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Zonk-Machine! - the unofficial Spacebox/Uli Trepte pages

Face Out article 1981

The following article by Chris Furse originally appeared in the UK fanzine "Face Out" (No. 8) March 1981.

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Checking out the Guru Guru family tree, from the band's inception to the Sun Band mutation, provides us with one or two facts:

1. There sure have been some changes. Although this chart reflects album line-ups in the main, and possibly misses out a few very temporary members, there have been some eleven reasonably stable versions featuring seventeen or so different musicians over the course of a dozen years.

2. Mani Neumeier has stayed the course with Guru Guru

3. Uli Trepte has not.

And there lies the rub, for while Neumeier has held the name (and the contracts) for this length of time, Trepte has found himself out in the cold, out of the spotlight and passing through a series of bands and abortive auditions until the realization of Spacebox.

It may also be a fact that Guru Guru have never retained the intensity of the Trepte days, with a recorded output apparently reflecting a long-term mellowing process, symptomatic of the cozily warm psychedelic after-glow washing over and through such bands as Kraan. Performance in lieu of confrontation.

I don't think that Uli is entirely clear, even now, as to exactly why he found himself out of Der Gurus. Certainly, it was Uli and Mani, spiraling away from the free jazz scene into improvised rock who provided the imputus, together playing with a series of guitarists until one Ax Genrich settled himself in. Of those early days (the days of UFO), Uli maintains that it was Guru Guru, of all the German bands around at the time, who were 'the most into it'. Is he talking about the music or the drugs?! A cynic may say that it would be hard to tell which was of the more important.

Of the music, Uli reckons that the best of Guru Guru never made it on to record.

"We were a live band. We were never comfortable in the studio. We had open-ended sets, spontaneous stuff - the studio wasn't the best gig."

Of the drugs, Uli has a few tales to tell, of certain bands allegedly indulging in a bit of dealing and occasionally fronting for dealers. However, that's by the by - Guru Guru along with the German bands of the time, were heavily into acid. A blindingly obvious fact - you only need to look at any number of record covers from this period. In the case of Guru Guru, he's talking about 1000 micrograms of acid each taken just before hitting the stage so as to peak on the first note, and of the audience of freaks all of whom were probably in the same state.

Crazy times indeed, until the bubble burst. Of his replacement on bass, Bruno Schaab, Uli has just a few dismissive words to say:

"Who can play someone else's lines and be happy?"

On Ax Genrich:

"Ah, this cat - he was so strong. There was so much potential, then he lost his nerve. Completely. He went on to some ordinary kind of band and...(shrugs)."

Two different ways of presenting your own surrender, perhaps. Meanwhile, as Guru Guru plunged onwards, Uli, still possessed of his intensity and an unwillingness to compromise, found himself at various times in Neu (for eight gigs - see F/O 6 for Michael Rother's opinion on this), hanging loose in the German Release organization (which spawned the Release Music Orchestra), and putting in some time with Faust, although only live. He has a few fascinating tales to tell about Faust - of internal mind games and subtle maneuverings in and around the band, set against the backdrop of a white hot unit going nova whilst in the throes of continual change. The idea of Faust was to storm the world, to be as 'big'as anyone could be in the rock circus, but without compromise, an unresolved paradox which resulted in the Big E from Virgin when Faust wanted to the ante to an unacceptable level. The disintegration and disappearance of Faust is still to this day shrouded in mystery, compounding the legend which a spate of rumours and idle speculation has so far failed to dispel (if ever a band needs demystifying, it's Faust).

Uli also had a six month stint in London (where he no doubt perfected his near-flawless grasp of English) playing a couple of gigs (one of which saw him gradually moving offstage to finish off his et in the street), earning some press from the Melody maker who described him as the 'ex-Faust radio operator', and failing an audition with Henry Cow before splitting back to Germany for a period of hard times.

It seems that his inability to compromise and his near-obsessive belief in his own music weren't conducive to group playing, where his role as band member would always revolve around his bass work and an almost inevitable pressuring process would well up - 'play this, play that'. He rates his last true 'group' experience as a period with a band called Kickbit Information.

Finding himself in Cologne, with his Guru Guru royalty cheques drying up, he put an ad in one of the papers. Enter a guy called Lotus, who was one of Der Guru's original true fans, whose utter devotion to his heroes was unquestionable - his home was thrown open to the band whenever they hit town. He was very young at the time - he's only in his mid-twenties even now. He became Spacebox's drummer.

Gigs were hard to come by. As well as a dearth of venues, Uli had to contend with the pub mentality which deemed that the band was hired to proffer entertainment to the beer swilling audiences - don't rock the boat, keep-em sweet and don't rub them the wrong way. The embryo Spacebox couldn't oblige, and the result was fairly predictable - a band playing to an audience they didn't want to play to, and an audience listening to something they didn't want to listen to anyway. Result; anything from heckling to indifference. Uli would respond to the hecklers in kind, until it dawned on him that this wasn't the right way:

"I realized that was what they wanted. They were disco crowds. I could look at them and see on or two Spacebox people in the audience and the others. I was rocking for the Spacebox people, and rocking against the others."

