Talking about God and the world – yes, that’s not that difficult. About life and death: a bit more complicated. When it comes to the band Pale, there’s no getting around it, because their new album “The Night, The Dawn And What Remains” (Grand Hotel van Cleef) was made under special circumstances. Actually, the Aachen indie rock band no longer existed – they were founded in 1993, disbanded in 2009, there was a small reunion in 2012, after that it was really over. And then, under the toughest conditions, they decided to record another record after all. “In the middle of life we are surrounded by death,” Martin Luther once said, and two band members found out about it in November 2019: drummer Stephan Kochs had to listen to his heart and turn his life around to save it – he could no longer drum . Guitarist Christian Dang-anh was diagnosed with a brain tumor – which couldn’t stop him from making music. He played and sang on almost all of the new pieces until his death in May 2021. Pale then completed the rest of the album without him.
What do you ask the singer/songwriter Holger Kochs first? He is the mentioned drummer’s younger brother, he was one of the guitarist’s best friends. Maybe simply:
How are you and the band today, after these three special years?
Personal or professional? (Thinks for a moment.) With us, the professional was always personal. We didn’t start the band for career reasons, the driving force was always the connection between all band members. In the three years since the diagnoses, there have of course been many ups and downs, but probably many, many more downs. At the moment the positive aspects outweigh the negative ones, because we see each other a lot as a band, for the video shoots or the rehearsals, plus all the resonances about the songs. But of course it always resonates with everything that happened. We’re editing the video for the last single right now – a kind of retrospective on our time together as a band and looking through old tapes – on the one hand it’s so beautiful, so familiar, but there’s always the feeling: How do you let something like that go? The carefree times with Christian and my brother are over and will never come back. And knowing at the same time: As a band, we made the best of it all.
Recording an album in the midst of all the chaos that such diagnoses bring with it – that takes an enormous amount of strength and concentration. How did you even manage that?
That’s a good question! As I just said, positive feelings prevail at the moment, but of course there were such blatant phases back then. After Christian’s death we put so much more work into the album… I, for example, am now a father of three, work full-time in a design agency – making a record on the side was extremely difficult in itself. We broke up in 2009 because normal life just wasn’t compatible with the band anymore. This time the driving force was a completely different one: the worst possible should also bring something unbelievably beautiful with it. So that you are not only powerless in the face of what you call life, but make the best of it.
The heart surgery helped my brother as much as possible, but Christian’s therapy didn’t work as well as hoped. At some point I was diagnosed with “out of therapy” – I didn’t even know the term until then. We just didn’t want to believe that it could have been that. The last three or four months were extremely bad. Christian was always the most talented and eloquent of us, but the consequences of the illness became more and more noticeable … And despite everything, he still took part in vocal recordings and recorded guitars. We sent most of it back and forth digitally – because of his weakened immune system, he also had to be particularly careful during the pandemic.
Wasn’t that difficult to endure, depending on Christian’s health situation?
With all the work, there were a number of moments when it was just too much. Or where there were more important things to do than making music. We accompanied Christian – each in our own way. It was easier for some and harder for others to deal with, but I think we managed as well as we could. There were actually two reasons why we wanted to continue afterwards: On the one hand, we thought that it couldn’t have been that now. And at the same time, working on the album was also a kind of mourning work. I had contact with death early in my life, but never really processed it at the time. Now, at 48, I understand finiteness in a completely different way. That’s why the album is also a kind of inventory: What is life? For me, it’s primarily the relationships that define us in life – that’s what I wrote the lyrics about. I just had to do a song like “Bigger Than Life” for Christian – written in ten minutes, worked on it for ten months. In general, we spent a very long time working on all the details of this record.
The album starts with an instrumental (“Wherever You Will Go”) – which is actually very fitting because when it comes to dying, we often find that we don’t have the right words for it all.
Yes, that someone is no longer there – that’s just so absurd, so extreme that there are no words for it. We all know, of course, that we will eventually die. So we know about finiteness, but when it happens, it’s unbelievable. Maybe that’s why we didn’t want to write so much about death. And maybe that’s why it’s become a life-affirming record, because it’s about what’s important in life. Don’t forget death, but celebrate life: that’s really what it’s all about. That’s probably not the case in our German mourning culture, but we wanted to try to do it differently.
In any case. You also celebrate the memories with the album without being stuck in the past. In the press release there is talk of a “lap of honour”…
(Have to laugh) Great term, but it sounds like work’s over and you’re just walking around for fun – we’ve really been too busy with this album for that!
In any case, the response is enormous. On March 2nd, 2023 you’re playing at Cologne’s Gloria, it’s already sold out. Did that surprise you or did you expect it?
To be honest, we expected the opposite. We thought the Gloria would be way too big, we’ve never pulled much more than 600 people in the past, and the concert landscape is known to be very difficult right now. When the tickets were gone so quickly, we couldn’t believe it ourselves. We are really happy beyond measure. As we wrote in the announcement: We are happy about everyone who comes. And now we’re happy about 900 people! In the short term we will play an additional show beforehand, a kind of dress rehearsal, which was sold out after five days. Crazy!
Are you just looking forward to it – or are you also a bit frightened?
Sure, both. But we’ve all gotten a little older and more relaxed, and we now also know what Rudi Carrell said: You can only shake something out of your sleeve that you put into it beforehand! We’re rehearsing a lot this time – something we didn’t necessarily do in the past. For the last 10, 15 years I’ve always had the same nightmare: that we’re on stage, a lot of people in front of us, and I look at the set list and don’t know a single song. I no longer have the dream, I see that as a good sign. (Laughs) We’re working on the setlist right now, Springsteen-wise we won’t be playing under 25 songs. So we’re practicing hard right now, the mood is great, and even if there’s still a long way to go – we haven’t made music for a long time – we’re sure it’ll be good!
So Pale are prepared. Stephan Kochs will watch the concert in Cologne, a matter of honor. And there will also be a few guests on the stage. Above all, the band will celebrate once again – past and present. And then see what the future brings. Holger Kochs doesn’t want to say anything about it just yet – except that there won’t be another Pale album. Everything else is open, there are no plans. He’s learned that life will probably get in the way anyway.