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A Quietus Interview

The Age Of Empire: An Atari Teenage Riot Interview
Luke Turner , June 21st, 2011 12:50

As Atari Teenage Riot release thrilling new LP Is This Hyperreal?, Alec Empire talks to Luke Turner about his fears for the internet, why Germany is in a dangerous state, and why it's people who keep him hopeful

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When they first emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Atari Teenage Riot arguably made for a perfect reflection of the supposedly post-ideological age where there were no certainties: angry, aggressive music that blasted the divisions between genre with just as much ferocity as they did the state of Germany, or individuals in an increasingly corporate world. They, in cahoots with their Digital Hardcore label, were one of the few potent political musical forces in the late 1990s, that time when everything seemed to be disappearing into a creepy mush of, in England at least, post-Diana sentimentality and Tony Blair's grinning insincerity, all soundtracked by the likes of Travis and Coldplay. Yet after the release of 1999's 60 Second Wipe Out, Atari Teenage Riot split. The next decade saw the sad death of founder member Carl Crack of a drug overdose in 2001, before ATR - now consisting of Alec Empire, Nic Endo and US MCC X KiDTRONiK - launched an "upgrade" version of the group, playing revitalised live shows and culminating in new album Is This Hyperreal?, arguably their most fully-realised work. Given that the album deals in part with the dangers posed by the internet (from governments rather than willy-wafting old men on Chat Roulette), it's interesting that Alec Empire has launched into getting his message out online with gusto, preparing an annotated stream of the record for NME.com, creating a Quietus mix where he discusses his influences, and making prolific use of Twitter.

Perhaps he realises that 2011 is a pertinent moment for the reactivation of Atari Teenage Riot. As music has fragmented, so it has become more escapist, less engaged, even self-consciously apolitical. At the same time, the Left all across Europe has been unceremoniously booted from power, and now seems split between direct activism and the realisation that it is increasingly hard to win mass support with leftist policies, despite the fact that we're currently enduring a crisis brought about largely by the super-rich. Atari Teenage Riot offer no answers (save from the motivational power of intense digital noise) but they ask many, many questions. They understand that now there is no one truth from any side, and that you're better off trusting no one source, no one ideology. Indeed, you might not even agree with all Alec Empire says in the album or the interview he gave the Quietus in the run up to the release of Is This Hyperreal?, but I for one am glad he is saying it. Especially when delivered at such volume.

So Alec, you said the new Atari Teenage Riot was an upgrade, not a reunion, and I like that idea.

Alec Empire: Yeah, it's true. People lose that sense of history for music. You get these new bands and the media's going 'Ah, new! New! This is the future of rock & roll!' and you listen to it and say 'Okay, why do we need a worse version of something that was just done way better back then?' Why don't you have some other stuff which is musically really advanced where you find a lot of people, the majority of music fans, will say 'Oh, I don't even get this.' So I think we're at this weird time right now where everything is available all the time and if you're 17, the difference between a Billie Holiday record and a David Bowie record is a couple of decades, but it's strange because all these things have to stand next to each other and the taste of now. I think in electronic music that's probably the worst. You have all this freedom, you have all this technology, yet most of the stuff the DJs play is very backwards. You go, 'Why can't you evolve?'

Something I've noticed that I find very frustrating is that a lot of the electronic music that is kind of trendy at the moment is deliberate nostalgia. It's this sort of forced escapism, which I think is almost an apolitical political reaction. Things are very bleak in many ways at the moment, but instead of engaging with that, we're going to disappear into a retro soundscape, a nice mushy warm cloud.

AE: I think it's so strange that you have on one side all these people being active and protesting, but then at the same time you have to question your motives and politics almost all the time. For example, when we started Atari Teenage Riot, it was pretty clear, in Germany at least. You had the Neo-Nazis on the radical Right. You had the conservatives. And the left-wing was still a lot of people with a hope for something better. But now you have to ask yourself, did the Labour government make the same bad decisions? So it's not really clear anymore. I'm just interested in all that stuff all the time, but for some people it's just too much pressure. You have to think 'Oh no, in three months time, what if that politician lets me down?' The same goes for bands. If right now I'm a total super fan, it could be in three months or two months I look like the biggest fool. I think that creates that indifference that not everybody's really making a point. But we don't want to go along with that. I think that's so boring.

