Thrash Hits

November 3rd, 2009

Interview: Alec Empire – “I wanted to capture the buzz Nero might have felt when Rome was burning down”

Alec Empire Nic Endo new promo photo October 2009 Thrash Hits

We know what you’re thinking: “Alec Empire doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing Thrash Hits usually covers”. But you know what? If you think that, then you’ve clearly failed to take some very serious points into account.

Yes, we know if you slap on his last album, The Golden Foretaste of Heaven, you’ll get an earful of electro, rather than the extreme white-noise inferno he made his name with. But that doesn’t change the fact that A) Alec Empire is more punk rock than anything you can think of, and B) if you think Alec doesn’t rock, you’ve clearly never seen one of his live shows. And since Empire is about to return to the UK for another set of those aforementioned live shows, we thought it high time we tracked him down for a chinwag.

So what’s going on with the new album? Back in April you suggested by the end of the year you’d have a new record out by now.
“Yes, it’s finished but we moved it to Spring next year. We did these Nine Inch Nails dates in Europe and then we were offered a bunch of festivals, so artwork and the usual things that go with an album, were not finished in time. I am pretty relaxed…most of my albums need time to sink in anyway…usually people don’t get them right away…so it’s all cool…many are still digesting records I did ten years ago haha…I feel like walking around with this secret…a powerful card up my sleeves…”

Can you tell us a little bit about the direction the new album is going to take?
“The new album is very different to The Golden Foretaste of Heaven. I really wanted to capture the buzz that Nero might have felt when Rome was burning down. I want to keep the cinematic feel of all the music I wrote for films lately. To me this album is taking me into the next decade. I am using a lot of modular synthesizers, so expect many new sounds. But I also included a different style of guitar playing this time on some of the tracks.

“Big is the key word….minimalism is officially over now. Instead of looking at music through a magnifying glass until there is nothing more to find, we should build worlds of sound. Huge, complex and diverse. I am preparing for the time when people can download bigger files of music. This is when music fans will be divided into two groups….the ring tone brains, those who have difficulties to process complex information in a short time, and the transducers who can listen and read to complicated data streams of sounds and transfer the energy onto people around them.”

Wathc the video to ‘Kiss of Death’ by Alec Empire

How do you decide whether to tour with a full band or just yourself and Nic Endo?
“We are doing the “Past – Present – Future” Tour…and Nic Endo programmed her samplers and drum machines in this way that we don’t really need drummers for example…In a way it is a modern Atari Teenage Riot set up…very direct. I play guitars, which I mostly play on all the albums anyway. A lot of fans seem to really hear the difference.

“In some other songs we sampled our riffs to give it that digital precise drive. We also like that statement of Nic Endo being in control of the machines and me on the mic. The usual electro set up in 2009 is man on machines and dancing girl singing…haha…so fuck that….”

How do you pick your support acts?
“These days sometimes bands who sound cool on their demos can’t play live. I am really glad that we got Motor on board, because I love their records and they are awesome live. I hate it when the main acts give the support acts a shit time…I want to create a great night instead of playing power games. So when a support act is powerful and great, I just love that, it makes us play better, the crowd is already excited when we go on…”

What was it like performing before Nine Inch Nails again? Are we right in thinking these were the first shows you’ve done with Trent Reznor since the infamous Brixton Academy show with ATR?
“Yes, that was the idea. It was like let’s do this one last time…it was their Farewell Tour and our Past – Present – Future Tour…and that’s how it felt like. The fans were treating us so well…it was quite emotional at some points I have to admit…

“The NIN tour in 1999 was the last tour we did with ATR before Carl died and sometimes I would really think of him and the band and how intense this time was. I rarely think about the past, but during these shows you just couldn’t avoid it. My grandfather was Polish and was killed by the Nazis in World War 2, so when we played ‘Revolution Action’ in Poland at the show and all fists went up, it felt so powerful.”

