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Wolfgang Tillmans
Nine Songs
Wolfgang Tillmans

Having secured his place among the great visual artists of our time, Wolfgang Tillmans is fastidiously resurrecting a long-abandoned music career, and doing it in style. He talks Alan Pedder through the songs that have shaped him.

14 June 2024, 08:30 | Words by Alan Pedder

Music has always been hardwired into the life and work of Wolfgang Tillmans, but it’s only now, in his 50s, that the Turner Prize-winning artist can sit comfortably with the label of musician.

“In the visual arts, one often looks at musicians going into painting with a slightly justified degree of suspicion,” he says, amiably. “So when it came to switching mediums myself, I’ve been quite wary and wanted to tread carefully.”

Speaking to Best Fit from his studio in Berlin, standing up at his laptop after a long morning of Zoom calls with a photographer in Lagos (“part of a mentoring programme for queer artists that I’m taking part in”), Tillmans has come prepared with some notes for each of the nine favourite songs he wants to discuss. A few weeks have passed since he released his stylistically diverse new album Build from Here, which veers more assertively into art-pop terrain than the electronic experiments of his 2021 debut Moon in Earthlight, and Tillmans is delighted by the response.


Build from Here is the latest development in a recording career that began in the mid-‘80s (in a band called Fragile), stalled soon after, and was only resurrected in 2014 when Tillmans took a sabbatical from his other artistic pursuits. Tillmans describes it as “a slow coming out.” “I felt a calling in me to perform again,” he says. “It coincided with a realisation I had that I am actually performing my exhibitions as well. You know, I am physically spending maybe 10 days or 2 weeks in a gallery or museum making imprints of my hands on the walls. I wanted to know where following that performance aspect might lead, and now, 8 years after I put out my first EP, I feel sort of comfortable in music for the first time.”

As a photographer and artist, Tillmans has often worked in and around various music scenes, whether photographing musical artists or documenting club culture throughout the world. He’s also done some occasional DJing, notably in the early 2000s at venues like The Ghetto, a staple of the London gay scene that was demolished in 2009, alongside The Astoria, to build what’s now known as the Elizabeth Line. “I first went to that venue in 1986, when it was called Busby’s and it had a small fish tank,” he reminisces. “At Ghetto, I would sometimes DJ at the night they had there called The Cock, but, as with being a singer and musician up to now, I always felt super respectful of the professionals and never felt that I should really ‘go there’ fully.”

It becomes clear throughout our conversation that Tillmans’ many visits to London in the ‘80s – often on school trips or during the school holidays – were incredibly formative in shaping and reinforcing his music tastes. Some of those British influences remain apparent on Build from Here (Pet Shop Boys on “Morning Light”, a touch of Joy Division on the live recording “Grüne Linien”), but Tillmans doesn’t overload them. His early love of Culture Club instilled an understanding of how disparate styles and ideas could be united under one unique banner, and, as an exercise in collage and fluidity, Build from Here goes surprisingly far beyond what one might expect from someone so modest about their practice.

There’s a real sincerity to the songs that also comes across when Tillmans speaks about his favourites as a fan. Discussing his Nine Songs list, he describes it as an expression of the way in which he prefers to work, which essentially boils down to asking himself “If I like something, where did that come from and what was it before I knew it?” and “If I felt passionate about it back then, what do I feel passionate about today?” “I’m constantly weaving backwards and forwards in time in my own catalogue of negatives and photographs, and for me music is a similarly strong marker of time,” he explains. There’s not so much weaving today though as he asks that we go through them in chronological order – starting in 1984, the year that queer pop broke into the mainstream.

"Highwire Days" by The Psychedelic Furs

BEST FIT: I read that The Psychedelic Furs were a big influence on you as a young man. What is it about their music, and this song in particular, that spoke to you and speaks to you still?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I think it was the abstractness of the lyrics, and the fact that they are so passionately intoned. I find that really intriguing. I was, of course, a huge New Order fan as well. Bernard Sumner also sings these abstract lyrics but in a very detached way.

