"You Can't Kill The Drill": Einsturzende Neubauten's Blixa Bargeld Interviewed
, November 18th, 2010 06:26
Collapsing Preconceptions Of Einsturzende Neubauten With Blixa Bargeld, by Luke Turner
10 am, Sunday morning, October 17th 2010. Blixa Bargeld, dressed entirely in black, strides away from me down the corridor of a posh Marylebone hotel. His manager indicates that I should follow. Bargeld doesn't acknowledge my presence until we enter a cafe at the back of the hotel, at which point, without turning to face me or acknowledge my presence, he gestures grandly to a table in the corner of the room.
These are interesting times for Einsturzende Neubauten, who have just released the fourth compilation in the Strategies Against Architecture series, and are currently on a mammoth world tour. A collection of music from the past eight years of recording across their pioneering supporters project, Mute, and various live shows including a performance in East Berlin's Palast Der Republik just before it was demolished, Strategies IV showcases the elegant, dare one say it mature sonic force that Einsturzende Neubauten have increasingly become. Yet despite their vast progression from those early days hacking away under Berlin underpasses, or their gaunt mid-80s abrasiveness, or even the melodic tones of the 1990s, their recent career has been as much of a struggle as their impecunious roots. Bargeld explains that Neubauten are now offered budgets to record albums at the same sums as they once spent on sleeves and artwork, which is in part why they set up the supporters project that allowed fans to invest, and even partake, in the recording process via the internet. At their last London show they made £10,000 on merchandise - the only way that they can continue taking a 12 tonne truck and a tonne of equipment on the road.
Forget your preconceptions of musical austerity, or the cliché of Neubauten as drill-wielding noise terrorists. The supporters project is just part of Neubauten's democracy of sound and ideas, that stems even before their origins scrabbling around the detritus of the island that was Cold War West Berlin in order to find the materiel and recording spaces that they could not afford, but which were vital for their musical expression.
Watch: Einsturzende Neubauten on French TV earlier this week
Blixa Bargeld, who last night was kept awake by his two-year-old daughter is, once he's returned from ordering green tea, a genial, thoughtful interviewee, intelligent and determined to get his point across correctly. Bargeld is a school drop-out and autodidact who, he tells me, "would never have guessed when I was 13 that I would have become a professional musician. It was so far away as to become a reality in my personal life." Nevertheless, the teenage Bargeld did conduct musical explorations that were very much in the vein of a proto-Neubauten: "I had a pickup from when I was 13 and making experiments with tape recorders, opening them up and fiddling around with the insides, taking the pickup and putting it on kitchen equipment and then recording it on a tape."
So the intervening 48 years of Bargeld's life have been of struggle, and of achievement – our writer Tim Burrows was not being fanciful when he posited that Einsturzende Neubauten's "rightful position" is "as a kind of Central European Beatles". But what does Blixa Bargeld himself make of his group's legacy and part of the continuum of German musical radicalism? And, crucially, after this 30th anniversary tour, what next?
You have referred to a dialogue between old Blixa and young Blixa, and having an "archaeological" approach to looking at yourself. I wondered how that manifests itself now?
Blixa Bargeld: Tonight [at the Evening With Neubauten event held at the Garage] you will see a film that is a collage of Neubauten material. When I saw that material, and I am 30 years older than in a lot of that material, it is not exactly painless. The archaeological thing is how much of the 23-year-old Blixa is still in the 51-year-old Blixa, how many of the ideals that I was following, or the goals or artistic targets I was aiming at, are still there. How much is worn out, or ground down to an unreadable surface? There are layers and layers of time between that, and that's the dialogue that I have with myself.
Is it ground down and worn out, or perhaps more positively an evolution?
BB: You could describe it as an evolution, but that would be a different thinking model. I was more thinking in layers.
Looking back to the formation of Neubauten, I'm thinking of your predecessors in German music, such as Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! and how they felt they needed to do something to break with their parent's generation, historically and musically. How did Neubauten fit into this, if at all?
