In this interview taken from the Spring 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, the krautrock legend and the electronic avant-gardist discuss their influences, work and the necessity—or not—of iPhones.
In 1967, Hans-Joachim Roedelius helped co-found the Zodiac Free Arts Lab in West Berlin—an open performance space for sonic experimentation and against “bourgeois” musical conventions. Despite its brief existence, the Lab served as a catalyst for one of the most influential and decidedly European musical movements of the twentieth century, namely krautrock and kosmische Musik. Since then, Roedelius has evolved into one of the genre’s most prolific figures, his exploratory electronics with Cluster and Harmonia becoming a source of inspiration for aesthetic cherry pickers David Bowie and Brian Eno—not to mention those keeping the flame of the Zodiac spirit alight, like German electronic avant-gardist Asmus Tietchens. Roedelius and Tietchens recently met up in Hamburg to discuss the relative merits of Germany’s musical exports for the Spring issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Furthermore, ElectronicBeats.net is hosting an exclusive album stream of Tiden, the second album from Roedelius’ collaborative project with Stefan Schneider—mentioned in the interview below—here. Main photo by Margret Links.
Asmus Tietchens: Welcome, Joachim, to my world. This is Okko Bekker’s studio. Here I’ve worked, secluded from the world, for more than two decades now. And I should mention that Kluster with Conrad Schnitzler was encouraging for people like me. That goes for the recordings and live shows.
Hans-Joachim Roedelius: You must have released at least a hundred records since then.
AT: I’ve stopped counting. I release music regularly, but I don’t see the point in it anymore. I mean, I love to produce music day and night. But to release it? I am fully aware of the fact that I do music for a really small minority of listeners. If one day nobody is interested anymore in my music, I won’t care less. At least I will still listen to it.
HJR: The funny thing is that the experimental music Cluster has done in the past is now seen as being somehow mainstream. I’d say more people than ever are listening to our music and consider it a kind of pop.
AT: Indeed, I wouldn’t call my music experimental anymore. When I make music, I know beforehand how it will sound in the end. That’s not really experimental. On the other hand, when I listen to certain minimal techno or dubstep releases, I’m sometimes completely stunned by the radical approach these young musicians show. It’s my students who continue to confront me with musicians work by Ricardo Villalobos, Alva Noto, Wolfgang Voigt or Richie Hawtin. In this kind of music everything is about details. If you start to listen carefully, you can become addicted to their skills and how they breathe life into minimalist concepts. I am talking about complex tracks that are very carefully composed. But I admit that I’d never found out about them myself. It’s always my students who confront me with advanced contemporary music.
HJR: Do you dance to music?
AT: No, I don’t. I can’t and I don’t want to. I prefer to listen to music. Carefully. Focused. A friend of mine recently sold his Roland TR-808 on eBay for 2,800 euros. It was an original from 1981. I was quite impressed by the winning bid and I understood that these people who work in the minimalist electronic field really know what they are doing—and that they are willing to pay the price.
HJR: When I turn on the machinery, I never know in advance what will happen musically. On the other hand, I work hermetically, within my own world. I don’t listen to contemporary music. Sometimes I do at festivals, when I am part of the booking. But otherwise…
AT: But you continue to work with young people, don’t you?
HJR: I’m just coming from a session with Stefan Schneider of To Rococo Rot. With him I never know where the music will lead us. Whenever we work together there is creative tension in the room.
Above: Tietchens’ most recent release is a 2012 collaboration with former Cluster and Harmonia member Dieter Moebius, aptly titled Moebius and Tietchens. The pair last recorded together in 1976 for Moebius’ project Lilienthal featuring (amongst others) the legendary Conny Plank on vocals, guitar and synthesizer.
AT: In Hamburg recently a new club opened. It is called Golem, and you’ll find it near the fish market. I had an appointment there with someone and we were having a cup of coffee. During the whole time of our stay, we listened to music by Harmonia. I asked my friend if he’d like to guess when the music was originally recorded. He answered, “Two, maybe three years ago?”
HJR: That’s interesting. Michael Rother and I started Harmonia in 1971. And the album we did together with Brian Eno was recorded in 1976.
AT: I honestly like what I see as a new openness when it comes to listening habits. Twenty years ago, in Hamburg you had to explicitly go to the Atonal Bar to hear avant-garde stuff. Suffice to say, the Atonal Bar only opened on certain days and it only attracted a certain kind of people. I couldn’t recall exactly when it started, but I have the impression that the world has become so much more open.
HJR: I think in that regard the ’80s were important. That was a challenging decade when it came to experimental music. And the next big breakthrough, of course, was the internet with its file sharing possibilities, which has enabled millions of people to listen to new and avant-garde music.
AT: Well, since every single recording of mine is downloadable for free via the internet now, I couldn’t live from my music alone. In that regard, the internet wasn’t a blessing for me. My gigs and my lectureship in sound design at the University of Fine Arts in Hamburg bring in all the money.
HJR: How many students do you have?
AT: This year it’s 24. They are all between age 22 and 28. I always like the afternoons I spend with them at the academy. We basically talk. It’s not me telling them stuff; it’s us talking together. I basically moderate the conversations of my students when they talk about their own music. Joseph Beuys worked that way, too.
HJR: I never had any teachers. But ancestors of mine were church musicians. It’s likely that I have it in my blood. But my path went from noise to sonority. At the present moment, I prefer to play the piano than to experiment with noisy electronics.
AT: That’s interesting. I think one of the reasons why Cluster started making noise and having an audience was also due to Joseph Beuys and John Cage. They both preached the so-called “expanded concept of art”. Cage expanded the concept of music ad infinitum. Funny enough, I only learned that I owed everything to Cage after I already practiced his teachings for a couple of years, not knowing that he had paved the road for people like me.
HJR: How did you find out?
AT: German night radio. That’s when I started to listen to these obscure shows. Because I was starting to attend German secondary school, I thought I had to listen to strange music that I couldn’t understand. I imagined it was an integral part of growing up and that I had to endure this to become an adult. But pretty soon I started to embrace and love the music I heard. I would hide under the blanket, pressing the radio to my ear because my parents weren’t supposed to find out. In total darkness I heard Stockhausen or tape music by Pierre Schaeffer or Eliane Radigue, things played backwards or at double speed. I heard it on the radio, so it had to be music. Of course, this then allowed me to play my own tapes backwards at any speed I liked and to experiment with my tape machine.
HJR: You owned a valuable tape machine as a teenager? How come? How old were you?
AT: I started listening to radio at night when I was maybe 12. Then I begged my parents to buy me a tape machine. And I finally got one for my 15th birthday. But I didn’t realize that I actually owed Beuys, Cage, Sala and Schaeffer respect.
HJR: I was always focused on myself. I had so much to do that I simply didn’t have any time to study. I always did everything the way I thought it should be done. I never doubted my decisions. I would stay up all night, working on new tracks, when the rest of the band members were already sleeping. It was that way with Cluster and it was the same with Harmonia.
Asmus Tietchens photographed by Margret Links
AT: What’s your relationship to Karlheinz Stockhausen?
