Atari Teenage Riot 2012You’ve probably noticed that in late capitalism mainstream culture, including music, is often the tarted up result of market forces and the commodification of all things, it cannot help but be bereft of meaning and over arching purpose, it has nothing much to say and no idea where it is going; it operates as a social anaesthetic. In contrast Atari Teenage Riot are a band with purpose, vitality and a strong anarchist position. I got to interview founding member Alec Empire over the phone to Berlin recently.
Alec. Well, people who are politically aware would come to our shows anyway, you speak to people after the shows, and certain groups contact you and want to have a stand and flyers but when it started to take on another level was last year in the summer. I remember when we started the ‘Black Flags’ viral video project to get fans to participate, it started to grow when we got all this footage and then Anonymous activists asked if they could send in footage wearing the Guy Fawkes masks which was great because we referenced the hacker group in the song, we got a lot of stuff from America, from Europe, from the protests in Chile. It was spreading and becoming more than the original idea. Then we got stuff from Japan where people had changed our logo to ‘Anti Tepco Riot’ (in protest against the company who own the Fukushima nuclear plant). I thought that was great when fans take your thing and adapt it into banners at protest. When we were in America last year it was like we would play a city and a week later there would be an Occupy protest!
Q. Your collaborator on ‘Black Flags’, Boots Riley was really involved with Occupy Oakland wasn’t he. What have you made of the Occupy movement?
A. In the beginning I was thinking where is this going? You know the usual questions. But on tour I met people who were involved in the protests and from Anonymous, I realised that this was a new generation of people who want to change something, who want to get together and network, I thought this was the beginning of something that could lead to something very powerful. It involved many new and different people and wasn’t under the banner of a usual political group. I can understand the criticism that there are all these different voices, some protesting against the banks, others against the politicians, but I think what’s good about it is that people were communicating about what is wrong and must be changed, maybe to an outsider it isn’t clear why these people want to get together and why they are passionate about change and ‘Shouldn’t there be a spokesperson’ but that was the strength of that movement. When we travelled to America it was very exciting, we played a show at a festival at the start of September, just before all that stuff but you sensed something…there were people with banners, political stuff, they handed it to us on stage to put up over our band banner! It felt great that people at a rock concert would bring their stuff even though it wasn’t arranged beforehand, just a spontaneous thing! You could sense people had had enough and wanted to speak out and wanted to be heard, there was a real energy! People were ‘Let’s get information, let’s network, let’s improve things’. Really positive. You know I’ve been to so many protests and demonstrations over the years and it would be easy to go ‘yeah, whatever it’s just another thing’ but there is something else going on. We are at a time where we need to question a lot of political theories. On the song ‘Black Flags’ guest Boots Riley is more socialist/communist, not really with the ‘Black Flag’ but with the ‘Red Flag’ but I thought it was good that the track gave space to that other opinion, I think it’s a constant dialogue that we need to have. No body has the perfect answer.
I really liked that in the end we had the video footage from Wikileaks with Julian Assange speaking at Occupy London, it was amazing that all these people contacted us and the video became something completely different to a normal music video, almost a documentation of all these protests that were going on this last half year. What was also amazing was that in February and March there were these Anonymous guys called ‘Operation Blitzkrieg’ taking down major neo Nazi websites and putting up the ‘Black Flags’ video on there! Some sites had that on there for 3 days and didn’t know how to technically remove it! For me that was so awesome!
Q. On a discussion of your album ‘Is this Hyperreal?’ you said that you see yourselves as anarchist libertarians and you have said elsewhere that you don’t believe in hierarchies. It is fantastic to hear a rock musician being so upfront about their anarchist views. How long have you identified yourself as an anarchist?
A. For me that would go back to before Atari Teenage Riot, it’s a long time! It has a lot to do with the history and the environment in Berlin, the political scene and stuff in the 80s that I grew into as a punk rock kid. We were really in the middle of West and East and we would get from the eastern, socialist so called, Germany the propaganda stuff, from the West and the East and I developed a big mistrust of governments, you know it seemed to me in the West the politicians were involved in all these corporations and almost defended decisions made by big business. In East Germany there was almost the opposite but you would see the corruption, all under the banner of socialism.
Also as a musician, I started making music very early on, what I never quite understood was that people would treat certain musicians as a religious… leader, this was the 80s when the contrast couldn’t have been bigger between stadium rock and punk rock and DIY stuff. Concerts happening in squats and stuff like that and then the Rolling Stones playing football stadiums! In the 80s the way that they marketed went to a new level. And pop music took on a different role, that was when we first saw pop music being very manufactured.
Q. The ‘Stock, Aitken and Waterman’ stuff..
A. Yeah! There was always that part probably in pop music where producers and record labels would push artists in a certain direction…it was like puppets performing.
Q. When I saw ATR in Colchester Art Centre one of the things I loved was how you dismantled the dichotomy between the band and the crowd, the crowd were on the stage, the band were in the audience…
A. I think I could speak for the others in the group that you don’t feel comfortable when people — they don’t mean it in a bad way — who love the music look at you as an icon or whatever and don’t see you as a normal person anymore. You appreciate that someone likes your music so much but to be put above others like that makes me uncomfortable. I feel at a concert we all come together rather than I perform ‘top down’ my entertainment to ‘the little people’!!
