Life on the road can be hard on a band, especially one that regularly plays smaller venues. For Alexander Hacke and Danielle de Picciotto, though, it’s just another day. The duo, who perform under the name hackedepicciotto, have been nomads since 2010, when they left their home in Berlin.
The decision was less an artistic one than a reaction to their surroundings. “In 2010, gentrification was starting up here in Berlin,” de Picciotto says, on the phone from that city during a recent visit. “In comparison to the ’80s when we started out, we were like, ‘Oh my God, commercialism has arrived. We don’t like this, and we’re going to go and find a place where that’s not happening.’ So we left everything here and we started traveling and we realized that it’s actually happening everywhere!
“Originally we wanted to be traveling for 18 months. Now it’s been eight years because it’s really hard to find an ideal space.”
Their journey has taken them throughout Europe, Australia, Mexico and the United States. It has also served as the inspiration for two albums, 2016’s Perseverantia and this year’s Menetekel. The duo considers both albums to be soundtracks to their travels, incorporating exotic folk instruments together with throat singing, intense low-end drones, spoken word and heavy guitars. The results consist of equal parts beauty and darkness.
Intense music is nothing new to Alexander Hacke. He has played bass in Einsturzende Neubauten for most of the band’s three-decade lifespan. That group took the term industrial music literally, creating songs with electric tools and found objects as well as instruments. So the story goes, some early shows were cut off when the band’s drills and jackhammers started to destroy the stages. Blixa Bargeld’s lyrics, which he frequently delivered in brutal screams, often read (in translation) like well-crafted poetry.
Neubauten still continues to perform. In fact, Hacke missed the interview for this article due to a delayed train following a performance of Lament, a piece they were commissioned to write to commemorate the end of World War I. It was also released as an album in 2014.
Danielle de Picciotto moved to Berlin in 1987. “I came from New York, and New York in the ’80s was pretty dangerous and scary,” she recalls. “Berlin in the ’80s was just as creative but it had no crime whatsoever. It was incredibly cheap. My first apartment cost 30 marks which is about 15 dollars. And it was …huge! Really huge.” Once there, she sang in the band Space Cowboys and launched the Love Parade, an electronic dance music festival.
Menetekel, the newest hackedepicciotto album, translates to “writing on the wall.” Its predecessor, Perseverantia, took more of a first-person perspective, telling the duo’s story of determination as they traveled. The newer album reflects more on what they have seen on their quest. “In general, we have the feeling that the writing on the wall is very clear,” de Picciotto says with a bit of a laugh, “We’re all in a state of crisis. That’s what that album is all about.”
Hacke’s throat singing, like that of a Tibetan vocalist, can sound eerie, as do the low frequency bass notes that provide the foundation of some songs. At the same time, the album opens with “All Are Welcome,” where the duo chant-sings positive messages: “Come into my home…come and rest your head…come and eat my bread/all are welcome here.”
These aren’t merely lyrics either. “The whole thing is really influenced by our travels. All of it — the atmospheres, the people we meet, the sounds we hear,” she says. The duality between the dark and light is something they take seriously in the music too. “It’s kind of what you experience in the world too. You see all these terrible things happening but at the same time there’s such beauty, [in] nature or also in human interaction. Or the things you can experience in culture. And it’s really important especially nowadays to not forget that. So we think if our song is getting too dark, we have to add the other part of it, which is the beauty and the light because it’s not balanced enough. That balance is what we’re trying to achieve not only in our music but also in our lives.”
Although they travel light, de Picciotto has acquired several instruments that factor into the music. Among them, she plays a hurdy gurdy, which breaks from its association with street musicians or the song by Donovan. “It always has this ominous dark sound to it, which immediately gives you the feeling of [thinking], ‘Oh no, what’s going to happen? Something’s in the air,” she says, adding, enthusiastically, “So I love it!”
Another instrument in her arsenal is the cemence, a Turkish stringed instrument the size of a violin, which is held and bowed like a cello. It adds a dark, rough squeak to the music, which compliments the foundation laid by Hacke’s instrument collection, which on any given song can include guitar, drums or banjo. De Picciotto also plays violin and piano on many tracks but revels in instruments like the cemence, which she found in Turkey on a street lined with instrument vendors. “I love instruments that have unusual sounds. It’s kind of what I specialize in. I got this one and I love the way it squeaks. I got a great flute there too that sounds like a dying duck,” she says.
Hacke and de Picciotto would like to settle somewhere eventually. “Being a nomad is liberating and great on one hand, and it’s been an incredible learning experience in very many ways,” she says. “But it can also become superficial because you’re traveling all the time you don’t have time to go into depth, spending a lot of time with friends. But the experience is definitely one that’s changed our lives completely, in every single way, be it philosophically, be it awareness. It’s definitely been worth it.”