in my life, I have a good knowledge of the music and record business, as well as of recording and music production. In fact, I played synthesizers and keyboards myself during the 1980s. Not professionally, but in the 1980s, synthesizers became affordable, even for a student. I also have some basic knowledge about playing guitar, bass and drums, but my favorite instrument is still the vibraphone. 

And on the other hand, I’m in the States for nearly 13 years now, that’s why I’m able to see the story of German rock also from this side of the Atlantic. Of course I follow several forums on social media. So I know what people know about German rock, I have an idea what they don’t know and where the state of information is weak.

How did you go about writing the actual book?

First thing I did was to update the mentioned Rolf-Ulrich Kaiser story, which, in a way, is the core chapter. Then I started writing about the kind of music I heard when I was little, and the atmosphere and zeitgeist of Germany at that time. Based on these two storylines, the whole book grew somehow out of itself along them. I just had to follow. And of course, when you write a book, a screenplay or a radio script, you have to go through it again and again, rewrite it, rearrange it, follow the recommendations you get from the editor and proofreader, correct things. It’s just work. No shortcut available.

What are a few tracks / videos / films / books we should also look at, in addition to your book, to get a better sense of the topic?

There’s a lot of stuff about Krautrock available on YouTube, music as well as documentary material. But especially the latter is something to watch with a critical mindset. There’s a lot of nonsense circulating on the web. And don’t forget how long ago this Krautrock era is—40, 50 years. Sometimes you can get the impression of watching a veteran’s club meeting. 

What’s one tip that you’d give someone looking to write a music book right now?

As a German news anchor once said: Be curious, be a good observer, be open, but keep distance. Be present, but don’t belong to it. And one thing I would like to add: Don’t forget to double-check the spelling of names.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know yet, but I’m sure something will come up. I always had the feeling that things come to me when I expect it the least.