Do riot sounds produce riots? Revisiting interviews with Alec Empire

Listening to The Future of War by Atari Teenage Riot back in 1998 changed my life. As a teenager living in Australia in the 1990s, I had not heard anything like it before. It was like hardcore punk or thrash metal, like Minor Threat or Slayer, but much more intense. It combined this with electronic sounds, like the Prodigy or Fear Factory, but this was faster, angrier, and like a wall of noise. The bleeps and blips of ‘Sick to Death’, the Bad Brains’ sample on ‘Fuck All’ and the sped-up ‘amen breakbeat’ on ‘Deutschland (Has Gotta Die)’ were powerful and infectious. In short, ATR were pretty amazing for the 18 year old me.

I was soon listening to other acts on the Digital Hardcore Recordings label that had been set up by Atari Teenage Riot, such as EC8OR, Bomb20, Sonic Subjunkies and Shizuo. The internet also allowed me to expand my musical horizons and I found out about musicians like Kid606, Speedranch^Jansky Noise, Like A Tim, V/VM, Cex,  and Venetian Snares, amongst many others. A kid at school also passed me a cassette tape of Newcastle gabba-noise artists Nasenbluten. Pretty much all I was listening to was glitch, noise and hardcore electronic music. On its own, my growing musical tastes aren’t that life-changing and probably not worth writing a blog about 14 years later. However it did lead me down the path to zinedom, which I pursued for the next 10 years, spending hours writing, cutting and pasting, photocopying, collating and stapling.

My interest in this kind of music and its relative obscurity meant that there were few reviews of the records being released and few discussions of this music in the music press. Blogging and personal websites were still in their infancy back then and I spent all my money buying imported vinyl from small labels, rather than buying The Wire. So I started my own zine. I had been exploring how to make zines for about a year beforehand, but these were pretty amateurish experiments, which was primarily teenage humour and cartoons. My new zine was predominantly dedicated to exploring this new music that I was listening to, but also incorporated my oscillating ideas on Marxism and anarchism, as I read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Bakunin for the first time. I was also devouring the work of those involved in the Berlin Dada movement of the early 1920s (like Raoul Hausmann, George Grosz and John Heartfield) and aesthetically based my zines on the journals that these artists produced (such as Jedermann Sein Eigner Fussball), alongside the more obvious examples of the zines of the 1970s-80s punk eras. My zine allowed me to pontificate about music, politics and art, and the combination of the three, and I got to review obscure records from across the globe, as well as interview many of the musicians that I admired, including Mike Patton (of Faith No More and Mr Bungle), Trey Spurance (of Mr Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3), Bomb20, Lolita Storm, Alex Newport (of Fudge Tunnel), Speedranch^Jansky Noise, System:Corrupt and probably most importantly, Alec Empire

I interviewed Alec Empire three times between 1998 and 2002. The first interview was via the phone while ATR were recording 60 Second Wipeout, the second was in person when ATR were in Australia with the Big Day Out and the third was via email. By the third time, I had stopped my zine, had started listening to more indie and post-punk music and was living in London. My enthusiasm for ATR had started to subside by then as well. Although I still listened to Delete Yourself, The Future of War and Burn! Berlin, Burn! a lot, 60 Second Wipeout had not thrilled me and Alec’s solo album Intelligence and Sacrifice was far too long, sounding more like Nine Inch Nails than The Destroyer or Squeeze the Trigger. At the same time, the political edge that ATR had brought to the electronic music scene seemed to become more blunted, and political in-fighting within DHR and within the German left seemed to take over from the music. The internet was rife with people denouncing each other for numerous reasons and it became a drag.

But recently I have been listening to Atari Teenage Riot again and the scholarly critiques of the band on the wonderful blog It’s Her Factory have further rekindled my interest in ATR. Furthermore, as someone interested in the intersection between politics and music, I am interested in how ATR had incorporated an explicit political message into their electronic music. ATR’s political stance was a reaction to the idea of ‘keeping politics off the dancefloor’, which apparently thrived in the German techno scene in the early 1990s after German reunification. The first years of reunified Germany saw an increase in racist violence against migrant workers and refugees and significantly, ATR’s first single was titled ‘Hetzjagd auf Nazis’ (‘Hunt Down the Nazis’). Atari Teenage Riot’s politics went against the consensus formed about electronic music across Europe and the USA in the late 1980s (when ‘acid house’ boomed) that electronic music was a-political and individualistic.

