Atari Teenage Riot's Alec Empire on Reuniting, Neo-Nazis, and Otto Von Schirach
When Atari Teenage Riot started its revolution in the '90s, the world seemed like such a relatively peaceful place. Sure there were horrors happening around the globe, but looking back, it seems small when compared to the conflicts brought on in the 2000s.
Terrorism and all the limitations of freedom it brought one in the name of "patriotism" seemed like the perfect dialogue for an ATR track. Unfortunately, right around that time, the band -- consisting primarily of Alec Empire, Hanin Elias, Carl Crack, and Nic Endo -- found itself in turmoil. The fatal blow seemed to come on September 2001, just days before 9/11, with the death of Crack.
Thankfully, ATR is back thanks to the unlikeliest of reasons, which Empire revealed to us over the phone. He also discussed the state of electronic music today, the government's push to limit our internet freedom, and what he's been up to for the past ten years. If you think the past decade has wavered Empire's knack for political discourse -- well, let's just say he's still got plenty of teenaged rebellion left in him.
County Grind: Why did you feel the need to revive Atari Teenage Riot?
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Alec Empire: I really didn't feel the need to bring back Atari Teenage Riot. It was really just a chaotic accident. There was this idea to play one show in London in 2010. We very were surprised that there was a new audience [at the show]. You know, people in their early 20s who, I suppose, are into that new electro stuff -- Crystal Castles, M.I.A., Bloody Beetroots.
I totally underestimated that Atari Teenage Riot is still relevant for this generation for some reason. I was doing other stuff in the last ten years, like [solo material], a few independent film soundtracks, and things like that. It wasn't really on my radar that people were still discovering Atari Teenage Riot.
It was a very spontaneous decision to go, "Hey, let's add more shows." Then we played in Japan and ran into [Dim Mak Records founder] Steve Aoki, and he was like, "I'd love to put a new record out by you guys." So we made the decision to make a statement of the times now. There are a lot of issues, like the way authorities clamp down on internet freedom and issues like that, that we felt we didn't get to talk about on the previous records and thought it would make an interesting addition to the stuff we've been saying in the past.
Funny that you mention acts like M.I.A. and Crystal Castles, because if ATR hadn't come before them, they might not be here today. Is the band's influence on electronic music today evident to you?
Music is like language. Once it's out there, people can adapt it and do their own things to it. Sometimes people approach me saying I should be pissed off that these bands are taking my ideas. But I don't really feel like that. All these bands and producers have maybe taken a few elements, but they have their very own ideas and approaches.
That's how we started, when we were listening to Public Enemy or Suicide. There never is that moment where you go, "OK, I'll start completely from scratch." It's always on evolution that's being passed on from generation to generation. I think it's great. It's really interesting.
All the stuff that's happening now is more interesting now, for example, than electronica in the '90s. In the '90s, it was just a lot of DJ music. Now people are doing much more interesting things. Not everybody is my taste, but, in general, people have accepted that you can do so much more with vocals and express all these different kind of ideas, while in '90s we were really outsiders.
ATR's absence started at the beginning of the George W. Bush era. It seems that it would have made perfect ATR material -- the general fucked-up state of the world, the blatant disregard for human rights. Looking back, do you wish, given the opportunity, you would have addressed some of those ideas as ATR?
Weird thing is, if you look at the records we've done -- Burn, Berlin, Burn! and 60 Second Wipeout -- a lot of that stuff that we talked about became so obvious in the decade that followed.
For example, the way terrorism is used to create laws to use against your own citizens. The danger that comes in this way of thinking. Also, the way corporations work together with the government to basically make profits for war. All these things we really addressed already and it's almost like this nightmarish scenario we described: What if it develops into something worse?
A lot of the criticism in the '90s was, "You guys are a little bit pessimistic. This would never happen. We are so far off as a society. We are so free. There is no danger coming."
Now people are like, "Wow, you actually described what was going on."
So I feel like even if we weren't around as Atari Teenage Riot, a lot people still listened to our music thanks to the Internet. That really helped because it was always accessible and they were looking for music that spoke about those issues and they were able to kind of find it. It think we were kind of lucky that that kind of technology was starting to be used by everybody.
Yeah, in a way it would have been good to make a record [during the Bush era], but on the other side it probably wouldn't have sounded much different than the stuff we put out before. I feel like we spoke about a lot of these things.
That's the main misunderstanding of Atari Teenage Riot in general.
First of all, when we talk about Hanin Elias, I don't know if you know, but it was her idea to play that show in London. And then she ran into these vocal problems and then was like, "Maybe I shouldn't play this show." So that was embarrassing that she didn't turn up, but people loved [Nic Endo] so much, we said let's do this.
Also, back when we toured in America, we played most of the tour without Hanin. The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion tour, the Beck tour, Wu-Tang Clan, all that stuff, Hanin was never on those tours.
