Beißpony: Music as Playful Performance Art
Artist Stephanie Mülle and singer-songwriter Laura Theis, both originally from Munich, Germany, have been creating together as Beißpony for nearly 10 years. Since their meeting in 2006, the project has blossomed into a beautifully whimsical experiment where music becomes a performance art piece. Adorned with a sewing machine, typewriter, small toy instruments, hand-made colorful costumes and more, Stephanie and Laura take the stage and deliver unique and truly captivating performances that highlight the complexities of their sound and lead you to explore the musical worlds that lie beyond the standard four chord indie rock norms.
This artistic, avant-garde approach to music has informed the way Mülle and Theis perceive the project as well. They label Beißpony not as a band but rather as a collective that includes photographer and filmmaker Klaus Erich Dietl and sound engineer Fabian Zweck. The collective writes and tours together, rendering nonexistent the line between the music and the performance. The eccentric instrumentation and folksy storytelling grow with the creative performances and videos that the artistic team makes possible. Together, they invite you into Beißpony’s magically dark and thoughtful world, centered on feminism, nonconformity and a deep understanding of the intricacies of reality.
I met with the Beißpony team at SXSW, their eyes wide with possibility during their first trip to the United States. While the Austin humidity swelled outside, we sat inside a small temperate market and chatted about everything from the creative process and the music they love to the inspiration they draw from the world and their self-sustainability as a band. It became clear to me that Beißpony fits no molds. They are not a band in the conventional sense. They are a fluid being that inhabits a uniquely genuine world, continuously evolving, exploring and uniting artistic, musical, queer and international communities alike.
MOLLY RAGAN: Beißpony is based in Munich, but Laura, you now live in England. How does that long distance relationship work as far as the writing process goes?
STEPHANIE MÜLLE: We tried to work with Skype to meet with each other, like having an online band session, but then we had this feeling that we’re really analog and we need to see each other and touch the instruments. Then it became more meeting whenever possible, mostly when Laura travels to Munich.
Is that very often?
SM: I would say not so often.
LAURA THEIS: Yeah I think it’s very often because I’m the one who flies a lot! But we started out both in Munich, and now we often have opportunities to create elsewhere. For example, we had an artist’s residency in Antwerp, Belgium, so we met up in a different place and had a month to work together. And we go on tour a lot, so it works.
SM: The touring is very important for us because we almost never have the chance to rehearse, and when we’re on tour, step by step, the feeling gets more in tune together, and we learn a lot by doing this. Also, this staying abroad for maybe 2, 3, 4 weeks is also great because then we have the chance to do something really intense and create new songs and because we don’t see each other so often, like other bands who are located in the same place. I think that’s a good thing for us. And we’re quite spontaneous, so we are not really picky about, “Ah, I need to be an expert at playing this instrument and I need to be really super professional”, but we more love the feeling of the instruments and the sounds. We are very flexible. When we were on tour, there were so many strange things that happened but we still did it. It made us kind of survivors.
What’s one of the stranger things that has happened to you guys?
LT: It was in Italy. This was really early on, when we first met like 10 years ago. We were invited to a LadyFest in Italy and they invited us but then they kind of abandoned us in a squat outside of Rome. The organizers of the festival just disappeared.
SM: Yeah, there were about 20 artists from all over Europe and I think the organizer was afraid of the work. Nobody could find her and the place had no roof and it was winter and snowy. I was the only one out of the 20 artists who spoke Italian so I was the guide to bring everyone back. So yeah, it made us stronger. Maybe sometimes the expectations aren’t so high and we’re open-minded and we try to make our best, and besides, we’ve learned to say no if something goes really, really wrong. We’re strong enough to stand for our opinions.
LT: And I think we’ve become independent with things like setting up our own sound, like we’ve learned a lot. We’ve been doing it for a long time.
SM: Usually we’re completely capable to do all the technical stuff, which really helps because the tech guys, who are usually male, don’t really have a feeling for our instruments, like the sewing machine or the typewriter or something like that. So we know how we want to sound and then we have the ability to do it by ourselves and that really helps.
