By combining the fury and revolutionary stance of old-school punk with the dizzying hard beats of techno, Atari Teenage Riot has become one of the most talked-about underground bands around. Tours with Beck and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion–and great reviews of this spring's stateside debut Burn, Berlin, Burn!—haven't hurt its growing popularity, either. Make no mistake: This isn't your easily marketed, Gravity Kills-style, angst-ridden yelling; it's much more pure and angry, with less posing and more politics. The Onion recently spoke to 24-year-old frontman Alec Empire about his band, his label (Digital Hardcore Recordings), the music scenes that surround him, and why he can never move back to his hometown of Berlin.
The Onion: You're a musician with a revolutionary stance. It used to be sort of taken for granted that musicians wanted to do that, but now it's almost totally abandoned. Can you talk a little bit about where you're coming from?
Alec Empire: Well, it's hard to explain. I mean, I first started doing punk bands, and Hanin Elias, the girl in the band, had a punk band, too. We did this sort of music because we were pissed off with everything in Germany and in Berlin and stuff, with the politics. But then, at the end of the '80s, we thought punk was very dead, and so we started doing electronic music. The reason we made instrumental music was that at the time, we thought the statements and the lyrics in most of the punk songs didn't have a meaning anymore. It seemed like a lot of bands just repeated statements made by bands 10 years before. And after a few years in the techno scene, we realized that if you just do instrumental music, it's not very subversive of anything anymore. We had to show which side we were on. And that was when we founded Atari Teenage Riot. That was in the beginning of 1992, when there were a lot of attacks from the Neo-Nazi movement on foreigners and immigrants and stuff. And we just thought it was totally important to use lyrics. Music for me in general is always political; even if you just produce something for the radio, it is political. And it is right-wing to just support the system. One of our main aims is to destroy, or even to disturb, this entertainment-industry kind of thing that is made up by the entertainment industry and the government and, in general, the major industries. They want to make us believe that everything is okay and stuff, and everybody has to smile and everything. We see our music as functional music.
O: Can you talk about your quote, "Riot sounds produce riots"?
AE: That's exactly… We see our music as functional music, not as pop music; it's music that's there to make you feel aggressive, to push the adrenaline in your body, and get this vibe across. Most of the music on MTV or the radio stations or whatever is just there to calm people down. And with the way we program the beats and use certain frequencies, it has this effect on your adrenaline. That's very important.
O: How old are you?
AE: I'm 24. I was born in 1972.
O: Where did you grow up?
AE: I grew up in West Berlin.
O: So how old were you when the wall came down?
AE: I was 17 or 18. The wall came down in '89.
O: Now, that had a pretty big impact on your life.
AE: That's right, because before that, living in Berlin was like being on an island; we didn't have the National Army Service. My generation was totally anti-nationalist in a way, because of the history of Germany and stuff, but as soon as the wall went down, this new nationalism came up. Everyone was very proud of Germany again, and the society from there began to move in more conservative and right-wing directions. You know, some people from other countries say, "Yeah, but it's totally normal to be proud of America." But on the other side, you have German teenagers saying that some of the stuff Hitler did was right. That's a common sentiment, the way the politics work, the way the police attack people. It was not as extreme before. You have a lot of young people in the former East Germany now who think that it's provocative to become like a Neo-Nazi, because they feel like they weren't free before. You know, so they go into totally opposite directions, and that's very dangerous.
O: That's the origin of your song "Deutschland Has Gotta Die," right?
AE: Yeah, that's one thing. I mean, "Deutschland Has Gotta Die," for us, is just that Deutschland should be killed, that everything German is dead, even the language. For me, to grow up in Germany with all this stuff and all these people and all this nationalism—it's different from other countries. In Germany, they can have this attitude where they smile and apologize for everything, but on the other side they can at the same time kill people. It's very bad. And my grandfather died in the concentration camps, that's another reason.
O: You had to leave Germany, is that correct?
AE: Yeah, no, I mean, I don't have my residence in Berlin anymore because of some stuff with the police, and because I'm avoiding the National Army. [I don't want] to go to the jails. So I moved to England.
O: So you decided to skip out on mandatory military conscription?
AE: I'm in the first generation in Berlin who had to join the Army Service. A few months before I left, they were saying, "You have to join." And for me, this was a total shock, because I was against it anyway, but they started with the police coming to your house and stuff like that. So I just had to say that I don't support it in any way.
O: And at this point, you were already doing techno?
AE: Yeah. I mean, that was when I was on the German underground techno scene—in '89, '90. I was still living in Berlin, but in '92, '93, I had to move because it was getting too bad.
O: There are a lot of people promoting you now in America, like the Grand Royal Records label and The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. And while they're significant in their fields, the trendiness of the consumer-culture aspect of it might become a problem for you.
