In just a few years Tillman Otto aka. Gentleman has become Europe's most successful reggae export product and the various duets with Jamaican reggae stars prove that even the Jamaicans themselves respect his style and message. With his ‘Another Intensity' album, the son of a vicar from Cologne is exploring new horizons.
Gentleman, as the title already indicates, your new album, 'Another Intensity', is much more introspective, more intimate than your previous albums. Was it time for a change?
Gentleman: "I just do music, you know. I don't really think about it in terms of how it will sound when the finished product is in the stores, because that could really take away my flow. Sometimes you set out to do something and the end result is totally different. In my view an album should reflect a momentary state of mind of an artist. To me 'Another Intensity' is about the political climate that has changed for the worse in recent years, but also about people who are looking to the future with new hope in their eyes. For me 'Another Intensity' was less about musical change, because music is music. There are only seven notes and only so many chords you can play. The form can change a bit but essentially it will always stay the same. In part I have to agree with that statement though, because for this album I allowed my mind to be open to other styles as well. If you listen to 'Tranquility', that's really a singer-songwriter tune and 'Mount Zion' was clearly influenced by R&B and hip hop, but roots reggae was my first love and it still remains my main focus. When I set out to do this album I really wanted to make a dancehall album. However my heart was not in it so it turned out differently."
Music fans in any style of music, but maybe especially so in roots reggae, look for a positive message from the artists they listen to. With everything going on in the world today, from climate change over raising oil prices to armed conflicts everywhere, is it difficult for you to stay positive?
Gentleman: "No it's not and I honestly don't know where that positivity keeps coming from. I'm no person that walks around looking at life through pink sunglasses; I already travelled a lot, so I've come across a lot of things. I'm a man of reality and I know there's a lot of madness, sadness and badness out there. The men in power, who hold the world in their hands, seem to have lost all connection with it. There's a lot of desperation out there. At the same time though, I still believe in the goodness of humanity. You might call me naive, but it's something that gives me the inner joy to do my music. Not everything is positive, but it's about clinging to a little joy, to live in tune with your environment or interact with your fellow men. We have to try to stay upright even though out there things might be going from bad to worse. When you have a good look around, you will see a lot of positive signs out there as well. It's those things that gave me a truly deep belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind."
How does a white youth from Cologne become Germany's biggest roots reggae star? Did you already listen to reggae music as a youth?
Gentleman: "I used to listen to all kinds of music. I was in love with Madonna and I played some AC/DC, some punk, but reggae was always there yes. I found that reggae music held the most truth. I never planned to be a reggae singer though. Somehow I always needed music around me. I spent a lot of time hanging out with artists, producers and so on, hanging around in different music studios. Gradually I saw the distance between myself and a career in music become shorter and shorter and before I knew it had become part of my life. Just like I have to breathe to survive, I also have to make music to keep living. If I haven't connected with music for a while, I feel a sensation of growing unrest inside. Music is essential to me and because of that it's also a natural thing. I never started out in music to achieve certain goals or to make money."
Can you remember the first time you went to Jamaica and what impressions it left you with?
Gentleman: "Well, I was seventeen at the time, so that first time has drifted off in my memory a bit. What I can remember is that I went to the countryside and listened to the sound systems on the beach, smoking weed from morning till evening and feeling a certain vibe of simplicity. That was my main experience. At first I asked myself what I was doing there, but after a while I appreciated this simple humble way of living; something I was not used to in the west."
I really asked that question because most people and maybe reggae lovers in particular have certain expectations, a vision of how Jamaica is or should be. Were your expectations answered? Was Jamaica what you expected it to be?
Gentleman: "To be honest I really went there without any expectations. I think I can say I was still pretty naive at that time; I didn't really know anything about anything yet and even though English was one of my better subjects in school, I didn't understand much of what the people were saying. The first weeks the accent was really hard to grab, so I felt kind of lost. Music wasn't really my main focus yet; I was just a youth looking for an adventure. I wanted to get to know the country reggae music came from, the motherland so to speak. In Jamaica the people have a lot of sense, especially when it comes to music. In the countryside the people can sing along to any tune they hear on the radio, but often they might not even know who the artist singing it is. When I go there, they don't even believe me when I say it's me singing a certain tune. (laughs) Jamaica is a place with a lot of creativity and there are so many studios and there's so much talent around, that it's really on another level. That's also what I mean with 'Another Intensity': music is beyond entertainment there, people really need it."