What kind of places do you usually play?
SM: Klaus and I are based in the middle of the art scene in Germany. He’s a painter and cinematographer. He’s into filmmaking and I’m into visual arts and performance, so it’s often that we play punk and hardcore venues because the DIY community loves us a lot. The queer community does too because I’m into queer feminist projects. Then the other thing is the art community. It’s so many different influences.
LT: Yeah, and then venues like theaters where suddenly you get all this amazing light design that you’d never get otherwise.
SM: And sometimes it’s a bar and the bars in Europe are really tiny and then you have to press your arse against the wall to play the drums, so it’s different. I like diving into these other worlds.
I know is this a big task, but could you try to paint a visual image of one of your shows?
SM: We can try our best!
LT: One thing that’s very visually striking is that we use the drum set also as a projection screen for videos.
SM: The bass drum is like a little cinema. It’s like our portable cinema and we create our own videos for it. Mostly hand drawn or edited by Klaus.
LT: We always have the beißpony, the actual unicorn we’re named after, on stage with us. It’s like a huge doll.
SM: And then I love to create new costumes for each venue. I try to get pictures online, how the venue is like, and then I choose the colors, the style of the dress and then I create it for these venues. The other thing I love to create is something strange, like the last one was I created a “Feverish Delirium”, which is like a hoodie that has a kind of snot amplifier, which to apply to a guitar amp and then you can use it as a mic. These artworks go as presents to the audience.
LT: So you can imagine, there is a sewing machine on stage. During one of the songs Steffi creates something and shares it with the audience. There’s a typewriter on stage and a piano, drums, and lots of little toy instruments.
SM: We love to invite the audience into a kind of film. It’s like entering into the film in your own head. So as if you would enter into a story, like maybe Alice in Wonderland with lots of bitey edges and yeah, I love that. Laura is really good at storytelling and I like the experimental parts with strange little instruments. For example, I’ve got this strange stuff from Japan, which is called Otohime. It’s a kind of sound machine, and the Japanese carry it with them when they’re on toilet because they don’t like it if other people hear them when they’re on toilet. It makes a sort of wall of sound. There are even buttons on the toilet that they can press to have sounds. So I use the Otohime as a sound machine.
Do you consider your work more of an art piece or more of a music-based project?
SM: I would say there are both poles, because Laura is totally into music and songwriting and she also has post-graduate studies in creative writing from Oxford. Then there is this sound art and visual art section of the Klaus, Fabian and I and I think these worlds crash together. And we have different styles of music, which we like. There is this link with anti-folk, which we both like, but then there are separate fields of music, which crash together, and I think this makes it interesting.
LT: And I think that’s a really nice way to surprise audiences as well, when they expect a classic concert and they get a lot more, a whole performance.
SM: I also like this punk and hardcore stuff, like Fugazi, the riot grrrl music and also very experimental music, and this krautrock music, like Can or Faust or something like that. We played with Faust once in Germany. It was really nice. They’re great people, and they are putting up a lot for younger musicians. They’re really helpful and open-minded.
LT: And I really like music that tells interesting stories, so I really care about the lyrics. I really like Regina Spektor or Fiona Apple.
So you tour with the whole artistic team?
SM: Yeah, I think it’s something that’s not so easy to understand because they are not so much on stage, but when we work in the studio in Munich together or when we meet up before a festival, each of us is really important. Klaus helps us so much with the video art and all the cover artwork and Fabian is always the one with the sound ideas. He’s mainly the producer with another friend of ours called Stefan who’s also in a lot of bands. For us it’s really more like a collective. Even if sometimes only the two of us are visible, they are audible.
How does writing work for you guys? Do you create the visuals and then lay the music on top of that or vice versa?
SM: It really grows together. When we are on tour, mostly I’m the driver, so while I’m driving, Laura’s singing something and tapping with her hands and doing the piano and it’s something I never heard before, and I try between the gears—we don’t have automatics—so I try to be careful when I try drumming a little bit during driving. And then when we have our show. We play the song for the first time, even without rehearsing and this is really funny for me, because it’s something very, very new, and I like it to be exposed to the audience. I think I really need the audience. I need the feedback.