As I have argued elsewhere, left-wing critics of electronic music in the late 1980s and early 1990s saw it as ‘escapism’ or ‘hedonism’, more interested in ‘dropping out’ than ‘tuning in’. However as the authorities in several countries became concerned about drugs within the electronic/dance scene and the potential for public disorder caused by large crowds, participating in a rave became a form of protest – against the authorities and against the policing of public space. As Anita Lacey and Jeremy Gilbert, amongst others, have argued, raves in the UK became part of the subcultural resistance to the Conservatives’ Criminal Justice Act, which sought to prevent large crowds of young people gathering in a public space. Similar experiences of the policing of dance music events occurred in the United States, Australia and across Europe throughout the 1990s. Several accounts of this can be found on the History is Made at Night blog.

I have been developing an idea in my head about comparing the political resistance of electronic/dance music in the UK and Germany in the 1990s over the last few months and dug out my old zines to re-read the interviews I conducted with Alec Empire. As these zines were made published in very small runs (about 100-200 copies per issue) and have probably been forgotten about by most who bought or read them, I thought I would reprint some of the three interviews that I did. I am particularly interested in Alec’s discussion of politics, so these are the bits that I think are worth revisiting. So enjoy!

ALEC EMPIRE INTERVIEW #1, via phone, August 1998

I asked Alec about politics within the DHR collective and anti-Nazism

… it’s not that we just go out and have a party on the weekend and then just get political or something. The thing with the Nazis that’s maybe for people outside of Germany, even if it’s like a really similar situation, in all the countries we went to…. it’s really similar to the German situation. It’s not as fun as some people think, it’s like a really serious bad situation over here. It’s very, very dangerous.

DHR is a mix of really, I dunno, angry people [laughs]. I mean you take someone like Shizuo for example. He’s not so much, y’know,… about anarchist theories and stuff like that but if his motivation is right… It goes from there to people who are on a real intellectual level too… I don’t want every band to be like Atari Teenage Riot or something. I think it’s good that some people approach the stuff in a different way…, but the intention is nearly the same, it’s just the way to do it that’s different.

I asked Alec to explain the term ‘digital hardcore’

Basically we see it as an attack towards the music industry. The music industry and the music business, we see, are really conservative and… a lot of new stuff can’t happen… DHR are trying to release music that sounds alive, y’know, and not just regular, clean commercial stuff or something. That’s the idea, of course, to destroy these conservative structures because just by doing the stuff that we do, we are questioning a lot of the other stuff that’s out there… Even if people dress up in different clothes all the time, it still stands for years and it’s the same with electronic music. But by having these bands out there and stuff, I think a lot of people think ‘Oh well, musicians can’t think for us. Maybe they want to change stuff’.

Also the idea that riot sounds produce riots theory, y’know, the music will motivate at some point enough people that they are ready for a big political change. So this is the main idea and of course, to spread like the sort of chaos, anarchy kind of feel… with that music. Because a lot of people hear that stuff [and] they get emotional, it’s very emotional to them…

Alec also talked about being hassled by the German authorities for not doing his mandatory national service (after moving to the UK)

When I arrive at the airport here for example, they sorta take down where I’m staying. Of course I’, staying at some address of a friend who doesn’t know where I am all the time and stuff like that (laughs). They can’t do anything which is a good position but a lot of people can’t do it like that – they have to work here and stuff, they’re fucked.

