Note: This interview is from a 2-hour conversation I had with Severin Trogbacher, so it’s long. That’s why I’ve split it up into two pages. To read the 2nd page, click on the arrow underneath the ‘Did You Miss These?’ section when you get to the bottom of this page.
I first met Austrian musician Severin Trogbacher when I harassed him as he got off the U-6 train here in Vienna with his partner and newborn baby. Because I knew he was the brilliant guitarist for Austrian singers Conchita and Hubert von Goisern, and had seen him play at a number of gigs. So, when he was suddenly standing in front of me, you can damn well bet I was going to ask him for an interview.
A few weeks later, Severin and I met at a cafe close to my flat, and I discovered he actually lived on the next block from me. Hell, if I’d known that, I would have knocked on his door.
Although I am joking about why I interviewed Severin Trogbacher, as he was on my list of Austrian artists to contact anyway. Because he really is that good.
Because every time I see Conchita in concert, there is Severin up on stage, drop dead gorgeous, playing his guitar like his life depends on it and, with such energy and magnetism, when you can rip your eyes away from Conchita it’s to him they automatically travel.
So, I wanted to find out what it is about Severin Trogbacher that makes him that good? Where was he from? What was his background? And how did he get to play with some of the most iconic artists in the German-speaking world right now?
He is, by the way, very friendly, extremely talkative, expressive and very detailed, and quick to tell you, in that very direct Austrian way, “No, that’s not it at all” when you make a statement he thinks is wrong. And I liked that about him immediately. Because, with a person like that, there are rarely misunderstandings, and what you see is what you get.
Michelle Topham: So you’re from Linz, right?
Severin Trogbacher: Near Linz. Sankt Florian.
And you moved to Vienna when?
At the age of 18. Like 17 years ago. Basically for army service.
Do you have to be in the army here?
Yes, you do. Well, you have a choice between the army or something like the civil service. But here in Vienna there is a special division of the army music. Like every county in Austria has its own army music, but they’re all brass bands. Only Vienna – because of the culture – Vienna has a string orchestra, and a band. So I did the audition here, and I was then in the band as a violist.
You don’t play the viola now, though, do you?
I do. With Konstantin Wecker I play quite regularly on stage. We have seven or eight songs where I play it. I learned the viola and the guitar back when I was in music school, but with a strong focus on guitar, of course.
It was actually kind of weird, though, when I came to Vienna. Because I went to the army services as a viola player as I wanted to play in the orchestra, but I also started studying guitar at the same time. But I didn’t know that the army also has a band, so I naturally went as a viola player. Then I found out you got time off from the army to go to the university, so I did the test at the university for guitar and started studying guitar. When the army noticed I was studying guitar, they started using me as a guitarist for the band.
With the strings, you play a lot of balls, and a lot of receptions. Whenever there’s some guest from somewhere, you play with a string quartet. With a band, you do all those big band gigs, the balls at the Hofburg and stuff like that. So it was a really great thing.
I got to play cool halls in Vienna, because the army plays at places like the Konzerthaus, the Imperial, the Parliament, and I got to meet lots of people and…through one of them… I literally got into everything I’m in now.
Because he had his cover band and, after I was done with the army service, he asked me to play a gig with him privately. At that gig I met a singer who was putting together a band for an ORF main evening show, and they asked me if I wanted to be on the show in the stage band. Just playing jingle stuff. And I did that.
That was right before I quit university.
What were you studying?
It was guitar. But it was a teacher’s certificate, and I never wanted to be a teacher.
Also, it was a no brainer. I got those jobs all of a sudden, and I had to actually play, but I was also obliged to be at the university at certain times. And I couldn’t because I had gigs to play. So they would have failed me in those courses anyway. So I quit, and focused on the playing instead.
Plus, I met Ina Regen’s producer Florian Cojocaru, and became best friends with him. Then through him met lots of other people, who are still my circle of close friends now. So that’s how my music career started.
And was it easy to get the gigs you needed to create a living?
Yes and no. The thing is, in the States, there are hundreds of scenes. In Austria, we’re just so small, there’s one scene. That’s it. Of course, there is a splinter cell in Graz and one in Linz, but we still know all those people.
So there’s not room for that many musicians which, of course, on one hand makes it harder. But I also think there’s this major respect between musicians in Austria, because we know there’s only one cake to share.
Does everyone help each other?
Yeah, I think so. I’ve got a very positive impression of the Austrian music scene as it is right now. I think the overall mood is there is little envy, at least with the people I’m surrounded with. Everyone is helping.
Also, in the last couple of years, Austrian musicians realize there is something that can be done that hasn’t been done before.
Because, in the past, there was this kind of overall mood that Austria is too small anyway, and whatever we do we can’t achieve much and it’s always been like that. But now I’ve got the feeling my generation is only the first or second generation wanting to change that willingly.
Actually going ahead and saying “We are worth something”. So there are lots and lots of talented musicians – like songwriter-wise, singer-wise – all of a sudden realizing we are something, and we want to do something with our music.
But not in the typical way of “You don’t play us anyway. Everything is so shit.” But instead saying to radio stations and others, “Hey, listen, we’ve got something here. Could you consider…..” — just constantly pushing in a positive way.
I mean, 10 years ago people just didn’t believe something could come out of this. Now here we are with Bilderbuch, Wanda, Ina Regen, and radio is playing this music. And people love it.
I’ve also heard from several people Ö3 (one of the main Austrian radio stations) will be starting to play more Austrian music which, I think, is how it should be. They should be playing Austrian music. They should be proud of Austrian artists.
Now they’re doing that. I just remember being young and naive, and saying “I want to change something in the Austrian music world”, and people saying “You can’t. It’s so entrenched. It’s never going to happen. Austria is Austria”.
And I just find it funny more and more people are pushing now, and so it gets to a point where radio and others can’t ignore it anymore. Young people are pushing too hard.
Of course, it’s dangerous that it snaps back to the old patterns. But for now, we’re in a good way.
As I learn more about the Austrian music industry, I’m being told by Austrian bands, singers and musicians they are getting more opportunities outside Austria too now. And I do think Conchita had something to do with that.
Because she came on the scene, and then people who had not thought about Austria since high school Geography suddenly thought “Oh, there is Austria. And there is interesting music coming out of Austria.” So other artists are being noticed because of it.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not saying it’s 100 percent her, by any stretch of the imagination.
Oh no, no, no. And it’s not just the outside world. I think it’s also Austrians themselves. Because there used to be this thought that we are so small, we can’t do anything right because we’re not important. No matter how good people get, it’s not going to happen. And that keeps people small.
And particularly with Eurovision. It was something Austrians didn’t think but knew they couldn’t win. We were used to getting a few crumbs, you know, maybe three points from Germany, or from our eastern neighbors. So usually we would just go home with 20 points. And be happy we weren’t last.
And that’s what Austrians know is going to happen when they turn on the Eurovision Song Contest. And all of a sudden, with Conchita, it’s a major game changer. And Austrians are going “What the hell is happening?”
Well, and Eurovision this year with Cesár Sampson. He did really really well.
And I think that’s all part of the same movement of people of this fine, small country realizing they’re not shit at all.
It’s not just Mozart and Viennese classic when this was a cultural center. It’s still a cultural center. Just contemporary music too now.
Plus, as certain Austrians are starting to get some attention, it’s snowballing.
Exactly. Even when I was in New York, I’d mention some Austrian names to American musicians I met and they were like “Oh my God, the Austrian guys. Those guys are crazy”. And one of the Austrian musicians I know is now playing for Lauryn Hill. So that’s what Austrian musicians are capable of.