How exciting was it to get back and make a new ATR record? What was the feel like in the studio?
Alec: It was strange at first…when you load data from disks that you had 18 years ago into the old Atari computer…there is something about it…the digital information doesn't change.
But then very quickly it was all adrenaline and energy…like you're on a surfboard and catch this massive wave…thunder and lightning…With ATR when I produce a record I have to keep the intensity level up high until it's finished…a lot of it is high speed programming, making the machines do unbelievable things…There is such a fresh vibe amongst us in the group..things just come together!
How much fun is it to be making new Atari Teenage Riot music after all these years?
Alec: ATR has a very specific type of sound. Even though it evolves from record to record, we always sound like ATR…One of the reasons is that the music is made on an old Atari ST 1040 computer. Back in the day this was the Mac. But it has a certain attack to it that is making this music so physical. It has 2MB Ram! Can you believe it? So making music with a machine like that feels almost liberating because you must focus on the most important ideas in your song. It's like math or something…haha…and that can be a lot of fun. Especially when the results blow you off your seat.
What did you do differently than you did over a decade ago when you last recorded with the band?
Alec: There were things I always wanted to do…for example we have this track "Collapse of History" and it starts with the sound of the classic Atari video game Pong, then it goes into this part where the idea was to have an army of Alec Empire clones sing this chant…like those old Russian military quires…full of passion, flags waving. So we go from this super minimal part into this pretty insane football stadium type sound… but it feels logical to the listener and not like a gimmick. I had to do over 40 overdubs in the studio, because it had to be all my voice…Back in the 90ties a lot was about having this or that crazy effect on a record. I feel now the theme and the idea of the music is more in the forefront. Also there is this uplifting and positive energy in the group right now. We were way too early when we started, now people understand more what we are actually about and why we write this music.
Your live shows have always been brutally intense and you take that directly into your recording. When recording, “Is This Hyperreal?” did you feel reinvigorated after your live show return between 2009 and 2010?
Alec: I have toured more over the past decade than in the 90’s actually. But not in the US. The main difference between me, ATR and many other electronic artists is that I come from punk rock and live shows are what's it all about instead of just standing there knob twiddling. It's an ongoing dialogue between the studio and the live shows, both influence each other a lot. With ATR I was very skeptical if we should play that one show in London last year. My whole year was pretty much booked with Alec Empire projects. But the enthusiasm of the audience and the British music critics was so great that we decided to keep doing more shows. At some point I was thinking that there is so much to write songs about and "Is This Hyperreal?" had to be made fast to capture this atmosphere. Wikileaks, hacker activism, human trafficking…all these issues are so present but most musicians don't seem to reflect that in their music. I found this very exciting to make a record about those topics. The new album is the ultimate protest record in the Google age.
One of the first singles off the new record was “Blood in my Eyes,” a song about sex trafficking and features Nic entirely on vocals. She penned the lyrics, but did you feel the impact would be bigger if the song was sung by a woman?
Alec: We always had songs which featured vocalists solo. But apart from maybe "Destroy 2000 Years of Culture," none of them became singles. One reason why we chose this track was because the issue is being talked about in the British media quite a lot. The Olympic Games are coming up next year, and those crimes rise during big sport events. I also liked the idea to NOT release another stereo type ATR track. The song has a different energy to it, because Nic is describing a revenge killing…a young woman who was forced into prostitution who takes the power back because she is so pushed to the edge. In Asian cinema the image of a strong female hero, which we know probably from Tarantino's Kill Bill films, is important and can inspire girls to think further than becoming an accessory of a rich husband. It is also another reference to riot grrl, the music genre that got a lot of publicity when we were already doing ATR. Why does Blood In My Eyes sound like it does? Rape victims often describe an out of body experience when it's happening to them. Also soldiers describe this trance like state in moments of extreme violence. This is why we created the music this way. It has that dreamy atmosphere to it, but has also these hard beats and guitars in there. Our fans fell in love with it right away, because it's different. Nic Endo nailed the vocal parts better than anybody else could have done. She really wanted to put the meaning into the song and she achieved it.
