Sebastian Counts, ToiToiToi, Vaganten and Ghost Box Records

A cheery whistle? At the beginning of a Ghost Box album? Unprecedented. But then so is much of the music to be found on Vaganten, the label’s second release from enigmatic German composer Sebastian Counts, recording as ToiToiToi. The album – a jolly, rumbustious affair – takes inspiration from the Central European tradition of the “Vagant”. To quote the official Ghost Box press release: “a class of itinerant monk or clergyman of the Middle Ages known for their poetry and song and notorious for their idle, debauched lifestyles”. Fittingly, the record boasts charming rustic waltzes, delightfully jolly slices of melodic electronica and wonky, bier-fuelled diversions that are positively ruddy-cheeked in their black-slapping bonhomie.

The album is Counts’ second album for Ghost Box, following 2017’s Im Hag, and – with its release – he has also broken cover, revealing his true identity as respected German conceptual artist Sebastian Gräfe. On a hot summers afternoon, I had a long conversation with Sebastian about his two Ghost Box albums, his background as both musician and artist, and the evasive and sometimes problematic nature of German folklore.

Here’s how the conversation went:

Bob: Can I ask about the tradition of the “vagant”? From the press release that came with the album, it sounds like the “vagant” was a kind of wandering, medieval monk?

Sebastian: Yes, it was. But the word was also used until the 1950s or 1960s to describe solitary people who were simply strolling around, experiencing the landscape in a very poetic way. And just before that, there was a youth movement called the Wandervögel – “The Wandering Birds” – who went hiking with backpacks and guitars, keeping this sense of being free and going wherever they wanted to go. I chose Vaganten as the title in that kind of spirit. Going out into the woods, wandering around, and seeing where it takes you.

Is it something you’ve done yourself?

Not with a guitar, but a backpack – yes! I have an emergency pack always ready, and I can grab it and sneak out, and stay out for a couple of days. Last year I did it quite a bit, this year… the summer has arrived too fast, and I feel like I have to defend myself against this huge explosion of nature, creeping in everywhere! I feel better at home, in more civilised surroundings. [Laughs]. But yes, let’s say I have some experience of that.

So when you made the album, were you thinking of both the 20th century tradition and its medieval origins? It’s just that there’s some very medieval sounding music on there…

Absolutely, yeah. I’ve always had a liking for that type of music, but I’ve never had the chance to develop that and give it my own touch. I had a chat with Jim [Jupp, of Ghost Box] about the press release, and he was talking about “cod-medievalism”. I said “What is that?” I wasn’t sure if that was the right thing… to me, “cod-medievalism” has a negative feel, so I proposed “funky medievalism”! Being funky and being medieval feels very contrary, and I wanted to mingle them both. And I was also looking for a different approach to Im Hag. With that album, everything was set in an imaginary location, Ethernbach… it’s a bit like the Ghost Box village of Belbury. On the sleeve, we had even had a little sign: “Belbury, twinned with Ethernbach”. Vaganten is still based in that imaginary central Europe, but now we’re on the move. We’re strolling around.

I hope you take this as a compliment, but there’s a kind of drunken feel to the album sometimes!

Yes, especially on the last track ‘Wrong Place, Good Times’…

That one sounds paralytic.  

Yeah, it is! I’m not into drinking that much, but I like it when things get… out of tune, let’s say! ‘Wrong Place, Good Times’ is that same idea – you stroll around, you land somewhere you didn’t expect to be, and then everything turns out great and you have a good time. That idea of getting a bit “over the limit” fits with the whole concept.

Oddly enough, when I think of medieval monks, my mental image is of them being rather drunk. I’ve probably got this entirely from watching Friar Tuck in Robin of Sherwood. I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen it?

I saw the trailer on your blog! 

Well I know Jim is a big fan of Robin of Sherwood too, and it’s a good example of the way in which our knowledge of British folklore was filtered through the TV of the 1970s and 1980s. Which is something that very much informs Ghost Box’s ethos. Was that something you also found with European folklore, and the German TV of the 1970s and 1980s?

