Maxi Pongratz is singer and songwriter of the Bavarian band Kofelgschroa. He wrote many of his songs while hiking. A conversation about the beauty of being outside, about unnecessary equipment and the mountains as an eternal source of inspiration
When I asked you for this interview via WhatsApp, you were just on the AlpeAdria trail and answered from Slovenia.
I was walking from the Millstätter See over the Wurzenpass over into the Soča Valley with my girlfriend. We were on the road for a fortnight. Every day between 18 and 22 kilometres. It's easy to do, and you don't even have to get up too early in the morning. I found Carinthia unexpectedly beautiful.
I have previously associated Carinthia with the Wörthersee and this kitsch TV-series with Roy Black. My mom used to watch that. In the end it was much cooler there than in Slovenia. Because the Soča Valley was totally overcrowded. Idon't like that at all.
Did you get special equipment for the long hike?
Yes, I was in a big sports shop in Munich because my girlfriend said that I needed a merino wool T-shirt. The top is great, but I thought it was pretty weird there.
In the advertisements they always show what you need to go into the mountains, and I think most of it is completely unnecessary. You need good shoes, and I think sticks make sense and maybe something to wear or a cap. But all this fuss about the equipment is somehow not my thing. Many people are well equipped, but have no idea about the mountains and underestimate it. But I didn't mean to offend. Everyone should do as they see fit.
It probably has something to do with the fact that you come from the mountains and they are something you take for granted. You even named your band after a local mountain in the Oberammergau.
Of course, the mountains were always on our doorstep and I have a different reference there and know that I can go up at any time with the outfit I'm wearing right now. Maybe you'll get a chill up at the top, but that's okay. Mountain trousers are just not my style. I'd rather go in my jeans. And all this outdoor stuff is really fragile near a barbed wire fence.
Do you still remember your first mountain tour?
As a small child, my father once tied me to the summit of the Kofel. For safety. I remember that. But actually, we have always been more likely to go to alps and mountain masses on the Scheinberg or the Kienjoch. Someone carried up the altar, and they gathered up in the open air. I found that much nicer than the mass in church.
You are very attached to the mountains of your homeland.
I still very much feel attached to my home. The mountains around us are not so high. I don't know the high alpine region that well. And I don't feel so comfortable there either. The Garmisch Alps are actually too massive, too monumental for me. When I see the Jubilee ridge, it seems kind of dangerous. I'm not so drawn to that. I'd rather be out in the Grasswang Valley.
Don't you ever get tired of this?
No. Not at all. I just take a beer and some snacks.
Do you like sleeping under the stars?
Just the other night I slept outside again. On the Hörnle. All alone. I went up in the night and the next morning I noticed that I had slept between lots of cow dung.
A summit cross is not that important, but I need twenty minutes of climbing uphill
In the Oberammergau they call you the Kofels for short. How many times have you been up on the Kofel?
My parents live at the foot of the Aufacker, that was my private home mountain. I haven't been on the Kofel that much. Maybe fifty times.
Only? And on the Aufacker?
In my childhood and youth I spent a lot of time in nature. I simply enjoyed it, I was on the Aufacker three times a week. For years. Some weeks I went up every afternoon. It just did me good. But this is a totally boring mountain. More like a grass mound. There's not a single rock. When I was a kid I used to smoke a cigarillo up there. I loved the pick-me-up. There's no need to understand that. I just let my thoughts run free.
Like other people jog?
Yeah, maybe. But I'm a very bad runner. I always get the stitches in my side and my knees often hurt. I'm a fast walker, not a runner. And I'm definitely not one to run to the gym or do anything big with my arms. Just a persistence person. And certainly not a real climber. I'm a mountain climber, that's the right phrase. Because mountain hiking is often too slow for me.
And how do you do that in Munich?
I have been mainly living in Munich since 2014 and I'm getting a little tired of the city. You never quite know which direction to go in. To the Isar? Right or left? That's all there is to it. When I am in the Oberammergau, my heart opens up because I can go up, and that gives me total satisfaction. A summit cross is not that important, but just twenty minutes of walking uphill. I don't even need a real target.
Is that pure sport, then?
