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Alec Empire vs. Electronic Beats

When Atari Teenage Riot started out in early 90s, they were seen both as musical innovators and political agitators amongst the left. Frontman Alec Empire, designed a sound so fast and aggressive that it made contemporairies like The Prodigy look like softies. Not only in Berlin but as well in Japan, USA and other parts of the world, their music was perceived as a distinctive soundtrack for rioting. Likewise Atari Teenage Riot (ATR) were fascinated by the raw power of street mobs, taking this influence further into their music and refining it. With the release of ’Is This Hyperreal?’, ATR’s first proper album since eleven years, the question came up, whether riots are still capable of shaping pop-cultural phenomenons.

Alec, you perform off of a mobile stage at the back of a truck during 1999’s May demonstration in Berlin. You were surrounded by a pit of left-wingers going berserk. On the other side of the street stood the police. Finally you got arrested for your agitation, as we see in our first video here.

Yes, this was May 1st 1999. I remember this very well. The Anti-Fascist Action asked us to support this rally. This was the only time really we played a demonstration. It’s important to understand that this one had its own agenda. Germany’s government was thinking about getting involved actively in an attack war on another country again, first time since World War II. It was discussed that Germany would participate in the NATO bombings of Kosovo. Our standpoint always was that Germany should only play a peaceful role in world politics. The overall atmosphere was very heated, but at this time of the day nobody of the protestors got violent. It all started when the police tried to break up the demonstration by beating into the crowd. The video footage was later on used in court to prosecute police men who acted way out of order. I never believed in the idea of Nation states. There are a lot of protests going on, worldwide…they often result in actual riots…we could just look at Greece, England and France for example. Surprisingly mainstream media though often decides to ignore those.

But now, after more than a decade, ATR strikes back with a new album and a new band – but with the speedy music that easily could be taken from ATR’s earlier days. Is our perception correct that your music sounds like riots are still on your agenda?

For us the term riot means two things. First it’s a metaphore for a radical change that happens in the listeners mind when they are confronted with alternative information and this type of sound. The second is the reality of becoming actively involved in bringing change. You can be involved in a Greenpeace campaign or join the Black Block…either way… you will always reach a point when those in power will try to crush you. We could look at Assange and Wikileaks or at protesters who end up in violent clashes with the police. This is never coming from only one side. When change is necessary, it will happen.

Our second video is the opening sequence from the 1995 French film „La Haine“ by Mathieu Kassovitz from 1995. Do you know it, Alec?

Yes, of course. I saw it when it came out back in the day. It’s about the social problems escalating in the Parisian suburbs. I do like the film, I think it’s very contemporary and the music is great as well. Many people might not know that I am a huge Bob Marley fan, especially of his early works, when Lee Perry produced the Wailers songs. When we played in France, it was always quite special. We met a very enthusiastic crowd.

Does that mean that playing in France was something special because of the social problems?

We reflect what’s going on in our music. Our fans can identify with what we are saying in the songs. The concept is basically this: determine your own life, change the world you live in. Don’t wait for Big Brother government to do it for you and stop complaining. Become actively involved and make stuff happen.

This video reminds me of Carl Crack, our bandmember who died in 2001. He was suffering from psychosis attacks, which caused sort of a personality change due to an unbalance of chemicals in his brain… He once attacked a police van in the middle of the night, completely naked…jumped at the van, kicked it. The cops backed off. They were confused and shocked it seemed. It is quite fascinating when you realize that a naked person can cause those reactions. When we are naked we are the most vulnerable, but everybody else doesn’t know how to behave in public when they are confronted with this type of situation. What is that naked guy in the video saying to those people? … is the thing staged?

As far as we know it’s all CCTV footage found by the French artist Cyprien Gaillard and edited for his collaborator Koudlam.

This is pretty out of control…yeah it’s a riot. These days in the internet age, music videos have only one purpose. They must generate as many clicks as possible in the shortest amount of time. Historically music videos have always just advertized the artist and the song. But there is not the same kind of filtering going on online, that happened at major TV stations. The gloves are off.

You mean the only goal of a music video is to produce attention?

Yes, but that’s not my opinion, that’s a fact. Music videos are always little commercials, they must draw attention to the artist or the song and stimulate people to buy the product…if that’s a download, a physical CD or a concert ticket, there is no difference. For many artists it is also a status symbol. It shows that their record company invests a lot of money in them, so the consumer hopefully thinks it’s a good product. Look at Hip Hop and R’n’B videos for example. The music itself is produced with very cheap equipment, so in order to make it appear valuable the music videos have to make up for it. We see a lot of bling, expensive cars, bikini girls. The old trick to give people a reason to buy overpriced products.

Which was never on the ATR roadmap. Your videos had another approach, for example the Revolution Action clip. Lets watch it and please let us know what the message is.

