Interview: Blixa Bargeld (Einstürzende Neubauten)

The legendary Einstürzende Neubauten (Collapsing New Buildings) will be releasing their first album in 12 years (if you don’t count the commissioned work Lament) entitled ‘Alles in Allem’ (All in All) in May 2020.

‘Alles in Allem’ is a magnificent collection of songs ranging from the percussive rumble of the single ‘Ten Grand Goldie’ to the ominous, brooding and melodic ‘Möbliertes Lied’. ‘Am Landwehrkanal’ is like a childhood chant with a threatening undercurrent and a gothic rumble. ‘Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick’ epitomises the Neubauten mastery of the creation of musical expression – taught, evocative and slightly unnerving.

And then the band can produce songs like ‘Taschen’ which has a sweeping majesty about it with its ringing bells, strings and sounds of the ocean created from a bag (see reference below) or ‘Seven Screws’ which is intelligent pop chart material.

Hallmarks of the Einstürzende Neubauten sound filter throughout this album, with sonic experimentation and bursts of melody underpinned by pounding percussion and rumbling bass, and the singing that at times is like a 1920s cabaret performance laced with animalistic shrieking and abandon.

I had a chat via Skype with singer and living icon Blixa Bargeld, confined in his Berlin home due to the Corona virus pandemic, about the band, the album and the challenges of getting home delivery in the age of isolation.

Blixa has long been an institution of Berlin’s music scene. He founded
Einstürzende Neubauten in 1980 and from 1983 to 2003 was guitarist and
backing vocalist with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Bargeld also sang lead
vocals alongside Cave on several songs, such as on “The Carny” and “The
Weeping Song”.

I recall first seeing you play with the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds at Selinas in Sydney in 1985, supported by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. I was a little terrified by you in your rubber butchers apron making howling noises on your guitar.  How much of that Blixa still remains today – have you mellowed?

If you look at the last album that Neubauten released – ‘Alles Wieder Offen’ you will find a song called ‘Susej’, and that song is a dialogue between the old Blixa and the young Blixa. You can get a quote from that!

You ask me: old man,

where is what I was going to stay with you?

Has it been committed or has it been drowned?

I say:

What is left of me has to do only with you

Under layers of annual rings

It is still engraved

Einstürzende Neubauten formed in 1980: how have you managed to stay together for so long and still make the music you do today?

This current formation started working in 1997, I think, and that is now more than 20 years ago and is probably the formation that has been together longer than all the formations before. It is not the same band as – let’s say 1987 – with different individuals, different people with different ideas.

You pioneered the concept of crowd funding from as long ago as 2002 through the band’s supporter project – what was the catalyst for this?

That was the time when the ordinary music industry basically fell apart. Back then I remember very well that in the times of   the album ‘Tabula Rasa’ and afterwards,  I would get a budget – we were always what you’d call an independent band and we would work with independent record labels and back then – I would get a budget with which we were expected to work on an album. My budget then would probably be equal to what it would have cost to make a record cover alone!

That brings up the way music is produced nowadays of course with the production possibilities where it is easy to have two people sitting in front of the computer and putting music together at home, preferably electronic so you don’t have to deal with the instruments, you don’t have to deal with a room and you don’t have to deal with all these classical forms of producing music.

Neubauten is a band in that sense, and the way we work is very old fashioned where we all go into a recording studio where we need a room big enough for us so we can set up our instruments and play altogether at the same and do one take, two takes, three takes. And the only thing that is not that traditional anymore is that studios are no longer recording on reel to reel anymore – we can’t afford it – so this is the only big change for us! But apart from that, you can’t do without the room and the dinosaur technology that is necessary to make the music we make and we couldn’t get the money from anywhere to work in this way – we couldn’t make it feasible.

So my wife came up with the idea for crowd funding – we didn’t call it that then, we called it the supporters system – partly to use the same ideas that adult entertainment sites used to create intimacy on the internet and partly based on what book publishers have always done – get people to pay in advance to produce, say the works of the Marquis de Sade with proper leather covering and gold lettering on high class paper and when you have enough money you would publish that book.

So we combined these approaches and my wife had to write a code for that. We had to work with the primitive technology that was available for us at the time. I know when we started working in the studio we had the Internet cable hanging across the courtyard in front of the building because there wasn’t any Internet available for us in the back there in the studio, and we had to use these little cameras that would go into a USB slot. In the different phases it got better and now we work with Patreon and we don’t have to write the code anymore ourselves and we could use all the different label pieces that we need – the streaming, all the taxes that need to be paid and there all these things we could get from Patreon in a ready-made bundle.  It is my wife that invented all that crowd funding and now there’s so many people doing it.

