After more than 20 years making uncompromising industrial records, pioneering German band Einstürzende Neubauten escaped a creative and financial crisis through an Internet project which allowed their fans to influence the recording of their latest album.
Few bands have metamorphosed as dramatically over their careers as Einstürzende Neubauten. Formed in post-punk West Berlin, the band emerged as part of a Dadaist movement called Die Geniale Dillitanten (the brilliant amateurs) which aimed to break down all musical conventions. Enjoying their live debut on April 1, 1980, they quickly became known for 'unlistenable' eardrum-assaulting industrial noise and destructive, nihilistic behaviour, reportedly acted out in a haze of drugs and alcohol. Even their name aptly illustrated their destructive tendencies: 'Einstürzende' means 'collapsing' and 'Neubauten' is the German word for the ugly, box-like, concrete high-rise blocks of flats that mushroomed everywhere in Europe during the 1960s and '70s.
In those early days, Neubauten concerts often collapsed into rioting and critical uproar. In the UK, for instance, they gained notoriety in 1984 thanks to a concert at the ICA in London that featured road drills, chainsaws, a cement mixer, various raw building materials and, legend has it, a piano. During the performance, which was titled 'Concerto for Voice and Machine', glass bottles ended up in the cement mixer and the front rows were showered in sawdust and glass, leaving some with gashed faces. When the PA speakers came perilously close to the centre of destruction, ICA officials forcibly removed the protagonists from the stage, only to end up wrestling with crowd members who were into some DIY themselves. "Possibly the best gig since the crucifixion," concluded one enthusiastic reviewer.
In the context of such apparent nihilism, few would have put any money on the band making the end of the '80s. Yet nearly 25 years on, the band and its members are alive and well. What's more, EN's recent works are lyrical, pastoral, delicate things of beauty, full of melody, poetry and wonder. On their latest opus, Perpetuum Mobile (2004), for instance, power drills have made way for dried linden leaves, while its predecessor, Silence Is Sexy (2000) was an ode to silence. In recent years they've also been extensively involved in various high art projects such as dance and theatre performances. And where Neubauten once almost assaulted their audience with an uncompromising 'take it or leave it' attitude, Perpetuum Mobile came into being after intense interaction and consultation with fans, who witnessed the album's writing and recording sessions via the Internet. Einstürzende Neubauten have clearly come a long way.
Neubauten, and their early 1980s industrial contemporaries Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire and Faust, forced listeners to question their idea of what makes a musical instrument. More then two decades on, industrial music has largely been overtaken by the omnipresent sampling culture, which has resulted in an avalanche of unusual and extreme sounds entering the mainstream. Einstürzende Neubauten, however, are still busy exploring the innate musicality of objects that would not normally be considered musical, and refuse to virtualise them in samplers. And so albums like Tabula Rasa (1993) and Strategies Against Architecture III, 1991-2001 (2001) feature photographs of power drills, rocks, bells, hammers, drainpipes, steel cables, chains, engine turbines and helium cylinders, often with microphones stuck on them or close by. Their two most recent works, Silence Is Sexy and Perpetuum Mobile, contain credits like air compressor, plastic tubes, sheet metal, palm oil canisters, turntable-powered wind instrument, vibrator, amplified pneumatic piston, olive-alarm, electric fans, car tyre, gas burner, survival blanket, and, yes, dried linden leaves.
So why do they persist with this seemingly archaic way of working in a time when sampling has made the sonic use of any object under the sun cheap and cheerful? Alexander Hacke, the band's bassist and designated tech-head, enthuses: "Instead of recreating the sound of breaking glass, just break glass. It's a lot more fun! You can also get much more expression by hitting things live. Every time you hit a metal bar, you hit it differently. We never really made friends with the velocity of keyboards. The only samples we ever use are string samples to demo the string arrangements. But we then get an arranger in who writes out the string parts and we overdub live strings. Also, playing industrial things live is a very visual thing. Many of the things we do have theatrical value. You can get more expression into music and the audience can actually see what we do. That has great entertainment value, including all the mishaps and fuck-ups."
