13th May 2011, Atari Teenage Riot is in Bristol – our previous base – a skip and a jump from Cardiff, our current one, and Cat On The Wall could not miss the opportunity to catch up with Alec Empire on the eagerly awaited new record, the change of line-up and the renewed energy the band’s reunion has brought in what looks a semi-dull musical environment. Let’s face it, and you might hate me for saying it, apart from fantastic music from already established artists such as PJ Harvey or Radiohead, the new blood being presented to us listeners is lacking charm and gusto. So it was a very pleasant surprise to see ATR back on the scene, very much alive and very much still kicking against the pricks, but not just that.
Empire looks as youthful and energetic as ever, and the night’s performance certainly confirmed that the (now) trio still has fire in their engine and they’re not ready to settle down yet, whatever settling down means, right?
The ATR frontman took some time off his busy schedule to sit down and chat to Cat On The Wall about “Is This Hyperreal?”, changes in society and their effects on the band’s sound and “mission”, the construction of the new songs and going into office… Revolution? Action!
Cat On The Wall: ‘Is This Hyperreal?’ is Atari Teenage Riot’s first album in over a decade. How did ATR prepare for the recording of the tracks (writing, composing and rehearsing)?
Alec Empire: Yeah, we don’t rehearse for example. The way we do the stuff is that we discuss things like the politics in a way or the ideas of what the songs should be about. Then we go into this phase and that was happening in December basically. I mean we did a few things, like a few raw or rough ideas over the summer but not really with the plan of making an album in mind. Then I lay out a sort of skeleton blueprint of the record. While that is happening Nic Endo would work on sounds but without even really knowing what I’m working on. Sometimes there’s this thing where she goes like I heard this and wow what I’m working on might fit really well and CX would be in Brooklyn doing his part.
Slowly it kind of comes together. Nic, when she does noise, she does these long sessions and sometimes, maybe out of 10 minutes, only 10 seconds end up in a song. But we think it’s a very good way of coming up with different ideas rather than being in one room and creating everything around one song. If you start working on beats and somebody else adds something to it, it’s more logical in a way because you always respect or you add on to somebody else’s idea. I really like the idea of collage. You can go from one time to the other and have these surprise effects because they don’t really work that well together, it’s more cut up. I mean, in the end, for a lot of people, it sounds like Atari Teenage Riot and sounds very logical and natural, the song flows. If you look at other electronic acts I think that’s a big difference why Atari sounds like it does.
There would be another phase where we try and make the lyrics fit. All the ideas and everything that comes into being are like pages of texts. There’s way more texts than we need at the end. It’s more about like how can we simplify it otherwise we’d have 20 minute songs.
Then there’s this last phase when it’s all coming together. It took us two, maybe two and a half months in total with other stuff in-between but I always say we really started after the Spanish shows in December and then it was some point in February that it was pretty much there.
COTW: It sounds like quite a quick process and some bands who are in separate parts of the world might find it difficult. It doesn’t seem to be the case for you.
AE: I don’t think so. I mean first of all maybe it’s because of the kind of instruments we use we know them very well and there’s not a lot of room for the whole trial and error thing. Some people think that and it’s the biggest misunderstanding about Atari Teenage Riot. It’s like punk, these guys get these old computers and sample stuff and this weird reason song comes out the other end. It’s actually totally not like that; it’s more thinking ahead because it has to be programmed. It’s more like writing software. When you want a certain beat to happen, ok you can try and try and try but it would take ages I think to come up with a good result. A good example is the track ‘Blood in my Eyes’. It was based on Nic’s idea for the song, it was like some sort of traumatic dream state like what rape victims describe or soldiers when they’re in situations of extreme violence, it’s like an out of body experience almost. For us it was very interesting to create that atmosphere so on one side it feels a little bit like… (looks for words)
COTW: …like you’re a spectator of your own thing…
AE: Yeah! I mean I wouldn’t call it schizophrenic, it’s like all the hard guitars going on underneath but the sounds are almost working against that energy. This is the kind of stuff that really comes from an idea instead of going wow we put this and this together and it sounds like that.
COTW: So for a track like that were the lyrics done before?
