I think you could make a compelling argument that punk ended in England when Sid Vicious died, and in America, when The Decline of Western Civilization was released. From that point forward, people focused on copying something that had already been done. Punk was intended to be anti-fashion, anti-conformist and frequently political, suggesting that you question authority. By mindlessly following the lead of others; dressing the same, playing the same music and failing to address the political decisions of their leaders, a generation allowed punk to die. Bands like International Noise Conspiracy and Atari Teenage Riot revived the punk ethic by attacking politics and use music as a tool.
Without hearing a single lyric, listening to Atari Teenage Riot’s music is compelling because of it’s energy, creativity and aggression. Add the lyrics and you get a vital band that has questioned everything from race relations to fascism. Read the stories of their support for political protest and watch videos of some of the chaos that has ensued during their public appearances and you have the most important punk/political band of this generation. With a new single (Activate), a new line-up, a new tour and the possibility of a new record, it was an honor to get to spend time with Alec Empire after his recent show in Dallas, Texas. Written by Todd.
TDOA: Obviously you’ve continued to make music during the Atari Teenage Riot sabbatical. What made you decide to come back to ATR as a concept?
AE: It wasn’t really a difficult decision. It was very spontaneous. We thought we’d play one show in London, last April. (Hanin) Elias contacted me almost a year ago and said, “Do you want to make peace?”, because we hadn’t talked in years. We had really fallen out about a lot of things, but major things with the Brixton Academy show. It was a really important show for us. The record was just out and it was our only London show. The afternoon of that show she decided she didn’t want to do it anymore and just walked out on the band. Everybody in the band took it very personally. We said to her, there’s only two more shows on the tour! But there was a history there of this constant…. overall, it was always so chaotic.
But when she wrote me this message (about getting back together), I thought maybe it would be a good idea. You want to always be careful with this sort of thing so it doesn’t look like a “retro” looking bankroll kind of thing. And I was in a very different mode, because I have a new record all ready to go. I thought I’d rather premiere new Alec Empire material. But, I decided I could do that anytime and by the time January/February of 2010 rolled around we had the idea of adding CX KiDTRONiK. We had collaborated with him for his record on Stones Throw and we did this crazy 200 BPM tour with him and it was a lot of fun to work with him. I thought maybe it would be a good idea to get him. We couldn’t replace MC Carl Crack, who died in 2001 and we knew that, so that’s why it took so long to come up with this idea. I was afraid the cynics would say, “Oh, you’ve just replaced him with another black guy”. But Carl grew up in Berlin and couldn’t be more different: the backgrounds and the music style. It’s like if you compare two guitarists. It was bringing something fresh into the band. But then we ran into the first challenge, which was the lyrics that Carl had written, which were about growing up in Germany, fascism and racism. So CX started re-writing stuff, telling his own story. Then the whole thing took on another dimension. Here’s Obama and everyone thinks everything’s ok now, but there’s still so many problems and I thought it was really great and something we wouldn’t have had. I think American foreign politics is affecting everyone, especially since 9/11. This is something that’s so important to talk about. Then we started beefing up the tracks more. We didn’t want to change anything, but we could improve the sound without remixing it. We’re still using a lot of the old gear, because that’s important for the Atari Teenage Riot sound. So by the time we got to this London show, everyone was really exciting because there was such a young audience, with people that had never seen us before. The feedback from the press was good. People thought it was strange because it wasn’t like a reunion, it was still fresh and wasn’t like these other reunions. It’s more physical sounding and we improved a lot of things. The sad thing with Elias is that during the sessions, she really didn’t have the voice anymore. That was a big drama in the run up to that London show. I said, let’s find anouther role for you. There’s a lot of stuff on the first record that she did, that isn’t the screaming stuff, so why don’t we focus on that? I think people wouldn’t have minded. For her it was a bigger thing. She felt like she had to do it 100% and I totally understand. If you suddenly realize you can’t do something anymore, it’s got to be horrible.
TDOA: It’s as if she felt that if she couldn’t do it 100%, she didn’t want to do it at all?
AE: Yes, it’s like an athlete trying a comeback, but they haven’t played in ten years. It’s a much longer journey to get back. The kind of vocal energy to keep that up. I talk to singers in other bands who say that to sing is pretty intense, but to scream like we do everyday, it has to take a toll. But we had run into this with her so many times before, like on the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tour in 97 and the Beck tour and the first show in Japan. We would run into this, where we weren’t sure what to do. Do we cancel the show and why don’t we just tell people the truth? But she always said no and it was a dramatic thing. By the time we got to the London show, people were surprised.
TDOA: When Atari Teenage Riot first started, you were taking strong stances on fascism and taking strong political stances. The world then went through eight years of George W. Bush with virtually no protest music, despite a lot of political turmoil. Do you have a sense of what happened and why other musicians didn’t carry the torch?