I asked Alec whether he considered the option of doing civil service rather than national service

Not for me because it’s a service of the army too. The thing is I don’t want to support this government and this sorta system and the army. If I’d worked in a hospital, when there’s a war situation, then for me it’s the same thing. A lot of people see that as an alternative but for me it’s just a big compromise… It’s not a statement if you do it, it’s the same thing. Ok maybe you don’t shoot a gun or something, but it’s an army service even if you learn stuff about dealing with people who are very sic and stuff. In reality you have this kind of social thing where you help out old people [because] the state doesn’t want to pay, y’know. They get young people to do the work where the state should support… like hospitals or something… For me that is no solution.

ALEC EMPIRE INTERVIEW #2, in person, January 2000

I asked why ATR stopped doing instrumentals after Delete Yourself

…It was really too many reasons to say… It didn’t make as much sense to have instrumentals this time… The first record was more like a statement anyway. It was like all the songs had very few lyrics, like ‘Start the Riot’ and these kind of songs we thought it should be just like a statement. Also we were coming from a techno background, we were coming from some sort of instrumental thing and then these few sentences were already a lot for people to listen to. To be honest we thought that, or at least at the time, a lot of the stuff was very clear and obvious and we didn’t need to make it more complex, especially with the lyrics. [We thought] a lot of people [would] associate with it. I think now with a bigger audience, it is necessary to make it more information… [rather than] just stating certain slogans that people just don’t think about anymore.

Alec talked about his CD Miss Black America being a reaction to the situation in Germany in the late 1990s

Let’s put it like this: A lot of things that we thought might get better in the last two years are basically not happening at all… I mean a lot of it has to do with the European situations where a lot of left wing [parties], like the Social Democrats in Germany, have been elected. We can’t identify with this party but it is still better than the conservatives, but they are just following up the same path. It is a good reason to get up and get out again.

The thing is that a lot of people in Germany and even in America were saying, ‘OK now The Future of War makes so much sense’, because of the Kosovo War and the NATO bombings. The whole Future of War was just about these kind of issues, like that war becomes this tool for making money, and is basically not at all for humanitarian reasons. Also a lot of people criticise us and say ‘come one, you are so negative’ and I know it sounds like a bit of a conspiracy theory – you think that the corporations are all the same, they dictate what to do. And now a lot of people see that it is so true and we are so right. I think it s good. Some of the [new] stuff really concentrates on these issues and they are maybe more sensitive now to what goes on. Some people maybe have a normal job and don’t spend a whole lot of time focusing on political stuff. They don’t really see it as soon as maybe people like us do. I don’t know, [but] sometimes it is so obvious just because of the structure of the system. A lot of people from the mainstream didn’t quite get it, they were like ‘um yeah yeah, Germany won’t start a war again’, and then it happened last year.

I think that the worst thing that people[can]  do is… always comply with the country. What is good about Germany is that it is a strong country, we have way more information than for example in America, [and] also the education system is better. But just because some things are a little better doesn’t make it all good… Everybody thought that since the last elections the neo-Nazi party was getting smaller, but in Austria and Switzerland it was still big, but in Germany you didn’t really see it in the elections, because a lot of things are often statistics and you don’t really see what is really going on. A lot of people just make their own opinion out of these things, and it isn’t always right.

I asked Alec about the resurgence of the Party of Democratic Socialism in the former East Germany and whether some people were looking fondly on the old Soviet system

I don’t think it is that. I mean with the PDS, the main party in the DDR, they are becoming more powerful because they concentrate on the social issues, it is not their ideas of the old system,. I think it is obvious they are looking for a chance and their system looks OK… If I would vote, I guess I would vote for them. When they were elected in Berlin, they were actually very popular amongst a lot of people. These people are doing something for us.

I asked Alec about the ideology of ATR and whether he considered himself an anarchist, or did he reject trying to put labels on his ideology

Anarchy may be more of a society we aim for but it is hard to put a label on our views, because I think at the moment what is going on all politically needs to be re-thought and questioned, so labels don’t really work anymore. I think that maybe most anarchist theories can be related to us, but a society that is non-fascist and non-capitalist is the most important thing and a lot of people think this isn’t possible. America doesn’t treat the fact that there are political prisoners, that is the worst thing… I think it is so important to raise these questions. A lot of people don’t know because they don’t want to know. But they could find out about things. When we play, we try to get a message across to the audience.


