Reflecting & Ruminating | Einsturzende Neubauten

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Blixa's always-varied vocals are at times deceivingly combative—that is, when they're not reduced to haunting whispers.

 

 

Over the past 27 years, the musical establishment known as Einsturzende Neubauten has expanded ear canals across the world, breaking conventions in a fearless pursuit of new sonic combinations. Their trademark industrial percussion (whose instruments are usually made from scrap metal, power tools and pipes) and Blixa Bargeld's (former guitarist in Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds) unquestionably captivating voice coalesce in a melting pot of confrontational energy, quiet wisdom and unquestionable beauty. Spawning handfuls of copycat bands (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails and SPK, to name a few), Neubauten's influence is as great as the well of ideas is bottomless.

Throughout their career, Einsturzende Neubauten's shape-shifting ocular landscapes and seemingly unending desire to explore new ideas have produced one of the most impressive catalogues of any band in modern history. The band started in 1980 using an industrial aesthetic to convey abrasive songs with punk-rock roots. Since then, Neubauten have metamorphosed many times over, each time developing and fine-tuning their unconventions. Their two percussionists Rudi Moser and N. U. Unruh sit behind a catastrophic-looking shield of rotating metal scraps, dominating tubes, and giant gear-shaped cymbals. Blixa's always-varied vocals are at times deceivingly combative—that is, when they're not reduced to haunting whispers. It's hard to define what makes Neubauten Neubauten. The best word I have come up with is different.

At the end of this month, Neubauten will release their newest effort, Alles Wieder Offen, a project fully funded by fan-supporters, not by a major record label. Working outside of a major label is not something foreign to these drill-wielding Mozarts. This record signifies the completion of the fourth fan-supported phase at nuebauten.org. In each phase, they use the subscription money provided by fans to finance a record and, in return, broadcast live webcasts and web chats with the supporters, giving them a hand in the recording process. This is the first time Neubauten have released the fan-supported album worldwide, and through their very own label Potomak, no less.

Alles Wieder Offen sounds, in many ways, like a culmination of lessons learned. It soars high, surrounding the listener with a cacophony of sounds, both metallic and acoustic. The oceanic flow of the album opener "Die Wellen" (fittingly translated as "The Waves") includes a droning, Steve Reich-infused, piano riff which quietly builds, takes its time falling underneath Bargeld's vocals, then rises up and swells as the song quickly crashes.

The record will surely be a treat to fans of Einsturzende Neubauten, but it also is one of the group's most accessible discs. Alles Wieder Offen serves as both, a great culmination of musical understanding, and a very accessible introduction for those not yet on board.

I recently joined vocalist Bargeld in a video conference. As he sits at his Macintosh, his trademark black clothing matched angular spectacles, framed by two thickets of longish, styled hair draping either side of his face. I ask him if he considered ignoring major labels as a growing trend, with other artists like Radiohead having released their album earlier this month. He promptly—and loudly—responds (you can tell he's a man whose used to being in front of an audience), "Yeah, well certainly. You can see nobody seems to know how to continue, in a way. The record companies don't know how they want to organize and structure their business in the future. They have certainly been slow in learning anything. They still haven't learned very much, and I personally think they have to go to hell before anything really happens." He pauses, looking around the room and off camera, until his eyes return to the screen, and continues, "I don't want to comment or analyze how Radiohead are doing it, but I find it very interesting that they made that step. Even if you look at the major companies, they all are realizing that they all cannot do it the way that they have been in the last decades. I think we have shown a veritable perspective and possibility on how to do it different. I think any way of a subscription-model is also the only thing that could help major companies...but I don't care about the major companies. The money that we [Neubauten] could get from a record company would not really enable us to make a record. It has been like that the last two or three times. Every time we make the record, we end up at zero. So, it's not much fun, really."

The supports were treated to watching Neubauten throughout the recording process. Via webcams, downloads and message boards, they listened to and watched the band as they worked out material, new and old, structuring bits together, eventually building entire compositions, which became Alles Wieder Offen. It was my understanding that supporters could talk with the band, and suggest different things during the recording process. Bargeld diplomatically responds, "That has been misunderstood quite a bit. If I would record a song, or make a rough mix of something, I would play it to my friends and I expect comments about that. I expect that they [would] say ‘I like this,' or ‘I like that, but I think the drum's off,' or whatever. In the same way, we treat our supporters. We make them listen to progress and we let them comment on the same level as I would have my friends comment about something. But it's not really that someone is there and says ‘Do this,' or ‘Do that.' My friends wouldn't do that, and the supporters didn't do that. The major thing that had an influence on the way we were playing in these circumstances is the fact that we were playing while there are several hundred people watching. That creates a semi-live atmosphere in the recording studio and, because Neubauten is a very good live band, that helps us. That creates a particular energy that you normally wouldn't find in a recording studio."

prof_blixa.jpgSomething that always strikes me when listening to Einsturzende Neubauten is Bargeld's powerful voice. He uses his exclusive strata of sound—or, as he calls it, "vocal acrobatics," to alter our perceptions of what the human voice is capable of. The best example of this is his "screaming" in songs such as "The Garden" from Ende Neu (Interscope), or "Let's Do It a Dada," on the new record. In these "screams," as he calls them, he seems to pull air into his wrinkled, pained expression, and emanates forthwith a prehistoric, Pterodactylian screech.

Regarding his use of vocals, Bargeld says, "I am never coming with a finished piece of lyrics to the recording studio. And usually, in the whole history of Neubauten, I was always the last one to finish a song. It is the same thing here, too [regarding the new album]. I really need to stand with my nails to the wall to make me write. I take all the ideas that I've collected over the whole working period; I work out a draft, I sing, I come back, I take the criticism from whoever is there and then I rework it and I sing again. When I think I've got it, I'll do several takes until I have three takes of the same lyrical approach."

For a band that has been so very influential, I wondered if they had any influences. After some thought, Bargeld responds, "Of course. I grew up with progressive rock, followed by Krautrock and all the German avant-garde rock musicians of the time. Funny enough, still, all the German stuff that I listened, back then, to Can especially, I'm still absolutely happy with. I'm still absolutely proud to say that. That lurks somewhere in the back of Neubauten, too. I do think that Neubauten is a German rock band, in a way."

It is at this point I find myself in the awkward spot of discussing maturity to a man who has been making music longer than I've been alive. I want to know if he thinks maturity has any affect on the way he writes today. He politely responds, "There's a song on this record called ‘Susej' that is based on a guitar track that I had recorded in 1982. Due to modern technology, we were much easier [sic] to edit it and work with it, but that was kind of insisting itself on actually picking up that thought: ‘How have I changed in my music?' That's what the actual song deals with. The young Blixa is asking the old Blixa, ‘Is anything of what I have had in my head, my thoughts, my ideas still left in you, or have you just changed completely?' and the answer is that I wouldn't do what I am doing now if I wouldn't have done all these things in 1982. I don't play like this because I play different now; I play like this because it is a result of what we were doing before."

As my interview with the enigmatic front man winds down, I thank him for his time and wish him luck on his future projects. No doubt this engaging artist will soon have something else in the works. For anyone who desires to discover unique combinations of sonic qualities, check out the latest from Einsturzende Neubauten, Alles Wieder Offen (it also can't hurt to throw support away from major record labels and take down the man!). Neubauten continues to be one of the most effective, creative and interesting artists, musically and conceptually, in existence. | Glen Elkins

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