Angst Music For Sex People: A Nitzer Ebb Interview

Nitzer Ebb's Doug McCarthy and Bon Harris talk about the sublime tension that powers their tough industrial dance music. Live pictures by Maria Jefferis

Nitzer Ebb’s powerful electronic punch – their electronic steel fist of EBM/hardbeat – is landing blows on target tonight. In a dark London venue the violence rains down. Doug McCarthy, is slim and funeral suited, any stray flickers of emotion hidden behind insectile chrome mirror shades. He looks like one of Francis Bacon’s studies in violent and vicious manhood leapt from the canvas. Like one of the handsome East End thugs "masculine in suits" who the painter roamed Soho searching for.

Some of these musical slugs may land directly in the chest but they also inflame the groin. A young Swedish couple in the audience are getting hot under the collar. Confident that none of the English people in attendance can understand him the man announces loudly to his companion: "When we get back to the hotel, I will fuck you roughly from behind to ‘Getting Closer’." She squeals delightedly. Perhaps none of the English people can understand but my Finnish friend certainly can. She spends the rest of the gig informing me what the amorous couple are planning to do, to various Nitzer Ebb songs, later that evening.

But of course, this isn’t surprising. Nitzer Ebb are a funk band. Or, to be precise, they often cross over into a genre which is a brand of highly sexualised, almost violent: dance music named after the raw smell of human bodily function. On first exposure, some of the clipped beats, pulsing basslines and synthesized top lines that menacing master synthesist Bon Harris marshals can feel a little too harsh, a little too punishing, a little too stiff… But take ‘Lightning Man’ for example. It’s like the J.B.s… albeit the J.B.s where James Brown has been smoking gorilla all day before leading his band through a nightmare vision of repressed incestuousness as expressed via excessive parental control. With an oboe solo.

Nitzer Ebb’s dance music, even twenty years after their inception, is still closer to the radical pulse of early 70s funk than the lazy grooves of some goatee beard friendly trip hop could ever hope to be. This is something noted by some of their admirers, such as Detroit techno godfathers Derrick May and Kevin Saunderson. Free of the European baggage that our critics sometimes have, they were able to see clearly the true innovation of Gary Numan, Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode as well. After the well-oiled, whip crack funk bands of the 70s, it was the turn of the machines to make us dance.

Formed in Essex in 1982 by the two schoolfriends with a meaningless name that was chosen for its Teutonic feel, they pushed the synthesizer-driven sound of DAF forward. They landed a deal with Mute, creating a formidable back catalogue of music that found favour with industrial, techno and Balearic fans alike. Yet their never apologize/never explain stance won them few friends in the mainstream music press, where they were often misrepresented as a Depeche Mode B-team or, worse, the electronic version of a dodgy skinhead band.

Outside of the music, their politics (resisting control, questioning authority) and no sell-out attitude (self-determination) showed they had most in common with American hardcore punk. As America’s obsession with industrial groups such as Ministry and NIN (who obviously looked up to Nitzer Ebb) flowered in the 90s, their sound started morphing into something that could potentially have brought them mainstream success. Unfortunately, it was not to be, tensions within the group leading to a split in 1995. It was inevitable that an outfit powered by such tension would not be able to groom themselves for success to any great extent.

(At this point I should point out that they left an immensely satisfying body of work behind them as this Spotify playlist shows. And if you’ve never had the pleasure you should amend that immediately.)

Nitzer Ebb returned in 2005 with a compilation and remix album and now, in 2010, they have an excellent new album Industrial Complex. On stage Doug McCarthy looks like a man who is about to tell you something terrible any moment now. Their drummer, Jason Payne, a melancholy looking man, looks like he is about to undergo something terrible at any moment. And big Bon Harris? Well, he looks like he’s about to do something appalling to you, any second now…

Can you feel it? It’s getting closer…

First of all I wanted to say congratulations on the new album and congratulations on actually getting the album out. It’s had a very long gestation period hasn’t it?

Doug McCarthy: It was about four years. It was a long period trying to find a sensible way to release it and a way that was fair to everyone. Fair to us so we might actually make some money for a change. So it was a convoluted time. And it feels like we should be congratulated for actually putting it out rather than recording it in the fucking first place!

Bon Harris: Yeah, on a timescale it took twice as long to figure out how to release it as it did to actually make it.

I think I can remember you discussing how to release this as far back as 2007…

DM: It was definitely on our minds then. That was when we started to come to the conclusion that we wanted to make new material. That whole process of being on that tour was kind of weird. It started off as literally a handful of very lucrative offers to do festivals in Europe. Not in a cunning way but it was like we started to get more and more offers after we did these few shows. And it went from eight or nine shows to 76 including shows in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South America, Europe… And during that time because it was all being put together by ourselves and the label – Mute put out the compilation Body Of Work. There was some sort of moderate backing from them, but basically we were doing it all ourselves. On the downtime we were based in LA and we had time between the various legs, two weeks here, two weeks there. So we just used to go into the studio and put stuff down and it was very much under our control and so the more that became evident that we were funding it ourselves, partially from touring, we were kind of loathe to put it out through someone else’s label. We actually went and had a chat to Daniel Miller [Mute boss] and we said to him, we want to come and talk to you, not because we want to sign to Mute but because we want to hear your opinion about what we should do. And he was very [laughs] much of the opinion: ‘Fuck the labels.’ Which he has good reason to feel like this because it seems like EMI [Mute owners] are going out of business.’

