Einstürzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld: “We are NOT Rammstein!”

Berliners Einstürzende Neubauten are bringing 32 years of terrifying, tormented and intricate compositions to the 2013 All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. LEIGH SALTER caught up with frontman (and former Bad Seed) Blixa Bargeld to talk tools, tinnitus and touring.

Ear, nose and throat specialists everywhere would probably cut off a limb for the chance to examine Einsturzende Neubauten’s Blixa Bargeld. Nowhere short of an old miner’s club would they find a better study of the long-term effects of industrial noise pollution on the human body. His signature “inward scream” alone has meant scarring of the larynx and multiple throat nodules are a constant companion. Further more, for the last 32 years, the original “grinder-man” has been flanked by more eardrum-punishing power tools than most tradies would see in a lifetime as leader of the (quite literally) industrial group.

Bargeld and his band of racket-mongers are Australia bound for next year’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, and as a former long-term Bad Seed, Blixa, whose services to Mr Cave ceased in 2003, tells FL he is keen to get back: “I haven’t been to Australia since [the Bad Seeds] recorded Nocturama, but there was a time when I was there for a few months out of every year.”

Why choose Skpe to do all your pre-tour interviews?

I can’t talk on the phone. I am the same as Nick [Cave] in that regard. If this was a phone interview, it would be over in about five minutes, I can promise you that. I love Skype though, because in the past I would have to get on a plane and get flown to meet the journalist … that is how much I hate talking on the phone. I can stay home and still see who I am talking to. It’s better don’t you think?

Einsturzende Neubauten are virtually impossible to categorise. If I say ‘experimental’ it sounds like we’re talking about some art student releasing a CD of mushroom’s farting in a forest. Do you even have a word for what you do?

You have heard of this thing called “Google notification”, yes? Well I find it very amusing to see what context Neubauten is mentioned on the internet and it is usually in reviews for albums by bands I have never heard of. “These guys sound like a cross between Neubauten and some other thing.” Many bands have been compared to us, but at least I am “not like anything else” or Neubauten are not ‘like’ X, Y, Z bands out there.

It’s a fact that Neubauten operate with no pre-existing blueprint to work from. The way in which you have always made music is down to a combination of the band members’ imaginations and found objects, it must have seemed pretty revolutionary at start of the ‘80s to be doing this.

Well it was never about artistic decisions. We never decided to get our instruments from building sites, they were the only things we could get our hands on. We had no money for new instruments or any of that sort of thing. You could say that for a band from West Berlin, this way of finding materials to use for music was easy. There was still so much urban decay when we were starting out, which became a resource for us. I always thought that it was strange that more bands hadn’t thought to do something like what we were doing with so many materials just left to rust.

“We never decided to get our instruments from building sites, they were the only things we could get our hands on.”

What do you think of Berlin: the 2012 Model?

I don’t recognise this place any more. When the Wall came down it looked as thought World War II had only just ended the week before. It’s all gentrified now and it is taking its toll on this city. It used to be so much cheaper to live here than most other European cities, and Berlin suddenly became very appealing for the wealthy to move to. It’s like being in a brand new city now.

Having a band that boasts construction equipment among your gear, has meant a kind of “Neubauten-novelty” exists. There are loads of wild stories of so-called stage-annihilating shows, but few are as widely re-told as the jack-hammering of Manchester’s Hacienda club’s ceiling support beams during an early show, but what is your memory of this event?

We never had a jack-hammer on stage! We had an electric hammer, it is a very different thing. Besides, I still have a video of that show, and I can tell you, that did not happen. Neither I or anybody in the band tried to drill through the Hacienda ceiling support beams. That story came from [Factory Records honcho] Tony Wilson’s autobiography? Autobiography’s are always great works of fiction.

In 1983, you joined Nick Cave’s band of brutes The Birthday Party, and stayed on board for most of the Bad Seeds albums. But how did you take to having to play in a more conventional band set-up?

Well first of all, if Nick had’ve asked me to join his band on clarinet, I still would have said ‘yes’. The thing is, I have always looked at the outside techniques of what is considered “normal” use of an instrument. What is the word in English … when the rabbit runs back and forth? Zig-zag! This is how I play, using this zig-zag strategy to make music that nobody would expect whatsoever. In The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, although the music was very different, I could still play guitar without actually playing it in any conventional way. I approached singing in the exact same manner. If you don’t do the “normal thing”, you are free to make discoveries, like finding I could scream while sucking in air to get a much more powerful sound to come out.

