A Haus Divided
Contrary to what the map now says, there are still two Germanys.
At least it will seem that way this weekend at the Galaxy Concert Theatre in Santa Ana. On Friday the headliner is KMFDM, and on Sunday it’s Atari Teenage Riot. Each is from Germany. Each plays electronic rock. But the bands have little in common when it comes to their sound and what they stand for.
KMFDM has evolved over an 11-year recording career from a noise machine to a fairly catchy outfit that could swim in the new electronic mainstream, even if Mohawk-sporting founder Sascha Konietzko prides himself on independent-outsider status. The ensemble--which has a rotating membership built around core members Konietzko, En Esch and Gunter Schulz--hammers sardonically at authority and conformism but values a joke, pokes fun at itself and avoids spouting any particular political line.
“Nothing [in the band] is done for a purpose. It’s done for pleasure, our own satisfaction,” Konietzko, 36, said by phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas, straining to make himself heard over the grinding metal guitars of Rammstein, KMFDM’s German touring partner, doing its preshow sound check. “We do it for ourselves. That’s the bottom line.”
Atari Teenage Riot, on the other hand, is a band on a revolutionary mission. They sing sloganeering songs with titles such as “Deutschland (Has Gotta Die)” and “Destroy 2000 Years of Culture,” and in one called "[Expletive] All,” they proclaim, “We are the resistance/Only when the old has died, the new has a chance to be born.”
In short, they wanna be anarchy, and, yes, they mean it, man.
ATR is serious about fomenting anarchy, co-founder Alec Empire said recently from a St. Louis hotel.
Empire, 25, didn’t sound like an immediate menace, even if "[Expletive] All” also includes the line: “Cut all policemen into pieces.” He chuckled when an interviewer suggested that if 2,000 years of culture were to go out the window, the remedies Empire was taking that day for the flu would have to go with it--medicine being, after all, a byproduct of culture.
“But so would the bad American food that makes me sick all the time when I’m on tour,” Empire shot back with a laugh.
Contributing to Empire’s outlook are his socialist grandfather’s death in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, his father’s left-wing politics and his own run-ins with German police and racists.
“Before I got into punk-rock, I was a break dancer, and we had trouble with the police [while] performing in the streets. I was 10. ‘Why do they want to stop something good?’ That was important.”
Empire got bored with the German punk scene in the late ‘80s, when “everything was moving into this ‘fun punk’ direction. The songs were about drinking, etcetera, and it didn’t mean anything to me.”
So he started fiddling with electronic music. After he met Hanin Elias, a Syrian-born Berliner who had also turned away from punk and toward computer-generated sound, Atari Teenage Riot was born. Carl Crack, who hailed from Swaziland and a hip-hop background, began ranting political screeds to the music. A fourth member, Nic, has joined since the band recorded its new album, “Burn, Berlin, Burn!” ATR is touring with EC8OR and Shizuo, two other German acts on Empire’s indie label, Digital Hardcore Recordings.
“It seems like Germany is always [moving in] a fascist direction. I don’t see why I should support German ideas,” said Empire, who now lives in London. “We try to live an anti-fascist life.”
Don’t we all? (Well, all but a lamentable few?)
“For me, fascism is just all these power structures, and that leads to fascism sooner or later,” Empire said. “For me, Christian religion is fascist. [I don’t mean fascism] in terms of [another] Holocaust or something, but in a way of controlling every individual. At the end of the day, it’s big corporations, and people don’t have any power at all.”
Touring in America last fall with fellow firebrands Rage Against the Machine, Empire noted the headliners’ conundrum: reaching the masses’ bodies and synapses with raw power and ire but having questionable impact on hearts and minds.
“Maybe you have idiots that are just there for the music, but still I’m very optimistic,” Empire said. “Maybe if they don’t get it, it influences them anyway. I think it has a lot of power because music works on an emotional level.”
Empire thinks well of KMFDM, but their path of just poking fun at the system doesn’t interest him.
“I’m more into being euphoric and having excitement going on and feeling alive than [in] making a deal with this sort of [capitalist] lifestyle. That’s what a lot of people do, and they get cynical.”
Empire has a big fan in KMFDM’s Konietzko.
But it’s the rush of sonic excitement and manic confrontational tone that attracts him, not the political specifics. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a valid political statement: Here we go, now we blow up the system.”
Instead, Konietzko stands by a wry observation from KMFDM’s song “Dogma”: “We used to hate people, now we just make fun of them. It’s more effective that way.”
Originally from Hamburg, Konietzko came out of a punk-rock background but gravitated toward electronic music. At times, KMFDM (a German acronym for the phrase “no pity for the majority”) has relied heavily on jackhammer heavy-metal guitars along with the buzzes and bashing beats of synthesizers; its latest album, “KMFDM,” emphasizes electronic elements and catchy refrains.
Konietzko and Esch settled in the United States after a 1990 tour here with Ministry, mainstays of the Chicago-centered industrial-rock scene. They have carried on KMFDM as a flexible collective, regularly calling on guest performers such as Ministry members Chris Connelly and William Rieflin. The touring lineup features the core trio of Germans, plus Tim Skold, formerly of the Swedish band, Shotgun Messiah; singer Ogre of the Vancouver industrial band, Skinny Puppy, and former Chemlab member John DeSalvo. Female vocals are a big part of KMFDM’s recorded sound; Konietzko said this all-male touring version will make do with sampled women’s singing voices.
“We found that people kind of knew us here,” Konietzko said of the decision to transplant the band. “I met a girl I liked, so I stuck around. Our label was in Chicago, and nobody knew who we were in Europe.”
Konietzko lives in Seattle now and is entertaining the idea of becoming a U.S. citizen.
“It seems America still has this potential, [where] everyone has a chance . . . [and] room to breathe. It might be romanticizing, sentimental crap, but it worked for me for sure.”
Some fans began to question KMFDM’s underground credentials when it allowed its song “Juke Joint Jezebel” to be used in an episode of “Beverly Hills, 90210.”
“There’s this phenomenon where people think you belong to them exclusively and you can’t [use a mainstream forum] because then other dumb people with bad taste will get to know you and spoil you,” Konietzko said sarcastically. “We don’t have to spend any time writing custom music [for television or films]. We can use the money to go get new gear and be at the forefront of technology.”
This year’s hit breakthrough by the English electronic band Prodigy means that the majority, or at least a large consumer minority, has absorbed sounds related to the much older band whose name proclaims “no pity for the majority.”
Konietzko shrugs at the commercial rise of electronic rock.
“It surprised me that it took so long, but in the end it was inevitable. I don’t care what the future brings. I think as far ahead as tomorrow. The only incentive to do KMFDM is because we like it.”
* KMFDM and Rammstein play Friday, and Atari Teenage Riot, EC80R and Shizuo play Sunday at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Santa Ana. 8 p.m. $20-$22 for KMFDM, with $7.50 discount for bringing an unwrapped new toy for Toys for Tots. $15-$17 for Atari Teenage Riot. (714) 957-O600.