As the struggle between social struggles intensifies all over Europe, a band who have never hidden their anarchist views have regrouped and started playing live shows again. Atari Teenage Riot (ATR) are back after a ten year break and have plenty to say about society, politics and economics in the second decade of the 21st century. We pose some timely questions to founding member Alec Empire.
Interview by Tim Forster
LH: It’s about a year since ATR regrouped after a ten year hiatus. How has the last year gone? Have you been encouraged by people’s responses?
Alec: Yes, in this case the response of the fans drove ATR forward. First we thought we would play one show in London. And suddenly the timing seemed to be so right for this music and its message. We didn’t see that coming. Next thing we were playing massive shows in Japan again, Taiwan was added, the US tour got extended – it just didn’t stop. What is so different now compared to the 90s is that people want us to speak about these issues because the problems are so visible to almost everybody now.
LH: You’ve got a new album out later in the year. How is work going on it? What kind of new dynamic has the new member (CX Kidtronik) brought to the band?
Alec: We don’t really look at albums in the same way as we did in the 90s. It is a bigger picture now. We have written 21 new songs, they won’t all be released on the CD version of course, because they won’t fit that format. So we will put all kinds of music out this year. CX brings in some fresh energy and his own views about the USA and the politics there. It’s an important input for ATR in 2011. I am the only German left in ATR, so the focus has shifted away from writing songs about Germany’s politics.
LH: The last 10 years while ATR were in abeyance saw the election of Bush, the Twin Towers attack, financial collapse, the imposing of neo-liberal economics in Europe and the establishment of ‘Fortress Europe’ – does the new album confront these issues or do you have other contemporary issues in focus? Were you frustrated that ATR weren’t a functioning band over the last 10 years?
Alec: The new album ‘Is This Hyperreal?’ has its focus on hacker activism, keeping the internet free from government and corporate control, control technologies in the modern age and democracy, human trafficking. We think these are the main issues of our time and there need to be powerful songs written about them. We wrote about the Bush era before Bush got elected. The record ‘The Future of War’ was our vision of terrorism and wars for profit. I was never frustrated that we didn’t do anything with ATR in those years. I did so much as Alec Empire and was doing well in many countries with that. So it wasn’t like I didn’t have a platform to express my views. My album ‘Intelligence & Sacrifice’ dealt with a lot of issues.
LH: I saw ATR at Colchester Art Centre last November, it was wild, the best gig I’ve ever been to! Part way through the set you said that ‘The Future of War’ had been banned in Germany, also iTunes were unhappy with the ATR app and Myspace are going to shut down your page, do you think there is a danger in Europe of a slide into sophisticated fascism, an authoritarian capitalism, or does it already exist?
Alec: Yes, the risk is always there, that’s why we need to fight it. Many people don’t understand how these changes will have a negative effect on their own lives. In Nazi Germany it wasn’t like suddenly Hitler appeared and took over the country, killed millions of Jews and started a World War. The majority of the people voted for him and German society made these steps one at a time. I feel that our society is moving towards something very, very dangerous. This so-called democracy has become so corrupt and politicians seem like the puppets of multi-national corporations. The reality of that and the majority of people out there not taking the democratic system seriously anymore opened the door more than ever before.
LH: As a band based in mainland Europe, how do you see things going socially and politically? With neoliberal economics being rolled out by and via national governments all over Europe is there more grassroots resistance in mainland Europe than in the UK due to a stronger socialist and anarchist traditions?
Alec: Many people out there are starting to understand that the system will not work out for them. They keep working harder and harder and a small minority of people are taking the profits and not giving anything back. The super rich don’t even pay taxes in most cases. I am personally completely against any form of government. People have to learn how to determine their own lives again, and not expect the government to sort everything out for them. Because that won’t happen. I see more and more people looking at the idea of true anarchy in a different way than before. Of course the media is spreading this image of fear, so people don’t try to think about those ideas. But if we look at the internet, and especially at the beginning of it, we can interpret it as a proof that anarchy works.
LH: The Situationists talked about ‘the spectacle’, the way that an advanced industrial society is represented to itself by the elite of that society (e.g. Britain as a champion of freedom and democracy globally!). Do you think the internet has helped to dismantle or increase the elites’ control over flows of information and representation? Does ATR set out to smash ‘the spectacle’ by confronting power with truth?
Alec: It did for a while, but we are at a crossroads. The corporations and the governments are trying to control the internet too much. The technology that worked for us will be turned against us. I think that those who are politically very active are already feeling these control mechanism taking effect. A lot of the ‘Facebook revolutions’ in the Arab countries are the soft power approaches by the US government and not so much the internet on its own like some sort of miracle. People have to understand that. Our new album deals mainly with that issue. Truth is our best weapon. And you have to move constantly because those in power, and I am talking about the mainstream music industry which has a political agenda, take what we do all the time and feed it back to the mainstream in a compromised way. It’s the way the system works. And the cynics who question political bands or any political activism just work in support of those who are in power right now without often realizing it.
LH: The internet has radically altered the ways we can access information and ideas and also music. Do you think downloading has led to the hyper-commodification of music where songs float freely in cyberspace disconnected from the artist or original time period so that there is just a series of songs consumed rather than a sense of identification with the artist? Do you think that lack of identification with the artist may be one of the reasons people are happy to download without paying the artist for the song?
