He performs in a horned mask. His new album is called ‘False’ and it features collaborations with 14 artists who may or may not exist. He wants to train other musicians to play his gigs for him. Welcome to the strange reality of Lambert
“You can’t be sure that it’s really me,” grins the figure on the other end of the Zoom call.
On the wall behind him is a poster of Milli Vanilli, the infamous German-French pop duo, wearing long-horned animal heads. Sitting alongside the poster are sets of similar headgear, seemingly made of wood and with horns of various shapes and sizes.
“I figured I didn’t have to wear a mask for this interview, because you can’t be sure it’s me anyway…” the man on Zoom repeats, tongue firmly in cheek.
And so we’re given our first taste of the weird and wonderful world of Lambert, who never performs without a horned mask hiding his face. Are you sitting comfortably?
Truth is a fickle beast in the Lambiverse. “Lambert is Lambert,” is initially all he’ll reveal when asked about his background, although he does disclose that he was born and raised in Hamburg when he is pressed. He now lives in Berlin.
“I’ve lived here for more than 12 years,” he says. “So I guess you can call me a Berliner.”
Lambert describes music as “a way of least resistance” when he was growing up. From a very young age, he always enjoyed being on stage.
“I was not good at anything else in high school and I had to do something,” he explains. “So I went for music. It was the only thing I could do without any effort. It wasn’t that I decided I wanted to be a pop star or anything like that. It was a nice thought, but I didn’t really take it that seriously. There was simply no other option.”
His earliest musical memories were classical pieces – he mentions Bach and Chopin – and The Beatles. Sometimes it was a mixture of both.
“They were the only things that were allowed to be on the record player. My parents had these weird compilation albums. They had a really horrible record of 12 cellos playing The Beatles. My father liked that because he thought it was very interesting to hear how these songs were played on classical instruments.”
Lambert later got heavily into jazz and he cites American piano player Bill Evans as a major inspiration. Evans was a key member of the group that Miles Davis assembled for ‘Kind Of Blue’, but it was the pianist’s own album from 1961, ‘Explorations’, that had the biggest impact on Lambert – “I listened to it religiously in my basement at home,” he says – and for a while he thought about trying to become a jazz musician. In the end, he decided to undertake formal training at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam. He was not accepted at first, though.
“I had to do an entrance exam and they said, ‘Oh, you’re OK… but we don’t know if we can take you here because there are so many other good people’. And then they contacted me two weeks before term started and said, ‘You’re lucky, you can come now because someone has decided to go somewhere else, so… welcome’. I was like, ‘Great, nice, thanks’.
“I wasn’t a very good student, to be honest. I liked being there, I met some cool people, and I played and improvised a lot. But I was not a favourite of my teachers. After four years, it was enough.”
Lambert has released at least one contemporary classical record every year since 2014. There was also ‘We Share Phenomena’, a collection of avant-pop songs recorded with Brooklyn Dekker, one half of indie folk outfit Rue Royale, which came out in 2018. But Lambert’s upcoming offering, ‘False’, is something quite different. It consists of 14 tracks, each a collaboration with another artist, and it was never originally intended to be an album at all.
“I was asked if I wanted to be on a mixtape. I don’t actually like to do them, but it made me wonder if I could produce one of my own. So I found myself thinking about what should happen next. I was thinking, ‘OK, if I was a listener and I didn’t know anything about these artists, what would I like? Would I want to go through a range of genres? What kind of beats would I like?’. That’s why this whole thing is produced as one big sausage.”
It’s an apt description. Each track on ‘False’ flows in “a logical continuation”, flitting deftly between styles. It opens with the bubbling bleeps and rhythmic chunter of ‘Außen’, before morphing into the gentle keys of ‘Opus 23’ and then shuddering with the percussion-driven ‘Brack St Twen’. There are more nervy moments too, such as ‘Thema Zwei’, which calms to form the winding cinematic melody of ‘Spheres’, complete with auto-tuned vocals. Each track stands on its own, but they are all integral to the whole “sausage”.
Although the end result couldn’t possibly be described as classical music, Lambert’s management played the album to his record label, Mercury KX. Not that the pianist was very happy about that when he found out.
“I was furious,” he reveals. “I said, ‘You can’t show this to them as an album, what are you doing?’. But they convinced me that it worked and I now think it’s great to release a record that was never meant to be. I like it a lot.”
