Einsturzende Neubauten – John Robb Talks To Blixa Bargeld
Plenty of bands get tagged with a reputation for being original, groundbreaking and cutting edge. It’s the most overused bunch of words in rock. In 2006 every indie band who is slightly to the left of garage rock gets called avante garde or post rock and gets compared to the Gang Of Four like that's really stepping out there!
No such problem with Einsturzende Neubauten, the Berlin based outfit have been stalking the nether regions of rock since they appeared on the scene in the post punk fallout of the late seventies/early eighties. Epitomising the dense paranoia and uber artfulness of the their home city, Berlin - which was then an island of western consumerism all adrift in a communist sea - Neubauten’s metal bashing records in their early days perfectly captured the high art and tense 24/7 thrills of living on the frontier politically, geographically and musically.
Not only was the music utterly original but they broke the Anglo American rock axis by singing in German - paving the way for the likes of Ramstein who have gone on to worldwide success singing in the strangely attractive tongue of the fatherland. There were no boundaries for the band (whose name means collapsing new buildings) and their music was a total self-expression.
Fronted by the charismatic, skinny, leather-clad Blixa Bargeld, they were welcomed with open arms by the kind of goth who was into the weird end of the dark musical arts. They cuta series of albums that were miles ahead of anyone and were the final word in extreme music at the time.
Founded by vocalist/guitarist Bargeld and percussionist and American expatriate N.U. Unruh in tense cold war seventies Berlin as a performance art collective, they were perfectly placed in a unique environment. Berlin was then the coolest city in Europe - a landlocked prison surrounded by the twitching paranoia of communist east Germany - the city was living with its own rules. It was also a magnet for Germany’s dropouts, being the city that didn't have national service. It may have been bleak on the surface, but it was also an off kilter city of 24-hour parties and freethinking avante art attitude.Neubauten were perfect for the place.
Their early performances, which were closer to art statements than any kind of rock & roll, included a seemingly inexplicable half-naked appearance on the Berlin autobahn, where the duo spent some time beating on the sides of a hole in an overpass.
Their first recordings were mostly unstructured, free-form noise, issued on various cassettes. With their first single - "Fuer den Untergang" - they were already setting a template for non-4/4 non-Anglo-American music that was closer to the avante garde than any of their contemporaries - but with its own powerful logic.
This was further explored on the 1981 EP “Schwarz” and the 1982 album “Kollaps”. Some of these recordings are compiled on the “Strategies Against Architecture '80-'83” collection - which is highly recommended for anyone who wants to see just how far rock & roll can be twisted away from its source.After its release original members Bartel and Gut were replaced by ex-Abwräts member, F.M. Einheit - who became Neubauten's chief machinery operator. The line up was completed in 1983 when guitarist and electronics expert Alexander Hacke and Abwräts bassist Mark Chung also joined.
In 1984 Neubauten toured England opening for the Birthday Party. I saw them around this time at the Hacienda. It was a stunning show, utterly mind blowing in its originality - the way they took the unconventional instrumentation and created music that was as powerful as any barre-chord-rock was genius. They also had a brooding presence, a darkness that fitted in perfectly with that period. They were a band that sounded truly of their time. The ripples caused by their tour resulted in a contract with Some Bizarre Records who released the slightly more structured “Zeichnungen des Patienten O.T.” The series of gigs also caused consternation from club owners and journalists because of Neubauten's stage demolition's and frequent ensuing violence. It was about as punk rock as you could get!
Too off the wall for industrial, too original for post punk - they set their own agenda. Their music was a combination of off kilter rhythms and textures made up from bashing and scraping pieces of metal. Alex Hacke’s bass was the spine and Blixa’s highly original vocal styling took the band out on another tripped out plane.
When Nick Cave left the Birthday Party in the mid eighties and put together the Bad Seeds, Bargeld became their guitarist and toured and recorded with Cave over the next two decades. At the same time he remained with Neubauten, releasing “Halber Mensch” in 1986 - a further expansion of the band sound with more textures being added to the mix. They signed to Trent Reznor's Nothing label for 1998's “Ende Neu”.
In May of 2000, Einstürzende Neubauten released the full-length “Silence Is Sexy” on Mute Records - the closest they have come to releasing a commercial record. “Silence Is Sexy” is as good an intro point for virgins to this kind of sound without diluting the group’s off the walltalent - it has less frenetic metal bashing and more textures.