AE: I think they were afraid. I mean, look what happened to the Dixie Chicks. That was the idea; to shut everyone up. I think two things happened. This (censorship) coupled with mp3′s which eliminated any safety net. Bands couldn’t afford to express their views because they’d get dropped from the label. When Carl Crack died days before September 11th, I knew that if he hadn’t died I could have seen Atari getting back together because of it. I felt like somebody had to say something. We had been talking about this before, how people will profit from wars and propaganda. But also the modern way of controlling citizens with technology. We’d been saying that all along. We saw the negative effects of globalization. The interesting coincidence is when we did the show in London, the conservative government had been elected. The banks were failing and people came see us, knowing we’d address those things.
After we did the London show, we had people in Tokyo calling us to do shows there. Then people in Berlin said that if we were playing shows, we had to play there. I always tell people that there’s no master plan. We’re not like The Pixies or Dinosaur Jr., where we’ve got these shows planned out for years at a time. We think that at the moment, it’s a challenge and we like making a statement and we’ll record more stuff when we get back. But it’s not really a plan. If you feel like it’s a routine, then we won’t do it. We don’t have to. There’s no need for money.
TDOA: Frank Black has given interviews were he comes right out and says, “we’re doing this for the money”. As a fan, that’s horrifying.
AE: I’m just constantly disapppointed by these bands. Why aren’t you doing it for the passion? If you make money, that’s ok but if you’re not enjoying it, that’s sad. For me, as a musician, I tell everyone in the band, take this seriously. If it backfires, you can kill everything at once. I’ve seen a lot of musicians getting really depressed with the process.
TDOA: So you plan to make another record? Have you started writing? Obviously, you’ve got your Alec Empire stuff.
AE: Yeah, but that couldn’t be more different from the Atari Teenage Riot stuff. It’s a really insane record and I don’t know if people will even get it. The new AE record is combines a lot of digital stuff and is really looking forward to the future. I wanted to create a record that worked as a whole piece rather than a collection of songs. ATR works in a different way. We recorded Activate really fast and tried to combine all the elements of ATR. But we tried to make it sound different to introduce Nic Endo and CX, but that was just the beginning. We also wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a generic Atari Teenage Riot song.
TDOA: One of the things I talk to musicians about, is how the songwriting process matures as you grow older. If you go back and listen to the early ATR songs versus this one, the process seems to have changed. What do you start with as you write and how has that changed over the years?
AE: With ATR the lyrics come first, or at least the idea. The music has to get that message across. That’s why Activate has such a forward moving feel to it, like Speed did. You try to move the crowd along. You might lose some people that don’t know this kind of music. I was thinking of the early ATR, where it was like rock and roll. So we use the 909 drum machine and the old samplers, which was very strange because even though I use that old stuff still, I use it in combination with newer equipment. So suddenly I felt like I was limiting myself and it was very liberating. Suddenly you only have five seconds of samplling time and each sound and idea has to work in that context.
TDOA: It’s almost like you’ve been painting with a palette filled with a million different colors and suddenly all but five have been taken away.
AE: Exactly. I like that at the moment. It doesn’t mean that it will always be that way. ATR always tries to do things fast and I like that approach. It’s like rock and roll. I imagine that bands in the 50′s would go into the studio and they would nail it right away. There wouldn’t be weeks of overdubs. I think that’s one of the reasons we’re different from other electronic acts.
TDOA: How has the recording process changed for you with the changes in technology?
AE: The most interesting thing with my solo work has been this concept of bringing analog and digital equipment together. They’re are a lot of small companies who are putting out these modular synths and it’s making analog sound really strong. The last decade you had these purists who said they’d only use analog and then there was a group who said that digital was the way to go. I think what we’re going to see is a mix of both worlds and I’m really interested in that. I was skeptical of all the software stuff because I didn’t feel like it sounded great. It didn’t sound physical, which is what I think music is about. Music should be about energy. Sometimes we do these long sessions. Nic and I just press record and two hours later we’re done. Then we can go back and take out bits and pieces to use. The digital technology gives us this ability to take that ten minutes that you don’t like and get rid of it. All these borders that you had before are gone. This also means that you have to create these platforms that are still exciting. That’s one of the complaints I have with some of the newer electronic music that I hear. They follow a designed path and don’t try to do anything exciting.
TDOA: A long time ago, you foresaw the dissolution of the major label system as we knew it. You also embraced social media quickly and continue to use it as a publicity tool without having major label backing. You’ve also seen the rise of illegal downloading. How do you approach the new technology and use it to your advantage? You’ve talked here about money not being terribly important, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be rewarded for your art.
