Alec Empire, breakcore beatmasher and snarly electrohead founder of Atari Teenage Riot, has been releasing solo albums since 2002’s Intelligence And Sacrifice.
The DJ, producer, frnot man and pioneer founded Digital Hardcore Records in London, but has now returned to his native Berlin. It is from there that his latest opus, The Golden Foretaste Of Heaven, emerges on new label Eat Your Heart Out.
musicOMH caught up with Alec for a chat about that record, what led to it, why UK music needs to take a step up, and a future project featuring Patrick Wolf…
What was the impetus behind moving to a more electronic sound with The Golden Foretaste Of Heaven? Does the current state of rock music still inspire you?
I like the impact and dynamics some rock has these days, but I am completely bored with the overall sound of that guitar, bass, drum thing. In Berlin it’s all about creating the future right now. Very avant garde. While everywhere else, especially in the UK people try to recreate something old. This is not really interesting for me, although I have to say that I wanted to build a bridge between my vision of electronic rock music and music I liked in the past. Bands like Velvet Underground, David Bowie and Brian Eno, that whole Dusseldorf electronic scene from the early ’80s, and club music from New York. I get really positive feedback on this record. Somehow this mix feels very new to most people! I can understand that because there is nothing like it out there at the moment.
Your music obviously cuts across many musical genres. Would you agree that nowadays, critical acclaim (as opposed to mass commercial appeal) is almost synonymous with developing a sound which defies categorisation?
I can only speak for myself here. I listen to a wide range of music, all of my friends do. The way the music industry is categorizing everything doesn’t really make sense anymore. I always approached my own music by doing what I like and not writing for a “market”. Usually this leads to more interesting musical results. But not everyone might agree with me on this. At the end of the day it’s all a matter of taste.
The new album sounds a little less angry and confrontational than some of your previous endeavours. Is this reflective of your current state of mind?
I wanted to show a different side of who I really am. If one looks at my discography, it becomes obvious that my music is much wider than the aggressive stuff I have done. I didn’t want to be put into that corner, because this is really not where I feel I belong. I agree that I made some of the loudest and hardest records ever made but this is not the only thing about me and my music. My friends know this side I am showing on this album. And in general I am very calm because I can channel my aggressions. I had to learn this very early in my life. In the Berlin I grew up in, if you freaked out and get all crazy, you could get into serious trouble because everyone was so on the edge. I can get angry when I’m being lied to for example by politicians, but I don’t walk into a party all fired up. But I understand that people might get that impression when they hear some of my older songs.
You’re quite the musical lexicographer, having coined the term ‘digital hardcore’ and, more recently, ‘the sound of new Berlin’. How exactly would you describe this new sound? Is French Electro Disco nearing its last breath?
This is how we feel in Berlin right now. That French thing was really last summer, children’s songs and simple beats. Now it’s about something else. It’s like a secret club. We have that term “berkalt” – which means something like “bercold” or something. Cooler than cool. It is a clean sound people can dance to, and it really takes people somewhere else at those parties we throw in Berlin. It’s powerful. We produce the music mostly by using analogue gear, which means it just sounds three times more powerful than anything else when played on the dancefloor. It’s an expensive sound. But also the band aspect of it is important. People are saying we’re louder live than My Bloody Valentine, but not in the hardcore sense, more in that Velvet Underground sense. In Berlin many people feel that they want their own thing after the internet gave everybody the chance to connect with millions of stupid people. This is a bit elitist, but I’d rather be connected with the right people instead of a large quantity of nobodies. You know not everyone is allowed in.
You’ve mentioned that the Digital Recordings Label is going to assume a much more ‘underground’ role from now on. What is your take on the state of digital hardcore as a genre in 2008?
I think it has to be redefined from scratch. There is too much crap out there. This music is about the physical impact on people. And you can’t create that with shitty plug-ins and software synths. Not yet at least. Digital hardcore as a genre never stopped. Everywhere I go in the world, if it’s Singapore, Japan or Russia, they are all out there.
Did releasing the album through your new label Eat Your Heart Out make any difference to the creative process? What future plans do you have for the label?