Listening to those records now, Neubauten have not aged in the slightest, they are on a planet of their own, and if next year’s tour is to be their last before they finally lay down their metal objects, then it’s a truly sad moment. The band have got better and better, moving on from the frenetic metal bashing of their early years to textured atmospheric pieces, they have continued to go boldly were no band has gone before.
Leading the front-line avante noise outfit since 1980, Blixa Bargeld (not his real name, apparently it sort of means Billy Cash...it’s his punk name) has become an unlikely popstar in his homeland. The outfit’s combination of clanking metal percussion, intense dark hearted songs and brilliant evocative atmospheres has staked a very individual claim for them. Combined with lyrics that were mainly in German - and a very central European dynamic – Neubauten remain one of the most distinctive and pioneering outfits of the last two decades.
Although they have never risen above cult status in the UK, where Bargeld is better known as Nick Cave’s guitar playing foil in the Bad Seeds, their albums are regular top twenties in Germany, whilst on their first tour of Japan they were unlikely teen idols, complete with a welcoming party of screaming girls at the airport.
Latter-day Neubauten have seen their sound become more atmospheric,less frantic. Stretching out the sound and concentrating on the textures they have become almost beautiful in some respects – yet still equally as claustrophobic as their earlier recordings. They still don’t sound like anyone else on the planet - a major achievement in amusic scene were it is all too easy to bag up any band into any scene at the drop of some hype.
Neubauten have unintentionally captured Berlin’s incredible changes over the last twenty years. In the early eighties the band seemed to perfectly reflect the city’s bizarre cold war isolation. To many listeners, Neubauten’s tense, metallic post punk workouts sounded like the fucking cold war!
Two decades later Bargeld has become a celebrity in Germany. Branching out from Neubaten, he plays guitar in the afore mentioned Bad Seeds, acts in films – and has even appeared on a cookery programme where keeping the dark theme, he cooked a pasta in black squid ink! He lectures and has posh Sunday magazines printing his photos of hotel bathrooms. Currently living in Shangai, its fair to say that Blixa Bargeld is not yer average Joe rock & roller.
Sat in a London hotel room, in loud pinstripe suit and a curious fur lined hat, he talks in a deep lugubrious voice - and in excellent English!
trakMARX - I like your hat...
BARGELD - “I got it in New York. It’s a Tibetan hat. The fur cuts twenty decibels of sound away from my ears! Which is useful in certain situations...”
trakMARX – I hear you’re a bit of a celeb in Germany now - appearing on cookery programmes!
BARGELD – “It was only one cookery programme...”
trakMARX -Didn’t you make some sort of gothic black dish as a joke...?
BARGELD – “Yes, ha! I made risotto with black squid ink. The chef who did the programme with me surprised me... He made an orange and peppermint salad. Very colourful... mine was all black. He made it as deliberate contrast. I think we were even!!!!
trakMARX – You also take photos of hotel rooms, last time I was in Germany there was a Sunday magazine spread of all these pictures you had taken.
BARGELD – “I photograph hotel rooms... its just a ritual. It’s something I regularly do. I spend 200 nights a year in hotels. In every hotel I take a photo of a bathroom...
trakMARX - You seem very busy these days. Constantly involved in a whole heap of projects.
BARGELD – “Yes, lectures, acting - a lot of stuff. If you are interested you can go to my own website to get the details of my activities...”
trakMARX - The new album seems more song based, less harsh...
BARGELD - “Someone said its like the songs have become inverted. I like that. It’s the same motivation and attitude as before. The song structures are deconstructed from within. They remain intact but are fragile and fractured...”
trakMARX - Do the songs come out of the chaos of jamming?
BARGELD - “Everything on the record is the result of live playing and improvisation. For the first time on these tours we had a set. An order of songs which was a technical necessity with having programming. We had somebody working with electronics to recreate studio sounds on stage. In these sets we always kept 3 or 4 blank spaces which we called ramps. They could be totally open or governed by a little set of laws. It was up to us to fill these spaces, improvise the music. I'd say a word, or something will happen, or Andrew NAME will start something. If we get something good out of it we took it to the next concert and slowly it would evolve. This also apples to lyrics. They start as improvisations - it’s an evolutionary process. A song starts. No one knows what will happen. We build on the idea to see what happens. After 60 concerts we would definitely have something.
trakMARX - The new album underlines a big shift in the sound.