Is there one space in particular that you’ve really enjoyed playing at?
LT: We love playing outside, so every time we get to play outdoors, we get really excited.
SM: Yeah that’s great and we love the Kafe Kult in Munich. It’s the oldest DIY venue in Munich, founded in the ‘80s. It’s still run without any money, just volunteering, and the cool thing is they support a lot of US bands. Allison Wolfe was there; she’s a riot grrrl legend in the US. We had so many. We had Des Ark. We had Jeffrey Lewis and Kimya Dawson. We love hosting them.
LT: And it’s also where we met! The first time we ever met was at the Kafe Kult, at Kimya Dawson’s concert. And our next gig is going to be supporting Jeff Lewis. So we always come back to it.
SM: And the people there are more like into punk and hardcore, but they love our music too so it’s really supportive. It’s also in the outskirts of town, but there, people really listen. They don’t chat and it’s quiet.
LT: People really come for the music because they love the music and it’s a great place.
You guys really seem to bring a lot of communities together within Germany, but then you also have a lot of international connections as well.
SM: Yeah, and what Klaus and I are doing now, we had a stay in Japan on a musical exchange with Japanese artists. There are great female musicians there and they will come in the summer. We organized an exchange in Munich. We will make concerts together and a music film and Laura will be involved too. And then very soon when we come back from SXSW, a Ukrainian artist will come to Munich and I’m so happy because we fought for his visa for maybe half a year. So I love these exchanges with international artists.
How did the Japanese exchange come about?
LT: We were in Belgium and there was another artist there who’s a Japanese video artist, and we did an exchange with her.
SM: She’s called Miki Saito and she’s into creating the next video for us, for our song “Isolde’s Very Insightful Views on Going to Work and Suicide”. I’m now I'm so happy because it’s my very first time in the United States and there are so many influences I have from this country. I love so much music which is coming from here and then the underground films which were made here. I think now he’s really famous, but Jim Jarmusch, for example. And back in the 80s there was this film movement called the Cinema of Transgression with Lydia Lunch, and that was really influential for us in Germany. Then the whole riot grrl community with these fan zines. I even wrote my masters thesis about the zines in the riot grrrl community and it gave me a lot of motivation.
Do you have any music recommendations?
LT: I want to recommend some of my friends from the UK. So my friend Ditte Elly just released an album which is really, really amazing. It’s called “Songs”. She calls her music “slumberfolk”. It’s really, really beautiful. She has an amazing voice, she’s amazing at guitar, and she’s an incredible songwriter. And then Rosie Caldecott. She’s another folk artist from the UK.
SM: It’s not an easy question! There are so many bands I would love to recommend. Maybe I’ll start with Des Ark, the Americans might know her. It’s Aimée Argote and her band. She’s played at the Kafe Kult. I like her a lot. And then I love the Slits, and Viv Albertine from the Slits is still very active. She wrote a book called Boys, Boys, Boys, Music, Music, Music, I can hardly recommend it to you enough. The Japanese bands are Aoi Swimming, Cup and Saucers, and Otaco. Otaco is a great singer songwriter. Usually for the Japanese artists it’s really hard because the culture is so restrictive and artists aren’t, so they don’t have such an easy time there. But Otaco does it and tries so hard. I like it a lot. It’s great stuff, very minimal electronic stuff. It’s very cool. Then I love Gudrun Gut. She was in the Malaria! It was a band in the ‘80s and I think in the underground community of the United States it was quite well known. But she’s still active. I love it when people endure, if they try on and on and on although it’s really hard. That’s why I appreciate if there are older women which are still active. And then I love the old Modest Mouse stuff, Built to Spill. Then Hüsker Dü. Then I’ll add friends from Munich, Candelilla. They are an all girl band; they do everything on their own. They recorded at Steve Albini’s studio I think two years ago and they’re really, really supportive too.
***This piece was originally written for KAMP Student Radio at the University of Arizona***