Interviews

The Way Is the Goal: A Revealing Talk with KMFDM's Sascha Konietzko

Photo: Franz Schepers (courtesy of earMUSIC)

"I was not musically inclined to begin with," says Konietzko, "I came to music from a technical point of view. Like ‘How do you make sounds like this. How do you make dub reggae?’"

It's almost impossible to believe that KMFDM is now a band of veterans. Their trailblazing style of industrial ultra-heavy beats, subversive lyrics and righteous rebellion has always seemed so very fresh and anticipatory of the next step in musical evolution that it feels as if they just took the scene by storm last year. Yet, believe it or not, KMFDM’s Hell Yeah marks the Industrial band’s 20th album, a true benchmark of any stalwart rock band.

I recently sat down with KMFDM’s founder and only constant member, Sascha Konietzko, to talk about the hard-hitting, instant classic new album and to reflect on the band’s more than three decades in the limelight. Considering Konietzko’s Mohawked stage presence, grinding heavy music, strong, often menacing voice and forceful, political and even angry lyrics, one might be forgiven to expect the singer and multi-instrumentalist to be coarse, brash, anti-social and even a bit pissed off.

Instead, Konietzko is open, self-effacing, warm and one of the easiest guys in the industry to talk to. He's as proud of his accomplishments as he's in awe of the fact that they have come to pass. He's also dedicated to his wife, KMFDM collaborator Lucia Cifarelli, and has a decidedly disarming sense of humor concerning just about anything.

Ever disdaining of injustice Konietzko, famous, in part, for performing songs like “Superhero” and “Son of a Gun”, was almost late to our interview due to a bit of superheroism of his own. “Just seconds before I called you we were trying to rescue a little dog that was trapped in the cabin of a delivery van across the street. Parked there for like one and a half hours.” I asked if he was successful and he excitedly informed me “Yes, we were! Some Eastern European drivers came and rescued the dog!” He laughs about the triumph and adds “What a dog! Yeah!”

That humor and kindness may not be what one would expect from the growling voice who droned “The hard and strong will never surrender!” and “I’m a headless beast! I’m a total plague!” but digging deeper into the lyrical meanings of his songs, this facet of his personality fits perfectly. After all, this is the band who responded to their critics with a song called “Sucks”, hilariously deriding their own musical career.

Then again, considering some of the history that KMFDM has had, one had better laugh or go insane. After a casual question about whether the KMFDM touring lineup was the same as the official lineup forHell Yeah, I was surprised to find that there had been yet another band shakeup. Konietzko is the only constant member in part because so many KMFDM musicians have had major bands before, during, and after their tenure with Konietzko. Every member has their own reason for coming and going but the reasons for the latest lineup change were pretty much the last things I expected to hear.

Guitarist Steve White has taken a sabbatical from KMFDM’s touring in order to pursue a career as an Uber driver. Meanwhile, fellow guitarist Jules Hodgson gave Konietzko his regrets so that he could concentrate on his Seattle dog walking business. Konietzko laughs as he tells me that Hodgson claims to make more money walking dogs in a day than he makes playing guitar for KMFDM in a year.

Surprising? To say the least? A sign of the music-making times? According to those I have interviewed, the answer to that is, well, Hell Yeah!

That said, one should not feel too bad for KMFDM’s upcoming tour as they have hired two skilled replacement guitarists in the form of Chris Harms and π (as in the mathematical symbol “Pi”) from the band Lord of the Lost of Konietzko’s native Hamburg. Likewise, just as technology has altered the profitability of the music industry, much of the same technology has made long distance recording all the more manageable. Konietzko and Cifarelli recorded much of Hell Yeah in Hamburg in collaboration with Florida based drummer Andy Selway.

KMFDM, and Sascha Konietzko specifically, have not been a stranger to overcoming the odds. Over the years their oft-prophetic political lyrics have been misinterpreted and provided a lightning rod for the press to use against them, almost always out of context.

“The song ‘Terror’ [from 1995’s Nihil album] opened up with a line from, I think it was a bystander from Sri Lanka that was talking about the Tamil Rebels or something. And I just really liked the sound of the voice. I like the lilt of that language.“ He (quite respectfully) imitates the accent as he quotes the sample “Some people call them terrorists. These boys have simply been misguided.” before telling me that the content of the quote was less important than his admiration for the man’s voice. “He could have said, you know, ‘I really love Saag Paneer. Fill the Grand Canyon with Saag Paneer.’ or something. It was just, like, a rhythmic kind of instant that really worked out great.”