AE: Right. We know that this is a danger, but I think at the moment, we can still handle it. We've lived without [the support of] the hip and trendy people, and we'll survive without them too, if they leave the thing in six months or whenever. And perhaps it won't happen like that. It's not going to destroy us. We've had this band since the beginning of 1992, and we went through so much stuff. Our first show that we ever played as Atari Teenage Riot was with Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy in Berlin. At our second show, there were a lot of A&R people from, like, Sony, Virgin and EMI, because while we came from the underground techno scene, we decided to leave the scene and form a real band. We decided to play live, and not to produce stuff for the dance floor. I think that all this hype was there because they thought they could sell [us] to rock audiences as a live band: The way the music industry was set up at this time was that there was only rock and grunge and stuff, so they thought having a live band instead of a DJ would make it easier [to promote]. We were totally surprised that English A&R [representatives] came over to Berlin to see us; you'd never get that with Berlin bands, or even German bands. So we decided to make a deal with Phonogram in the U.K.; we just took the deal that had the best advance money, and from there, we were lucky that we had a good friend managing the band at the time. Most record deals are prepared where you can't do work outside the label, but ours was set up differently. From the beginning of '93, when we made the deal, we decided to work against ourselves and destroy our own work, because we thought that it doesn't make sense to go through a major label in the beginning, because no one will understand. And with our political message, it's stupid. But we needed money for our own label.
O: So you signed with a major, took the advance money, split from them—
AE: Yeah, that was at the end of '93. We fucked up a lot of shows, a lot of stuff in the studio. Hanin Elias got fucked up on acid; she had to take a cab from the hotel to the studio, but she took the cab to a hairdresser and got extensions, keeping the cab waiting on Phonogram's bill. It was like four hours, and a 200-pound bill. Stuff like that. People were getting so pissed off. At one point, at the end of '93, we said to them, "Look, let's just finish all this because it doesn't make sense. You don't understand it, and we just want to fuck up everything."
O: But you were able to take all that money from the advance—
AE: Yeah, it was non-recoupable. Then, in the beginning of '94, we started the label [Digital Hardcore Recordings], because we felt we had to do it ourselves. Other people would do it wrong. Plus, there were other bands starting at the time that we wanted on our label.
O: There's a huge techno counterculture in the U.S., but almost none of it has any amount of rocking to it. It's all very peaceful and nice, but you're sort of poised to change that. Was this an intentional thing—trying to combine two genres—or did it just kind of flow out of the music you were already interested in?
AE: Yeah, when I was in the punk bands, I was always into punk, and then, when I left the scene, I didn't want to have anything to do with it anymore. Then I was in the techno scene and made records there. But for me, techno died at the end of '91: The music wasn't moving on, and everyone, every DJ, was moving in the wrong direction, making stupid hippie music.
O: What's the worst thing about the state of techno today?
AE: Techno is not about changing anything; there's no vision. Everyone just wants to party, and it's totally stupid. Of course, when we play, it's not like I want everyone to just stand there and think about politics. But raving is just like giving up; to me, it's like not doing anything. In the '90s, everything is getting worse, and I feel like if you're just dancing and being silent, you're agreeing with what's going on.
O: What sort of rock or techno acts have you gotten into?
AE: I know that for Hanin Elias, X-Ray Spex was a very important group, along with Black Flag. I like X-Ray Spex, lots of '77 punk rock, Public Enemy, some hardcore bands. From the techno side, I would say Underground Resistance from Detroit. And I love Otis Redding's live album from the Monterey Pop Festival.
O: People in the U.S. sort of make fun of German rock acts and talk about, like, The Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane." But people forget German electronic music and psychedelic music: Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, various Krautrock bands from the '70s. You've talked about actively opposing German heritage as a cultural thing, but do you ever feel proud of being connected with these other things?
AE: Well, I don't really see all that stuff as, like, German culture. But I think it's good that these bands have existed, and that they have a certain influence on bands in America. I think it's good, even if I were never influenced by these bands. Though Kraftwerk… My first record was a Kraftwerk record. I got it for Christmas, and I didn't like it. I respect them in a way for what they did and how they approached music, which was very different at the time. But it was never an influence on me. I did DJ for Can recently.
O: A lot of people in America seem to be getting what you're doing. Is that the impression you're getting from the audience reaction?
AE: Yeah, it's been like that. The audiences with Beck and The Cardigans were very positive.
O: It's hard to imagine going to see Atari Teenage Riot play live, and then having you leave the stage and seeing The Cardigans come on.
AE: It was strange. I had a good time with The Cardigans, but a lot of people asked us how they could go on stage after us [laughs], and do what they do. There were some people who just came to see us, which was good, because it's hard playing in front of an audience where no one knows you.
O: Are you ever going to sell out?
AE: [Laughs.] The thing is, you know, some people already say we've sold out by signing to Grand Royal. [Laughs.] But for me, it's very simple: We wouldn't make any compromises to sell more records. Still, signing with Grand Royal has meant that more people have been able to hear our music without paying 20 or 40 dollars for it. If more and more people can identify with us, that's great.