Given that Einstürzende Neubauten began in the post-punk era sporting a post-punk mentality, it's not surprising to learn that the band members once wore their non-musicianship on their sleeve. Unfamiliarity with drums and guitars facilitated the step to using metal sheets and hammers. "Basically we did a reverse process of learning," commented Hacke. "When Blixa [Bargeld, the band's frontman] started he had to sell his drum kit to pay the rent! And when he was singing he was basically just screaming and ad libbing lyrics as he went along. Ten years later he finally began writing things down. For all of us there has been a long process of developing in that direction. It all started with a very emotional approach, but of course over the years you get more educated, and you realise that research in certain directions has already been done."
And so band members were astonished, Hacke recalled, when they discovered musique concrète, the 20th century classical movement that foreshadowed industrial rock. Hacke joined Einstürzende Neubauten in 1981, aged 16, functioning as live sound engineer, percussionist and guitarist. He recalls "In the early 1980s we were in a completely different world. We were working with samples and loops before there were samplers or loop players. We'd cut quarter-inch tape loops and fly in sounds from those. Basically we worked with all kinds of noise and had to research and develop everything ourselves. But nowadays it's very hard to find a piece of music that doesn't contain some sort of noise."
Hacke explains that after years of recording with multitrack analogue tape, the band switched to Tascam DA88s and computers in the run-up to Ende Neu (1996). However, their mid-1990s experiences with computer editing turned out to be rather traumatic, and led to the departure of founder member FM Einheit and bassist Marc Chung. "When all the new technologies came out we suddenly found ourselves editing in front of a computer. We would be playing music together as a band and coming up with great ideas and have an energy in a room, and then all this had to stop because somebody had to sit in front of a computer in order to pitch something. When Einheit left the band we discussed the reason for the break-up and one of them was that there had been too much digital editing going on and not enough actual playing together. Since then, we really try to avoid this. We still record to computer, but during sessions we now make notes of electronic processing that needs to happen on a track, and then the engineer or myself are delegated to do these things when the session is over."The cover of Perpetuum Mobile, showing the 'air cake' which was responsible for many of the sounds therein.
Suddenly reduced to a trio, Bargeld, Hacke and percussionist Andrew Chudy (also known as NU Unruh) questioned the band's future, especially when a prospective replacement member died in a car crash. Eventually, drummer Rudi Moser and guitarist Jochen Arbeit joined, and Hacke switched to bass guitar. With everyone playing assorted non-instruments and often swapping 'real' instruments, Hacke observes that "bass has always been the one melodic instrument in the band. It's a very important instrument, the root of our music, so I decided that it would be unfair on the remaining members to ask any new person to fulfil this job."
However, there were also more deep-seated frustrations at work in the EN camp. "We were fed up with the ever-going cycle of producing a record and touring," Hacke remembers. "Usually we took three years to create a record. We'd work for maybe a couple of weeks in springtime, then everyone would go off to do other things. Then we'd meet up again in autumn and throw away 60 percent of what we'd done in the spring. Everything took forever. That way of working was not rewarding any more. And after 20 years of Neubauten we figured that we'd done what we wanted to do. We also did a giant, five-month world tour, and after that we wanted, if not to stop completely, at least to lie low for a decade or so."
Alexander Hacke explains that one way in which new Einstürzende Neubauten material comes into being is through a band member finding or inventing new sound sources. In the case of Perpetuum Mobile, a lot of inspiration was derived from plastic tubes, air pistols, and the gaffer-taped concoction made of tins and plastic and polystyrene and a record player that graces the front cover.
"The tubes inspired the album's pastoral aspect," Hacke explains. "Basically we reinvented the pipe organ. We cut the tubes to certain lengths to get them in tune, and then we played them with compressed air, using an air pistol, creating a giant pan flute or pipe organ. The interesting thing is that we figured out that it didn't matter how thick the tubes are or what material they're made of, you only play the air inside of the tube."