HJR: I once attended a lecture of his in Cologne. This must have been around 1969. He entered the auditorium and then locked the door. The students were forced to stay until he’d finished his lecture. I was shocked. I actually hated him for that attitude. But I regret that I didn’t dig deeper into his music for that very reason. I’d listen to his music, but it wouldn’t touch me. I might be walking on thin ice, but I felt that his music was too thought through. And I know that Conny Plank and Holger Czukay had a much better opinion of him.
AT: I never met Stockhausen personally, but of course I know that he mainly wrote serial music and only a tiny bit of his oeuvre consisted of electronic compositions. I started to listen to Stockhausen when I was twelve years old. His “Gesang der Jünglinge” [“Song of the Youths”] was probably my favorite composition back then because it combined singing voices and electronic soundscapes—back in 1955! I was especially blown away by the fact that he had composed his music with audio tape. Stockhausen was absolutely important for the cultural development of post-war Germany. He is famous for claiming that after twelve years of fascism, after Hiroshima and the death camps, music shouldn’t be allowed to be emotional anymore. He wanted a new, objective music that could not be misused by whatever dictatorship. In a way, he said the same thing Adorno did when he claimed that poetry wasn’t possible anymore after Auschwitz.
HJR: Well, I still don’t like him. But I can of course see that his thoughts on serial music opened doors for an entire new generation of electronic musicians. I mean, all the legions of contemporary electronic musicians reference Stockhausen and Schaeffer whether they know it or not.
AT: What I didn’t know at that time though was the fact that Stockhausen was an arch Catholic until around the time he wrote “Sirius”. But you have to really listen to the lyrics to grasp the fact that the boys in his “Gesang der Jünglinge” are praising the Lord. I once read Texte zur Musik [“Texts on Music”], a very interesting book that he had written in 1952 about his aesthetics, his aims and his concepts in the light of his “worldview”. I became a loyal follower of his music, but it ended abruptly with the release of “Sirius”. I couldn’t understand him anymore. To make a long story short: this music was played on the radio, and I think it was a great thing… when it still existed.
HJR: I never understood how they could tolerate the radio going so down hill. Nowadays everything has become so commercial. A listening “career” like yours that was based on radio wouldn’t be possible anymore. In Austrian national radio they probably play exactly one song a year from me. I can see this from the royalty statements.
AT: I don’t listen to radio anymore. At home, I enjoy the silence. And in the studio it’s the same. There are no windows facing the street. I work in total isolation from the outside world. I love tranquility. I love to walk in the woods surrounding Hamburg. I enjoy the fresh air and, to a slightly lesser extent, the experience of nature. I wouldn’t call it inspiring or whatsoever. I also don’t take drugs for instance or use iPhones to enhance or photograph such moments.
HJR: You never took any drugs?
AT: No, never. I smoke cigarettes and I drink coffee. I’m probably not curious enough.
HJR: A Swiss magazine recently asked me which objects I am always carrying with me. I answered: my wedding ring and my iPhone. I lost my wedding ring in the Tyrrenian Sea in the meantime, during my holidays in Corsica.
AT: I own an old Nokia phone from the mid nineties. Students of mine have offered me respectable amounts of money to buy it from me and impress the others with a vintage phone. But I like it because it is still functioning. I once got it from my brother when our mother was on her deathbed. He wanted me to be reachable. Our mother died, but I kept the phone. I only turn it on occasionally. There exist only six people in the world who have my number.
HJR: I am constantly reachable and I couldn’t imagine it otherwise.
AT: I hate it when you are in conversation with someone and then the cellphone rings. Instead of turning the incoming call down most people would answer the phone.
Above: Roedelius, Conrad Schnitzler and Dieter Moebius put out their first album as Kluster in 1970, the recently reissued Klopfzeichen (Bureau B). Shortly thereafter, Schnitzler would leave to pursue a solo career while Moebius and Roedelius changed the band name to the more anglicized Cluster. As a duo, the two would make some of the most beautiful minimal electronic albums of the seventies, including the classic Zuckerzeit and Cluster 2. Since 2010, Roedelius has continued the project as Qluster with sound artist Onnen Bock, putting out a whopping four LPs, including 2013’s Lauschen.
HJR: Do you still buy records?
AT: Every now and then. I live in a very small flat, so I have to carefully pick my purchases. I recently bought Francisco López’ Untitled album. I also bought a record by Norbert Möslang, who uses self-made instruments—toy sounds, closed circuits, stuff like that. And I bought a CD by Carsten Nicolai to complete my Aleph collection. You actually should pay a visit to Freiheit & Roosen on Große Freiheit and Paul-Roosen-Straße here in Hamburg. This is a great record store that is specialized in German experimental music, amongst other things.
HJR: They sell all the original vinyl?
AT: Exactly. The owner is a maniac, but in the positive meaning of the word. He sells all the original records from the ’60s and ’70s. But he also knows what they are worth…
HJR: Maybe I’ll go there next time. Did I ever tell you that someone stole my only vinyl copy of the first Cluster album? I have to check the store; maybe they’ll have it.
AT: Bowie loved Cluster—maybe he should check the store out too.
HJR: I will never forget Bowie’s appearance on the German TV show Wetten, dass..? He famously asked the audience: “Do any of you know Harmonia?” Of course then there was this uncomfortable moment of total silence, as nobody knew Harmonia.
AT: Did you ever see your influence in his work?
HJR: All I know is that Brian Eno played our music occasionally to him and to other people he hung out or worked with, such as Bryan Ferry or U2. But since I almost never listened to U2, I couldn’t tell if they’d been inspired by us.
HJR: I once saw them in a stadium by invitation. But I left the place after a couple of songs as it was simply too loud for me. I then wrote a letter to The Edge, complaining about the volume, but he never answered. Honestly, I don’t understand why concerts nowadays have to be so loud.
AT: Apropos loud, I once hung out for an afternoon with Carsten Nicolai and Ryoji Ikeda.
HJR: Carsten Nicolai can be insanely loud, indeed. It’s this digital noise that, when played at very high volume, can make you deaf.
AT: I accompanied them to their soundcheck. I asked Carsten if they could play for me the first part of the concert as I couldn’t attend their show in the evening. And I asked him if he could give me a sign, like, ten seconds before it will get really loud—so that I could leave the venue in time. Which he did. I left and could only imagine how they basically shattered the building with their high frequency sound and their peaked impulses. I wouldn’t have enjoyed it. Don’t get me wrong: He does beautiful, poetic music. But it’s just too loud for me.
AT: The iconic German noise music pioneer Uli Rehberg recently said: “We have to torture the people with silence.” He’s probably right.
HJR: That’s interesting. I played a very quiet concert in David Lynch’s Silencio club in Paris with Charlie Chaplin’s son Christopher recently.
AT: Do you know Richard Chartier? He works in the area of reductionist microsound electronic music—specifically on extreme texture in very quiet, very sparse musical set-ups. I like him a lot. Funny enough, even the typography on his cover art has become micro, almost unreadable! It’s only four point or even less. You could probably say that Richard Chartier and the other reductionists are making music for the very young: those who can still see and hear.
HJR: How are your live performances nowadays?
AT: Not loud, for sure. And I don’t do anything on stage. I monitor the correct playback of the sound files. Actually, I always offer to just send the sound files, to instruct someone how to set them up and to stay at home. But they never draw this option. They always want me present as a living statue.
HJR: That’s how Conrad Schnitzler used to give concerts.