NME.com exclusive album stream ATARI TEENAGE RIOT "IS THIS HYPERREAL?" by Alec Empire/ ATR

So what new energy would you say Atari Teenage Riot has after the upgrade, and also working with CX KiDTrONIK?

AE: I think he's so good because he's American. Nic is also American, she was born in Texas. So you can't call it a Berlin band anymore like you used to. With this one track 'Rearrange Your Synapses' he has this intro where he talks about how with Obama there are more black men in prison now than there were in 1850. This is stuff we couldn't really do before he joined because if I as a German, said 'Hey guys, there's still a lot of racism' they'd say 'Yeah, okay, thanks for telling us.' But he is from Brooklyn, he's originally from Detroit but now lives in Brooklyn. He's part of the underground hip hop scene there, and it's just so good that he can bring this American viewpoint and criticism into it. If I made an Obama criticism people would think 'Is he a part of the Tea Party?' without looking closer into what I'm saying, because a lot of people function like that. They'd go 'Why is this white German guy criticizing Obama?'

So CX KiDTrONIK is a means of infiltration into America?

AE: Yeah! And what I like about him is he's so diverse. He was a part of Nation of Islam like Public Enemy and all those artists, but he left because he found out that it's a lot of bullshit. He said 'Why can't I have that haircut?' He found all these rules that come with it. I think that's also interesting, especially at this time when you think it's so easy to label somebody, but I don't know any other hip hop artists who were a part of that and then left and would be open about it. It's the same with maybe any radical group, if you have somebody who is a total Nazi skinhead and leaves and changes his mind or something, that can be more interesting than reading an interview with somebody who's just totally into one idea.

Then, of course, Nic has this whole riot grrl thing on the record that's maybe even stronger than it was before, but I totally love that fact. We threw all these ideas on the table and said 'We really have to make a statement.' 'Blood in My Eyes' is a good example of 'We just have to do this now.' And I also think Nic's voice comes through so well on these recordings. Ultimately she just takes it to another level somehow.

Is part of the reason that you wanted to record a new Atari Teenage Riot album because there wasn't anyone who picked up the mantle of Atari Teenage Riot's aggressive, political music. You almost had to come back.

AE: Yeah, it's funny, I had this interview with somebody last year and he was like 'Are you guys gonna do a new album? I mean, you can't, right? You couldn't match that level of energy. Everybody failed. The Pixies didn't want to and started and gave up and the Stooges record was kind of lame' and actually, I never thought about making an album, but when you put it like that, thanks! (Laughs)

I wanted to talk about 'Blood in My Eyes'. You were using that to bring attention to people trafficking and I really liked that on your Soundcloud you made explicit reference for that. When I wrote about it for NME I wrote that they're trying to bring across a message here that I need, as a writer, to pass on to people who might be reading it. Were there any other specific issues in songs that you wanted to write in that way to use the song as an awareness-raiser?

Atari Teenage Riot - "Blood In My Eyes" (8MB mp3 version) by Alec Empire/ ATR

AE: There's a lot of stuff on this whole record. 'Blood in My Eyes' deals with that issue and no other songs really do, but stuff like 'Codebreaker' and 'Digital Decay' are really about government and corporations taking over the internet more and more. In the music industry, almost everyone is screaming for Big Brother, for help. And then of course I'm not so sure it's the same in the UK but here in Germany the governments are always using child pornography to pass any law or regulation or restriction. But at the same time, there was just a story coming out last week where German police basically installed Trojan Horse software on many personal computers to monitor what these people are doing without having permission to do that.

Sometimes people in other countries don't quite understand why we are so on high alert when that stuff happens, but it's just the history of Germany. There's one line where Nic says "The Nazis would have strangled Einstein in his crib if they had known." There's this whole sci-fi idea that you want to spy on all citizens to prevent crime, but the damages that it causes, for example the DDR in East Germany, that's terror. That's a terror state where you have to think about anything you type or you write or will your employer read this maybe or what you wrote on this Facebook page. For example, in Russia the KGB and the cops, if you use Facebook and they see these things in your whole network right away and arrest people. What we see in the West is the Twitter revolution in the Arab countries, but in our countries it is used against us, basically. The same technology. A lot of that stuff is on the record because I think a lot of people haven't thought about these things at all. They're all five, six years behind and go 'Oh, total freedom! Great! I'll never be banned! I can upload something on the internet and be a millionaire!'