Not really, because – between the ages of five and 12 – I grew up in Egypt. This was from the early to the late 1980s. So I missed out on those influences from TV and magazines. And I think it was actually important for me to have this lack of knowledge, because later on I discovered – through Ghost Box – something that I missed out on when I was a kid. And it absolutely fit with everything I had imagined, and the image of Germany – with all its cliches – that I built myself as kid, without any references from TV.

The only thing I remember is that, when I came to Germany on my summer holidays, there was a series called De Sevensprong – in English, The Secret of the Seventh Way. It was a Dutch series, and I think it was made in the same spirit as the British TV series that I saw later.

But a lot later, I really started to get into German folklore and German history. As a visual artist, one of my main subjects is the relationship between man and nature, and folklore to me is a manifestation of that relationship. So when I discovered Ghost Box, about 12 years ago, I was fascinated by the references. That whole rich history that you have over there on that island! Stone circles, Druids… and the meta layers of Folk Horror. And I was looking for the German parallels, but it’s hard… because of the fucking Nazis. They took over everything related to folklore and tradition. They just swallowed it all. So after the Second World War, everything was destroyed – because German history had just been so infiltrated by Nazi ideals.

Was there any attempt to reclaim it later?

Well, the German folk revival started in the mid-1960s, more or less alongside the student counterculture movement. At first there was one little festival at Castle Waldeck – also called Germany’s Woodstock – but then it grew rapidly throughout the 1970s. Leftish groups like Zupfgeigenhansel and singers like Hannes Wader and Franz Joseph Degenhardt tried to redefine folklore and folk music, partly inspired by what was going on in the UK at the time.

But I wasn’t looking for that – I was looking for the psychedelic or the wonky side of it! In my opinion, really dirty, super-heavy, archaic old folk music always has a psychedelic aspect. It’s rotten, it’s heavy, and the deeper you go the weirder it gets. So I was looking for that, and it’s nowhere to be found in Germany. Everything is mostly Alpine or Bavarian influenced – oompah, oompah, it’s tourist music. Super-clean and super-cliched. You find a little bit of shanty in the north, the sailor’s music… but I was wondering, where is everything inbetween? It’s a huge country, and we have lots of mountainous areas with little villages that must have had their own tradition… but it’s gone. It’s just vanished.

My knowledge of German folklore comes mainly from the stories of the Brothers Grimm. Did they escape the attention of the Nazis? Or do you not consider them to be “genuine” folk tales?

Interesting question! I definitely consider the Grimm tales to be German folklore, although they haven’t been too important for my work in general. The Grimms put together a collection of old tales and preserved them, creating an archive of stories from an oral culture. So you learn a lot about tradition from them, for sure. But they were written down at a time of German romanticism, which tweaked them into a certain style, so they aren’t that “original” – they were influenced by the zeitgeist. You Brits love that word, I know! And although the Nazis monopolised almost everything for their needs, I don’t know anything about the Grimm tales being part of that. I think they escaped, just being “regular” German cultural heritage. Although I just read that the Allies held the Grimm tales responsible for an unconscious inclination towards cruelty to German children, and tried to ban them…

But when you dig a little deeper and start researching folklore traditions in certain areas, it doesn’t take long to find some fucking website that claims “This is our Heimat! We must keep it clean and defend it!”. I don’t want to let them have the whole field to themselves, so I started to invent my own idea of German folklore… sorry, I’m giving a monologue here!

Not at all, it’s fascinating.  

Well as a youth, I was interested in certain esoteric topics. Shamanism, for example. I once heard a story about a shamanistic meeting in the Alps in the 1990s. They came from all over the world to gather there, just to talk. It was literally a meeting of doctors – but with special techniques! The techniques might have differed, depending on the areas they came from, but it was really nice to read about how it went: “What are you doing about this disease, and that disease?” In the end, they were all doing they same thing, and they were able to exchange techniques. The roots of what they were all doing were the same.

