Blixa Bargeld





By: Sarah L. Myers

You must destroy to build. In the 27 years that Einsturzende Neubauten have challenged the musical structure with this ethos, front man Blixa Bargeld has remained chief inventor and lyricist. Bargeld is inarguably the most recognized and respected figure of the entire experimental and industrial genre. Along with Can and Kraftwerk, Einsturzende Neubauten have become Germany’s most influential musical export, inspiring everything from Nine Inch Nails to Blue Man Group.

But that is just the conventional explanation. Devotees recognize that without Bargeld and Neubauten, music and composition would exist only as we’d heard it before. Instruments would remain categorized. Chord structures would follow predetermined patterns. Language would conform within arrangement. The Neubauten refused to accept this. Drawing on “music” made at protest marches in Berlin, Neubauten transformed objects such as shopping carts, sheets of metal, jet engines, and air compressors into conductors of sound therapy. Not just noise for the sake of making it, Neubauten was the sound of a country on the brink of potential devastation and absolute transformation.

Beginning with their debut album, Kollaps, in 1981, Neubauten have continued to release challenging and complex contributions. The 1985 video for “Z.N.S.” combined the hollow and austere image of the Neubauten with the experimental, often disturbing, Japanese Butoh dance. “Die Interimsliebenden” combines the sound of fire and chains with lyrics about the cosmos and philosophy. Similar to the makeup of the band itself, everything seems to come together in a kind of organized chaos, making sense in a way that defies explanation. The concept of 2000’s Silence is Sexy involved the use of the quiet in making music - not just the absence of sound, but the context in which it exists. The title track features the amplified lighting of a cigarette. The Neubauten are not just content to alter the way music is made, but also how it is released. Having founded in 2002, they release albums on a subscription model basis to supporters who pay for releases before they are recorded. By recording music only for their supporters, the Neubauten are free from the contractual obligations that impede the creative process. This supporter project has resulted in the release of several albums and played a major role in the Palast Der Republik and Grundstuck DVDs. For these performances, the band was joined onstage by a choir of 100 supporters. Neubauten have also experimented with improvisation, using a card system to dictate subject matter in their recordings.

The sound and image of the band has changed considerably over time. Bargeld remained guitarist for Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds for more than 20 years, undoubtedly helping introduce melody and accessibility into his work with Neubauten. Bargeld’s look has also changed. The rubber bodysuits, cod pieces, and hacked mohawks have been replaced by three-piece suits and bare feet. He is esteemed, sophisticated. However, his bone-chilling, blood-curling scream remains one of his trademarks. He’s never lost it, and it still appears on every Neubauten album.

Thirsty met with Bargeld in San Francisco, where he now lives. He had just performed with Nick Cave and Grinderman, treating the fans to their signature duet, “The Weeping Song”. Instant recognizable in a black suit, Bargeld spoke of his career with Cave, Neubauten, his solo contributions, and the evolution of his personal and professional work. Einsturzende Neubauten release their new record, Alles Wieder Offen, in November on their own label.

There is one piece on this record called “Susej”, which is based on a guitar that I have recorded in the flat cellar of a Hamburg recording studio - the same one where we have recorded “Kollaps” - that is very close to the harbor so every now and then high water gets flooded so the cellar has a cellar underneath for the flood water. It is based on the recording of that guitar in 1982 and it ends up to be a dialogue between me and me, musically and lyrically. I am talking to myself in the first person about myself back then, and myself now. I am now actually a result of what I have been in 1982. It’s a bit archeological.

What was the process of recording this new album?

We have started a website called to be able to basically make records on a subscription basis. That is probably the easiest way to describe it. I know there’s a lot of confusion, people think that we are not making albums anymore, but that is not all exactly true. We were just looking for a model that would enable us to make records without money, as we don’t have any.

The first round we did in that, we basically produced one and half records, one was a subscription album through our supporters, ones that had subscribed to that, and the other one is an overlapping kind of album that we released publicly, and we did so in order that we can, in order to tour. We realized that if we only give out subscription model records then we will not have much chance which playing a tour. So we ended up with this kind of model in the first period that was neither there nor that. The second round, a few years later, that album was Perpetuum Mobile (2004), which is the last public album that we made, so far. The next round we did the Phase II, we actually ended up only making a record for our subscribers. That is fine. We had a nice series of concerts and etcetera and now we’re in a process of finishing Phase III. The result of Phase III is this album. From the beginning people were told there will be a public album and there will be a supporters album, which basically contains much more material than the public album and we were trying to do that over a period of twelve months. I am not living in Berlin currently so I was living in Beijing so it meant for me that every two months I was going to Berlin, I would record for ten days or something like that and I would go back to Beijing. Out of these working periods came more material, which in the end was finished. So everything was recorded in our own studio in Berlin and if it would have not been our own studio we wouldn’t release it. We ended up with not twelve months. We ended up with fifteen months, with seven periods of two to three weeks, is a long working period. In a normal situation when we would have had to pay for a studio like that, we wouldn’t have made it. But because we own the place we only pay for the engineer.

