In this age of instant gratification, it feels excruciating to wait six minutes for something. In the case of the Notwist, fans had to content themselves with waiting six years. It's been that long since the German quartet were ready to unleash more of the cottony, mellow glitch-pop that put them on the map. Their new album, The Devil, You + Me (Domino), is the result of just over half a decade of ships passing in the night, two years of recording, and one very concerted effort to get every last wisp of romantic longing down for posterity.
So, Guns N' Roses aside, who the hell takes this long to make a record? I caught up with keyboardist Martin Gretschmann on the eve of the Notwist's North American appearance in Toronto. Before I could politely ask if they were big fans of say, MMORPG gaming, Gretschmann explained that it's enthusiasm for side projects that caused the big delay. Along with founding brothers Markus and Micha Acher, Gretschmann and new drummer Andi Haber are the most overextended musicians around, contributing to roughly five other bands, most notably 13 and God and Lali Puna.
"That's why it took quite a few years for us to make a new record," he mused. "All the bands make records and do touring, and then it took around two years to record the new album, and before you wake up, it's six years."
What inevitably brings these very busy gentlemen back together is the lure of the Notwist's essence: a politely sputtering amalgam of samples, love songs, and bits of string section to tie it together. The band spent the last 20 years and six albums evolving from post-hardcore punk (their 1990 debut Notwist EP [Subway]) to indie trip-hop jazz (1998's Shrink [Zero Hour]) to their current state of introspective electronic perfection.
Where 2002's critically acclaimed Neon Golden (Domino) was a beautiful bouquet of freshly cut schizophrenia a banjo leads off one song, barely there keyboards pepper another, lyrics have noticeable emotional range The Devil, You + Me hovers like a question mark over the listener, asking "Why not?" in a steady stream of cloudy grey guitar chords and hiccups of static. Gretschmann explained: "Neon Golden is like a collection of songs. This one is rather stream of consciousness more homogenic in a way."
Those semiconscious recurring themes of isolation and introspection are never more present than in their video for "Boneless," a downtrodden skateboarder's reverie shot in Valparaiso, Chile. Gretschmann reveals their inspiration for the clip was none other than infamous cult-hero Donnie Darko. "The lyrics deal with growing up in a little town and always feeling different," he said. "You just feel like an alien somehow."
"Boneless" displays typical Notwist ingenuity: a deceptively bouncy piano loop that succumbs to Markus Acher's lonely, searching vocals. The song is light and airy, borne aloft by a trace of tambourines and pop chords, but the effect is one of unmistakable fragility, of thoughts almost too sad to think.
On their new song, "Gravity," there are lyrics like, "I see the planets spinning faster / or is my body too slow?" The last six years have brought great changes for Notwist. Gretschmann was clear in the appearance of deep-seated emotion, of "some really heavy moments and sad moments" that found their way onto The Devil, You + Me: "That's definitely one reason why some people say it's very dark." He tempered this by sharing the jubilant mood of the band, who haven't toured this continent since 2004. "[Toronto] is the first concert." He sounded a bit awed by his words, then laughed.