BB: They were definitely an influence on me. I moved very quickly from Pink Floyd as being the first album that I ever bought, to the German progressive rock of the time - Kraftwerk, Neu! and Can, they were the biggest influences on me. Interestingly it was not so much the Berlin faction of the time, like Tangerine Dream and the Ash Ra Tempel, In general the whole Deutschrock, or Krautrock as the English call it, was definitely the biggest influence on me. They are one generation older, the break that they needed to do was the different one that we needed to do. When we started playing at the beginning of the 80s, it was a terrible time in the popular music world. But the alternative to it was a very exciting time, they were fundamentally great.
I didn't start being a musician to provoke anything, or to be intentionally different. The starting point for Neubauten was more that we didn't have anything, so I didn't really have the choice to say ‘I am doing this, I am doing that, or maybe I should play organ'. I didn't have any of these things, and I could not afford any of these things, and neither could anybody else in the group. It was more of the logical consequence of what can we obtain, and that's how it turned out. It certainly didn't start out as an artistic concept to say 'let's do something different', it started as an extension of the live situation as it already was. From there on you can rightfully talk about evolution.
I recently saw the booklet that I put together for Kollaps, our first album, I haven't written much but the few things I have written are quite telling. I wrote in big black letters ‘No more drum set'. It must have been something that I thought very important for the evolution of the band. Once that was clear the drum set was replaced by found objects, a lot of metal basically, and then it really exploded in all directions. Once that barrier was down we started using whatever we could get our hands on…
It's interesting that groups that emerged in the UK at the same time as Neubauten were using synthesisers, in part because they became cheaper and commercially available.
BB: From my money background there was no opportunity to own such things. Unless I could steal it, it was not possible. The story with Andrew [N.U. Unruh] was that we sold his drum set in order to pay rent, which made it necessary to find something else. Alex [Hacke], on the other hand, had a Korg when he was 20, but he wasn't in Neubauten back then. I borrowed synthesisers from now and then to fiddle around with, but it wasn't right.
Yet necessity gave birth to something fantastic. Those Neubauten metallic percussion sounds are wonderful, I do always wonder why people haven't ripped you off…
BB: One of the bands that founded after they first saw Neubauten was Test Department, who did then follow a similar path. They worked lot with metal, and I also respect them for trying to be political - the avant-garde and the political are not easily combined. But the main technical difference is that they never worked with pickups, they just put a microphone close to the metal. We always experimented with pickups, with contact microphones, which pick up the internal vibration within the metal, and get a totally different sound. In San Francisco David Harrington from Kronos Quartet took me to their rehearsal space. They play Neubauten pieces, including ‘Armenia', and they went to a junkyard to try and find some pieces for it. I just had to smile when I saw them because they were so unexpertly chosen. The mistake is to choose something by the sound you make when you hit it, that it is a resonating skin. They had these bathtub things, but the point is you can have a massive block of iron and you put a pick up on it and you have the internal frequencies working for you, which is a completely different thing to thinking it is a kind of metal drums. You have to think out of the normal musical instrumentation. The thing that we have used for the longest time is the amplified metal bass spring. If you hit that without the amplification or the microphone, what do you get? Nothing! You just get a click. The trick is getting the frequencies as they run through the spring, and that is not in the normal category of instruments.
I've always felt there's been a correlation between Neubauten and supposedly primitive forms of what is unfortunately known as world music. Then I read about you forming Neubauten in part to replicate a record of African music you had found…
BB: I think it is on the French Ocora label. Back then it wasn't really called 'world music', it was usually in the record stands that said 'other', that was there you found the whales and original recordings of birds in the forest. The Ocora label did a series of three records on Ethopia, and I took the Ethopian music of the desert nomads. What drove me to tears was that there was literally nothing around what they did. There is the human voice, and a few clanks. In the desert there was no instrumentation, but what carried across was the energy of the authenticity of it.