AT: Yeah. As the stuffed dummy I guess I’m supposed to add authority or authenticity to the fact that my listening concerts are nothing more than me pressing the play button. It’s as if the bookers are afraid…
HJR: It could also be that they are just happy to have you there. It could be a sign of respect too. Conrad Schnitzler used to send Wolfgang Seidel, his main confidant, to perform on his behalf with a suitcase filled with cassettes.
AT: Well, I don’t like to travel. I prefer to work in my studio. Though I was in Iceland recently. The emptiness really impressed me.
HJR: Were you in Reykjavik?
AT: No, actually I found myself hundreds of kilometers northeast in Seyðisfjörður, a modern city with maybe 600 inhabitants, surrounded by tall snowy mountains and emptiness. It was nice, but honestly, I don’t see the need to travel at all. If you live in a big city like Hamburg, good things will happen there anyways. I will never forget the day when they announced a live performance of Stockhausen’s “Gesang der Jünglinge” at the Musikhalle with Stockhausen as a conductor. I immediately bought a ticket. A couple of days before the concert, Stockhausen had held his infamous speech about the terror attacks on September 11. He basically claimed the attacks to be the biggest work of art in the history of mankind. You remember the shitstorm he kicked off with that press conference? Undoubtedly, it was a very emotional time. As a result he then cancelled the concert, as the audience probably would have lynched him. And when they rescheduled the concert, I wasn’t there—I was traveling! ~
“Einer von euch, unter euch, mit euch” (“One of you, among yourselves, with you”), wrote Martin Kippenberger on his self-portrait in 1979. He was the master of profligacy, but at one point everything was too much: on March 7, 1997 he died in Vienna—at the age of 44.
What he left behind was a life on the fast track. Kippenberger painted, he played in a punk band, published several books, together with his painter colleagues Werner Büttner and Albert Oehlen he founded a secret society called “Lord Jim Loge”, he planned a global subway network, he ran the Berlin pendant of Andy Warhol’s Factory for a few years and basically ruined himself with this exhausting and self-destructive lifestyle. During his lifetime he was denied the fame and appreciation that a lot of his contemporaries experienced. 16 years after his death he is now considered a classic modernist painter and conceptual artist of world fame. The most important museums all over the world show his paintings and auctions of his works keep on breaking records. Due to the great opening of the Kippenberger retrospective at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, five of his associates and peers–Michel Würthle, owner of the Paris Bar in Berlin; art collector Bärbel Grässlin; galerists Christian Nagel and Gisela Capitain; artist/friend Werner Büttner–, as well as Kippenberger’s sister Susanne commemorate him. They tell his story, a story of an artist, a self-publicist and a provocateur from six different angles—fused together into an oral history, which is to be understood as an attempt at honoring an ingenious dilettante. The conversations are collected by Max Dax.
Susanne Kippenberger: Our father was a building engineer, who would’ve loved to be an artist himself. He always painted, photographed, drew, wrote, made collages and built objects from stranded goods. He also produced little books and magazines for his closest friends, containing personal letters or writing about our vacations. Martin grew up with the belief that everyday life can be the richest source of inspiration. Our father also used to stage photos of us when we were children. A camera was always with him and unlike us sisters, Martin always enjoyed posing and having pictures taken of him.
Werner Büttner: Martin was unbelievably good at striking poses. That’s why so many amazing photos exist of him. Whenever there was a photographer present, he would strike a pose. These vast amounts of photos of course helps us remembering him.
Susanne Kippenberger: It wasn’t just L’art pour l’art, it was a special kind of self-manifestation that our father encouraged him to indulge in. He always gave speeches—just like Martin would later do as well—no matter if anyone paid attention or not. Albert Oehlen and Werner Büttner both have met our father and confirmed that in that regard he was even worse than our brother.
Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger wasn’t tied up in doubts. He was never like Beckett, who couldn’t continue to write once he’d started and who became increasingly blocked and as a result even fewer lines came off.
Susanne Kippenberger: We knew from the beginning that Martin would become an artist. Unlike other boys he didn’t play with toy cars, he rather always painted. On one wall in our kitchen father had written the words: “Martin, our artist”. When he was only eight or nine years old he used to say that he wanted to become a famous artist. He was never doubtful about it.
Werner Büttner: Martin was a special case. He simply couldn’t do anything else. He had to be an artist—and only that, day and night. He wasn’t meant to do anything else. The only apprenticeship I ever heard him do was a brief stint as a window dresser. He wasn’t even able to cope with that. He rather chose the path of total freedom, a fool’s life, doing whatever he felt like doing—and hoping that some day he might get some reward for it. Which he eventually did.
Susanne Kippenberger: School was a disaster for Martin. He left home at a very early age, when he was nine, to go to boarding school. Our parents received a letter from the headmaster in which he states that Martin showed an enormous amount of creativity. He wasn’t sure if Martin was copying anyone. But if not he surely had a future in art ahead of him. Of course, Martin later used this letter for an artwork and exhibited it. He basically turned everything he found into art.
Christian Nagel: Martin Kippenberger was restless from the beginning. It was a restlessness that was mirrored in an inflationary conception of art production that shunned exclusivity. Basically there are only two approaches in art: either one floods the market with as much as possible, or one acts as exclusively as possible. Kippenberger always did things to excess. He simply created too much art–not just because he tried to skirt the art scene, but maybe also because he knew he’d not much time left.
Werner Büttner: To put it nicely, one could say that half of Kippenberger’s oeuvre can be considered disposable, the other half is genuinly brilliant. There is no mediocrity to be found in his body of work.
Gisela Capitain: Kippenberger had an all-encompassing and interdisciplinary approach. Unlike other artists his reputation wasn’t damaged by showing weaker pieces in an exhibition as they were always contrasted with very strong ones. He was never ever anxious about giving away a piece from his studio that he knew wasn’t a masterpiece. That was an immediate expresion of his beliefs, and he was very certain about this. And if he still started doubting, you could bet he used that doubt to create something new.
Werner Büttner: Everything has to be evaluated in context of its time: the ’80s were a strange decade within art history. The mechanics of the art scene were very peculiar then. In the Eighties everybody seemed to believe in the daft idea of “autonomous art”—which basically meant that art is art and everything else is everything else. I never believed in this. And neither did Oehlen and Kippenberger which is why we never had to discuss this on a theoretical level. We didn’t even ask ourselves if we had to fight the idea of autonomous art–so absurd the concept was to us. Instinctively we knew that this just couldn’t be it and that art had to be related to reality. Time proved us right: Nowadays there are only very few people left who believe in that theory.
Bärbel Grässlin: The late ’70s were dominated by minimal art, concept art and performance art. Opposed to these disciplines, Kippenberger’s paintings were provocative, fresh and new. The boys all listened to the same music as us, also they convinced us with their intellect. My siblings and I started early with buying Oehlen’s, Kippenberger’s and Büttner’s works. Why? Because their art was clearly beyond the established.
Michel Würthle: Martin never began with constructing a theory, trying to realize it in the next step. He always produced right away. In hindsight it was always easy to then contextualize what he had just created. He processed the content from the form. He lived his ‘work in progress’.
