Behind the piano: Remo Roth

Behind the piano: Remo Roth

A while back I posted about a track by the Swiss composer and piano player Remo Roth, and today we’ll get to know the person behind the track a bit better!

Lets go Behind the piano, once more!

Where are you from? And where do you live?
I grew up in a small town near Zurich. Since most of my friends live close by, I never found the need to move anywhere else.

How long have you been playing the piano, and do you play other instruments as well?
I have now been hitting the ivories for around 25 years. Early on, I was fiddling around with all kinds of instruments that were available around the house: violin, melodica, a ukulele. Later, I began to practice the accordion, but I rarely play that anymore. Then came violin and cello again, with very mixed results to put it mildly. More recently, I got my hands on a trumpet and my latest acquisition is a clarinet, which I practice every now and then. I deeply fell in love with that instrument. To cut it short, I can barely play anything besides the piano at a reasonable level.

Tell us about how you started playing music. 
My musical journey began around the age of 7 with the piano. My parents gave me my first, rudimentary keyboard then. I remember it having a full set of 88 keys, unweighted and the sound was terrible. But it was enough to kindle my love for music. My parents then had me see a local piano teacher on a weekly basis –lessons that turned out to be my very first and very last ones, at least until now. Despite remembering my teacher fondly, as she was very flexible and allowed me free choice of what to practice, I had lost pretty much all interest in playing piano when my lessons started. I would hardly practice and got kicked out after around 3 months. But this is when something interesting happened….

How long have you been making piano music?
Not long after my lessons came to an end, I started playing piano again on a regular basis. I would almost never play songs but just improvise. I didn’t know any theory, heck, I can’t even recall the names of individual keys. But I improvised and soon started developing patterns I would use for decades to come.

Tell us something about that moment you realised you could make songs yourself!
With my first years of improvisation, I wasn’t thinking much about making songs, I would just play. At some point, my dad started recording me every now and then, using a dictaphone, as he didn’t want my ideas to be lost over time. When I was in primary school, I started playing my improvisations at school events and also composed a primitive soundtrack for an even more primitive school project video. My first song, in a sense. Later on, I began to record songs on my computer, but most recordings were very short and it would take another decade for me to actually record my first, coherent song.

What are your favourite artists in this “piano genre”?
I grew up with Norah Jones’ music. Her seemingly simple, effortless, but sophisticated and immensely musical way of playing piano really got to me. I then discovered the music of Yann Tiersen (AmélieGood Bye, Lenin!), Alain Silvestri (Forrest Gump) and Ennio Morricone (Cinema Paradiso) who also had a profound impact on my style of playing.

After these early influences, there was a bit of a gap because I usually don’t listen much to piano music (unless it is a film score). That is until Agnes Obel came around. I absolutely love the dark and emotional vibe of her music and the intriguing patterns she develops.

Is there one song which you play over and over again as soon as you sit down by a piano?
At the moment it’s the End Credits of E.T. by John Williams. It’s insanely hard to play, at least for my standards, but I fell in love with it and Williams’ music. I can’t stop playing it.

What rules (in making music) need to be broken?
This is kind of hard for me to answer, as I don’t know many rules to begin with. At least, I couldn’t name them. There are of course some implicit rules, ones you pick up just by listening to music. If something feels organic to me, then I do it, no matter what the “rules” are. For instance, I love changing rhythm or speed multiple times in a song, sometimes only for a single bar. But this is seldom a deliberate choice and mostly something my guts lead me to.

How do you record your music?
I record all of my piano music myself, at home and using my e-piano. This gives me the flexibility to record a song over and over again, sometimes more than a hundred times , all without any time pressure by studio staff.

Whats your take on sampled instruments?
While I really love the feeling and vibe of a real instrument, I appreciate sampled instruments. Piano samples have improved so much over the last decades that they are hard to compete with when recording a real piano. You need the right piano, you have to tune it well, have a great location and a great mic setup –that’s a lot of variables. Also, with the higher-end sampling libraries, you can tweak a sound specifically to your liking and make it your own. And, as an added benefit, you can compose and practice with the exact same sound as the final product.

Anything else you want to share?
I guess I’m a bit of an odd bird when compared to other composers and pianists, as I never really learned any technique or theory – I cannot even read sheet music. While this lack of “academical” knowledge and skill can certainly be an obstacle at times, I also see it as an opportunity to play and compose freely. It’s entirely subjective, but I sometimes try to encourage people to just try playing without any rules to abide to, not to overcomplicate and not to stand in their own way by meticulously trying to play exactly what is written instead of feeling the gist of a song and playing that. But on the other hand, as Picasso once put it: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”. Who am I to judge?

The last question is asked by my 7 year old son:
Where do all your songs come from? 
Sometimes it just comes to me, presumably from my gut, but mostly not when I’m sitting in front of the piano and trying to compose. Sometimes, I’m inspired by a film I’ve just seen and run to the piano, other times I even dream up a melody or an arrangement. When it comes to dreams, it’s often next to impossible for me to do it justice and record anything sensible when I’m awake again. Most of the time, though, I sit down with a rough idea and just start playing until something interesting emerges – a blend of composition and empiricism.

I can say for sure where my songs don’t come from: The thinking mind.

Thank you very much for all of this Remo!