The Real Till Lindemann: Meet The Man Behind The Flamethrower

Even after a quarter of a century in the spotlight fronting Rammstein, few musicians remain so enigmatic as Till Lindemann. We head to Russia to meet him and Lindemann co-conspirator Peter Tägtgren to discover the man behind the flamethrower…

The Real Till Lindemann: Meet The Man Behind The Flamethrower
Paul Brannigan
Jens Koch

A Moscow hotel suite, five in the morning. The bedroom floor is carpeted with prints of pages from Till Lindemann’s poetry collection, Messer (Knife), originally published in his native Germany in 2003, and set for a reissue in Russia via the Bombora publishing house. Even in its unbound form, it’s a brilliant, striking artefact, with Till’s thought-provoking text – full of apocalyptic images of death and decay, love and madness – rendered in both German and Russian, and perfectly complemented by unnerving, bleakly beautiful illustrations.

But as he pores over the pages, Till, a man who has made a career of pushing art to the extreme, feels that the work is incomplete.

Setting aside a glass of vodka, he begins to search the room for a sharp knife. Upon locating one, the singer makes a centimetre-long incision in his left arm, causing blood to spurt from the wound. He then begins methodically dripping blood onto the manuscript, applying a blood-smeared fingerprint here, a bloodied handprint there, for added personalisation. Only then will he finally approve the pages for publication.

“It looked so boring before,” he says, reflecting back on the night in question. “So I made it more colourful.”

He may be a chambermaid’s worst nightmare, but Till Lindemann is hugely fond of Russia, which he has long considered a home away from home. He first visited the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1973, back when he was 10 years old, as a member of the East German national youth swimming squad. Five years later, earmarked as a future Olympian, the teenager was selected to represent his country in the 1978 European Junior Swimming Championships, held in Florence, Italy. His first trip to Western Europe would also prove to be his last competitive swim, for that same week he would be expelled from the national team after being apprehended, post-curfew, by his coaches while clambering down a fire escape on a mission to find a city centre sex shop which sold porn magazines.

This anecdote is significant and noteworthy not only because it was Till’s first genuine clash with authority, but because it was an early indication of an instinctive yearning for freedom which motivates him to this day. When not strapping metallic angel wings to his back and a flamethrower to his face as Rammstein’s frontman, it’s a freedom the charismatic 57-year-old singer now finds in writing free verse poetry (“Poetry is the flight of the soul,” he once said, likening the creative process to escaping from a “cage”), in his love of fishing, hunting and cooking, in solo travel. He also finds it in Lindemann, the musical side-project he maintains in tandem with his day job.

Sitting in the elegant ninth floor bar of Saint Petersburg’s grand Kempinski Hotel, the singer is afforded a superb bird’s eye view of the city’s majestic, iconic Winter Palace, stormed by the Bolshevik Red Guards under the command of Leon Trotsky at the dawn of the 1917 October Revolution. Sporting a black roll-neck sweater under a crisp black blazer, three steel bar piercings in his left eyebrow glinting in the morning sunshine, he looks like he’s spruced up for a visit to an upscale fetish club. Broader than a Liebherr fridge, he’s initially not much warmer when introduced to Kerrang!, barely glancing up from his phone screen when we take a seat in front of him.

Sitting across the table, clad in an equally austere monochrome fashion, Peter Tägtgren is rather more animated and gregarious, possibly because he’s on his third bottle of strong lager of the day, with the sun yet to pass over the yardarm. The 49-year-old Swede, Till’s musical partner in Lindemann, and the frontman of death metallers Hypocrisy and one-man industrial crew PAIN, describes his relationship with the singer as “like a marriage”, and his very presence and bone-dry humour soon help to thaw Till’s somewhat frosty demeanour.

Peter has a blood-letting story of his own, this one relating how, following the 2015 release of the duo’s debut album Skills In Pills, he and Till became ‘blood brothers’, cutting their arms and intermingling their blood in a time-honoured friendship ritual.

“I think we’re both kind of mentally ill,” Peter laughs. “But we can cope with it so we fit really good together. We share everything, maybe too much. Nothing is taboo with us.”

