This interview was conducted a few years ago forthe 25th anniversary of the Rockabilly Mafia and was initially published on Jumpin’ from 6 to 6. It’s still relevant today so I decided to also put it on this website.
If you don’t know the Rockabilly Mafia, their sound could be described as a mix between eighties neo-rockabilly and the Meteor label records with a strong emphasis on the rhythm due to the propulsive slap bass of Ted Harbeck (who also sings in English and in German), the steady and powerful drumming of Bjorn Karl (and before him « Ding Dong » Dalecki) and the simple but always effective (like a modern day Luther Perkins) guitar of Karsten « Tex » Willer.
Beside the usual rockin’ texts or the declaration of faith like « Ich Brauch Kein Hip Hop » (I don’t like Hip Hop), « I Love Rockabilly » or « Rockabilly Beat » some of their songs have a strong « nostalgic » feel like « I Have To Leave The Graveyard« , « What Happened to My Hometown » or « Seine Tochter weiß viel mehr » a story about a rape which is rather unusual for this kind of music.
Ted kindly agreed to talk about the evolution of the band and the scene, their position on the same scene and the difference between writing songs in English or in German…
by Fred « Virgil » Turgis
How did you get into rockabilly/rocknroll?
Here I just can tell my own story. It started for me in summer 1976 with Bill Haleys « Rock around the clock » , when I heard that song on a grammarschool-party it was the moment to change my life…After a few years I transformed myself into an early 80’s Rocker, since 1982 I am wearing drapejacket or frogcoat and creepers, it was not so easy to get through Elmshorn in a red kneelong jacket alive in those days, as far as I remember Willer had one, too. We got punched up several times, never won a battle and never changed our style. You may have realized the difference between the clothes I wear still and our music, it was common in that time to wear f.e. 70ies Teddyboygear while listening to the Polecats. I still do. It is hardly to believe that Mafia during the years again and again was titled as a british-rockabilly-band, most of the critics seem to have mix up my outer apperance with the music we make.
What did appeal to you in that music?
The Rhythm. To me it was always the rhythm, especially the slapbass-rhythm. There is an orginal 50’s filmscene where a reverent says: « If you ask todays teenager what they like about this rocknrollmusic they say the Beat! The Beat! The Beat! » How true is that! So the sound of our band, which is somehow a kind of naked rhythm, follows this direction.
How did you get together?
I founded the Rockabilly Mafia on 27th of September 1985 during the party for my 20th birthday. I played the bass and sang, Kai Beyer played the guitar, Malte Kob was on Sax(!!!) and Andreas Ding Dong Dalecki was on drums. One year later we recorded the first EP « Rockin in the graveyard » without the saxman, few month later Beyer left and was replaced by Tex Willer, who stayed since then. Dalecki made the job for nearly 11 years, when Björn Karl took over the Drums and stayed, too. So there is no change in the line-up since 1997.
What were your influences then and what are they now?
The song « Serious Rockin » tells it. There were the cat bands (what says in this context strayCATS, poleCATS, blueCATS, rockCATS), Restless, and , for my part, Red Hot Max. Tex had lot of expericences in oldschool psycho and other Neo-Bands. Even today I like the sound of Bill Haley, while Tex was a Gene Vincent Fan from the start and still is. With Björn more « Big band drum sounds » reached the band, what brough us even more rhythm. For we are doing these things for so many years, today we are mostly influenced by ourself, lousy but true. When Willer appears with a new riff, the game starts again. I am more influenced by the things which happen to me and give me new ideas for texts. From the musicians we like I have to name Restless, Space Cadets, Dave Phillips and the Hotrodgang, the Keytones, you see, this is a neorockabilly-programe from the 80’s, just as we are.
Did you think it would last that long when you started Rockabilly Mafia?
No. To be honest, I did not thing of it anyway. When we started off with the Rockabilly Mafia it was my main aim to produce songs, anyhow. Tape-recorded, or, if possible, records. It was not my aim to have gigs, I wanted preserved music, frozen time for eternity, and I took the musicians I needed for the sessions. This is, by the way, how RockabillyMafia got its name, because I used different musicians for every single musical crime. When Tex Willer joined in in 1986, things became more stated and were able to go on and not to start all over again with every song. The name remained. I did not care about the future of the band, I tried to conserve what we had.
Did you se some changes on the European Rockabilly scene since your beginning?
Are you joking? The scene changed completely more than once during the last decades, it spread and many folks joined in who I would never expect to come. The proper answer to this question would fill a book. Most striking to me is a certain change from 80’s rebelism to the so called « authentic »-style of late 90’s, which produced (to me) a complete change in style, because the Neorockabilly-influences faded or made their way in the psychobilly-direction, while the recording-techniques and ways of playing the instruments of many bands sound like 50 years ago, which to me is not a sign of quality, to be honest. Today I do not care about scenes to much anymore, we found our way, historical statements are for scientists, we do rockabilly.
Your first releases were mostly sung in English. Then you started to sing more and more in German. It is an important thing for you and do you think that writing in your own language improves your songwriting?
With this questions we reach the more interestic grounds, which only can be understood in the context of time. Early 80’s brought a special kind of New Wave to Germany, combined with german lyrics to more or less british Wave-Sounds, it was called NDW, which meant Neue Deutsche Welle (German new wave).
Liking Rockabilly it was neccessary for me to do the same thing with this music, and it started off with several more or less rude drinking songs like « Die Bierbrauerin » (which is nothing but a list of german beers mentioned in a silly love story) or « Der falsche Weech »(which I wrote in an English version as « I took the wrong way home » first, funny…). This song is still the last official song in every Rockabilly Mafia gig.
