Fantome, life and misunderstandings.
At the end of January in a Berlin club ‘Fantome’, Hanin Elias’ and Marcel Zurcher’s new band, gave their first live performance. Afterwards Hanin talked about Fantome, fishing, misunderstandings and life post Atari Teenage Riot (ATR).
Your latest band is Fantome with Marcel Zurcher-could you explain how that came about?
Yeah, Marcel and I met and we are both from these very hard bands, people stick others in a box and expect them to deliver the same kind of sound but we were meeting exploring our own sound, developing something. We wanted to do something we had never done before, that we secretly always loved but had had to hide, like you were into Depeche Mode when you were about thirteen, that you had liked all the post punk bands with melodies. All this came up when we met, we started playing — he plays guitar, bass and drums — and writing songs together. It was all about doing something that we really feel. After a while being in a hard band is just the same stuff over and over again, you still mean what you say of course but you have another side of you that is never expressed and I think it takes a lot of courage (to express that). Today it was really hard for me to stand there and sing something from my heart, not having a shell of ‘I’m so hardcore!’. This time I really opened my heart and felt really vulnerable and was so scared that people would scream ‘Play some Atari!’, I was scared to death, this was for me was a big challenge, and also for Marcel.
Would you say the album is autobiographical?
Yeah, I write all the lyrics and the next album will be different because now the album is out I don’t feel that way any more, the lovesickness, the sadness about things is out, like if you write a diary, its been cathartic. We will still be a band and do another album, we will continue making music and writing about how our lives go and people will get the information in the lyrics 1 year later.. or maybe 5 years, it takes so long to record an album!
In your musical journey you’ve moved with ATR from a preoccupation with the external, structures, politics and struggle to also exploring relationships and the emotional life. Was that a deliberate thing, a natural progression or did you feel that you had exhausted that preoccupation?
I think I had said everything I had to say about the external and if I still write in that direction I don’t have to write it in the manner of ATR, I can still write it a little bit hidden underneath, a bit more subtle. (When we were doing it) in the 90s I loved it and was totally passionate about it, but it is not me now. As an artist you want to progress and develop, to go somewhere else and see where your limits are.
I noticed on youtube that you did some stuff at Occupy Oakland a couple of years or so ago, how did that come about?
We were touring with a band called ‘Violent Vickie’ and most of the band members friend’s were participating in Occupy Oakland and they asked if Id like to play Occupy Oakland and of course I want to support that. But when we got there it was really boring!! There was a discussion and a panel and then a speech and then another discussion and then when we went on it was all improvised, we did it on the street, but I think it gave them the energy back that had got lost for a moment. They were trying with 30 people to reach a united conclusion, it was so difficult and it took for ever but in the end they did it!
Your video for ‘Love’ is fairytale like with you doing a magic thing, your daughter and her friends as Pixies and Marcel as a forest creature…
Well, it’s a metaphoric thing, I wanted to show that this person’s life is something like a black hole so he is living in a black hut and he is totally black inside the hut, you only see his eyes when he looks out of the window, he is chewing on the bones of his own hate and rage, it was very difficult to put that into something (visual) and lots of people misunderstood.
Yeah, I read someone accusing you of being racist…what does it feel like as an artist when you put something in the public realm and it’s misinterpreted?
It’s horrible, it’s frustrating, there were 3 people from the same group writing to me accusing me of ‘black facing’ and I was trying to explain to them that Marcel was not meant to represent a black person at all, we meant something totally different. It was an amusing love story about 2 freaks in love, the guy lives by himself, he is totally distant and the girl is trying everything, she loves him but everything she gives him in a positive manner he turns into something negative in his mind, and there are people like that. But we only had cheap ways of expressing what we meant and that made it very difficult, we never thought that anyone (would misunderstand it as racist) because we don’t think like that.
In art theory there is the idea of ‘the active viewer’-that the viewer fills the artefact with meaning but obviously that can lead to wrong understanding…I went to a Pre Raphaelite exhibition and thought it was great all these strong Souxsie Sioux type figures only afterwards I found out I was wrong, that they were representing women as a sexual snare, the dangerous other, that the painters had been misogynistic.
