Louder Than War boss and the Membranes frontman John Robb interviews Alec Empire from groundbreaking band Atari Teenage Riot about the digital revolution, Berlin, how the Pirates nearly killed music and the band’s controversial new single…
Louder Than War and Alec Empire go back a long way – almost to the beginning of this whole affair.
I interviewed them in 1992 at the Roundhouse studios in London where they were working on a version of Sham 69’s punk anthem, If the Kids Were United. It was an interesting experience – they were already fusing anthemic punk with techno, splicing two rebel musics into a 21st century whole. The band were running around the studio with their heads bursting full of ideas and concepts. Even then, Alec Empire, was brimful of intelligence and political fervour. A Kreuzberg kid he had been in the anti nazi riots of the area of the eighties and was steeped in its pre-wall coming down squat culture and political idealism. The music he was making was the perfect soundtrack for Berlin, a city where living on the edge with a soundtrack of all night techno and post hardcore punk rock replaced the indie mush of most cities.
The city was the key grounding to the band who were virulently anti Nazi and making a fierce political noise in a time when everyone else was too stoned to care. They invented a new template in the process – they may have sounded loud and brilliantly out of place at the time but it was only a couple of years before the Prodigy toughened up their own music and hit the mainstream with their version of the ATR energy. Since then the band have set up their own Digital Hardcore label and diversified their sound, they still use original Atari computer with computer games noise and a punk attack and have managed to create a big audience for their left field scuzz. On the way they have split up, reformed and even seen one of their original members Carl Crack die/commit suicide after problems with psychosis. I remember Carl as a reserved, smart young kid who felt culturally displaced in Germany with his African background in Europe that was just starting its depressing slide back into the dark shadows of fascism. Punk rock and ATR offered him a home for a some time before the demons gathered.
In 2014 ATR are still causing waves. They are a brilliant festival band, invariably bringing the noise, and their new single has raised eyebrows with its cheerleader chorus and neo- pop leanings. Their upcoming album, Reset, promises noise and diversity and they still like to ruffle feathers.
It all seemed so innocent that first meeting all those years ago but somehow the bands’ idealism remains untempered and Alec Empire is still brimful of optimism and attitude when I speak to him.
John Robb: Guten Abend Alex! the wonder of Skype! We’re not paying!
Alec Empire: Yeah! George Orwell! We’re free slaves, man! Haha! How are you, man? Are you good?
How is Berlin? it’s changed a lot over the years, hasn’t it?
Yes, yes. I’ve been in so many conversations about this over the past months. People ask me, “What’s going on in Berlin?” and I don’t want to be negative. But I feel like it’s almost…deserted. I don’t think there’s a creative force or something coming from the underground. You have a lot of space, clubs or something else! (laughs) and in terms of great locations I wish we would have had all this space in the ’80s! (laughs)
In a way, the the compression and claustrophobia of areas like Kreuzberg pre ’89 created the music and the atmosphere that made it such a dynamic scene at the time, didn’t it?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, of course looking back you always wonder how much is it the place itself? Is it the city or the individuals who live there? (laughs) Because I don’t think this kind of sound would have happened in another city exactly like that. There is something about it. Some people give cities or places too much credit. You know what I mean? Berlin is the best example. There are so many people coming to Berlin hoping that it will bring out something in them (laughs). And you’ve probably seen some of these acts play at this Berlin Music Week thing you went to, and you wonder “OK. Could the same stuff could have happened in Dusseldorf or Dortmund, or you know what I mean? (laughs) There’s this reflecting, you know?
Yeah, London can be like that – people drift there hoping. But on the other hand, when you go to Berlin now it does feel like a really great European city. It’s very international now.
There’s people from all over the world there and definitely Kreuzberg, even if it’s not all the squats, it’s still got a dynamism. There’s an energy to it.