That was probably the conceptual spark that made me think I had to find something as authentic as that for my personal surroundings, and that was when we started looking for spaces in Berlin that were suitable for recording, They had more to do with the place of our upbringing, and the urban debris of our surroundings. That connection hasn't really left me, but it's not the search for the same authenticity any more. I can't go onstage after 30 years and say I am a dilettante, I can't play an instrument, I can't afford an instrument, it's simply not true. I know how to do certain things nowadays, I can afford an organ if I want one. So I take the experience of what we have learned in the 30 years and try to develop it further, but I am not trying to lie to myself and play the endless repetition of the same formula over and over again as it is usually expected of you in popular music - you'd better make one record and repeat it else you're not going to be liked.
But people do have a lot of misconceptions of Neubauten, that ICA performance in 1994 has fixed you as a group who drill things and destroy.
BB: I remember a strange moment on our last American tour. Always a very key element was to stop and go, we have an enormous dynamic range. We were playing something like that, and there are some holds in it, and in the first row there are some people headbanging and holding up their mobile phones and yelling into them. I was standing onstage looking at them and thinking, do they not realise that we have a total break, a hold there? There is nothing loud. We stood there and waited until they had finished yelling into their mobile phones, and then continued.
There is a stupid layer of media crap - much more, I can assure you, in Germany. Here the ICA show is a shadow that haunts us to this day. I never wanted to play that show, and I didn't, it wasn't even a Neubauten show, it was advertised as Concerto For Machinery And Orchestra or something like that, and I was there and witnessed what was happening, and I think at the end I jumped onstage and shouted ‘Sensucht!' or something like that. In Germany there is the crap that hangs over us that we are a cultural export, that we are theatre. They don't complain that we don't have drills any more, they have us ticked off as a bourgeois cultural export. I don't need to do press in Germany, we are doing one show there and it has already sold out, what the hell do I care what is on German television? It'll be the same tale all over again, that we used to be a noisemaking band with drills onstage and now we make a lot of theatre. The standard sentence in the German press is always that our tour routing reads like an agenda of the Goethe Institute, you know what that is? The ambassador of German culture in five countries. You can spend 15 years denying these things, but it is no good. You can't kill the drill. I always hated how it is a pneumatic drill, we never had a pneumatic drill, it is electric.
Your sound is a brzzzz, not a dugga dugga
BB: Exactly, for a pneumatic drill you need a huge air compressor. We had a kango hammer and it is electric. That drill was stolen by us, but then it was stolen from us by squatters of the Ungdomshuset in Copenhagen. After the concert they broken into our van, stabbed all the tyres, and stole the kango hammer, and they had the nerve to ask us if we would give one track from that show to support the Ungdomshuset. We did, but we renamed the track 'Where Is Our Kango Hammer?' They said they think they might know where our kango hammer and we might get it back. But for 20 years that meant we didn't have a kango hammer, we didn't have drill onstage! We still have to fight the misconception about there being a drill.
Another misconception about Neubuaten is that the music is in some way dour or nihilistic. Your banter onstage is funny, as the lyrics can be
BB: Avant garde can be this and that, but I didn't start creating things in this world to be boring. I am absolutely in favour of what eventually became one of the founding ideas of industrial music, which is that music doesn't have to be entertaining, but between boring and entertaining there is a wide spectrum. The humour in Neubauten is usually completely forgotten. After all, we are Germans - we are not supposed to be funny.
There is an element of euphoria too, be that in the abandon of the early recordings, or what you are doing now.
BB: There should be, should be. Sure there is a lot of minor but… I don't really believe in music having a message, and I don't really believe that music is there to change somebody's life. But I do believe in the supportive qualities of music. I know that when I was 13 there were records that were important for me, to defend me against my parents and the rest of the world and the school and everything else. I think that is as good as music can get, it should have that supporting character. If it is nihilistic at that point, or if it is just telling you that you are great and the rest of the world has a problem, that is perfectly fine. Even if I say what was most influential to me was the German progressive music of the time, I definitely come from pop times - the classic Rolling Stones albums were important too. Andrew has the complete Beatles, all in the original editions, because he was born in America, had two older sisters and inherited all the original records, singles, 45s, albums the whole lot. Andrew's musical socialisation is really Beatles and Santana. Alex, because he is much younger, starts with punk and new wave.