Einsturzende Neubauten band photo

Was Perpetuum Mobile the first album released through the supporter project?

That was the first album that we financed through the support project. It’s not what’s considered the first supporter album, it was the first album that we made through, through financing through subscriptions. I know it’s getting a bit confusing, especially for people outside that are not involved in that whole subscription or supporter model it is getting kind of confusing. They think we don’t make records anymore, that they are only downloadable, it’s not true. I know that the fetish of the actual record in the sleeve is still so strong that you can not avoid that. I would prefer very much, it would be making things for many bands much, much easier if that wouldn’t be there, if you don’t go for - if you just make it a download. It would make it easier for a lot of people. I know that fetish is there, and yes, we are still making physical records. So this next record is going to be released as a public album in a record sleeve, with the booklet and everything, and there will be another version which will be not publicly available which is 30 percent longer, which is for the supporters and a thank you for having supported us with money and enabled us to actually make the record.

Perpetuum Mobile relied heavily on new instrumentation, specifically air compressors and jet engines. Is that the case on this album, as well?

No. It’s probably the first album that we made where we’re basically nothing new has been brought in. This is all revolving more or less around the same aerial of material that we have been using for awhile. No new instruments were used.

Are there any common themes or concepts holding the songs together?

I guess there are, but it’s pretty hard for me to nail down. It has much more to do with me than, of course everything is somehow, which is done is somehow related to my life, and I can look back at every record that we’ve done and see that particular version of myself and a particular period of my life but still this record is more personal than, let’s say, the last one. There were records which I deliberately wanted to write as, in a second person singular - so basically saying ‘you.’ And there were records when I was trying to be, to look at everything more from a first person plural - ‘we.’ And this is just, I, I, I. It is not new not to me, not in the world, but this one is really just about me. There are exceptions, as usual, but in general I feel this has much more to do with me than the last one. Which, once you see the lyrics and the translation, becomes very obvious.

What kind of touring and publicity are you planning for this new album?

We are going to, for the beginning of September, for a longer European tour. This is also the first record that Neubauten are actually releasing ourselves. Also the public one. We have an existing contract with Mute Records but we agreed, we meaning the band and Mute, agreed on taking this record and probably the next record, out of that. They’re going to get, they’re going to release Strategies Against Architecture IV but we were so disappointed with their performance of the last record that we didn’t want to. Now we can make it ourselves and blame it on ourselves. That’s what record companies are good for. Usually if you have a record company you can blame failures on that but now we are doing it ourselves so if this doesn’t work out than we at least can say that we tried it. We release it ourselves, so we can blame ourselves. I think that’s very much worth noting that this is the first record that we’re actually releasing ourselves. We have done other things but for major worldwide releases, it’s the first one that we do.

Is it correct that you’re finished touring in the United States?

Well, look at the dollar. Who’s meant to pay for that? I think it’s, for the moment it’s simply… I mean, Grinderman, as you know, has just been here, they played four shows, they lost money. They knew they were going to lose money. Even if you just do something like that, fly over, play four or six shows. It doesn’t seem to be possible. Ticket prices must have been double the price of what they are. I would like to play the US one more time but maybe some miracles happen, but we are playing extended European tour. We’re trying to do China, probably not in 2008, too much happening in 2008 in China.

Blixa Bargeld

The last time you played in Chicago (May 2004) you announced it was your last time in the States.

The last tour we were really so pissed off by, in the end all the money, everything from merchandise, everything from - we sell the live recordings after the show, everything - all the money that went into the tour, and it still was (unprofitable). We just played three shows in, four shows in Europe. One in Germany, and one in Scotland, one in London, and one at All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. For the London show alone we made 10,000 pounds on merchandise, which paid for the whole fucking four gigs! We knew we can’t afford to go play four shows only, fly in Ash Wednesday from Australia, practice for a week, pay the engineers and all that, go on a four-show tour around Europe and we’ll still not making money. Simply because we can sell the merchandise and it’ll be fine. In the end, everybody will be happy. If we do that in the US, we can’t really. Every t-shirt we sell is going to go into the hole that (touring) leaves there. It doesn’t matter so much for me but I think other people, after like three times doing that are just so pissed off they don’t want to repeat the experience, that’s it. And when I mentioned that I will talk to an agency in the US again, when I mentioned that to Rudolf Moser, the drummer of Neubauten, he just said ‘no way.’