I know! The same thing they said about our video I said about ‘Lord of the Rings’, that it had a racist message but I never thought my own video would come across like that! I was totally shocked! But all my black friends loved the video and found it very funny; nobody identified Marcel as a black person.
In the 1990s you were in ATR, you started ‘Fatal’ and were referenced by the Riot Grrrl movement, you’ve been a feminist icon for a lot of people. Who were your heroines?
Same as you, Souxsie; Souxsie was one of my heroines. There is also a German writer who is a friend of mine Charlotte Roche she wrote this book ‘Feuchtgebiete’ she was a host in a music programme ‘Viva’. She was so crazy and open minded and became a writer, lots of people hate her of course! I love Kathleen Hanna also, we wrote a song together and she had one song where she went ‘Hanin Elias…don’t stop!’ (‘Hot Topic’ by Le Tigre). But after a while I got sick of all the boxes they want you in, ‘Hey Hanin why are you wearing lipstick, why are you wearing high heels, why are you wearing your nails red and stuff?’ Because I like it! It’s not because society forces me to. A lot of my heroines were silent movie star, you know like Theda Bara, I like vampy women, to me they were totally strong you know. I like that classical timeless way.
You feel comfortable expressing your own sensuality and are not afraid of that?
Yeah, I like sex and I’m not frustrated and that’s what people blame me for you know. Sometimes I behave sexy but I do that because I feel that way and I’m not doing it because anyone is expecting me to do it.
So it’s not for the male gaze…
No! But it’s very hard nowadays to be with (some) feminists because they look at me like I’m a total bitch or something.
After you had released 3 solo albums you went to live in French Polynesia for 5 years. In ExBerliner (1) about a year ago you said you felt it had changed you. That must have been an immense cultural shift for someone from urban Germany?
And I went to an island that was very isolated and there were not many tourists around, we basically started living off the land and catching fish and I learnt how to catch fish using an underwater gun, but at first I was like all foreigners, ‘I cant kill a poor fish!’ and then I shot one, a tiny yellow one and we cooked it over the fire! We couldn’t get any other food because everything that gets imported from France has 70% tax put on it so you can’t afford to just go to the supermarket and just buy things, after a while you get hungry and go and find some food! It changed my thinking on that, if you want to eat you have to confront the prey, it could be smarter than you, it has a chance but if you win you are happy and have something to eat! I learnt some basics we don’t learn, we learn to play in the playground, to go to school, to go to the supermarket and make money and buy things but that’s not what life is about. Also on the island there is nothing happening and you become very patient, very quiet. I was very stimulated by the people there they have open minds, they totally charmed me, they don’t care who you are, what you did, the only thing that counts is who you are right now, how you behave. The moment counts. I also started in the girls paddling team, I was the only one who was thin enough to fit in the front seat, up to then our village team didn’t have someone to give a rhythm for the paddlers, I could fit in and then we won many competitions!
Do you feel that what you and Marcel are doing with Fantome has a continuity with what you have done before or is a new direction?
For me I can’t just cut off from the past so it has a continuity but it shows people that you change; while still being the same person there are other issues in your life that you want to share. There is nothing I could possibly say that isn’t clear right now. In the 90s it was cool that we sent people these messages that we did with Atari because there wasn’t so much access to the information but now the information is out everywhere…and there are people who were influenced and inspired by Atari Teenage Riot and it continues…I’m free to discover other territories. I have a normal job like most people to make a living and invest in my expensive hobby, making music. I don’t have to do what people tell me (as) I’m not dependent on them, it’s not the music that feeds me.
You have talked about collaborating with Marcel for Fantome, is collaboration something you particularly enjoy?
Totally! I always meet people that I really like, Steven Severin from ‘Souxsie and the Banshees’ wants to do a remix with us, this is always happening it’s like a ‘give and take’ thing. Everyone you work with has a different energy and brings out something else in you, pushes different buttons. If you open your mind you can become someone else through that other person, I think it’s a freedom that most people don’t use.
Big thanks to Hanin for her time and authenticity and to Fantome for a great night.
1. ExBerliner. www.exberliner.com. ‘Sex riots! Hanin Elias and Electrosexual’ Mihret Yohannes Jan. 14 2013.