Alec Empire has been around for a good 12 years now; 12 years that have seen a startling array of albums, from radical political noise with Atari Teenage Riot, to ambient records on Mille Plateaux.
For the last six months, Alec has been touring latest LP 'Intelligence And Sacrifice', and, with all the focus from the metal community on 'I&S', I caught up with him to talk about his career and the running of an independent label (Digital Hardcore Recordings).
As the founder of DHR, would you encourage other people in bands to start their own record label?
"I think there are a lot of people doing their own labels already, and most people don’t realise that it is hard work. Seriously, you are working all the time. I don’t know if I would say that every band should do their own record labels, what I see is that is that a lot of people that I know who own labels, don’t find the time anymore to work on their own music. On the other side I think it’s the best way to keep the control. That is the reason we’ve done it. We knew we couldn’t get our music out there the way we wanted it because labels would’ve forced us to change, or manipulated it in some ways. So by setting up DHR we avoided that, but you have to do it full time otherwise you're wasting your own time I guess. And to be honest, also if you put out records by your friends, you’re wasting their time as well. If you’re a musician you should be very careful."
Do you think they find it easier to succumb to the mainstream?
No, I think a lot of bands when they start don’t know where they want to go, they just form, have a few good ideas and do music that they like, then get sucked up into this machine, then get fucked around. That’s the danger and it happens all the time, even with bigger bands, because people don’t realise what they’re dealing with. People are lying trying to manipulate you all the time. The press is another thing people don’t think about, because everything you say gets manipulated. That can create a lot of tension between musicians. There are a lot of factors, but I think the basic rule is always get as much information as you can possibly get, and to be honest, my personal advice would be to cut out all the drugs.
"I know a lot of people don’t want to hear it, but if you’re on drugs you don’t know what the fuck is going on, people can manipulate you a lot easier and that’s why major labels use drugs - that’s why suddenly at these parties cocaine is around, and loads of alcohol. It’s a strategy to basically make people not think what they’re getting into, you just get sucked in and spat out, and nobody cares. It’s not like in the late '60s when there [were] fewer bands around and fewer records and it was easier to hear something, but now if you don’t keep pushing nothing happens. So it’s a different situation."
'Intelligence And Sacrifice' has been out for a while - has it been as successful as you’d hoped?
"I think because it hasn’t been released in America yet - it’s coming out the beginning of next year - I can’t really judge it as a whole globally, but it was very big in Japan, and over here it took us to another level. I think that this was important to make. Of course you can say, “yeah it’d be great if the single went Top 20” but we never think like that. I have my doubts that this kind of music is so different - and to a lot of people very noisy - that we don’t get the support that other bands get so fast. I think also talking about England, I feel that things are changing and coming towards my side more than in the past. But I see a lot of resistance still, like because I’m from Germany and people aren’t used to that. I’ve had good support though, a lot of good press, TV stuff, and with Atari for example it was never like that in the UK, so I think that’s great and what we have to do is keep pushing it further. I think it also has a lot to do with the global situation, recession, everybody is selling less records, so we have to think about that as well. But we’re selling more records than ever before! So I think it’s great. But who knows, if September 11th hadn’t happened and the consequences it had on the economy, I think we may be even two steps further!"
In the past, DHR have put out album's worth of material as a single release, yet with ‘The Ride’, your new single, you have nine songs over three formats. If, as you said, you’re not about chart positions, why have you subscribed to a major label friendly way of selling the single?
"We're focusing on albums more than before and I think that with every single release we’re giving people a lot of music still, even if we are dividing it in terms of three formats. In the early days we used to do one CD with six tracks and it was sold as a mini-album or something like that, but now it’s a single. I don’t think it makes much difference in terms of what people hear."
It’s just that it seems that for a completist, to get all the formats, you’ve spent nearly 15 quid, which is more expensive than an album, yet you're only getting a handful of new tracks.
"But you have [lists tracklisting] which is still fair! I know I’ve been very...maybe too fair in the past by giving away 60 minutes of material for the price of a single. Also with the album, it’s a double album! So it’s OK!"
I think it’s OK if you’re a new fan, as you’re not going to have a ‘complete’ back catalogue and some of the b-sides are rare tracks from 'Miss Black America'...
"Yeah, basically I used those two tracks because we were getting a lot of letters and e-mails saying, “please release 'Miss Black America' again”, but we wouldn’t do that because then it becomes stupid, so we put these two tracks on the single."
