Meet the mastermind behind Germany’s Panzerballett – it doesn’t get odder than this…
OD – The name Panzerballett VS Jan Zehrfeld’s Panzerballett – what is the difference?
JAN – With the name ‘Jan Zehrfeld’s Panzerballett‘ – that was the idea of the ACT Music label. Before signing us, they didn’t like the name of the band, they wanted me to rename it because they were worried people would think, you know.. that we were Nazi’s or wondering if the band would attract any Nazis because of the name.
The head of ACT, Siggi Loch – who is a mighty man in the jazz business – he told me; “You should somehow rename it”. The name didn’t work out – with the debut he didn’t agree to it. With the second album he was convinced, then he said: “Okay, add something else to the name” and that’s where ‘Jan Zehrfeld’s Panzerballett‘ came from.
OD – So it was nothing to do with a different line-up influencing names or hosting guest musicians?
JAN – No, it’s the other way around – the recent album (Planet Z, released on 18th September) is all guest musicians. With the first album, we had a quartet, and the line-up changed over the next few years until 2010.
For 8 years we had the same line-up, and it felt like a band in a classical sense instead of just being a ‘project‘ of one guy. It’s changed now and it’s still ‘Jan Zehrfeld’s Panzerballett‘ but I don’t like calling it that. I like to keep it simple. The music itself is so complex, that everything else around it has to stay as easy as possible.
OD – There was a very interesting singer called Connie Krietmeier who was on Starke Stücke – was she a member?
JAN – No, she made a guest appearance. We didn’t have vocals but there were some ideas from other cooperation’s I did with Connie – she’s in the local scene and based in Munich too, and is the only singer in Munich that has this craziness and versatility.
We had started working together with some other projects which were nothing to do with Panzerballett. We took some of the best ideas out of these projects and thought “we should do this with Panzerballett!“. There is this track called ‘Zickenterror‘ which is on the debut album and it is an instrumental version – this is something I rearranged for a different project with Connie.
It turned out to be so great, so I thought that we should do the track again on the second Panzerballett album (Starke Stucke) with Connie on vocals. It’s different. If you’re not German you might not realize the lyrics are about a fight between a male and a female roommate that escalates, and in the end, they fuck [laughs].
The words are quite funny. When we went to the States, we had fans who knew the words of this song, but they didn’t have a clue what the lyrics meant – I remember some guy walking up to me and singing these lyrics to me to express his awe, but he didn’t know what he was singing. It has iconic potential, this song! Connie does the part really well.
OD – I recall her performance for a song called ‘Mein Teil‘ (Rammstein) which Panzerballett covered where her vocal range is crazy. I suppose you need a versatile vocalist for versatile music?
JAN – Yes! We have this Eurovision song contest cover called ‘Ein Bisschen Frieden‘ – a funny thing to have a martial band name performing ‘A Little Bit of Peace‘ (song title translated from German to English). A fan-made a video of our version of the song put over the original Eurovision video – I don’t have anything to do with this rendition. It’s very funny.
OD – With the more solid line-up from Tank Goodness, did you write all the music and hand it over to the members to rehearse, or did they have creative input on the writing process?
JAN – With the drums, I always have an idea of the scores – I score them out and hand them over – but with Sebastian (Lanser, ex-Obscura, Obsidious) he would listen to it, look at it, but he would bring in his own ideas, so he did his own drum arrangements, implementing all the madness that was driving him, but in a very good way. It was his way to become famous in the drumming world – Panzerballett was a chance for him to show what he could do.
All the other parts I score, hand to the members, and they play – there are no alterations. What you hear on the record with the drums is my basic scoring.
OD – A lot of Panzerballet’s songs are covers, for example, Pink Panther, The Simpsons, and a German Eurovision song (“Ein Bisschen Frieden“), among many others. What is the reason for so many covers? Is it because you like those songs or because you found something within the songs that could be made crazier?
JAN – The reason was Siggi Loch, who I mentioned before. He didn’t sign our debut because it was only original compositions. He wanted to change the band name, but he also wanted us to do 50% cover songs to generate more listeners.
The debut had already been recorded at that stage but I took up the idea because I thought it could be fun. I figured I could reimagine the song by using the tools I use in my own music. I just needed to separate harmonies and melodies; reharmonize and try different rhythms. My first attempt was ‘Pink Panther‘, and the idea was to touch on songs that are already popular. I decided to take songs from both genres we do; to pick songs from jazz and metal – so we took ‘Pink Panther‘ and of course ‘Smoke on the Water‘ and ‘Thunderstruck‘.
