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Alec Empire is a German phenomenon. His time with Atari Teenage Riot in the 90s gained him the reputation of a mad scientist producer of punk electronic. During the decade in between the resurgence of ATR, Empire has put out more content than many musicians do in a lifetime. With their most recent album on Dim Mak records, it seems the world has finally caught up with ATR as their retro sounds once again become relevant. In an interview before their show at the Roxy, Empire sits down with me to explain why this is so.
Adjusting the mood lighting before our interview, the maintenance man at the Roxy comes into the green room and removes the ceiling light bulb, leaving Alec and I to talk in the dark.
You’ve produced so many different styles of music. What did you listen to growing up?
When I was young I had two records. Kraftwerk and Trio.
That’s a solid foundation you’ve built from.
I have to admit, I never got into Kraftwork, so I only liked Trio. The stuff I was really into was the early hip-hop stuff from the Grandmaster Flash in the mid 80s. Then in the late 90’s I was into punk. And from there I sort of got back into hip-hop.
The 80s saw a massive expansion in the field of electronic dance music. How do you feel Germany reacted to this compared to America and the UK?
Germany has always had its own sound since techno started there. It was very different from England. It was very much like Chicago and Detroit house, but with German and Dutchsounds. It was different from France and Italy and everywhere else.
So German techno was a unique sound?
Yeah. There was hardcore and trance and I think just about every genre was being done in Germany with a distinct German sound. For instance, Berlin had a dubby or minimal quality to it, mixed with German industrial music. It’s a very diverse scene; not even a scene, but just a bunch of styles of music that exist next to each other.
I guess that could be true anywhere. In Los Angeles, alone, you have the eclectic underground music community as well as the mainstream music circuit.
Yeah. You have the same thing in Berlin. Certain DJs are really into English drum and bass, but they don’t have much of their own stuff going on. You have house DJs who want to be like Chicago DJs, and I think you’ll find that in every country. I’m not negative about that because it’s very interesting and a part in developing your own sound. If people play a certain style for awhile and they change things about it they can end up giving it its own identity.
True. What sort of music shows have you been going to lately?
I’ve been on tour so much; I haven’t had time to check out any local music shows.
What about prior to regrouping with ATR? What were you into then?
I have very mixed tastes in music so I would see many types of stuff. With the Alec Empire band, we would do a record with 80s analogue synthesizers. It was very different. I’ve seen quite a lot of stuff when we play.
Do you generally consider your music roots focused in punk and electronic music?
Of course. These are the main things [music styles] but there are also things like the more avant-garde. When I was a kid I was into some classical stuff and I would mix it with dub and put effects into it. I think stuff like that also plays a role in what I do. The punk and techno is very obvious, but more subtle things as well.
Since the inception of ATR, retro genres have been seeing a lot more play and popularity. Why do you think that is?
I personally think that it goes hand in hand with mp3 technology. Back in the day, the innovation always came from independent labels, but that’s not the case anymore and I think that’s how things have progressed over decades. With everyone in the music industry having financial problems because sales are going down from year to year, what a lot of labels have done is they’ve reacted in a very conservative way. They would focus on what immediately sells and don’t want to invest in anything risky, although I find that this is the time to do exactly that. I like all sorts of music, but if I’m listening to a blues record, I think it should sound like a classic blues album, so you have people trying to preserve things [styles of music] but then maybe that isn’t even the problem. You have people uploading things online right now, and that’s where the innovation is, but there is no dialogue with pop culture. It grows until you have ten dubstep singles in the top 40.
It sounds like a joke, but in the 90s, if you were to say that Nirvana is going to be this big rock band… nope, no one would listen. So we have this conflict. I don’t believe in the idea of pop in that way, anyway. That everyone should be part of one music phenomenon. The fragmentation? I embrace it.
Yeah. What you see a lot of lately is differing styles of music that keep breaking off into new sub-genres which really transcend anything tangent. It’s all just music.
Yeah. There is also the question of what is old and new. Atari Teenage Riot sounds like Atari Teenage Riot. We don’t sound like Justice just because it was hip. For some people it’s very new and some people have just heard about us now with the new record. Others from the 90s go, “Oh, that is the next logical step for ATR to take.” But the question of what is old and what is new in the context of time… I think that’s where music critics have a problem shaping things into perspective. “This was the summer of 2007 and everyone was listening to this music.” It doesn’t work like that anymore. If you go into a bar and ask someone if they can name the top 20 on the pop charts, I think they would have difficulty naming those artists of the last decade.
Yeah. You are also seeing a lot of these older trends resurface, like in your new album, which uses a lot of the old mechanisms you guys used to do, only they are more topical now. Was it easy to jump back into ATR after taking a break for so long, as far as music technology and the evolution of sound?
I think it was because we have a very basic set-up. We use the Atari computer to program the music. The 909 drum machine and all that. To me, it’s almost like a punk rock band. The elements work together and it is still part of the sound. We didn’t try and change everything with the plug-ins and this and that. Even today it is much more difficult to make music. Like with sampling technology, it is endless. To use an Atari sampler, we have to stick with these basic ideas. That is fun and also leads to direct results. You can hear the same equipment we use in every song and some people criticize that every Atari song on the album uses a 909 drum machine, but we like to think that it is our style. I don’t feel I need to experiment too much with it as well, because the Alec Empire stuff is always so diverse that I don’t need to use ATR to experiment. ATR just works on kicking peoples asses and bang!