With the new audience that you’re attracting, curiosity is going to make them dip into your back catalogue. How do you think they’ll take to the older sounding distorted drum 'n' bass style Alec Empire?
"I think that many people will find EC8OR and ATR records, some might like the other stuff and some might not get it. But the feedback from my album has been like really good on the electronic side, better than ever before. I’ve had kids come up to me after shows saying, “yeah, we now know what you’re trying to do, Alec Empire does ambient!” So, they’re hearing something different. It’s opening some doors, in time who knows, there are people who buy my album for 'Addicted To You' and may think the rest is shit! But I can’t control it 100%, [laughing] maybe they buy it for the photograph!!! Who knows? Scary thought!!"
'Intelligence & Sacrifice" has been claimed to be your most accessible LP to date. Do you agree, or do you think music is generally more subversive due to the current global situation?
"I don’t know, I think the climate has changed. The time of the '90s when we did Atari Teenage Riot, it’s not the same time anymore, it’s a lot more obvious that things are fucked up and we have a change. But in the '90s it was like we were smashing our heads against a wall shouting “can nobody fucking see this”, it’d be like “I’m going to a rave”, or “I wanna listen to some indie-rock”! It was just unbelievable; it was like open your eyes. And now a lot of people seem to see that it isn’t just a conspiracy theory, they know that things are fucked up and maybe that’s a good thing I don’t know, but I don’t know where this is going. I’m surprised what the media pick up on. The whole ‘garage’ thing I think is just unbelievable to be honest. I can’t understand that people react in that conservative way to what’s going on!"
Would you say the British audiences are more conservative than European audiences are?
"No I don’t think so. They’re not all the same either; I’ve noticed that in England it’s the mainstream that men are listening to mainly. Music with no balls! Every time I come here I’m so shocked that you see these football games and all these almost hooligan type guys, and they listen to that sissy music like Coldplay and Stereophonics it’s like, you know, get a dick!!! Seriously, that is different to Germany. Germany has very bad music in the charts, yeah, but it’s not like “Ooh I’m crying, my girlfriend left me, it’s raining”! It’s not like that; this is really special for England!! I don’t get it!"
Would you say 'I&S' is the definitive Alec Empire album?
"No, it’s the first step."
Did you feel that it was time to destroy everything, after a 10-year period of trying to get your ideas across, that it was time to start again?
"I think what I’ve done with this record is, in a way, sum up what I’ve liked in my past to make a new way for myself, so I see that as a first step in a longer process. Some people see it as the Alec Empire record, OK. At the moment it seems to be that, but I think in a few years time it’ll be seen as the first step in a different direction and there will be nothing left of the '90s DHR stuff, maybe only a few little things...
Are you planning to rebuild DHR with a new roster?
"No to be honest, no, not like it was in the past."
"So are you using it as a vehicle for Alec Empire releases?
"Yeah, but what I want to do is to put out music that I like, which is what I’ve always tried to do. But I really miss that. Some of these Berlin bands, they didn’t pull their weight. That is the main reason why the situation had to be changed. Some bands weren’t that happy with it, but to be honest, I didn’t see the point of having Atari as the leading band and the others keep being support and only being able to survive because of Atari Teenage Riot. It was frustrating. We worked ourselves before DHR. We toured like 30 times more than the others did."
The clichéd ‘good old days’!!
"Yeah, but it was not days, it was years!! And the others never seemed to want to do this, not that I think that you have to do this, just that if you work your own stuff you understand that you can live independently from DHR. A lot of people had the DHR stamp on their record and that seemed to be enough for them. You see that almost none of the Berlin bands have been able to survive without DHR, and I mean EC8OR, as they were unhappy, that they are kind of clinging on to DHR. They wanted to be more successful and I said, “look maybe you should do this yourselves” you know, so I was saying we’re doing everything. What can we do, you don’t want to tour and then they say, “we don’t sell much records, we’re not in the magazines” and stuff. We never gave a shit about that stuff, but I hoped to be honest, that by not being on DHR anymore that they could sort their shit out, that they would be more happy because they were fully in control, and maybe there’d be a new musical direction for those bands. But nothing seems to have happened since."
And whilst discussing the points of artistic control and selling records, Alec had to leave to take the stage in Birmingham, leaving me not entirely clear as to where DHR was heading. But whilst his words may seem rather harsh, in reality he was quite an amusing man who had some good points, and I'm sure that whatever direction Digital Hardcore takes in the future, it surely won't be a 'sissy' one!