So the hardcore fans are going to have some idea of what the new material is like but for the more casual listener or listeners who haven’t heard these video game soundtracks, I guess people are going to be quite happy that you’ve come back relatively tough… Was this a conscious thing, or was there a temptation to come back with a broader palate of styles?

BH: I guess when we were approaching this album we wanted to go back to basics. So obviously as a band we’d done five albums in over a decade and development had happened and by the end it just seemed that everything was too complicated and the easy thing to do was to just go back to what we did in the early days. Which, as a principle, worked. So we went back to minimalism and making music with a very limited set of means and trying to keep it as simple as possible and monitoring that for as long as it seemed we had a solid foundation to build on.

DM: For ourselves as much as anything else, this was a touchstone of what we were good at. This was why we got signed in the first place. This was the sort of music that got us excited in the first place and some of the new songs are slightly more complicated and there’s even a ballad in there. But if you actually analyse what we were doing then and what we are doing now, there are incredible similarities or approach. Over the course of time we’ve been going we’ve been trying to figure out how to be Nitzer Ebb and during some of that time we’ve made it far too complicated out of naivety and the need to experiment and explore. We want to maintain the basis of what Nitzer Ebb should be.

I know what you’re saying about the ballad and stuff like that but there’s a bracing opening salvo of four songs and also the battering ram that is ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. Another thing I was interested in was; the other night I was DJing in an industrial/synth pop club and I thought “Fuck me, this isn’t fair!” I remember when I used to go to industrial clubs in the mid to late 80s and they just used to be full of angry men on speed wearing vests. [Both laugh] But this club was full of hot women and cool looking guys dancing to Nitzer Ebb, DAF, Front 242… Are you surprised at how the constituency of your fanbase and the fanbase of industrial music has changed over the years? And can you see any evidence that what you do has come back into vogue at all?

DM: Yeah. We were in Paris last night (and we’re of a similar age and from similar backgrounds if what you’re saying about those dirty clubs is anything to go by in the 80s and 90s) and the whole front row were young girls. I got to speak to some of them afterwards and they were all in this band, an electronic band. And they were all eighteen! [laughs]

BH: There’s an inevitability about it all… and fortunately we’ve been round long enough that we’ve come back into fashion! [both laugh] It’s sad but true.

DM: We’re so far behind… we’re in front!

So you live in LA now. I’ve never been anywhere that polarizes opinion like this city. Liars have just release Sisterworld, an album that uses LA as a starting point that looks into a love/hate relationship they have with where they are based. How much has the city influenced you and the way you make music?

Doug: Well, every band works in a different way and for us making an album is a very social process. You know, we’re with each other every day. None of us have televisions so we don’t watch the news but you’re still surrounded by the American mass media spoon-feeding bullshit to the masses. [laughs] And you can’t help but pick up on that. We read a lot, check out a lot of websites and newspapers, so we do the things that people do when they go to work together, we talk about what’s going on, about the football, about what’s been said, what’s going on in our private lives… A lot of the discussions that we’re going on while we were writing this album was at the height of Bush and Cheney’s massacre of a nation. It was very prevalent in our daily discussion and we were really fucking angry about it. Over a cup of tea [laughs] we would have quite vitriolic conversations about how fucked up things were and how we couldn’t believe the Republican election campaign. And part of the writing process was down to us just being in America and the shit you would see on a daily basis. I live downtown where it’s kind of horrific, near skid row where you’re stepping over homeless people. Bon lives in a much nicer area but it’s still what you’d call a Hispanic area and has a lot of very poor families. We don’t mix in with any of the Hollywood shit. It’s laughable that you’ve got someone going to Africa from Hollywood to help children… when children who need help are on their doorstep! You’ve got Angelina Jolie going to Africa to be a UN ambassador… just go down to the 101! You’ll see exactly the same thing there.

So I’m guessing because of the jointly written song on the album you’re all still mates with Martin Gore. I was wondering how his song writing process differ from yours?

BH: Yeah. The song that we did with Martin was actually a collaboration so he just came in and sang it so he wasn’t that involved with the writing on it. By his own admission he’ll call himself the laziest song writer in pop history but I think he’s being a little bit modest there. You look at his songs and it’s really interesting the chord progressions he chooses. He’s slotted in with people who make perfect pop but there’s always something really interesting going on in there.

DM: He’s obviously much more traditional than us. He picks up a guitar and goes through chord changes and on our stuff that tends to only happen once in a while. On the new album there are just two songs on the album that come from harmonies.

BH: We’re much more primal. Much more rhythm based. Much more… dense! [both laugh]

It’s interesting the thing about rhythm. One thing that very rarely gets mentioned in relation to Nitzer Ebb is just how funky you are sometimes. You can’t make a blanket statement about it but some of the stuff that you have done over the years is comparable to that of mid-period Cabaret Voltaire in that it provides an interesting reflection of black American dance music. In fact I’d go as far as saying that apart from the bleak lyrical conceit, a track like ‘Lightning Man’ sounds ostensibly like James Brown with an oboe solo. Did the influence of black dance music happen by osmosis or by intent?