Susanne Kippenberger: Every aspect of his life was rendered into art. He took, whatever it was, and made art out of it. Everyone and everything fascinated him, from Austrian woodcutters to the headlines of tabloids like the German Bild Zeitung.
Werner Büttner: Our enemy wasn’t just the art scene, but almost everything that was surrounding us. Our enemies were certain newspapers, television channels, those other idiotic alcoholics in the same bar as us–it basically was the world around us. We could always agree pretty fast on who was the enemy. But that didn’t mean at all that we weren’t competitive. Our careers probably flourished over the years because we were always merciless with each other and ridiculed the other as soon as one of us made a mistake. We were ruthlessly speaking our minds, even if it created awkward situations. That’s how we learned.
Michel Würthle: Kippenberger constantly put himself under immense pressure of production. Even though he was constantly traveling he felt compelled to deliver on a daily basis. He cultivated some kind of love/hate relationship when it came to everything connected to producing art: invitation cards, posters, catalogs, opening speeches and of course the after-show parties were all most important satellites for Kippenberger. Needless to say that such a lifestyle is exhausting in the long run.
Gisela Capitain: Alcohol was an instrument for him, a means to keep himself constantly in a good mood, to keep a never ending communication flow going. Alcohol was never important when it came to work. Kippenberger never drank alone. Not even at work. He also never worked under the influence of certain drugs. Drinking for him always had a social and societal connotation.
Bärbel Grässlin: He was an eccentric person, he always boozed. That’s not a secret. He drank to let off steam–but that’s what others did as well. Actually, he created the pressure himself by going public over and over again and constantly demanding appreciation for his work.
Michel Würthle: I remember this one outbreak of emotions he once had at the beginning of the ’90s in this god forsaken pedestrian area in some remote provincial backwater. I told him, “Let us never ever go again to a place like Aschaffenburg or Munich, let’s rather go to Congo. Always the same Italian restaurants after the openings. This is an unbearable routine!” And he responded, “This is some kind of war. We have to live through it. You can’t just run away.” The problem was that we kept on boozing in these places. We sometimes just couldn’t escape these provincial nightmares. In the weakness of a post-exhibition hangover we always had to drink more–otherwise we would have never ever endured these situations. And this way we’d spend just another precious day in no-man’s land. With every hour that went by we increasingly felt stuck. We once hung out at the Salzkammergut for three days after the wedding of Cosima von Bonin and Michael Krebber–Kippenberger’s assistant and friend. We almost lost our sight from the beauty of the snowy mountain panorama and, of course, the too many Fernet Branca digestifs. A slight panic seemed to break out. In those cases the only thing that helps is taking a taxi – even if it’d cost us a fortune. Hiking on glaciers, bus or train rides were not an option in such a situation.
Bärbel Grässlin: Kippenberger was always able to work, even if he had partied hard the night before. He would even continue to excessively work when he took his yearly health cures in Austria. There, for instance, he did an enormous amount of drawings for his series “Hotel”–he had to draw as canvas and oil paintings couldn’t be produced in a cure hotel room. These “Hotel” paper drawings were also some kind of compensation as he simply couldn’t access his studio.
Michel Würthle: Kippenberger went to a clinic in Innsbruck once a year where he would live off of bread and milk for one month. From that clinic he always returned amazingly fit, looking splendid with his even skin and healthy tan. These health cures always worked for him. But after three, four weeks tops, his old lifestyle caught up with him.
Bärbel Grässlin: In Innsbruck he befriended a traditional woodcutter who carved some of his most famous multiples for him, for instance the famous “Frog on the Cross” [“Zuerst die Füße”]. No matter if health cure or vacation, suspension of production was not allowed.
Susanne Kippenberger: The worst case for Martin would’ve been to limit himself to one single style. He studied in Hamburg at Rudolf Hausner’s, who in his lifetime basically painted the same heads over and over again. Martin never wanted that. Still one can find Hausner’s very own ‘handwriting’ in each one of his pieces.
“Zuerst die Füße”, Martin Kippenberger, 1990
Bärbel Grässlin: His working strategy was to focus on a certain topic at a time, for instance the self-portrait, the egg, other art phenomena and so on. As soon as one of those topics was dealt with, he immediately commited himself to the next one. Every exhibition differed from the one before. Back in the day if you’d attend two Kippenberger exhibitions in a row, you could easily think you’d seen shows by two different artists. Eventually his ‘fingerprint’ was easier to recognize.
Susanne Kippenberger: He always saw the bigger picutre. Barbara Straka, who curated his exhibition “Lieber Maler, male mir…” [“Dear painter, please paint for me…”] in 1981 at the NGBK in Berlin, once stated that she witnessed Martin’s completely different approach. Instead of just preparing the exhibition he curated a whole week of happenings around it. The opening for instance was just one of many related events–there was also a concert at Café Einstein, a festival at Michel Würthle’s Paris Bar, another opening at Galerie Petersen and he even incorporated our father’s 60th birthday into his week of events. It was one big art installation.
Michel Würthle: Martin could be a stubborn character if he became fixated on a certain idea. He could switch into attack mode from one moment to another, especially when things slowed down or went wrong. He wouldn’t accept no for an answer if someone didn’t take him seriously.
Susanne Kippenberger: He was very determined while working, always straightforward. His declared goal was always to become a famous, celebrated artist. He did have minor goals too, that he couldn’t realize while still living–for example he dreamt of being a writer. I don’t know if he really, really believed in it, but he actually went to Paris for a few months, rented out a hotel room and started to write a novel there. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out, he didn’t become a famous writer. He also used to always say that he would’ve loved to become an actor, a second Helmut Berger. Suffice to say, this also didn’t work out.
Michel Würthle: One of his unrealized projects was his wish to appear as a cameo in a big budget Hollywood production—it would have been enough for him to just prominently walk through a scene showing his presence. That would have been all he wanted. It didn’t matter who would have starred in the movie–it only needed to involve helicopters and such things. He envied José Luis de Villalonga, who, in the 1950s, managed to have cameo roles in almost 50 movies—among other roles he played a Brazilian ambassador in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He would have loved to have had such an impressive list as well, but he had to write that off as just another failed project. Martin was very sad that his film career never got started.
Bärbel Grässlin: Accessibility in the Beuys’ sense was a top priority to him. Everybody should know. He always carried a stack of invitation cards with him which he would then hand out to everybody he met–be it a boozer in a bar or a man on the street. As many people as possible should come to his gallery openings, these weren’t meant only for an exclusive inner circle. Instead the family was permeable and supposed to always be extended. Permanently. Perpetually.
Michel Würthle: He was always accompanied by a ever-changing troupe of fans, an entourage which didn’t have to neccessarily match his wit. In this scenario he always was reminiscent of a circus director who constantly recruited new performers and bystanders for his next show. Wherever his journeys would take him, he always would spot that town’s dives and gin joints. He had an instinct for spotting the most desperate of all public bars. That’s where he would go and start drinking and generously recruit assistants for the upcoming exhibition opening.
Gisela Capitain: Martin Kippenberger was always the center of attention, no matter where he was.
Bärbel Grässlin: He loved openings, because it was him who was celebrated and he enjoyed that excessively. Artistic recognition was more important than anything else. The question was, “who is there? Who isn’t there?” As a member of the family you simply weren’t allowed to be absent. And if you were, he would remember it. For him presence was some kind of testimony: “I honor you that’s why I’m here”.
