Photos courtesy of Nina, Neubauten archive- © Chardonne Photography
Blixa Bargeld interviewWhen you think of 'industrial' music, you can't get more factory-like than a band whose name roughly translated into 'collapsing new buildings' and who's known for using power tools on stage (and using these same tools to destroy the stage). Einstürzende Neubauten was born in 1980 around a madly creative group of artists in Berlin. No doubt that their reputation with non-traditional instruments and wild experimentation helped to create their international reputation. By the end of the eighties, they had already amassed an impressive collection of material that tore up a lot of boundries of what people thought rock could do, even at that late date. If people are shocked or stunned by how Neubauten seems less confrontational nowadays, band leader Blixa Bargeld sees no problem or inconsistency with this apporach: "I think nobody should expect ANYTHING from us!" I had the chance to talk to Bargeld while the group was in the middle of its first tour of the States in years (December 1998): the show I witnessed did not have any stage destruction going on but was very memorable for the sound and dynamics that Neubauten is capable of.
by Jason Gross
PSF: With regard to Neubauten's latest release Ende Neu, I've heard that it was something of a return to the groups' 'roots' as you were using unconventional recording methods.
Well, that's actually two different things. 'Returning to your roots' is a very common saying but not very helpful. It was because that two of our members actually left before we started making this record (one died). We were kind of stripped to a minimum- that was very much returning to the roots. Not knowing what to do was very much returning to the roots. We weren't seeking out the same point as what we'd done in 1980. It was just unpredictable and unforeseeable for that period when we recorded that record as it was in the very beginning. That's where that comes from.
The other thing was using unconventional recording methods. When we started making the record, we just hired rooms, which were not recording rooms and set everything there. The recording equipment and the engineer were there and the musicians were kind of interchangeable. You push RECORD, you play and then you push STOP. That was very much like recording for a film. Everyone had to be very quiet when we started recording. In all of these rooms, in the Academy of Arts in East Berlin, we had to turn off the lights because they were neon and they were humming. We had to get film lights in there and turn their lights off.
It was great but we discovered after a while that if we kept working this way, we would have run very deeply into money. It turned out to actually be more expensive to do it this way than actually going into a recording studio. Every little bit we needed, we had to hire or buy. Microphone stands or things you can't do without.
PSF: People come out for the shows now expecting the jack hammers and pyrotechnics but you've said 'that's silly to expect that from us nowadays.'
Well, it was silly to expect that from us at any time. I think nobody should expect ANYTHING from us! (laughs) I was asked 'so you don't destroy things on stage anymore?' I said 'we do destroy the preconceptions of our audience.' I think that though it was a joke, it was very often a fact in our career. Each record was always somehow disappointing to people compared to the record before. I didn't start (out) to destroy the stages of the world. Whenever that happened, it was more or less accidental, just a sign of being alive more than a provocation.
It was obnoxious already by our second American tour when we set fire to the stage. Nothing happened, nobody got hurt. Especially Californians are afraid of fire. By the time we came to New York, there was double security, with all of these fire extinguishers. What's the point? It would have been totally ridiculous to even light a match on stage.
PSF: During your recent shows, you'd announce if you were singing in German or English. What's your thoughts about singing in different languages?
All these songs are translated, very carefully, in the records and in my books. Something I have written in German is most of the time not possible to be sung in English. You can make helpful translation of poems but once it comes to a singing voice, it gets rather difficult. So I just carefully look at what parts I can easily transfer. Trying to do that, I am a bit worried that people here mostly don't speak German. I'm fully aware of that. I'm trying to at least get across whatever's possible to get across.
PSF: How do you see the way your group uses tools as instruments? That's not very common for rock-identified band.
We've been doing that for about 20 years now. In the beginning, it wasn't an artistic decision to do this. It was simply a decision made for us by our life situation. Andrew, who was the first of two percussionists to come, had a normal drum set. Two Neubauten concerts were played on a normal drum set. He sold his drum set because he was out of money and had to sell his drum set- that's not a legendary fabrication, that's a plain fact. We knew that we were going to play another concert so he sold this and he stole and bought tools, saw, screws and he was very proud of that. So within two or three days, he fixed up some object that vaguely resembled a drum set. It was made entirely out of found objects, stolen objects and tools. That was basically the start.