Richard Butler’s voice and singing deeply touched me when I first heard The Psychedelic Furs back in 1984, when I was 16. It was at a time when I had befriended some neighbours in a side street who were about 10 years older than me. The difference between 16 and 26 is a pretty huge one, so my parents really frowned upon me going over to their house.

In those days, on Tuesday evenings, there was a TV show called Formel Eins, which was like the German Top of the Pops. It played late, at 9pm, and at the time it was the only place where you would watch music videos on television. I would go over to their house to watch it, and through Ute and Bert and friends I found out about a lot of great bands that were not part of the Soft Cell, Culture Club, electronic, New Wave family that I was into.

The Psychedelic Furs was one of those discoveries, and I was especially into “Highwire Days”. There’s just something that gets me about this song. It has this sort of Neil Young-like longing and passion, and I think that maybe these themes of longing and passion are ones that run throughout all the songs we’re going to talk about.

What's your interpretation of the song, lyric-wise?

Well, it’s interesting. The highwire is a balancing act and it’s hugely risky, but the song doesn’t really talk about the risk of falling. For me, it’s sort of about clarity.

When Richard Butler sings in the chorus “I can see all the way,” for me, I get a sense of encouragement. It’s an encouragement to take risks, but not in a fatalistic, dangerous sort of way. It’s not about riding the devil, which is of course a big rock theme too. Cruising close to the sun, close to danger, that sort of thing. It gives a sense of being light-headed almost, like air, but it is actually really risky if you’re there. I guess it spoke to the artist in me who didn't quite know what art he would be making.

I have to confess, I only read the lyrics for the first time today. I think that’s also the beauty of pop. The lyrics are sometimes only a fraction of what you get out of a song. I mean, there are also songs in German that I can’t fully understand.

"My Candle Burns" by Marc Almond

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: This song is from 1985, which was when I was 17 and had a terrible fear of having contracted HIV. That fear was just the reality for anybody gay growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and I guess the existential, not explicitly goth, streak in Mark Almond’s work really spoke to me. A lot of Mark’s work is about love and death, but I guess the particular beauty of “My Candle Burns”, for me, is the imagery he uses and the sort of ecclesiastical choir in the background.

I think my love of this song also speaks to my love for the ecumenical chants of the Taizé monastery, which was set up during the Second World War in Burgundy in France. They have developed their own, very specific chants that are super melodic and repeated in many different languages. The whole project is one of reconciliation between different peoples in the light of the horrors of the war. I’m regretting now that I didn’t put one of those in this list, because I’ve been close to those chants since my early teens.

BEST FIT: Which of the chants would you want to include?

Let’s go with “In Te Confido”.

Done. Consider it a bonus track.

Great. Okay, so getting back to Marc Almond. He and Soft Cell have been kinds of a constant presence in my life, but the first time I saw him was in ’93. He was playing a small concert somewhere in Knightsbridge, but I can’t remember where or why. I think it was just him and a piano player, and I was standing only two or three metres away from them. I remember I was so touched by this artist who had only his voice as his instrument. I have always admired people like that so much. He always strikes me as such a 100% artist.

I later filmed Marc for a film I made for Tate Britain in 2003, and then in 2013, when I had a big exhibition in Düsseldorf, he came and played a few songs after the dinner, and that made a dream come true for me.

Would you say that you’ve formed a friendship with him?

Yes, it probably sounds like that, though I should say that I made sure that he was fully paid for the concert. I think that’s even more of a sign of reverence. A friend should not call in a favour, you know?

We have friends in common, too, but you know how it is these days – one speaks more often through an Instagram comment than in person. But I do love that he has complimented some of my songs on there. That’s incredible feedback.

"Change on Me" by Cynthia

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: This song is from 1988, and it’s a great example of the freestyle genre of music. But before I get into this one I have to refer back to the mother of the entire genre, which is Shannon’s “Let the Music Play” from 1983, a whole five years earlier. It was incredibly innovative. It has the bassline of a Roland TB-303 running throughout, in a sort of pre-acid house way. It has a unique sound, which became known as ‘The Shannon Sound’, and eventually as freestyle.

