A young Berlin rock band has been touring through Germany since 2012 – ARSEN. This year, they got to play their songs – some of which are in Turkish – in front of a large crowd when they supported the Toten Hosen at a festival called Jamel rockt den Förster (engl. Jamal rocks the forester – ed.) which is a festival against racism.
I met lead singer Selime aka Selly, ”Drum Smurf“ Dennis and rhythm guitarist Norman in Café Kotti in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The three of them talked about something that started as a joke and then turned serious, what’s different about writing bilingual songs and how Turkish songs might sound to a German.
In previous interviews you said you play punk rock because it’s good way to let off steam. These days, your music is usually described as rock.
Punk is an attitude more than anything. It isn’t just a musical direction. We haven’t changed and no one has a say in that except us. We do whatever we feel like and that‘s what punk rock is all about. So we’re still punk, just with a few more chords.
It probably isn’t easy to choose a term when you don’t want to be categorized.
That’s right. Somehow we’ve moved from the punk metal description to German-Turkish rock. Because it seems to fit best and includes a bit of everything.
In 2012 you released your first album. What has changed since then and what hasn’t?
The faces in the band are still the same. Ok, we all look a bit older of course. Rock and roll is hard work.
Do you also play at intercultural festivals?
We’ve done some, like Rock für ein buntes Vogtland in Thuringia (engl. Rock for a colourful Vogtland county – ed.) and the Peace Festival in Iserlohn. We love doing the “multiculti” thing and the organizers usually contact us.
We were at the Fête de la Musique and next year we’re playing at the Karneval der Kulturen street festival in Berlin again. At Jamel rockt den Förster we were the Toten Hosen’s support band.
And we camped out on their terrace! (everyone laughs)
That was one of the highlights of the year and an important venue to promote tolerance and fight racism.
You’re aiming to be able to live off your music in the future. But at the moment you’ve all got jobs or are doing vocational training. That’s right, isn’t it?
Yeah, just to get by though….
That’s something that has changed. The uncertainty of what it’s going to be like when you start playing twenty to forty gigs a year. Our last lead guitarist left the band because he realized after the first tour that it was too much for him. It’s like having a double life. One for during the week to pay the rent, and then one for the weekends, where you blow people’s minds.
To start with, the idea that we might be able to earn a living just doing music was an on-going joke. Now we’ve got our own record label, make videos and organise our own festivals – we’ve really moved the goal posts. And we’ve started taking ourselves a bit more seriously.
A question for you Selly. Are you inspired by Turkish musicians?
I’ve spent a lot of time listening to Turkish rock bands. That’s how everything started. Before I moved to Germany, I lived in Turkey for eight years. When puberty hit, I got interested in music. Barış Manço, Murat Göğebakan, Duman, Şebnem Ferah, etc., but I don’t think I was directly influenced by anyone. It just came out of me. I used to listen to myself and say, this is you, this is how you sing, who you can be. I don’t want to sound like someone else.
Do you listen to Turkish music together?
We wanted to cover a Turkish song and Selly came up with three which we all listened to before choosing one together.
We picked Değmez by Özlem Tekin.
And then we all bring our favourite CDs with us when we’re on tour. So there are a couple of discs with Turkish metal on them that get played in the bus.
How do you decide which language to write a song in?
We always try to record two or three Turkish songs in one go. We start with instrumentals. I listen to the tunes during band practice and try to work out which one I should use. What sort of song do I want to make? There has to be at least one Turkish love song, like Sensiz. But I want powerful songs, too, with powerful lyrics for all the metalheads out there. So we don’t just do rock, we do songs with Turkish lyrics that really hit you hard.
Being able to write Turkish songs has broadened our horizons because we can try out new things with pieces of music that don’t suit German texts.
What do you feel when you are writing in Turkish?
It’s much easier for me, although my German is pretty good. I find it hard to express my thoughts in just a few sentences. I’d rather write thousands of pages every day. But I don’t have the talent to put all that into a short song. I’m better at sorting my thoughts in Turkish. And finding rhymes that don’t sound naff and are still meaningful is easier for me, too.
When I sing in Turkish, I’ve got more vocal freedom because I can use Turkish song phrasing. I can’t do that in German.
Selly gives us mincemeat and we turn it into köfte (everyone laughs).
I actually think there is a world of difference between the German and the Turkish songs, especially when Selly sings. How does the band see that?
It definitely feels as if there is twice as much of Selly when she sings Turkish.
I sometimes think it’s like driving with the handbrake on when she sings German and I imagine her thinking in Turkish and translating and then trying to sing, all at once.
Well it’s not like that! I don’t feel different emotionally. Sometimes there are more emotions in the German songs – like Worte gegen Krieg for example (engl. Words against War – ed.).
I’ve heard that people who speak two languages change their personalities without noticing. Maybe it’s a bit like that when you sing in two different languages. Something is different, but not for me. Turkish and German are fairly similar speech-wise. I don’t have to move my lips differently or anything. So singing is easy, I don’t need more air and I can still be myself.
Do you want to try out new ideas on the third album or do things differently?
We made the Muttererde (engl. Mother Earth – ed.) album in just three months and that was really hard. Listening to the songs now, we think we should have given ourselves at least another half a year to let things mature. So this time we’re planning to be more structured and calmer so that we can write really sound songs.