Interview: Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot

Interview: Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot

May 20, 2015

Written by:

Simona Mantarlian

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A manifesto

Alec Empire, on his real name Alexander Wilke-Steinhof is a German musician who is best known for founding the band Atari Teenage Riot. He is just one case of the producers born between two very different decades in Berlin: the '80s and the '90s.

A prolific and distinguished solo artist, producer and DJ, Alec Empire has released over a hundred albums, EPs and singles and remixed over seventy tracks for various artists. He was also the driving force behind the creation of the digital hardcore sub-genre and the record labels Digital Hardcore Recordings and Eat Your Heart Out.

We caught Alec Empire up during this year's edition of Club Transmediale festival in Berlin. He brought his re-built project “Low On Ice” to the stage for an intimate shows, using the soundtrack to take international audiences with him on an illusive trip back to Iceland’s harsh winter landscape. This most recent project, set for release on Geist (Low on Ice / The Complete Icelandic Sessions) compiles 175 minutes of previously unpublished material from his 1995 album and was presented live at CTM Festival's 16th edition, with visuals supplied by Zan Lyons.

Simona: I would start with a question that is a bit general – how would you define the revolution that Atari Teenage Riot stands for? Has the concept changed?

Alec Empire: No, I think the DNA of it is still the same. Because the topics we were talking about in the beginning are very similar. It’s just that technology has evolved. So, while in the ‘90s a lot of the stuff that we are talking about is coming right of that cyber punk scene from back in the day. The control of authorities has just evolved more, you know? The way the data of individuals has been exploited and tracked it’s just on another level than it was in the ‘90s. That means also that we had to adapt, we had to constantly reshape the things, update it, you know? Sometimes people ask me and they misunderstand, they think it’s a band, a traditional band, like a rock band. We see it almost more like software, you know? We keep updating it, changing it, improve certain aspects on it. This is how we are creative at this point. This is always what comes first, when the time is right: the ideas, the lyrics - it’s the most important thing.

S: Is it also like an anti-corporate manifesto, considering how corporations are using now the idea of a system which is reshaping the proportion between the time we use working and the time we use outside of work. You don’t have enough time to think outside the system.

A. E.: That’s true. Every time a corporation becomes too big; Google is a good example and everybody can understand. Ten years ago, it was important that people do this; now it has kind of swamped, they are too dominant, you know? All these things they control, like photography, movies, music - that’s not healthy. People can argue with me for hours, but they could never find a reasonable argument that is convincing. Because having everything centralized, this doesn’t create any competition; it’s not creative also. It’s the same like in music, for example, you have certain – like – big superstar acts or something, no matter what genre, they stay for too long, and we see this happening. For example, if you look at the line-ups of music festivals, they haven’t changed that much. There are still bands from the ‘90s or early 2000, like rock bands. And this causes a still stand. Some people look at the quantity of music or art, and think ‘oh, there’s more creative stuff than ever before’. But if we’re honest, we see now more people doing stuff, but what we’re missing is a strong creative impulse from certain scenes. You know… the last thing - maybe - that we saw was dubstep, which was in my opinion an extension of the drum and bass, and then this became almost like Frankenstein, because it ended up being like American EDM which is the most uninspiring music, to put like that. It always happens that the mainstream adapts certain things.
You can always rebuild things and reconnect people and build something new. And I feel this is – kind of – what needs to be done. A fresh start is important.
Alec Empire
Alec Empire

Internet and communities

S: Since a lot of phenomena evolve around Internet, what do you think of the role that internet plays in music nowadays? Digital music nowadays is very connected to the idea of Internet, and these kind of dark corners of the cyber space.