The fun thing was ‘translating‘ these songs from one genre to act as if they were a song from a particular genre. I don’t know what songs to cover anymore, but an idea would be to go down the path of reinterpreting classical music, like a segment I did of ‘Ride of the Valkyries‘ (a segment in the song Walkürenritt on Planet Z). That could be the next chapter.
I think Siggi Loch was right by highlighting the idea of covers because that way maybe people could relate better to the madness of Panzerballett and recognize what is happening in this music.
OD –Panzerballett has some interesting song titles. Do you have any stories behind those titles? For example, ‘Vulgar Display of Sauerkraut‘ is obviously a take on Pantera, but what is the reasoning?
JAN – With “Vulgar...” I wanted to do something metal – I’m a big Pantera fan, so I wanted to incorporate a basic groove similar to Pantera. The song is an original but with a contribution of their energy and sound. So, with a German version of a tribute, what could you call it? Add something typical German or with the same rhyme or vowels – it sounds similar to “.. Power” – “Sauer – kraut“, so why not?!
On the new album, there’s a song called “Alle Meine Entchen” (“All My Little Ducklings“) which is a song by a drummer called Andy Lindt – who I played on some of his albums back in the day. Andy is a nickname of the name Andreas.
The original title of the song was ‘Math Prog‘ but I figured; “let’s call it something different” – but what could we call this song that is complex and heavy? So, I figured out to contrast it to something small and simple – “All My Little Ducklings“! I said this to Andy, and he said; “Well, let’s change ‘Entchen’ to ‘Aentchen‘” which is a smaller form of Andy – little Andys. It’s bullshit but I thought this was even more amusing.
OD – You released a Christmas album (“X-Mas Death Jazz“, 2017”) which featured Jen Majura (Evanescence) and Steffen Kummerer (Obscura) among other guest musicians. What was the incentive to go for Christmas songs?
JAN – Around the same time, I started Panzerballett, when I got a computer with Q’Bass and started recording my own stuff, I got the idea of sending out musical Christmas greetings to my friends and colleagues.
The first one was ‘O Tannenbaum‘ which is very Queen orchestrated with three voices and electric guitars – like something Brian May would do. The second one was ‘Kling, Glöckchen” – at that time I was in a speed metal band, so I did a speed version of that song, but only for twenty seconds or so – just little Christmas greetings.
I got good feedback, so it became a thing where I sent out these greetings every year. Their style developed and I got some plays in prog radio stations and it got to the point where people were asking; “What song are you going to do this year?“. In the end, I had done this for thirteen years, so I had thirteen different songs, so I figured if I unrolled them and wrote them more as Panzerballett renditions it could be exciting. Christmas is also business so it being a 100% cover album it was my hope to get some commercial response off that.
OD – Was it popular in Munich? Did any local shops play it in support?
JAN – No, in Germany they wouldn’t play it. I had a zip folder of some of my crazy Christmas songs and some colleagues told me they would play it to their families around the Christmas tree, so it got some rotation in people’s homes, but I don’t know about any shopping malls; or anything like that.
OD – Panzerballett songs are notoriously difficult to play – do you intentionally go for difficult structures to keep challenging yourself or does it come naturally to you at this stage?
JAN – It’s both at once. I like a challenge and to push boundaries and always looking for new opportunities to raise the bar. No matter where you are, never stay there. That’s how Panzerballett developed; because I always wanted to improve and take on new challenges.
If it’s something I could do then it’s boring. Meshuggah are one of my favourite bands of all time and I couldn’t understand what they were doing, I thought; “Wow, that’s crazy – but what is it that makes it crazy?” and I eventually found out.
I wrote my thesis on them because I thought it was a good topic. It’s awesome what they’re doing, so I, of course, used their Indian principal of odd time signatures in my own compositions. Actually, most of their music isn’t odd time signatures, most of it is 4/4 but superimposed and really complicated like 23/16 over 4/4 but it still stays in 4/4! Headbangable, but still crazy. This way of mastering rhythms and coming up with new stuff is what keeps me going.
One time I found this quintuplet-based composition – on the album ‘Tank Goodness‘ the song ‘Some Skunk Funk‘ is a classic song in the jazz sense by a musician called Randy Brecker, I rearranged it to have everything in quintuplets and then having Randy himself to play over that. It took us a year as a band to get through the main theme of it all, and then start to superimpose 3, or 6, or 7, or 12 over these quintuplets. The possibilities are endless but it was fun.