It made a huge difference. I did this record without having DHR in mind. When you make a record for a label with such strong identity you always put yourself in context to that. Also DHR felt very ’90s to me. At the beginning of this decade we were going more rock on it. But I personally felt that its history would limit me. There are a few bands we want to release on EYHO this year. Some stuff from the UK, the US and of course Berlin. It is all very different sounding but when you hear it, it is obvious what these records have in common.
What is it that makes partying in Berlin such a notoriously incomparable experience? As a Berliner, is it gratifying to party anywhere else when you’ve pretty much seen it all?
Well, that’s hard to say really. When I go to other parties I always feel that I know what will happen. This is quite bad. There are not many new ideas around. While in Berlin, everyone has to be innovative to survive. There is an atmosphere about the city which makes the nightlife so different from all other cities in the world. Also Berliners don’t care so much about celebrities and stardom. It is really cool. You go out, and you would see some famous actor, and there is not that “oh we are in the same club right now as him/her” thing, which makes it really good.
You’re renowned for your fusion of music and politics. Do you feel like you would still be able to make music if you woke up one day and found yourself politically apathetic? Should music always be about taking a stance and making a statement?
I doubt that I would ever wake up like that. Imagine life would be just about consuming something. What a boring nightmare. I think every musician can choose, but they should be aware that their music is always playing a role in society when it reaches an audience. This is the political aspect of it. You gather a group of people, this means power. So you want to make sure that not other people above you are in control of the strings. This is my personal opinion but as a music fan, I have to say that musicans who do anything just to get paid create very unimaginative music. For music to be interesting and emotional, that door of freedom of expression has to be wide open.
What angers or concerns you about the state of the world right now?
That whole let’s sit back and watch things happen mentality is not my thing at all. I see so many people be like that. It’s not even a generation issue…it’s just people. Everybody is so scared to be not a part of a bigger trend or so. You see it very clearly with all the social networking sites. I met so many people who don’t think for themselves – they worry the whole day about missing out on something and then not be a part of it. This goes right from the music scene into politics.
I’ve heard talk of a collaboration with Patrick Wolf. Tell us more about that. Who else would you like to work with?
Yeah – he messaged me when he played a show in Berlin last year. it was funny because I was in a venue next door at a show from Jon Spencer and Alan Vega. So I went and it was a really great show he did. He asked me to write some songs for him. Or better do tracks and then he adds his vocals and whatever else we want to add to it. So I send him a track, and he liked it, now we want to do more together. Maybe he comes out to my studio in Berlin. Because we got all the time in the world there. We can record at night or whenever. This is perfect.
Is there a future for Atari Teenage Riot?
I don’t really see it without Carl Crack – that guy was such a driving force behind the band. To do it without him would just feel strange. And it would not be as good.
What is your take on the London music scene? Did it influence your decision to return to Berlin?
In a way, yes. I think the London music scene was an inspiration to the rest of the world once, now, and of course I am generalizing this, because there are exceptions, it feels like people in a panic looking back to the golden days of British music. This will change one day, so for me in order to find my own way Berlin was a better place to create music right now. I hope that Londoners develop a more European mindset. The UK really needs to make that step as soon as possible. New ideas are not possible in the US right now, so just looking towards that direction can’t be right.
Who are your favourite artists right now?
I love that song Homecoming by The Teenagers. I know it’s not that new, but it hasn’t grown old yet. I see that song having the same importance as Nirvana‘s Smells Like Teen Spirit for this decade. The problem with most stuff is for me that it has no substance to it. You like it for a week and then move on. I prefer really getting deep into something right now. It’s more fun. A song has to feel like you are watching the DVD box set of a TV series and not just a trailer for a 1.5 hour Hollywood film. I really feel like spending a long time with something good, instead of getting a large quantity of bad stuff. The guys from The Big Pink are doing great stuff. Very British in its true sense.
What’s next on the agenda after the tour? Can we expect to see you at any of the festivals this year?
Maybe. I got a lot of things going on right now. I am writing the score for a German film over the summer and also finish music for a Japanese film directed by Asano, he acted Ichi The Killer. Now he has done his own first film. It’s great. Then Wolf wants to do more tracks, there are some more remixes coming. It’s like the whole year is filled up already. I only want to play festivals if the line ups are great. I can get easily depressed about shit like that.