Also at some concerts and festivals we have played people are treated in a bad way, some promoters seem to look at the audience as cattle or something! Some people don’t understand how every individual makes a difference…I don’t understand how some musicians and people who work in the music industry always have a cynical approach…
Q. Do you think it is because some people buy into the capitalist view of people as a means to their ends?
A. Yes, of course! Sometimes my jaw drops and you just go ‘Are you serious’!!
Q. On ‘The Keiser Report’ recently they were talking about how ATR had got money from Sony and then given that money to help Anonymous fund their legal costs. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
A. That was a few things coming together, mid/end February I got this request, I think what happened was they (Sony) couldn’t get another song licence and they were under time pressure because they had the TV slots booked and they were like ’Hey maybe you guys have something?’ I was like ’Hmm, maybe…’ you have to understand the history with Sony. In 1999 in Asia there was a camcorder ad and Sony took the intro of a song of ours put it in the ad and thought nobody would ever find out, Nine Inch Nails were on tour over there and then we supported them in Europe and the team that was making a documentary about NIN’s world tour came to us and said ‘Hey did you see this, there is your music in this ad, did you know about this?’ I thought it must be a mistake and maybe it was The Prodigy or something! But a friend of theirs videoed it from TV and sent it over and we realised it was actually our song, we couldn’t believe this was happening! It was an absolute nightmare to try and fight this because it was Sony Asia, you have to take it to court, they have all these lawyers. We kind of settled it, they said it was in the ad by mistake, so they only had to pay for damages for 5 broadcasts or something instead of the whole campaign. It really pissed me off at that point! I did an interview with NME and those magazines in 1999 because I was so outraged! It was the mentality of bullying artists, just grabbing something that you have created. Some musician friends said ’Look Alec, whatever, it’s in the ad’ but to me it is a political song. Us appearing in an ad with Sony immediately corrupts the message. I would never have agreed to this no matter for whatever amount of money.
Q. So when they came back 13 years later…!
A. It was different people, in America, I was like ‘Actually there is something in here!’ I talked to some Anonymous guys and said I can actually put this in here and fuck these guys! I put the instrumental in, it fitted perfectly and started airing and as soon as the money arrived in my account I transferred it over to the law firm that collects donations to defend Anonymous activists in court. Why this blew up so much was there was a big FBI arrest in March, they arrested a couple of Anonymous hackers, the FBI had an undercover person in there. That happened 3 hours after my money arrived there. In the beginning I wanted to do it as an inside thing, through the back door, but it blew up and ‘The Keiser Report’ spoke about it at the same time as the reporting of the FBI arrests.
Q. You have mentioned Anonymous a few times and we talked about Boots Riley guesting on ‘Black Flags’, do you enjoy collaborating, does it help you to be more creative working with other people? You had CX Kidtronic on board now you have Rowdy Superstar…
A. All these people bring something different to the table. The artist in isolation, this genius, I don’t really believe in that! It’s the interaction, I love that process, different people have different ideas, that’s the strength. I believe in the collective in that way…music has to move forward, what we don’t want is to go and see a classical concert and hear Mozart for the thousandth time although for some people in the upper class this is their ideal world, keeping going to the same events for those who can afford it, it is a top down thing and dead in my opinion.
Q. Against a backdrop of a mainstream culture that is a by product of market forces, cultural product as some thing new to sell, how have you managed to avoid being assimilated, as someone who identifies them self as an anarchist and who wants to express those views in your music do you get a lot of pressure to bland out?
A. The ‘rules’ exist so they always hope that you as a musician adapt to that. It starts with ‘You shouldn’t really have a political view come across in your song’ because it can’t be played on the radio show, so people like me say ‘OK, so you can’t play it on your radio show!’ but other musicians will go ‘Oh, no, if we want to get on the show we need to (make it more vague)’ There is a lot of, in Germany we call it self-censorship, where people go ‘Oh my god, I would get in trouble for saying that stuff’. But if I can’t express my real opinion then it is not worth doing, but people would argue that is why other artists got bigger than ATR or my own stuff because they were willing to make those compromises. But that is a handful of artists who profited from that, hundreds and hundreds of others shut up hoping they would be picked to be a star and it never happened, so to me I don’t even want to make that trade. Why give up what you believe in in the hope that everybody will support you? It’s very interesting how ATR has influenced so many bands and musicians from all kinds of genres, for me that’s much more important than can we sell twice as many tickets. Although you always want people to come to your shows and listen to your music, that’s great! It was amazing when we got over 400,000 views on youtube for the Wikileaks edit of ‘Black Flags’! Though some people said ‘Yeah but if you compare that to other music videos it should be 2 million views’ But I think for a viral video that just includes footage from protests its amazing that so many people would watch this stuff! From that angle it’s a success though if you come from a Britney Spears/Lady Gaga angle then it is a small amount of people! I think in a different way I guess!…in the long term compromising corrupts your own personality almost…
Q. When you were recording ‘Is this Hyperreal?’ you had 21 tracks but only 10 made it on to this album, have you got any plans for those other 11 tracks?
A. Yeah, and we have added some new stuff and we want to put a record out as soon as possible, hopefully after the summer. I feel there is a lot more to say now, and with Rowdy now (new member of ATR), the guy has just grown into it! It was amazing we played this festival in Coachella and he was right away in the crowd and ‘Yeah, Coachella are you fuckin’ ready’ and this red neck guy who didn’t seem to like us punched him in the face and he was getting into a fight in the second song and I was thinking ‘Where’s Rowdy’ and he gets up and he’s ‘Fuck you Coachella!’, totally punk rock! Its also great to have more ideas and I love it that he is from England, and that when we speak about the riots last summer I thank god that there is someone from England who is not part of that typical white established music scene who says ‘They are all dumb looters’; with him he is coming from the right angle!
Many thanks to Alec for his time and to Claire at DHR for organising things