BH: I think part of it is the funny idea of white boys from Essex feeling such an affinity for James Brown and Duke Ellington and things like that. But we do and we always did. In a way for us they were always punk rock. They were no holds barred performers. Take it or leave it. But we always felt connected to that music inherently.

DM: I think that in turn is why Kevin Saunderson and Derrick May and that whole Detroit thing connected with us. Admittedly their first kind of lurch into dance music was through Kraftwerk and Depeche Mode but once they got hold of our stuff, they, as Urban, black, residents of Detroit, saw that we were making urban dance music and they find it easier to see the ‘blackness’ of it.

BH: And another thing is that our first exposure to electronic music was from funk and soul bands and not from white Europeans with synthesizers. For us, bands like Kraftwerk came later on. Funk and soul were what we were exposed to first.

I love that story about Kraftwerk’s first tour of the US after ‘Autobahn’ had become an unlikely radio hit and when they played in Chicago, they were shitting their pants playing to an audience of black people going wild and waving wads of bills in the air. Of course this was a sign of respect but they didn’t have a clue what was going on…

DM: We met Wolfgang Flur, who it turns out is a big fan. It was absolutely amazing talking to him. He came to the last Depeche Mode gig we did and we made a point of introducing him to Daniel Miller. So anyway he was talking to us and he said in his very lilting accent: ‘The synthesizers… yes, this was Conrad’s idea.’ [laughs] He’d never watched Depeche Mode live before and he didn’t watch all of them but he said afterward: ‘Yes, I’d never seen Depeche Mode before… they are quite good.’ [laughs uproariously] I told Martin about that straight away! ‘He said you were quite good mate!’

I can understand why people come to you Bon as a producer but I was wondering if it forms a type of feedback loop? Do you end up being influenced in turn by working with people like Marilyn Manson and Billy Corgan?

BH: Yeah, I think what you get from a lot of those things is a sort of pragmatism. When you work with them and you’re not the artist and you step outside you can see things that they can’t see and that’s a very valuable education as an artist when you go back and make your own stuff. You just learn to be more pragmatic about things and learn to not freak out or get too artistic about this or that. You become more in tune to sorting out problems, trying different solutions and become more in control of what you’re doing. And the other thing with Corgan and Manson is that they’re masters of not wasting anything. They’ve got up and put effort into something and they’re going to make it work. So whatever you’ve done during the day, there’s some material that will benefit you in there somewhere. You just become more mature and get used to problem solving as well as being creative.

And Doug, I’ve got to say this is a gross admission of misconduct and very unprofessional of me but for a while back there, when the work of the week was done, I’d celebrate by doing some lines of mephedrone while listening to ‘Splitter’ by Fixmer and McCarthy and ‘Ascend’ by Nitzer Ebb, which was pretty fucking exciting. It was a bit too exciting the last time I did it, and I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown on the bus afterwards, so I don’t do drugs at work anymore. But the whole thing got me wondering how you kept Nitzer Ebb separate from what you do with Fixmer? What are the boundaries?

DM: [laughs] Well, from a creative point of view, it’s really simple in my mind the difference between what Terrence and I do and what Bon, Jason and I do is very clear and worlds apart. The process of Nitzer Ebb is very much that of being in a band and it’s more or less the same thing and the thing with Terrence is… well, he’s French for a start, so that changes everything! His approach to making music is unconventional to say the least and even uncaring to a certain extent. So there are times in the studio when I’m trying to explain to him why something isn’t working, technically, is an uphill struggle because he doesn’t hear it in the same way as me. And I respect that and I think that’s what makes his music so special.

Now all of my favourite acts – whether that’s The Fall or Slayer or Nitzer Ebb or whoever – seem to thrive on tension. You split up acrimoniously, undoubtedly because of these pressures, but now you’re back again, how have you learned to cope with the internal dynamics of the group?

DM: Well, if we’ve learned anything we’ve learned to harness the tension and channel it creativity. To turn it outwards instead of channelling it in on ourselves.

BH: Ironically we were devastated when we heard Mark E Smith’s album with Mouse On Mars as Von Sudenfed [Tromaxic Reflexxions]. If we were given the chance to do one album with another vocalist it would be him.

DM: We went to see The Fall in LA. He was such a cunt to his band. It was amazing. He would just go up to the guitarist and put his hand on the strings dampening them while he was in the middle of playing and then after three songs he just wandered off leaving the band stood there looking glum. You know, totally by accident, Daniel Miller ended up sitting next to Mark E Smith on a plane to America. He introduced himself because he was a big Fall fan. Smith just started laughing and going: ‘Ha ha ha! Nitzer Ebb… Ha ha ha! Nitzer Ebb…’ He didn’t mention Depeche Mode or Nick Cave. He was just laughing and saying our name. Odd.

Industrial Complex is out now on Major. Body Of Work is available via Mute

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