Susanne Kippenberger: He wasn’t the type who would let anybody control him. Like an animal he had a precise instinct for another person’s weak spots. He wouldn’t hesitate to bring up the most painful subjects—and he did, extensively. I mean, nobody likes being told painful and also true facts about oneself in front of an audience.
Christian Nagel: Kippenberger was really good at dredging the shit up and throwing it in the other’s faces.
Werner Büttner: If you cultivate a confrontational relationship, good and evil start to surface. I always quote from the most gruesome book of the Bible–The Revelation of John—when I teach my students: “You can be hot, you can be cold. But if you are lukewarm, the Lord will spit you out.” Nobody had to remind us of this. We were never tepid neither with each other nor with our audiences.
Christian Nagel: I remember how Kippenberger once insisted on serving croquettes and other Dutch fast food ‘delicacies’ at the after-show dinner as part of his grand exhibition opening in Rotterdam. He used to love those croquettes as a teen when he went on holidays to the Netherlands with his family. The director of that museum was very embarrassed about this–his staff originally planned on serving something sophisticated, but Kippenberger insisted on having this greasy, fried, unhealthy convenience food. The director was confronted with a working class cliché of the Netherlands born out of the Ruhr area in Germany.
Susanne Kippenberger: The German art set of the ’80s was convinced that humor doesn’t belong in art. For them it meant lack of seriousness. In their eyes any art that used humor was irrelevant. That explains why Martin had only one solo museum exhibition in Germany in Darmstadt and a second one in Mönchengladbach right before his death—but dozens in the United States.
Christian Nagel: Kippenberger cultivated a love/hate relationship towards the art scene. He wanted to be Picasso, Beuys and Warhol at the same time. But he felt disgusted by the art market. He tended to get pretty mad when he felt confronted with meaningless praise, wrong arguments or vanity. He definitively had a moral code and could thus be easily offended.
Bärbel Grässlin: You can trace an anarchic sense of humor, as well as irony, especially self-irony in Martin Kippenberger’s work. He always displayed a critical distance towards everyday life and towards art. He kept a distance from the art scene, but at the same time he absolutely wanted to be part of it. The legions of art historians, curators and museum directors definitively had their problems with Martin Kippenberger while he was still alive.
Werner Büttner: Martin wasn’t allowed to receive the recognition he so eagerly had fought for all his life—a participation in the Venice Biennale, the Documenta or even the huge retrospective at Tate Modern in 1997. It was a cruel and cynical aspect of his life that he died in 1997–the same year his career internationally went through the roof.
“Paris Bar”, Martin Kippenberger, 1993
Susanne Kippenberger: Everybody says that if you die young, you’ll become a legend. But I personally believe this is only one possible explanation for why Martin is now honored with huge international retrospectives and merits. Many people didn’t even see his art, they only saw him, the provocateur. And more often than not, they got him wrong.
Bärbel Grässlin: Martin Kippenberger lived twice or three times as fast as the rest of us. Maybe that’s why he died so young. I watched him closely when he was in Frankfurt as a guest professor at Städel-Schule. Socializing on a nightly basis was a must–which was a drag. Being alone was never his thing, so he always had to gather an audience around him. No one was able to keep up with his speed.
Susanne Kippenberger: Until today not many are aware of Martin’s last series, especially the litho-series “Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”] and “Bilder, die Picasso nicht mehr malen konnte” [“Pictures that Picasso Wasn’t Able to Draw Anymore”]. Some people still see him as a clown and an ironist.
Werner Büttner: Many people think he didn’t anticipate his death. But I doubt that. I think he lied to himself as I feel he knew deep down. You can actually see it in “Das Floß der Medusa” [“Brail of Medusa”], which he created in Denmark referencing a motif by Theodore Géricault. There is no doubt that someone is bidding farewell. If I look at the prints, I see a disfigured, bloated, destroyed body waving goodbye. And on some of the prints this body even strikes the Imitatio Christi pose—reenacting a crucifixion. When I saw his last series of lithographs I realized that this cycle implied a foreshadowing of the end and that it was a goodbye to the world.
Christian Nagel: I am quite sure he knew the end was near. Interestingly enough, this didn’t lead him to push even harder, instead he tried to enjoy his life. He married, he even went on his honeymoon and started to live in a house with a studio in Austria. This house to him became his home—and not just a stopover. But, of course, he still was constantly working until the end.
Susanne Kippenberger: I believe that even facing his imminent death he couldn’t completely change. He still couldn’t really slow down. Looking back, there was always this enormous desire to live and work. And yet Martin wanted to become an old man. A fortune teller once told him he’d live past his 80th birthday–he enjoyed telling this story so much. But then again he was a smart guy. He knew he was drawn to a dangerous lifestyle.
Werner Büttner: I got this phonecall call and the other voice said, “He is dead”. So we all traveled from every corner of the earth to this rotten hill, which guards the exit of the Pußta and its worthless setting. The weather was so terrible that you could’ve been jealous of the dead. Frozen-stiff and weighed down with morbid minds we approached the pit painfully slowly. At a certain moment, when almost a hundred of us still hadn’t faced up to his grave, suddenly the gravedigger started to fill the grave. The widow froze, the mourners froze. Asked what he was doing, a loud and drunk reply in the meanest of all Austrian dialects spewed forth from his stinking mouth, “Well I’m in charge, I’m closing this hole now, it’s getting dark soon.” Michel Würthle took the drunken Catholic creature aside and bribed him with some pennies, which, aside from schnapps, was his only interest. Then we proceeded with the rituals of piety. I am sure that even during this very last episode, Kippenberger would have unearthed some odd pleasure. And certainly, he would have made something out of it. ~
Main picture: “Ohne Titel” [from the series “Lieber Maler, male mir”], Martin Kippenberger, 1981.
As Tosca, Richard Dorfmeister and Rupert Huber released their first album, the wittily titled and groundbreaking Opera, in 1997. However, their friendship began much earlier, in school, where their shared love of musical experimentation, particularly with tape machines, proved a fertile basis for long-term collaboration. Their music while highly exploratory is also hugely popular; a distinctive take on downtempo and ambient music, uncoupled from the formal imperatives of electronic music made for the club. The duos latest album Odeon is released this month and Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax met up with them to discuss, among other things, the emotional resonance of Vienna, the joy of soundscapes and the essential records of Miles Davis. ~ All photos by Luci Lux
Even though you travel the world, you still consider Vienna as your hideout and refuge. Do you consider Vienna as an epicenter or is it more like a city on the periphery?
Richard Dorfmeister: The world is a ghetto. I strongly believe in the idea that home is where your roots are. Home, to me, can be the town where I am currently based; I can work with my laptop in New York, in Dresden or on some remote Austrian glacier. But for seven years now I have lived with my family and my three kids in Zurich. So, frequently coming back to Vienna to work there together with Rupert on new Tosca material always feels like really coming home—from a place I now call home.
How did Tosca’s music change as a result?
RD: I wouldn’t say that Tosca’s music changed as a result of my traveling schedules, but certainly our working patterns have altered. Now every session has an end after three or four days. We both consider the time we have as very precious and valuable. So, as a result, we’re probably more focused than before.
