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In the early eighties a wave of insurgent, deconstructive post punk culture rocked west Germany. At the very heart of this radical, new, expressive movement was Berlin’s own Einstürzende Neubauten- and within that group an arguable nucleus was the fresh-faced, fifteen year old Alexander Hacke. Today, for your reading pleasure, is the transcript of Vince Versa’s chat with the man himself. Please note that this interview has been translated to English for global publication, and therefore we apologize for any potential nuances lost.
How did you become involved with the people you were hanging round with at 15, 16 years old? So engrossed within the Berlin scene, making the music you were making? I mean, that’s extraordinarily young.
Yes. See, my birthday is in October, so I effectively started school one year late. Therefore, I was always a bit older than the others, and I couldn’t seem to get along with my peers when I was a teenager. I started skipping school and spending most of my time at a record shop, where all this new independent music was available. It was called “Zensor,” and was located in Schöneberg. So, hanging around there I got to know all these abstract bands at the tender age of about 13 or 14. Throbbing Gristle, The Nihilist Spasm Band from Canada, The Plastic People of the Universe from the Czech Republic, all sorts of interesting things. Of course I was already familiar with punk music by that time, I had attended my first Ramones show when I was 12. But to me, it had been too conservative. It was basically modified rock music, only a bit faster and slightly more aggressive. So I was interested in more bizarre material.
tural shock came from the first Suicide record. I remember when I first got a hold of the thing- I was sitting in front of my record player, staring at the grooves thinking: What is this!? That was really formative musically- Alan Vega, the song Frankie Teardrop.
Yeah, what always amazes me is the fact that they had been active since 1970. The only band to ever be proto- and post-punk simultaneously.
Exactly. Suicide was it for me. Them, but also Throbbing Gristle. Their whole ethos towards music- being of the belief that its purpose is not entertainment, but rather making a statement- that really captivated me. It’s not about pleasure.
Could you explain what “Eisengrau” was and what it stood for in the scene?
Originally it was a shop where clothes were being sold, fancy dress or avant-garde things being sold by Gudrun Gut und Beate Bartel of Mania D. The Eisengrau was located between Zensor and Café Mitropa, later Café M. So you would always walk by the shop on the way to those places, and at some point Blixa took it over from the two girls. Initially he wanted to sell clothes as well, but that idea fell to pieces relatively quickly. We ended up eating breakfast in the shop window and attaching our sandwiches to the glass to watch the food change colour over the following months, things like that.
Are you still in contact with Christiane F. these days?
No, not really. Sometimes I see her in the streets, on the scene - she’s still on it. When I see her, I’m glad to still be able to see her. But we’re not in contact anymore, the last few times I actually talked to her weren’t particularly nice experiences, to put it kindly.
From some point on, she seemed to have disappeared from your social circles and that whole crowd, why is that? I mean of course I wasn’t there, but until circa 1983 she seemed to be fully involved with you and making music and so on, but from then on one could say she somehow disappeared.
Well, that makes sense. Did that have an impact on your private life and work together as Sentimentale Jugend?
When she returned to being a full-time junkie, we broke up. That was around 1983, yes.
What was it like to work with Frieder Butzmann? I had no idea who he was or that he even existed until I came across him a few months ago, then I found out he went on to compose classical music.
He’s composing entire operas. I mean, he’s a music professor, even back when I met him. Frieder was a good friend of the owner of Zensor, and he became my mentor. He took me under his wing and taught me everything, how to cut tape loops and other useful skills. He’s got an immense amount of knowledge about electronic and experimental music. Some of the first shows I ever played outside of Berlin, were with Frieder Butzmann, who would take me to Hamburg to make some really weird music.
I’ve listened to one or two of those joint live shows you two performed. What did you think of the music and music scenes in other German cities, you just mentioned Hamburg, but also Dusseldorf?
I thought Dusseldorf was incredible, I loved Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft (D.A.F.), Mittagspause, the whole scene there at Ratinger Hof. Hamburg was problematic as they were quite as militant and uniform, crass punks. You’d have to wear this particular pair of boots, then you’d have to have a Crass stencil on your jacket, lest you risk being regarded as something else.