BARGELD – “It’s a new line up. Different people have the right to play in their own way. The whole chemistry is shifting in the band. My way of singing reacts to be people playing differently. I'm happy that this new line up is giving me a lot of space. In early Neubauten I used to fight rather hard, use all the strengths in my voice to get through, because of all the noise! Now everyone restrains himself, so I don't have to do that. It’s an attitude and way of singing, according to lyrics, which I couldn't do before...
trakMARX - You have nice voice!
BARGELD – “Of course!!!! I didn't have that much chance of singing before...I had more chance to sing with Nick Cave And The Bad Seeds...I have done a duet with him.
trakMARX - Is it fair to say Berlin’s changes have affected the music?
BARGELD – “No, not really. How much this city is an influence is hard for me to explain. I've always lived there. Berlin is point zero on a scale and everywhere else was different. Would the music be different if I came from London or Melbourne? I don't know. It’s certainly urban music...The changes of the city affect certain things I talk and sing about. But it doesn't necessarily affect the music...
trakMARX - Growing up in Blackpool in the punk days we were blown away the first time we hard Neubauten. We were intrigued, fascinated: the band sounded exactly like what we thought Berlin was like...all the chaos and paranoia of a city trapped by history. Is that what the city was like in the post punk era?
BARGELD - ”It was quite chaotic, yeah. But in a positive way. I only noticed how much it was different in Berlin when I left the city...by the time I started Neubauten I hadn’t left Berlin for two years. I didn't have a passport and the police were looking for me. In Berlin, at the time, you had this law that was pretty unique in the world, that if you didn’t have a proper address you had to report to police so they could find you. If you lose your passport you don’t exist anymore. So I hadn’t left the city for severalyears. The first time I left the city was to play a concert in Hamburg and I was shocked by how different it was. Of course, I had been to Hamburg a decade before, but the whole punk revolution had been and gone by then and Hamburg was a violent city, the squatters fighting the police, a chaotic violent atmosphere on the scene which did not exist in Berlin, although there had also been some big confrontations in Kreuzberg, so there were very different lifestyles. In both citiesthere were loads of clashes with the police.In Hamburg it was different than in Berlin where there was the squatters movement. In Berlin after punk, everything was possible artistically, it wasn'tlimited to what you called ‘hardcore’ later, and the punks wouldn’t spit at you whilst you were playing something very different!”
trakMARX - Was Berlin very artsy?
BARGELD – “In Berlin there was a successful art scene at that time. Everything was entwined and intermingled. Everyone was getting along. It wasn’t separable. The chaotic energy was useful.”
trakMARX - Were you living in Kreuzberg then?
BARGELD – “No, I was in Schoenberg, the neighbouring area.”
trakMARX - I remember the first time I went to Berlin in the early eighties. Kreuzberg seemed like an amazing place, the bohemian centrale of the city, but I went back last year and it was very quiet.
BARGELD – “Most people have moved to East Berlin. Kreuzberg has gone back to being a Turkish area. There are dying junkies everywhere...everything in Berlin is now in the east...”
trakMARX - Like in Mitte?
BARGELD – “Yeah, a bit, but not in the stupid centre. When I go to East Berlin I feel reminded more of the old West Berlin. It’s not necessarily cheaper in East Berlinanymore. Everything that was dynamic about West Berlin disappeared long before the wall came down. End of the nineties, Berlin was not really a happening place anymore...I still thinks it’s a great city but everything great is happening in East Berlin (like East London) - West Berlin became the sleeping half of the city.
trakMARX - When the wall came down in hindsight, was it a good thing or a bad thing...as a traveller visiting a city that was walled off and full of some freaky action, it made it seem like a fascinating freak island surrounded by a grey authoritarian nightmare.
BARGELD – “Of course the wall coming down at first was a good thing...But it never came out the way people wanted it to. The people’s movement and all these opposition political groups that started didn't start out for unification or to bring the GDR to an end. They wanted to reform the GDR and make it a better place. I think it happened much too fast and not to the advantage of the people of East Germany...they are basically fucked...they have thehighest unemployment rate!”
trakMARX - And all this has happened in the twenty years since your band started. Twenty years, that’s an incredible lifespan for any group. What’s your status in Germany...Have you become the maverick elder statesmen of the music scene?