Around the time when this video was made, I often said that we ‘advertise’ a world view, instead of a physical CD or something. The video was directed by Andrea Giacobbe, but we always work very close with video artists. Even the slightest details can compromise the idea and message of ATR. It’s a thin line. The video starts with Wall Street, then a virus attack, computers crash…things get out of control. MTV America showed it, but the video got banned in the UK. Till this day people come up to me and tell me they have just seen this video and absolutely fell in love with it. Often people assume this is new.

Why did it get banned?

The scene at the end in which people have epileptic seizures due to information overload was given as the main reason. This was pre 9/11. I am sure that the scenes in which ATR appear as terrorists, sending a video message showing the kidnapped company excecutive, were offensive to some people there as well.

A lot of people assume we are leftwing agitators. Which is not true. This is also the main difference between us and bands like Rage Against The Machine. They come more from a standpoint that music should empower the workers, so they stand up for their rights. We go one step further and say ‘Why not abolish the state completely if politicians engage in mafia type relations with multinational corporations?’ That’s a different approach but not necessarily more radical. In my opinion it is extremist to give the government all instruments to control and spy on citizens. Which can be the result of a state with too much power. ‘Paper Planes’ by MIA is a smart marketing campaign for her music. I wouldn’t interpret too much into it though. Music videos often provoke attention….to generate clicks. She often talks about the rebels in Sri Lanka. The question is if her fans in the western countries are inspired by those lyrics and see themselves in them.

Do you think that a new riot-style video by ATR would be perceived differently nowadays than, say, in 1999 when you set the Berlin riots to music?

Yes, because people now see an urgency and relevance for our time now. The only reason why ATR played shows again and recorded a new album was because we faced a new crowd. The majority is around twenty years old and they strongly identify with our music and the lyrics.

Which role does the internet play?

The internet played a huge role for us. Our music was around, it was instantly available, it was found by people while we were away. We didn’t even upload videos on Youtube – people did. And then they connected with each other all over the world. I found this remarkable because those songs are over ten years old. That’s a long time in the internet age. But it’s also the fact that there might have been bands in the meantime which were influenced by ATR, and still nobody managed to take the sound to such an intense level.

Is there a lack of interest in the industry for such a sound?

It’s not a lack of interest per se, but it is a difficult sell if you want to go through the usual media channels. So the majority of the music industry would shy away from this type of stuff. More than ever before those platforms are financed from 3rd party advertizing revenue. It can be a magazine, a website or a radio station. It is considered risky to raise those political issues. I don’t think along those lines. The music industry is in decline because it gets boring when every artist sings about love. It got out of balance.

This was our first music video. It was shot in 1993. We came from the techno and electronic scene. Everybody wanted computer animated videos with a lot of visual effects. We knew we’d stand out if we went the other way: Punkrock! Video director Philipp Virus shot this on a 16mm camera with one role of film. This was the reason why we chose this song actually…because it is under 3min long and fits on one role.

Where did you shoot this?

We shot this during an ATR show in Berlin at a really dark venue as you can see. We used 2 stroboscopes back in the day, that was the only light source. That’s why you don’t see the crowd, it would have been too dark.. The difference between almost all electronic acts and ATR is how we perform live. We decided to show exactly that energy, capture the moment. Visual effects in film get old, the physical energy shown doesn’t.

Linton Kwesi Johnson was a key artist for us. Our MC Carl Crack came from hip hop which is way slower than digital hardcore. It was a challenge for Carl to work out a vocal style which works over fast beats at a tempo of over 160 BPM. If you just speed your rhymes up, it sounds ridiculous and nobody can make out what you’re saying. If you keep it at half the speed, it loses the energy. So Carl came up with a unique vocal style that was inspired by speeches of Malcom X and Linton Kwesi Johnson. The message is the most important thing, not the grid of the rhythm.

Although most hip hop and MC culture came from the USA at the time.

This is still the least that’s my opinion. Watch this:

It’s interesting that he’s not driving the car, but sitting on the passenger seat.

Yes, a major difference to all other hip hop videos out there. This has a different attitude. The outside world of the car is white noise. The non-virtual world doesn’t exist anymore. The inside looks more like a rental car – it’s not a limousine. I see a strong anti capitalist sentiment in this. The average rap video demonstrates that the strong can make it in the US, which is often symbolized by luxury items shown in the videos. Success is measured by how much you can consume basically. It takes a lot of guts in that music scene to show the exact opposite. I like this very much.

Atari Teenage Riot’s new album Is This Hyperreal? (Trailer here) is out now on Digital Hardcore Recordings. Read Alec Empire’s conversation with hacker-ethicist Steven Levy in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine.

Published June 27, 2011.