The album also features a song called “The Only Slight Glimmer of Hope.” What is the only slight glimmer of hope to you?
Alec: That is a reference to a Mick Jagger quote. He said in the late 60’s or early 70’s…not sure when exactly…but he said 'Anarchy is the only slight glimmer of hope'. We see ourselves as anarchist libertarians. In the last century we have seen in Germany how dangerous it can be to have big government controlling too many aspects of our lives. It lead to Nazi Germany and the socialist East Germany regime right after that. Everything we say politically in our songs must be seen in this context really or it can be misleading. My grandfather was killed by the Nazis in a concentration camp, that's why I am so aware of that. One government can come up with laws and technology to make the country 'safer', but the next one might abuse that power and will turn it against ordinary citizens. In America people are way more critical towards their own government, democracy works in a different way compared to Germany. The Germans were defeated in the War and then democracy was enforced, so it's different. They just love and trust authority, so much that they can't move in any direction. Many politicians in Germany want a stagnant society…this is my idea of hell really.
One thing that has caught the buzz of the band again is your use of social networking and using the internet to speak to fans. Do you feel it is necessary in today’s world to do so?
Alec: I think it helps to explain our views. People are fast to compare us with other bands, but forget that we come from a different background and a totally different country. Even though now ATR is 2/3rds American with Nic Endo being born in Texas and CX coming from Detroit.
So to be able to interact with the fans is very helpful. But I have to point out that the social networking platforms don't mirror our fanbase at all. The majority of our fans doesn't like those sites at all. Just a few months ago, I was announcing a song from our album "Burn Berlin Burn" which was censored by the German authorities since 2003. So basically the record can't be sold or played in public anymore, no radio, no TV and so on. I explained that it even goes so far that platforms like Last Fm or Myspace can't have these songs up in Germany. So I was explaining it to the audience during a show, and a handful of fans got so upset by the fact there was an Atari Teenage Riot myspace that they literally walked out in protest. I was very surprised about that. I mean most of these sites …you kind of have to claim them before some lunatic does it in your name, but for them it was this world view.
I often get misquoted and German journalists who trying to put different words in my mouth. With the internet you can correct that stuff immediately. We are very transparent about this. I also love the criticism. It's unfiltered and direct. I find this constructive once you learn to ignore the trolls. I wouldn't say this is the solution for everything, but it's good to have those platforms.
We have seen social network become a powerful tool, we have seen it take down dictators and expose corruption more than ever before. Do you think we are only seeing the beginning of what social networking can really do?
Alec: I think what works for freedom in certain countries, can make our own society less free. I already see people behave differently on the social network sites. People become more aware of their profiles being scanned and spied upon. We wrote a song about that called "Shadow Identity." In old socialist East Germany many people had these split personalities to hide what they were really thinking. In our time when people take off personal photos which were taken while they were drunk at their own birthday parties, because they fear their boss could see those, then we're moving towards a society which looks open on the outside but in reality is far from that. The technology that brings us freedom can also take it away from us. This is what this decade will be about. Governments and corporations trying to control the internet too much, so people will start using it less. Digital Decay. Many women in Iran live like that. They have to play a certain conservative role in their public life, but in private they are very different.
Given your heavy political stance and Atari Teenage Riot returning with a new record in the same year that Mubarak has been ousted in Egypt, uprisings in Libya and Tunisia, do you feel this is the most important time to be back?
Alec: Yes, while we were recording, all these events really inspired us. I don't know if it's the 'most important time to be back', but I find the world of the music industry very boring compared to what's happening politically in the world.
When we last spoke, I had asked you how you felt about the world we lived in and you had mentioned, almost predicted that technology would rise against the old way of thinking. How do you feel about the world we live in today? Any difference?
