Set the Controls for the Heart of the Fun: the Men and the Journey of RPWL
German keyboardist/vocalist Yogi Lang first encountered guitarist Karlheinz “Kalle” Wallner in 1988 when the latter was playing in a band called Incubus. Eventually renamed Violet District, the group released its sole album, Terminal Breath in 1992, with Lang producing. Based 40 km north of Munich in Freising, that group met with only modest success, disbanding by the late ‘90s.
“We did this thing together, and then we had contact and talked from time to time,” Lang recalls. “But I was [mostly] in the studio working, and Kalle was playing guitar. We met again in 1997 and talked about going back on stage.”
An opportunity for a live gig came up, but the musicians found themselves short on time to prepare. “So we jammed over old Floyd songs, because this was what we had in common,” Lang recalls. The group focused on material from the period before Pink Floyd broke out globally, playing extended works like “The Embryo,” “Green is the Colour” and “Cymbaline,” all key tracks on the road to the eventual masterwork of The Dark Side of the Moon. “And this is how RPWL was born,” Lang says with a hearty laugh. “Four crazy guys that only played four songs, but for two hours!”
The band soon began writing original material. A demo tape caught the interest of a record company executive, who wanted to sign the band. But the group—Wallner, Lang, bassist Chris Postl and Phil Paul Rissettio on drums—didn’t have a name. “We intended to call ourselves the Super Band,” Lang says, laughing again. “But they didn’t accept the name. So we came up with just the first letters of our names, which was RPWL.” The name would stick, even though both Postl and Rissettio would both be gone from the band by 2003.
In the same way that Pink Floyd never fit neatly into the progressive label, RPWL isn’t—strictly speaking—a prog band, either. In fact, Lang and Wallner didn’t initially think of themselves as progressive musicians. “When I bought records when I was a kid,” Lang recalls, “there was rock music, folk, jazz, pop … I never saw ‘prog.’” But an early review of the band’s debut, God Has Failed, appeared in a German progressive rock magazine. “So we came to progressive rock,” he says. Today, the band still prefers to think of itself as making “neo-art rock,” says Kalle Wallner.
The ambitious nature of progressive rock does manifest itself in RPWL’s compositional approach. While some of the group’s albums are simply collections of songs, many RPWL releases feature thematically-linked pieces. And some take things a step further: 2012’s Beyond Man and Time is built around ideas from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Even God Has Failed can be seen as a riff on Nietzsche’s “God is dead,” though the album itself doesn’t dive deeply into philosophy.
Memorable melodies have always been at the core of the group’s music, and while tricky time signatures and unexpected shifts in dynamics aren’t unheard of, they’re not necessarily hallmarks of the RPWL sound. A track like “This is Not a Progsong” from 2008’s The RPWL Experience is a hooky pop song more than anything else, with an upbeat chorus that sticks in the listener’s head after the tune fades away.
Though RPWL got its start as a Pink Floyd cover/tribute band, and even though the members—Lang in particular—express a strong affinity for the Floyd’s late ‘60s post-Syd Barrett work, on its early records, RPWL sounds like nothing so much as late-period Pink Floyd. The songs on God Has Failed suggest the strong influence of the Gilmour-led era, specifically the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason. But on each successive album, RPWL would more fully develop its own distinct musical character.
By the time of 2005’s World Through My Eyes, the band had carved out a classic-meets-modern sound of its own, though even the casual listener would still be able to spot the indelible influence of Pink Floyd, Genesis and even the Alan Parsons Project. And the band has a knack for turning out a wonderfully melancholy tune like “Everything Was Not Enough,” a Lennon-McCartney style ballad. Perhaps the digitally repeated final line of its verses is a too on-the-nose nod to Pink Floyd’s “Dogs,” but it’s done with enough style to be forgivable.
Some artists are primarily creatures of the studio. Others contend that their true nature can only be expressed in the context of a live concert. RPWL likes to have it both ways. While the production aesthetic of the group’s albums is seamless, there is an energy and a dynamic element to RPWL’s live shows. Acknowledging that reality, the band has released a live album to document most every tour to date.
“On the one hand, you have a studio album and you have to produce for just listening to the music,” Wallner says. “For live music, we try to arrange the songs in different ways, maybe in other versions. The reason for a live album is, always there’s something different than the studio work.”
RPWL adds a visual element, as well. “Especially the two or three last tours, we had actors in our shows,” Wallner says. “Not only visuals, but the story from the album itself put into the show. And it was a bit more like theater.” Both 2012’s Beyond Man and Time and Wanted (2014) are conceptual works with music threaded together via story lines.
An appreciation for musical narratives—even of an oblique sort—has characterized RPWL from its earliest days. And in 2016 the group embarked upon a long-simmering project that brought together that quality with its roots as a Pink Floyd tribute act. Wallner recalls the genesis of the project, decades before the release of RPWL Plays Pink Floyd’s The Man and the Journey.
“Yogi and our original drummer were talking about this Amsterdam bootleg,” he says, referring to a recording of Pink Floyd dating from September 17, 1969 (the recording received official release as part of the 2016 box set The Early Years 1965-1972). “I never had that; I never was familiar,” he says. But the songs from that show ended up becoming part of the earliest RPWL set lists. “So The Man and the Journey was always near the band,” Wallner says. “It was always in der kopf … we always had it in our minds.”
When the tour for Wanted wound down, the band was looking for another interesting project, and collectively decided to mount a live production of the obscure Pink Floyd work stitched together from scattered tracks written variously for A Saucerful of Secrets, More, Ummagumma, Atom Heart Mother and the Zabriskie Point soundtrack. “We would do that maybe a bit different, but of course in the same spirit,” Wallner says.
“You can play Floyd songs that everybody knows, and you can try to copy every single note, but that is not much fun,” adds Lang. “So, to do something that nobody knows was really interesting.” The band performed the work at a number of European venues—relatively small halls, as Pink Floyd did in ‘69—and released a CD and DVD of a show at De Cacaofabriek in Helmond, Netherlands.
But a tour and album of Pink Floyd music didn’t signal the end of original ideas from RPWL. Another CD+DVD release, A New Dawn applied the Floyd’s The Man and the Journey methods of re-purposing existing material. The release documents an ambitious stage show with music and dialogue, combining pieces from Beyond Man and Time and Wanted. Citing his love of Alan Parsons Project concept albums like I Robot and Pyramid, Lang says, “It’s cool to have a 70-minute piece where there’s the first song, second song, third song, and you have this whole story.”
But RPWL hasn’t locked itself into a strict conceptual format. The band’s latest release, Tales From Outer Space presents a less rigid theme. “This time, we wanted to have just an album as we we knew it when we were young,” Lang says. He explains that Tales is “seven short stories gathered together in an album that fits. It’s different to a whole story.”
Still, a thread does run through the songs on Tales From Outer Space. “Science fiction was always something we were very interested in as we grew up as kids,” Lang says. “Besides Pink Floyd, it was the U.S.S. Enterprise and comics,” Wallner adds. Tales pulls all of those threads together. Even the analog keyboard textures—courtesy Lang’s vintage Memorymoog—fit perfectly into the subject matter, he believes.
“What a huge playground for all this: bringing music, comics and science fiction all together,” Wallner says. “We’re loving to work with it.” And the move away from weighty topics was a refreshing one for the group, too. “I was terrifying my family working on [the Nietzsche-themed] Beyond Man and Time,” Lang says with a hearty laugh. “With Tales From Outer Space, it was not a search for knowledge. It was a search for fun.”