AE: Yeah, all the lyrics are done beforehand and then we do them again in a way. Make them fit to the songs. Black Flags for example had a way longer text, it was like three pages or something. This is all the background information but people don’t really need this because they can look for it. For example when we did ’60 Second Wipeout’, the last record (Ed. released in 1999), we always had the feeling that we had to squeeze a lot of information into these songs and that’s why there was way more text. But this time I thought “it’s too big, we need to trigger people to find out about it”…
COTW: …not overwhelm them. Let the music speak for itself…
AE: Yeah, I guess that’s also a difference to the last record but then if you compare all the Atari records they’re always very different in a way, in their own genre. I mean they always sound like Atari Teenage Riot but they have to have their own theme otherwise you’d have ’60 Second Wipeout’ again and what would be the point.
COTW: …yeah and as for you as an artist what’s the interest in doing that…
AE: Yeah and also I think as long as certain songs are relevant, to me it didn’t make any sense to go “ok just because this worked in the past we need to do that exactly again”. There’s always this line, finding the balance, not losing that signature sound and also doing other stuff at the same time. I mean we wrote 21 songs and then we thought “ok, we didn’t believe in this album format as such anymore” – where you go this is one piece of work.
I mean in a way the record works like that now too but it’s almost just one piece of the puzzle because you’re going to put a lot of other stuff out from the record, the other 11 tracks aren’t like bad out takes or something. We just thought making too long albums people don’t have the attention span and I find that sometimes really boring, it depends on the music but if people give me a CD and it’s like 70 minutes I go yeah but why not split it up, because it not like you have to fit everything on a vinyl and you can put the other stuff online. It’s not like nobody’s ever going to hear it and I think that’s really good to focus.
COTW: There are a variety of tempos on this album that may not have featured on previous albums. Was it a conscious decision to play slower more melodic songs?
AE: I think that the record has more in common with the first album ‘Delete Yourself’ just because there’s a new energy in a way and it’s more positive. I think, today, there’s so much depressing stuff going on, it feels more like “let’s do something, get people together and make something happen rather than complaining about stuff”. ’60 Second Wipeout’ was the end of the 90s, people thought the world’s going to end, Y2K, there was this different tension. I don’t really feel that now people are optimistic for some weird reason…
I think we live in a time where we have to be redefined; we have to with the internet for example, like all the politics. All the stuff is like being discussed from new, certain things that worked in the past don’t work anymore and it creates this atmosphere that people go “if I get involved I could actually, even on a small level, change something”. I think that’s really good. This record is more about that than warning people about the next war.
So it has a lot in common with the first album in terms of the energy. Then when you look at ‘Delete Yourself’ there were always these different tracks, a bit more techno stuff, ‘Sex’ is one track which was more like a slower electro type. So Atari Teenage Riot always had these different types of tracks. Some people who don’t really know the band they just go “Start the riot! Start the riot! Go! Go!”, something like that. We didn’t feel like we wanted to feed that much more because we said those things and ‘Activate’ was like, you know, we’re doing this, we are Atari Teenage Riot – this is exactly that thing but it’s time to just show people other sides of it.
COTW: Like in ‘Shadow Identity’, which enables Nic to really display her vocal range as well as addressing the listener on a more personal level…
AE: I was very surprised how well this worked with ‘Blood In My Eyes’ because of course you always have the breakcore idiots who hate everything that’s not like 200 bpm but, by the way, this was always the case.
It’s so funny I read some reviews from back in the day when we were preparing the biography, I was laughing so hard at how certain people in Germany, critics from the first album to the second. When the second came out the reviews were like “They’ve lost all their energy, it’s so bad, where’s ‘this’, ‘this’ and ‘this’ element? It’s totally flat and boring”. It’s so funny. This was for “Future Of War”, that was the review. Then the third record came out and those people criticised again so you can never make them happy. I was surprised how well other people connected with that song who maybe didn’t even know about Atari because we get a lot of these really young kids now. We get messages like “Atari Teenage Riot” is my favourite new band!” (laughs) Y’know I think that’s funny.
One thing you just mentioned is that Nic has just a totally wider range of what she can do with the vocals, I mean she never really did that before because there wasn’t really the need, it was more like the riot grrl chant, the shouts.
COTW: This takes us nicely into our next question. Nic features heavily on ‘Is This Hyperreal?’, writing and singing. Did she express the desire to be at the forefront more or was it something that happened naturally?