The money wasn't so hot either. Although Uli couldn't offer much else other than expenses, even this mounted up when one considers the price of petrol - one of the band came all the way from Munich to Cologne.

It's not at all surprising that under the circumstances a young man's fancy should turn to records, What with Uli's well known anti-business attitudes, and his desire for complete control, it came as no surprise to find that the Spacebox record would be an own-label effort. The Schneeball collective probably represents Uli's nearest point of contact with the 'Biz'in any way, shape or form, but nothing transpired between them. Money for the record was loaned to him by some good friends, and Spacebox set off for Can's Inner Space Studio for some sessions (Uli has a connection to Inner Space through Jaki Leibezeit, and acquaintance from the old free jazz days).

I gather that the actual recording didn't cause too many hassles. Uli was looking for a completely open approach, which he wanted to be reflected in the record - the idea that the music should be recorded as naturally as possible, with studio embellishments kept to the barest minimum. In his own words 'polyphonic not homophonic' all voices and instruments at the same level, without the problem of where to put the voices, should the drums be up-front and so on, the kind of 'bullshit' considerations that he maintains have been the ruination of rock music. It's not the case of back to basics, because this guy never left them.

The finished tapes went through a series of mixing experiments (Holger Czukay was responsible for the first unsuccessful attempt) until finally an acceptable version was deemed good enough for mastering. Off went the tapes, and back came the white labels...There had been balls up somewhere down the line, for the copies weren't sounding right. It took a considerable amount of time to rectify a breakdown in communications 'twixt Spacebox and the Swiss cutters causing much anguish to Uli all down the line until the day arrived when at last Spacebox was upon us, lying there in rows, one thousand copies all told and no plans for a re-press.

The record represents one man's response to his environment. Attitudes can change with changing circumstances, and even with fashion, but I suspect that Uli's haven'changed at all. Tome is not a factor to be considered when you have something to say as in his case, and time and the ageing process can be very crucial in shaping attitudes if you let them. If you could draw a line from then to now, measuring change through time, then Uli would be on it, with little, if any, signs of deviation.

If you are not prepared to play the game, and you're going to get yourself heard no matter how long it takes, then you're lost in commercial terms, not that Uli has any chance with the companies, and there's no indication that he's interested in them either.

So, where is the Spacebox audience? It's very doubtful that they can be defined, but there is an audience for Spacebox. The problem in reaching them is one of communications. How to get one thousands to the people who want the music. Distribution is the key, and it is only through a number of small outlets that the word is going to spread...

But first, let's consider the audience. Uli reckons that around ten percent of any given rock crowd are potential Spacebox persons. The rest are a lost cause, what Uli would describe as people "fucked up by their conditioning". The people that form the killing ground for the big recording companies, the consumers. Of the remaining ten percent, perhaps one in ten would find something to interest them in Spacebox, and can very well make up their own minds without too much prejudice. If any of these don't accept Spacebox, then that's fine by Uli, but the others - well, these are hopeless cases anyway. The audience much be larger than this, though, because there are also a great many people who fall outside of the above, people who don't take any notice of anyone, and there's untold thousands of these.

Back to the distribution. One of the biggest headaches for low-key operations like Spacebox is the whys and wherefores of distribution. Most distributors use their label directories to locate other companies, and you won't find a Spacebox entry in any of these. Couple this with Uli's lack of knowledge of the workings of the Industry, and you have a classic case of a record going unheard due to a lack of outlets. It's not so bad in Germany, but abroad is a different matter. For the US, it looks like Archie Patterson, for England Recommended Records are importing fifty copies. Also, in a non-profit making venture, your humble scribe has to declare an interest, because Face Out is importing 35 copies into England to give it's readers the chance to discover if they are Spacebox people or not. Just a matter of interest, I sent out a hundred letters to regular readers to test the water. There were ten replies, which tends to bear out Uli's "ten percent" idea. How do you determine if you might be a Spacebox person? Difficult to answer, but let's try for a few guidelines - firstly, as you may have gathered, the record lacks a certain amount of sophistication. If you are used to nicely produced, smooth sounding productions, forget it. If you like to stay close to the trends, don't bother. If you don't like anything to do with jazz-rock, ditto. The Spacebox record does demonstrate just how far recording techniques have developed in the last decade, by default. Just play Spacebox alongside virtually and other jazz-rock album released in that last couple of years. THE ULTIMATE FACTOR IS YOUR ATTITUDE.

To make it more difficult, the lyrics are sung in German, although there is an English translation enclosed on a wordsheet. If you want to check it out , send along 4.30p to the editorial address (UK readers only), and I'll send you a copy.

The end result is that probably only eighty-five or so records will ever be sold in England.

What a crying shame.