TIME TO GET RESET: an interview with Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot

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Berlin-based digital hardcore band Atari Teenage Riot launch their radical new album “RESET in Japan, epicenter of their global support

—story and photos by Christopher Johnson in Tokyo, all rights reserved—

Berlin-born Alec Empire, Japanese-German Nic Endo, and Londoner Rowdy SS are among the world’s most outspoken artists. Their memorable Fuji Rock performance in 2011 confronted the Fukushima meltdown head-on, and they continue to decry the ongoing cover-up of information.

Though one of Germany’s leading cultural exports, their 1997 album “The Future of War” was banned by the German government in 2003, Myspace in 2008, and Spotify last November.

Alec Empire spoke with Globalite Magazine in Tokyo about censorship, internet hactivism and his fears about rising extremism among German youth.

(see shorter version for DW.de here http://www.dw.de/german-riot-in-japan/a-17568220)

—-How has internet addiction and the surveillance state influenced your new album “RESET”?

The record is like an anthem dedicated to internet activism. I grew up in the 80s when the (Berlin) Wall was around. So surveillance technology and the surveillance state is very important to me. Governments have so much direct access to people’s privacy, it’s very dangerous. It could lead to the downfall of the whole society, the democratic system. These topics are influencing when we write the songs. We don’t just do music for fun.

Edward Snowden had an impact on this record. It’s not a dystopian view. It’s not a cyber-punk negative vision of the future. It is proven. When we warn about the government and technology invading privacy, it’s real. It doesn’t mean we’re these paranoid musicians and artists.

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—-How have your friends in the hacker community reacted to the surveillance state?

A lot of people are very depressed when you find out it’s not actually some idiots online; it’s people who are getting paid by the government to do this. It’s very important that media are giving the alternative view in society. If you speak to young people, they don’t even understand why it’s so important, because they take it for granted. They can’t imagine a world where there’s not a free press anymore. But I can, because of where I grew up in Berlin.

In the 1980s I knew musicians from the east part of Berlin. They would say ‘you had to hand in your songs. They would check them, then they would give you permission.’ That is a real possibility now.

The police try to drag activists onto their battlefield, where people fight each other. This is always where you start losing. If people organize a protest, and they know the government authorities are checking their emails, they feel like “we can’t move.” So we want to make a record that gives people energy not to give up, gives them power to take the control back.

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—-You helped build the techno movement in the 1990s. How is the music scene changing?

I’m not part of the normal music scene anymore. It’s very boring. I thought the techno music in the 1990s was exciting. We were deconstructing the song structure. The music scene now, or what’s left of it, is people repeating old formulas and having new faces perform.

All the smarter people moved into hacking. At the hacker conference (in Hamburg), I was thinking: “Here I see the type of people, the younger version, of techno people I knew in the 90s. They think about the future. When is the last time you heard a musician thinking about what will happen in 20 years time.4I3A2243 4I3A2249

—-In the Ukraine, Turkey or Thailand, bands of provocateurs can instigate trouble and scare people into demanding a wider crackdown. Social media can amplify lies very quickly. How can activists counter this?

It seems stupid to use the term “cultural revolution”. But musicians and artists have to get involved with this. As musicians, we can bring people together, and raise certain topics. Fighting in this way, the army can’t really fight back.

It’s important to inform people on social media to be more careful, do more research, not get fired up so easily. They don’t realize it. There’s so much information influencing you, people don’t take the time to go “What actually happened?” “Why do I feel that way?”

With (Russian punk band) Pussy Riot, it’s like “Are these girls being totally used. You can’t be that naive about it. You just felt immediately that there was a market being created for this stuff.”

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—-Growing up in Berlin in the 1970 and 80s, you said you felt isolated, almost outside of Germany. How do you feel now about Germany?

Many Germans might hate me again for this. In the 1980s, I felt protected by the occupying forces (Americans, French, British) against the Germans. Now I feel threatened by the German right and the directions they’re going towards.

There is a danger underneath. Some Germans go ‘you’re crazy’. But there’s something about the German people that is threatening to minorities. It’s more hidden. There’s been a new study. Something like 40 percent of young people consider themselves as right-wing extremists. Their views on immigration, Jews, and all this, are almost neo-Nazi.

The path Germany chose last decade is wrong. I criticized this right from the start. You can see this in the music scene. The 90’s were about wanting to connect with other countries. After 911, we want to go back to the German language, do stuff for Germans. They don’t think about “We want to play in England or US.”

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——Yet the internet was supposed to make the world more connected and open to other cultures.

The weird thing is we’re seeing an opposite development. When the Wall came down in ’89, the beginning was “these people are free from socialism, people are very happy. Then after, it was the idea that “Germany has to get its national identity back. Germany needs to be proud.”

I grew up in Berlin where I listened to American radio, the BBC. We were more connected internationally. That really influenced me. I don’t believe in things like nation states. It breeds nationalism, with that comes racism. A lot of problems in society are rooted in the idea of having a nation state.