Other bands like the « Ace Cats » had done german lyrics before in a Rocknroll context, and the Düsseldorf-based « Panhandle Alks » had their very own kind of Rockabilly with German texts before we did it, anyway. But we were in the lucky position to improve the german texts with the years, away from the drinking-songs to stories, which I was not able to tell in English, because it is not my language from birth on. « Panhandle Alks », by the way, did the same thing stressing other plots, which made them for me very interesting to listen to. So today our german texts in my opinium are better than the English ones, which often somehow stay at the surface of things. In our Geman texts I deal with suicide, tragical stories of runned down tennagers, the passing of time with the grave as inevitable end of the story, a special kind of « rock-therapy » to get over life given experiences of the harder kind…
So to come to the point: The german lyrics do not improve songwriting, but at a certain point in our band history and in the history of german rock music it was necessary to reach the audiance in their very own language, which was and is german. There was no internet in those days, there was no need to communicate with folks outside of Germany, there was no market for our music outside Germany (and still is not, beside some interested specialists all over the world) so it is not surprising we did our songs in German, and to be honest even the english texts were made for germans, what is funny because these texts now seem to be understandable for english speaking folks outside of english speaking countries, what adds some strange « international » flair to a band, which always was meant and founded as a local northgerman band with local textplots. For British ears what we do sounds very « Krautish », I suppose. Within our repertoire we now play half german and half enlish texts, and this will be the same for the future.
So you dont believe that rockabilly and rocknroll have to be sung inevitably in English?
Not our way of Rockabilly.
If you want to be understood in wide parts of the world, you have to use english. But to me the question is, if it necessary to be understood worldwide. Answering local questions in local language can be an answer for everybody worldwide, who is in a similar situation and willing to listen. This maybe includes the will to understand the used language. If not, the audiance will not get the text, but this is not my fault.
Long years ago I saw a concert of the spanish band « Rockin Borders », who played there full set in spanish. It was an experience I will never forget, for that was a good band, and I became so interessted I found someone to translate their texts, and they were good, too. Anyone, who uses music and text to express hisself, is able to use it the very way he/she likes to, so finally nothing is inevitable except death.
Do you thing that singing in German can be an obstacle for you to play in international events like Hemsby, the Rockabilly Rave or the Screamin Festival in Spain?
I thing it is the Rockabilly Mafia, which is an obstacle: We sing part of programe in german ( which could be avoided easily, because we have more than 150 songs in our repertoire, there should be enough in english…), we are somehow 80’s-fossils with a local backround, who do not fit in the todays picture of the global-hep-cat, all our songs are selfpenned, so there is no recognising of famous standard-hits beside recognising the Mafia-standard-hits. Who of those organizers of those mentioned events should care about something like the Rockabilly Mafia? Why should the Mafia care about these events? In fact we have never been asked to play these festivals, and yet I am not sure what to answer if we should be asked some day.
It was great to play the « Satanic Stomp » here in Germany, ironically it was worlds biggest psycho-event we were asked to play for, a strange change, strange, but funny and we had a great time, we have to thank our Manager Lonesome from mental-hell for opening this new world to us.
On the other way does it help to get gigs or with the medias in Germany?
No. The german medias are not interessted in Rockabilly Mafia, and we play so few gigs that we never had problems to get them. Up to now we got Gigs until october 2010, thats pretty enought to play.
What is your point of view about the « authentic rockabilly » thing?
The song we got most negative critics on is the above mentioned song « Serious Rockin », which gives somehow the answer to this question. When we started with this music, we wanted to do our own thing, and we still do today. This is a way, which one can like or not, but in the end it is the easy to understand what happens: Unique music by unique persons, using Rockabilly as their vehicle. Since the 90’s another kind of musician than us wanted to preserve something, what seems to them more orginal, some kind of « back to the roots »-Rockabilly in the style of the mid 50’s. I think this « Getting-back-movement » was absolutely understandable in a time, which generated more and more techno and other different styles, but understandable or not, in my opinium this was (and is) no proper way of spending your life as a grown up person at the turn of the millenium.
The problem is, if you are doing the same thing in a different historical context, you are doing NOT the same thing. What once has been a teenage-rumour, is, done again 50 years later, maybe just imposter-rubbish. In addition, and this is even more important, the kind of musician, who today plays the old stuff, is another type of person than the one who played it in the past. The guys in the 50’s were head-of-the-arrow, so to say avangard of rockmusic, which pioneered things and did more or less the same thing every Rockmusician of every style did since then: They rocked, no looking back, no future plans, just rock. The kind of musician, who plays this music in exactly the oldfashioned style today, to me appears like some museum-warden, and nothing could be less authentic in the true maening of this word, if you have a look on the musician who plays, not on the brilliant immitated notes of the music he plays.
To say it in lyrics:
« It is an inappropriate idea to cover songs from those past times, if you´ve got somehting to anounce, anounce it by yourself.
You don´t honour good ideas repeating them like a parrot, you can´t sing all your life the songs you sang when you were twelve. »
Enought of that.
A word about your partners in crime Tex and Björn?
Of course. Tex and me are friends for about 28 years now, which is a pretty long time. The Rockabilly Mafia made during nearly 25 years 38 records, on 37 of them Tex played the guitar. He has a very rhythm-orientated sound, the typical guitarists-ego-diddling was never his business, what makes Rockabilly Mafia Sound so straight to the point. Combined with the very strong drumset of Björn, we found an absolutely rhythm-orientated-sound. Björn joined us in a moment of the band history, where we were nearly finished. His fresh and punchy play reburned the fire in 1997, and still does. You see,all three of us made a long way together..
But in the end, just listen to what we are doing, this expresses more than dump words. Please do not mind that I did not tell too many personel things about Björn and Tex and me, I think this is of no impartance in this context.