Music

Sufficiently Forward-Looking: An Interview with Einstürzende Neubauten

Tim O'Neil
Photo: Thomas Rabsch

The singer and lyricist gives his take on the music-industrial complex, including the challenge of visiting the United States.

It would not be an overstatement to claim that Einstürzende Neubauten is one of the most influential bands of the last 30 years, even if you've never heard of them before. The fact that they are German and sing primarily in German probably does little to endear them to American audiences, but they could care less: they've already secured their position as trailblazers, post-punk pioneers who took the sound of youthful rebellion just one step further and created something entirely different. Along with folks like Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire, they're generally credited with the invention of industrial music back in the early '80s.

But Neubauten were always just a bit more industrial than anyone else, even if they never really subscribed to the genre's pallid gothic fashion sense. (Nowadays, Blixa Bargeld usually performs in a three-piece suit.) Instead of merely seeming rough or disturbed, the music of Einstürzende Neubauten actually was rough and disturbed: as the story goes, they couldn't afford musical instruments to start their own punk band, so they just started beating on sheet metal and garbage. It was performance art, it was Dada, and it was definitely punk -- but it was also unlike anything before or since. And the beating-on-sheet-metal thing became not just a gimmick, but integral to their sound. Nothing else in music quite replicates the furious, deceptively intricate clatter of Einstürzende Neubauten.

But the band refused to stand still. The malleability of their chosen medium gave them the freedom to move in just about any direction they chose, and over the years their music has incorporated everything from electronic sounds to spoken-word. Along the way the group evolved from a raucous collective to a well-honed band, able of creating profoundly subtle effects through quieter means. While they never forgot how to "rock out" (considering their instruments of choice are PVC pipe and air compressors), they've nonetheless also managed to become pretty deft songwriters as well, equally adept at stirring ballads and white-noise improvisation, and able to move between the two at a moment's notice.

The late '90s and early '00s saw the group release a string of excellent albums that each seemed to improve drastically on the previous release -- 1996's Ende Neu, 2000's Silence Is Sexy, and 2004's Perpetuum Mobile. Persistent dissatisfaction with "business as usual" in the music industry ultimately led them to abandon the conventional music industry altogether, in favor of something new: a subscription service run from their website, www.Neubauten.org, offering fans the chance to become -- in essence -- the group's patrons, contributing fees in exchange for webcam performances, access to rehearsals, and other benefits. Their most recent album, Alles Wieder Offen, is available through retail stores, but not through anything resembling a major label: they've cut their ties with longtime label Mute and gone into business for themselves. (And the fans on www.Neubauten.org, as you might expect, were given a splendid exclusive edition of the album, with bonus tracks and a DVD.) By eliminating the middleman and bringing their music as directly to the customer/fan as possible -- either through Internet access or their independently-distributed CD release -- they've hit on a new way of doing business. They're not alone: acts as diverse as Radiohead, Nine Inch Nails and Saul Williams are all exploring ways of eliminating as much corporate interference from their work as possible. But Neubauten, it must be noted, did it first, and they haven't looked back yet.

First, a caveat by way of explanation: e-mail may be great for many things, but it's not good at all for conducting interviews. With that said, the opportunity to interview Neubauten's singer/lyricist Blixa Bargeld was too good to pass up. The only problem? My choices were e-mail or webcam (the latter being the band's chosen mode of communication with their fans through Neubauten.org). Not having a webcam, e-mail was the only way to go. Mr. Bargeld was a perfect gentleman for answering these questions as thoroughly as possible. It might not have the give-and-take of a "real" exchange, but for taking the time to share his opinions with us, we thank him.

Alles Wieder Offen was created under almost an entirely new economic model, seeing you step away from the confines of the traditional music industry contract system and towards a more organic patronage system that places the musicians and their music on a much more even playing field with fans who are given a much more direct financial and creative stake in the outcome. Einstürzende Neubauten are not perhaps more than a cult success in the United States, but you are considerably more popular in Europe -- if you could, how would you characterized the European music industry's reaction to your new business model?

It depends. In some sectors they are sufficiently forward looking and spend enough time thinking about this matter, that they have acknowledged our business model quite early in the game. For example, the forward2business think tank in Germany has awarded Neubauten.org with the Sputnik Innovator Award back in 2004 for this business model. But in general those who pay attention are those outside the music industry, those who aren't so invested in the current way of doing things that they can look at the potential of alternatives rather than trying to rescue a dying system.