A. E.: For me, Internet is something where you can publish something. And is not much more than that, at the end of the day, you know? I think the problem right now is that things can’t really go higher anymore, in an controlled way, like it was maybe a couple of years ago. If you look at YouTube for example, it’s about maximizing profits with ads. Even though it is a democratic system, it’s actually not. And I think that’s the same with a lot of social networks, if we look at Facebook and all these things. It’s what you pay for. The danger with that is, I think, that it creates a sort of hierarchy, it’s almost like alto fascism, or maybe it’s not necessary like that yet, but it could end up like that. The ones who pay the most money are the most popular, we feed the public with this stuff and they just have to consume it. You can engage yourself, leave some comments or likes, but it’s very hard to discover new things. It is also a problem with the archive, you know? It was very interesting. I was invited to speak at the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, the National Library in Germany, in December. They invited me because they wanted to hear some of my views on digital and all that stuff. They archive everything that has been published. They showed me a room from the library, which was mind-blowing, because there were over 100 years of stuff, a lot of vinyl, stuff from the Nazi times. If you get into it, there are tones and tones and tones of stuff. I realized that is also a problem with Internet. The more old stuff arise up, the quantity is getting larger. Google always said that people get to the information and then they get smarter and the world is better. But do we see that? Do we see it working? Because if this works, then people wouldn’t listen to Stravinsky, Mozart or Beethoven.

S: How do you consider the intensive transcription and prediction of our lives in terms of technology and how things are getting digital? Since the information is more as a volume, how can you still keep a vector in trying to find good music?

A. E.: I think it’s important that people really build communities from scratch again. It sounds utopic, but I think it’s so important. Now it’s hard, because you want to take people with you, but back in the day was easier, because you could build a local scene. You would hook up with friends; they would bring other friends and stuff. Now, that infrastructure is kind of destroying that stuff. The media sucked it up and divided it all, and you can be in the same city but never know each other. Maybe it’s not that extreme yet, but I think we’re moving towards. People actually disconnected and isolated more than ever.

I think it’s time to rebuild strong communities and that takes a lot of strength. These people come to Berlin now and they think ‘oh, great, there’s so many different scenes and it’s just great’. Which is true. But the thing is, we didn’t really have that in 1990. The war came down, I started putting out records, I saw the ‘80s and the ‘90s in Berlin. It’s quite interesting, because in the ‘80s, ok, there was some stuff happening, but it was everything very tiny and small and didn’t cross over to the mainstream. People looked at this through magnified glass because it was a very interesting scene and almost ended when the war came down. The war came down in 1989 and it’s so interesting how, for the first time in history, you could really draw a line between the ‘80s and the ‘90s. One decade ends, another one starts completely different. But I saw what was happening over the past years it was created in the early ‘90s from scratch. This was powerful. Berlin was a waste then, especially East Berlin. If you’d go to Berghain…these kinds of places…now it looks totally different, there’s the train station and Berghain is now more like a little building in the middle of a new built Berlin. If you see all these other things around it, this is like the new Berlin, but the thing is that you can always rebuild things and reconnect people and build something new. And I feel this is – kind of – what needs to be done. A fresh start is important. But you have to understand it like that and you have to make it work, you know what I mean? In revert, if a lot of people keep looking back to the past, it doesn’t go anywhere, you know?

S: The history ended when the Berlin Wall came down, as Francis Fukuyama once said.

A. E.: Yes. If you look at music history that’s an interesting point. I met a lot of people recently who were like ‘the last most radical music thing was digital hardcore in the ‘90s’. And I’m like ‘are you sure is not maybe your taste?’ and they’re like ‘no, the second half of the ‘90s, there was all that stuff and weird sampling and noise and it was so extreme’. And in 2000 we see these rock bands like four guys, you know, and then you see DJ-ing becoming almost like demo rules rather than experiments, people know how to make records, and they have the software; they follow the rules. If you look at big events, it’s kind of true. If you look at big EDM events, Tiesto or David Guetta djing… there’s no room for experimentation. They follow the rules. But if you look at maybe the Love parade in the middle of the ‘90s, a million people dancing in the streets, so… yeah… I don’t know.. Was it like that? Could be… But it’s definitely something there where people were repeating all formulas.
Alec Empire
Alec Empire


S: What do you think of the piracy today?