OD – Have you ever reached out to any of the Meshuggah guys?
JAN – Yes! I reached out to Tomas Haake for Planet Z, but he doesn’t do guest appearances.
OD – What about the other guys?
JAN – No, for me Planet Z was a drummer’s album. I had some non-drummer guests but when it came to drummers, I wanted to stay with big names, otherwise, it would be too much at once.
OD – Do you play more jazz or metal festivals? Panzerballett are in both categories, but I imagine you are too heavy for jazz festivals but maybe too out-there for metal festivals?
JAN – During the time of ACT, it used to be more jazz festivals because we were part of this family, and they had readily available slots. With metal festivals, we only played three different ones; Wacken, TechFest and Euroblast.
With Wacken, I was just lucky to meet one of the heads of the festival at a panel, we got talking and that’s how we got this gig slot. It was awesome. But yeah, it was only these three festivals; all the others were scared of the saxophone, I think!
OD – Was it scary? I mean, before you go on stage do you think; “Oh shit, these are all metalheads who might not expect us, are they going to understand my band?”
JAN – Not at all. There’s a common ground between the nature of this music. For example, with TechFest, they all have one thing in common – it all has this technical element, just like Euroblast, where it had this djent-y style.
For example, Meshuggah coined this djent-y style, and they ended up paving the way for other bands such as Periphery, and they play metal music but with this blend and element of jazz. Because of that common element, I think that is why I am not afraid, but more anticipating the crowd getting a different version of what technical metal music could sound like.
I wasn’t anxious that they would not accept it. Wacken has more of a mainstream audience, I wasn’t afraid of getting tomatoes thrown, but there might be some shitstorm-y [sic] attitude. With jazz festivals, I remember one time there were two-thirds of the audience who immediately left the room; after being exposed to loud noise.
OD – Speaking of live performances, where is your hat?! You haven’t worn it in a while! (Ed: Jan previously wore a fake-dreadlock hat for live shows).
JAN – I was thinking I needed to find a good opportunity to get rid of that wig because if I don’t, I’d need to wear it for the rest of my life. I chose my 40th birthday and becoming a father to have Wacken as the last time I would wear that wig.
It’s easier to perform without it, but some people are missing it! Sometimes I get; “Where’s your wig? It’s so important for you to wear it“.
OD – What was the reason for it in the first place?
JAN – The first bass player (Florian Schmidt) was a very good stage performer and he played in some bands who had very good disguises, and he was using some of these disguises for Panzerballett at the time.
For instance, there was one show we played supporting The Devils Slingshot (Tony McAlpine, Billy Sheehan, Virgil Donati) where he wore a full-body latex suit. There was another show where he wore a skydiving suit with some crazy glasses and I thought “Well, he’s stealing my show!” so, I needed to have something crazy too!
I found this wig in a store in Berkeley, California, and my girlfriend at the time said: “You should buy this for Panzerballett“. So, it was ten years of that hat, I turned 40, became a father and had the Wacken show, and thought: “Now is the time to try and get on without the hat“. I didn’t destroy it or anything, it’s in the basement. Maybe I’ll wear it again someday; to celebrate the end of COVID, or something. [Laughing]
I had this other hat called ‘Mad Hat‘, the official name of them, the same model of the hat I had. I bought 50 of them – they were being discontinued – and I sold them at old Panzerballett shows between 2010 and 2014. ‘A3359 Mad Man Hat‘, something like that.
OD – In 2019 some members of Panzerballett went separate ways – why?
JAN – Everyone has different reasons why they’re not playing at the moment. In 2018 there was the conclusion that some things were not as they should be for everyone.
I wanted to continue the band and there were some offers of shows. For instance, with Sebastian (Lanser, drums) he was busy with Obscura, and he also became a father, so he suggested taking a break.
Replacing drums is a big thing, it’s just not something you can do easily. Knowing Sebastian wanted to take a break; I understood it. With the other members, I asked: “There is the option of a small tour – are you interested? Yes/No?” and all that was left was Joe (Doblhofer, guitar). He’s still part of Panzerballett but the others were not available. It’s not a case of Panzerballett being over or splitting up, it’s continuing, and there’s always the possibility they will be part of the project once again in the future.
OD – The new album, Planet Z, has a total of 16 musicians playing. How did you come to work with all of them? Did you know them beforehand or reach out to them as a stranger?
JAN – Some of them I had known and worked with beforehand. I had met Virgil (Donati) at The Devils Slingshot show and NAMM, so he was aware of who I was. Same with Marco Minnemann, over the course of the years.