Rupert Huber: As opposed to the days gone by when we could endlessly work on new material as there was no time budget involved.
RD: I like the term ‘budget’. Time has become a currency to us. But besides that, coming back to Vienna always triggers childhood memories—as well as more recent ones—as this is the capital I was born in. You can’t erase strong feelings like that. The mood is present even if we encapsulate ourselves in our studio in the basement of the house where I used to live. Our studio is like a cosmos: once you enter the studio you’re cut off from the world that surrounds you, there are no seasons and there’s no time of day. I really love to be separated from the world like that when it comes to work. But I can’t shake off the feeling that I’m home.
RH: A studio has to be, by definition, sealed off from the outside world and not only for acoustic reasons. I couldn’t focus in a studio that offers me, say, a beautiful view. I prefer working in seclusion.
I recently interviewed Irmin Schmidt of CAN fame and he loves to have a view. When it was hot in summer in Weilerswist they would even leave the studio door open—you can hear children playing in the distant background on some of their recordings…
RH: If you left the door open to our studio you’d hear people yelling at each other, car accidents and street traffic.
RD: It never crossed my mind to sell the studio and build a new one in Zurich.
Tosca’s Opera album from 1997 started as a pop album but tilted over into a dystopian soundscape after a couple of tracks. The album certainly helped to define how we perceive Vienna today. I remember having dinner with Arto Lindsay when Opera was just released and he remarkably stated that he’d forever link the musical freedom you’d expressed on the album with the city of Vienna.
RD: Wow! He said that? Great! I too love these soundscapes most. The deluxe version of our new CD Odeon has a bonus live disc of pure ambient soundscapes. Whenever Tosca comes close to this kind of music we are getting somewhere particular. Unfortunately, you can’t perform these kind of ambient concerts everywhere. People are still not that open.
Why is it you like the soundscapes so much?
RD: I guess it’s the cinematographic quality they have. When you listen to forty minutes of sound without beats it gets trippy and I’m fully aware of the fact that there’s only a fine line between boredom and absolute trippiness.
RH: It took us some time to create this atmosphere on stage. We needed special equipment to do so and now we’ve assembled all the gear we can perform like we want to. The Odeon live bonus CD is a first glimpse of what you’ll hear from us in the future.
What seemed to have been the obstacle?
RH: We didn’t have the new version of Ableton Live. Now that we do it allows us to intuitively alter the tunings and the tempos of our pianos and everything else while playing live. This piece of software enables us to be rid of pre-set patterns.
RD: The different tunings of the sound sources proved the biggest problem when it came to live performance in the past.
RH: It’s never easy to tune a piano to start with, but even when you’ve finally fine-tuned your instrument you have to sync all the other audio sources with the piano tuning.
RD: I envy real musicians for that reason. Take Miles Davis’ band from the ’70s, when they went electric. They didn’t have to bother about midi or whatever. They’d tune their instruments and then play.
Which Miles Davis albums do you consider essential?
RD: The usual ones: Agartha, Pangaea, Live Evil. That kind of stuff.
What about The Cellar Door Sessions or The Complete Jack Johnson Sessions?
RD: I’ve heard about them. They’re the original sessions that were then treated and edited by Teo Macero, right?
RD: Didn’t they release The Complete On the Corner Sessions as well?
Yes, it’s pure dope. I’m not at all surprised that almost every musician or producer who works in the field of electronic music calls these ‘making-of’ box sets an incredible source of inspiration.
RH: That’s uplifting to hear because I’m actually, more often than not, disappointed when I try to talk with people about this exact kind of music. They haven’t even heard of that body of work. All they come up with is Brian Eno. I mean, nothing against Eno, but Miles Davis is, well, miles ahead.
RD: I recently had this discussion about the sources and roots of Kraftwerk and CAN. How come that electronic music in the ’70s went through the roof in West Germany of all places…?
Stockhausen probably, and his WDR Studio für Elektronische Musik in Cologne certainly was a major reason.
RD: I think so too. If you talk about electronic music you have to talk about Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Miles Davis too. That’s when the tape machine came into play.
Irmin Schmidt and Holger Czukay of CAN were students of Stockhausen. Whereas Kraftwerk were heavily influenced by the Dusseldorf Kunstakademie, namely Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter—even though they didn’t do music at all.
RD: I understand what you mean. It’s probably the spirit of that particular time and place which made things possible. I mean, it’s obvious that Kraftwerk didn’t try to enhance the musical ideas of other musicians who went before them. It’s crystal clear to me that the concepts came from the art world.
Now Kraftwerk are taking their music into the museums. They performed at the MoMA in Manhattan, at the Kunstsammlung NRW and are due to perform at the Tate Modern. This raises an interesting contradiction: If they consider their music as an artistic performance that can be exhibited then how does improvisation fit into the equation?
RD: The unforeseeable element is the key essence when making music. Especially when you don’t only improvise but also start to use dub effects. Then the whole set-up finally becomes totally unpredictable. But regarding Kraftwerk, I think the essence is that they have a strong framework of pre-set structures, but in between those they are allowed to improvise. I don’t think that art performed in a museum implies that improvisation is not allowed.
Richard, you’ve been one half of Kruder & Dorfmeister. By what means is Tosca a counterpart to K&D?
RD: Well, obviously Rupert and I don’t even try to do club music with Tosca. Even if we use beats we don’t orientate ourselves by the vanguard beats of the others. Tosca is more about style than about beats. As a DJ I could easily include dubstep into a set of mine, but even if I like it the sound wouldn’t become part of Tosca.
What kind of music does rub off when it comes to Tosca?
RD: It’s basically music from the ’80s. I’ve probably heard too much music in my life so now most of the new music that comes out leaves me completely unimpressed. When you’re young and your memory is a blank slate you’ll fall in love with every kind of good music that you hear for the first time. Don’t get me wrong—I envy the beginner’s mind for its openness and naivety. Every impression you get as a beginner is a strong impression. Of course I do envy anybody who experiences such a strong impression.
Can you recall such a strong impression in your own life?
RD: Of course. Watching Stop Making Sense by Talking Heads for the first time blew my mind. Nobody had ever seen such a thing onscreen before. I liked Some Kind of Monster by Metallica and Everyone Stares by Stewart Copeland of The Police fame too. But as I said before, I’m mostly impressed by the music that hit me when I was still going to school—The Doors, Serge Gainsbourg, Arto Lindsay, black soul music, funk and Studio One reggae. It was the heyday of new wave, only a couple of months before hip-hop and rap blew everything away. I mean, there were musical revolutions going on!
What about Falco, to name another musician from Vienna?
RD: Falco was pop. We didn’t care about pop.
RH: He was commercial.
But didn’t you often spin Falco’s hit “Ganz Wien” as part of Kruder & Dorfmeister’s DJ sets?
RD: Of course! That’s his best tune. We had the pleasure of meeting him one year before his death. We respect him. Why shouldn’t we? But when we were young we were so much more strict than we are nowadays. ~
Honestly, I don’t really know anything about the music world—I just know a lot of musicians.
So when I first contacted Kraftwerk in 1998 for the Berlin Biennale, while I was working with Christoph Schlingensief, I had no idea what to expect. I think at the time, Kraftwerk were at a point in their career when they had yet to decide if they really wanted to commit to the art world. The thing is, 1998 was also the height of the Love Parade in Berlin, and the organizers also asked them to take part, which they didn’t do. But I think maybe they were scared off because we both asked at the same time. It took a while, but they answered our call in 2007. That’s when we first started putting this in the works.
