Despite having sold over 15 million records worldwide, U96 are virtually unheard of in the UK.
The Hamburg-based electronic act are best remembered for their huge international hit, ‘Das Boot’, a techno treatment of Klaus Doldinger’s 1981 film theme, which crept into the UK Top 20 in the summer of 1992.
Originally released in 1991, ‘Das Boot’ was number one in Germany (and other European countries) for several weeks. Their follow-up single, ‘I Wanna Be A Kennedy’, which borrowed heavily from Visage’s ‘Fade To Grey’, was another huge European hit.
Named after the U-96 submarine that features prominently in the Das Boot film, the original band featured an ensemble of prolific producers and musicians; namely Alex Christensen (aka AC16), Hayo Lewerentz (aka Harry Castioni) and Ingo Hauss.
U96’s debut album was largely built around the success of ‘Das Boot’, bookended with two versions of the hit track, as well as an attendant third single, ‘Der Kommandant’. The follow-up album, released in 1993, was a far more diverse collection, featuring a wider range of electronic and ambient sounds. Albums by mainstream electronic acts were certainly becoming more commonplace in the early 1990s, with the likes of 808 State, Orbital, The Prodigy and The Orb all utilising the long player as a creative platform to considerable acclaim and success.
Opening the new album was ‘War Of The Worlds’, a version of Jeff Wayne’s ‘Eve Of The War’ which had been successfully released as a single (in remixed form by Ben Liebrand), in 1989. With its striking opening German narrative and familiar symphonic melody, it seemed an obvious choice for a single, but was overlooked in favour of ‘Love Sees No Colour’.
Featuring the band’s trademark submarine sonar effects, ‘Love Sees No Colour’ incorporated a synth motif that recalled Anne Clark’s memorable 1984 single, ‘Sleeper In Metropolis’. The first of several hits for U96 to utilise a Eurodance template, it was another huge Top Ten hit in Germany. However, it flopped in the UK, and the act swiftly faded from British attentions. In Europe, however, the next single, ‘Night In Motion’, sustained the momentum and followed its predecessor into the upper reaches of the singles chart.
Other standout tracks included the beautiful ambient title track, electro glam rock stomper ‘You Make Me Wonder’ and ‘Brainkiller’, a frenetic composite of house music styles that included everything but the kitchen synth. While the opus marked the act’s commercial and artistic peak, follow-up albums Club Bizarre and Heaven would house further hits (notably ‘Love Religion’ and ‘Heaven’) and even a sequel to ‘Das Boot’ (‘Boot II’).
Alex Christensen fronted a new line-up of U96, releasing the Out Of Wilhelmsberg album in 2007, before leaving to concentrate on writing and production work under a number of pseudonyms.
It’s now a case of “systems reactivated” as original members Hayo Lewerentz and Ingo Hauss have recently reunited to release brand new U96 material. As well as releasing The Dark Matter EP in 2015, they have also been performing live for the first time. They are currently preparing to release Reboot, a brand new album which is due for release this year – new label Triggertrax have already released a sneak preview of the album via YouTube called ‘Monkeys’. Hayo Lewerentz took some time out from his busy schedule to tell us about U96’s future plans, and to reflect on their Replugged album.
‘Das Boot’, both the single and the album, were massive hits in the early 1990s. How much pressure were you under to follow up this remarkable success?
“It was quite a pressure that we had, because the record company at the time expected even bigger hits, which is hardly possible! Today, though, we don’t feel that pressure anymore.”
Whose idea was it to record a version of Jeff Wayne’s ‘Eve of the War’?
“The record company suggested to record another film score after ‘Das Boot’ and we couldn’t find any suitable score apart from this which we really liked.”
Were there any discussions about releasing this as a single?
“Yes there were, but in the end Polydor wanted to release ‘Love Sees No Colour’ as the first single from that album and it went really, really well too. It sold about 500,000 copies and went into the Top Ten in many countries.”
‘Love Sees No Colour’ takes its lead from Anne Clark’s brilliant mid-80s single ‘Sleeper in Metropolis’. Presumably you were big fans of this song?
“Well it is not the same but it sounds it bit similar. We are all influenced by 80s electronic music and I played that track very often in the club where I was a DJ back then. I love all her work, but our influences came from many other artists too. I think pop music only survives when artists let their influences take a part in their present work.”
What were your key musical influences during this period?