And what of Lambert’s collaborators on ’False’? Those 14 artists without whom the album wouldn’t have happened? The likes of Tres B Mal, Hexia, Giovanni DiMachelli and Ging Gang Gong? If you put any of the 14 names into Google, you’ll find little to no information. It’s even been suggested that they don’t exist, they are simply alter egos of the man himself.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he doesn’t give much away when asked about this directly. He says that anybody who is interested should listen to the podcast series he’s produced with director Tom Oxenham to accompany the release of the album. In the Lambiverse, however, collaboration isn’t as clear-cut as working with someone else.
“Isn’t everything you do artistically a placeholder for an influence?” he offers, hypothesising that every artistic endeavour is a collaboration with some other outside force. “When you create, you’re always under the influence of something.”
So what’s the deal with the horned mask Lambert always wears? The answer is almost disappointingly uncomplicated.
“It makes me bigger,” he states. “It makes me taller. I feel like I’m the tallest guy in the room. Kind of a giant.”
The mask is originally from Sardinia, where such wooden headgear is traditionally worn at carnivals to symbolise fertility. Lambert says he changed the colours slightly and made the horns a little longer. He says there’s an element of showmanship to the mask that he enjoys.
“If you perform, no matter if you conceal your identity or not, you always think about how you want to present yourself. That’s no different for me or any other artist out there. I see it as my honest way of telling the audience that this is a show. Do they really want to see the same person who brushes his teeth in the morning? I can’t believe that.”
He adds that he finds being obscured “quite liberating, both physically and artistically”, noting that the face covering enables him to “widen the boundaries of genres and expectations” and stops him being pigeonholed.
“The freedom I get through the mask is great,” he declares. “In the beginning, although I liked being on the stage, I felt something in between shame and fright. I had trouble with telling the audience, ‘This is me, this is my reality, this is my truth, listen to me’. It was also easy to get stuck in a certain role and that’s not why I wanted to be a performer. I want to be able to change my music or my persona. I want to use the stage for what it’s made for – to act.”
The curious short film ‘Becoming Lambert’ adds a further twist to the tale. It shows the musician in his trademark mask as he trains four similarly disguised figures at a “school for Lamberts”. The students mime playing a piano on dry stone walls and even on a couple of pigs. He explains in the voiceover that he set up this programme because he “cannot be everywhere at the same time”. It’s surreal and darkly comic and definitely a wind-up. But whether it’s a joke or not is missing the point. It speaks to the greater idea of putting the art, rather than the artist, front and centre.
“That’s what ‘Becoming Lambert’ is about,” he confirms. “The music is there and can be performed by anyone. When you think of classical music – of Chopin, for example – it’s played and interpreted by so many people.”
He’s particularly keen on the idea of being able to stage Lambert shows all around the world, but without him having to go himself.
“I don’t have to fly across to South America to play a concert, I can train people to do that for me,” he laughs, before adding quite seriously, “and that is how I do it, of course.”
Is Lambert just one person? Or could there really be several Lamberts, incognito and ready to play shows here, there and everywhere? Does it even matter?
“I don’t need to tell you the truth,” he says. “Personally, as an artist, I don’t think I have the same responsibility as someone like a politician or a historian. You would never say to a fiction writer, ‘This story is not true, how can you lie to me?’. I don’t see why I shouldn’t have the same freedom to invent stories and facts about the music I make. To me, the stories sometimes feel much more true anyway.”
Take the collaborators on ‘False’. Whether they exist or are extensions of Lambert isn’t important. They all still contribute to the Lambert experience.
“All those thoughts that create stories, they are part of the work in the end. They play with the idea of what is genuine and what’s not, but it’s not a lie. It is my truth that belongs to my music.”
Whatever your perception, there’s certainly never a dull moment with Lambert. He’s already planning his next album, which is the soundtrack to an imaginary documentary about an imaginary film that flops. Is that clear?
“I thought it would be nice to follow an idea that fails and then document it,” he says. “I like the idea of the music not being the score of the movie, but the soundtrack to the story of the failure of that movie.”
Wheels within wheels. Masks and lookalikes. Collaborators that may or may not exist. Imaginary documentaries about imaginary films. These are just some of the constantly shifting layers of the Lambiverse. Trying to peel them back to uncover what lies beneath is futile.
After all, this is Lambert’s realm and we’re just living in it. Waiting in the wings, mask on, getting ready to take part.
‘False’ is released by Mercury KX