Even though I wanted it to be some sort of band, because we were coming from techno you don't really have that rock band thing with steady members. It's maybe more anonymous. You don't really aim for that iconic rock star thing in music. What we end up with I would call it a collective. All these different people would show up for the live shows, and Nic Endo joined in '96 for these American tours. It was always really confusing.
In the last record, we had all these guest MCs when Carl couldn't come to the studio like Arsonist and MC Destroy. It was always so much chaos and confusion in the studio as well as the stage.
If we want to aim for something complete or whatever, we would have to had stopped in '93, because that was never the reality of that project.
One thing with Carl Crack is when we announced the London show it was suppose to be Nic Endo, Hanin Elias, and me. I was very skeptical about this because it was Hanin's idea. I though, "This could go so wrong," and I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back to that time.
A month later, CX Kidtronik called me up because we collaborated on a track on my solo record the year before, and he was like "I'm in Europe and I see you guys are playing, can I come on stage. I love Carl Crack's work and that would be so awesome."
I was like, "Look man, I appreciate the offer but this could be a very bad idea. All the fans would hate you because you can't step into what Carl Crack created. You can't replace him because you will always be compared and you will always lose out."
Then we discussed and he was like, "As a MC it's not so good to take someone else's lyrics, so I would maybe rewrite my parts." And I thought this was an interesting idea. Not just to relive the past but to add something new. It's almost like remixing a song by adding new lyrics to them. That was the moment that we started thing of Atari Teenage Riot as a sort of statement of the present rather than trying to recreate something from the past. And I think that was why fans totally liked what he did. He wasn't just trying to copy Carl Crack; he's his own character and artist with his own ideas. I think that's why everyone respected him from the begging.
But you never know never know this beforehand. People might have gone, "Boo! Get off the stage!" I'm prepared for any kind of crowd reaction, but people loved it.
In the previous albums, you focused more a broader enemy, German government in Burn, Berlin, Burn! and the America in 60 Second Wipeout.
Well, it was more about a global thing. Of course, there were parts about America.
OK. Well, This Is Hyperreal? seems to focus on individual issues on each track whether it be sex trafficking in "Blood In My Eyes" or Internet freedom on "Digital Decay." Was that your intention?
I think "Blood In My Eyes" really stands out from all the other tracks because all the other stuff is really about hacker activism -- it's almost like a cyber-punk thing. We never really discussed much these things on previous records but it was almost logical that we had to do something especially because of the times.
The last ten years were really about people exploring this technology and discovering all the positives and negatives. For example, in the music scene for some people it was very positive with the whole piracy downloads. And for others it was very negative, for example, if you look at the major record labels. But it was all about testing new technologies and how we interact and the way information is spread. Nobody could really predict what would happen.
Where we are now with the internet, I think, is very similar to what's going on with the nation-state. It's also the danger. For example, we has a situation in Dresden a few weeks ago, in the former East, where there was a demonstration against neo-Nazis and the police collected all the data from all the cellphones from the protestors. It was a big scandal because why did they do that? Nobody gave them the right to do it. This is private information. It reminds me of former East Germany.
Police excused was that they needed to use this information for things to be safer. But I don't think you need to do that. Just because all this technology exists that makes it easier to spy on people doesn't mean we have to allow the authorities to put that into practice. I think these are things so important to discuss right now.
I thought that was very interesting, instead of writing about this issue of revolution, which was the theme on 60 Second Wipeout.
Also "Blood In My Eyes" stands out because that was Nic Endo who right at the end of the recording sessions she was like, "We have to make a statement about this. I wrote the lyrics and everything. What do you think?" And I thought it was good because maybe it made the record a little more diverse. And people really like that song because it's not the stereotypical ATR song with a lot shouting and breakbeats.
You are bringing local favorite Otto Von Schirach on for your entire U.S. tour. I know you are fan because I've seen you tweet about him. What is it about Otto that you like so much?
He just has great stuff.
First time I saw him, we played a show in France with Atari Teenage Riot, and he played support there with Gabe [Serbian] from the Locust playing drums. I totally loved the set. It was so good. It was like digital hardcore stuff, maybe not like Atari Teenage Riot or my own solo stuff, but the whole comic imagery.
There a lot of sense of humor in his music that I like. It's kind of like an insane sense of humor that I'm always a fan of. It reminds of Shizuo and acts like that in the late '90s, but he has his own sound.
I rather him warm up the crowd and shock people and wake them up basically, instead of having some DJ there that's playing, I don't know, some sort of flat DJ set. He does great music, and he's a great guy also. We are really looking forward to those shows.
Atari Teenage Riot, with Otto Von Schirach and Yip-Yip. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, September 13, at Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Highway, Fort Lauderdale. Tickets cost $20 plus fees via ticketmaster.com. Call 954-564-1074, or visit cultureroom.net.
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