Re:Generation is a new column about yesterday’s heroines today, revisiting some of the women who have helped map out musical history but have since, for one reason or another, fallen into relative obscurity. Over the coming months, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to these influential figures as they make their way back into the public sphere. For our second piece, Val Phoenix speaks to Neue Deutsche Welle pioneer Bettina Köster about her life on and off stage.
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“Sorry I’m late.”
Arriving ten minutes after our appointed meeting time, Bettina Köster quickly blows the cliché of Germans being punctual out of the water. Singer, saxophonist and provocateur, Bettina is also somewhat late in releasing her first solo album, Queen Of Noise, which arrives two decades after she abandoned the music industry and finds her getting in touch with her roots.
Navigating to a Vietnamese café in Vienna’s Naschmarkt on a bright, summery day, Bettina orders the first of several coffees to revive her, lights a cigarette and sets about filling me in on her colourful life. Emerging from the netherworld of a mixing studio, she has adjusted well to the light, sporting a tan and looking reasonably fresh after a late-night session. In a conversation touching on power trips, karma, Isaac Newton, and her own history, she proves a lively raconteur. My, what a long, strange trip it’s been…
Though she hasn’t lived there for a few years, Bettina Köster is most closely associated with Berlin, or more specifically, West Berlin. Arriving in the divided city in 1979, she quickly found her milieu, studying visual communications, setting up the shop Eisengrau and joining Mania D and a host of discordant, arty projects which thrived in the unique conditions. A born show-woman, Bettina found her feet as the moody, declarative singer in the opinion-splitting Malaria!, who also counted current Monika Enterprise and Moabit Musik label head Gudrun Gut among their number. The 1983 Trouser Press Guide to New Wave review of the band describes them thusly: “Aggressively noisy and discordant, these five German women make a surprisingly tedious, uninvolving racket – it’s not even repulsive, just numbing.”
All part of the plan, as Bettina explains in her craggy Teutonic drawl. “We tried to provoke people into thinking, opening their eyes a bit. Ja, because one thing that we had a lot was reactions. Especially in the early days, people would get very upset and aggressive during our concerts or they would become very emotional.”
Spanning 1981 to 1985, Malaria! were associated with the emerging Neue Deutsche Welle and Dark Wave scenes, and even today merit an entry on deathrock.com, perhaps not surprising for a band based in Berlin, given to wearing black and writing songs with titles such as ‘Tod’ (Death) and ‘Macht’ (Power). Drawing on a mélange of musical and visual influences, they issued one album, a handful of EPs and, drawing on their connections with the burgeoning Super 8 scene, some cracking videos, including ‘Geld‘ and ‘Your Turn to Run‘. Tapping into a highly stylised 1920s Weimar Republic aesthetic, their presentation also included a soupçon of proto-lesbian chic, most apparent in the video for ‘You, You‘, directed by Bettina’s then girlfriend, Anne ‘Liquid Sky’ Carlisle.
Though Bettina was actually based in London for two years, touring commitments meant she barely spent any time there. But, the big smoke was the site of some key moments for Malaria!: they recorded two BBC sessions and played gigs at the Bat Cave and the ICA, where the singer had a close encounter with Catherine Deneuve. Having turned her back on music for a new life as a market analyst in New York in the ’80s, Bettina has strong ideas on why so many women leave the music industry.
“You know what, I really think for women it has been so much harder to make a living out of music than boys’ bands. It’s just the classic ‘women get paid less than men for the same kind of work’ [situation]. And I think that is the reason why so many women left music. It’s also a tough life, you know. I mean I had it myself. We played more than 200 concerts a year and you don’t really have a personal life anymore. And you’re not in this boys club thing. Women musicians would not get the kind of record deals that the guys got. And with a company behind you, it’s easier to stay in music than if you don’t have that.”
Having played with Autonervous and Krach on her return to Berlin in the early noughties, Bettina started work on her solo album in 2006. With Queen Of Noise, she has incorporated a range of musical styles past and present, with some surprises: there is not a hint of goth and the vocals are quite understated, for the most part. There is a smattering of New Wave, most notably on the startlingly Devo-esque cover of The Beatles’ ‘Helter Skelter’, which you can preview over on Myspace, along with other tracks from the album ahead of its release in October on the small Vienna-based indie label, Asinella, run by musician Clara Luzia. Elsewhere, she brings the boogie with the bass-heavy ‘Procession’ and ‘Grab Me’ and then goes all downbeat on ‘Pity Me’, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Weimar cabaret.
Vienna, which these days exudes faded imperial glamour rather than the relentless experimentation of Berlin, boasts a small but lively queer feminist music scene, where melancholia and spikiness go hand in hand. To these younger artists, Bettina is a bit of a grande dame, thanks to her experience and commitment. She’s played Ladyfest and a Fiber magazine party, and continues to be supportive of women’s space. Nonetheless, she is surprised and genuinely touched when I tell her the locals consider her part of their scene. “Oh, really? Oh, that’s so sweet. Oh, that’s so cool. And I have to say I have been playing a lot in Vienna lately and I really like it. I like playing here. I mean the people are great. The audience is great.”
While the major music industry may be crumbling, Bettina sees a resurgence in other sectors. “The whole thing with live performing and having an interested audience, I think that’s becoming stronger and stronger. And I also think, that as bad as it is in the industry part of music, the independent part, the underground aspect of music is becoming very interesting.”
And while a skiing accident last March slowed her down slightly, she is keen to go out on the road with her record. Though appearances in the UK are rare, there is a plethora of live clips all over YouTube, including one from an Autonervous gig in which the singer gets very friendly with someone in the audience.
When not touring, these days Bettina lives something of a bucolic life, retreating to her carriage house by the sea in the village of Sieti, Italy, where she enjoys fishing. But this move has not suppressed her restless creative ambitions, which include frequent trips to New York to collaborate with director Isabel Hegner on a screenplay that draws on her club kid past. “Yeah, it’s not just about me but about a group of friends or people that used to hang out in New York, late ’70s, early ’80s. A lot of Eurotrash, yes.” She laughs a dry, cackling laugh. “And some New Yorkers, too.”
She’s also working on a book that is even more ambitious, “a multi-millennium biography”, excerpts of which are featured in September’s Penny-Ante. The concept of a group of singers travelling through time to save the world may sound a tad egotistical, but Bettina explains that it was inspired by the incredible array of female talent that emerged in the post-punk era: “I think that was the first time that really strong women came up. I mean, look at Siouxsie, Kleenex, you know, Raincoats, Au Pairs, whatever. So I have all these characters that come. Basically, it’s like how whenever it’s important for the world, you know, when the world is in disarray, these people come together again.”
Squinting into the lunchtime sun, she explains, “You know what? I think I used to have more plans when I was younger. Now it’s like…I don’t really plan anymore because I’ve found out that planning is great, but things anyway work out always different. I’d rather look at the current situation. OK. I’m here now. How does it look like? How do I feel about things today? Do I feel good about it or do I not? And I try to go from spot to spot where it feels good.”
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Photos courtesy of Bettina Köster.