Einstürzende Neubauten
Photo: Clarion Call Media

Einstürzende Neubauten Discuss Their Improvised Utopias

Well into their fourth decade, industrial pioneers Einstürzende Neubauten continue to experiment and transform. Blixa Bargeld chats about their creative process.

Rampen (apm: alien pop music)
Einstürzende Neubauten
5 April 2024

The sun is rising in Baltimore when Blixa Bargeld appears on my Zoom, black-clad in his book-lined study, looking every bit the avant-garde elder statesman. It’s early afternoon in Berlin, and by way of small talk, we discuss the recently destroyed Francis Scott Key Bridge. It seems appropriate chit-chat for a musician whose band, Einstürzende Neubauten, translates in English to “collapsing new buildings”.

The Key Bridge opened in Baltimore in 1977. Three years later, Einstürzende Neubauten were born in West Berlin. Their official debut, 1981’s Kollaps, was an industrial album in a literal sense, with power tools, machinery, and metal scrap applied to serve its post-apocalyptic, post-punk vision. Then and now, Neubauten mined a particularly fertile vein formed between composition and improvisation, between instruments and objects.

Einstürzende Neubauten’s new album, Rampen (apm: alien pop music), emerged from onstage improvisations (called Rampe in Neubauten parlance) that they performed as encores during their 2022 European tour. Blixa walks me through the material’s progression from feverish onstage abandon to the refined beauty of these latest recordings.

“Einstürzende Neubauten always improvised on stage; in the early times, we only improvised on stage,” Blixa says. This general thing never really left us. There was always a place in the set called Rampe, which meant we were improvising. The horrible thing about improvising on stage is that we don’t know what the others are going to do. And that’s also the beautiful thing about it.” 

“What we did on this particular tour is we played what I call ‘supported Ramps’, in a sense that we made some minimal agreements about what we’re going to do,” Blixa explains. “I would load a couple of fragments into my teleprompter, so once the improvisation unfolds on stage, I can flick through them and see if there’s anything there that will lend itself to what is happening there right now. That’s why I call them supported Ramps. I didn’t want to rely one hundred percent on divine interference.”

The single “Ist Ist” is a window to Rampen’s overall feel. Its rumbling construction methodically tightens, its sparse yet striking melodicism and vocal experiments coming apart and reforming anew. Within the forming and re-forming, the song’s improvisational root remains.    

“The idea to make a whole album out of Rampen was purely pragmatic,” Blixa admits. “We knew that Alex (Hacke, bass player) won’t have much time to work on this album in 2023, so we had to find a way to be quicker. We basically scrapped the whole research process, which with Neubauten usually eats up a lot of time.”

Skipping the research process has led to arguably Einstürzende Neubauten’s most accessible work. Rampen is a voyage through propulsive grooves, ambient passages, gentle acoustic moments, and fascinating electro-acoustic textures. Across the sprawling two-LP set, you’ll hear amplified metal springs, shopping carts, PVC tubes, ammunition shells, air compressors, and electric drills.

Blixa’s unmistakable vocals unite the disparate material. For every song with a mostly conventional delivery, there are terrifying screams, conspiratorial whispers, spoken word poems, and visceral textures from deep within. His voice conveys meaning with or without the use of words. Language is a recurring topic on Rampen. On two tracks, language is referred to as a pit. I ask Blixa for his take on what the pit of language means to him. 

“Aren’t we all in the pit of language?” he laughs. “I know there is a particular stratum going through this record that has to do with language. It’s not just ‘The Pit of Language’ and ‘Tar & Feathers’. There are several other references to leaving language behind.”

“I always try to find a utopian moment within songs and in this particular record that utopian moment is also extended to a utopian body,” continues Blixa. “The body is the root of language. Metaphors are the construction of the body through language and the utopian body also needs a utopian language. I’m leaving language behind and that’s something utopian once again.”   

In addition to pits of language containing utopian potential, Rampen refers to bodies preserved in bogs, alien planets devoid of light, and even a track about fossilized trilobites. These themes might suggest stasis, but what Blixa finds most apparent on this record is its state of “permanent flux”.

“There seems to be a permanent change in everything all the time,” he explains. “There is a trap, and getting freed out of a trap is certainly there. But you’ve got these things like ‘Before I Go’, where it’s seemingly about changing your place of habitation. That’s all changes. There is evolution, and there’s freedom from biological determinism. I see more and more that these different fields that I harvest in language are connected. They are connected by the moment of utopia and by where I harvest from, mainly mythology and scientific language, in particular biology, archaeology, and geology. I love the idea of using metaphors and words and planting them in an unknown surrounding. So that I can possibly find new use for these things.”

Blixa’s favorite song from Rampen is the closing track, “Gesundbrunnen”, because “it was the hardest one to finish.” He explains that “it was really difficult finding a solution for that because, to me, composing is always just creating a problem, and then you work on it until you find a solution.”

“Gesundbrunnen is the name of a district in Berlin. The idea was you take the word Gesundbrunnen and read it as notes: G is G flat, D, B, E, that was the idea. Then, the fragment I used for the lyrics was nothing but the description of the underside of a particularly ugly carpet. That’s why you’ve got all these things about holes. That took me a while until I found a solution for where to go from that picture to something new. That’s why it’s my favorite one, probably because of the difficulty and the solution.”

In addition to finding just the right combination to solve a particularly tricky songwriting problem, there’s a deeper, more personal layer to the composition of “Gesundbrunnen”.

“This is a very, very young fragment. I wrote this probably two weeks before the tour started, and in that time, when I came to the conclusion of the lyrics, my son came out. My son came out as trans. So that inspired my whole thought process and reading process to look even further into that. Because “Trilobiten” is already about gender and one record back, I end up in “Seven Screws” talking about non-binary,” Blixa says.

“So, the thought process was already going on for a long time, but there I came to a new point, and the new point is, I open the door where there wasn’t one before. We cut ourselves off from evolution; we cut ourselves out of biological determinism. That’s why it had to stand as the last piece on the record. I couldn’t put that piece in between other songs.”

It occurs to me that much of our interview has covered the Rampen process and the creative challenges of transforming onstage improvisations into a cohesive album. But what about the alien pop music side of the album name?

“I was not quite sure if the album should be called Rampen,” Blixa admits. “So, I played for a while with the term ‘alien pop music’, trying to create a new genre. But I kept thinking that there used to be the term mainstream. It’s hardly ever used anymore because there are so many streams that run parallel, probably stemming from the same source somewhere, but they’re running into this delta of populism. And I thought, ‘Okay, alien pop music comes from a different source, it’s a different stream, it probably runs also in a different direction.’ It is the pop music for the aliens that live on this planet.”

And after 44 years of structuring sound for the alien beings who live here on Earth, aka Einstürzende Neubauten fans, what keeps the project going?

“The pauses in between,” is the immediate reply. Everybody does other things; everybody has other projects. Einstürzende Neubauten is more or less like a sea monster disappearing somewhere in the depths of the oceans. A couple of years later, we come back to the surface, and we haunt the ships of the Conquistadors and stay there for a while. And then we disappear again.”