There are a couple of songs on the album I wanted to go into a little deeper; the first one being 'Mount Zion'. For the Rastafarians "Mount Zion" is often considered to be Ethiopia. You don't consider yourself to be a Rastafarian, so what does "Mount Zion" stand for for Gentleman?
Gentleman: "To me "Mount Zion" is a state of mind. It's something I long for. Some Rastafarians might describe it in this way as well. This state of mind is a very blissful one; one you might achieve through meditation. You might call it paradise as well; it's trying to live in tune with yourself and your surroundings. We in our western cities are so far removed from that now. Our lives are full of illusion; we're running after something that's not really there, but sometimes you get a glimpse of that something else and that's "Mount Zion". It's a clarity of vision too; the moment when you've just learned something and you come to understand things."
In 'In Pursuit Of Happiness' you talk about the illusiveness of the concept happiness.
Gentleman: "To be honest, I wrote that tune after I saw the movie with Will Smith ("The Pursuit Of Happiness", Gabriele Muccino, 2006, red.). I really loved that movie and the idea behind it: it's not really about achieving happiness, the pursuit of it on its own is already more than enough."
One of the clichés reggae music is connected with is marihuana, ganja. That seems to be something you spend very little attention to in your music.
Gentleman: "I don't really like to add to the cliché and I don't really want to promote it. I sincerely hope my children won't smoke weed. If you're honest smoke is still the opposite of clarity. Most of us in the west do not use ganja the way some of the Nyahbinghi Rastafarians do. They really see it as a sacrament, a means to attain a higher state of consciousness. We mainly use it because the truth, reality, hurts and we can use a little piece of mind, but that's not really meditation, so I don't promote it. Personally speaking, I think I can deal with it now, but there's a lot of youths out there who can't and the weed we get here has definitely changed from what we smoked in the past; it's become a much heavier drug now."
For this album you once again invited a number of guests. I would just like to confront you with some names and you can tell us how you met up or why you chose to work with the artist mentioned. Let's start with Diana King; she was out of the picture a bit after scoring that big hit 'Shy Guy' in the nineties.
Gentleman: "I didn't even know her really and I didn't know her music. The only tune I was aware of was 'Shy Guy' and I didn't really like it; it wasn't my type of song. One day I was in the studio with Richie Stephens, waiting to voice a song, and she was also there voicing something. The way she used her voice really blew me away. Richie spontaneously suggested to do a combination. Originally the song ('Light Within', red.) wasn't even meant to be on the album, but it turned out so nice that I decided to add it anyway and it will be on her upcoming album as well. She's a wonderful woman with a wonderful voice."
You also did a combination with that other big European reggae sensation, Alborosie.
Gentleman: "I met him in Jamaica some time ago now. He's really settled there and he's a true musician, playing all his instruments himself. He's a kind of one-man-show and it was an honor to work with him because I truly look up to him as a musician. He invited me to his studio and we did the tune on one of his riddims."
The last name I'm going to drop is Sizzla's. I believe it was a particular dream of yours to record a tune with him one day, no?
Gentleman: "I've been a big fan of Sizzla's music ever since I was a youth. He did a lot of songs that really changed my point of view and sadly also did a lot of tunes that were less inspiring, but as I said, I believe in the goodness of the individual. I met him several times and at one stage I even asked him to do a tune with me, but at that time he just looked at me and walked away. The time passed and as it happened we did some shows together in the States backed by the Firehouse Crew. That made us grow closer together and in the end he invited me to his studio in Jamaica. The riddim for that tune came from the Firehouse Crew. He really turned out to be a good brethren, someone who taught me a lot."
To conclude, your hometown Cologne is of course also the location of Europe's biggest reggae festival, Summerjam. Have you been a regular there ever since you were a youth?
Gentleman: "Well it wasn't held yet at the location where it is held now (Fühlinger See, Cologne, red.) when I was a youth, but we always went to swim at that lake, so I have some roots there yes. Just the location alone already makes for a very special festival."
Gentleman, thanks for taking the time out to do this.
Gentleman: "Yeah man, thanks for your interest. Blessed!"