A. E.: I think musicians should make their choices by themselves at this point. When people ask me, ‘why don’t you do more vinyl’, for me this is like a hobby, you know? I don’t need to hold my record in my hand. I know what I did. The music itself is important for me, to make it, I don’t need the proof that is on a vinyl. Finances are so down, I mean there’s always going up a little bit and people are like ‘oh, it’s coming back’, but I don’t think so. Back to piracy, now with the new rules that YouTube has, I don’t know if you heard about the last one, where YouTube has come up with this new thing, like you have to give up your copyright if you’re independent. So, as independent, we have to give them the rights to do whatever they want to do with it. YouTube is really attacking independent musicians and independent labels or filmmakers. It’s insane; it’s a war, and people should be outraged about this. My standpoint with piracy is constantly kind of changing a bit, it depends on what’s going on, you know? At the moment, I would say take and distribute wherever you can, because Google is doing anything to control it. It’s kind of weird, because ten years ago I would never thought we would come to this.

S: Yeah exactly, but now it’s the resistance somehow.

A. E.: I think it would be great if people would respect the artist. I need to control a context of where my stuff is. We have this exploitation of creative, which is crazy; it’s kind of - even - dangerous. This is the reality we need to assume. A lot of people try not to see it, but I think that’s not good.

S: Speaking of vinyls and these formats where a record is being issued, will there be any re-issue for Low on Ice?

A. E.: That’s an ongoing discussion. Last year we re-mastered, but when I found the tapes I was like ‘wau, there’s so much more music’, there was only maybe a third that was released on that time on the album. And I listened to it again, I didn’t listen it for like 18 years or something…or 19. Now it’s 20 years. It sounds like it’s not connected to the ‘90s.

I even use the same stage mixer. It still has the stickers on it. Some of the old machines, like 808 or 303, it’s like …you can make like 20 sequencers or beats in patterns. Since the ‘90s, when I use these machines again, I always reprogram the first 5, 6 or 7 patterns. This is crazy in a way, because this information is sitting there, untouched. Low on Ice is more about music rather than a gear fetish.

S: So what is your latest crush in terms of hardware?

A. E.: I always loved all kinds of stuff. Right now, there’s a total contradiction with Low on Ice, as I’m getting more into digital again. Especially hardware samples from the ‘90s, because that’s something that usually a computer does it. These things are constantly connected, analog and digital.
Alec Empire
Alec Empire

The sound of the space

S.: Let's talk a bit about how the location where you perform affects your performance, and where do you like most to perform from the areas that you've been touring?

A.E.: Space is an important fact, that people often underestimate, like especially with electronic music I think, or DJs, it's the same. Maybe in their studio, or at home, and they play shows and they experience that wow, first of all there are people, and you have to react, and I always want to absorb that, and let it influence what I do. And there's the sound of the space, which is also a very important fact; if you're a musician, think about that and react to it also, don't try to just create a studio from every place, I think it becomes more alive in a show, and I think that's important in electronic music, I think it should sound alive, not just sterile, and somebody there with a laptop and just sending some music. I think a lot of people are like that.

S.: Yeah, because it's just music coming out from a computer, you're going to perceive it as very sterile.

A.E.: You have to - kind of - read the crowd and at the same time I think it's something like in jazz. I mean, people like Miles Davis and Bitches Brew, Sun Ra, they would not perform the songs, they would go "Hey, people are reacting more, let's push this", or ”people are reacting to this, lets go more in that direction”. That's what I find really exciting, that's my problem with the DJ sets which are creative products. The thing is that it's not about the fact that you have to press a lot of buttons; that's not the point. The point is that you should react to the audience and it should be in a dialogue, and if you see them together, all these guys, it's like hey that's not the idea of techno or bass, the idea is that everybody is becoming one and the audience is slipped by the music, that's how I understand.

S.: I also wanted to ask you how you see labels of electronic music from the ‘80s till now. Do you think there's a similar threshold with the 2000's?

A.E.: Yeah, I think what we see, because of the internet probably, it's this ongoing fragmentation of the music scene, but it comes and goes in ways, like it didn't go from like 2000 until now like it's one development. I think what a lot of people did; they used the Internet to get through to fans that like a certain style of music. So you have - like - people doing folk and finding their fans for example. The internet and the technology has created new revolution for electronic music but I think this is what we're going to see in the coming years: there’s going to be this moment where the rules of the old century will feel outdated and I feel like that since a while. Everything is so predictable. Everybody likes Beyonce but if you look at the record sales, worldwide, it's just a few million people, so for a lot of people music isn't even reaching, and I hope we will find bigger audiences. I get confronted with this all the time and it's so weird when someone comes up to me and goes, (at a festival or something like that) “Wow, what’s this music you’re playing?! Why I have never heard it before?” and I go “Well, I dunno man, why aren’t the radios playing it?” You know what I mean? It's not that terrible, what the Internet can do. Hopefully.