“We have perfect harmony,” Till agrees, speaking in a voice much quieter than one might expect. “I know from Rammstein that, when you work with someone, friendship can suffer. But we fit like a man and wife. Unfortunately, we just don’t have the sexual thing…”

The duo were last in Russia together in December 2018, when they piggybacked the first Lindemann live dates on the back of a signing session tour Till’s publishers had organised to promote Messer. The trek, which saw the pair perform gleefully perverse songs about ladyboys, golden showers, and the sexual gratification to be had from encouraging obesity in a lover, to wildly enthusiastic reception, featured, as Till recalls, “a lot of vodka and partying every night”.

In keeping with the spontaneous, free-spirited nature of their previous creative collaborations, new album F&M (an abbreviation of Frau und Mann, the German words for ‘Woman and Man’) isn’t an album with a conventional origin story. Its roots lie in a request from Till’s eldest daughter, Nele, for her father to supply three pieces of incidental music for a theatrical adaptation of Hansel And Gretel, the Brothers Grimm’s twisted 1812 fairy tale, on which she was working in Hamburg. Till describes writing for the project, a dark reworking of the legendary story of two young siblings abandoned in a forest by their father and selfish stepmother, then entrapped by a cannibalistic witch, as “a good horse to ride on”.

“It seemed like a perfect topic for us,” he expands, “because the Hansel And Gretel story is morbid and brutal but very romantic too. There’s the idea of the bloodline between the parents and the children – who sends their children out into a forest? – and then the horror of the witch getting pushed into her own oven. The directors changed some scenes – like, they came up with this idea that Gretel has a latex or rubber fetish, and started dressing the main actor in a latex costume – and then it was, ‘Could you do one more song please? Actually, can you do another?’ We were writing on demand, and it was fun, a new way of working.”

“And so really we didn’t know we were making a second Lindemann album until it was finished,” Peter laughs.

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Like its predecessor, F&M is an exhilarating, sometimes disturbing, often hilarious listen, a blend of pulsing industrial metal, gothic torch songs and, on Mathematik, hip-hop, with a cameo from German rapper Haftbefehl (‘arrest warrant’ in German). “In the beginning it was a concept record, and then it got loose, and we went crazy, adding spices to the soup,” Till laughs. Unlike its predecessor, however, which featured Till singing entirely in English for the first time, it’s a German-language album, meaning native English speakers can enjoy unpicking the meaning of Till’s typically subversive lyrics for themselves. On a surface reading, F&M may appear to be a less provocative album than Skills In Pills, but as with everything in which Till Lindemann is involved, there are weightier themes to be gleaned from deep immersion in the material. Asked whether someone listening to F&M will get genuine insights into the true character of the man behind these dark parables, Till pauses briefly, smiles, then leans towards the recording device on the table in front of him to ensure that the next words he delivers are captured loud and clear.

“Yes. If they crawl into it, they’ll think, ‘Oh my God, who is this guy?’”

This is an intriguing prospect because, truthfully, while he’s developed an enviable reputation as an artistic visionary, a refined man of letters and a highly-regarded entrepreneur, Till Lindemann hasn’t expended too much energy across his 25-year career on revealing the flesh-and-blood human beyond the familiar two-dimensional characterisation of him as ‘That German brick shithouse with the flamethrower’.

When Rammstein first appeared on the cover of Kerrang! magazine back in April 2001, their frontman didn’t offer up a single word in the accompanying interview. “Rumours and whispers surround Till Lindemann,” we noted in the piece, “some of which are true, some of which probably aren’t, and some of which he would possibly sue us until we turned puce for even daring to print.” In 2020, Rammstein may have topped the national album charts in no fewer than 14 countries with their untitled seventh album, and their frontman may have few peers when it comes to holding the attention of 60,000 people nightly in stadia worldwide, but he remains one of the most enigmatic and private characters in rock’s top tier.