I'm not out in nature for fitness, and I can't say that I'm an athlete now. My two brothers did a lot of sports. They were on the cross-country skiing squad. In Ogau there is the Trachtenverein (folklore society), being an altar boy and cross-country skiing. That's all part of it. It always annoyed me more when you go to a race and then the countdown starts: five, four, three, two, one, go. I often couldn't even get the start right. I am an ambitious person and I also like to grit my teeth, but I never had a sense of achievement at competitions. I often came in third - out of three.
For me it does not always have to be perfect sunshine, I like to go up the mountain even in bad weather
Do you ever take books to the mountains? Or something to write with?
Yeah, and I started working on the rhythm of songswhilst walking when I was sixteeen. Text and music come together quite well, when you're on the move.
Are these tours still inspiring for you as a songwriter?
Of course. INowadays I sing the ideas into my mobile phone. Very unromantic. And I often take my instrument with me. I've even played street music on the Scheinberg before. It was a sunny autumn day. Troves of peoplecame up there. I didn't get any money, but I got lots of candy. I want to do that more often. You can inspire people more than in a place where people expect music anyway. The beauty is you don't have to compete with any radio or anything. There's just silence and then your melody. This is the greatest pleasure as a musician. When you play where there's nothing. You can really bring joy with that.
I'm sure you've played music at one or two of the cabins.
Sure, it's more normal there. Muisic is part of that. We used to party a lot in mountain huts with friends. They carried a few csrates of beer and the instruments up there. That's actually how it started with the music. As a teenager. We used to play "Ein Kompliment" by Sportfreunde Stiller or "Easy Day" by Bananafishbones. Those were the first experiences where we realized that music can be something different. We were at the Trachtenmusik (folk brass band) at the time, and there you just had your performances at the senior citizens' afternoon or at the folklore evening. We played for old people and tourists. And I knew that this was not how I imagined being a musician.
Isn't such an instrument very heavy?
Not really. And, when you've got something on your back and it gets a little tougher, I like that. Grafting. Otherwise I'm missing something. If you're just creative all day, you won't get tired from anything. In the city it is just not so much fun to be physically active. You rather meet with people, go for coffee and beer and don't get really tired.
In addition to walking, you can also go by bike...in the mountains. There is a song of yours that is about a bicycle tour and exactly meets the easy-going Kofelgschroa feeling of life.
"14 Dog," you mean. The chorus is: "When we are tired, we sleep when we sleept enough, we pack up and go again." I once cycled with Matthias (band member; editor's note) to Guča in Serbia. To the famous brass music festival. We were on the road for three weeks, had a tent and everything with us, even the instruments. Matthias the valve trombone, me the accordion.
You don't seem like a fair-weather mountain man. I can remember that we once rode together with the mountain bike to the Soiler Alm. You just kept going - even though it was raining constantly.
For me it doesn't always have to be perfect sunshine, I like to go up the mountain even in bad weather. In rain or fog. It's just as nice for me. Also because there are fewer people about. You just have an anorak or a jacket with you.
Do you sometimes get lost in poor visibility?
Yeah. I guess. But so far it has always gone well. We used to do things that were beyond our abilities. At fourteen, there's no such thing as fear. Once I went with Michi (band member; editor's note) to the Kofelkreuz and in the end we only hung there on a few blades of grass above the abyss. Stupid thing. I don't need that anymore.
Is it hard for you to give up?
No, and I don't always have to go to the top. Once I wanted to go with Martin (band member; note of the editor) from Mittenwald to Venice. Back then we had no money at all and always slept in the tent. At the Marmolata we had to give up because Martin had injured himself. We just took the train to Venice and still opened our bottle of wine at the Lido.
In the video for "Kleiner Reiter" from your just released solo album you paddle in a canoe on the riever Lech. How long you been doing this?
For the first time, actually. The friend who made the video was once German champion in the canoe. And he showed me how to hold the paddle. I'm glad it looks professional. I actually practiced for an hour or two before filming.
What do you think about people wearing headphones when hiking or mountain biking?
I would never do that. Why put earplugs in? I find it much nicer to hear the wind or insects or just nothing.