Innovation comes from independence. And if you destroy those, you won’t have innovation. But then, a lot of people think culture is what it is and there's sort of a formula for it and that's the stuff that works. It's actually born out of a very dangerous philosophy, in my opinion, that everything's just a copy of copy, and I think you couldn't look at culture in that way because it's language, it constantly evolves. If other stuff influences you, that doesn't mean you steal from everybody. Because that’s how they argue – this band stole from that. Like there’s a band on YouTube that plays 10 minutes of hits, of famous songs, and they will argue that it’s the same chords or something like that. That's not the point, to argue against creativity, you know? The point is that these are individuals who add something very special and unique to it, like if you look at the authors from books it's like, Shakespeare …he just used words that other people spoke, and he used language, he communicates something to people so they understand but it's like the way you put words together - that's the creative part and that's the work. I mean, maybe someone can use the dictionary but that doesn't mean that they can write a book, and I doubt that they will. Music is like language, and people need to communicate and if you destroy that you just repeat the past. But that’s not what’s exciting.
Alec Empire
Alec Empire

Move further

S.: Music is like language, only that it imposes fewer limitations.

A.E.: I also think that argument and copywriters are killing innovation. What I think is so strange is that this system, even if there are flaws, has created very exciting music last century, music that everybody still goes back to. So the thing is this - why is this even a problem? Like what are musicians worrying about? I have done, you know, crazy things in my career. The early 90's, what we got away with, some of the bootleg stuff, it was copyright violation all the time. These were not hit records, so nobody cared about it, but this didn't stop innovation. But I think that at the moment, when you're Kanye West or something like this, yeah, it's not so bad to pay those original musicians a share, you can do it. It’s about that. I never came across a case where this new exciting music couldn't happen because copyright stopped it, I actually don't know a case. There are some things where people, maybe in the rave scene, or techno scene, copied or sampled something popular and it became a club hit, and then it couldn't move further because people were like “hey, that whole idea was based on some other people and you didn’t create this”. I think if you get to that point, maybe just check with the musicians. If musicians ask me, hey can I use this sample, it's easy, if you're cool then yeah, do it. If you're some fucking neo-Nazi band - no, actually, you shouldn't. But if you do, you know, law wouldn't protect you. Privacy has a lot to do with that too. If you stole privacy, you attacked creativity at the same time. It’s my opinion. You need to develop your own thing, your own writing style.

S.: I wanted to ask you, now that we're at the CTM, what acts did you enjoy or look forward to? How was the atmosphere of the festival for you?

A.E.: It was great. Electric Indigo is something I'm looking forward to. I know her from way back and she is such a great DJ. The thing is that I really didn't see much, because before the show I really wanted to stay in that isolation kind of mode, I had to. This kind of music is so fragile, I mean, during the performance I didn't even look at the audience, if I was to look there was a drunken guy in the front mumbling and it just kills the atmosphere. It's strange, but I don't want to be this drama queen, but if you loose the moment when you're creating this type of music, you have to take another 30 minutes to get back into it and by that time the show's over and it's going to be a disaster.

S.: But it wasn't the case, because people received the performance very well and they were really caring.

A.E.: Yeah, I'm still trying to get feedback because I didn't...I mean...sense the atmosphere of the crowd.

S.: Will you be at the Chris & Cosey show? I’m asking because I know you know Throbbing Gristle.

A.E.: Not really that well, I mean, I DJ-ed once with them.

S.: Yeah, I read about it. How was that?

A.E.: It was good; I mean, it was at New Year’s Eve. It was a special event. And then I ran into them at couple of other festivals, but it’s not like “hey, I’m on twitter”. Maybe I have too much respect for that generation of musicians. I don’t want to know them too much, you know what I mean? But I will go to the show.


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