Interview with Alec Empire

Alec Empire is one of the most influential and active musicians of the last 20 years, he seems unstoppable: tours, festivals, writing and producing his own music as well as others (most recently Patrick Wolf), writing film soundtracks and subsequently featuring in the same film (see our interview with director Richard Wilhelmer) and over the years remixing the likes of Bjork, Primal Scream and IAMX. Yet he has found some time in his busy schedule to answer our probing questions…

Cat On The Wall: How would the nearly 4 decades old Alec Empire reflect on the Alec Empire who started out almost 20 years ago? What have you learned on an artistic and also a personal level?

Alec Empire: I learnt so much… still have the same goals though. The past twenty years have been so exciting and when I look back it seems that they have passed by so fast. Maybe because I never stopped, one great opportunity presented itself after the other. There have been real dark times as well, but I knew they would come. I have been a music enthusiast from a very young age, and I knew that the lives of my heroes weren’t always easy… I mean if you do what I do, you have to be prepared to take one punch after the next one. From all sides.

I do music that nobody else can do, so it is much harder to get it out there, because music industry people kept asking me the same question since I started: ‘Who should listen to this?’ Haha… I still remember one of those great moments in my life, when I received a fax from the legendary radio DJ John Peel in 1994 in the middle of the night, saying the record that we had sent him was “brilliant”… You have to understand that when Berlin was divided by The Wall, his radio show was so important for me when I was a kid. To then get a fax ten years later, I just sat there in silence, staring at it and was blown away. Since then I have met and worked with some of the greatest musicians of my time.

COTW: Is there an artistic expression or project you haven’t yet explored but would like to before you die? If so, how do you think it will get done? If not, why not?

AE: I can see myself doing many things, from writing an opera to an acoustic album. I don’t feel that I have any limits. Right now I think that it is very appealing to write very long music pieces which force the listener to pay attention and really listen to music, instead of short blips of pop songs which keep losing impact… It seems… With modern recording technology there is so much more that can be done and I think about it almost every day, connect dots in my mind, you know… It’s like a riddle that needs solving.

I think remix culture needs to progress a lot. I could see a situation in the future where one could get classic albums like Clash’s London Calling in various remix formats, but not so it fits a bit the modern standards of sound or what DJs play, more like a modern interpretation of amazing music which we inherited from the past. But the copyright laws would have to open up for new music to be set free. Me remixing Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde? Yeah, that would be a great challenge. We have to be careful that this “art” is not becoming like a cheap free fast food promotion tool. I still see a division between the electronic music scene and the musicians who play the more traditional instruments. These borders have to be torn down. Both sides need each other to survive and to create.

COTW: You are very active publicly, on the internet, Twitter, Facebook, your own blog Eat Your Heart Out etc, yet very private: very little is known about your domestic persona. Is separating both of your selves necessary in this age of communication when so many artists put most aspects of their lives on display for anyone to grab in order to remain productive?

AE: I keep my dark sides from the social network sites. In my opinion these are too private. To me it always feels like talking to like-minded people at a show or a party… I don’t go out much in Berlin because I find the scene there quite boring, so I love to have conversations with friends of mine via the internet, to me it’s like being on the phone.

When I did a DJ set on Blip FM it was so much fun because I got all these comments from listeners from all over the world, while if I had done the same thing in Berlin in some bar (I was choosing weird obscure music, not the Alec Empire DJ set I’d do in clubs or at raves), the typical 200 would have come out for a weird party like that… Instead there were much much more people listening in. I also love that people recommend great music to me this way.

I don’t believe in hierarchies, so I respect everyone equally. So to me the internet has replaced what used to be the local scene. I travel so much that I stay in touch with everybody. I think that’s a good thing and there is no danger in that if you know how to deal with it. In terms of a control society, where it is very easy to see what everyone is doing: I wouldn’t even have a problem with that so much if we would apply the same to politicians and people in power. Look into everybody’s bank account, check what they’re doing! Haha… I love it when politicians use that “Why are you against the new passports? Do you have something to hide?“ thing… We should ask them the same question back every time they try to hide how corrupted they all really are….