And the more you look at archaic systems like that, the more you see we’re all connected by the same roots. Ideas about borders, countries and nationalities… it’s just crazy shit. We might have different languages, but look at dialects: from one little village to another, they change very slowly, they merge and words are added… and eventually they turn into another language. So to me, everything is connected and I love this idea of being able to open up a parallel space with my music, where it’s not a problem if a Shaman starts singing over a middle-European folklore melody underlaid with an 8-bit computer arcade sound. Why shouldn’t a guy in the Alps playing a mouth drum also have an old Commodore 64 next to him, and use that to make folk music? Sorry, I don’t know where that came from… [Laughs]

Ha! Well folk music made on a Commodore 64 is a very Ghost Box concept! How did you find the label in the first place?

My brother-in-law is from the UK, and he’s a huge music freak. He’s into everything. We swap music quite a lot, and one day he said “I’ve got something for you…” This was around 2009. At that time I’d taken a break and gone to Brussels for a couple of months. I had a little job working for a gallery, and I didn’t want to do anything else but make music. I have my roots in hip-hop, but I got expelled in a way… I wanted to go my own innovative way, but I was told that hip-hop wasn’t about innovation, it was about “tight street shit” – that’s an original quotation from a guy I once admired! And I wasn’t into “tight street shit”. During that time everything for me was about destroying what I knew, then building my own stuff. So I was bored by hip-hop after a while, and now I’m really happy that I never continued down that path. I started experimenting, but I felt quite alone because I had this wonky, cartoonish, 8-bit stuff… and, already, the idea of using some medieval samples.

But while I was in Brussels, my brother-in-law gave me some of Ghost Box’s music, and I was struck by lightning. It was “Hey! This is it!” I’d found a musical home. “I’m not alone!”

That’s exactly how I felt when I discovered Ghost Box!

Yes! I was blown away. And suddenly I had the strong will to finish tracks, and to start experimenting with elements outside of hip-hop and beatmaking. It was a nice time already, because the whole “wonky beats” thing was going on, and there was this weird musical style from Finland… Skweee? Have you heard of that?

I haven’t!

It’s like weird computer-sounding funk! So it was perfect timing to have Ghost Box laid on my table. I made a lot of music in Brussels, and when my time there was over, I got together what became the album Hollow Earth Hippies. I was really happy with that. I read that Ghost Box didn’t accept demos, but that wasn’t what I intended… all I did was send them my stuff, saying “Thankyou very much for what you’ve done for me”. I also sent something to Cate BrooksThe Advisory Circle – and then a couple of weeks later she included a tune of mine in one of her Mixcloud mixes. And I saw a comment from Jim underneath saying “Hey, this ToiToiToi thing is rather good!” So I thought “Oh my… what’s going on?”

A couple of weeks later I got a mail from Jim asking if we could work together. I was totally blown out of my mind. He said “Let’s do a single,” and I went “Wahey!!!” And then it was. “No, wait a second – let’s do an EP!” And I went “Oh my God!” Then it all started. I was crazy enough to say that Hollow Earth Hippies thing felt like a finished package for me, so I didn’t want to take anything from it – if we did something together, then I wanted it to be new stuff. And he said “Yeah, but I can’t guarantee that will fit with our style, so let’s start with a single…” And then it took me two or three more years to come up with Im Hag

Have you actually met any of the Ghost Box team yet?

Yes, I came to Britain about two or three years ago, and I went to London and met Jim and Julian.

You weren’t at the Midsummer Night’s Happening in 2019, were you?

No, but I wanted to go!

I’d spoken to Jim a lot over the years, but I’d never met him or Julian. Same with Frances Castle from Clay Pipe, and Jonny Trunk, and Colin from Castles in Space. Then I went to Shoreditch that night, and they were all there! They were like mystical figures to me.

Yes! [Laughs] I’m still really sad that I didn’t go. Next time… 

I wanted to ask a little about Im Hag, actually – what’s the translation of the title? I’ve never been sure…

It literally means “In the Hag” – and the “hag” is a herbacious border! It kind of defines the border between the village and the wild. Also… “witch” in German is “hexe”, and in Old High German the word is “hagzissa” or “hagazussa”. This was the woman who went outside the hag to collect herbs. Of course, when you leave the security of the village, you’re seen as being suspicious, so she could also be considered to be in the league with the devil, who was living out there as well. So the “hag” is kind of a frontier.