Matthias Schuster of Geisterfahrer told me pretty much the same thing, about how the Hamburg scene was a bit more rough, opposed to the Berlin scene which was more artistic.
Yes, In Berlin there was the bohéme and in Hamburg.. well, while in Berlin you could afford having a big mouth, in Hamburg you’d get one in your face pretty quick from acting up. In general, this was a time where a sort of local chauvinism was very common. I don’t know, in Austria that might be the case between Vienna and Linz, whereas in Germany it’d be Dusseldorf and Cologne.
Well, in Austria it’s effectively like that between Vienna and the rest of the country.
It was the same way here with Berlin, Berlin versus the rest. But apart from that, like I said, that was really heavy with Dusseldorf and Cologne as well.
What’s the story of Einstürzende Neubauten’s “Halber Mensch” film? How did it come about?
It was really odd how popular we’d become in Japan- how quickly that happened. If I think about it now, the reason for that might have been our philosophy of individualism, which was possibly very appealing to the Japanese, as culturally many of their societal standards promote notions of efficiency and uniformity. So, it’s possible that might have been the reason. Regardless, at some point when we were touring Japan, we were thinking about which parts of Japanese culture we really appreciated. I’d said Japanese martial arts and Japanese monster films. Subsequently our record label connected us with the director Sogo Ishii, who had worked on tons of those Japanese monster films over decades. He’s a great director, the band watched his film “Crazy Family” and we fell in love with his style- we then knew that we wanted to work with him on the project.
Did he enjoy your music?
Yes, he also came up with great ideas like letting us work together with those Butoh dancers. I previously had no clue as to what Butoh was, but it turned out to be very fitting.
What do you think would have happened to Neubauten if you hadn’t achieved such international recognition and acceptance, pretty much right away? Like that you were so popular even in countries like Japan, something not many German bands manage to achieve, let alone back then.
Well, it actually wasn’t “right away”, it didn’t happen that quickly. And even at the time when we first played Japan, we were still living in squats and had to continue working in bars back in Berlin. Often we had to collect returnable bottles until we could afford breakfast. We didn’t have a lot of money, that’s safe to say. And back to that local chauvinism- here in Berlin we were known as the freaks and so on, but outside of Berlin, even in the rest of Germany, it wasn’t particularly easy for us. Because we had already been to Japan and things like that. So we had a kind of love-hate relationship with the rest of Germany. I think it was our advantage but also our luck, that our way of never conforming to any trends or standards worked out to garner a positive response. Those trends disappeared after some time and yet we remained, which is quite lucky.
What exactly do you think is it that you contribute to the Neubauten sound, both over the past 40 or so years and today? I mean, the band has basically perfected its techniques and methods over the years.
I have always been very fond of technology and experimentation with tape loops and other gadgets. I stumbled across many techniques myself, even though they might have already existed beforehand. That’s my contribution, but most importantly, I’m a reasonably good diplomat. My presence thus far has guaranteed that no one started throwing hands amongst the band members, and I’ve been committed to making sure of that from a very early point on.
I can imagine. Ostensibly Blixa can get quite bossy.
That would be a mild version of events, yes. But yeah, although this Industrial music approach that inspired me, I didn’t want to actually stand onstage, I was standing in the back mixing during the early years. This sound aspect, the manipulation of sound. That was my contribution.
Living in West-Berlin, did you take notice of what was going on in the East or did you ever go there? You had to register three days beforehand to get to the other side at 8 or so in the morning or something if I’m not mistaken?
If you were from West-Berlin, you had to file for a visa. People from the rest of West-Germany or any other country, could simply go there, and I think they were even allowed to stay overnight. No such luck for us, we had to file for a visa and were required to be back in the West prior to midnight if we crossed over. Relatives of mine lived in the East, my aunt worked as a narrator for kids’ radio and my uncle was a news anchor on the GDR radio. Apart from that, the wall was also a psychological border in a sense, there was always this point after which you couldn’t continue. There were places like Friedrichstraße, (Colloquially known as Checkpoint Charlie,) that subway station there was the gate to the East. Those were the things you dreamed of as a little kid. So, having been born here during that time, it had a psychological effect on you growing up. With regards to the actual scene in the East itself, we got in touch when we were supposed to play a show in Pilsen in the Czech Republic, on one bill with Die Toten Hosen. That gig ended in a riot.