And that's a crazy way of thinking even on the basic level

AE: It's what people want to believe, in a way. It's that fantasy that it's something everybody can do. It's almost like the Americans saying 'Everybody can win at this!' But there's other dark side which is totally real. Governments and companies are using software to add comments automatically if you write critical articles, so you have like 150 people who don't really exist hacking you with the opposite opinion, and then the reader will form their opinion based on what they see.

I think it really kills the democratic process online, and that process has recently been more and more important for people to make up their minds. We don't believe what's on the major news channels anymore, so we look for alternatives. But when that gets corrupted... I think the chance of the freedom that the internet can bring to us is getting screwed up by big government and corporations. That's one key thing on the record. 'Activate!' addresses that, too. 'Shadow Identity,' that song is… Nic showed me this story, there was an interview with a woman in Iran about in public life you follow those rules but then in your private life you try to just be as free as possible so you have these two identities, and I think that could be something that might happen in our society, too. If you think you're being monitored or there's a chance you could be monitored, you behave differently online than what you do in reality, and that reminds me of Eastern Germany or Nazi Germany where people had to vote for a certain party or join an organization because otherwise people would suspect that they were dissidents.

I wanted to ask you about perception of Atari Teenage Riot in Germany. You had some sort of trouble in the early years and were seen as very controversial and I was wondering how you're perceived now. The anti-immigration book Germany Abolishes Itself by Thilo Sarrazin is a bestseller in Germany which is perhaps indicative of something troubling going on in society. How are you perceived there and what's your response to the way German culture's looking at the moment?

AE: The Sarrazin thing shows you right away what the problem is. A lot of people tend to forget what the reality is in Germany and you have to explain it to people in other countries, Americans especially. Even though a lot of time has passed, it is still – and this is just my opinion, and some people in Germany might be kind of mad about it – but the Germans, they lost the war. And democracy was brought to them. There's something about that, it wasn't that natural process. The problem is that a lot of people in Germany are very backward and right wing and they just love the fact that Germany is the biggest country again in Europe, and they love that for the wrong reasons, and it is dangerous. Very often you don't see that side.

It's almost like, if we would suddenly go 'Yeah, Palestine! All Jews should be killed!' we might actually get way more support in the media because suddenly you have this majority that says 'Yeah, the World Bank! And the Jews, they rule everything!' Even the punks would totally agree with you right away without even asking a question of where you're coming from and support you.

And that's the danger in Germany. Everyone wants to understand how fascism became possible, you know, it's very interesting when you see the kind of mob mentality, the kind of dynamics that this can take, because it's pretty easy to look at someone like Adolf Hitler and identify that problem. There's this crazy guy and he takes over the country, why did no one stop him? Well, that's not how this stuff grows. It grows amongst the population and it's something that once this is starting it's very hard to fight it because people have their opinion and every once in a while someone will use that, like that writer, for example, people will use that to sell a lot of books. I guess that's also what Sarrazin believes in, like there's a Jewish genetic code. You'd think if somebody wrote this in 1942, you'd think 'Maybe, apart from the racism, science just wasn't as advanced.' But today when somebody goes 'There's a Jewish genetic code,' you just think 'This is bullshit.' But people assume, 'There must be something! They're especially greedy!'

What keeps you inspired and optimistic and wanting to keep going? What's your biggest drive?

AE: People. It's very strange but if you look at some of the Japanese [tsunami] footage, for example, the way people help each other is something that I find really amazing. That's not some bullshit. When I talk to people after our shows from the crowd, when you understand how much some of these people really want us to continue because they totally get it, it's just something where you go, 'Yeah, we're doing this for these people.' It's really strange. They're a major motivation to fucking go and make that statement, because if we don't, nobody else is going to do it. And people always go back to the past. At the beginning of Atari Teenage Riot, we thought 'No, this isn't our generation. We can't play records by the Clash or bands like that who wrote in protest or demonstration. We have to do our own thing.' That is still a major drive because record sales, we don't care about that too much, of course you wonder if people like the stuff and support it when we play shows and thing like that, but it always comes second. It wouldn't make sense to compromise the message in order to be more accessible. These are the major things that keep us going. And of course, once you step down, you don't get that same level of energy, everything else seems very boring. It's a drive that keeps us going to the next level. We thought we were going hard ten years ago, but no, this can be harder. We've always wanted to give it a few extra percent.

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