Yeah, I think you’re right. I think what’s good about Berlin, for example, is the whole music scene. I have to point this out every time people get depressed about the music scene. I go, “Look! The good stuff is happening in other places.” Like, you know maybe has nothing to do with music, or not so much. But it is people who wouldn’t live in the US anymore, or actually wouldn’t be in England anymore because they go, “This is too much!” You know? The surveillance, the way things are working out or not working out for people. You know? and they are, like, “Why don’t we move to Berlin?” It’s way cheaper still – even though prices have gone up for rents and stuff. But it’s still far cheaper than London, so I hope something will come from that. Maybe like, next year or the next two years or something all these people will make a real difference. Because there is definitely something happening, like it’s cooking. But it hasn’t….how do you say…it hasn’t come together in this way that you would go, “Oh Berlin! This is exactly where everything is happening now!” I feel like it’s a little bit before…I would say, before the explosion!(laughs) Something like that, you know? It could be interesting again. I hope.
It’s interesting you say that as a native of Berlin. The perception from everybody outside is that Berlin is the most happening city in Europe. A lot of people on the punk scene they love Berlin because there’s a big punk scene there. A lot of people on the techno scene say it’s got the best clubs in Europe at the moment. Maybe some of the problems, the chain coffee bar yuppification of the culture is there. But maybe that’s not as bad as in other cities. Maybe ‘coz its cheap and there’s space as well- people can still do things.
To be fair, when I say these things I am thinking a little bit also ahead. Other people come to Berlin and are like, “Oh! I’ve been to three cool clubs!” I’m going, “Yes. I agree but maybe this is an okay thing, and I’m glad that it happens. Like it exists but I’m thinking it should be a more, like a unique sound maybe. There should be something here that we don’t see anywhere else in the world. Actually I find this is just the locations. Like if you go, let’s say, to Berghain- it’s a great club maybe but mostly it’s the location that makes it. It hasn’t…it’s not like, say, Manchester or something where you would go, “Oh! This is such a unique sound!” You know? A sound that has come from that place. A sound that has inspired everybody. In the last decade I think this hasn’t happened in Berlin. You know? What I want, basically as a music fan and also as a musician is a new sound from here. I want this to… go this little step further. That doesn’t mean that everything is a nightmare. It’s just I think people, they ride on the back of the past. I don’t know if that makes sense but…
Yeah, I understand. I wonder now, with the proliferation of the internet, that you won’t get this thing where you get a claustrophobic local scene. Like would the 18-year-old Alec Empire now be jamming with someone from Tokyo online…
Hopefully! We can find this stuff easily on the internet, but I don’t see it! (laughs) That’s my worry, you know? No but I mean I think there’s also something happening, a trend that I see. But it’s kind of just starting since a year ago- a reaction to the internet. A lot of musicians are…I feel like they don’t wanna self-promote themselves all the time, you know? It’s almost like, no. You have your small circle of people that you share your music with but “I don’t wanna be a YouTube star” or “I don’t wanna be big on Facebook” and stuff, because it’s kinda meaningless, you know? Like even if you get good results or something, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t get you anywhere. I think we see this with the line-ups of the big festivals, for example- you just don’t see lots of new bands. There’s not really a new wave of these kind of acts or bands or DJs or something where you go, “OK. That’s a real revolution!” You know?
Yeah. Do you have the same thing in Germany, where it’s kind of rich kids who make music, because…
Because you can’t make any money out of music, so like in England it’s just rich kids whining about their girlfriends. That’s “alternative” music now.
Yes, and I remember when we had this debate on Louder Than War about where music is going and the whole pirates debate and downloading. And to me it’s so funny. It’s like often when people ask me certain questions about the internet and stuff, I just point them to that article, or those articles.
There were a few of them up on your site, and it’s like “Yes!” We said all these things a couple of years ago. I feel it’s so weird that people marched right into the pirates thing and wonder why isn’t there more exciting music? Some people say “Yeah, but it doesn’t matter if someone is coming from this social background” but I’m like, “I think it does matter.” Because I feel personally we’re not getting the best people. We’re not getting the person that is in some fucked up neighbourhood or something, someone who wants to make it or really wants to express themselves.
We’re getting these kind of bands where I go, “This was always boring to me.” I know some people like that stuff! (laughs) but that’s not what music is about, in my opinion. It’s like so anti-punk (laughs), what’s happening. Even if some people have the looks or they wear maybe certain clothes, or come across more fucked up or something. At the end of the day, for them, it’s like a luxury thing.
I think that’s sad. I think the music scene, or the… I don’t know… not the music industry, but everybody who likes music should be so aware of that and should actually work against that. And I’m not seeing that. I think people are accepting the bullshit too much, and they’re happy to say, like, (puts on dull voice) “Yeah, let’s go to a big festival and be glad that we can go” meanwhile the ticket prices are rising and rising, you know? Because bands have to make up for the lost record sales.