BARGELD – “More or less...it’s the same sort of status that we have all over Europe - except for the UK!! We have becomea kind of legendary band and I'm a ‘legendary’ figure and this record will be top twenty in Germany, which is the biggest market in Europe! Since the early eighties when we started, the whole acceptance in popular music for German language and production is much higher now. Peopledon’t pay so much attention to foreign markets or the UK. A lot of that doesn't matter anymore.”
trakMARX - That’s true...when Neubaten started they were the first chink in the Anglo American pop cultural empire...In 2000 Germany is full of indigenous groups singing German. It has its own homeland pop culture, but Neubauten’s use of the languageat the time seemed revolutionary. It was a ground breaking step. It seemed unusual at the time but now each country has its own home language pop scene.
BARGELD – “That's not totally true for the whole of Europe. France never had a tradition of that American pop, but in Germany after WW2 there was no tradition. In Germany, popular music didn’t start until after WW2. It started with the invention of the record player. The tradition was broken after WW2. It was like a colonial invasion of popular music. Even when we started Neubauten, it was the same. We didn't become famous in Germany until we singed with an English record label and got on the cover of the NME. That's when people in Germany would wake up and say ‘hey, our boys done well... we are proud of you!’ It is strange...but it doesn't work like that anymore. You now have platinum selling German Acts in Germany. They don’t have to sing in English and don't have to play in England..look at Die Toten Hosen!”
trakMARX - Huge in Germany and unknown in the UK! They never come here.
BARGELD – “What for? They are so rich they could own half a city!!!!! They are millionaires. What do they care! They are so popular in Germany that they play whole tours under fake names. Even then the word on the grapevine sells the concerts out...We have always been on friendly feet with Die Toten Hosen. They sang in German too. They were part of that mall tendency in the early eighties to connect with your own language. But now because of bands like Rammstein, I want sing in Chinese!”
trakMARX - Why is that?
BARGELD – “They make me ashamed of my own language. I’ve only heard a little bit - but the words are stupid...
trakMARX - Can you speak Chinese like Andrew Eldritch (Sisters Of Mercy singer)!!!
BARGELD – “(smirks) No...”
trakMARX - For many people, Einsterzende Neubauten were not only the first band to sing in German but but also the first band that made music to match. For too many years people have said that German isn’t a ‘rock & roll’ language - but Neubauten bypassed that by inventing their own music to match their words. It seemed to be a fierce break from the Anglo-American rock axis - a redefining of the already recognizable German underground avante garde tradition of Krautrock...
BARGELD – “This is the tradition that Neubauten came out of. My first record was Pink Floyd, the second was Can. I grew up with Can, Kraftwerk, Neu, Cluster, German electronic music and avante garde. That’s my musical background. We are a continuity. The main shift was the vocals and language. With us it was the use of our own language. No one had bothered before but that's because of the broken tradition. The previous bands usually avoided the issue altogether. You have lots of instrumental bands in that scene - or Can hada native American as a singer - or they didn't sing at all. It took Kraftwerka long time to open their mouths and sing in German on ‘Autobahn’. But I look on my music as much more international. Over the last twenty years I have become very European. I have been traveling a lot and gained much experienceby working on several projects.”
trakMARX – How have these experiences affected your music?
BARGELD – “The general understanding of song structure I get from working with the Australians. I learned about song writing from their working process. They come from a completely different musical background. Mick Harvey and Nick Cave were in a school band were you learn to play other people’s songs and in that process you learn how songs are constructed - how songs work and don't work. That's certainly not my tradition. My tradition was improvisation - like Can or electronic music - and that's a different knowledge. Working with the Bad Seeds I learned more about that side, the song writing side. When I started Neubauten it was always a hundred per cent spontaneous and improvised.”
trakMARX - Is that why you used metal percussion ... you couldn’t play traditional instruments so you just used what was at hand?
BARGELD – “No, we started out without any instruments! It wasn’t that we couldn't play any instruments. We didn’t have any instruments! It wasn’t a particular artistic decision to have a set of metal objects. It was a decision made for us. We had a drum kit for the first concert and before the second concert that was sold in order to pay the rent. The solution to that was to go to the building site and steal objects and use them as percussion instruments. It was a decision made by life.”
trakMARX - The metal gave the sound a hard edge...perhaps the true meaning of the William Burroughs phrase ‘Heavy Metal’?
BARGELD – “It’s FM Einer. His playing was much more harder. Now it’s 180-degrees opposite. A lot more careful. It’s a structural thing. A different approach. The sound of the metal was always dictated by where it came from. It gave it acontext. Its availability always played a role in the music’s textures...
trakMARX - Do you get the metal made to get a certain sound?