Germany has chosen: “we want to become most powerful nation in Europe. We have to be proud of our history.” I’m thinking: “We saw where this led to.” It’s a warning. Look what Germany has done twice in the past century.

German history can tell us a lot about the future, if we don’t change. East Germany was a master of surveillance technology. Now, the shittiest mobile phone is a thousand times more powerful than our (1980s) Atari computer. It’s like the technology that the Stasi used compared to what we have now.

If the Nazis had the technology of today, just think about it. 

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—-You often speak about Fake Democracy. Where is society heading?

It’s not as much under control as some people would like. These old structures are dissolving. As for the big labels, their power is shrinking.

If a politician wants to run a campaign, it’s not as easy to get through to people as 20-30 years ago on a few TV programs. There’s a danger that people still think there’s a situation where you can freely pick. But the way the technology works, do you really have a choice? It looks like you have a lot of choices. But maybe key things don’t show up in a search.

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—–Can you tell us about censorship of your 1997 record The Future of War?

Six years later (after its 1997 release) it got on the Index (German censorship). A kid in school had a CD. This student was reading the CD’s booklet during class. The teacher was like: “What are you reading?”

There were lines from a guest rapper, he was referencing Public Enemy’s “Fear of a Black Planet”, and the guest rapper was saying how a black person growing up in Germany, being such a minority, felt something like a fear of a white planet. It was a sort of anti-racism song.

This teacher was like “white people are being discriminated against.” He took it to these authorities.

In Germany, the Index can basically censor. They can decide if this is harming or misguiding young people. You can’t do much about it. A Clockwork Orange was on that list. This can happen to video games. These people, it’s like they fear everything. I’m against censorship, no matter.

I want neo-Nazi bands to release their stuff. I want to see if they are successful or not. We don’t have to hide this. These opinions exist, it’s important to see them, so you can actually do something against them.

The Index (censors) in 2003 said: ‘You can’t play this record in public, you can’t sell it. You can’t do anything with it.’ People go: ‘You can use the internet.’ But if you search Last FM: they also block it.

When we uploaded songs onto Myspace, they wrote in 2008 that we had to take it off, because it’s on the Index in Germany. That led to us not running the page anymore.

At a Berlin festival, we would headline a stage. TV would broadcast all of the performances, but not our performance because of these songs. Last November, we got this letter from Spotify: saying they have information we are on the Index, ‘something about Nazis’. It is an anti-Nazi record but they don’t care. (They said) ‘Either you take this off, or we ban all your stuff worldwide, plus every artist who is on the label.’

Other artists were saying: ‘This is fucking insane.’ Some other artists, critics were saying: ‘Finally there’s a band from Germany making a statement about the past, the growing racism, etc.’ A lot of critics liked the record when it came out, and Germany was shutting them out. Now the German Index decision is having a consequence internationally.

It’s not just limited to Germany. People just look at their computer and see ‘There’s some problem. What? Anti-Nazi, Nazi, whatever.’ They just shut down everything. They were saying they would ban everything from the label, all the artists, worldwide.

I was really angry about this. Then you realize you can’t really speak to people there, can’t do anything about it. So we took the album off Spotify. We have other stuff up there still. I think we’ll do something about it somehow. It’s really damaging our reputation. It’s crazy. You do an anti-Nazi record, and you get put into this corner. 

People don’t understand the context. I’m invited to Israel to speak at a university. How crazy, Spotify is. You get banned worldwide for making an anti-Nazi record.

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—–What does this say about contemporary culture? 

People never see this. They think ‘it’s all great, we can connect to all this music by the internet.’  It’s this whole control thing. People don’t take it seriously enough. This is one example of what can happen. You wonder, ‘if this stuff can happen, where’s that line?’ What should you do, just sing about love? You can’t write songs anymore about sexuality.

There are no rules. It feels like they can restrict someone, almost randomly. ‘These people have a blog, these people are a threat.’

If you don’t provide the whole story, you can easily — as a German artist — be put into a really weird category, though you’re doing the exact opposite.

Sometimes this technology makes people lazy. A rumour blows up, the damage gets so big, you can’t repair it.

They banned it after it had been selling for six years. Was the album not so dangerous six years earlier?

There’s self-censorship at radio stations. People feel that you can’t trust the media.

A German hip-hop artist managed to convince them. He went with a lawyer, or professor, some sort of authority. They presented the whole thing, and convinced them to take it off (The Index).

Maybe I could meet with him. In their situation, they were so political.

I feel like you need to make a statement if you disagree. I was always against artists being in bubble, disconnected to society. It leads to more interesting music.

Anytime there’s important impulses in music, it’s because were speaking out. Why Hendrix, Aretha Franklin all that was so exciting, was the protest movement in the background. There was a different energy then. Beyonce could never match this.