12/04/2005

Doing the unspeakable

Max Dax interviews Einstürzende Neubauten co-founder Alexander Hacke.

At the end of the 1970s an apocalyptic mood came over West Germany, and especially West Berlin. Opponents of nuclear power and the arms race announced the end of the world. An alternative movement developed in West Berlin, disconnected from the West German "rat race" and free to cultivate the mood of despair. No group expressed this disposition better than the Einstürzende Neubauten, who developed a novel and desolate musical sound. No one at the time ever imagined the Wall could fall, or that they could outlive it. An interview with a noise pioneer...

Alexander Hacke, 2003. Foto: Thomas RabschAlexander Hacke, 2003. Foto: Thomas Rabsch
taz: As a member of the Einstürzende Neubauten, you spent the 80s in West Berlin. To what extent do myth and reality coincide?

Alexander Hacke: On the one hand, West Berlin provided a home for people who had run away from other places where their creativity was being stunted. On the other hand it was a paradise for all kinds of exhibitionists and posers, because it was possible to become someone pretty quickly – simply because it was a village-type community and also because no one could check up on your background.

Do you remember any of these posers?

Of course. Without naming names. There were lots of so-called "Neue Wilde" painters, who made themselves scarce once the Wall came down.

But the Wall was up until 1989. Until then the Wall defined the city and the people's mood.

Of course we all said that the world was going to end in 1984. And until 1984 we were completely convinced of this. That's another reason why the Wall didn't bother us. On the contrary: even when the Wall was still standing we wanted it back.

The Neubauten song "Kollaps" (collapse) from 1981 went: "Bis zum Kollaps ist nicht viel Zeit / Drei Jahre noch." (There's not much time until the collapse / Just three years.)

There you have it. We were totally convinced that the world would end. But that didn't worry us.

Was that a spin-off of the omnipresent Orwell paranoia of the time?

It was certainly linked to George Orwell, but the main thing was that in West Berlin we really thought it would've been great to witness the end of the world.

That wasn't what people were thinking in London or Paris in the early eighties. Not for nothing is the Berlin of the time known for a sort of End Time existentialism, also referred to as "Berlin toughness".

We certainly flirted with this mood of doom. But we also had a lot of fun with it. Life was good, we felt fantastic. We weren't goths after all.

The slogan of the time was "Say something – but mean the opposite", as Bettina Köster put it in Jürgen Teipel's book "Verschwende Deine Jugend" (waste your youth).

Looking back on it today, I'd say: Yeah, it was like a sport. But at the time I was too young to really see it like that. I mixed in intuitively, but I wouldn't have been able to philosophise about it then.

Another important aspect was that the cost of living was so much lower than it is today, which meant people had a lot of time on their hands instead of having to go work for someone else.

Blixa Bargeld, 2003. Foto: Thomas RabschBlixa Bargeld, 2003. Foto: Thomas Rabsch
Things were easier back then. It was just one step from the street to the in-crowd - and you could be on drugs the whole time. Until 1987 I was able to feed myself because I had girlfriends who worked in cafes. We didn't earn a single penny with the music we were making. But since we assumed that the world was going to end anyway, it wasn't a problem whether what we were doing was art or not, or if it made us any money. And back then the desire for recognition didn't seem to be as strong as it is today. People were just too cool to demand attention. And this outlook gave you a completely different self-confidence, experimenting with music and composing supposedly "unlistenable" stuff.

But that was the point? To make the "unlistenable" listenable?

It was about outdoing the others, doing the unspeakable. Reinventing both yourself and music. That was the nature of the time and the basic concept of the Neubauten: "We will push the boundaries of music till there's no music left." Our aim was to totally destroy music. Today every chart production has loops in it. And there's hardly a rhythm track - from U2 to R'n'B – that's not beefed up with some sort of noise to give it more impact. But we weren't doing these things to inspire the hit producers of the future; we wanted to disturb people, annoy, cause pain. Back then Andrew Unruh was asked which music influenced him and he replied: "Music doesn't interest me. I just want to annoy people." That was the mood in Berlin.