Hacke points out that the grey-blue plastic tubes seen on the album picture with a bird's-eye view of the band were purely meant to support the metal percussion lying on top and are not the tubes he's talking about here. "But on the back cover you can see the air pistol we used. They make a tremendous noise when loading up, and the piece 'Ozean Und Brandung' came out of that. The polystyrene flakes on that track were the work of Rudi Moser, and we treated them with a Pro Tools denoiser plug-in.
"On the front cover of the album you can see the so-called air cake, which is an instrument Andrew [Chudy] invented. He taped all sorts of stuff, like sawn-off plastic bottles, on a record player, so it can circle around, and using the air pistol you can get different resonances from the different objects on it. Because it turned we couldn't really attach a cable to the air cake, so we recorded it holding a condenser microphone in the same hand as the air pistol.
"The dried linden leaves were used on a song called 'Ein Leichtes Leises Säuseln.' We were experimenting with very delicate, almost silent sound sources. We brought these leaves into the studio and really carefully moved them about. We recorded that with the Soundfield microphone, which we held very closely to the leaves, and we tried to kill all the other noises in the room, by putting a blanket over the computer and things like that. We then put on a lot of compression.
"Actually, we used to put heavy compression on everything, but we recently moved away from that. Compression is very satisfying, obviously, because when you compress the shit out of a little clangy sound, it becomes a big bash. But you flatten the dynamics when you use compression too much, and nowadays we try to create great dynamics in what we do, and keep the small sounds very little. We like having a large dynamic range.
"We made audio loops of the leaves on 'Ein Leichtes Leises Säuseln' using a tape loop. In the early days we'd have a long tape loop running through the studio, via microphone stands and so on. It's a great spiritual thing to have actual sound running through the studio. Blixa also did some treatments on his Fender Rhodes, and we again used the denoiser plug-in, working with layers of white noise and filters, and sometimes just using the actual noise that's filtered out with the plug-in."
Einstürzende Neubauten's days might have been numbered, were it not for an original application of the World Wide Web, which put motivation, financial resources, and the band itself back in place again. "The setup was pretty similar to that of a porn site," explains Hacke cheerfully. "We were asking for a one-time donation and what we were selling was intimacy, just like porn sites. Via his computer, the fan in the world could take, if only virtually, a few steps closer to the object of his desire, in this case the band. It had different effects on people. Some were disappointed to notice that we're just regular people who spend their time doing entirely boring things like overdubbing for days on end. For others, the more you reveal about yourself, the more mythological you become. Also, the offer of an exclusive CD was part of the deal, but many of them said that they didn't want the CD, they just wanted to help and learn more about how the music was created. If there was any exclusive material, they were happy to download it."
To facilitate the project, which initially was called Phase 1, the neubauten.org web site was created in August 2002, and the band installed some web cams and a very fast Internet connection in their rehearsal studio, the Bunker, in Berlin ("It was a little like a television studio"). A series of writing and rehearsal sessions were scheduled, and for 35 Euros, supporters could witness all of these on their computers. They could then post their opinions on the merits and pitfalls of the emerging music on neubauten.org forums, where they were read and discussed by other supporters and members of the band. Over a period of 12 months, 140 hours of live streamed sessions of the band at work, plus a video Q&A session and three live concerts, were broadcast (some archives can still be seen at the neubauten.org site), and 33,000 messages were posted on the forums.
After the project was completed, the band realised they still needed record company support for international promotion and to go on tour, and so they reworked much of the original material and created Perpetuum Mobile, which was released earlier this year on Mute. Hacke enthuses about the dramatic effect the whole project had on band morale and discipline, with members, for the first time in years, arriving on time for sessions. "It took us a year to produce two records, the supporters' CD and Perpetuum Mobile. It's the fastest recording we've ever done!"