What we’ve done in the MoMA atrium is pretty much recreate Kraftwerk’s Dusseldorf-based Kling Klang studio, down to very minute details. Attending every show and being so caught up in the process, I’ve experienced the retrospective in a very specific way: The first night I was completely exhilarated; the second night I was irritated by the rhythm and duration; the third night I was completely addicted. It was like being on a bicycle, cruising along, eventually having to go uphill, and then coasting back down again and hitting your rhythm. Then it’s in your body. When I did the interview with Jon Pareles for The New York Times together with Ralf [Hütter] the word “tangible” kept coming up. Ralf said that when he speaks during concerts, he does so from inside the music. For the Trans-Europe Express show, they performed ‘The Hall of Mirrors’ which is all about Echo and Narcissus. These are the audio and visual reflections that are both sent and received, like a radio station transmitting and receiving, an artist looking and being looked at. It’s an excellent metaphor of what’s been done here at the MoMA, which has cost a considerable amount of money to produce and involved an incredible amount of building and restructuring. My colleague from the Whitney thought that the exhibition space had already existed. No, this was created to bring people into the image, into the cube. And within the cube, people are inside the cone of 3-D projection, which extends from the screen onstage to the projector in the back. Both the band and the viewers are literally inside the art. You can’t stand on the side. I told people when they watch, they have to be in the cone.
During the first dress rehearsal, when the sub-bass came on during ‘Kometenmelodie 1’, several light fixtures started rattling. We took the frequency out, because I thought the building would collapse—I thought the paintings would fall off the walls. We ended up solving the problem of course, but it gave us a scare. The fact of the matter is that when you’re curating, especially doing a retrospective, you give up your own personality. It’s the strangest thing. When I was doing Marina Abramovic, I had to completely dive into her world and live her speed and velocity. Or better: stillness and duration. It’s an intimate experience with a work of art. It means you have to be completely available. So I’ve been listening to Kraftwerk straight for the past four months. You know, with every artist, there’s a first work where the nucleus of all future ideas is contained. And that’s extremely important to know when creating a retrospective. Here it’s Autobahn, for me. That’s subjective, of course.
I think Kraftwerk have been artists from the very beginning, but they were kidnapped by their mainstream success. Of course, everybody is happy to be kidnapped by success, but it makes it more difficult to recognize who and what they are. Still, in the sixties and seventies their studio was right next door to Gerhard Richter’s. They could have drilled a hole in the wall and been right there. But honestly, not a lot of people have understood the extent to which Kraftwerk are and were artists, in Germany especially. Of course, I assume that people like Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke got it. Joseph Beuys got it. Werner Herzog and Fassbinder got it. Katharina Sieverding got it. But not many others.
For me, Kraftwerk are very much children of the BRD, the Federal Republic of Germany. I am like a grandchild of the country, and Kraftwerk are father figures. The BRD, like the GDR, dissolved—it doesn’t exist anymore, but artistically speaking, it was all about Kraftwerk, Heinrich Böll and Joseph Beuys. It used to be that Germany had the first truly active Green Party, and culturally—in art and music—this played an important role. Beuys sang ‘Sonne statt Reagan’, and there were massive anti-nuclear protests, especially against the stationing of Pershing missiles. Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz featured Kraftwerk’s ‘Radioactivity’, of course. I see all this in a very specific historical context, but also in an artistic one. The incredible thing is how Kraftwerk have been capable of not just updating but upgrading their material over the course of their careers.
Somehow it seems like people haven’t understood that the retrospective is an exhibition and not just a concert. People just don’t get that, and it’s been very hard to get people into a different mindset. It’s like with movies—film was the leading art form of the twentieth century, and it still hasn’t really made it into art museums. Museums can be so slow. With a time delay, art arrives with cinema, which is something I’m trying to push. I did Doug Aitken at MoMA which was big, cinematic images with no sound, then I did Pipilotti Rist, which was cinematic images with sound, then came Marina Abramovic, which was cinematic image with sound and live performance. And now it’s gone one step further. Kraftwerk is the fourth step. But there’s a fifth step, and I’m not sure what it is yet. A few months ago I went to the Cologne Cathedral to check out Gerhard Richter’s stained-glass works. And all I could think is what it must have been like a few hundred years ago to come from some mud-hut, some tiny town with no electricity, no heating, and see this incredible thing with image and sound. That’s what I imagined seeing and listening to Kraftwerk to be.~
Earlier this year we where reporting from the Kraftwer Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 at New York’s MoMa, where we collected a lot of interesting takes on the legendary techno innovators from the likes of Juan Atkins, Afrika Bambaataa, Klaus Biesenbach and more – Read them here.
Photo: Luci Lux
Mark Stewart is a formidable thinker. He talks quickly but his brain is almost definitely moving even faster. To engage him in conversation is to become entangled in a dense web of references, names and concepts, the conversational topics ricocheting from one to the other at an intimidating velocity. That’s OK though, we’ve come to expect that of the man that helped bring us Bristol post punk politicos The Pop Group. With their agitprop approach and DIY sensibilities they helped vocalise the anger and apathy that defined 80s Britain hobbled by a Thatcher government. While few would have predicted that they would ever reform, this year saw the band working on an album of new material.
There’s more to Mark Stewart than The Pop Group, however. A fervent online activist and solo artist, his recent album The Politics of Envy (released via Future Noise) affirmed his influence as he drew upon his friends and peers for collaborations – Kenneth Anger, Primal Scream, Richard Hell and Lee “Scratch” Perry all signed up. Still, for all his old guard status, he still resonates with a whole new generation and today sees the release of his collaboration with Nik Void of austere industrialists Factory Floor for new single ‘Stereotype’.
A good a time as any, then, for Electronic Beats editor-in-chief Max Dax to pick the his brains. Hold tight.
Max Dax: I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the role of protest in music, going back to the 1960s when it was a very real entity. I assume that you don’t consider what you are doing as protest music, but there is this very conscious aspect to the music you make – how would you relate to that term?
Mark Stewart: Personally I don’t separate politics from reality. I think every move you make is political – when you pick up the cup and the cup is made from tin from a death belt in Africa, or your trainers are made with slave labour in China. Everything is political. People say my music is political, so is everyone else in the world blind when they look at the obscene inequalities in the way the corporations are raping the world’s resources?
You are referring to this Joseph Beuys idea, that everything you do, everything you say, has a political component?
Yeah, they have a saying in Bali: “We have no art, we do everything well”. The Greek root of the word politics is just “gathering” or “people”. How come that since the Medieval times a small amount of people have convinced the rest that they are not in control of their actions, that it’s up to kings or queens or politicians. That’s rubbish. Why should pensioners in Greece or Spain be blamed for a banking scandal in America when millionaire bankers ripped off each other? It’s all a big confidence trick. I see capitalism as a mirror that is beginning to crack. I mean, Guy Debord, one of the founders of the Situationist International, wrote this book called “Society of the Spectacle” and I think we’ve been under the spell of the spectacle, we’ve been zombie workers for too long. Even in Tunisia with Tunileaks, in different parts of Africa people are realising that what they’ve been told is complete bullshit. The media is owned by the slavemasters.