Unfortunately the song “Terror”, along with a bit of bad timing, brought the band negatively into the spotlight upon the album’s release. “[D]ays after… the record came out the Oklahoma City bombing happened and those words on that KMFDM record were put on the friggin’ fine scale. Like, ‘What are they [doing] now? Endorsing the Oklahoma bombing?’” Of course the song was not an endorsement of terrorism of any kind and is, in fact, an ultra-heavy, though emotional, plea for peace in the face of the “radical anarchists, fascists and terrorists” who are “responsible for the violence”. Naturally, timing would preclude the band having endorsed the bombing, but the controversy stuck, in spite of the lyrical antipathy to terror.

This would not be the last time coincidence would paint a target on KMFDM. “A couple of years later the Adios [1999] album came out the day of the Columbine massacre and people were attacking us for inciting those killings basically saying ‘Ach! German band! Must be fascist! Hitler’s birthday released 20th of April, blah blah blah.’”

Again it would take quite a bit of context juggling to infer anything of the sort from KMFDM’s lyrics. “It was just, like, bad luck. And then I had the fuckin’ press camping out on my front lawn for a couple of days until there was a consensus that KMFDM isn’t really known enough to the American public to make this kind of story stick.” Thus, other bands were sought for blame. “So let’s blame Rammstein, who was our opening band not two years before then,” Konietzko recalls with disdain for the press’ condemnation of the fellow German band.

The blame game failed to let up for some time. “And then Marilyn Manson kind of stepped in and was like ‘I’ll take the full blame for it because my IQ is higher than anyone else’s.’” Konietzko laughs, sarcastically. “That was it. It’s a crazy world, man!”

Just as he dismisses the coincidental connections to real world events, KMFDM’s frontman dismisses any prophecy in their lyrics related to the current rise in right wing ideologies from Brexit to the 2016 American Presidential election. “There’s nothing really prophetic about things that we’ve said twenty or thirty years ago,” Konietzko asserts, “But the mechanics, the mechanisms are easily detectable if you look underneath the covers. So, yeah, some of the stuff that we said a while back seemed to be prophetic but they were not. They were just, like, in clear sight.”

On the same subject, Konietzko contrasts the comparative lack of samples on Hell Yeah to the sample-heavy WWIII (2003), though he does admit that he used Kellyanne Conway’s phrase “Alternative Facts” several times. He also implies that whether the world saw it coming or not, this is the direction things have been going. Describing Donald Trump as something of an “idiot in a porcelain shop”, he indicates that the current American president “seems to want to mean well and he’s just intellectually not capable to fill the shoes that he’s been given.” He adds “These things happen. They happen in all formats and all sorts of sizes and in all sorts of countries.”

It's no surprise that Konietzko is as politically opinionated as he is well-informed. However, the friendly conversation does not remain locked on politics for long and his optimistic and grateful side takes over as we discuss the history of the band. For a veteran frontman of an internationally famous and incredibly influential rock band, Konietzko seems constantly grateful for and still surprised by his success in music.

“I’m just a regular little fuckin’ idiot from Hamburg, Germany and I never thought I would have a career in music. You know, I was in visual stuff. I was a photographer’s assistant and I somehow slid into this whole sort of thing.” he muses. “KMFDM… stands for a mis-phrased German sentence [Kein Mehrheit Für Die Mitleid], which kind of roughly translates to ‘No Pity for the Majority’” Konietzko confirms. “[Until] the first record I released under the moniker KMFDM… I had no idea that at this point I would be sitting here talking to you and going ‘Yeah, this thing has been going on for 33 1/2 years, almost!’ I had no idea that we would be releasing our 20th studio album in a mere three weeks from now and I will say I’m thrilled! It’s been a great ride and the way is the goal.”

Of course, that first KMFDM album, 1984’s Opium did not immediately propel them into the international charts. That was still some time (and a hell of a lot of work) away. The big break came in the form of a postcard from Wax Trax! Records. “Before the days of email and international calling and stuff I got a postcard from Wax Trax! in the spring of 1989 asking if we were available to open up for a tour with Ministry.” Without being familiar with the fellow industrial rockers, Konietzko wrote back saying “Sure, sure we could do it.”

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