So the music recorded during Phase 1 was produced by Einstürzende Neubauten's fans? "It was not quite as democratic as that," laughs Hacke. "It was a virtual democracy — we still had final say! But this state of being on-line and in contact with fans, of being available to the outside world, was a very new thing for the band. And the fans came out with some really good comments. On previous records we were mostly working from a singular point of view when looking at the pieces. But in working with the outside world our aim was to look at the musical pieces from many different points of view. This is how the collage effect came into being, of song structures cross-fading into soundscapes.
"The supporters heard things in completely different ways and we tried to incorporate their points of view and that took the songs in different directions. They really opened our minds to stuff that we would otherwise have scrapped. Sometimes when working on a particular piece or structure we decided that it was going nowhere. But then there would be a couple of hundred people sending emails and screaming in capital letters 'NO NO NO, DON'T THROW THIS AWAY!!!' And we'd ask 'Why?', and then they would describe details that we weren't able to perceive while doing it. The audience provided new angles and we were trying to look at the pieces from many different angles. Lyrically there are therefore a lot of air and bird perspectives in the imagery."
"You can boil the way we write songs down to three approaches," Hacke continues. "One approach is when we have a piece of lyric or a word that gives us an image, and we do a score for that. Another way is when someone comes up with an instrument or a piece of junk or an idea for a new instrument, and we figure out what we can do with it. And then we have band improvisations, which we call ramps. Before the new members, Jochum and Rudi, came into the band, Neubauten never performed with a set list. We'd only know how to start and end a show. In the 16 years that we played together we developed a language for how to communicate. When the new members came in we couldn't do this any more because they weren't familiar with the kind of gestural language we had developed, and so we began using set lists. But we didn't want to lose the improvisational character, so we invented this thing called a 'ramp', an improvisation, a way to get from level 'A' to level 'B'. And some of these ramps turned into the best songs, like 'Ein Seltener Vogel' and 'Redukt'."
Hacke explains that Neubauten have a "nice old analogue" 24-channel Soundcraft desk in the Bunker, which is "more or less a live console", and which sends 16 channels to the band's "old" TDM Pro Tools system. The latter, says Hacke, "runs on my old G3 Macintosh, which I've had for many years. It's very stable, like a great weaving machine. I don't need it to be that fast. The band now has a G4, but Perpetuum Mobile was done on my G3 and the TDM cards. In the past we had different mic preamps and stuff, but now all the microphones go through the Soundcraft, apart from my Soundfield microphone, which has its own preamp.
"We use lots and lots of microphones and end up with huge Pro Tools Sessions, which is the reason why we do hard disk recording. Analogue multitrack tapes are terribly expensive, and so it's a lot cheaper to work on computer. It's also easier to work with computers. We used to work with one master tape and various slave tapes, but now we can have different Pro Tools Sessions for different parts of the songs. We still occasionally record to analogue tape to get the tape distortion and compression, but that's it. Analogue tape also degrades. We have a storage room, which after 24 years is full of tapes, and when we remixed some of that stuff recently, we had to bake 70 percent of them. You bake them for 24 hours and after that you can play them once, and then they're unusable."
Among Neubauten's wealth of microphones, pride of place goes to Hacke's Soundfield and a Brauner VM1, which was lent by Dirk Brauner for the Phase 1 project, and which Bargeld has since purchased. "The Soundfield is my personal favourite," Hacke elaborates. "It's very expensive, but really effective. You can use it for everything. We often use it for close-up mono recordings. Blixa has been experimenting with microphones for his voice for years. He doesn't like our Neumanns for vocals, but he did sometimes use the Soundfield. But now he's very happy with the Brauner. We also have a lot of transducer microphones, contact microphones, which we stick directly on metal percussion and other stuff we use. We've been doing that since 1980, spending time to find the exact right spot to place the contact mic. When buying microphones we try to spend wisely, buying equipment on Ebay, where we recently got some old ribbon mics and some weird mics that had been discarded."