You mentioned the idea of twinning your imaginary village of Ethernbach with Ghost Box’s imaginary village Belbury. I guess you would have made Im Hag in around 2016, a time when Europe sadly began to look a little divided. Did that feeling seep into the album?

Absolutely. It wasn’t meant to have that feeling when I made it, but when we came up with the whole concept of the twinned towns – which was a huge co-operation between Jim and me – and about regaining imagined German history from the Nazis, then to me it became a political statement.

It just seems so sad, because the 1970s period that we keep referencing felt like a time when the UK was reaching out. I grew up in the North-East of England, and the town where I was born – Middlesbrough – was twinned with Oberhausen in Germany, and Dunkerque in France. There would be exchange visits for schoolkids, and it seemed like a time when we were putting past differences behind us, and looking outwards to forge friendships. We seem to have gone backwards in some respects since then.

Yeah, that’s what I think as well. I mean, the town twinning and the exchanges are still going on, but we’ve left that period of Social Democratic openness. Which made its own mistakes of course, but what I find attractive about Ghost Box is their re-inventing of the late 1970s. Taking all those positive ideas from the 1970s – education and art for everyone – and imagining what would have happened if we’d gone the right way.

Yes, it’s a lost future!

And imagining it going the right way might be the answer to something I’ve been asking myself. Hauntology is a huge topic, but I don’t think Ghost Box are as hauntological as everyone thinks. They have their own cosmos. There is now the second and third wave of hauntology, but I’ve never been a huge fan – to me, it’s too dark and cold and negative. I’ve always been more into the light and positive side of things.

For me, the whole feeling is quite a calming experience. The things that genuinely scared me as a child feel different to the feelings that Ghost Box evoke. The elements of hauntology that I find really affecting and evocative are more connected to gentle folk stories, educational programmes and a sense of stillness. And yes, some of the things I experienced could be unsettling – but I think that was because they were unfamiliar. Are you aware of a show called Bagpuss at all?

No, not at all.

It’s an early 1970s programme for very young children, with animated puppets telling folk stories – there’s a lot of traditional folk music, too. I watched it when I was four years old, and I was aware that it was evoking a different era… it has an aesthetic that belongs more to the very early 20th Century than to the 1970s. So that felt unsettling, because I was unfamiliar with that time period, but I never found it scary. If anything, I was interested in learning about that time period. And that’s the kind of feeling that Ghost Box evokes for me.

Yes, the unsettling feeling is overlaid by a feeling of excitement.

The other thing I love about Ghost Box – which ties directly into your albums – is its increasingly international feel. It’s a label that could have continued to mine a very British sensibility…

…which would have been a one-way street.

Yeah, I think so. So I really admire the way they’ve recently worked with people like yourself, Beautify Junkyards from Portugal, and the American writer Justin Hopper. You’ve all brought new voices to the label, and given it a cosmopolitan feel – which I love.

And it all still fits into their cosmos! Yeah, I think I was just lucky to be there at the right time. When I sent them my stuff, they were already asking “Where do we go now?”  

That’s how they’ve survived, I think – they’ve always evolved. As have you! I’ve been looking at your artwork today – were you working as an artist before you were a musician?

Yes and no. I was making hip hop before I started studying art, so making music was always part of my life. Then I focused more on my artwork, and my career as a visual artist. But I continued making music, and it was always a bit of an escape for me. Because when you establish yourself as a visual artist, the art market has certain expectations. You have to come up with the stuff they want! You have a certain brand.

But with my music, I’ve always had the impression that I can do whatever I want, without the limitation of fulfilling expectations.

Is that why you decided to make music under a different name?

