Q&A: Velvet Condom’s Nicolas Isner On Berlin, Inspirational Movies, And “Dead Mannequin Pop”


Urban decay. Bathroom graffiti. Steam hissing violently from manholes. Designer fetish gear; black-lit dungeons and black vinyl pants; Saturday Night Live outré mascot Stefon. The music of Berlin duo Velvet Condom—a fastidiously gesticulating grind of snapping synthesizer presets, gloomy guitars, droll role-playing, and the sort of casually arch desperation you might expect from twentysomethings weaned on a steady diet of Kraftwerk, Suede, Ennio Morricone, Brian Eno, and the Sex Pistols—evokes all of the above. The sonic worlds Nicolas Isner (vocals/guitars/keyboards) and Oberst Panizza (programming/keyboards) built on 2008’s sinister Safe & Elegant and last year’s pulsing Stadtgeil teem with metronomic clang, tumbling disco rhythms, and Freon cool. Sometimes Isner’s vocals are suffocated under layers of studio murk; sometimes they’re uncomfortably upfront, as on “Silky Lolita,” which, oddly, suggests a neutered, Jesus Lizard-era David Yow sitting in with Blur.

Sound of the City caught up with Isner via email to discuss the band’s origins, its provocative name, and Berlin.

How and when did Velvet Condom become a band?

[Panizza and I] met in Strasbourg, France in 2005 when we both still lived there, and discovered that we shared a lot of same tastes in music. We’d evolved in the same musical scene by then and wanted to do something with machines and guitars; we found each other on the same cold wave and rapidly decided to start a band.

At that time, nobody did our kind of music; it was all about electro-clash or guitar bands, and we wanted something colder, dreamier. We wanted to write robot-pop songs: dead mannequin pop.

What was the first song the two of you wrote together?

I guess it was “Kalter Lippenstift,” which is a classic now.

You guys have been living in Berlin for a few years now. What led you there, and what’s kept you there? What do you love about the city?

We came over in 2008 because we needed some fresh air! It brought us new inspiration and as I’m half-German, I wanted to get back anyway. Berlin is an always-changing city and is attracting lots of creative souls; that makes it very cosmopolitan and exciting. We do feel very comfortable there; the city totally lives up to our expectations of freedom and creativity.

Did it take a while for audiences to get what you were doing, or did it seem to click right away?

In the beginning we were very obvious to people, but it took a while for them to get that there was more than synth-pop involved, and to understand the way the guitars take over.

I was shocked to discover that velvet condoms actually exist, that they’re made and sold. Have you ever encountered one?

I wasn’t sure they really existed. I’d read the name in a magazine a long time ago without checking if they really existed. It’s funny, because people s first reaction is to try to imagine how one would feel, but [in naming the band that way] my intention was to combine those two totally opposite words together to express our synthetic and glamorous aesthetics in one name. It’s not a fetish concept at all – more an expression of our frustration towards a world that’s more and more synthetic. It has some futuristic background – the fear of technologic progress and, furthermore, the synthetization of human feelings. That’s the essence of it.

“Silky Lolita” is one of most uncomfortable songs I’ve ever heard, the subdued guitar somehow accentuating the unease of the bifurcated high/low vocals. What is “Silky Lolita” about, and how did it come together?

Yeah, you got it; the purpose was to make the listener uncomfortable. The scene takes place in some outback, with some weird family behavior. It’s a kind of an incest story, but in a sarcastic way. There’s a lot of humor; I believe that dark stories can be told with humor without losing respect for or the depth of the central theme.

Are there any movies, film genres, or directors that inform Velvet Condom’s music? For some reason, your stuff makes me think of Akira.

We’re into science-fiction movies like THX 1138, Brazil, 2001, The Rocky Horror Picture Show; directors like Bertrand Blier, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch, and David Cronenberg; and teen movies like St. Elmo’s Fire and The Breakfast Club.

Your releases have a distinctly cryptic design aesthetic that fits your sound. Who has designed your album sleeves, and what’s the conceptual process usually like?

We work with different people for the artwork. Usually I’m looking for a photograph after the songs have been written, a picture that holds the concept together.

“Menace” is so hard and grim, but it’s still got this undeniable pop quality to it; it’s like an especially demented Depeche Mode single.

I’m glad you got that; that’s what we wanted to reach. We’re big Depeche Mode fans because they reached that compromise between electronic-pop songs and dark, inventive, edgy sounds.

Do you have a new album coming soon? If so when, what’s it like, and are you playing any of it live these days?

Unfortunately not yet. We’re still touring Stadtgeil, our most recent album, but new songs are in progress.

You should start giving velvet condoms away at your shows. Maybe there’s some kind of corporate sponsorship angle you could exploit.

Yeah, I know! That may be a bit too obvious, but I’d love to do it.

What do you guys do for day jobs?

We only work at night.

Velvet Condom play Home Sweet Home tonight.