English audiences would know him from his role in the 1981 film Das Boot, but in his native Germany, Herbert Groenemeyer is more popular than schnitzel. The pop star’s 2002 album Mensch rang up more three million sales alone, and now he’s ready to tackle North American audiences with I Walk, an album of three new songs and 10 English reworks of past material (including the song Mensch). We spoke to him from Atlanta, the starting point for his current tour.
You’ve sold more than 18 million albums, but this is your first North American tour. What took you so long?
That’s a good point. Maybe I’m a late developer. No, I did try in the late 1980s. I had an album out called What’s All This, and I actually opened up for Tom Cochrane in Canada. But that album was literal translations of German songs. After that, I moved to England, where I’ve lived ever since. For this new album, with my friend and producer Alex Silva, we decided to do the lyrics ourselves and also to write three new songs. Once we saw what we had, we thought now is the time to do it, perhaps this time a little more properly.
You’ve been described as the Bruce Springsteen of Germany. Is that accurate?
It’s quite an honour. But he’s world-class, and I’m more village. If there is a similarity, it’s more the topics of the songs. I came from a coal mining area of Germany, and I try to talk about political things. But what can I say? It’s for other people to describe me.
What’s the German equivalent of New Jersey? Hamburg?
That’s what I would have suggested, Hamburg. I think you’re right. It’s close to the sea.
Can you talk about Berlin, where you recorded the new album? Peter Gabriel, U2, Lou Reed and Bowie and others have recorded landmark albums there. What’s the deal with that city?
Berlin was always unique. Bowie was there when the Wall was still up. Hansa Studios was right on the wall. The groove in Berlin was very bohemian. It was very loose, very un-German. It still is. It’s a vibrant place and I think for artists it’s pretty unique. What an artist does is sit in a town like a sponge, taking in as much as possible.
You recorded I Walk at Hansa Studios, where so many classic albums happened, including U2’s Achtung Baby. How did Bono end up on this album? Does he just walk around the halls or something?
We have a loose friendship. We work together on the Make Poverty History campaign. When Bono was in Berlin he came to the studio, because he had some time off and he wanted to hang out there and sit on the couch. But he’s a very focused person and he listened to what we were doing. The song was Keep Hurting Me. He said it was beautiful, but that we had to make the lyrics stronger – more dramatic. He listened some more, and then he asked me to send him some songs. He said he would hum something or add a second voice. So we did that, and what came back was Mensch. He liked it, and sang his own version.
Can you talk about that song? It’s a significant one.
I believe in the human being. The biggest gift you can have in life is friendship. I had had a big tragedy in my life in the late 1990s, when my wife and my brother died in the same week. Too get through that, my friends carried me. The song is a thank you. It’s praising life, but coming out of a very complicated situation.
Could we call Bono a mensch?
Well, Bono contributing to the album was unplanned. There was no motive. This incident proves again that if you believe in people, the beauty comes out. We have this version of the song from him and we were able to use it for a duet. Perhaps this is too much interpretation, but this is the beauty of life. It was one of those moments in life, and the song is exactly about that.
Herbert Groenemeyer, Sept. 20, 8 p.m. $35 ($100, meet and greet). Opera House, 735 Queen St. E., ticketfly.com.