There’s no way, like, of cutting the cake. Such a big chunk of it is missing and they’re gonna get it from somewhere. Like if it’s sponsorship, then you know what too much corporate sponsorship does to the music scene. It’s just out of balance, you know? These are some things that I think explain what is happening, it’s not just like “Oh! We don’t like the current music scene!” (laughs) Because you and me, we’ve seen all these ups and downs. So I think we can see what’s happening. It’s not like suddenly we don’t like a certain wave of music because it’s not our taste or something. It’s a structure that doesn’t work, I think.
Alternative music is this kind of very tidy, very nice little thing now. So you get alternative radio but it never plays any noisy music! (laughs).
It’s like, and I also feel it’s my impression every time I do interviews or I’m at some festival or something that there’s like all these people, the bands and the journalists or whatever and they went to the same private school, you know? (laughs) And to me it’s like “Wow!” But people just go like “Yeah. So what?” They try to hype stuff or hype themselves up and that’s never good, I feel. Like the most exciting music was created when these kind of, you know, when people were breaking through those barriers socially. Or were going beyond those limits and things were mixing up. Of course I’m not the kind of person who says, “Oh! Rock n’ roll should always be working class!”
Because you know there are these kinds of people who would immediately hate a band or something because they don’t come from a certain part of the city or something and that’s wrong. I think that’s wrong but now it’s got out of balance, so I feel we don’t get the interesting characters this way. We just get the private school people. Back in the day I never went to these types of parties, you know what I mean? Like, “Hey! Ok! Let’s go to the other part of town and there’s this party in a big house where we all can go. It’s free food, free drinks!” I mean, it’s like when you went you felt like you were in “Quadrophenia” or some movie! (laughs) And you were just like, “Errr…ok. I don’t fucking belong here at all!” (laughs)
What’s actually more remarkable is bands like Atari Teenage Riot ever got through in the first place.
It’s weird right? It’s almost like an accident that wasn’t supposed to happen! (laughs) It seems logical now, but sometimes when I think about it, it’s like, yeah! How did this happen? It’s almost like the (Berlin) Wall coming down mixed with that enthusiasm for techno when it was still good helped. And because I came right out of punk, you know? If I had listened to Duran Duran or something, it would have never happened! (laughs) So I owe the punk scene a lot, I think.
It makes complete sense in the context of what punk used to be- a band like Atari Teenage Riot. There’s a lot of electronic music in the early punk scene but somehow punk became very guitar linear.
Yeah! By the way punk sort of lost its way at the end of the ’80s, that thing. Where it was not a political thing any more so much and then became about drinking beer. I think a very good example of that is the band Die Toten Hosen- maybe some people outside of Germany are also familiar with them. At first they were an underground independent type of band, the first album they put out, tt was a very different thing.
It was more like describing where they were coming from- ok there was always that kind of fun element to the music. But then it became all like, “Let’s drink! Let’s get drunk!” Which is also maybe ok to have a few songs like that but not every song! At some point it’s almost like the same thing happened with electronic music. It just became about the drugs.
It wasn’t like, “No! We demand more from this night, from the DJ and the music.” It should be a whole experience. I think there’s such a contrast, man. Like when I speak to young DJs in the electronic scene and then if I speak to some of the older guys who were there during acid house. It’s almost like the older generation is on this mission like, “No! We are fighting for this music! We are, wherever we appear, we have to bring that message. We have to deliver that message.”
It’s like Tokyo, or somewhere in Eastern Europe, or whatever, there’s still that mindset that I think a lot of these DJs from back then have, while some of the newer guys are like, “Yeah, I wanna get this cheque and then I do a set.” You know what I mean? I think that’s why it’s so conformist. It’s like a day job, how some people treat it. I think that’s not enough for me as a music fan. Maybe some people are ok with it but I think it gets so much more exciting if you see somebody who says something, which is also provoking you as a fan.
