Architectural manoeuvres in the light
Returning to Australia for the first time in over twenty years, notorious German noiseniks Einstürzende Neubauten are neither Cold War relics nor industrial anarchists. To suggest otherwise will only make band leader Blixa Bargeld cross.
In the testosterone-fuelled fantasy sphere of rock & roll, rampant destruction is generally celebrated. Whether it is instruments, eardrums or entire venues, a little sonic and cultural carnage is part of the myth making process.
That an arch, avant-garde troupe of German experimentalists should achieve such ‘legendary’ status might seem counter-intuitive; but Einstürzende Neubauten are what music scribes like to call ‘godfathers of industrial’. Echoes of their post-rock sound can be found in everything from the Teutonic stomp of Rammstein to the robo-pop of bands like Depeche Mode.
Mention ‘industrial’ to band leader Blixa Bargeld, however, and the response is terse. Indeed, he is adamant that the band he co-founded on April Fool’s Day 1980 is not, and never were, industrial or revolutionary. “I’m sorry, but that’s your interpretation. I never called it industrial. We never tried to be destructive,” he intones from his apartment in Berlin. “It was just things that happened, like when children play and things go kaput; and I certainly never made any statements about old buildings being better than new buildings.”
That a non-industrial (but clearly experimental) Berlin band should be inextricably linked to architecture is right there in the name. Einstürzende Neubauten is most oft translated as ‘collapsing new buildings’; with their moniker making specific reference to what Germans call neubauten, the new buildings that sprang up after 1945 to replace those destroyed during WW2. Typically, the neubauten are considered inferior both aesthetically and structurally to their pre-war counterparts, the altbauten.
Reflecting on this, Bargeld recalls the Cold War divide that once cut his country and hometown in two. “After the war, in the west at least, you could make a fortune if you had a building company; but in the east they repaired as much as they could. You could still see the bullet marks from the second world war.”
As a native of West Berlin, Blixa Bargeld, (born Hans Christian Emmerich in 1959), grew up in a walled city steeped in the pre-apocalyptic atmosphere of the Cold War. It’s a milieu now lost, transformed by history, but one captured beautifully in films like Wim Wenders’ Wings Of Desire and in the city’s penchant for making art out of nuclear Armageddon. “Historically, looking at it, I probably was at one of the epicentres of the Cold War but it played absolutely no role in my day-to-day existence,” he reveals. “To me, living in Berlin felt so absolutely normal that I never thought it was exceptional.”
It was into this political and cultural enclave that EN first emerged; the band’s early work shaping itself around the use of improvised instrumentation, often made from scraps scavenged from building sites, and Bargeld’s deep, shouted, blood curdling vocals. Albums like 1981’s Kollaps and 1983’s Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. not only gained them a burgeoning fan base but attracted the attention of Nick Cave, who famously described Bargeld’s vocals as being something “you would expect to hear from strangled cats or dying children.”
Indeed, Bargeld was with Cave (as one of the Bad Seeds) in November 1989 when Berlin, Germany and the geo-political map of the world lurched into a new era. “When the actual wall fell, when they opened the border, I was right there in the recording studio with a famous Australian singer mixing one of the pieces that later came out on the record and suddenly the street, which was usually empty, was full of people,” he recalls. “We first saw it on television and then we looked out the window.”
By that stage, Bargeld was enjoying the fruits of success as a member of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and the fall of the wall coincided with personal and creative change. “Very soon after that I left Berlin. I lived in San Francisco and then for seven years in Beijing … Now I’m back in Berlin; but the city where I was born and grew up simply doesn’t exist anymore,” he observes. “In fact, where I’m living now is uncharted territory for me. I don’t know my way around. It’s like a completely new city.”
Bargeld’s current domicile is in what was once the city’s Weimar era red light district. “After that, in the old east, it was a poor area but now, it’s all cleaned up. They’ve made it respectable,” he laughs. “Maybe that is not so good.”
If 1989 transformed the city, the new era also heralded audible changes for Einstürzende Neubauten, as their earlier avant-garde edge morphed into more traditional song forms, with Bargeld singing rather than shouting and softer electronic sounds making their way onto records like Tabula Rasa and Ende Neu. Reflecting on this, Bargeld insists that EN never truly had a mission statement. “A lot of things were not so much artistic decisions as they were decisions that came out of a particular life situation,” he explains. “It was not that I thought, ‘oh, now it’s time to bang on some metal’ it was more the fact that we didn’t have anything. We could not afford instruments. We’ve always been poor so we had to find a different way.”
As the twentieth century drew to a close the band found itself being referenced by all and sundry in scenes as diverse as dark wave techno and nu-punk. With songs like Blume and Stella Maris, and their infamous expulsion from U2’s Zoo TV tour, Einstürzende Neubauten became a name to drop; not that they were ever what you could call famous.
Far from settling with their modicum of cachet, the band leapt feet first into the age of the internet in 2002 when Bargeld and his wife Erin Zhu created neubauten.org and moved the locus of their activity online. “We invented crowd funding,” Bargeld declares proudly, pointing to a range of albums, DVDs and even USB sticks aimed at the band’s pro-active web following.
If all this has helped to sustain EN into their fourth decade, it is their reputation as an unusually ferocious live act that really gets fans and critics buzzing and quite possibly spurred The Drones to invite them to Australia to play at ATP’s I’ll Be Your Mirror event in February.
For Blixa Bargeld and the rest of Einstürzende Neubauten the antipodean invitation represents the end of a significant hiatus. “The first time we’ll come together is when we’re in Australia,” he confirms.
Creatively, what this represents is the opportunity to look back over a thirty-two year career and once again reinvent. “The songs will all come out new again,” Bargeld says simply. “Looking at such an extensive back catalogue, and we are able play about ninety percent of that, we can make our choices wisely; but obviously we are limited by what we are able to take to Australia. Weight limitations,” he notes wryly, referring to EN’s onstage battery of improvised instruments.
On a personal note, it will be Bargeld’s first trip to our shores since he left The Bad Seeds in 2003. “At the time that I was still playing with Nick I was in Australia every year but I haven’t been there since. Has Australia changed in ten years?” he wonders aloud.
Just as the Berlin of his childhood has irrevocably altered, so too has the Melbourne with which Bargeld was once so familiar. “I spent a considerable amount of time in St Kilda. My first couple of times in Australia I spent there. That was in the early eighties. Then, when I was there in the late nineties I thought that St Kilda had changed quite a lot. Gentrification, that’s what it looked like to me,” he concludes, laughing at the suggestion that even in St Kilda the neubauten are everywhere.
Einstürzende Neubauten play All Tomorrow’s Parties Altona on February 17 and Palace Theatre, Melbourne on February 19.
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