Yello. Musicians who developed sampling back in the early 1980s

George Palladev 19.10.2020

Yello. Musicians who developed sampling back in the early 1980s

They were two completely different people, but with great imaginations, the same passion for music and childishness. “Our concept was to become like kids, and Yello was our toy”, said Dieter Meier later. Yello is the name of their common toy. It’s a simple name, like Lego. It has nothing to do with yellow. Another version claims that Yello is a portmanteau of yell and hello, which also makes sense: plenty of Boris Blank’s screams are used in the tracks of the band’s records. (‘Your mouth is the best synthesizer in the world’, said Blank once.)

Here we should mention that Boris is the only one who works on music in the band. Dieter doesn’t have enough patience to compose. He’s constantly on the road, making deals, opening new businesses and checking how everyone is working. When Blank finishes a track, he shows it to Meier and they decide together what they can sing or say here.

“I then began singing with a rock band—but I wasn’t singing rock songs, I’m definitely not a rock singer, I’m more of an actor who plays parts within Boris’ sound pictures—parts he has invented”, says Meier. As he himself admits, only Blank’s music inspires writing lyrics as well as inventing characters and situations. He doesn’t prepare anything in advance. After hearing the music, Meier starts running around the studio doing a recitative, simultaneously looking with eyes wide open for where he can fix this stream of consciousness :-) “He’s one percent, but has a big effect”, explains Boris Blank.

The tracks are created spontaneously. Picasso said, “I begin with an idea and then it becomes something else.” The same goes for Yello. They find one interesting sound. Then, in the chaos of floppy disks, Blank finds the one recorded last year, where the cork of champagne gracefully flies out of the bottle neck. Then, Boris adds the recently recorded sound of Coke cans opening. The percussion is ready. Next comes the guitar, then the wind instruments, and the silhouette of the future track begins to appear.

“When I met Boris—he was a truck driver at the time”, recalls Meier. “When we started Yello there was a separate room with our little studio, which was 8-track at the time, and every evening at six o’clock when he had finished work, Boris rushed in, sandwich in one hand and cables in his arms, to his little studio, got to work straight away, and worked till twelve or one in the morning. Every day, or every other day, he’d finish a piece, which he took to his truck, listened to all day, then threw it away into a suitcase. He had hundreds of tapes that he’d done. Like someone who likes to draw, and the process of drawing is much more important than what you do with it afterwards. It’s not the idea to become an important artist, to have important exhibitions. He did it because he was addicted to creating sounds.”

Check the best of Yello

Yello is a travelling carnival of the melodiousness of musique concrète, a French concept from the 1940s, where compositions were formed from background sounds. Boris Blank has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t use traditional drums and bass from drum machines but creates them from other sounds instead. For example, he can shoot a snowball into a wall, record it, blend it, edit it and get the sound of a bass drum of the desired richness and density. The same applies to standard presets, which are often mercilessly processed.

“Of course! When you have that kind of obsession, you can’t just stop”, confesses Blank who has collected a library with hundreds of thousands little sounds that he recorded himself. “But, after all these years, it does get harder. I hear the bang of a garage door and think, Hmm, that’s good, but I heard something very similar back in 1992.

Boris Blank with a dark tie, Dieter Maier with a light tie, Carlos Peron without a tie. Carlos Peron left the band in 1983 to focus on his solo career and help others. It was the right decision and now he’s considered to be an important musical figure in Switzerland. Plus, Boris Blank already had his own vision of the direction in which Yello should develop and didn’t tolerate discussion.

At some point, there were three people in the band. In the late 1970s, driving a truck to the workshop to record the sounds coming from there, 27-year-old Boris Blank saw a man who was already recording material for himself on tape. It was Carlos Peron. He was the same age, loved avant-garde music and was a connoisseur of synthesisers. He became a teacher for Blank and together they flew from mountainous Switzerland to sunny San Francisco to pay homage to their favourite band The Residents (who wore tuxedos and top hats, and whose faces were covered with huge eyeballs) and at the same time sign with their label. The avant-gardists appreciated the demo tape of their guests and said that they would take them on board with a single condition: there should be more music on the full-length album than scattered noises.

Later, they were joined by Dieter Meier. He was recommended by the owner of a music shop which Blank and Peron visited, who said that their music needed a voice, that of a rich man, a gambler, a moustache, an artist, a writer, a golfer, a director, and just an eccentric character (just think of his 1960s performance when at one of the exhibitions he stood with a revolver in his hands, and at his feet was a poster ‘This man will not shoot’). Dieter was looking for new ways to express himself.

Dieter Meier and Boris Blank in 1985

“Yello is anarchy and precision—which is what Switzerland is all about”, said the band. “Yello is very provincial, it’s not an expression of any musical trend. You can’t group Yello in any musical category—in America this is still our problem.” Yello is a mixture of all and everything, from synthesiser presets, dark and sharp as a blade (Blank clearly sympathises with the British industrial pioneers Throbbing Gristle), to bright and burning Latin American melodies and African rhythms. On the record sleeves, they look like serious men wearing expensive suits and ties, their hair glistens with grease, and their hands always hold cigars. In the videos that Blank and Meier shoot for themselves, they look like a couple of stooges and poseurs with a cardboard moon, wearing jackets made from newspaper and caveman attire, racing on stools—such colourful noir successfully replaced live performances for many years.

Until recently, they had only one live show, a 15-minute performance at the Roxy Club in New York at the band’s beginning in 1983, when their single Bostich with a recitative by Meier became a hit on black radio stations in the United States and personally for Africa Bambaata, one of the founding fathers of hip hop. The US, of course, were surprised by the skin colour of the guests from Switzerland. “America thought we were black guys rapping”, said Meier later. Blank added: “At the Roxy, I saw 3 000 mostly Hispanic people dancing to it, and that was a key moment in my life. The way they moved to my music—it caught me. That’s why I make dance music—I want people to move to it.”