The Music and Mayhem of Atari Teenage Riot: An Interview with Alec Empire (Plus Free MP3!)

Atari Teenage Riot -- Berlin's loudest, most strident, and most influential band -- kicked off a US tour this week, and with the global economic meltdown, riots and demonstrations raging across Europe, and technologies like Twitter heralded as forces for freedom one month (during the "Arab spring") and threatened with censorship the next (in the wake of the UK riots), it's not a minute too soon. ATR called it quits in 1999, having spent the 1990s hectoring listeners about the perils of corporate power, cultural hegemony, and technology over earth-quake inducing beats and a wall of vintage synth noise. In the process, ATR mastermind Alec Empire created the blueprint for a digital hardcore sound that -- through acts like Crystal Castles -- remained cutting edge cool during ATR's decade-long hiatus. This summer the band issued Is This Hyperreal?, their first album since 60 Second Wipe Out. Here, Empire discusses 9/11, nationalism, and the new Berlin.

TM: This is ATR's first album in a decade. Why did you wait so long?
EMPIRE: We were burned out. At the end of 1999 we did a show at Brixton Academy and the band was in such a bad state that we decided to take some time off. Then in 2001 Carl Crack died, just a few days before September 11. The timing was so close together -- died on the 6th, and then a few days afterward ... Everything changed for us at that point.

TM: Things changed because of Carl's death or because of 9/11?
EMPIRE: Mainly because of Carl's death. Carl was so important to the band, even though he was often not there -- he missed shows or didn't turn up for recording sessions. But it was a personal loss. I wondered whether I wanted to go back to the record we had started together.

TM: Did the political climate after 9/11 affect you as well?
EMPIRE: I had a solo record come out in November, 2001, called Intelligence and Sacrifice, and a lot of journalists said, "Oh you can't say that sort of thing anymore." Everyone was sensitive about politics.

TM: And yet, as the decade progressed, many of the nightmare scenarios discussed in your lyrics -- about a surveillance state and so forth -- came true. And nobody else said much of anything.
EMPIRE: I still think about that -- why did the music scene go silent for so long? I thought maybe it was because of the Dixie Chicks. When they got attacked, people were scared about losing their record deals or not getting radio play. As far as Atari Teenage Riot, I felt we had already said so many things -- at the end of the 1990s people went, "Yeah, guys, you're paranoid." When people criticized us, they said one of two things: either our music was unlistenable, or things would never get as bad as our lyrics suggested. They would say, "Surveillance? No way. The internet will liberate everyone. Why would it be used to spy on people?" It seemed almost as if the record The Future of War was about the War on Terror that happened later. It was a weird situation. We'd said all that stuff. Did we have to say it all again? What was there to add?

TM: What changed your mind in the end?
EMPIRE: It was a coincidence that we made this record now. Before that last show in 1999 at Brixton Academy, Hanin Elias walked out of the band and it was a big drama. She felt she should repair the damage -- she wanted to play that show again. We thought, why not? Atari was such an energetic and euphoric idea, and it never felt right the way it had ended. It was so negative, and then Carl died, all that stuff. The first reunion show was planned as a one-off, and I was skeptical; I thought it might be old fans, retro, and I was worried -- that's my idea of artistic death. We were so surprised at the crowd that turned up -- it was all these 20-year-olds, all these people who hadn't been there the first time around. It blew me away. It was exciting.

TM: CX Kidtronic, the American MC who replaced Carl, must have had reservations about rehashing what Carl had done.
EMPIRE: He wanted to rewrite stuff. "I can't say the things Carl said," he told us. "I wasn't even in Germany in the 1990s and racism is a little different in the US. I want to do my own stuff." That's when I thought it would be interesting not only to go back to the old material but to add new material. And I realized with the hacker activism stuff, the news about Trojan horse software the German government used to scan people's computers, Wikileaks, all these things were things we hadn't addressed because the technology wasn't as advanced in the 1990s. We thought this was what we should write about.

TM: Fighting jingoism and racism was a core cause in early ATR work. Have you been surprised at the rise in anti-immigrant sentiments across Europe in recent years?
EMPIRE: People sometimes ask me, "Why do you hate Germany?" For instance, when we wrote the song "Germany Must Die." To me it was always about getting rid of the nation states. Now it looks even more absurd for people to be holding onto nationalist ideas. Things grow together, people interact with each other everywhere. Then you have politicians like German chancellor Angela Merkel, who are open to corporations being able to move around freely in Europe, but when they talk about globalization, they don't talk about people being free, just capital. That's a big problem.

TM: Why does nationalist rhetoric still play so well? Merkel, for instance, has gone so far as to say multiculturalism "failed utterly," an unprecedented statement for a mainstream German politician.
EMPIRE: Because people are scared. A difference I notice all the time between my generation and the next generation is that level of fear. What are you so scared of? I always believed that the next generation would come up with such incredible things that we wouldn't even understand them. But when I talk to people, they don't even question the assumptions. They just accept the rules. We live in a time when we have to find new ways of doing things.

TM: People might think you would have been a cheerleader for the changes in the music industry in the past decade, but your position has been pretty nuanced -- to such an extent that you've taken heat about some statements, right?
EMPIRE: We said things that people hated to hear. With Pirate Bay, for instance, we criticized that. They take music and creative content and put it next to advertising and make money with that. I don't want my music there. A lot of people didn't like that -- hey, you're talking like a major label. No, I wasn't. I was taking an artist perspective. I don't want my music being downloaded for free next to a Nokia add. If I did, I would want to participate in the decision making process and a share of the money. People said I was a diva or whatever. I'm always on the artist side. Not only because I'm an artist -- I'm not a power freak or something. I just think it produces the best results. The best music is created by people who have freedom to do that, not being told by outsiders what to do.

TM: What makes Berlin such a popular place for artists of all types?
EMPIRE: I like to compare Berlin to London because I lived in London for a couple of years. In England you have to go through London. The machinery is there, the press is centralized there. If it works in London, it works in the rest of England, and then can take over Europe and maybe America. In Berlin it doesn't work that way. You don't have that structure. Because that isn't the case, people are forced to come up with new ideas. People don't even think about getting into the mainstream, which is very liberating.

TM: But Berlin has changed, too, since the days when you started out and were able to open your own club in a derelict building and create your own scene.
EMPIRE: I talk to young DJs now, and they say, "Oh, Berlin back then, what was it like?" And it's hard to explain the difference in energy. Berlin is missing a place that's not just hip for a certain amount of time, but a place where something new or creative happens, a place where 20 artists or DJs get together and something starts to happen and they create something important for years to come. I'm not cynical about it -- it happened in the 1990s and I think it can happen again in Berlin. But Berlin's a bit of a black hole right now. Some of it has to do with tourism -- a lot of the entertainment nightlife runs on tourists who come to Berlin. It keeps people doing the same sort of thing over and over again. You can't confront that kind of crowd. I mean you can, but you don't want to get that reputation of a place not to go to when you go to Berlin. It's a trap.

Download a free MP3 of Atari Teenage Riot's "Activate" here.