Sometimes I love this stuff where, at first I go, “Fuck! Really?! No! I don’t get it!” And then I check it out more and I’m like, “Yeah! Ok! I get it. This guy is coming from the other side of the world and he sees it like that!” This is what I always loved about music- if you could understand all these different views. This is what I think is great about music, not just looking in the mirror seeing yourself like, “Oh, ok. This band is saying exactly what I am.” To me that was never exciting and especially the first generation of punk, I think, was so much about that , you know? It was all the girl punk bands, for example, for me that shaped my whole view on, for example, how women do music, or should or could make music. Stuff like that, I’m really glad that I grew up in that time.
When you say girl punk bands do you mean The Slits and bands like that?
Yeah. X-Ray Spex is a very good example. It’s so funny I can listen to this stuff, like almost every year and I feel always that energy and it never dates. It’s strange and you could go like, “Ok, is this dated or not?” Or is it just me remembering? But it’s like no! This is actually because it’s a fresh approach. It just captured an excitement that I think is timeless. This is what music, in my opinion, should be about. Not like just (dull voice), “Ok. Let’s be, let’s start this hype for a year and get out and go back to university.” I don’t know how these people think. (laughs) Sometimes I get the impression it’s like, “Ok, I’m a student now.” And this is just like, “I’m in my ’20s, I’m gonna do this and then I’m gonna do nothing. Or like inherit a lot of money or something.” It’s weird because you feel like shouldn’t this be about more? But, you know… laughs)
When you think about punk rock and it really had the ability to shock, which is actually quite shocking now, to think music could shock. With Atari Teenage Riot do you still try and do that? Or is it almost impossible to get that shock of the new or the shock of a different sound?
The best example is our new single! (laughs) On that Facebook page, we’re not really running the Facebook page anymore since like last October/November. The guy who’s working on some DHR stuff is running it now and he showed me some of the feedback that we got.
And because the single has got this sort of, kind of, cheerleader-type more melodic refrain,it’s causing a bit of a meltdown. We thought when we were making it, “Ok. If we do a screaming noisy thing it’s exactly what people expect. Let’s go more in this other direction.”
Nic was saying we always liked, and especially she liked, these bands like these kind of riot grrrl bands who had this kind of almost- taken from cheerleader-like singing because they were American, mostly American, riot grrrl bands. They had this more melodic thing and she was like, “Let’s just do this!” Because again if it’s just screaming, this is exactly what people expect.
And some fans, mostly I have to say the sort of hardcore guys if these are the correct profiles on Facebook! it’s not like girls hiding and taking a photo of their brother or something, or their boyfriend! (laughs) But it was just, people reacted so angrily if they are not getting fed what they expect, but we like that.
That doesn’t mean that we always do one thing or that we’re gonna march down one direction, you know? But there is even for us, there is like this audience that we play to that is our fan-base that can be really shocked. Sometimes we’re like, “We’re not doing this on purpose!”. They go, “What? I thought you were this or that!” Sometimes when you get the chance to explain it, let’s say maybe after a show or something, you’re hanging out and somebody wants an autograph and they ask you the questions or something, and when you explain what it is about you understand that there’s a lot of misunderstandings sometimes.
I feel like people sometimes don’t take enough time. We maybe used to look at an album and while we were listening to it we were reading all the lyrics, and you would spend time with the music. Now I think people often just listen to music while they’re doing something else and this means that sometimes if you say something that they don’t immediately understand, they react with anger. I think that’s not the right reaction to have. But then of course others, they look it up and research it. There’s both sides. I don’t think it’s all negative. There’s always people who go, “Fuck! I’ve had to re-think! What you’re saying makes perfect sense!” But then of course there’s the audience at, let’s say, a festival who doesn’t know it at all. For them it’s still weird to see music like this coming out of computers, and I’m going “This should be normal. This should be accepted by now!” (laughs) When we played Sonisphere there were people like that in the crowd. They were like so mad! Like “What is this?! I’s not like metal/rock or whatever.” We’re like yeah, maybe not! (laughs) It’s like you’re seeing someone who is 20-years-old who’s not open-minded, you know? We remember this, it’s always ignorance and stuff. That’s not down to age! Sometimes I wish always there was the next generation who would avoid making the same mistakes but… (laughs)
I guess even after all these years, and this is some achievement, but you’re pretty well out there on your own aren’t you? There’s not…you don’t have many bands that are in your corner, do you?
