Camera Obscura

For a few years in the mid-1980s, I lived in a half-timbered house (just a mile from where I live now) in the countryside east of Cologne – easily the most romantic place I have ever lived in -, together with a few friends. One of them was Hans Niederberger who today is my neighbour again. He still can’t decide if he is a drummer or a keyboard player 🙂

We had set up a rehearsal room in the basement, with a drumset, many keyboards (including a CP-70 piano and a mellotron – or did the mellotron come later?), and my guitar equipment (including the Revox tape decks that I used for ‚Frippertronics‘ tape loops).

Here in this room, I also recorded the synthesizer loops (using Hans’s synthesizers) that I later called ‚Soaring in Circles‘ (after a poem by Gary Snyder) – at that time I just experimented very innocently, I had no idea that I would eventually release them as a Bandcamp album and people would actually buy it. This was the time before Internet!

When bass player Urs Fuchs moved in in 1983, we started to make more music together, and a project was born that we called ‚Camera Obscura‘. We recorded first versions of ‚Die Reise‘, a kind of suite about the theme of journey.

Last year, I put our old (and never before released) recordings on Bandcamp and called it ‚The First Journey‘. Recorded on a 4-track tape recorder, these pieces sound rough, adventurous, and unpolished compared to the studio versions that we recorded later.

The three parts of the Journey suite were called ‚Time for departure‘ (featuring acoustic guitar patterns that were somewhat influenced by early Genesis pieces), ‚With the Current‘ (a Frippertronics loop), and ‚On new Shores‘ (a drum and bass groove with my guitar solo on top).
We also recorded some versions of ambient soundscapes that for some reason were called ‚Also sprach Hans-Heinz‘, a title that was changed to ‚Alle Zeit der Welt‘ on the released album later.

Later that year, we approached Matthias Becker in Cologne who had a recording studio and a small record label that got famous for his ‚Electronic Music from Cologne‘ and ‚Synthesizers from Yesterday‘ sampler series (he owned an enormous collection of synthesizers at the time). We wondered if he might be interested in releasing our homemade recordings.

Matthias did like the music but suggested to do a new recording in his studio, and so we did. The new versions of the music featured sounds from the legendary Fairlight sampler, occasional dreamy voices by Alice Dütsch, drums by Uli Riechert, and I played my first guitar solo using a harmonizer.

In 1984, Matthias released the Camera Obscura album on vinyl, containing the ‚Journey‘ suite, a side-long ambient soundscape called ‚All Time of the World‘, and a beautiful VCS3 synthesizer loop with Gregorian chants on top, composed by Matthias.

Somehow we got into contact with Archie Patterson who ran ‚Eurock‚, a US based magazine and record distributor, specialized in Krautrock and European synthesizer music. He loved our record and wrote this paragraph about it – because of Archie, we sold many more copies in the US than here in Germany. Thank you Archie !!

„Not to be confused with the Belgian/French industrial group of the same name, the debut LP of Germany’s Camera Obscura is one of the most enchanting electronic records of spatial music I’ve heard in a long time. Consisting basically of two synthesists and two guitarists, they set up a soaring soundscape of ethereal ambiance filled with intertwining waves of electronics and guitar tones. Comparison with Fripp/Eno and perhaps Vangelis aren’t too far off, but Camera Obscura lacks both their intellectualism and instead creates a more organic, evolving sound that effortlessly combines softness with heavy dynamics in a breathtaking way. Great stuff, give a listen. One of the all time great German electronic albums (seriously)“

Matthias rereleased the album on CD later, with a different cover image. The Vinyl and the CD are still available from Originalton West, and Burning Shed also sells CD copies.

We only did one live gig – at midnight in a church. And we were featured in the WDR radio, with a live interview in ‚Schwingungen‘, Winfrid Trenkler’s legendary series about synthesizer music. But Camera Obscura stayed a one-off project – we tried to revive it during the 1990s, adding a few other musician friends, but it didn’t quite materialize.