That’s a bit of a strange combination, Neubauten and Die Toten Hosen.
It was us, Die Toten Hosen and two other bands, the show took place in the context of some peace festival that was happening. We first played Munich and then in the Czech Republic. The latter ended up being a huge fight. That’s where we met a lot of the “Ostpunks” who travelled there to see the gig. One band I knew that was from East Berlin was called “Herbst in Peking” (Fall in Beijing).
I once watched a documentary on Ostpunk (Ost = East), and at some point the Stasi (so-called Staatssicherung, the secret police in the GDR) started locking up all the punks and trying to look for a way to get them behind bars- they accused them of being Nazis.
Yeah, it wasn’t easy for them.
How important were political opinions in the West-Berlin scene? Typically punk scenes are radically leftist, but what role did that play in the “Geniale Dilletanten”-scene?
In West-Berlin, there were two kind of scene-centres. On one hand there was Kreuzberg, which was highly politicized and also quite radical, with a pronounced squatter scene. Then there was Schöneberg, home of the Bohéme, the gay scene and so on. Of course the core beliefs were always decidedly leftist, one can proudly say that Nazis would be given a hard time all across Berlin. But still, the political scene wasn’t as important for the cultural development in West-Berlin as it was in Hamburg for example, where it was very important- around Hafenstraße, that whole scene there. From 1987 on there would always be the riots on May 1st in Berlin, which led to a sort of rioting tourism.
Did you personally deal with politics actively? EN rose to prominence some time after the German Autumn, but you had experienced that too. That took place at the same time as Dusseldorf’s earliest bands were coming up, and you can see the impact it had upon the development of the local scene. I’m still not sure if D.A.F.’s choice of name is intended to be some kind of wordplay or reference to the R.A.F.
I had lots of friends in Kreuzberg, political content sort of permeated the things being locally developed there. But yeah, I can’t say that I myself was a politically very active person at the time. That would be false, I wasn’t an activist or anything. I had always been too.. well, too weird for that.
If there was no overt focus on politics, what did the bohemian scene depend on? What was the common mindset like?
Well, it was definitely an anarchistic one, in the sense that you wouldn’t acknowledge or respect any rules. There was a very pronounced focus on individualism, and just a general anti-attitude towards the system and conformism. For me personally, as well as my close circle including Neubauten, Blixa, and so on, we were really proud of being able to live off of something else rather than receiving money via social security like people in Kreuzberg would do. Not accepting help from the state was one of the things that we considered very important. Instead you would, say, sell drugs to survive financially in some situations, or hustle another way.
You’ve worked with countless musicians over the years, now looking back, was there one who stood out to you or who particularly influenced you?
I don’t know. The weirdest experience I’ve had was when I played guitar for Gianna Nannini for three years. (laughs)
That’s also what I presumed would be most irritating.
She’s an amazing person, I met her at Conny Plank’s studio through Chrislo Haas by the way, of Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft, Liaisons Dangereuses and so on.
I actually wanted to ask you about Chrislo, there’s so little information available about him.
Fantastic guy. Through him I met Gianna, and ended up working for her corporation for three years. She’s not just a musician, she’s an actual institution, an industry. There, I got a taste of a kind of rockstar lifestyle which was just so absurd, that really threw me out of my lane for some time, but ultimately changed and reformed me.
Could you shed some light on the work you’re doing together with your wife? Do you complement each others’ skillsets while working? It must be a productive creative partnership, otherwise it wouldn’t have been going on for… how many years now again?
