Another string to his Bowy…
Michael Borwitzky is an often-overlooked member of PICTURES, one of my favourite bands around at the moment. Joining Union Youth in the early 2000s following the dissolution of his previous group Once on Mars, under his nickname Bowy he became part of a band that went down in grunge history thanks to their two superb albums The Royal Gene and The Boring Years.
When Union Youth ended in 2006, Borwitzky stepped away from the limelight somewhat. Nevertheless, he played alongside former Union Youth live engineer Ole Fries in KEN, the post-Blackmail project of Aydo Abay.
After KEN, Borwitzky was on hand when Union Youth frontman Maze Exler, Blues Brothers style, decided to get (part of) the band back together. Alongside Exler, Fries and bassist Markus Krieg, Borwitzky was responsible for the superb debut album Promise and several tours which have seen the band gain a following across Germany.
I should really be referring to Bowy as Dr Borwitzky. Between Union Youth and PICTURES, he studied audio-visual media at Hamburg’s Wandsbek Media School, also contributing to discussions about culture in the city. Borwitzky has worked behind the scenes at several independent record labels and distribution companies; signing, promoting and managing acts from across the globe.
He also has a pretty major part to play (as himself) in Könige der Welt, a 2017 documentary by Christian von Brockhausen and Timo Großpietsch about Union Youth and PICTURES’ subsequent formation.
Disclaimer: The following ‘top 5’ of Borwitzky’s songs is just a guide for where to start. It’s by no means a definitive list of the best songs Bowy has played on, or the best drumming he’s done. I haven’t even heard everything of his yet! The fact is that he didn’t play much live with KEN, and there are few existing clips publicly available of him on stage with any of his bands except a few PICTURES sessions and some low-quality footage taped from a TV broadcast of Union Youth in Dortmund. If at all possible, I would urge anyone to go and see Borwitzky live. He hits the kit with unbelievable power, it wouldn’t surprise me if he requires only minimal amplification.
1. KEN: 21-21=21
Aydo Abay’s KEN created some excellent songs, with most of their final album Yes We Ken co-written by and featuring Borwitzky. The opening track encapsulated the band’s later shift towards more experimental tracks layered with effects. Borwitzky’s drum patterns were also anything but restrained. Faster than much of his previous work with Union Youth and with fewer dramatic build-ups, 21-21=21 nonetheless exhibits impeccable timekeeping, drum rolls, clever pauses and variation in pace as it goes on.
Borwitzky was heard across Germany when Porsche selected KEN’s Get a Life as backing music for a commercial. Starting with some solid but unremarkable drumming for the first half with subtle chorus-introductions, it gets a lot more expressive towards the end, going from a tap to a stereo barrage of intricate drum patterns. That’s got to be worth eating some flowers for?
2. Union Youth: Inbreeding
As on several Union Youth songs like Laburnum, Inbreeding is a track really driven by a reliable drum beat front-and-centre in the mix. Beginning with a Straight and Narrow-esque drum roll to introduce the song, Bowy keeps up this incredible speed and intensity for the entirety of the near-four minutes. Several times Orion’s guitar drops out to expose the continuing drum beat. There’s nothing particularly interesting here aside from the nice build-up of kick-drum and then sticks leading into the final chorus – the aforementioned pair of tracks from The Boring Years are far better displays of Borwitzky’s technical proficiency and creativity. However, not only does Bowy demonstrate here his superb endurance, but also his ability to recognise when a song doesn’t need an artist but a labourer behind the kit.
Throughout The Royal Gene, Union Youth’s debut album, the unabated grunge-rock allows Bowy real freedom to be aggressive, expressive and angry, with other highlights being a melodic track on Fruits for the Nation with cymbals coming to the fore at just the right points, Dead-Beat Type which allows Bowy to switch effortlessly from hardcore rock to calm timekeeping, In My Heart (not too different to Inbreeding), an understated accompaniment to Thirteen, a satisfyingly deep-sounding set-up on Judge Me and an excellent range of percussive effects, biting snares and cymbal/tambourine accompaniments on the low-fi bonus track Demon’s Heart which as a complete song has aged better than most which actually made the album proper.
3. PICTURES: Let the Music Shine (Vevo Dscvr Session)
Bowy’s versatility was extended yet further in PICTURES, being required to perform his most relaxed indie tracks yet. Playing drums on the Vevo Dscvr session for Let the Music Shine, viewers can see his trademark foot-operated mounted tambourine in action. What’s interesting here is the style of the song, at which Borwitzky is totally assured. You just can’t imagine Union Youth-era Bowy being comfortable playing such a relaxed, laid back tune. The marching snare beat at about 2:30 is a remarkable display of constraint. However, the bursts of fast-paced drumming throughout indicate that Borwitzky retains that raw power from the start of his career with Exler.
On PICTURES’ debut album Promise, Borwitzky’s most interesting contributions are in fact his wonderfully atmospheric effort on the title track and the understated, groovy drum parts of See the Sun. Our man also contributed backing vocals as well as a solid beat to one of the best songs Not the Only One.
4. Union Youth: Sweet Song
Bowy’s drumming is one of the highlights of Union Youth’s magnum opus, The Boring Years, solid and uncompromising when necessity called on Back in the Sun, fast and creative on Dressed like Dolls and Request, industrial on Chinahead and stylish and expressive on band-manifesto About this Ride which would easily have made this list if it was more than a top 5. Maze Valentin(!)’s erring more towards prog-rock and indie influences on this record if anything encouraged Bowy’s creativity behind the kit to flourish, rather than constraining it.
Perhaps the highlight was on one of Union Youth’s most enduring tracks, the sprightly Sweet Song. Bowy’s drum track shows an impressive depth from its tapped introduction to its use of a variety of different drums leading into the first bridge. Each subsequent chorus is introduced by a fast explosion of drums to frame the lyrics. Bowy’s intelligence here is that he never tries to overpower the words on one of Exler’s most tuneful songs since the pair began working together, but keeps the beat perfectly well, adding the odd flourish only when necessary, and coming to the forefront as he builds up to the key verses. The best part is before and during the guitar solo, which is built up by a drum roll and then joined by Borwitzky really going for it to complement the urgency of Orion and Maze’s strumming.
5. PICTURES: Here I Come (Studio Session)
This studio session from 2016 is part of a series of three, where the excellent camera work and Fries’ superb mixing really shows off Borwitzky’s skills. On Here I Come, although he didn’t play it on the album, Borwitzky delivers a venomous accompaniment with some incredibly fast drumming.
Also featured in the session is an assured performance on Fall and a lively, expressive Promise, on which Borwitzky uses the full range of his kit and plays an interesting pattern in the middle section as the guitars calm down where he misses one beat per bar (from about 2:30 onwards on the video) – at first you wonder if it is a mistake, but after a few seconds you realise it’s a clever discordant technique used to add melody to his crashing drum part.
The best drummer in PICTURES?
It’s a joke often repeated that Ringo Starr wasn’t even the best drummer in the Beatles (just for the record – Lennon never said that, it was comedian Jasper Carrott). There’s no comparison here because Borwitzky is clearly the best drummer in PICTURES, but it should be noted that Markus Krieg is also a very experienced Schlagzeuger. However Borwitzky’s expression means he’s preferred in the chair on the majority of the songs on Promise.
With Sir Ringo recently having been honoured for his services to music in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list and music journalists falling over themselves to talk about his percussive genius, it’s time (and I’m more guilty of not doing this than anyone) that Borwitzky gets his deserved recognition as one of the foremost reasons for Union Youth and PICTURES’ success.