Alec: Oh that’s a very complex discussion and I have my very own view of the situation. I’ll try to sum it up for you a bit. Basically right now there is a war going on for what some call intellectual property. The corporations have started it, so that they can take any idea, anything creative from people like you and me and exploit it financially. Copyright must be defined from new. It has to protect the writers, musicians, filmmakers, artists, anybody who is doing creative work and NOT the big publishing companies and the major record labels. The trouble is that those who support the Pirate Party don’t have any understanding of how creativity works and flourishes, they don’t often understand the way independent artists can survive financially in a capitalist system. There is a mob mentality right now, almost like fundamentalist Christians they attack any artist who wants to get paid for his/her work. When I talk to my father about this, he has a socialist history and comes from a working class background, he says it’s insane how anybody can try to claim and take somebody else’s work and then even accuse him of being a greedy capitalist or something. A young band starting out is not Metallica. Pirate Bay could have been an interesting approach but of course they had to make millions from corporate advertising on their site and lost any kind of credibility… I am pretty hardcore about that. You do not take my music and message and put it next to a Nokia ad and make money from that. If you want to do that, call me and we share the money. But be prepared that I might say ‘no’ to it.
Major labels like Sony get finance from other sources, they sell hardware for example, their music labels lose money, always did… So the reality of what we are seeing now, is that indie bands become nothing more than a number in a telephone book, they can upload their music onto Myspace or whatever, make those companies rich, while they might gain a few hundred new fans who then leave weeks after, then they give up and stop. The majors moan a lot about the situation but in fact they love it that the so called pirates eradicate all independent competition for them. So we’ll see record stores disappear completely now, the Majors cosy up with Apple’s iTunes and leave everybody else with pretty much nothing. If you look at how venues are being bought up by a multi national corporation like Live Nation then you can imagine that the future will look pretty bad for independent and underground music. The music scene always mirrors the real world. The gap between rich and poor is widening. That is the same in the music scene. When I started there was a strong support for underground and independent music everywhere. When you were into music you just knew the enemy. We need to bring down the Major record industry when they finance artists like 50 Cent or Beyonce who perform for dictators like Gaddafi. If you support the small local store that sells organic food, you might want to think the same way about the music you’re listening to. Making music shouldn’t be a rich man’s thing. Why? Because it will not bring us the best music! The main thinking mistake that the Majors make is that music stays the same and just needs to be presented by different musicians. Music is like language, it is part of evolution, it changes, it moves forward all the time, sometimes backward…but if there is no innovation, then it dies. Even the worst and evil capitalists would tell you that. They know that in the computer industry, in the car industry and so on…but when it comes to music, people get all emotional and try to make those decisions based on their feelings or personal taste. This is the real crisis, not kids downloading mp3s from home. I want musicians to make music. I don’t want them to give me their music for free but advertise something else with it. I rather pay my small share so the bands I like can keep their integrity.
LH: ATR have always modelled the equality of men and women. Do you think things are better for women in music now than when you took a break in 2000 or are they still forced to perpetuate sexist stereotypes?
Alec: Hard to say…in pop it got worse. It always swings forward and backwards… Those who finance top 40 pop records are usually old men who like to see a blonde girl singing a melodic song or something… This distorts of what’s really going on, but then again the public and the musicians think they have to go down that route to be popular. I think we should get rid of the charts system or if we keep it in place than we must print the marketing budget for each song/artist next to the chart position. The fact is we need more strong girls and women in our society because the ship is going down and we need new and fresh ideas on how to solve those problems. Being a man or woman, that shouldn’t matter, we need the best people. Riot Grrl plays a huge part in what ATR is about. Even more on this album than any other we did. Q: Are there any bands that have appeared over the last ten years that have excited or enraged you? What direction do you see mainstream pop music going in? Alec: Not much…there is always some good stuff here and there…but I am convinced that we’ll see the real change coming now… The last decade was a bit like what I heard people say about the 80s. Not much depth and soul….
LH: The timing of ATR’s regrouping coincides with a new, more widespread, grassroots militancy so I imagine that your lyrics are going to resonate with a lot of people. Are you excited to be around at this time and do you have any hopes/plans for the next year or are you just seeing how the whole thing develops?
Alec: I was very active with my solo stuff over the past decade, so I never felt like I wasn’t around before ATR. But it’s true ATR stands for an idea, that’s something you can’t get across as strongly if you’re an individual artist. In general I never hope for anything, I do what I think is right. Very often my instinct is right. Regardless of if I like it or not, it is down to people out there to decide. If they don’t want to see or hear ATR, then we move on. I love the interaction with the ‘fans’, that’s my main motivation. It might sound weird to some people, but it’s true. I met the most interesting people through my music. It connects us. I find that much more exciting than playing a sold out concert. When I can talk to political activists before I go on stage in Taiwan, then fly to Croatia and talk to a journalist about politics that is amazing… I met my favourite musicians via this music. There is a lot more we need to say with our music.
Much thanks to Alec for time taken and to Claire at Digital Hardcore. If you get the chance to see ATR then grab it, you honestly won’t be disappointed! They are playing the UK in May and their new album ‘Is This Hyperreal?’ is out in June.