BARGELD – “No.”
trakMARX - Do you go through loads of pieces of metal until you get one that sounds right?
BARGELD – “No, you find a piece that’s interesting and that dictates what your going to do. It could be just an interesting look. There is always an element of curiosity in that you find, something you don't know what to do with it. You want to see if you can make it produce anything useful...and if it can create a music in itself. You find out how to take the music out of an object that wasn't made for that and its important so say where this object came from. Whether it is an air conditioning duct or a chemical waste bin makes it interesting. At first you don’t know how to make a good sound out of it...but you find out.”
trakMARX - You use a water piston on a backing track?
BARGELD – “We very often use mechanical things that are the very opposite to electronic things. A mechanical piston will produce certain sounds. It will go faster andslower. It has it own meaning, its own life. If you try and produce sounds like that electronically it just would not work...very static. Very predictable. The unpredictability has always been very important to Neubaten. You want all the unpredictability and all those moments in the live situation. Get that on tape.”
trakMARX - Are you using unpredictable rhythms in an attempt to go against the strict 4/4 of rock & roll?
BARGELD – “We would never use standard structures. We would always use strange elongated choruses, the perforated noises, the total unevenness, things that would very often come from live inspiration or may come from a particular word that starts a sequence of events. Everybody has to follow it. It could come from anywhere. Creating a certain tension. On this record I sing!I've shouted for 17 years. I don't need to do that anymore.”
trakMARX - One track on the new album, ‘Silence Is Sexy’, was an attempt to record a John Cage style track of silence.
BARGELD – “It started off with the John Cage idea. The idea to record total silence. “Silence Is Sexy” is in fact a total contradiction, because silence becomes audible as tension. John Cage tried to direct the concentration of the listener to all the sounds that are there when you think it is silent. Its a kind of Zen idea, a philosophical statement ...I wanted to make silence itself audible as tension.”
trakMARX - Was the original idea to tape the hum of electricity in the room?
BARGELD – “There was no original idea. The original idea was one sentence...and then find out what happened. I started out with silence is sexy and found out by the second verse silence was not sexy at all...so it’s an aesthetic approach to particular musical problem.”
trakMARX – Sexy sexy - or attractive?
BARGELD – “I'm not sure where that sentence came from. It’s so obvious that sentence is contradictory. I never usually come with a complete set of lyrics and tell the band what I want to. I usually have a few rough idea. I seek the answers for my lyrical problems in the musicand the words are embedded in the sounds that are there. “Silence Is Sexy” took several layers and approaches to find out it’s not sexy at all!”
trakMARX - Are you going to play the UK on this upcoming long European tour?
BARGELD – “We usually do one show...it would be nice to play in Scotland for a change. We have never done that - its up to what the promoters come up with.”
trakMARX - Are you doing any one offs in railways arches or caves, the sort of oddball events that you once did?
BARGELD – “The weird concerts depend on the offers. We don't say ‘hey that’s a nice building, lets do it over there’.We used to do that but its too difficult. Neubauten shows in the early eighties took alot of work. Driving in a little van to a city, thengo to the scrap yard! Find the instruments and then set them up on the stage. Play the concert and then leave the instruments in the backyardand drive to next city. You can only do this for a certain amount of time...it’s very intense!”
trakMARX - Neubauten have had a profound influence on the German and international music scene. Their harsh noise music can be heard all over Atari Teenage Riot and on into the hard edge of the electronic scene and through to the renaissance of the father tongue in German rock. Primal Scream started as a Neubauten metal percussion assault. Does you manage to keep up with this stuff?
BARGELD – “I don't know about that. I don’t follow music at all. Alex from the band knows Alec Empire. We don’t feel part of any music scene at all. Especially on this record. You can’t trace any outside influence. It’s pretty much a hermetic record. I gave up listening to music ten years ago. I was bored with the discourse that surrounds it. The blah blah of the media and the stirring of the same soup of shit emitting a bubble every half a year that has a different name for the same old style. ‘Here comes the next one!’ I'm just bored with all that. I’m sure there’s great things around..but somehow I feel lighter since I don't feel obliged spending time to find out what they are. Music still is essential in my life, but not listening to it. I read books. I go to movies. I watch television. I'm interested ineverything apart from taking part in the discourse on pop music.”
John Robb – tMx 27 – 11/06
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