BY David Grubbs in Features | 02 SEP 16
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Issue 25

Kai Althoff Dossier: David Grubbs

David Grubbs on Kai Althoff's recorded music, in the new issue of frieze d/e out now

BY David Grubbs in Features | 02 SEP 16

The public aspect of Kai Althoff’s musical activity dates back to 1990, when the Cologne-based independent label Finlayson Tonträger released the band Workshop’s self-titled debut album. From its cover design, the album title could either be Althoff’s band’s name or the slightly more wordy, ‘People take action to receive certain results, like the Workshop now deliberately giving in to a momentary urge to make music’. Whether alternative title or helpful description, the text rings true: Althoff’s music bespeaks an urge that must be indulged. The conviction and often thrillingly eccentric intensity of Althoff’s performances suggest that even his prodigiously varied  output as a visual artist cannot suffice, and that certain impulses can only be met by making music.

Making music, in the case of Workshop, is a recognizable mode of social and public activity; collaboration oriented toward writing, recording, producing and designing albums for commercial release. It also involves the shaping of a pop group’s persona and mythos, and thus their deliberate insertion into history. Apart from temporary members, Workshop’s nucleus has primarily comprised Althoff and his childhood friend Stephan Abry. Photos exist that show the two of them as adolescents on holiday making music, seated on a picnic blanket and serenading an adult, with Althoff on an improvised array of percussion and Abry on nylon-string acoustic guitar, an instrument that commonly serves as a starter’s model and that tellingly persists as a through-line among Workshop’s recordings.

Stephan Abry and Kai Althoff performing a concert in a meadow, 1980. Photograph: Dieter Althoff

As evocative as those images are of  the not yet fully grown Althoff and Abry, the public record begins later with Luke’s Boutique, the first track on the 1990 Workshop album. A distorted electric guitar processed with a wah-wah pedal rocks back and forth in a two-chord phrase while precise arpeggios from a nylon-string guitar provide a more subliminal texture; the drum kit and overdubbed hand percussion syncopate and maintain the looping suspension of forward momentum. The  comparative discipline of the instrumentals suggest that the music’s first loyalty is to the voice, and Althoff’s voice claims the mantle  of the most fluid, lyrical, mercurial element  in the ensemble. His singing veers between proximity-effect bass-heavy cooing, clicks and other wordless interjections, husky-voiced crooning, rapidly delivered wordy thickets and mellifluous, soulful falsetto responses. Various plosive pops are left untouched: the uninterrupted, unedited performance elevated within the constructed representation that is the sound recording. The album is Workshop’s medium, even as it is made to stress the group’s essential ‘liveness’. Althoff’s multiplication of self – he almost always does voices, a giddy, inspired range of them continually bubbling up – defaults to a hyperactive razzle-dazzle: everything that might be required  of a band’s front person short of tap dancing. Workshop’s commitment to groove and Althoff’s vocal dexterity and his swerves into abstraction invite comparison with their Cologne musical forebears Can and the group’s onetime vocalist Damo Suzuki. Even within the context of the LP both Can and Workshop have reveled in their taking time to let ideas and gestures unfold, on occasion using  the full measure of the side of an LP for a single track.

Perhaps you are reading this because  of an interest in Althoff’s visual art, and by extension his music. This invites the question: how might one best access the music? Where do you start, and in which direction do you  go once you find your feet in this often deliberately confusing world? I would argue that the best way to approach these multiple modes of artistic output is as a single, broadly variegated repertoire of activities. To begin with, Althoff’s musical activity and his recorded music are increasingly one and the same – despite lengthening intervals, there has been a consistent series of album releases for a quarter century with live performances few and far between. Much like Althoff’s visual art activity, his music appears above all as a studio practice, and one largely vectored through the forms of the album and the music video. Althoff’s recorded music comes in large part from the culture of the record store, and to this day the company that releases his music, Sonig, is the in-house label of the long-running and highly regarded Cologne record store A-Musik. You might have encoun-tered Althoff’s music in listening stations in art exhibitions, but it would be a mistake to lose sight of the album.  

Althoff has released numerous full-length albums as a member of Workshop, but also through an oblique trail of collaborations and pseudonymous groups (including Fanal, Ashley’s, Engelhardt/Seef/Davis Coop., and A Subtle Tease, not to mention under his given name) and even fictionalized groups referenced in Workshop’s liner notes (the Gay Gordons, the Ginger Group). Chronologically, one can take in Althoff’s music with each release in a sequence serving as a dispatch or as an entry in a serial drama with the implicit understanding that a given record makes more sense, is a richer, more rewarding experience if you also know the previous  dispatch, itself informed by the one before. It can seem that listeners fall into two camps: those drawn ever closer by the difficulty of understanding the chronology, shifts in group membership and sound across recordings, and those for whom such difficulties amount to a kind of firewall or fatal disconnect.  

Stephan Abry and Kai Althoff performing a concert in a meadow, 1980. Photograph: Dieter Althoff

To this, add the temptation in a wired, digital age to grasp whatever’s closest to hand. Where will you even find these marvelous, storied LPs by Workshop or Fanal, Althoff’s solo venture that recently issued its fourth album? For people who care deeply about  the culture of the record store, 2016 has been marked by the disappearance of New York City’s Other Music and San Francisco’s Aquarius Records: ongoing damage through gentrification. Althoff’s approach to releasing his music shows no signs of abandoning the LP or the music video – the 35- or 40-minute audio statement and its three- or four-minute audiovisual distillation – and no acknowledgement of a culture that trumpets the obsolescence of the album. The album may seem an anachronistic form, but it can also be received as one among countless anachronisms in art. 

The route of nearly zero resistance to receiving Althoff’s music – perhaps during a break while reading this essay, or immediately after – is via YouTube, where Workshop and Fanal videos give track-length, small-screen (and, curse your pathetic computer speakers) contact: weird demi-afterlives of larger works that seem created for start-to-finish listens, for ownership, for taking up space in your home, for taking up residence in your record collection. The videos are likely points of entry not only for ease of access – perhaps you can mail-order a Fanal or Workshop album or two after reading this essay, although who knows where your mind will be on the  day that they arrive. But they are also a means of seeing how the group is presented visually, and also as a way of bringing Althoff’s  musical activity into contact with figuration  in his painting, drawing, filmmaking, and  performance. For 1995’s Talent, a largely sample-based album with generous helpings of manic, sped-up found vocal hooks and a real outlier even within Workshop’s broad musical territory, the video for 'I Wish I Had You' focuses on a single individual in lieu of picturing the group. The camera alternates between closeups of her nearly-still mask of a face as her unblinking eyes – dark circles in a crucial supporting role – scan a busy shopping district in Cologne, and wider shots in which slowly executed contortions suggest a limbering up for the dance floor or simply the need for a body to pleasurably feel itself.  

The musical group as coterie or intimate gathering is the ostensible subject of videos for two songs from Workshop’s 2000 Meiguiweisheng Xiang. The videos take as their soundtracks edits of a fraction of the running time of Schlehe and Brück Mauspfad, songs that in their album versions run beyond 14 and 24 minutes respectively. Eight people in their 20s – six men and two women – hang out in the forest squatting or sitting in a circle, smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, sometimes making eye contact and sometimes staring into the distance, sometimes executing the most rudimentary movements of a line dance, sometimes looking perfectly at ease and glowing in the company of friends, and sometimes drifting into minor turbulences of boredom. 

David Grubbs is a musician and professor of music and founding member of Gastr del Sol.