“Well, we listened to a lot of other techno artists but we also loved a lot of 80s and electronic artists such as Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode. The scene in Germany in the beginning of the 90s was not that big but we met other artists at Pokomm in Cologne or in the clubs too. Everyone kept talking about the newest techno tracks and Euro disco was quite a big thing. We worked with other artists too, such as the producers from Snap and Culture Beat, and we did remixes for many other artists like Sting with Eberhard Schoener, Diana Ross, Oliver Cheatham and Herbert Grönemeyer. If you listen to so much music from different genres it doesn’t leave you ‘uninfluenced’.”
What current electronic music artists do you like?
“I love Underworld, The Chemical Brothers, The Prodigy, Röyksopp, Nitzer Ebb, Ladytron and IAMX, but also new artists such as Chvrches and even Knife Party when it comes to EDM. The musical universe is endless and I am always looking for exiting new music. In my DJ sets I try to mix new and older music because I think that some of it mixes very well.”
Replugged is bristling with ideas and showcases an impressive palette of electronic sounds and styles. ‘Theme from Replugged’ and ‘The One Russian’, in particular, display a different, more ambient side that people wouldn’t normally associate with U96. How much creative freedom did you have?
“We had quite a lot of artistic freedom on that album because we had quite a lot of hit singles. That made the record label trust us in that time. It went a bit worse at a later stage when they put us under pressure to go more the pop way. But Ingo and myself always preferred the more leftfield side of U96 and we will do that again in the future. We also still like the artwork of Replugged very much as it is simple, strong and easy to remember.”
What was the thinking behind the title Replugged? Was this a reaction to MTV’s Unplugged series in the 1990s?
“Yes! We saw it as a joke as it was not possible for electronic bands to play this show, and it was promoted so heavily.”
There’s a Prodigy-like playfulness on tracks such as ‘Feel Like A Dum Dum’. Presumably you had a lot of fun experimenting on this album?!
“Yes, indeed, we had lots of fun! That album was like a musical playground for us – breakbeats on ‘Feel Like A Dum Dum’, house beats on ‘Je Suis Selected” and even a ballad. It also contained hit singles like ‘Love Sees No Colour’ and ‘Night In Motion’. You will definitely hear some of the Replugged tracks in our new live set.”
I view Replugged as U96’s best album – what do you think of the album when you listen to it now?
“We agree that Replugged is the strongest and most interesting album that we made. We still like it very much and still play some tracks of that album live today.”
What memories do you have of that initial period of success in the early 1990s?
“The success we had was totally unexpected and I remember that many people around us tried to talk us into more commercial stuff and strange TV show appearances. In the end we left of a lot of these to Alex as he was more interested in taking U96 further down the hit street. Today I think it was a big mistake not to make it more a live act and go touring at the time, which we are doing now after all these years but without Alex.”
What can you tell us about Reboot, the forthcoming U96 album?
“Reboot is a brand new U96 album with all new songs that we wrote in the past two years. It will be more along the lines of Replugged and we will also take this album on tour for the first time. We did some very interesting collaborations with other artists and we are very excited about it after all these years. One of the collaborators on Reboot is British techno artist Adamski.”
I understand you’ve also collaborated with Wolfgang Flür. How did this collaboration occur, and how much of a thrill was it to work with the Kraftwerk legend?
“Yes, we have recorded a track with him in medieval German language which sounds very strange. I’ve known Wolfgang for quite some time as he was working with a British band, Nitzer Ebb, that I released on my label, Major Records, which I had from 2004 to 2014. It is an honour to work with such a legendary person and apart from that he is a very nice guy.”
Do you have a release date yet?
“There is no definite release date yet as we will sign it with a brand new label that just starts into business this year, but it will definitely be released later this year along with a tour that will hopefully also take us to the UK again.”
Many people will of course associate U96 with Alex Christensen, who was the focal point of the band for many years. Was he invited to join this latest U96 project, or was he simply too busy to participate?
“Yes, that`s true. Alex was the focal point in this project for many years as we left him doing DJ sets under the name of U96 for quite some time. In the studio though it was mainly Ingo and myself that produced and wrote the songs from the very beginning of U96 until now. As a band (Ingo, Alex and me) we only did one public appearance and that was on Top Of The Pops, the biggest UK TV show at the time. Of course, we asked Alex to join the new U96 live set, but he wasn’t interested as he is not a musician and he wants to concentrate on his work as a producer.”
How are you enjoying the live shows?
“We love to do live shows and at the moment we are working on the visual concepts for the next U96 shows which will take place later this year.”
Finally, with a new Das Boot TV series arriving in 2018, are there any plans for you to re-release (or re-record) your most revered single?
“We are actually working on that one right now! Especially because we don’t want to just play a retro show when we go on tour. We’d rather do a show with brand new songs and some of the old classics of course, but in a way that is more ‘now’.”
The Electricity Club gives its warmest thanks to Hayo Lewerentz.