Our associate Matthew Landrum editor caught up with Eva Milner, the lead singer of the German band Hundreds, in the middle of their summer tour. They talked singing in second languages, Bob Dylan, and nuclear apocalypse.
Matthew: What is the relationship between German and English in your life? Where do you use which?
Eva: I watch movies in English, I read a lot in English. But I don’t talk that much in English. So, it is like a language for storytelling to me. I would never write lyrics for songs in German, it would feel wrong. I listen to a lot of German bands whose lyrics are great and poetic. But I could not be on stage and sing the same stuff I sing in English translated in German. I would feel naked. The English language is a playground for me. Also, I like the sound better, especially if you have to sing it. German is quite harsh sounding. English feels like a peppermint soft candy to me.
Matthew: What language do you dream in?
Eva: German. But when I spent some weeks only speaking English, while travelling, I started dreaming in English.
Matthew: In which does a song begin?
Eva: Usually, when I start writing lyrics, I have a feeling about the mood and the topic. And then I start searching for a word to start, sometimes in books, sometimes in other songs. I love reading lyrics from other artists. Also, I like experimenting with the sounds of the words. So, I sing and write at the same time, to try if it works.
Matthew: There’s a lovely strangeness in your songs. In “Let’s Write the Streets,” you sing, “Could you sit with me under the icicles? Give me your trembling hands. I don’t wear kid gloves.” Could you talk about the mood and word experimentation that that song grew out of?
Eva: “Let’s Write the Streets” was our first hit. But only in Berlin. It is a song we still play a lot and people are always wooing when the Philipp plays the first chords. It is meant to be an uplifting, motivational song. I first had the picture in my mind: We draw our own map and find new paths, we are pure and innocent, so let’s discover the world with new eyes. I wrote it to a friend of mine, who was afraid take control over his life. He was always waiting for something great to happen. But nothing ever happens, if you only react. He was kind of depressed and I deeply care about him. I thought a lot about his problems. So, this is where the song came from.
The first picture I found was: “We are whitest sheets, let’s write the streets”. This is also the chorus. Could you sit with me under the icicles? means: We are in a dangerous place, it is cold and an icicle could fall down anytime. But I stay here with you. I will take care of you and also, I will speak the truth. That’s why I don’t wear kid gloves. In German, there is the expression of wearing velvet gloves. It means you have to be very careful with someone because that person is highly sensitive. And when you don’t wear them you are just honest.
Matthew: Your last two albums are Aftermath and Wilderness. Are those words your experimenting with for the vision of the album? Do you have a working title or word you’re experimenting with for your next album?
Eva: Aftermath is a word I really liked for a long time. The first time I heard it was in a beautiful song of the Danish band Kashmir. It is called “The Aftermath”. The song is from 2003, I think. Then I met the word again in 2010 in a song called “Foamborn,” which was played by our supporting act Touchy Mob on our shared tour. We made a cover of this song. I really love the lyrics: “Lukewarm, you promised. I burned my foot in the bath. Who’d ever mind the aftermath.” (The whole song’s lyrics are unbelievably good in my opinion. Bob Dylanesque). So, the word was around for a long time. It really fits into the mood of the album. And also, it was our second album. It was kind of an “aftermath state” we were in.
Wilderness was the first song we wrote for the new album. And for us, it was such a different sound and approach. It doesn’t have a normal song structure. It just builds up and builds up until it explodes in a thunderstorm. This felt really liberating. Also, the lyrics are the guideline for the rest of the album, which examines the apocalypse. Sounds strange, but I really had to get this subject out of my system.
We’re just about to start with the next album. So, no. We don’t have a word, but I hope it will find me soon.
Matthew: You had the apocalypse in your system. Could you explain more on that?
Eva: When I was a little girl I read a book from a german youth book’s author called Gudrun Pausewang. The Book is called ” Die Kinder von Schewenborn”. It is a novel about three young children, who are losing their parents, because of a catastrophic nuclear accident, happening right in the middle of Germany. Her descriptions were full of details about the bodily changes, like hair loss caused by radiation sickness, the children are going through. Everything is poisonous, animals are dying, you can’t trust anyone, because the surviving population goes crazy. I guess Pausewang’s intention was to educate even young children about the risks of having nuclear power plants standing around. For me it was purest horror. I couldn’t understand, why in the world would mankind invent such a horrible thing! Something got broken inside of me. I was afraid and that’s when my thoughts about apocalypse, caused by stupid humans, began to develop. I have a deep incomprehension for all that kind of stuff. Atom bombs. Bombs at all. Waste in the oceans. So, I am kind of a pessimist, when it comes to mankind.
Matthew: And music helps you process all this.
Eva: I love good lyrics, in particular, when they come accompanied by great music, sung by a special voice. So, that’s why I started writing them in the first place (my all-time favourite writer when it comes to song lyrics: Joni Mitchells “Ladies of the Canyon”). But of course, the main part is the music, not the lyrics. I tried to bring solace on the first album. On the second album, I talked about my inner fears and things that I miss, like childhood friendships, being a child in general. The third album was about the apocalypse, a topic that followed me for a long time.
Matthew: Speaking of Bob Dylan, what are your thoughts on his controversial Noble Prize in Literature?
Eva: I adore his lyrics and songs. Especially his early stuff. So, I think it is well earned. Even if he is not a poet or author in the classical sense.
Matthew: What are some all-time favourite books and what are you reading right now?
Eva: My Little Helper, when I am writing: John Burnside. His poems are always with me. In English.
I love Siri Hustvedt. I think all of her books are my favourite, especially What I Loved. But, it is hard to decide.
I love American literature: Paul Auster, Jonathan Frantzen, T.C. Boyle, Joey Goebbel … I also love older stuff like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Silvia Plath, Katherine Mansfield. My all-time favourite is Virginia Woolfe.
The list could go on and on and on.