AE: I think when Nic joined at the end of 1996, Nic was always like that, she comes up with these ideas. Also the way Atari Teenage Riot works is that people involve themselves and bring something to the table or it’s not happening. A lot of the songs in the past came out like that because certain people in the band didn’t show up to recordings and I sang and stuff. (laughs) It was ridiculous! Basically Nic when she joined, she was saying we’ve got to really add the whole white noise and that’s the big difference to other rave bands. Then we went on tour and Hanin didn’t show up and Nic was going “ok so let me fill in then”. There were times when Carl and me tried to do ‘Sick To Death’: it’s just not the same energy. I mean, it’s ok, you could get away with it but it was just much better when Nic did it instead of us guys, and then Nic just took that part over and then when Hanin was there it was both of them doing the track. Then Nic would go “I don’t want to get in anybody’s way, I’ll just do the backing thing”. Nic had always more potential to do anything; I mean you see that with her solo stuff.
Last year it was again that situation where Nic was like “I’ve got to save the show or something” somehow. It’s funny because I think people now actually realise how much vocals she actually did on ’60 Second Wipeout’. People go like “that is so weird, that is her voice” – I mean it’s so obvious! Most of the stuff in ‘Too Dead For Me’ is her but people see the video or something, but then there are also some people who thought my vocal parts were Carl (laughs). This guy said to me “You’re so copying Carl! ‘2000 Years Of Culture’, all kinds of stuff”. He was ripping into me and I was like “That was me on the record” – the voices are so different! I mean the thing is if you don’t really care that much and you just listen to the music you can get really deep into that kind of stuff.
COTW: Politics are still very much part of ATR’s musical identity, tracks such as ‘Blood in my Eyes’, ‘Rearrange Your Synapses’, ‘Digital Decay’ relate to current issues of strife, fairness, retaining a sense of self within society and free thinking. Is music your ‘weapon of choice’ to bring awareness to the masses or have you considered going into office?
AE: (laughs) I would guess the government wouldn’t be happy about that! (laughs) I have the feeling that by the nature that the whole system is set up I think people are starting to see that Obama, for example the cynics go “He never wanted to change stuff in the first place” but if you want to change stuff the higher you get up there… it’s not about this individual who can make all those changes.
COTW: You’re back and it seems that during your absence no other band has managed to bridge the gap musically speaking. It’s been a dire decade for innovative new music, why do you think younger musicians/artists are seemingly so apathetic?
AE: It has to do with a bunch of things. I might be wrong but what I see is that it’s definitely to do with the crisis of the music industry, people can’t get anything off the ground. Bands are just sort of scared basically to not have an audience. That’s over-shadowing everything. For example what we do would put some people off, you have to have that confidence but if you’re starting out it’s very hard I think. Labels exploit you more than ever before, it’s crazy. Musicians these days they’re all like “I wanna be famous, where do I sign”. I’m very shocked by it. There’s also that sense of people going “Oh you do that if you want people to hear your songs”. It’s like “Hey, these are creative people, do you want this to happen or flourish? Do you want to get good music or not?”
Music should be about the diversity, if I say “No, we can’t afford to record a string quartet because the studio went bankrupt because nobody can pay them anymore”, y’know, structure that’s being destroyed because people don’t want to buy one CD or something. At the moment that’s the bad result of that time that the majors they survived, like Sony music, they get the money from other channels, they want their own creative content or whatever and that site loses money all the time but they don’t care, they would survive while independent labels would lose out and with that the record stores.
All these independent meeting points have been taken away and I think that would probably go also for independent press. I think that’s a really negative result of the internet age. I feel like it’s not really cool to talk about this, when I bring that up people are almost like no, no. They’re almost like drug addicts, they don’t want to see the reality. I could understand if it was like 1999 or 1998 it was like “Great, everybody can do something”. Nothing comes back, you can’t really build anything. It’s a problem that people have to understand. Hopefully people will see whatever is happening and support that stuff, drive it not with major record labels. I think we’re almost in a situation now where the majors present music – we’ll put this guy on TV – but they’ll make some weird corporate deals so they’ll make the money back. So I think it’s a bad situation which has lead to this weird situation of fear where bands don’t have the courage to speak up. When they do, they can find themselves being very isolated.
That’s what happened to us in the beginning and still if you look at other bands it’s easier to not confront people with anything. I see that it’s very different to the time that we started. Today people, I think, are more scared than ever before. It’s very strange like people feel they don’t belong, they’re isolated. I see that really on every level in clubs in audiences. It’s dangerous I think.
COTW: So do you think we’re working our way towards a revolution?
AE: (laughs) Y’know, I think probably we should!