You were by no means a casual member of the Bad Seeds, but you role had diminished considerably following the Murder Ballads album in 1995, when the band began to explore their softer side. When you finally left in 2003, it was among rumours that you were annoyed about the direction they had taken.

There was no quarrel between Nick and I. I left only because of my personal life, I mean I had gotten married and playing in two bands was no longer an option for me. But we are good; there is no bad blood there. In fact Neubauten would not exist any more if everybody in the band hadn’t been busy with other things. It helps us to clarify what it is we do as Neubauten, because there are things we can only do within this band. If someone wants to go off and write music for a jeans commercial, then that’s fine, but we could never do that as Neubauten.

“Nobody can tell me how to record music because I have done it in ways a lot of producers wouldn’t even dream of”

For a band so heavily reliant on improvisation, recording your albums must be quite a struggle. I hear that you don’t like to take the leader’s role, but instead trust it will all work out in the end.

When we are playing together in the studio, of course it can sometimes be awful, but then you don’t have to release those things. What you need to make a band like ours work is a metre level of communication which is without words. I know some bands who are able to do this well, like Can for instance, who famously improvised most of the time and the results were quite magical I think. They could sound like they were working with arrangements that had been written before, and I’m happy to say that Neubauten, when we are good, are playing like that too. We are improvising in a way that sounds like we have fully composed it beforehand and that is a very, very satisfying way of making music using pure instinct.

In the beginning, you hadn’t had any form of musical training, the band had no instruments, and no interest in writing music; on paper you have to admit it sounds dubious at best.

No well I had an idea that music could be anything you wanted it to be. We were very indignant about this because it meant we had no rules to follow. We knew no other way than that way, but then, you can’t be involved in making music for as long as I have without learning a lot about how it is made. You can’t keep approaching the guitar as if it is the first time you picked it up. I am 54 years old now, I know how to write, I know about music theory and I have an invalid pass I can use here in Germany for the bus. Also I had to learn how to produce when we made our first album. Our record company had no money to pay a engineer, and so the guy who owned the studio just showed us what buttons to push and then left. After that if a producer tried to tell me what I could and couldn’t do in a studio, I would say well yes I can, I have done it before. Over time these limitations on how to make music in a studio have become silently accepted, but if you don’t destroy all these rules you become enslaved by them. Nobody can tell me how to record music because I have done it in ways a lot of producers wouldn’t even dream of. And no doctors can tell me how to use or not use my voice because I have been singing like this for over 30 years, and my voice is still here.”

Given you very clear directive, I wonder if intentionally shocking or frightening your audience was ever a motivation.

No, I think in your more democratic, free speech Western societies, provocation is very outdated concept. I never employed that as an artistic strategy. How people react to our music, is a personal thing for them, it is not something I can control.

During your most intense industrial period ( Kollaps, Drawings of Patient O. T. ) , I heard there was a genuine risk of injury to the band and those coming to an Einsturzende Neubauten show.

There have only been a couple of injuries to people in the audience, but it was always accidental. I have learned to know when to duck if Andrew [Chudy – percussion] is wielding some huge piece of metal around on stage, and our audience were usually in no danger at all. It was always bouncers that got pissed off with us. They thought we were just trying to destroy the place they had no clue.

“There have only been a couple of injuries to people in the audience, but it was always accidental”

The band seemed to grow fast, developing a conspicuously more low-fi sound from 1990 onwards. Songs like ‘Blume’ and ‘Stella Maris’ were almost like classical compositions. Had you become bored with clatter percussion and noisier forms of expression?

Well, there was a show we played in a haunted house in Copenhagen, where Andrew climbed up the wall at the back of the stage, and did some let’s say, “architectural improvements” by drilling into the ceiling and removing the decorations that were there, and some people saw that as an attack on their house. As a result of this, Andrew had his electric hammer stolen from our van, which we never were able to recover. So from that moment on, we never had an electric drill, but we went on to find other ways of making music.

With the band’s first planned shows in Australia for many years coming up, I wonder are our live music venues likely to survive your visit?

I hope nobody is going to be disappointed, but when they come to see us, there’s won’t be any fire, or anybody drilling holes in the stage or tearing down the walls. It’s going to be some middle-aged men playing what I think is some pretty interesting music, not sawing their arms off or anything like that. If people want to see that, they should go and see Rammstein instead. We are NOT Rammstein!

Einstürzende Neubauten tour:

Sunday February 17 – All Tomorrow’s Parties, Melbourne

Tuesday, February 19 – Palace Theatre, Melbourne

Friday, February 22 – Enmore Theatre, Sydney

Saturday, February 23 – Tivoli, Brisbane