It’s still very difficult for you to travel with your equipment, right?

It certainly didn’t get easier. It was a little bit easier when we first came here. Now doing that by air travel is just a nightmare. A nightmare with or without our equipment. With our equipment even more of a nightmare.

I wanted to get your thoughts on the changing sound of Neubauten. My first introduction to the band was the “½ Mensch” video, and seeing performances now - there’s such a drastic change there. What are your thoughts on the way Neubauten’s sound has progressed over time?

Blixa Bargeld

Well, the technique and how these things come together hasn’t changed very much. It is just that, I of course cannot deny that after doing this for a quarter of a century that I have made my experiences and I know what particular things we’ll have as a result. So once I have tried every possible imaginary material and done this, done that, it’s like a Pepsi ad, you know, been there, done that, etcetera. I can only build on my experience. You know, like we did that in 1984, and I know it now. And as there has never been that much interest in repeating ourselves we’ve always tried to look for something new in a way. We never really tried to repeat ourselves very much but I am not trying to deny that of course we’re not sounding like we’re 21 and don’t know what we’re doing. Which is very much what you could say when we were making the first records. When I first went to a recording studio I had, I think a budget of 500 marks, 250 euros, 300 dollars, to make an album and that wouldn’t even cover an engineer so the engineer, the owner of the studio, would just tell us where to push ‘record’ and where to plug in the microphone, and then said, ‘ok, if you have any questions call me at home.’ From there on we basically had to learn how to do these things ourselves. So when you listen to the first recordings we did, you’ll hear impossible things. I think the first single that came out the right channel was 30 percent less loud than left channel because we made everything ourselves and we ended up actually mastering it through a tape recorder and we didn’t know how to plug it in. So it enabled me also to not getting fucked around by stupid engineers later, because I basically figured out how to do particular things and when the engineer tells me, ‘you know, you can’t set up the guitar in that corner,’ then I can say, ‘yes, I can. I know what I’m doing.’ These things come in layers. After 20 years I cannot deny that I have done something already in 1982 and that I know what the result will be. Interesting fact is maybe I know also what this record sounds like and it is mature, you can hear that people have a particular grounding of experience, I would say. Interestingly, we made it at the same time we made it at the same time we made a second record. We made a second album which was given to the supporters as a monthly download. Every month we made one more piece, which was called a jewel, and these pieces were directed by a card system. The card system is kind of a navigation system that I developed especially for Neubauten out of those experiences. I basically went though Neubauten’s back catalogue and back recordings, partly in my head, partly by listening to it, and figured out what were the good ideas and what is worth mentioning. And tried to extract that as much as possible and turn that into a card system. So there were enough particular fixed rules about it but the way we played that, we’ve done it live several times, too. I think even in Chicago. The way we most of the time played it was that everybody draws some cards and doesn’t show them to the others. And then takes its conclusions out of the more or less cryptic commands on the cards. These pieces, because they had to happen very fast, that one of the reasons also why the sound, picture, and asthetic changed, too, when I had like a week to make an album I work differently than when I work now when I know I’m in my own studio and I do it until I am happy with it. I mean, I’m happy with these pieces, too, but it’s a different attitude and a different working process. So everybody worked on these commands and miraculously, every time we did it some totally unexpected piece of music came out, and these pieces were sold to our supporters. They sound very much like how Neubauten used to sound. I don’t think it has something to do with us becoming old men. I think there’s a lot of experience. It also has a lot to do with the actual working process - that you’re clear about what you’re going to do and that changes the picture of the sound, too. It gives it more elaborate and more thought through character, whereas these pieces - the jewels - were all guided by cards.

Einsturzende Neubauten photo

Did you prefer that kind of working process? Or do you more prefer going into the studio?

Oh, that process, for likeability, that’s much better because it doesn’t draw through your soul. For me to work on any of these other songs which are - that was a bit like psychoanalysis or something. It was much easier to work on a dream and do nothing, and be commanded by cards than trying to finish a song where there are blood strings connected to it.

What were some of the words and phrases on the cards?