Do you consider your music and your role as an artist as an opportunity to spread ideas, concepts and doubts?
Doubt is a very important word for me. The concepts of doubt and the fire of nihilism has been driving me since the beginning of punk days. With my last record “The Politics of Envy” I was collaborating with people like The Raincoats, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Keith Levene from Public Image Limited, Killing Joke and the Slits and it really reminded me of the D.I.Y. messthetics – as Simon Reynolds called it – from back in the day with Rough Trade. When we tried to control our means of production and we were just constantly doing protests rallies. I think at the moment all you can share is a sense of community across the world. Friends of mine are fighting on the front line of Burma, and yet other friends are fighting against loggers in South America. Music is like an umbrella which can give you a little solace and make you feel like you’re not the only lunatic or the only outsider in the world. We thought from punk that everybody was equal, the people on the stage were no more important than the people in the audience. I see my role only as important as someone making a carpet or fixing an engine or putting a shoe on a horse, it’s part of the continuous process.
You just mentioned the importance of friendship, of exchanging and formulating thoughts. One of the irritating facets of the 21st century is how the term friends seems like it’s owned by Facebook. How do you see this shift in how we talk about issues like friends and gatherings?
I feel that across the world people are beginning to see through the lies. There’s a generation of people who’ve been fed by music and radical ideas, from the Occupy movement to Tibet to people on the streets in Thailand. Everywhere I travel people are really beginning to question what we’re being told. Whether they use Twitter to organise a demonstration, whether they organise Occupy protests or hacktivist symposiums, I think the speed of the hypermedia helps. My community now lives online. Back in the day you could say I’m a punk, I’m a goth, I’m into reggae and you’d gather at certain concerts but now there are people like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups and there’s a space where people with shared interests can gather – online. It seems that there are punk secret agents from our generation throughout different levels of our society like The Simpsons creator Matt Groening, to the head of a big Japanese media conglomerate. I’ve got a lyric on the new album: “bankrupt ideologies litter the dealing room floors” – I think we’ve really got to keep open minds and keep our antennaes open and not moan and not judge things by the past and use the new tools to build something new. It’s a time of hyperchange and we can’t keep judging it by morals and ideals from the 1950s.
Another ideal, not from the 50s but the 80s, a result of punk, was the foundation of Rough Trade Records. They considered themselves independent from the market and from the media. Then Rough Trade went bankrupt and now when you talk about indie rock, it seems to have become a genre of music but it’s not filled with political context any more. How do you feel about this word Independency being stolen?
It would be a ten page conversation about so-called independent record stores or record labels. My only feeling is when we were kids we built up the tendrils that stretched across the world from Japan, to Survival Research Laboratories in the States, to Rough Trade America to cool protest groups in South America, bands in Japan. What I’ve found in the last couple of years with my friends, my comrades, they’re Chinese artists, people behind Tunileaks, they’re aboriginal people, it’s a much wider thing than just music. I call these people sympatico, maybe we argue over the specifics and maybe somebody’s got the wrong concept of economics … But music is one small corner of this group. There’s a global underground and I’m finding that people on the electronic frontiers have the most imagination at the moment. The discussions we’re having is reminiscent of the old salons in Vienna where mystics, alchemists, scientists and politicians did gather. People at the bleeding edge of new technologies, new political concepts and experiments in art and music are all gathering together. That’s how I found Kreuzberg in Berlin, with people like Bruce La Bruce. It’s possible for bright minded people to meet like they did in the Cabaret de Voltaire and create new things. My father was a great scientist – so I grew up with mad people coming to the house anyway!
Do you see your new record as a manifesto for this?
A personal manifesto. All I’m doing is that I’m going through notes of what I’m interested in, notes of what I think is wrong and what I think is right, interesting things I see in the world, be they political, mystical, artistic, sexual or politics. And often it’s just questions. For me my new album is like a personal letter from my front line. If I have to be a poet in this situation I should be allowed to deal with any subject in the world. Why should we be censored in music to just sing about cars and girls?
You say it’s a personal letter, but normally you write a letter to a certain person you have in mind – and not an anonymous mass of people.
It’s a jumble of my mind. I remember talking to Allen Ginsberg once about how he wrote, and it’s just the way my mind thinks and it’s the way my mind’s been thinking since I was 14. I’m not saying anything is right or wrong but these are the things I find interesting. Other people obviously find it interesting to sing about bottoms or breasts or Ferraris. But I don’t, sorry.
How have you felt about The Pop Group’s comeback so far?
The strangest thing happened when Matt Groening curated ATP and he asked Iggy to reform the Stooges and me to reform The Pop Group. I thought it was a stupid idea. I thought it would be like necrophilia. Then, suddenly, with my art projects I’ve been flown to Vancouver and been told to collaborate with a fat Korean artist who works with lard and some shadow puppet maker from Thailand. I keep trying to decondition and question why I’m making certain judgements: One side of my brain said why are you negating this thing, why can’t you just treat the reformation as a new commission. So I thought OK I’d walk into this with new eyes and I just said to the other members “let’s see if we can make something new”. Immediately when me and Gareth Sager started working something really bizarre happened. There’s these alchemical beasts called golem, and golem appeared in the room. It’s nothing like anything from The Pop Group, it’s nothing like anything me or the other guys have ever made, they’re like these huge French chansons with string arrangements and these things are running off with a life of their own. I’m shocked. We’ve just control of our back catalogue so next year there’s going to be a classic box set and we’re going to produce a brand new Pop Group album called The Alternate. The thing’s got a life of its own. It’s interesting for me, I can stand back and watch, it’s like a firework. I don’t understand how these things work but from hanging around with Kenneth Anger last year in Portugal I learned that if magic happens you just have to stand back and watch. You don’t try and control it.
But somehow you control it by having different outlets, you have the Pop Group, you have The Maffia [his band which releases material on On-U Records] your internet activity, how do you know what’s going to come next?
I don’t. It’s random procedures that we learnt from oblique strategies and from the beatniks: You can do these strategies of refusal where you deny your past and break a habit. A lot of it is chance procedures, but those chance procedures create sparks. Over the years when I’ve taken a chance and clashed different genres people have said that I invented industrial or trip hop or whatever but that’s because I deliberately negated a normal procedure and something strange happened and I let it happen and I was man enough to stand back and not say no that’s wrong. Some of the best things in science are when people think in a lateral way and in juxtapositions. I think Kenneth Anger’s juxtaposition in Scorpio Rising, of that homoerotic biker footage and that religious imagery he got through his letter box by chance. I would go that far to say that these random juxtapositions are the most important things of our generation. Then there is a chance for something new without our conditioning. Basically we’re all the constructs of our condition.
How far does it go back? You said it was the beatniks were the first to use this random, anti-cyclic process of putting things together – also called cut-up.
I didn’t say they were the first, I’ve got some old Arabic grimoires and I think it goes back to the beginning of time. As a human being you’ve got to realise, Tricky had this project called Product of the Environment. Basically we’ve got to realise that since we’re born, it’s like the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, if we were raised in the forest we’d have different ideas to those we have. Part of my thing is to always keep on questioning why I’m doing something. ~