Johann Sebastian Bach’s aria Have Mercy, Lord, on Me is played a bit faster by Die Hässlichen Vögel than it is in most renditions of the German composer’s St. Matthew Passion. “Just as fast as Bach would have played it had he played in clubs,” says the band’s founding composer, Roman Bindert, who is encircled by his fellow Ugly Birds (the band’s name in English) at a café in Berlin-Schöneberg, the city’s oldest gay neighborhood. In the Birds’ version, the guitarist Benji Wohlrab, who normally plays death metal, picks at the instrumentation on an electric guitar as he is carried around the stage by the porn star River Wilson. Performed without a touch of irony, their Have Mercy becomes as urgent as music can be.
Die Hässlichen Vögel came together almost a year ago, when Bindert was invited to perform at the legendary Berlin techno club Berghain. Bindert enlisted the help of the lyricist Luki von der Gracht, and within just two weeks, the artists and former models formed a band and wrote all the songs for their first concert. Von der Gracht discovered the drummer Hansol “Bobo” Kim at a punk show in Poland, met the vocalist Josie Haar at the roulette wheel of a Russian casino, and first saw Wohlrab panhandling on the streets of Berlin. Wohlrab is now going back to school, as mandated by the rest of the Birds, and Haar sees the band as a springboard back into her church choir. For von der Gracht, however, music provides an escape from the limitations of the art world. “Artists always reflect on doing crazy things,” he says, “but as musicians, we can finally just do them.”
As with most avant-garde acts, Die Hässlichen Vögel does not fit into a genre — a fact made even more complicated by the group’s refusal to record or release any music — although Bindert’s proclivities land somewhere among jazz, punk, and church music. At the moment, the Birds are focused on an impending prison tour and the concert they hope to stage at the German Chancellery. No matter what happens, they’ll approach the future the way they’ve tackled the past: with a seriousness coiled on the edge of provocation.