One of our famous instruments is a bass spring, we’ve had it since 1980, so you could draw a card that said that. Let’s see, the last one that I did, I had a card that says one word, totalitarian, a drone, and something else that I can’t remember right now. So I ended up with the word ‘drone’ and I ended up recording an airplane. I was standing outside with a microphone waiting for an airplane to pass over. And I was looking through my lyrics … and the first word that we did had the comment on it, a dream. And I said that’s a good idea and I just looked at my dream protocols, which I happen to have. That was the first one I did in January last year or something. So I decided I would do all of them based on dreams so I looked at all of my dream protocols until I found one way it would be possible to repeat a word - because it said ‘one word.’ So I said, ok, I have to repeat a word … and because it asked for it to be totalitarian, I did it through a megaphone. And then anybody else has similar strange answers, like something - Jochen (Arbeit) had one (that said) ‘something big,’ so he was looking for the biggest possible metal sheet we had in our arsenal and set it up. But for some reason, the strange thing is that these seemingly not connected things magically come together and form something.

That was the reason for developing the card system was to undermine, in the true sense of subversive, our preconceptions about what we can do. In the same time, and I say yeah, well, I built on the experience of what I’ve learned over the decades. That is tricky, also, because every now and then you need to undermine your preconceptions and your experience and your expectations. Basically what always described the composing process, the creative process, as a solving of problems. The practical thing is that I make the problems. I first of all make myself a problem, and then I spend the time solving that problem. That’s how art gets created. I think it’s a solving of problems.

The Palast der Republik was destroyed after your performance there. Are there other places that could host the Neubauten in a similar cultural context?

I’m sure there are but I haven’t got anything particular in mind. It doesn’t happen that often. The Palast der Republik was difficult. As you might not know, there were two concerts, one for the supporters and one for the public. The one for the public financed the other one and the one for the supporters is also a DVD - much nicer DVD also. This one is really good. That was only given to the subscribers, and that was a magical concert because we did everything anti-rock. No stage, no light show, no bouncers, no borders, and it worked. That was fantastic. We were able to play actually in the middle of Palast der Republik, not on a setup stage. Set up lights, use the whole building, walk around everywhere, and people were just standing around and would go out of your way if you want to get through. It was a really lovely and friendly atmosphere, there was no idiots, no aggression - everything that I associate with rock concerts. We all cherish that very much and I think it was one of the highlights of our career, that particular evening.

Do you find it a challenge to remain innovative?

Um, I was partly really worried when making this record about the absence of new materials, new instruments, new material dimension. Because for the last one, I had a very clear concept, I was rounding up the concept of breathing, and wind and air and things like that, which were a minor aspect in Neubauten instruments before and was a major aspect in that particular record. There was nothing like that and even after say three or four months of working, nothing materialized. Because sometimes you need to dive into that work and after awhile the direction will reveal itself and say, this is what it’s all about but this time that didn’t happen. In the end it was just me and the recording engineer in the studio and I was left with a dozen songs to sing. That’s when I realized more and more why - every record for me, every Neubauten record for me was always difficult. Not just because I say it’s a problem but it is more my involvement with the record is always so intense that you don’t want to know me at the end of that period. It was the same story this time again, I just realized it was so much more difficult because it has so much more of me. Everybody else was already gone. Alex (Hacke) was already on holiday in Canada. I was sitting in the studio basically for months straight finishing one song after another one. Which meant I was doing the strings, writing the vocals, singing the stuff and doing the mixing until I’m happy with it. I’m not blaming anyone. I am the only one who can do the writing for me. I have to do that, but it was even harder than what it normally is. I could keep myself pretty much out of the last record. The last record, the supporter album number two, “Grundstueck” that was less hard for me to do but this one was tough. But when I started that period, the period of singing and mixing this record I thought I would not be able to do it. But I was very proud of me in the end that I was able to actually to do that, to finish that off. I’m not necessarily listening to this record now on a daily basis but every two weeks I listen to it again and I am still absolutely satisfied with it. I’m very happy and I’m very happy that it turned out that way and I think it is … what I really like about it is that it’s matured. It’s free of a lot of, say, I don’t even know how to phrase that. It’s a little bit more timeless than the records were before. If you hear it you can’t pin down when the record was actually recorded. I’m absolutely happy.

Of course, as I said before, every record for me, I see myself - the version of Blixa of that particular time period and that is, that idea, when I listen to “Halber Mensch” now I will picture myself how I was back then and that is very much the “Halber Mensh” of the Japanese movie. That is an intense period of my life, so is this one, though it’s a completely different one.



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