Some other decisions were made in similar ways. Like having this metal, plastic drum kit, it didn't take very long until it didn't resemble a drum set at all. At first, it looked like a copy of drum set but then it just became something new. When we were going into a recording studio, we started working on it, we just decided 'OK, now we're going to abandon everything normal and just use metal.' Then it was 'OK, now we're not just trying metal, we're trying everything.' So the crazier the idea, the better. By that time, we exploded into a myriad of possibilities. That was 1982, 1983.
Since then, it isn't a question of how we go outside of the guitar or bass because I wasn't ever really in there. I play guitar (for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) but for me, it wasn't really a perspective like that. I have no musical training, I cannot play an instrument and I never possessed one at that time. Of course, nowadays it's different.
PSF: At the show the other night, you were talking about an incident where the police arrested you from your back door and how this became the inspiration for a song. These snippets from your life become inspirations for songs then?
I make notes every day. I think everybody that writes has this way where you makes a note and then, two weeks later, you notice it. Somehow subconsciously, you're still playing with it. Along comes something that puts it in a new perspective and you remember something that you couldn't two weeks before. You compile something and it gets more and more until you have a funny thought about it. And this funny thought, that you will probably put into some kind of order, is the result. That becomes a song.
PSF: You're from Mitte (section of East Berlin), right?
No, I'd love to be there though. The East is much more interesting at the moment. The West is only there to sleep. I'm from West Berlin originally.
PSF: How did that area push you into your work?
Once again, it was a life situation. Finding urban debris is kind of possible in every Western city. In the late '70's and early '80's there, it was a very unique situation. Apart from the (Berlin) Wall and all that (which is normal since I grew up with the Wall), you could literally live without any money. There was a lot of squatted houses. I lived in one, Andrew lived in one, we all lived in squatted houses. It was absolutely impossible to find a flat. You didn't have to go to the Army, which drew a lot of people to West Berlin. Once you were in West Berlin, you didn't have to go into the Army anymore. It was kind of a utopia for unusual young people. That's certainly the kind of the mood that came from there. There were dozens of band then and they all existed for about a week.
PSF: Was there any older music that you heard then that was influential on you, like maybe Neu! or Can?
Absolutely. Can, Kraftwerk and Neu! were probably the most influential things that I've heard. That's how I started listening to music. I went from Pink Floyd to Can and stayed there ever since. At that time in Berlin, it just seemed like everything was possible. Shortly after the punk revolution, it was just an enormous sprouting of nine-day wonders. There were occurrences of bands that did all sorts of crazy things just because you weren't limited to the 4-4 guitar-bass-drum style at that time. Everything was possible.
PSF: How did you see it for yourself? What was your intention then?
I didn't really have any intentions. I dropped out of school, I didn't have any money, a job or a house. Where do I get intentions from in that case? I was a charismatic person and looked like one so I was always invited to do one or the other thing here or there by people who didn't have any money or a job. It was more coincidental that I'm still doing Einstürzende Neubauten as I had other bands before that. It's also coincidental that I'm still a musician at all. I could have been a painter or an artist- that was the only thing available for somebody with no background. The music scene in the early '80's was at the same time that all the young painters started- that was kind of intertwined anyway. They were very similar scenes.
PSF: You have a number of solo projects going on including exhibitions, lectures and acting roles. Do you think that you have a special mindset when the project you're working on is Neubauten?
Everything that I do, I get into very quickly and get absorbed by it. If I have to lecture, it takes me a day. I'm totally into that and nothing else seems to reach me. If I'm doing a show then I have to do the soundcheck and other things so I guess I have to get into a particular set of mind.
PSF: You were talking before about how Neubauten has used instruments as tools for some time. Any thoughts on how a man-machine interface will be like in the future?
On the last record, we were very interested in machines, especially mechanical motors. For me, this was something that we had tried earlier and there was always something there that was interesting. What I learned from this is that motors are very unpredictable drummers usually. Listening to a motor, that's a Cage experience. Cage was the one who said that once you start listening to noise, you will see how fascinating it is and that it has musical qualities. It's a neurological statement. You define something about the way you perceive music and how it is within us to hear music in things that have no musical intentions whatsoever.
- Some of Blixa's favorite music
- Meg Wise-Lawrence's review of Neubauten live
- An interview with EN's Alexander Hacke