COTW: On Shivers you are working again with Nic Endo. Have you ever stopped working with her? Is this the longest relationship you’ve had? What is it that keeps you and Nic drawn to working together?

AE: Nic and me have been through a lot of phases, ATR, the various Alec Empire line ups, everything that comes with it… We have a real understanding in the studio and on stage when it comes to making music, and anything creative really, together. Nic is very critical and can point out the weak parts quickly… She has a different opinion on many issues, but I like that. She has no Punk Rock roots, and she feels very often that this side can get too childish if you know what I mean. So that is cool. I listened to the Ramones a lot when I was a kid, she didn’t and she reminds me often that I have moved on from that for a long time. Haha… With a song like Kiss Of Death, it can be an issue… just an example… Nic’s strength is that she is so specialized in creating sounds. She has gone much deeper into this than I have, while I can write songs and have the structure of it all in my head, so we both can add important elements to the music. We can also get into huge fights in the studio… but this has always been very constructive for the both of us. Nic is also as hard working as I am: I mean with that that we both live and breathe music and art, every hour of the day… She would call me and go “Hey I’ve seen this film and there is this part in it, watch it and then let’s figure out how we can break up the new song in a similar way as that director broke up the story line“ or something like that… Nic is also responsible for all the artwork since 1999… She has also shot every photo we have done this year.

COTW: I’m a musician myself with a love of electronics and I’ve hit a brick wall when it comes to performing live mainly due to the fact that I lack a full band and the have a very small budget. You don’t seem to have your entire studio on stage with you. What’s your secret?

AE: I come from an era where everyone was forced to find solutions because everything was so limited. Nobody can imagine that we had samplers with 2MB, yes megabyte! memory…and we did a lot of music. Actually most of my tracks which were produced before 1994 were done on a sampler like that. Our secret was to always buy pro gear. It is better to have less stuff that sounds great than a lot of the consumer instruments. Nic Endo uses the MPC 2000XL a lot live and an AKAI S6000, these are two machines that are old now but they have a great sound. It is really about focusing on what exactly you want to get across live. In the studio we work a lot with modular synths, but it would be insane to bring this stuff on stage. So we use samples instead. Same with guitars. On many tracks I play live guitars, because they add something. On others we want that sound of a sampled guitar… It is how we worked in Atari Teenage Riot a lot… It is that sound and it is razor sharp over a big PA so the limitations that we face during live shows influence the studio work again. It is a dialogue between the two worlds.

I never had any moral issues with using samples or patterns live… This is the history of electronic music. I hate these types of musicians who think that when they reproduce something on a traditional instrument on stage, that that is a very special skill. It is not. Most rock bands we get to see these days on big festivals are pre-programmed in their mind. To me there is no difference between a drum machine and a drummer when both don’t turn their weaknesses into strength. I personally prefer old dance records to new ones, like old disco stuff where they had real drummers, it’s a different groove that has slight changes even though the drummer thought he held the beat perfectly in time. So I decided at one point that the musical idea is what matters, not the rules the craftsmen dictate. We have entered a time where the physical limitations of our body shouldn’t restrict us anymore.

COTW: You’ve been quoted as saying that due to mp3s the quality of music is progressively getting poorer. Bands are just not putting in the effort any more, they are not trying to be innovative. Do you feel this is due to the fact that anyone is now able to record, upload, distribute and access music? Musicians have a more “that will do” mentality?

AE: I think mp3s sound bad, they do not sound physical. It is the same with photography by the way. A real photo has such a high resolution it can have a strong impact on each viewer. That’s the same with music. I remember when it was a strong competition between musicians… like who has the best sounding record, the most powerful sounding one. Then at some point when it got too technical, the lo-fi scene put more emphasis on the vibe and atmosphere of a recording. Everybody tried to do their best.

