Re:Generation is a monthly 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 out of the spotlight. 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 sixth piece, Val Phoenix speaks to industrial-strength singer Mona Mur.
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While most of us in Britain are spending January huddled under the duvet waiting for spring to arrive, or dreaming of an escape to sunnier climes, Berlin-based singer Mona Mur is doing just the opposite, pulling on her high-heeled boots to head out on tour…to Russia. Clearly, Ms Mur is made of sterner stuff, perhaps not surprising from a former tae kwon do champion.
After years in the wilderness, the singer is keen to see what Moscow and St Petersburg hold for her and musical accomplice En Esch as the duo take their 2009 collaborative album, 120 Tage: The Fine Art Of Beauty & Violence, on the road. As the album title suggests, Mur walks on the dark side of life, dotting her lyrics with references to blood and guts and establishing a formidable persona as a black-clad queen of the night. Teaming up with the bald guitarist and former frontman of KMFDM doubles the drama. Off-stage, however, it’s a different story.
When we last met in November of 2009, it was at a birthday party in Berlin in honour of Mur’s great friend, the photographer Ilse Ruppert, who has been shooting her since the 1980s. Lounging on a sofa, smoking, Mur was still buzzing from recent gigs in the Czech Republic and Poland, the latter a bit of a homecoming for her, as her family originates from there and she speaks the language, allowing her good rapport with the audiences. “They were going crazy,” she affirmed. “Crazy. Jumping around.” She shook her head in amazement. Live performance is an important element for her, even after so many years off the stage.
Mur started out in Hamburg, in the north of Germany, drawn, as so many were, to the energy of punk. Linking up with members of Einstürzende Neubauten as Mona Mur und die Mieter, she released the ‘Jeszcze Polska’ single in 1982 and, with this and subsequent releases such as ‘Snake‘, found success in her homeland, her husky voice and intense live performances attracting a cult following. But then she crashed and burned, the result of a mixture of music industry shenanigans and substance abuse.
At the time she lacked discipline and a work ethic, and, when we spoke at her house-cum-studio in early 2009, she recalled Ilse Ruppert urging her to apply herself: “Mona, you’ve got to work!” Her response: “Work? What is this work?” This she understood only later, with tae kwon do as an important guiding force. Through mastering the martial art, Mur learned the importance of training, improving and achieving success, eventually competing as part of the German national team and becoming vice champion.
Nothing if not resilient, she’s back in the music industry, both as scary goth lady performer and as a successful composer of video game music, scoring titles such as ‘Velvet Assassin‘. She and Esch also appear in the recently released ‘Culpa Innata II‘, a 3D adventure game set in the future. The first edition was a hit in Russia and the sequel features the duo performing a Russian-language version of ’120 Tage’ in a half-empty “rogue bar”. Although Mur doesn’t speak Russian, she seems quite at home with the language, delivering her lyrics with brusque power. As a child she used to listen to her mother singing sad Russian songs, finding them entrancing.
After Mur and Esch return from Russia there follows an engagement at the Kurt Weill Festival in Dessau. The pair are still developing their set for this appearance at the famous Bauhaus building, but Mur is most definitely excited. Her affinity for the works of Brecht and Weill dates back to the days of die Mieter, when the band used to perform ‘Surabaya Johnny’ and ‘Die Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen’ (‘Ballad Of The Drowned Girl’), enraging punters disturbed by the gruesome lyrics. “People got aggressive and started throwing things, and we’d throw them right back,” she recalls.
As it happens, the powers-that-be that administer Weill’s work were also less than keen on her modern reading of ‘Die Ballade…’ and sought to block her recording or performing the song. But, Mur succeeded, and is gleeful at the opportunity to bring it into the present, declaring: “Mr. Weill should not be in a museum.”
Her next project is a second album with Esch, whom she first met in 1985 when KMFDM supported Mona Mur und die Mieter in Hamburg. They both write and produce and she finds the partnership fulfilling, which she credits to him being a fellow perfectionist. A new set of online mixes of their song ‘Candy Cane‘ is also imminent. It turns out Mr Esch is perhaps not as scary as his reputation, as Mur reveals post-tour that the hulking guitarist is both a vegetarian and a very good driver.
Both, it seems, are intriguing contradictions. And not ones to trifle with. As we left Ruppert’s flat after the party, Mur pointed out our bus and we made a dash for it, me in my sensible shoes, her in her shit-kicking high-heeled boots, fresh from pounding the stages of eastern Europe. From the top deck, she pointed out various vanished sites of the Berlin Wall as the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of its fall. The Wall is long gone, but Mur is still standing.
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Top photo by Ilse Ruppert, taken in the 1980s.