ALEC EMPIRE INTERVIEW #3, via email, MAY 2002

I asked what ‘digital hardcore’ meant in 2002 and whether it was a label or a genre
It is Digital Hardcore when it’s out on DHR. The label was first, and  then people started calling the music Digital Hardcore, because they couldn’t come up with other names, ‘techno-punk’ didn’t fit, ‘industrial’ didn’t  fit, and so on. There are bands out there now who claim to be digital  hardcore. That’s ok with me, it shows that they respect us as a label and as  the roots of this music style. But people shouldn’t forget that it is a term  that I invented, and if there would be a ‘digital hardcore’ compilation out  on Sony or another major one day, we will sue their fucking asses. But anything that’s giving dhc a good name out there gets my full support.

I asked about the restructuring of DHR between 1999 and 2002

I think it’s time to correct some false information that was going round  since a little while. DHR is my label and we put out records that we like.  We never make long-term contracts, most of the times we put out one record and do not tie the act to the label, because we want to make records because of musical reasons and not because of money reasons. The bands are always free to go elsewhere if they want to. But that also means that we are free to not put a record out if we don’t like it. (For those out there who don’t  understand how it usually works in the music business: Normally labels sign bands and have options on the next releases, because if they build an act, they want to get their money back, hopefully with the second album, if the first one was not an instant success. That’s why sometimes you get these shitty records that bands do to give the label the next option, so they can leave. We work different.)…
Over years I felt very committed to the small scene that evolved around ATR  in Berlin. DHR was the only label at the time that would put out these kinds  of records. At the end of 2000 I felt that this Berlin based scene reached a  dead point (Actually I think it started to fade out in 1998, ATR’s album
60  Second Wipe Out could be seen as the peak of that first DHR phase – it was  an overkill in terms of production and record sales world wide. No Berlin  act has managed to top that since, the record left a vacuum in the scene.)  I realized that we were putting out records just because we shared the same  ideals in the scene in the past, and not because it was going somewhere  creatively. The label took too much of my time and I was unable to do enough  of my own music. I decided to restructure DHR. In 2000 DHR was not the only  platform anymore for this kind of music, so I gave up on the responsibility  to release everything digital hardcore out there. We decided that we want to  focus on fewer but better releases. Quality over quantity, if you want to  call it like that. I also support the idea of many labels developing their  own individual sound – I think only this way better music is created – the  more people get involved, the more we can change out there. I know my decision caused some questioning and frustration in the scene, but it was  the only way for me. We used a lot of the year 2001 to think and plan ahead  into the next direction of DHR. Now in 2002 we are back on course, and I’m
really excited about the new releases and all the positive feedback we get.  We entered the next phase of DHR and get through to new audiences right now.

I asked about the May Day demonstration in Berlin that ATR played at in 1999

The first idea was to make a DHR truck and have more bands play, but nobody  got off their asses, so we went ahead and did it. I felt really strongly  about supporting the Anti-Fascist Action in that year 1999, because the May  Day demonstration was a march for peace, when the Kosovo bombings went on,  and Germany was involved in attacking another country the first time since  it started the 2nd World War under Adolph Hitler. We felt we have to support
this demonstration against this war and the Anti-Fa. Video director Philipp  Virus and me [have] worked on a documentary about ATR and DHR since 1994, he filmed  almost every show. So of course he would film this show as well…  The footage clearly shows that the police started to attack peaceful demonstrators and we got that footage shown on many music TV shows  and in independent cinemas all over the world. It has even reached the point where the footage was used in court to prove and identify those policemen  who committed these crimes.

Finally I asked whether he still believed in the slogan ‘riot sounds produce riots’

This was more the ATR philosophy. But I think it describes quite well  the first phase of DHR in the second half of the nineties. The ATR concept  is based on that idea, so that will never change.

Atari Teenage Riot are now reformed, recording new music and playing live. I haven’t really listened to any of the new stuff. But I enjoy Alec’s tweets. (I imagine them all being shouted like he does in ATR songs)

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