So you are still continuing your Alec Empire stuff?
Yeah. I had a record ready for last year. It was going to be released last September but because we were adding more ATR shows that got pushed back. In a way, the Alec Empire record is still waiting to be released. As a musician, you are always wanting stuff to be out immediately, but because my stuff is so different, even if it is a year old it doesn’t sound old. Not to me, at least.
You’re right about time not being linear. A lot of older stuff can still sound modern and at the same time a lot of modern stuff can sound retro.
I think people have their own unique ears. It depends on how your brain deciphers the sound.
Do you believe it is all audibly subjective?
Not everything. Not stuff that goes on around us. For example, people who hear the 1999 ATR album thought some of it was our newer stuff. That’s crazy. Sometimes when I DJ and I play some Residents records people would come up to me like, “Oh my god! This is new, right?” Nope, man, this is so old. It’s all about what you know I guess and how you understand certain music. The question is odd. The categories of old and new don’t work all of the time.
How do you like working with Steve and Dim Mak?
It’s very free. ATR has always been like that, though.
They give you complete creative control?
Yeah. I’ve never done a record where I didn’t have that. The only thing they had a part in was one track where we asked Steve to join in on some vocals. That’s “Codebreaker”.
What’s been your favorite musical endeavor to contribute to over the last two decades?
Wow, good question. I always liked some of the stuff I did on New Plateau. I think it is a weird record looking back now because it is a diary. Looking back now, it totally captures that thought of that moment in time. I think if I would have done it two months later, it wouldn’t have been like that. There are all kinds of things. The Alec Empire Elvis Presley album is another weird one. With other people, there are all of the remixes, and I did some stuff with Patrick Wolfe that was really interesting…
Yeah, looking at your history, you’ve put out so many different things. Why did you initially decide to go back with ATR?
That is a long story, but it was originally planned as just one show in London.
Just one show, huh?
Honest! If you know the record Live at Brixton Academy…
That was the last show we played. Hanin Ellais walked out of the band so we still went on stage and now people think it’s kind of legendary. I remember walking off stage and Nic said to me how fucked up it was. People were really going nuts. Still, we owed the fans a proper show, but it never came to that because Carl Crack died… and with Hanin Elais there were just bad vibes. She didn’t turn up for most shows and many were done without her. That was a big one though. She could have just played that one show. I am still upset just thinking about it! So many people were working towards that show and to have some sort of drama going on, it was so lame.
Why do you think she was so flakey?
When she contacted me in Autumn 2009 she goes, “Why don’t we just make peace and it’s kind of stupid that we didn’t talk for ten years. Let’s just play one show.” And I was skeptical. I was thinking how that could backfire so badly. Right away I said, “Look, ATR is what it is and us trying to recreate it could be the worst thing ever.” I still believe it could have happened like that. A lot of factors I didn’t count on came together. Hanin had problems with her screaming voice, so Nix took over like she did in the 90s. Also, for anyone to replace Carl Crack… the fans will absolutely hate you! So we thought we would rewrite the stuff from another perspective, although I had this image of a bunch of haters after the show saying how much better the band was 10 years ago. I think I I went to go see a band reunite after ten years that I might react like that as well. But at least we have this confrontation, and when Hanin didn’t show up again, Nic goes, “Let’s just fucking do this.” Maybe it worked towards our advantage because it was what no one was expecting. That was fun and cool and people were excited. It was almost like a new band. This promoter from Berlin asked us to headline a show. He was like, “If you don’t do it then you betray your country.” Hah! Then the Japanese go, “Oh, if you do that, then you have to play here!” So we just added more stuff and the reaction was always so positive…
And here you are, touring internationally.
So, what is in store for you in the future, Alec?
I’m working on all kinds of stuff all the time. I have so much finished music that is unreleased. I feel like people always get confused about what content belongs to what. Also, the feedback. If you look at the press and media and if I were to put out my Alec Empire record now, they would be like, “But you just put out an ATR record.” Of course, it’s totally different, but for people it’s like, “Isn’t that the same guy?”
Honestly, I don’t see that happening. Yes, they were both produced by you, but they are two uniquely different sounds.
Well, maybe you are one of the good guys.
Bring it all on.
I like that. The European atmosphere of print media and music magazines, they are so opportunist. If someone says, Alec, this doesn’t work, if they have listened to the record I am okay about that. I recently read such an insane review where this person obviously hasn’t listen to more than a single song. All noise and breakbeats and kill the police… that kind of thing sucks but it’s freedom of speech.
With any degree of success along comes a circle of haters.
I guess that’s true.
It’s an occupational hazard. You’re still living in Berlin, correct?
I moved back to Berlin from London in 2007.
Do you have time to do any DJ sets or any local shows?
I did one really funny thing with an author friend of mine where we just brought out really weird records at a bar and did a DJ set. It was very bizarre. There was some kind of film premiere across the street and all of a sudden these important film people from Germany and England started coming in. They were like, “Who are you and can’t you play something we can drink to?”. It was great.
You’ve got to embrace all forms of music. Especially the weird shit.
Yeah, it was such a good time and we didn’t even tell our friends about it; it was just us hanging out and spinning records.
Great. You’ve got a long tour ahead of you and I wish you the best of luck. Thanks for speaking with me.