This interview was conducted with members of the band Cara at the Skye Theatre venue in Carthage, Maine, on March 10, 2010 and was originally posted on Lunch.com on March, 18, 2010.
When you think of great Celtic musicians and bands, you probably don’t immediately think of Germany, but that’s only because you aren’t familiar with Cara yet.
Germany was once renowned throughout the world of classical music for its talented musicians and composers. One only has to mention names like Handel, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, Brahms, Orff, or Strauss, and you know exactly how great this country’s musical history is. Yet in recent years, here in America there have only been a few German musicians and bands to really step into the spotlight of popular music. It pretty much goes without saying that none of them were playing classical. No, in recent years it’s the pop and rock bands from Germany that have broken through and entered the modern musical arena. Most of us remember New Wave artists like Nena or heavy metal bands like The Scorpions, but there’s been very little of what one would call “traditional” music to receive widespread attention in the states. However, that is changing.
One of the bands that’s helping to change the common perception of what a band from Germany should sound like is Cara. The group is absolutely unique and can’t really be compared to most of what you might hear on the radio. The reason for this is that, though Cara is from Germany, they play mostly traditional and contemporary folk music from Ireland, Scotland, and England.
Even when it comes to what one might call Celtic music, Americans can be very limited in their perception. While there have been some top-selling performers like The Chieftains, Clannad, Enya, Loreena McKennitt, U2, Sinéad O’Connor, The Cranberries, and The Corrs, a lot of these performers fit more into the New Age or Alternative Rock genres than into what one would consider traditional Irish music. Today, you’re most likely to find Irish folk music within the confines of a small bar or perhaps in the auditorium of your local college campus. So, why is it that a German band has been able to break this barrier and expose the world to a musical art form that hasn’t been given the international respect that it deserves?
The band Cara has an unusual history musically. Each member of the group was brought up either listening to a wide range of music or playing it. Jürgen Treyz, the band’s guitarist, was once part of the trio King-Walther-Treyz. In that band, he performed with his partner and the group’s fiddler, Gudrun Walther and with bassist Florian King. When Florian King had to leave the group, Jürgen and Gudrun decided to form a new group. They had been playing Irish music for sometime and wanted to form an Irish folk group.
Now, in Germany there are actually quite a few Irish bands or at least musicians, and generally they all get together in small groups and play sessions. It was at these sessions that Cara would really take form. Soon, Gudrun and Jürgen had recruited a talented vocalist and flute player named Sandra Gunkel. They then learned that Sandra also played the piano and they loved the idea of including a piano in their music. They also tried to recruit Claus Steinort, though he was somewhat hesitant to join since they already had a flute player in Sandra. However, he did ultimately change his mind. Now, Claus and Sandra are married and have a daughter. But no band could be complete without a strong rhythm section. The group sought out Rolf Wagels, who masterfully plays the bodhrán, a small Irish frame drum made from wood and topped with goatskin. With this lineup the group would record their first album In Colour in 2003 and the rest, as they say, is history.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to sit down with four of the five members of Cara while they were preparing for a concert in my home state of Maine. I have seen the band perform twice, both times at the same small, charming, and intimate venue. The first thing that one would note about the band is how ebullient and friendly they all are, both on and off of the stage. We wound up sitting down in a circle in the middle of the concert hall, which at first was a little awkward for me where I’m still new to giving interviews, but they quickly put me at ease and we began to talk as though we were all friends.
I began the interview with a series of questions about the individual members of the group to get a better idea of who they were as people… I first asked each member if there was a specific song or songs that they were personally most fond of, and the answer was a pretty adamant ‘no‘.
“Well, I’m on the instrumental side, so I like all the fast tunes and jigs,” Claus told me. “So, I don’t have a preference really. Sometimes I prefer the jigs and other times the reels, you know. I like the slower tunes as well. Really, I can’t say that this is the piece I like most.“
This seemed to be the common response, although each member had a different reason for feeling this way.
“I would have to say all of them. They’re all my favourite,” Rolf told me enthusiastically.
At this the group laughed for a bit.
“I really can’t – I really wouldn’t like to pick a specific song or tune, ’cause they’re all very appealing to me. And it would be very unfair to the rest of the songs. There really isn’t any song where I go, ‘Oh, Jesus, not that one again.’ They’re really all special to me,” Rolf elaborated.