This year, we’ve been a couple for 19 years, which is also for how long we’ve been working together. We started with audio-visuals, her being a visual artist and filmmaker. Eventually we began making music together. Before that, I had been making music for her films and installations. Of course it’s amazing to be able to work with someone you know so well and whom you can trust as much as your own wife. And Danielle and I have completely different perspectives on things, so that’s very helpful. Something very important for our collaborative work was our realization that in 2010, Berlin’s scene had changed so much and effectively sucked- we had been living in this big house for years, with a studio in it and everything. At some point we realized that we were constantly touring just to pay rent for the house. Our initial idea was to travel for 18 months to find a new place where we could settle and work, where rent is cheap and there’s an interesting scene and support for independent artists. Of course, we didn’t find that anywhere; that was 10 years ago. But the transformative process we went through, throwing away all our stuff and becoming truly independent, this influenced our life and work together massively. We started thinking about what’s essential, what do I need, what’s my inner centre, where do I feel at home if I don’t have a home? In addition to that, we changed our lives completely, our life together. By the way, today’s our 7-year anniversary of total sobriety. I’m very happy to have someone in my life with whom I can make this transformation, change and develop further. And of course, that commitment flowed into our way of making music. As soon as we got rid of the architectural structures we had been living in previously, we asked ourselves “why are we still making such structured music?” Verse, chorus, bridge, and whatever. Let’s adjust our approach to music to our approach to life, make it more free and searching. Thought processes and ideas like these came up. For me, what I work on with Danielle is my most important work.
You talked about your audio-visual work earlier, what do you think of multimedia art performances, with visuals and film? Do you think it’s beneficial for the audience’s experience?
For a long time we were concentrating on the sort of discrimination of each performance aspect, that the visual was always just seen as illustrating and accompanying a musical performance, or that music had the same duty for other art- like how underrated sound design is in the film industry, how essential it actually is, you know? For a long time we were working on creating something where both aspects, music and visuals, were completely equal, where neither of the two parts could actually work alone without the other. Then our work changed, we started making much more music together, which also changed and led us to stop using visuals with it. Danielle always made amazing visuals for our shows back in the day, but at some point we stopped with that, because we recognized and got to know a human characteristic; when you put a screen in front of a human in the 21st century, they focus on the screen and on nothing else. So we stopped using visuals in our shows, because we realized that the people paid much more attention to us without the visuals, and that this would make it possible for us to reach the people in the audience on a deeper level.
What is it that the performances are about to you? Do you want to entertain people or do you want to create a special atmosphere, what is the artistic intent?
I want to reach an altered state of consciousness together with the people I’m in a room with, with the use of almost ritualistic things in my work. That might sound overblown, but that’s what it’s actually about. The widow of producer Conny Plank once said something great; for her, it was a nice evening if she didn’t know where she had parked her car afterwards. So, that’s what I want to achieve, and I think the same goes for Neubauten. They strive to alter the collective consciousness with the aid of intensity. That’s what it’s about, not the transferring of some messages or something. We want to be undogmatic, we don’t want to indoctrinate anyone in any way, we want to initiate individual processes.
What do you think of people altering their consciousness with substances previous to the performance?
I did that for decades myself. (laughs) I think when you’re young it’s a wonderful thing, I can only recommend it, I learnt a lot because of it. I just think that at some point and age it starts to look silly, if I were still out here behaving like I’m in my mid-20s, I’d make a fool of myself. (laughs)
With regards to the performances, how did your approach change overtime? It was surely a different man behind a Korg at SO36 when you were 16 than it is now.
I’ve gotten more experienced and grown-up, when I was 16 I was actually just a 16-year old boy. I was a kid, I was also extremely innocent, and just naïve and curious. It’s an art to keep some of this innocence to a certain degree and to make use of the experiences you’ve had, instead of becoming cold and bitter over time. One thing I always say about Neubauten when getting asked or told something like “Early Neubauten were so unbelievably aggressive and abrasive, now you’ve become so quiet and settled”, my answer is always that it’s like with a boxer; you know, a young one is full of energy, aggression, and fighting spirit, while an older, experienced boxer knows how to use his energy, exactly when to hit and when to spare his power. We’ve collected all these experiences, being as excessive and explosive as we were in the 80s wouldn’t look good on us nowadays.
When exactly did F.M. Einheit leave the band again?
Do you think that him leaving contributed to the band’s development in this direction? I think he once said “Ich bin gegangen, als die Neubauten nicht mehr eingestürzt sind.” in an interview- He left “When the Neubauten (New Buildings) weren’t collapsing anymore”.