This mentality is gone now. Most people working in the music industry are cynical now so they don’t want to make an effort if they don’t get paid enough. To be a sound engineer is a very difficult job. It is not only about the musicians and the labels. There are fewer and fewer who are passionate about what they do due to mp3 piracy. I can totally relate to that. It costs money to get a great sound, whatever music style you do. I don’t like that development at all. We can only hope that with shorter download times there will be better quality sound files at some point. At this point in my life I don’t care about selling music anymore, I don’t have to, but I am very worried about young artists. They struggle so hard and get ripped off by everyone: promoters, labels, their own fans… everybody… and they can’t do anything about it.
I think we need a recording ban or a strike. Musicians refuse this system of exploitation until a solution is found. I also criticize that this situation has given sponsors so much power. There is a similar development in film. It is getting out of balance. I will never understand why someone would not pay ten dollars or so for a recording to accept all the corporate bullshit that controls the music, I mean that when people refuse to pay for their artist’s products, the artists are forced to get financed via other channels (putting music in adverts, sponsoring etc). And when corporations like Nike, Diesel, Levis, Vodaphone, Coke etc decide which artist to take on, they shape the music scene. Music can only live and thrive when a real dialogue is happening between artists and music listeners. This dialogue is too disturbed by the corporates right now, innovation seems impossible. Filesharing hasn’t brought more fairness into the game, it has given the corporations more power over music which should be chosen by the people instead. In the past it was more balanced, not ideal at all but more balanced. Music has to come first on the list! The question ‘can we get this song into an ad?’ shouldn’t hang like a dark cloud over the artist’s head when writing, recording music. I see that being the case in many studios right now, and it makes me sad because it takes away honesty and quality from music. I see musicians writing music, so they hope they can get it into an advert, which is the only way for them to pay for their costs so they end up working for that system and not the music fans. It should be the other way round. Adverts should have music in them that people listen to. Germany’s car industry is smaller than the entertainment industry. None of the politicians would think about bailing out the music industry for a second…
Either we have a society that offers everything for free or we pay… Do I want art and music to be provided by big corporations because they are the only ones who can afford to produce it? No. Why? Because it won’t work. Music has to move, it has to change… It must be alive. It is a very complex discussion and no side has the answers right now. At the moment I criticize that it is becoming major record companies on one side using the justice system to fight file sharers, who are very fundamentalist and ignorant about their position. When something is for free, it is free, there is no way back. But in our capitalist society being free means you die financially, so we must find another way.

COTW: When you’re not busy making music, DJing, protesting.., doing all the artistic and political things that you do – what do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

AE: I don’t divide my time like that. I work all the time and I don’t feel like I work at all, you know… Everything I do has an influence on my music. I never go on holidays or something like that. I find that boring. I love food and sports… but anything I do seems to just give my brain time to work out new ideas… so I never stop…

COTW: You speak often of revolution. We’re with you on that but at the moment it seems like an impossible dream with every new generation becoming more and more apathetic. How will this revolution come about and what will it involve?

AE: It’s a complex discussion but I’ll try to keep it short! I think we need a different society, system. Capitalism is wasting so much talent right now and is hurting and even killing people. In Germany most people are born into their jobs/positions even though on paper everyone seems equal. We need to find a new way, a way which doesn’t divide our society into fewer rich and more poor people… Everybody should be able to “win”. The media reports that more people are apathetic, but I see something different. More young people are organized than ever before. Of course there is not one big movement, like we have perhaps seen in the 60s, because it’s all much more fragmented right now. This is good in my opinion, because most people have realized that the answers are not simple. There is more information around, the internet offers people to form their own opinion, and they use it. TV stations have difficulties finding their audience, if we compare the situation to 20 years ago. I am convinced that this development will lead to a new way of thinking, because it is hard to win the majority of people.

This means everybody has to learn how to accept and respect even small groups in our society. The more power is divided and shared the better. Over the past year, during the financial crisis, many have seen how dangerous it is not to care about politics, because everyone can become a victim. Revolution is the extension of evolution. The situation is heating up right now. Politicians seem to act in the interest of international corporations rather than the people who elected them. This is wrong and more and more people see that.

COTW: Finally, what next for Alec Empire?

AE: A lot of recording! Collaboration with Dillinger Escape Plan and more… A bunch of films are waiting for me… We are preparing our US tour for Spring then Summer Festivals… Always running that motor in the red… I love it!

Interview by Jo Whitby & CB Lux

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1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    "I personally prefer old dance records to new ones, like old disco stuff where they had real drummers, it’s a different groove that has slight changes even though the drummer thought he held the beat perfectly in time"

    "Aha – Moment"

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