When I first heard “Let the Music Play” in ’83, it so blew my mind. It was something that I’d never heard before. It was something absolutely new. But, apart from Shannon doing a number of slightly knock-off songs, to my mind nothing much happened with this style of music. In the small-town environment I grew up in, I did not have access to cool clubs and so this track remained a solitary song.

When I moved to Hamburg after school, aged 19, for the first time I became part of a club scene. There was a fantastic record shop there called Tractor, which would stock all the import records from places like London, New York and Chicago. The good thing about that was that they went through these records fairly quickly, and any that they couldn’t sell would end up in the 1 Mark bin, so about 50 cents in Euros. I remember finding and buying “No Reason to Cry” by Judy Torres there in 1988, and that’s when I suddenly realised that the Shannon sound had become a whole new genre.

I didn’t discover Cynthia until the early 2000s, when I started to actually look into records that I might want to play as a DJ, besides the records that I bought just as a fan. I came across a whole range of artists in that time, including Cynthia and this particular gem called “Change on Me”.

I guess I don’t love that a lot freestyle tracks are so similar, almost interchangeable, but it’s a fact that many of the best ones are produced by the same people, Elvin Molina and Mickey Garcia. They also produced tracks by Judy Torres, C-Bank and Johnny O. I guess the key thing in the tracks that I love is a female voice singing lyrics that are cranked to the absolute maximum of devotion. Songs about devoted love and commitment that goes on into eternity.

“Change on Me” is just a constant flow of these big feelings. I guess the absurdity of it is that I think anyone who has made a relationship work knows that it starts when you stop making the partner ‘yours’. But in song lyrics it’s constantly about making someone yours and being theirs, and fulfilling this fantasy of ultimate fulfilment. Dancing to lyrics like that feels like some kind of abandon.

Briefly as an aside, even though I've been sort of connected to the techno scene, and although I've been passionate about the sort of the madness and the inventiveness of techno, I've not been celebrating the loss of lyrics on the dancefloor. For me, some of the best examples were in the late ‘80s when you had people like Joe Smooth, Jomanda, Adeva – all with incredible songs that people could coagulate around.

BEST FIT: It’s interesting with Cynthia that she was only 17 when this song came out. It’s amazing that she could put so much conviction into singing something that she probably didn’t know much about.

That’s true, because it is 100% sung as if she means it. I find it fascinating that she as an artist has sort of lived in relative obscurity, but there are people who really get her music and are so passionate about it.

"Love You, Will You Love Me" by Judy Torres

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I chose this song by Judy Torres because she’s another important proponent of freestyle, and because I wanted to emphasise that this is a Latin American type of music ultimately. In my family we’d often listen to Latin music. My father did business in South America all his life as a travelling salesman and could speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese. I think, again, what it comes down to for me is the passion in the music. It’s kind of timeless in its intensity.

This song, “Love You, Will You Love Me”, is from 1989 but I only found out about it some years later, in 2012 maybe. I’d had “No Reason to Cry”, which I mentioned earlier and is really worth checking out also, but it took me a while to explore the other songs that Judy had done. This song, again, is one of absolute devotion, with lyrics like “I will always be by your side until the day that I die” and “I will never doubt my heart cause you’re the one that I adore.” It has these super high pitch synth stabs that sound almost like a synth trumpet, or something like that.

From what I’ve been able to find online, Judy Torres is still performing 35 years later. Although freestyle seems to be relatively niche these days, it’s an ongoing thing.

"Putting Up Resistance" by Beres Hammond

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I travelled to Jamaica in 1992 with i-D magazine, to interview and photograph Shabba Ranks, which was challenging for me as a gay photographer, given that our views were not really compatible. Still, it was a firsthand entry to the Kingston ragga scene at the time. I heard this song, “Putting Up Resistance”, on the car stereo and was totally touched and blown away by it. I had to write it down so I wouldn’t forget it, and luckily it was pretty clear that “Putting Up Resistance” must have been the title of the song.