This, of course, is entirely deliberate, with Rammstein’s arch provocations and searing social critiques hugely effective smokescreens in obscuring their personal lives. Similarly, too many of those fixated upon the grotesque, X-rated themes on the first Lindemann record failed to offer many true insights into the character of the lyricist who conceived them. Little attention, for instance, was paid to the fact that the track Yukon displayed Till’s awe in the elemental power of nature. The result is that, somehow, Till has managed to hide in plain sight for the best part of 25 years. “I have two lives,” he admitted to us in his last major UK interview.

Better placed than most to explain this duality, last year, ahead of Rammstein’s scheduled return to Rostock’s 30,000 capacity Ostseestadion, the city’s daily newspaper Ostsee-Zeitung tasked reporter Michael Meyer with tracking down the band’s local-hero frontman in the tiny village where he spent his formative years. Though he now lives in Berlin, Till still maintains a house in Mecklenburg, a red brick cottage with a charmingly unkempt garden, but he was not at home in the bucolic village when the journalist knocked on his front door. Undeterred, Meyer sought testimonies from the musician’s neighbours, receiving almost identical responses from everyone he spoke to. “Till keeps to himself,” was the general consensus. “He wants to be left alone.” Close-knit communities often react in the same manner upon discovering that one of their number has been apprehended as a suspected serial killer.

The man from Ostsee-Zeitung did receive a warm welcome, however, from one local resident, 80-year-old Brigitte ‘Gitta’ Lindemann, Till’s mother. Gitta spoke with love of her boy’s lifelong passions for literature (the works of Goethe and Bertolt Brecht in particular), and painting, his love of nature, and his calm and placid character when recharging his creative energies on home turf. Formerly the head of the cultural department at the radio and television network NDR, she likened Rammstein’s live shows to opera, bursting with pride as she recalled watching her son perform onstage at New York’s legendary Madison Square Garden. “Do you know what made the biggest impression on me?” she said. “The boys’ courage! They don’t give a shit… what people might think. They never did.”

“I had a happy childhood,” says Till today, reflecting on life growing up in what was then East Germany. “My mum was in the Communist Party, and my dad was…” Here, Till makes a zig-zagging motion with his right hand, indicating that his writer father Werner was something of a free spirit. “He wrote books for kids, so there was nothing the authorities could find fault with.

“We were occupied by the Russians, so we had Russian food, Russian movies, Russian music, and we read and wrote the Russian language in school. We had Russian soldiers as neighbours, and I remember as kids we provided them with lemonade and food. Russia was the big brother, taking care of us all.”

Inevitably, perhaps, this idyllic childhood gave way to a more troubled adolescence for the youngster, with his parents separating and his awareness of the often repressive nature of East Germany’s government mounting. Expelled from the national swimming squad with the 1980 Moscow Olympics looming, he recalls going into freefall, drinking heavily and getting into street fights as he sought to re-integrate into regular society. Conditions, then, were perfect for the newly-rebellious teenager to fall in love with Western rock music.

“I listened to a lot of radio,” he remembers. “[The song] Radio on the new Rammstein record is about that, actually. It was a huge thing. There’d be a rock show on a Saturday night, and we’d gather together to listen. We’d hear Led Zeppelin, for instance, and be like, ‘Wow!’ Of course, I could never have imagined that maybe one day one of the Led Zeppelin guys would be standing at a Rammstein show. That’s still insane to me.

“The first album I bought was Deep Purple’s Stormbringer, which I obtained on the black market, under the table, like everything else. It was, like, one month’s salary for a record! When I finished my education and got my first job, my salary was 580 Marks per month – which is about 10 euros these days. I remember Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side Of The Moon being on the shelf, and none of us being able to buy it. It was shitty, and you were sad, because you knew you could never go to a show, or never be able to afford all these records. Making your own music was easier than hearing the classic albums.”

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Given this environment, it’s entirely understandable that a yearning for escape and a militant belief in the idea of life lived free from shame, apology or regret continues to run like a thread throughout Till’s lyrics, from Rammstein’s debut album Herzeleid right through to F&M. Rammstein came together in 1994 in a rehearsal studio in Prenzlauer Berg, the same Berlin district which Till now calls home. The six musicians who forged the band’s unique sound were schooled in hard rock, opera and jazz as well as Krautrock (Can, Neu!, Faust) and the unorthodox, experimental sounds of West Berlin’s Einstürzende Neubauten. Crucially, they also shared a collective rage, a burning hatred of conformity and an intuitive and entirely deliberate flair for upsetting and outraging all the right people. “We’re here to cause problems, to cause trouble,” guitarist Paul Landers told Kerrang! in 2001. “I like the fact that some people hate us. We’re artists, and art should cause such feelings.”