In just the last few weeks we've also seen a surprising development on the part of one of the biggest bands in the world: Radiohead, shorn of any major label contractual obligations, presented their new album to the world with almost no lead time, and with no corporate middleman, offering it for sale themselves to their fans for whatever price the fans are willing or able to pay. The music industry has changed considerably even from what it was just five years ago, where something like In Rainbows would have been inconceivable -- whereas now it seems almost inevitable that big-money players such as Radiohead would want to find as much of an independent outlet for their music as possible. Given your own extensive experience to date with blazing an independent path in the context of an inherently exploitive music industry, what are your thoughts on Radiohead's current experiment? Do you think the economic model is such that it wouldn't even be appropriate to refer to it as an experiment, and more the shape of things to come?

Well, first of all what Radiohead did was not a business model or experiment, but a very clever marketing stunt. They got their album heard, they did get voluntary contributions from hundreds of thousands of people, and they got a huge amount of publicity out of it, but at the end of the day they still signed with record labels to distribute the actual CD early next year. I have been talking about the major record labels as dinosaurs close to the end of their reign for a long time now, and it is encouraging to see bands like Radiohead coming to the same conclusion, but I do not think that they have the future figured out, and their strategy is not applicable for most bands that don't have such a huge worldwide fan base.

One of the singular traits of Neubauten.org's patronage model has been the way you've incorporated fans into the band's decision-making process, soliciting their opinions at every step of the way along Alles Wider Offen's creation. I think most people nowadays have a rather hermetic conception of working musicians, and for their part those musicians that can afford to maintain a splendid isolation during the song writing and recording process seemed to guard their privacy with a jealous zeal. Do you see yourself continuing to work in this manner, and do you think this sort of collaborative model is one that other musicians will readily want to adopt? Or do you think there is something unique in the way Neubauten operates that more easily facilitates this type of a fan/artist exchange?

This is a common misunderstanding, apparently. When we say that we involve the supporters in the working process, we do not mean that this is a "collaborative model", as you put it, or that they tell us what to do with the music. The supporters are paying, among other things, for us to exercise our creative freedom without financial constraints, and that is something that we all value. We involve the supporters in primarily two ways. One is that Neubauten is a particularly good live band, and just knowing that there may be hundreds of people watching us at the time of recording gives the process some of the live atmosphere. Two is that when we have work in progress, we would play it for the supporters the same way that we would for friends that would drop by the studio. We get feedback but we make our own choices as to what to do with that feedback.

Looking at the phenomena from another perspective, do you think the high level of participation and cooperation you've elicited from the most fervent levels of your fanbase serves in any way as an exclusionary barrier against more casual fans, or for those fans less financially able to make an active investment in the ongoing process at Neubauten.org? Should a fan walking into a music store in the coming weeks to buy a hard copy of the album with no prior knowledge of the way in which it was recorded feel be able to feel they're getting the entire Neubauten experience?

Nobody gets the "entire" Neubauten experience unless they live in the studio and on the road with us, so that is not really the point, and many supporters do not take advantage of the online process, they just want to get the final CD or DVD at the end. We are releasing Alles Wieder Offen through normal distribution channels because we want anyone to be able to hear it, not because we want to limit the impact of our music to the few who can commit to being supporters.

Three years ago or so I had the privilege of seeing you guys in Boston on the Perpetuum Mobile tour. It was one of the best shows I think I've ever seen in terms of the audience's enthusiasm inspiring an especially compelling performance on the part of the band. However, at the time you did not seem particularly optimistic in reference to whether or not you would be willing or able to tour the United States in the future, in terms of the consistent commodification and corporatization of every level of our music industry. Has anything changed in the intervening years, or do you think that your new perspective on the independent music industry might make it more feasible to tackle America again, on your own terms?

If anything, the situation has gotten worse for touring in America with the increases in security and the drop of the dollar. We certainly enjoy playing America and Canada but unfortunately touring for us is a very expensive and complicated process, which you can have an idea about if you have seen our on-stage instruments and equipment. Just the idea of trying to get all our unusual and homemade instruments through airline security in America these days makes me shake my head. Also, for many of the cities we would normally play, Clear Channel owns the only likely venues. In San Francisco, for example, both Warfield and Fillmore, where we mostly played in the past, are both owned by Clear Channel and they impose a great deal of rules on what can be done, last time we had to fight with them just to be able to record our own live concerts.

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