“What Rolf says is very true,” Gudrun told me. “It’s the same with me, but what happens when you play a gig, a live show, is that some things by chance are very inspired and maybe others aren’t that particular night. I remember that on the DVD, ‘Bustles and Bonnets‘, the song about the whales, for some reason that came out very inspired. I remember having goose pimples, which is always a good sign.“
As I’ve mentioned before, Cara has an interesting and diverse musical history. Of course, they are asked about this frequently and I didn’t want to have them repeat themselves in telling me what I could have just as easily learned from their website or from another interview, so I attempted to avoid any redundant questions. I was curious about how old each of them were when they were swept up into Irish music and what brought them to play it. Gudrun explained that she had been a fan of Irish and Scottish music since she was a child.
“I started playing trad (traditional) music at six years and then I had classical lessons from the age of seven,” she said.
“At what age did each of you become interested in Irish music?” I asked.
“Five,” Gudrun responded almost immediately, the energy which she displays on stage while performing still evident.
At this, the whole group had a hearty laugh. Claus was a bit more reserved in his answer.
“I was about eleven when I first heard the music, but I didn’t pick it up an instrument before I was eighteen.“
I asked him how many instruments he played.
“I play a lot of whistles, which don’t count because they’re all just whistles, but I play the flute, the (uilleann) pipes, and the concertina.“
He also plays the guitar, although not within the band. Then I turned to Rolf and asked him when the music bug first bit him.
“Well, I was sixteen when I first got interested in Irish music, but I was twenty-one when I first picked up the bodhrán,” he replied.
I asked him, “Is that while you were in Ireland?“
He answered, “I was in Ireland with an orchestra. I was playing the French horn, so I had a classical background as well, which is completely unrelated to Irish music… the French horn. Yeah, we were over on a tour in a music exchange and that was when I fell in love with it.“
At this point, I mentioned that I hadn’t done any real travelling or been to Europe and that I was wondering whether there was a large community of Irish musicians in Germany.
“There is, but it’s not really vast. There are quite a lot of people that play in sessions in every town,” Gudrun explained.
I told them that I was a little surprised to hear that, because I was under the impression that playing Irish music would be fairly unique in Germany, especially the more traditional Irish folk music.
“Folk music is all over the world,” Rolf told me energetically. “You can go to almost any big city in the world and you’ll find some people playing Irish music. There’s always some session going on or…“
“Or in an Irish bar. Even in Germany or wherever you are,” Gudrun pointed out.
When I asked how they were all drawn to the music, Gudrun explained that each member of the band found their way into it separately and that when they formed as a group, each member was already playing Irish music.
Following that same train of thought, I next asked them about their experience touring and where they had been so far. “You’ve all done quite a bit of touring. Other than Europe and the United States, where have you been?“
“Other than Europe and the United States?” Gudrun repeated. At this she chuckled. “Well, Europe for us, the Americans say ‘It’s Europe’. But for us, it’s all these different countries. So, if someone would ask me where we have toured, I would say in France, Italy, Holland, Belgium, Ireland, Scotland, and Germany.“
Somewhat embarrassed that I had asked this question from the perspective of an American, who had not travelled, and not that of someone more familiar with the many countries in Europe, I eagerly decided to change the topic.
I next asked, “Recently, you guys were nominated for and won the Irish Music Award for ‘Best New Irish Artist’. That must have been very exciting, right?“
Rolf smiled and responded first, saying, “Yeah, that was definitely a big honor. To have been nominated for that and to win the thing was a great honor. Especially for us coming from Germany being nominated for an Irish Music Award is something very special.“
“And that probably doesn’t happen very often, does it?“
“No, it doesn’t,” he said. “It’s never happened before.“
I smiled at this and said, only half jokingly, “So, now we’re going to have a whole bunch of German bands who are aspiring to be just like Cara?”
At this the whole group burst into laughter. “Hey, it might happen,” Gudrun offered merrily.
Next, I found myself asking again about their touring. I was curious to know how they had dealt with the fact that Sandra wasn’t able to tour with them on the past few American tours. Sandra had chosen to stay home to take care of her and Claus’ daughter while the rest of the band toured. On those tours, Amanda Kehoe and Patricia Clark filled in for Sandra.
Claus replied, “Every person that plays within the band, for instance Sandra, brings something personal and special. When another person steps in as a substitute it will never be exactly the same. And it should not be the same ’cause the group is comprised of five individual persons. So, on the one hand, we were sad that Sandra could not be with us every time. On the other hand, both girls who came in for her (Amanda Kehoe and Patricia Clark) brought in new influences and it was a new experience, so it has two sides to it. Sure, everybody would prefer to go out and play with the original lineup.“
“But it has it’s advantages as well, you see,” Gudrun added. She then explained, “Because we were looking for a replacement for a piano player and a singer who could also play a melody, so that’s a hard one. But we ended up working with people from Ireland that we hadn’t actually met before we started rehearsing. Of both, we are great fans, because when you have been on tour for four weeks and you get along so well you never part ways.“
“Yeah,” Rolf said smiling. “It’s great if you’re still friends and not enemies after four weeks.“
He and Gudrun chuckle at this knowingly.