Why has there been a difficulty in people comprehending Neubauten in the English speaking world? Do we have a very limited concept of what constitutes a song?
BB: You mention songs. 'Songs' is a whole chapter by itself. When we started Neubauten I had no clue about songs. My English was rudimentary, and my Germanic tradition did not have much to do with how to write songs, which you can very much see in the Deutschrock groups, they didn't know how to write songs. They always tried to find a way around the singing - first Can had Malcolm Mooney, then he left and they picked up this street musician Damo Suzuki who hardly spoke English and found his way around the actual singing in a way that was ingenious and fantastic. I love all that dearly, but German artists have always found a way around the singing, much of it was purely instrumental. That was my background.
I can easily say I have only understood this in the 20 years I was working with the Bad Seeds, because they come from a completely different background. They played me cover versions of songs from when they were in school bands, and the deeper into that I go the more I understood that different concepts of songs have more to do with different concepts of logic. Usually a song represents Aristotelian logic - there is a thesis and an antithesis, all these parts you can find within the construction of a song. I am more than mildly interested in that whole thing, but it is certainly not something in my background before. I didn't start with it, I learned it over the years. At one point I got really interested in what is it that I am actually doing there, musically speaking. So I engaged a music teacher to teach me musical theory. That was interesting, because I could understand the construction of the tempered Western scale, and how that relates to logic and different things. That helped me a lot. It is very dangerous to start learning an instrument, because at the same time as you learn an instrument, you de-learn something else. I didn't go to that step, but I needed to learn what it is I am actually doing.
I am happy with the way that my voice as an instrument has developed over the years. When I listen to the early records I marvel at how high my voice was. I have done nothing to my voice apart from learn how to alter certain aspects so that I can control them better, the infamous diamond-cutting scream is something that I literally trained until I was able to control that. But I couldn't go to a voice teacher and ask about that - they'd say 'don't do it, it's really bad for your voice!'
How have you managed to do that, through green tea?
BB: It's not green tea. Apparently you create a nodule in your throat every time you do that. It would be visible if somebody was able to look at my voice cords they would see that it is scarred. If you do that scream it creates a knot it is so bad, and I do five screams a day like that!
One of the most interesting parts of the recent Neubauten history is the Palast Der Republik gig, where you played for the supporters, with no security, none of the trappings of a conventional gig.
BB: That was a nice and successful experiment in social self-organisation. The supporters were picking up equipment for us at five in the morning, they came for four days to choir practice, one girl said ‘how about catering, shall I do the tea thing?' So everything organised itself. For me, it was one of the highlights of our career, not charging any fee, not having any security, not doing anything that you're supposed to do.
A famous anarchist in music is John Cage. To him these things of not controlling what you're doing in the musical material, but what really interested me was the social dimension of that. To organise something like that, and trust in the ability of these people to basically govern themselves, and I use that world deliberately, because many, many things could have gone wrong. But the barriers that you normally create are the things that provoke these things going wrong. We created an autonomous space where nobody was told what they had to, or how they had to do it, and the forces of the self-organisation were strong enough to make it work.
Perhaps this is something you have always done, the concert in the Palast Der Republik just before it was demolished is a continuation of your hunting for spaces to record in West Berlin back at the start of Neubauten?
BB: It should be looked at like that, but the final analysis of the impact of that is still due.
You have finished the third phase of the Neubauten supporters programme. Will there be another, a fourth phase?
BB: This isn't clear. If we were going to do a fourth phase we would have to start from scratch again because we sold the studio. We haven't got any means of production any more. Right now it is hiatus. We know that the gigantic monster Einsturzende Neubauten is going to go to sleep on the bottom of the ocean for a while.
Strategies Against Architecture IV is out now. For more information on Einsturzende Neubauten's tour, visit Neubauten.org