AE: Since I started putting out music and put out 12″ in 1991, I always made sure I got paid. People think I’m an idealist and don’t care, but perhaps I’m too left-wing for that. I want to always make sure people get paid for their work. I think it’s cynical when people say, “don’t be greedy”. You wouldn’t tell people at General Motors, “We came up with this great car and you should spend the next six month working for free.” I think the music industry has become like that, where bands are asked to play for free and give there music away for free. I think it’s going to far. I see so many young bands, who have a lot of potential, who die because they can’t survive financially. I think it’s a big problem and is why music hasn’t evolved as it should have. It’s so backwards. There’s all these bubbles, where people try to pretend their so big on the internet and use all these bots on MySpace and other platforms. The idea of pop is something that belongs to the last century. What song is number one within the borders of one country just doesn’t matter anymore. And the system is so corrupt and I hope people understand that. I saw the MTV Video Music Awards on the television. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and I was in a hotel room in Portugal watching after a show we played. Oh my god, every category was the same basic group of five people! There’s this award in Germany called Echo and the major labels pay to have their acts to be nominated. Why do you need these awards?! These people who have bad taste in music are choosing it. If you make good music, people will buy it. It’s gotten to a point where it’s got to implode, because the system is based on corruption and bullshit and not quality. Maybe the major labels need to recognize that their products don’t have a high value to people. That’s why they download them for free and don’t have any moral issues about it. In Germany, people try to buy things like fruit from a local market because they know the background of where it came from, they know the people, they know that it’s not filled with poison and they want to support it. It’s a similar thing with music. You have these generic bands and I think it’s what capitalism does to music. It’s not just that the technology changed and they didn’t see it coming.
However, I will say that music hasn’t progressed like it should have. I always compare it to mobile phones. We used to have these giant phones in the 80′s and they evolved. Music hasn’t progressed with the time. But I think that time will come. The structure of the pop song will dissolve. Twenty years from now, we’ll look back and it will have changed.
TDOA: In my view, punk is anti-fashion, anarchaic and Atari Teenage Riot embraced some of those principles. Over the years when we started seeing the Blink-182′s and My Chemical Romance’s of the world, it became this corporate, fashion-oriented marketing plot. Now when I see these bands with their perfectly coifed mohawks, I find it depressing. Is punk dead and are bands like this making a mockery of what was once an important political statement?
AE: When I was watching the VMA’s on MTV, I saw the 30 Seconds To Mars video and I thought….(groans)
TDOA: That’s considered punk!
AE: That (punk) is over. For me, punk was always a spirit and an attitude. It wasn’t about fashion style. Someone who came to a punk rock club in a suit could be the most punk rock person in the club because he doesn’t try to conform to what everyone else is doing. When it matters, do you take the risk of not being accepted by the majority? I think we live in this society where everybody is so afraid to be alone. When you look at the social networks, people are so concerned with how many friends they have, which means you’re popular. When we started we weren’t concerned with being popular. We knew that the mainstream represents an idea which is to discriminate against minorities, so we knew that we didn’t want to sacrifice our beliefs just to become popular.
What you see now in the music scene is that people go with the herd so that they can be popular and not feel left behind. That’s the kind of attitude that existed in Germany before Hitler was elected. This feeling of uncertainty, high unemployment. There was a financial crisis at the time and people were like sheep trying to find someone who would lead them. People hopefully understand this is the danger to our lives. It wasn’t that Hitler hijacked the country and then it turned bad. The majority of Germans elected him and supported him and I still see some of that thinking now. That total trust in authority and handing over your responsibilities to the government. Germany was defeated, right? It’s not like everyone decided to revolt and become a democracy. They were defeated. You can still sense that in the younger generation, even though it’s in their subconscious. If you ask them if they’re racist, of course they’ll say no. But if you ask them questions like what kind of music do black people listen to, they’ll say gangster rap. I think that’s the danger, that there’s still this underlying generalization of people.
TDOA: It’s interesting to me because in the U.S., ever since the Nixon administration, there’s been this intense lack of trust in our government…
AE: It’s always been different in the U.S. than in Germany. In Germany, you don’t question government. It’s a totally different mentality.
For more information about the band, visit their website: http://www.atari-teenage-riot.com
See Atari Teenage Riot live:
Thursday 7 October 2010- The Rickshaw Theatre- Vancouver, Canada
Wednesday 17 November 2010- Bus Palladium- Paris, France
Thursday 18 November 2010- Colchester Arts Centre- Colchester, United Kingdom
Friday 19 November 2010- Corporation- Sheffield, United Kingdom
Saturday 20 November 2010- Hampshire, Southampton, United Kingdom
Sunday 21 November 2010- Manchester, United Kingdom
Monday 22 November 2010- The Assembly- Leamington Spa, United Kingdom
Wednesday 24 November 2010- Glasgow, United Kingdom
Thursday 25 November 2010- The Button Factory- Baile Átha Cliath, Dublin, Ireland
Saturday 27 November 2010- Autumn Falls- Aux Raus VK- Brussels, Belgium
Sunday 28 November 2010- Effenaar- Eindhoven, Netherlands
Tuesday 30 November 2010- Bahnhof Langendreer- Bochum, Germany
Friday 3 December 2010- Rock Kitchen- Madrid, Spain
Saturday 4 December 2010- Sala Apolo- Barcelona, Spain