(at this stage we were interrupted by a call from a delivery person)

You know I’m in quarantine for more than a month now. The delivering services have exploded and markets suddenly deliver to your house and this call was from one service I ordered from yesterday and I put the wrong page in it and so…I juggle with all the different possibilities on how to get food into the house and yet you already don’t get eggs anymore, you don’t get flour anymore and you don’t get toilet paper…

I only began my self-isolation last week…

You have to keep on structuring your day otherwise you get totally lost.

So, getting back to the supporter project – it reminds me of the Renaissance artists who would be funded by wealthy patrons. Does this change the dynamics you have with your supporters?

It is funny because a lot of the people that where with us throughout the phase four of the project this one have already been with us since phase 1 and in phase 1 they were 17 and they are highly amused that they now are married and have two children because they have known each other from all these phrases before – a lot of these people are people that we already known for a long time since 2002 so much older now but yeah I mean I now that everything broke down we are doing a lot of things through channels like this through video drops – I have a video drop that I do with the supporters.

Yesterday I was singing and playing on video then on Fridays I do synchronised cooking which is when I put out a recipe and tell viewers what they need and then I do real time cooking including tasting and eating at the end of the evening in the end so I stand in the kitchen with my playlist, a glass of wine and I cook the step by step in real time and others cook the same things with me. And tomorrow we gonna have a six o’clock Zoom happy hour where each one brings their own drink! (Check out Blixa’s brilliant cooking videos on the Neubauten Instagram account)

That’s like Tim Burgess, the singer from The Charlatans who has been having twitter album listening parties…

Alex (Hacke) was doing bass guitar lessons online yesterday and Jochen (Arbeit) was having a concert in his living room so I’m trying to get everybody in the band to actually produce an hour of content every month – I guess you have to adapt in the circumstances.

You personally have a lifetime standing invitation to appear at the Dark Mofo Festival in Hobart…

I take it seriously.

 What is it about this festival that brings you back?

Well you know I’ve been to festivals around the world and normally they are paid for by some institution, some of the record companies, different sponsors and all kinds of things and they’re not really free, whereas in Dark Mofo you have the feeling they do exactly what they want to do and nothing else and, sure that makes it unique you don’t often get really niche and some fairly extreme musicians in the one festival.

Is Alles in Allem themed on the city of Berlin?

At the beginning of the process we wanted to do 100 days in one year – whatever came out of that – whether it be one album or two albums. Alex asked me at the beginning if there was any theme or concept and I said maybe it has something to do with Berlin. There was a song called Welcome to Berlin and due to musical flatness and the fact that I thought I was pulling out so much poison and cynicism in the lyrics they would be totally misunderstood, and so, in short, it didn’t make it on the album.

That meant that the whole centre of the album – ‘Welcome to Berlin’ – wasn’t there. It’s just that the idea had infected some other territories. A song that was originally called Pantheon turned into Tempelhof which is the old Berlin airport and a song which was just called Dave 10 was turned into Wedding which is one of the territories of Berlin. If you look at it now, the album it is like an old fashioned 7-inch single with a big hole in the middle! That’s where Berlin was.

Is there a mention of Berlin in Ten Grand Goldie in the sampled falsetto section?

No! A long time ago I wrote a card system that is based on Neubauten experiences  – Neubauten good ideas, Neubauten instruments, persons etc – the Dave Cards – and we work a lot with these and Alles wieder offen was a whole album based on this system. We have worked with this system in ‘Alles in Allem’ too and in this particular song ‘Ten Grand Goldie’, I had some very significant cards, one of them was simple and I can’t exactly remember what the other phrasings were but it ended up that I was looking for scientific symbols. So I looked at various data banks in the net to find audible scientific symbols – there was one that did the sound of molecules and I found it at the Musee del Homme in Paris where I looked through their samples  – I didn’t even listen – and I just clicked on one that I thought sounded interesting and that was a Touareg lullaby recorded in 1947 – and guess what it does – (sings the sample).

No-one ever says Berlin in there – it’s Touareg in 1947! It was obvious and it fitted so well since I already said maybe it was something to do with Berlin. Our sound engineer definitely sees these old Turkish women trying to cross the road going ‘Berlin, Berlin, Berlin’.

It’s like a self-fulfilling prophecy…

I know. And it’s interesting because I had a card for Anrufe that would be translated as meaning calls – such as calling to god – a telephone-sounding voice. But I decide I would call the supporters. I put a message on the website that I would like to harvest some words and if you would like to think of a word that you want to give me and then send your telephone number. I then used a random generator to choose 20 people out of these 50 or 60 people that have sent in their phone numbers and called them in two rounds – one for the Europeans and for the ones outside because of time differences. I asked for one particular word that they find fascinating and then I ask what is the last thing you heard somebody say either to you or to somebody next to you right and somebody said ‘Yeah I have this one colleague at work, her name is Goldie and someone called her Ten Grand Goldie’. I thought that’s a fantastic title.