Mufti (F.M. Einheit) and Blixa fell out in a way that’s irreversible and that can’t be healed. That’s really sad, they actually haven’t spoken a single word since 96’. I personally think that after any kind of conflict, 10 years after your falling out you should go back and see if you can make up- as you know, we’ve only got one life. That’s a very complicated topic, and this still gives Blixa a hard time to some degree to this day. The whole past he and that the rest of us shared with F.M that he’s trying to just draw the curtain over. Mufti was always interested and accomplished in the use of electronics and sampling, he contributed that. And of course he had this physical presence which disappeared or had to be replaced by other peoples’ physical presences. But his, his was completely one-of-a-kind, so there was something missing.
What do you think of the development of electronic music over the years? You were inspired by early electronic sounds, but you were also one of the first to use such raw industrial sounds, so how do you view the turn towards techno in the 90s and so on?
Musically speaking, I have never been interested in techno. We did all that much earlier and much better. Techno as social phenomenon is really interesting though, similar to the industrial philosophy, it wasn’t about idolizing or looking up to someone onstage anymore. The people were celebrating together, or for themselves. That was a very interesting notion, but techno and house also cultivated misusing things in an interesting way once again, I think that’s the most important historical bit about it. See, a Roland 808 and all those machines were initially developed and engineered in Japan, and were meant to help traditional musicians at practising their instrument. Before there was popular electronic music, the idea was that someone who played bass guitar could use a rhythm machine, or a guitarist could create a bassline to jam to. That’s what these machines were originally invented for, rock musicians bought them, got bored with them and put them in pawn shops. That’s how the kids in Detroit or places like that first got their hands on them. That’s where this music started and came from, that’s the spirit- and that’s even quite similar to the philosophy of Neubauten; taking something, something with an established purpose, and breathing new life into it in some way. That was the amazing thing about electronic music to me, that you could take all these things that were meant for something else and use them to make new music.
Then what do you think about the development of technology itself, that there are countless sounds pre-saved sounds in softwares people just download rather than using analogue synthesizers? Do you think there’s anything getting lost or missing there, or is it just technology improving and moving on?
Well, for me there are two fundamentally different sorts of work within art or music; the one thing is research work, where you work on sounds on your own, and the other thing is the actual music-making, where there is communication and reaction happening. In that sense, Neubauten is a very traditional band. We’re five people in a room playing music, and we never even look at a screen, the sound engineer does all that. If we know there’s something that has to be edited or processed, we tell him and he works on it, but during the moment we’re playing, we’re playing together. That’s really important. To answer your question; all these technological things are great, as long as they don’t destroy this particular way of working and playing together. If two people are making music together and it’s always getting blocked by the one guy who is working on his computer instead of communicating with his partner, then it’s a problem. But if it’s someone on their own, working and researching in a field of sound, it’s a wonderful thing. I don’t want to trivialize it just because the sounds and data are easier to retrieve, but, of course, the exploration of the unknown you’ve got when working with analogue synthesizers, where you can never recreate an exact sound ever again, that’s exciting. Though you can get that atmosphere of adventure by other means as well.
Regarding the communication aspect you were just talking about, what about people like Jim Foetus, who recorded his early albums all by himself? He primarily did the research work on sounds, but basically couldn’t perform for a relatively long time.
Exactly, he’s a prime example of a researcher. I learnt a lot from Jim, early on he had charts with the tape speed and level of tone pitch. He worked with different tape speeds a lot, and like that he always knew what speed and pitch it should be in. He’s a perfect example of an artistic lone warrior, to this day he’s still mainly working on his own.
Also a very diverse body of work.
He also went through an extreme transformation, he’s been sober since 1997. In his earlier days he used to be one of the wildest, most excessive drinkers and drug consumers there was out there. He really managed to build up a whole new life for himself.
Extremely remarkable, managing to leave something like that behind completely.
Yes. I believe he would have died had he not made that choice.
Now that reminds me of Chrislo Haas again.
Yeah, he never stopped and that’s why he isn’t among us anymore, sadly. Chrislo was a wizard, he was a very special, incredible guy. But he could never really control his struggle with alcohol, and that’s why he’s not among us anymore today. Unbelievable creativity, it was insane. Everything I was, or still am able to do on an MS-20, I learnt from Chrislo. There are some musicians where you think about just giving up making music and pursuing something else while watching them. Like, this doesn’t make sense anymore. He was an absolute virtuoso, and a true magician.
Thank you so much for your time.
No problem, this was fun.