Yeah. Sebastian Counts was my alias. But now I’ve revealed my real identity! The last few years were hard for me as a visual artist. I went through… I wouldn’t say a crisis, but I reached a point where I would have been repeating myself rather than coming up with new stuff. I was working really conceptually, with the revolutionary thought of being against the capitalistic idea of selling art… and so on. In the end, it led to a situation where I was dependent on people giving me the opportunity to exhibit. And of course you want to be in the good spots, so you have to keep up your networking. For that, you have to be the right type of guy – willing to meet the right people at the right time and do things that are just exhausting. And I’m not that type of guy! I saw the rear lights of the art market… wooh! There they go. And I was running, running, running… but I realised that, however fast I ran, I was never going to catch up. There were younger guys taking over! [Laughs].

So I was really under pressure. I did a lot work that, in my opinion, is really good work. A lot of things in public spaces, and a lot of temporary stuff – which I like because there isn’t a product. But that makes it harder to survive and make a living. It was all conceptual work, up in the head and not in the hands. I had a couple of scholarships, and I was going quite strong until about 2013/2014/2015… and then it started vanishing. We bought this house here [Sebastian now lives in the German countryside] and I left Berlin to renovate it, so I just went off the radar. Of course, I never stopped… but I focused more on the music. This album was finished in April last year, and since autumn… I feel like the train has vanished, and I don’t need to run any more. I’m free, and I can do whatever I want!

My whole career, I’ve done drawings. But I never showed them, I always had the impression they had nothing to do with my conceptual work. So I started to go back to that, and immediately – it was like a Jack in the Box! An explosion. Out of nothing, there was a energy, and I started drawing like crazy. Now, I make huge format drawings. I have a diploma in painting and sculpture, but I’d never painted! I started painting, and I make little objects, and now it’s all gone back from my head to my hands! I’ve always admired painters who sit in their studios doing one painting after another. Before, I’d been so into organising… I’d spend three months planning a piece of conceptual art, then everything was over in an afternoon, and all I had was a lousy photo! So I was always envious. If you’re interested, I’ve just finished an application for a little competition, and I’ve put together a portfolio of my recent work. I’ll send it over…

Please! And if we’re talking about names – where does “ToiToiToi” come from? I’d seen that it was a way of saying “good luck” in the theatre… but also that it was an old German way of warding off the Devil?

It could be, but yeah – I think it means more “break a leg”. In theatres, before actors go onstage, they say “ToiToiToi” rather than “good luck” – because saying “good luck” is actually bad luck! And it’s funny, because for me the name comes from a different context. In hip-hop, a “toy” is someone who is a beginner. Someone who is just… crap. So “ToiToiToi” is the Super-Toy! Then I thought “Should I carry the name over to Ghost Box?” But I did, and it changed from being a cartoonish name to a more official Ghost Box title. And I think it fits quite well – “ToiToiToi” means good luck, but that also implies the bad thing can still happen! Everything is still vague, and we’re not sure that we’re safe…

That’s very Ghost Box! So do you feel like your music and your artwork is now a unified entity?

Absolutely. I mean, it always was… as I said, it always dealt with a certain part of the connection between man and nature. But, in the couple of years since the pressure of being a visual artist came to an end, I’ve begun to think: “Why am I dividing all this? Why am I splitting it up?” It all comes from the same person, it just manifests itself in different media.

You sound like a happy man…

Oh, yeah! At the moment, I’m still a bit nervous… but I’m a sceptic by nature! So I’m not sure what’s happening at the moment… but I have a good feeling.

I’m super happy to be with Ghost Box. And what has been most fun is coming up with references. On Vaganten, there’s a song called ‘Kuckuckwalzer’ – the waltz of the cuckoo. That’s my personal homage to Cate Brooks! I’ve never told her. And the children’s voice you can hear on that song is actually my nephew saying something which is very true: “When you call out for the cuckoo… it will come”. And it works! We tried it. The cuckoo will be angry, because he’ll think you’re a rival… but he’ll still come!

I’ll try that next time I’m out walking.

Do that! You need patience… and to hide behind a tree.

Sebastian’s artwork is here:

His music is here:

And Vaganten is available here:

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