“What they both did was to bring in their favourite songs or tunes into the repertoire for that particular tour they were doing with us,” Gudrun expounded. “Some of those songs just stayed in the band’s repertoire and some of those songs we’re still playing on tour. So, it’s great to work with or get the chance to with other musicians as well. Everyone can benefit from that I think.“
Continuing on that same stream of consciousness I asked, “Musically, you all play multiple instruments within the band, right?“
“I don’t,” Rolf told me. “I just play the bodhrán.“
“So when Sandra or another member of the band isn’t there with you, how do you make up for it as far as the music goes? Do you delegate certain parts of the melody to another player? I believe that both Jürgen and Claus will be playing different instruments tonight…“
“Well, not different instruments,” Claus pointed out. “In my case, I don’t play anything that I didn’t play before, but Jürgen does play the piano as well.“
At this Jürgen told me, “This time it’s special. Normally we come over on tour as a five-piece band like with the last tours. This time we’re only the four and that’s a special situation. Normally, we would have looked for another to step in for Sandra, but this is the way it is. I had to take over some of the piano parts, ’cause I think that the piano is a vital part of Cara‘s sound. And of course, there’s something still missing because normally you’d have the piano and the guitar.“
I was curious if this had limited them much in what they could play for songs.
“Oh, yeah,” Gudrun said. “We’ve changed our repertoire quite a bit. Also, for me it meant that I had to play a lot more of the accordion than I usually would. You see with the accordion, you can play chords, but also do backing for songs as well. And I can sing at the same time, which is a bit harder with the fiddle. I find it really hard to sing while I’m playing the fiddle, so the accordion is playing a much bigger role in the current set.“
At this point, it was pretty obvious that I was sitting down with a very talented and hard-working group of people and I was beginning to wonder how they handled it all. I asked them how they managed with everything going on within the band when they also had either jobs or responsibilities outside of the band that took precedence as well.
“Not all of us (have secondary jobs),” Gudrun told me before adding, “but if we don’t have secondary jobs we have secondary bands.” She laughed at this.
“Or tertiary as you actually have three bands,” I added.
She smiled and jested, “I know, I know. You don’t need to remind me.” With this remark she laughed some more.
“And Rolf, you’re a practicing veterinarian, correct?“
“I work at the University of Hannover as a vet, so it’s my holiday being here.“
Gudrun smiled and asked, “Are you enjoying your holiday?“
“I love my holidays,” Rolf laughed and responded with great enthusiasm.
Next, I let my curiosity get the best of me and I asked the question that musicians and singers hate the most.
“When can we expect another CD from you all?“
To my surprise, they weren’t only willing to answer, but seemed glad that I asked.
“We’ll be going back into the studio in May,” Gudrun announced beaming.
Intrigued and wanting to know when this new CD would be available, I asked them how long it usually took them to put together an album.
“It depends, it depends,” she said. “It could be anything between like two weeks and a year depending on how much time everybody has. The first CD was a quick one because we all were there basically and we all had the time to work on it. But with the second CD, Claus and Sandra’s daughter was very little, so they couldn’t be away from home for a long time and also were busy. We ended up recording bits and pieces over a couple of months. Really, we met for like two days in the studio and recorded, then didn’t work on it for three weeks. That’s why it’s called ‘In Between Times‘. And the next album ideally shouldn’t be that way. We want to go back and take the time, then record it in one go.“
Claus also gave further insight into the process of putting together a CD. He told me, “There are several steps. First of all, you have to collect all the tunes and songs that you want to record, or write them, and decide which ones work enough that you want to record them. You have to have a big pool of material that you can choose from. And you have to work on it, arrange it, and rehearse it. Then it comes down to recording. The recording itself is actually the shortest part if everybody knows what it is we’re about to play in a particular song. If it’s good then you may record it in one week or so. But getting there and checking out all the details and the arrangements, that takes time.“
Since their formation in 2003, Cara has released two albums on CD (In Colour and In Between Times), a phenomenal live DVD/CD set (In Full Swing), and won critical acclaim throughout the Western world. They first toured the U.S. in 2007 and they have been back to tour the states four times since then. People genuinely love this band from Germany, not only for their music, but for their lively personalities and their demeanour. Unlike some bands, Cara has no pretensions or attitude about how great they are, and yet they are truly great. Cara is a group that possesses humility and humour, and they aren’t going to take themselves seriously. The music is what matters for them and sharing that music. So, if Cara comes to your town, and you have the opportunity to see them live, I strongly suggest that you go because the group is wunderbar!