The return of Yello: America thought we were black guys rapping

The Swiss electronic pioneers are performing live for the first time in 40 years. Dieter Meier and Boris Blank discuss their bizarre lives as accidental pop stars

Dieter Meier is apologetic. We have to be quick with the interview, he says, because he is leaving Zurich for Cuba later today. Im going to buy some cacao beans, he explains. Im starting a chocolate factory here in Zurich.

Im sorry? A chocolate factory? Based on a new patented process of a cold extraction from the cacao bean, he explains. Normally, the cacao is toasted, then ground, and you lose 90% of the aroma from all these heat processes. And then hes off. How normal chocolate is full of artificial aromas. How his chocolate is so flavoursome you can tell whether the beans that made it came from Java or Grenada or Cuba. How the Swiss chocolate industry attempted to buy the patent process of cold extraction from the scientist who invented it in order to stop anyone from using it. How the scientist contacted him because Meier has a little coffee situation in the Dominican Republic where the ripe coffee berries are harvested by hand, not industrially, which makes my coffee quite expensive, but gives it atotally different flavour. How he recently turned up at a chocolate convention and started handing out leaflets about his revolutionary new process, like a communist.

But, he says eventually, we dont want to talk about chocolate, right?

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img”> Watch the trailer for Yellos new album and gigs in Berlin

Indeed. I am supposed to be in Zurich talking about the new Yello album, Toy a return to the roots of Yello, asMeiers musical partner Boris Blank puts it and their forthcoming gigs in Berlin. These will be the first time the duo have performed live, unless you count a performance at a multimedia art event in a Zurich cinema weeks after they formed in 1978, at which Blank declined to appear on stage. Instead, he lurked in the orchestra pit (In case it was a huge disaster, notes Meier, then people would think there was only one idiot involved). There was also a 15-minute presentation at New Yorks Roxy Club in 1983.

Meier is hugely excited about their belated return to the stage, enthusing about the opera-like qualities of their music and the gigs he played recently with his side project Out of Chaos (Tobe an entertainer on stage I truly love it). Blank, on the other hand, still carries the distinctly cautious aura of a man who might be happier hiding in an orchestra pit. I was never a big shake your head and move your ass and pretend to play a synthesiser guy, he offers. Now its a bit different, we have other musicians on stage. But, he frowns, I am still afraid to do this.

The thing is, while my interview with Blank proceeds relatively normally albeit punctuated by the sound of the Yellofier, an iPhone app he recently invented and is keen to demonstrate at considerable volume my conversation with Meier keeps getting sidetracked. He proudly describes himself as a dilettante (A very positive word; someone who did not systematically learn something and starts with their own personality). As well as being the frontman of Yello and indeed the pioneer of a revolutionary new cacao extraction process and owner of a little coffee situation in the Dominican Republic he is variously: a winemaker and a producer of organic beef (he owns a vineyard and cattle ranch in Argentina his malbec-cabernet sauvignon-cabernet franc is apparently to die for); a restaurateur; an actor and film director; a former professional gambler; a celebrated performance artist; an author; photographer; designer of watches, silk scarves and sports cars; a former leading Swiss golfer (that one is hard to verify, it should be said); and one of the developers of the first fully digital mixing console for music and film.

Watch the video for the 1988 hit The Race

He says that if he had to do one thing, of course, I would always try to work with Boris, but when he talks, all the other stuff he does keeps coming up. The way a poker game is a macrocosm of life every new hand is your fate and you can play with your fate. How the first fully digital mixing console for music and film got a bad press in the US when an engineer using one at CNN inadvertently broadcast the sound of two miked-up female reporters having a very intensive sextalk in a lavatory, instead of a George W Bush speech, and blamed the equipment. He talks about Beethoven, Goya and El Greco, and at one juncture uses the word epigone, which I subsequently have to look up in a dictionary.

It goes without saying that this is both pretty fascinating and not the normal kind of conversation you have when you interview a musician. But then, even without Meiers plethora of outside interests, Yello would still seem nothing like a normal kind of band. With their suits and cravats and moustaches, Meier and Blank look less like pop stars than two men you might see on the deck of a yacht, champagne flutes in hand.

Their history is deeply odd. They seem to have formed by mistake. A mutual acquaintance introduced Meier who had graduated from making noises with my voice when I presented my experimental movies to a brief career as a punk vocalist to Boris Blank, a TV repair man and fan of Throbbing Gristle who was making experimental electronic music with a friend called Carlos Pern. Meier had no plans to pursue a career as a singer or form a band; Blank hated punk and didnt want to work with a vocalist. Their meeting, Meier says, was a double disaster for Boris. He felt as if he was a sound painter, doing electronic music, and even a brilliant singer would be putting extra brushstrokes on his work. And I was a very bad singer.

Watch the video for the 1985 single Oh Yeah

Still, they kept working together, discovering a shared sense of very dry, oddball humour that percolates throughout their oeuvre, from track titles to album sleeves to videos: Its not like we say weve got to do some humour, people will like this, notes Blank, its just what happens when both of us are around together.

Their intention was to be a veryarty, leftfield entity their first two albums were released on Ralph, the label run by legendary San Fransciso avant-gardists the Residents but quickly became something else entirely, again seemingly by accident. Their 1981 single Bostich, a confection of relentless synthesiser, disco beats and Meiers percussive vocals, became a huge hit on black radio in theUS. They thought we were two black guys rapping, says Blank, still bemused, not music from the cheese-and-chocolate land.

Weirder still, Yello next became proper pop stars, without intending to.They had a string of admittedly unlikely hit singles. 1985s Vicious Games made the US dance/club top 10; The Race reached No 7 in the UK in 1988; they worked with Shirley Bassey on 1987s The Rhythm Divine; the deathless Oh Yeah wasnt that big a hit,but became almost omnipresent in80s cinema and TV, used, as one critic noted, when a movie or TV show or commercial wanted to underline the impact of a hot babe or jaw-dropping car, a state of affairs that led to a long-running joke about the song in The Simpsons, where the phrase is Duffmans catchphrase. This was all clearly a long way from hanging around with the Residents.

It was a rather strange experience, Meier says. It was the experience of two children who were playing on a beach, sculpting things with sand or whatever they can find, but then, when success kicked in, it was like those two children suddenly being taken into a public space. We signed these contracts with many zeroes after some figures, when no one would have spent a penny to promote Yello at the beginning. We ate the sugar of success, but also the sugar of responsibility. Suddenly, we had these contracts and we were a racehorse, competing at the derby. We lost our childhood as musicians, so to speak.

Watch the video for new single Limbo

Only later, we realised we were artistically running in circles a little bit. Its quite a process to open a new door, to allow yourself to become a child again, to really let yourself fall, to be allowed to make a fool of yourself again.

True to form, that leads him on to talking about the time he meticulously sorted 100,000 bits of metal into bags of 1,000 as a piece of performance art: if you do something that empty, if youjust present a beautiful nothing, ameaninglessness, it takes courage, because youre a total idiot when you do this, right?

And with that, he heads off to the airport to source some cacao beans, leaving Blank in the studio, planning their live performances. This is why Yello still works, after 35 years, Blank says. We are two totally different characters. Hes now on a plane to Cuba, I dont like to travel. I close my eyes when I listen to music and travel in my mind.

He returns to his computer and his meticulously planned timeline for the forthcoming live shows, which seems to be assuaging his doubts about shaking his ass behind a synthesiser. Ithink I can imagine that I will have some fun, he mutters.

Toy is out on Universal on 30 September.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/sep/22/return-of-yello-america-thought-black-guys-rapping-toy-dieter-meier-boris-blank

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