Why was that?

I think it had to do with being young. We wanted girls to like us. And if girls didn't react to the usual signals, you had to send out different signals. It's interesting that you give out signals even if you behave or dress disgustingly. Sometimes we wore old rags just because the competition to outdo each other in rejecting consumer society was all-pervasive. Shaving holes in your scalp as a rejection of hairstyles was part of the same thing. The nonconformist attitude went so far that you were even anti everyone else who was anti everything. It was about being more extreme.

And outsiders took or mistook this for arrogance?


It was a game. You either played along – or you didn't. There was nothing to misunderstand.

Were you sad when the Wall finally did come down – and West Berlin, as you knew it, was relegated to history?

At first I was very, very disoriented. Not so much because I suddenly had the opportunity to explore the other unknown half of the city. I was more scared by the uprising of the people. When friends starting ringing to tell me that all hell was breaking loose outside, I hid at home for a full five days and didn't leave the flat. I followed events on TV – basically because I'm scared of normal people on the street, especially in their hundreds of thousands.

Do you regret that these times are nothing but memories now?

There's this nice quotation from Falco: "If you can remember the eighties, you weren't really there." This was my time of passion and rebellion. It was the time that defined me, shaped me. The eighties were very creative, but they were very self-destructive at the same time. I don't know if I would ever again feel the need to test my physical limits like I was so eager to back then.

What sort of limits did you test?

Einstürzende Neubauten. Foto: Thomas RabschEinstürzende Neubauten.
Foto: Thomas Rabsch
Oh, for example to see if you can go a week without sleep: It was possible. And it was possible often, because everyone back then believed that 24 hours was not enough to make up a day. I also saw almost no daylight for several years in a row. That was also possible. The clubs were ideally set up to cater to this sort of lifestyle: You could go to "Risiko" at 5 in the morning and there were always plenty of people there. These sort of things had to be tested out. I'm not anti-drugs and I think that everyone should make their own decisions, but this hardcore lifestyle is not for me any more. I also have the impression that today's youth cultures don't go in for wrecking their bodies the way we did.

You mean: wrecking their bodies with German thoroughness.

Exactly. Most people in the techno scene consumed substances over the weekend but went to work during the week. We led this life around the clock. It's unfortunate maybe that no one can afford this sort of life today. Survival has become very expensive, and apart from that there are far fewer possibilities for expressing yourself as an artists and getting grants.

You make it all sound very romantic. Were people in fact living out a romantic "ideal of suffering"?

Extremism is always a kind of romanticism. Whether it's starting smoking to be hard or giving up to be harder, it's always the same principle. The only thing that's not romantic according to this way of thinking is moderation, the middle way, rationality – smoking a bit.

Why were people so extreme back then – an attitude that is always described by outsiders as "arrogant" and "unapproachable"?

It was certainly a form of protection, to hide insecurities. At the same time it was also a way of reducing aggression. A statement saying you weren't doing what you were doing in order to entertain people had a basic truth to it because it was confrontational. And of course this so-called arrogance was a conscious technique employed to construct legends. Everybody, literally everybody changed their names and constructed their own myth to fit – who you were, where you came from, what you stood for. It was all a fiction, but then of course you had to live it out with a certain amount of credibility. This type of acting is easier for some people than living their real lives.

What was your character?

I played the aristocrat Alexander von Borsig who accidentally ended up in "Risiko". People also sneered at me for being a "sixth form college boy" and an "intellectual" although I actually left school at 15 with no qualifications whatsoever. It was probably because of my glasses and my interest in electronic music. "Von Borsig" also sounded like someone from a posh boarding school with a higher level of education, but I only called myself that because my father had worked in the Borsig factory.

*

The article was originally published in German in the tageszeitung on 26 March, 2005.

Translation: lp.

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