Later, when we went to one of those incredible stores in Kingston where have thousands upon thousands of 7” singles, I bought a copy of “Putting Up Resistance” and brought it home to London. I’ve never been a huge ragga fan, though I could always feel it in some way, but this song really got me. The poetry of the lyrics and the potency of the music come together in such an incredible way. Even now, hearing him sing “Cause every time I lift my head above water / and try to save myself from drowning / there's an overnight scheme all worked out / designed to keep me down,” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s the cost-of-living crisis.”

I did go to see Beres Hammond play in Berlin some years ago and was happy that he played this song. Truthfully, he is more well known for his lovers rock music, so this kind of protest song is not the standard tone that he hits.

"II Adore" by Boy George

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: I first encountered Boy George and Culture Club in 1983, when I was 14 and a half. It was Easter and I was on my first trip to London. My mother had been on an exchange programme in 1955 with a school in Beckenham, in South London, and became lifelong friends with one of the students there. So when my siblings and I were teenagers, we were all sent to Aunt Valerie and Uncle Rick to improve our English.

In 1983, it was my turn to go, and it was just five months after “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” by Culture Club had come out. My friend Lutz and I had our eyes and hearts completely opened by that song. He was with me on that trip, as well as our friend Stephanie, who’s also from my hometown. I realised that Culture Club were playing at the Dominion Theatre while we were there, and somehow I was lucky enough to get some returns for the three of us. I remember, before the show, we went to the Burger King around the corner from the venue, went into the toilets and put Coca-Cola in our hair to make it spiky. A touch of afternoon punk.

Interestingly, for us, being huge Culture Club fans wasn’t about dressing up like Boy George, which was a huge thing among other fans. Somehow we were never into that. For us, he was just this really inspiring, strong-headed figure at the time. Of course, there were other popstars who were gay, but had to toe this line of not really saying it. At the time, if you were fully out, it was thought that being a popstar, a top ten artist, just wouldn’t work. That started to break down a bit in 1984, with Bronski Beat having a top ten hit and being an openly gay band. But the role that Boy George was playing was super exhilarating at the time. You knew how ‘dangerous’ he was, somehow, and the shock value of that.

Of course, at the time, I had no idea that what I was experiencing and what I was getting so excited about was what’s called post-modernism. It’s interesting when you read Culture Club stylistically, because even their typography was unique. The band themselves were a mix of Irish, English, Black and Jewish heritages, and all the symbolism they used was so fascinating in that it didn’t come with the typical art historical reference sheet.

I think that’s what made a lot of the work of that period in the ‘80s so everlasting and exciting, because it really felt that people were free to mix and match anything they wanted to. Of course, nowadays, 40 years on, we all know that we can combine whatever we want to achieve whatever creative effect, but it never has that uniqueness of being able to experience that freedom for the first time.

The interesting thing with Culture Club is that they are probably the only band that I was a big fan of that I no longer felt passionate about after a few years. There’s really very little Culture Club material that I listen to, or would even put on a playlist. But Boy George continued through the decades. Culture Club were over by 1986, so there has been almost 40 years of his solo career, and there have been some real gems like “The Crying Game” and “Il Adore”.

“Il Adore” is heartbreakingly beautiful. It was written in 1995, and it’s hard to not interpret it as the description of a close person dying of AIDS. The first line is “Mother clutches the head of her dying son,” and the song as whole perfectly captures the terror and pain and tears of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and just about makes it bearable. I’d say that one can still enjoy it without bursting into tears, so that’s quite an achievement by Boy George.

"My Sentimental Melody" by The Magnetic Fields

BEST FIT: 69 Love Songs is one of the ultimate queer albums. How did The Magnetic Fields come into your life?

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: That’s a really good question. It felt like it came completely out of nowhere. I think it was purely a word-of-mouth thing. I don’t remember which friend recommended it to me. In those days, an album like 69 Love Songs wouldn’t be stocked in a small Our Price, so I think I would had to go to the West End, to a major store on Oxford Street, to buy it. I might have even bought it on import, I’m not sure. Either way, I found myself sitting with these three full-length CDs, 69 songs, and having this long period of navigating this record. I think I listened to not much else for about a year.