When I reached out to them, they already knew, and happily, they agreed to take part. With the others, it was the case of reaching out by writing an e-mail. Some of them are friends and musicians from the local scene, for example, Jan Eschke, who is a pianist I’ve worked a lot with.
I think two of the guest musicians who are on this big-band track I got; I don’t know them at all. I think they didn’t even know until shortly beforehand that they were going to be on this record, I just used their performance because the composer sent me his studio sessions with those players. They play the horn sections, trumpet and saxophone, on “No One Is Flying The Plane“.
All the others I had known for some time; or worked with already. Gergo Borlai is in the jazz-fusion world of drumming, he’s becoming very well-known – he’s already a drum legend. He’ll do the live tour.
OD – That would be interesting to get each drummer live, but probably impossible., right?
JAN – Yes, we could only choose one.
OD – Between forming the idea of Planet Z, reaching out to musicians and then recording, how long did the whole project take?
JAN – I think the core time of it was a year. Some of the compositions were already done years ago. For instance, “The Ride of Valkyrie“, we already played that at Wacken, but it just wasn’t recorded yet, I made that in 2015, same with “No One Is Flying The Plane“.
A composer had reached out to me and handed me his demo. I thought it was interesting stuff, but back then it was not the right time to sink my teeth into it because I still had to do the Christmas album. I stayed in a folder for four years and then I thought: “Now it’s time to do some new stuff” and I packed it out again. All that happened in 2019.
“Urchin vs Octopus” also existed in 2016, it was originally a guitar demo song ,which is why there is no saxophone in it.
OD – Is there a concept to Planet Z or is it based on the classic Panzerballett madness?
JAN – The concept is… Well, having all these guests actually. The concept is about having more external input. The other composers I asked to write something for the band with new fresh ideas, I always find it’s more interesting with external contributions. Panzerballett has been around for some time, so they already had something they could relate to when writing a style.
It’s fascinating to see what other people’s ideas of Panzerballett could be. I think it was a challenge to make several drummers sound similar, which was the achievement of Victor Bullock (otherwise known as V. Santura, Dark Fortress) who didn’t make the drums sound exactly the same, but to have the same basic sound. This is a big achievement to do but I’m happy with how it turned out.
It was a big job to have this song with a big-band sound but also songs without a saxophone, but still being able to portray it as Panzerballett and as one band.
OD – Did the contributing drummers write their own parts or did you direct them to write in a certain way?
JAN – For Virgil, I wrote a score, and 90% of what he plays is what I wrote. He had very exact drum parts, and he very exactly performed that. Same goes with Marco Minnemann. I think Hannes (Gross man – Alkaloid, Blotted Science, Triptykon, ex-Obscura, ex-Necrophagist, among others) was more like Sebastian where he didn’t need any score and instead did his own thing.
Morgan (Ågren – Kaipa, Devin Townsend) – I don’t think he even reads notes. I just sent him the playback without drums, and he improvised. Morgan is really good at this plus the song is not that complex so it allows more freedom for the drummer to do some complex instant shit, as Morgan does, it’s awesome. Gergo made a mixture of my score; learning it but also doing some intuitive stuff over it. Gergo is not the type of guy who would score his own part and play along to it, but rather do what comes naturally.
OD – Who would you like to work with in the future?
JAN – In terms of drumming, if you had asked me two years ago who I would like to work with, I would have said the name of those drummers.
I realise my dream has come true. I would like to work with Mike Mangini, and I’d like to work with Adam Neely, a bass player from New York. He’s a YouTuber who has many followers, and he explains many things about music. It’s awesome stuff. I asked him to play bass for one track, but it was already too late for that.
I would like to work with him also because I think his approach to music is very profound. I tried to get Devin Townsend for the Christmas album. I reached out to him around Christmas of 2016, I tried for months! I wrote some emails and got in touch with him through Matthias Eklundh. He read my email, and he said he could try and help me in some way, but then there was no response.
I went to see his show in Munich and waited around afterwards – there is a charge for his meet and greets, but I knew the promoter of the venue, and he let me backstage. I got talking to Devin and asked if he would consider, and he said “Yes, I’ve heard lots of good stuff about you!” and he asked when I would need it by, I said “maybe in.. Four weeks?“, but eventually he said he couldn’t do it.
Planet Z was released on 18th September 2020. It has since been announced that Sebastian Lanser will take part in the Panzerballett tour in place of Gergo Borlai.
Scheduled live dates are as follows;
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Images – Panzerballett online.