If Rammstein’s art was a reaction against their upbringing, so too were Till’s personal ethics. In the band’s early years, he juggled commitments to the collective with the business of, as a single parent, bringing up his young daughter Nele who was born in 1985. A self-professed believer in karma, mindful of his own father’s cavalier, occasionally apathetic approach to parenting – “He was never there,” says Till. “He was on tour with his reading sessions. We didn’t get along too much” – he fought hard to give Nele (and his youngest daughter Marie Louise, born in 1993) a ‘normal’ upbringing, despite the chaos that occasionally eddied around his artistic life. Asked whether he considers himself a good father, he responds instantly: “Definitely.”

“When my kids were young, we didn’t have the same immense time pressures on Rammstein as there are now,” he says. “Now the kids are good, and they do their own shit. And so do Peter and I, because now we have no boundaries or no pressure from wives or kids…”

“Well, we did, but that’s why we got rid of them,” says Peter, to much laughter. “Unfortunately our egos are bigger than any relationships. We’re impossible men to live with, because music will always come first. And with this music, it’s also about connecting to a lifestyle: late nights, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. Our lives are like a Happy Meal – you don’t know which toy you will get each time.”

Beyond your friendship, what traits do you most admire in Till, Peter?

Peter addresses his friend directly.

“I admire that you’re still alive, and I’m sure you think the same.”

We don’t get to ask Till the same question, as, without warning or apology, the singer simply stands up and walks away from the table to speak with representatives from his record label, moving with balletic grace for a strapping six-footer. After a day of questions, it seems the singer is wearying of giving his project the hard sell. After all, Lindemann is supposed to be fun, an escape valve from the pressures inherent in fronting the biggest band ever to come out of Germany. When he returns to the table, it’s clear that his attention has drifted elsewhere, his smiles now transmitting polite indifference. He brightens, however, when we enquire as to his plans now that production on the new videos has been completed.

He and Peter have organised a boat cruise/wrap party for the Russian video crew, it transpires. “You should come,” he offers. “You can see how we party.”

It’d be rude to refuse.

Seven hours later, then, we find ourselves on a boat groaning under the weight of free food and drink, cruising up and down the Neva River. In addition to the video crew, invitations appear to have been extended to a large selection of Russian models, who spend an indecent amount of time pouting for selfies in the boat’s mirrored ceiling. As Peter relaxes with his girlfriend, Till is all smiles and hugs and bear-like handshake, the perfect, convivial host, making each member of the crew feel valued and appreciated. His bonhomie extends to his interrogators too: at one point, spotting our party in conversation, he shouts, “Stop talking business!” and encourages us to take full advantage of the free bar. Several hours later, with outside temperatures only a breath above freezing, he strides out onto the boat’s bow, unzips, and noisily unleashes a stream of piss into the river, a vision of pure, carefree abandon.

When the boat docks, he’s the first to disembark, disappearing without a word of goodbye, seeking solitude and silence again. Or, for all we know, a more debauched and hedonistic soirée elsewhere in this storied city. Back in 2005, on Rammstein’s Rosenrot album, Till sang, 'Mich interessiert kein Gleichgewicht’‘I’m not interested in balance’ – but it appears to be in the harmony between his louder-than-life rock’n’roll persona and his limelight-shunning, humble and introspective off-stage life where he has found true happiness.

Earlier today, Kerrang! wondered aloud as to what the teenage kid who pressed his ear to a transistor radio to hear the crackling sounds of Led Zeppelin and Alice Cooper would make of this renaissance man and international rock superstar. Is this life everything the young Till Lindemann thought it would be?

“I don’t think about it, I just try to do what I do best,” Till replied, quietly. “Every musician craves freedom. I’m just blessed that I’ve found it.”

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