There is some of that electronic punk rock stuff going on. Sometimes we would play at a certain stage and there would be something similar. It’s not like Atari Teenage Riot, of course, because often maybe these people start doing some electro stuff adding maybe some guitars and it’s like for maybe two years, and very often they disappear again.
With Atari Teenage Riot I think it is also a lot of fun making this stuff. I feel like we are going deeper and deeper into this like, “How can we fuse punk rock and electronics?” I think if you listen to all these Atari Teenage Riot records, even though we have a very defined kind of sound, right? Like people often know immediately that must be Atari Teenage Riot or something, but you can see how we are expanding and how we are making these changes or bringing out a certain side more. And to still be able to find these kind of sounds and ideas after this time with more understanding, more knowledge, that’s a lot of fun.
And because it is programmed on the Atari computer, so it’s maybe a little bit different to traditional punk rock where you get together with other musicians and then you just have to play together, and just make this energy happen. With Atari the difference is, and I think that’s sometimes what the criticism is with people who like more the normal traditional punk rock, because it’s programmed. You have to sit down, you have to type it into this fucked up Atari computer! (laughs) I mean every two years we start the process and for the previous albums it was already a nightmare, but now it’s like your phone is so advanced that you cannot even compare it to what this old computer can or can’t do!
But that’s part of the fun! using the same old computer (laughs) It’s like, “Ok, we have to go in there. Oh, you can’t do copy and paste. You can’t do that, and you have to take a kind of deep breath and go how do we program this chaos or this energy?” I think if somebody looks for, let’s say, authenticity and stuff like that in rock n’ roll they might get confused about we do. Because it doesn’t appear as these normal rock n’ roll bands, because it is programmed, you know? It’s like hacking or something. You just type stuff in and correct it. It’s a very different approach to making music I think than, for example, when I used to play in punk bands.
What’s the purpose of the band now? Is it political? Or is it musical? Are the two very meshed together?
It’s always both. I think that’s the thing about Atari Teenage Riot, that the idea is always to, I wouldn’t say send a message or something, but it is like “Ok, where are we now? What we need to express?”
I think that the only new thing about the new album is that we have taken a different approach. The record before was criticising a lot of this stuff like the surveillance on the internet. A lot of stuff we warned about last year because of Edward Snowden and people like that is out there now. We were so right, you know? I mean we could have been even more negative or something on that album! (laughs) Nobody imagined it to be that bad, that we are getting so betrayed by governments and even these corporations working together.
But while we making the new album, Reset, we thought ok, it doesn’t make sense to speak about those topics again because the last “Is This Hyperreal” could come out now and people would probably understand it now better and wouldn’t go, “Oh this pessimist cyber punk dystopian stuff!” and “Oh, I don’t wanna think about that!” like they did at the time but they would now go, “Shit! This is exactly true!” (laughs).
But with Reset we felt like, ok, we want a different energy because we hang out a lot with activists. I have to say I hang out more with, political people than with musicians at this point just because I find it more interesting. It’s because people have this idealism that I find much more honest and much better. So the thing is, I didn’t see this album as pessimism. Like, you know, if you speak to hackers or something they go, “Ok, the government tried to fuck us. Let’s create the tools, the next tools, to protect us. And I love that attitude, you know, to me when did you last hear this from musicians? musicians to go, “Oh fuck! This is what’s happening in the mainstream! or with Itunes , blah blah blah! All this bullshit! Let’s fight back!” You just don’t hear it. People always figure out how they can fit in, like, (dull voice) “Oh, how can I get all these views on YouTube?” To me that’s like not the approach, guys! You’re the victim of that machinery! It is true. I think if you like independent musicians, if you love independent music then we’re under attack since over a decade ago. And people just pretend like there’s no problem. You know, when Google says you have to sign over your copyright to them, like to YouTube, to even have videos appear and stuff they wanna get rid of the independent labels. They don’t wanna basically pay them the fair share. This is a huge attack on creativity!
Also check out Rowdy from ATR’s “Louder Than War” mix which we’re running exclusively. It provides a unique insight into the new album and even some music from it!
ATR’s current single, Modern Liars, was released on October 13th via Digital Hardcore Recordings.
For more details about the single and to keep up to speed with news about the album hit up the band’s website: atari-teenage-riot.com or get on their social media outlets: Facebook and Twitter (@ATR_official and @alec_empire).