Apart from live strings there are no acoustic instruments in the traditional sense featured on Perpetuum Mobile, although mention is made of 'electronics' and 'treatments' and 'loops' and there's a limited variety of electric instruments: electric bass and guitar, Fender Rhodes and Hammond organ. "It's a traditional Neubauten thing," Hacke explains, "that we don't use many acoustic instruments or synthesizers. But actually, synthesizers are slowly coming back into our music. In the early days we used the Korg MS20 a lot, and it's still one of my favourite electronic instruments. It's so random that you can never reproduce a sound live. It also has an incredible range of low and high-end sounds. We like to use the MS20 in an acoustic way, feeding it through its own signal processor, do crazy stuff. I also feel that software synthesizers have great possibilities. I used Native Instruments' Reaktor 2.3 software on Perpetuum Mobile, mostly their granular synthesis, which is very interesting.
"The loops on the album are done on the Lexicon Jam Man, which we discovered back in the 1990s. Funnily enough it was taken off the market three years later, probably because it was too cheap and too effective. We own two of them, and they're great. We rarely loop rhythms in the Jam Man, though, because we prefer to play our own. We hate limiting ourselves by following an electronic beat. It's much more rewarding to come up with a great rhythm and play it. Another box that I really enjoy using is Bob Moog's Moogerfooger MF102 ring modulator, which is fantastic. I'm completely in love with the idea of ring modulation."
According to Hacke, the acoustics at the Bunker leave quite a lot to be desired, so once song structures and arrangements were reasonably clear, the band sought out the superior acoustics of professional studios to do certain overdubs, and in some cases replayed songs in their entirety. These recordings took place in Saal 4 and Tritonus Studios in Berlin. The latter was also the scene for the final mixdown. "We recorded all the strings and some overdubs at Saal 4," comments Hacke, "which has a great old radio recording room. We actually planned to finish the record in our own studio, but unfortunately we ended up in a proper recording studio for the mix. They cost too much money, and I don't think they're really necessary. I think it's a mental thing. People want the security of a proper recording studio.
"Of course, when we knew we'd go there, we tried not to waste our time there by editing or processing in the studio. We therefore did all the Pro Tools editing and sonic treatments before the mix. There may have been a few timing corrections or the wild experimental stuff you can do with computers, like time-stretching. But there was no electronic pitching — we prefer to change the pitch at source, and if an object has a pitch inbetween two keys, we'll tune the bass to that. We're still very fond of the old reverse tape effect, and we do that in the computer now. When mixing we use the studio really only for the outboard equipment and the monitoring. We do have Pro Tools plug-ins and use them, but the effects you get with Manley compressors or Massenburg EQs you cannot achieve with plug-ins. For Neubauten it's important to have a good mixture of digital and analogue processing. When you use non-musical objects a lot, I think it sounds much more authentic in this way. Also, many plug-ins have a sound of their own. I hate it when I hear a record and I can make out a plug-in preset, which I can do with a lot of pop music that I hear on the radio."
A year after the completion of Phase 1, with a supporters' CD, Perpetuum Mobile, and another two tours under their belt, Einstürzende Neubauten appear to have regained the enthusiasm for their work. Bargeld has left Nick Cave's Bad Seeds to focus all his energies on Neubauten, who by the time you read this will be in the middle of Phase 2. According to Hacke, Phase 2 will have audience involvement similar to Phase 1, but this time the band's aim is to work on one continuous piece of music, instead of a set of songs, and to end up with a DVD as well as a CD. A DVD of the Perpetuum Mobile tour, as well as a documentary DVD about the band and its fans, are also in the works. Now venturing into the realm of A/V and 5.1, Neubauten are clearly far from a 1980s anachronism. Rather, it's perhaps wise to note that it is today, unlike 24 years ago, generally seen as a good idea to collapse concrete monstrosities. The world has finally caught up with Einstürzende Neubauten.