I remember I would often think, ‘Ah, this is my favourite song,’ and then, half an hour later, it would be a completely different song that would become my favourite. I’d keep forgetting which song was which from the track names, and, to be honest, it was fine not really knowing because they were all great. But if I had to choose an all-time favourite, it would be “My Sentimental Melody”.

The instrumentation on this bittersweet song just gets me. It has a certain heart frequency that resonates with me. It sounds as though it’s a positive song, but it’s also a song scorning a love who spurned him: “But my sentimental melody / like a long-lost lullaby / will ring in your ears / down through the years / bringing a tear to your eye.” I get the sense of him taking a slight pleasure in their regret, some years down the line.

"Mind Reader" by Kingdom

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: Kingdom is a guy called Ruben from Los Angeles, who is a bass producer and DJ. I became aware of him and his label Fade to Mind through my friend [fashion designer] Nasir Mazhar, who I think used some of their music at his shows in 2010.

Later, I became so intrigued by this label, who had signed artists like Nguzunguzu and a young Kelela, and of course had Total Freedom associated. I was so intrigued that I used a trip to LA to spend time with and portray every artist on the label. Watching them making their music on Ableton, which at the time was still pretty new, was actually part of the inspiration for me in reconnecting with the idea of making my own music again, after 28 years of that being paused.

Even though “Mind Reader” is from 2010, I didn’t become fully aware of it until around 2013. What struck me about it was that it had such an intense nervousness and abstraction, and a total rejection of four-to-the-floor, and I was super excited about this merging of contemporary R&B and UK bass music. Not everything of Kingdom’s has stayed on my radar, but “Mind Reader” is such a hyper-dose of energy and I love it.

BEST FIT: Shyvonne’s vocals are just incredible on this song, wow.

Yes, I wonder what ever happened to her… [Editor’s note: find out on her Soundcloud]

"Hoho" by Lucie Antunes

WOLFGANG TILLMANS: We’re jumping right to 2023 with this song. It’s not that I haven’t been excited about other people’s music since 2014, but I wanted to highlight this French musician that I discovered last year via her second album Carnaval. I was lucky enough to be sent a preview copy of the album by a promoter. I’m not on many mailing lists for music, only a few, so I did end up listening to it in the studio. My assistant Marc sort of recognised it and how good it is, and I’ve been listening to it quite heavily since.

I got in touch with Lucie and went to Paris earlier this year, in February, to see her play what was her biggest show to date. I feel like I am overusing the word mind-blowing but I’m still searching for a more qualified word… It was just incredible to realise that the album was primarily recorded live, even though a lot of it sounds like it was programmed, and everything was played live on the stage. Lucie is primarily a percussionist, so some of the vocals on the album are hers and some are by other women. Even though she’s ostensibly a solo artist, for the live show she had about 15 women and maybe one man on stage. The whole format was amazing.

BEST FIT: I love how she comes from quite a serious musical background, but it sounds like she's having so much fun with this music and not taking it too seriously.

Yes, exactly. She’s influenced by Steve Reich and artists making similarly minimal music but she doesn’t hide that fact. Musically, it’s a part of where she’s coming from but it doesn’t weigh her down. Like you say, she takes these influences in her own playful and, in the case of “Hoho”, upbeat direction.

As a photographer, I feel grateful for my medium. Even though I can’t make more than a handful of exhibitions each year because they are very time-consuming and complicated productions, I do still have an object that I can sell, in terms of collectible photographs. A lot of musicians these days don’t really have a medium they can sell enough of to make a living.

Live concerts are one way of making money, but the reality of that, of course, is that it costs an incredible amount of money so that’s often out of reach unless you are very successful. Because of that you have incredible artists who find it hard to, for example with Lucie Antunes, break out of a national framework where she is making waves. So, yeah, I want to champion her a little bit.

Build From Here is out now via Fragile Records.

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