The art-rock iconoclasts have come a long way since their tragic childhood, orphaned by a train (or was it a Lion?) Maxim Boon meets the duo as they prepare to share their explosive life story, with a little help from Circus Oz, in Rock Bang.
Interviewing German pop-rockers Otto and Astrid Rot, aka Die Roten Punkte (that's The Red Dots for those of you whose Deutsch ist nicht so gut), is a bit like being on a rollercoaster blindfolded: you might not have a clue where you’re headed, but it’s one hell of a thrill-ride all the same.
Inexplicable icons of Berlin’s underground music scene, the pair bear a striking resemblance to Australian comedians Clare Bartholomew and Daniel Tobias, albeit caked in enough greasepaint and bright red lipstick to make Kurt Weill blush. Astrid strongly denies any Aussie connection: “Who is this Clare? I don’t know anyone named Clare,” she insists, before offering me a vegan doughnut.
Before I can accept, both Rots have launched, full tilt, into their rubber-ball repartee, not so much finishing each other’s sentences as leapfrogging the full-stops altogether. Fans of their previous outings, or their self-titled web series Otto Und Astrid, will be familiar with their trademark combo of deadpan zingers, frenemy callbacks, wide-eyed cluelessness and punk cliches. Most recently, Astrid snatched headlines across the country after being featured in The Weekend Age’s Day On A Plate column, revealing the gut-busting number of calories it takes to power her rock-n-roll lifestyle.
Unsurprisingly, my conversation with the pair is nothing short of batshit – in the best possible way. Imagine if Jonny Rotten, the Emcee from Cabaret, and David Hasselhoff got together to make a children’s TV show. This dynamic duo would be the hosts.
With accents thicker than sauerkraut, the orphaned siblings begin sharing their extraordinary backstory — a tale tinged with tragedy, but absolutely dripping in surreal humour.
“We grew up in a small outer suburb of Berlin,” Astrid explains.
”It’s like out in the woods somewhere,” Otto interjects.
”And very sadly on my 12th birthday, we were on our way to the zoo when our parents were killed.” Astrid begins.
”By a Lion,” Otto finishes.
”It was a train, Otto.”
”I thought it was a Lion?”
”No, it was a train.”
”I thought it was a Lion jumping from a train?”
These conversational bumper-cars set the tone for our chat. And in less endearing hands, this might be frustrating for a hapless journalist. But the whipsmart dynamic between the pair — a shtick they have honed over more than a decade on the comedy, fringe and music festival circuit — is addictively entertaining. Astrid’s withering, throwaway putdowns of her long-suffering bruder, and Otto’s childlike zeal and unflappable need to please, are underpinned by a quintessentially Mittel-European earnestness. There’s a subtle double-hinged quality to their banter; somehow openly mocking the affected seriousness of the rock establishment and arthouse avant-garde, while still preserving a clear affection for both cultural touchpoints.
Otto and Astrid tell me more about their unconventional upbringing, and it’s a ripper of a yarn that would likely make Lemony Snicket jealous. Fleeing evil relatives, the parentless pair headed to the heartland of Germany’s contemporary art scene, arriving in Berlin on a particularly special November night in 1989. “By coincidence, we arrived on the day the Berlin Wall came down,” Otto shares. “But we thought that was just what Berlin was like,” Astrid adds. “We thought there must be a party like this every night. People just pulling walls down all the time, you know. Otto was only nine. He was very excited”
Since those tender years — growing up in a squat in the bossom of Berlin bohemia before discovering the music of Bowie and forming their own band — this iconoclastic brother and sister have come a very long way. With Otto on guitar and Astrid on the drums, Die Roten Punkte have played all over the world, even supporting the legendary Amanda Palmer and her Grand Theft Orchestra (that’s no joke, they really did support them. “On the tour bus, I got to sleep on top of her drummer, but I don’t think I picked up any of his skills,” Astrid sensationally reveals. “I mean in the bunk beds, of course. They’re like little sandwiches. And he was the bread, and I was the Ham. I think Otto was the Tomato. I can’t remember who was the mustard.”)
But none of their past ventures compares to their latest spectacular. Rock Bang will bring the Rot’s unique story to life in a music-filled “rock opera” biopic. And for a narrative with so many highs and lows, it seems particularly apt that the production will also feature the eye-popping acrobatics of Melbourne-based troupe Circus Oz.
Co-created and directed by the company’s Artistic Director Rob Tannion, the show is part rock-concert, part-comedy, all-action, with the daredevil physicality of Circus Oz’s talented performers cheek-by-jowl with the headbanging hijinks (and dysfunction social skills) of Otto and Astrid, who will also be debuting a few as yet undisclosed circus skills of their own in the show.
For Die Roten Punkte, working with the “bendy people” of Circus Oz has been a career high: “This is the best show we’ve ever made,” Otto beams. In fact, such is the idiosyncratic creative process shared by the Rots — “Usually, the way we write a song is that someone has an idea, and then someone else yells about it, and then the other yells louder, and then when someone gets tired, Astrid wins the argument and that’s how we make a song,” — the pair are convinced that Circus Oz is the only company capable of such an audacious collaboration.
“It’s really amazing, actually. No one else would work with us,” Astrid says. “But we’ve finally found the right combination of people who can put up with Otto and me.”
First published on 24 October, for The Music.