You know that 50 per cent of the lyrics are what supporters told me in the telephone calls. I know that when I started working on the text for the lyrics it is extremely difficult to write nonsense – whatever you do, somehow sense creeps in. I notice also when I started working with the lyrics I write in these little moleskin notebooks (shows me one) and then I type them in a computer but I know if I work on large amounts of text like when I started working on Ten Grand Goldie I use these bigger notebooks and my writing gets bigger each page and I write pages and  pages but I note sense creeping in and things are making sense and in the end I have a text where nobody understands what I am actually singing about but everybody gets a feeling I am singing about something.

And yet “Welcome to Berlin” which was left out of the album and “Am Landwehrkanal” (about Rosa Luxembourg) both have a political meaning…

This is my feeling too but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s exactly the feeling I had when I wrote it, I thought that’s weird – it seems to have a political content and coming out of randomly sourced, harvested words that people gave me. I will never try to do this again. Next time I will try something else.

You famously use a variety of found industrial objects to create sound. Which came first – the object that creates the sound or the sound that requires an object?

Sound is something that is highly overrated. Sound in itself has no quality. It is the context that you put something in and the strategy that you develop to be able to tickle something out of an object and give away something of its inner most metaphorical quality. This is not necessarily sound.

If I work with these ubiquitous bags – let me show you what I mean (shows me the bag pictured below).

They are everywhere. If you look at the sound of these objects, they have none. You need to develop a strategy to get something out of the object. So we first filled them with polystyrene and then we had a long discussion if we should still work with packaging materials at all as polystyrene is plastic, so we ended up filling them with rags put a microphone in it and all you get is the sound of the stick hitting the plastic surface.

You know in what metaphorical field they are settled, what they mean – it is the context that is important not the sound. There was another solo bag filled with containers containing other things – keys, nails, coins, peas. And once you play that solo on the bag it sounded like the ocean and I knew where we are heading what this was going to be and it is not the other way around that I wanted to do something in that direction, it is that the material themselves have revealed where they want to be positioned – that’s the way I want it to be. I never really chose things and go ‘ding’ this sound good. The sound in itself has no quality. People talk far too much about sound.

Are instruments you use updated or do they reflect a moment in time?

We have a big storage place in which we keep all these things and some things are things we have used since the early eighties.

What formats will the album be available in?

There is a normal version of the album and then there’s a deluxe version which is a double album and including in the double album box set is also the same 2 albums as seedy and then there’s a DVD of all the webcasts and there is a book is a 60 page book was six essays and I think about 120 pages reproductions of my original notes.

It must be disappointing not to be able to play the album live.

It’s devastating, it’s much more than disappointing. The first two shows we were meant to play were in Potsdam and Berlin in the concert halls. They were meant to be the crowning end of phase 4. For these two shows, 500 supporters had booked tickets, booked flights, booked hotels and we had a lot of extras lined up for them which included a bus tour through Neubauten’s Berlin, a listening session in Hansa Studio of the whole album.

All these things fall flat now. For us, of course, devastating financially and to take the crowning end of this phase is very dissatisfying. Nobody’s touring. I’m more sorry that these two starting events are not happening than the tour being delayed…that takes away the feeling of having achieved something.

(Note: Since this interview, Einstürzende Neubauten have announced the cancellation of their US tour dates and the postponement of their European tour until 2021. All tickets for the latter tour will be valid – see here for more details)

Thanks very much for speaking with me and I hope we see you in Hobart for Dark Mofo next year.

I hope so too.

Despite Blixa’s clear disappointment in the cancellation/postponement of the live shows and the special shows for supporters, ‘Alles in Allem’ is a crowning glory of Einsürzende Neubauten’s work and will be available from here on 15 May 2020. You can read my review of ‘Ten Grand Goldie’ here.

‘Alles In Allem’ Track List:

  1. Ten Grand Goldie
  2. Am Landwehrkanal
  3. Möbliertes Lied
  4. Zivilisatorisches Missgeschick
  5. Taschen
  6. Seven Screws
  7. Alles in Allem
  8. Grazer Damm
  9. Wedding
  10. Tempelhof

Feature Photograph: Arun Kendall

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  1. December 27, 2020

    […] blootlegt. Dit is niet noodzakelijkerwijs ‘geluid’ te noemen.” Blixa Bargeld is een koele minnaar van de eeuwige filosofische focus op het ‘geluid’ van de Neubauten. U kan dan ook geen […]

  2. […] ‘The Pit of Language’ creates layers of droning vocals with an Ennio Morricone whistle that fades in and out. There is a familiarity about the themes of languages and words that form a thread through the band’s work – being buried in words, symbols and fragments recalling Bargeld’s use of cards to bring together his lyrics (see my 2020 interview here). […]

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