Alec: I still think the same, but I have the feeling we are losing a lot of people who can't keep track. Let's look at music production. The technology that's out there can help us make the most advanced music. But hardly anyone pushes the limits because the passive consumers of music haven't been educated enough to understand experimental music. It's like a mind grid. Instead of becoming curious about the unknown most people want to salute something they recognize.
You have said a few times that if Carl Crack did not die before September 11, the band would have reformed. During the Bush years, do you feel ATR would have been much more forceful than ever before?
Alec: We never really officially split up, but when Carl Crack was found dead just a few days before 911, the concept of ATR felt very distant. We spoke about the Bush years before he got elected. I heard this again and again…Alec, you guys were so right… I think the music scene tried to stay away from those topics while Bush was elected. MP3 piracy probably worked against artists taking a stand, everybody feared losing their fans, selling less records, being blacklisted by radio stations and so on…I am not sure if ATR would have been able to get anything across in those years… The reason why people kept listening to our music was because the records still made sense to them, even years after they were released. Sometimes things just happen the way they do. When Carl died, I was very sad about the loss. We toured the world, we slept on the floors of squats in the early days, we shared amazing times together. Even though I am very good at not showing this when I'm in public, it hit me very hard. So in those moments you just don't think about going into the studio and all the what ifs.
What would Carl say about ATR today?
Alec: It would be awesome to have him in the group now. In 1996, when Nic joined ATR, we pretty much played most shows together with Carl as a 3 piece. Any 4th person would come and go. We clicked and were the basis for ATR. I think Carl would get along very well with CX. The guy had his demons, but was a very deep guy. One great thing about us playing again is when we quote him on stage and the audience knows and everybody remembers his work and what he stood for. I just DJed this huge rave in Belgium and I opened my set with an accapella of Carl and mixed in a Dubstep remix Dim Mak had done for one of our songs, to see thousands of kids go nuts in the crowd just gave me the chills. His voice still carries so much meaning. Here you had a guy who was born in Africa, then was raised in Berlin. When I look at how conform Hip Hop has become these days, then I think it's almost a miracle that Carl Crack was able to reach so many people.
Censorship took over during the Bush / Blair years around the Western world, hardly any bands were speaking out in protest, or if they did the big labels would drop them and saw them as a liability. How upsetting was that for you as a musician no one taking a true stand?
Alec: It's no secret I am very anti- censorship. There is nothing good about censorship. And those who do support the idea of killing free speech should realize that every corrupt system will sooner or later fall. That goes for the Romans thousands of years ago or the Nazis in the last century. It's natural. Otherwise evolution would stop at some point…which is impossible. If someone speaks the truth it will come out sooner or later. The musicians should have come together when the Dixie Chicks were under attack for example. I believe that this triggered the real crisis of the music industry. The fact that music just didn't matter anymore. In any other decade the most powerful music was created during those hard times. At the end of the 60ties..the Vietnam war…the civil rights movement in the US. We can even hear that Aretha Franklin records that aren't about politics. It's just an atmosphere that is stored in all those recordings. Same goes for punk at the end of the 70ties…and so on… Pop is not only a formula, ideally it should be a real part of people's lives and matter. Ok, it's always about the balance between escapism and confronting the reality. If the music industry got back to that basic principle instead of trying to clamp down on internet freedoms, then people would support that.
Do you think Punk is dead?
Alec: As a music genre, yes…in terms of spirit? we'll see…to me punk meant to go against conformity…not only in terms of how you dress and so on…but in terms of thinking.
Will Atari Teenage Riot continue to make music after “Is This Hyperreal?”
Alec: We have material and ideas for two more albums right now. We do what feels right. If this becomes a boring routine, then we'll stop. I got involved because the chapter felt unclosed and I saw that the music still mattered to people. This is what I find rewarding. I met the strangest and most amazing people because this music brought us together. I had experiences…let me tell you…money can't buy those …haha…
Read our 2010 Interview with Alec Empire HERE.