Why did you choose ‘1000 Eyes’ as a single? It’s not one of the obvious choices from Golden Foretaste?
“It is part of a film directed by Austrian director Richard Wilhelmer which was getting a lot of great feedback at international film festivals, David Lynch included it in his Engine Collision Festival, Richard won a bunch of awards…so it made total sense to release the version which appears in the film and is different/shorter than the album version. I also find that the time is perfect for dark electronic Velvet Underground type stuff. So we quickly pushed it out there. I am a bit surprised that so many seem to recognize it now. It’s all about timing I guess.”

What can you tell us about the Golden Foretaste of Heaven short film? All we’ve seen is the trailer – it kinda reminded us of Southland Tales, but we’re basing that on nothing more than first impressions.
“The film was directed by this new super talent from Austria Richard Wilhelmer. He basically used over 20.000 2D images animated this film from those, he convinced a few quite famous German actors to appear in it, which also helped the film to get recognized by critics and the film festivals. His approach is very punk, not because of its style, but because of his attitude towards all the CGI effects used these days in film. It is an hommage to the great animation films of the 70ties an early 80ties. He really developed his own visual language from that technique…it took months and months to make. For me it was a very exciting project to work on because like in these old sci-fi’s a lot of the atmosphere comes from the music, so it gave Nic Endo and me great freedom…

“When it was premiered at Berlinale Film Festival in Berlin I loved the reaction of the crowd because some were confused about these images, you feel it’s not low budget at all, but then wonder why not make it 3D…the music and the images on a big screen were super powerful. It received standing ovations at the premiere. Even the tabloids wrote about the screening and the afte party where I DJed.”

Watch the trailer to ‘The Golden Foretaste of Heaven’

Patrick Wolf joined you at the London show you did in May – are you going to return the favour and join him on any of his forthcoming shows?
“Yes, I will be there for his show in November. We are still discussing what we’ll do that night – he expressed the idea of playing my song ‘Shivers’ together, with him singing it on the piano and me providing all the electronic sounds. This is great because the song can be taken into new areas live and wouldn’t fit so well into the set Nic Endo and me do right now during our shows.

“It’s a very popular track amongst my fanbase. It’s actually the most downloaded track from iTunes of all my songs, which is quite amazing. But we’ll do a lot more at that show…”

Is it harder to fit Alec Empire into a Patrick Wolf show than it is to fit Patrick Wolf into an Alec Empire show?
“I think it is equally hard! haha… Patrick is like this innocent god who steps into an arena of mayhem and chaos at my shows. I am like this blood thirsty wolf, the older brother or something, he has to bring me on stage in chains, so I don’t follow my hunting instinct…I believe that this contradiction makes our collaboration so interesting, also on record. We kind of stand for the same ideals, but are extremely different characters and ways to go about them creatively.”

When we last spoke, Chaostage
was just about to be released, and you were cynical over the turmoil in the world financial systems – are you disappointed that it appears that we’re going back to “business as usual”?
“I am not disappointed I am furious. This is perhaps even a bigger scandal than the Iraq War in my opinion. The financial system is producing violence and crime in our society. They are possibly a bigger threat to people than terrorists. In the coming years, all the important funding for education, the environment, healthcare….anything positive basically is gone.

“I am convinced this will boil over sooner or later. My biggest disgust for the establishment right now is that they give themselves this image of high morals, the way they talk and dress…it’s just a disguise. They shouldn’t act surprised when the violence reaches them one day…it will…it always has. History has taught us that many times. And no control mechanism will prevent that.

“Do you want to be active and make them feel something? Do not bring your money to the bank, do not buy ANYTHING, no cars, no luxury items, no TV sets, and so on…this is bringing these people back to reality sooner or later.”

It’s not just approaching the end of the year, but the end of the decade – what’s been the most significant events in music from the perspective of Alec Empire, over the last ten years?
“There were a few…Eminem taking the easy way up by using anti-gay lyrics like the worst hypocritical right wing politicians. Then the Dixie Chicks being blacklisted by Clear Channel and the Republicans in the US, and therefore in the rest of the world. The British music press praising new bands as the “new Beatles, new Rolling Stones, new Who, new [whatever]…” and most of those bands couldn’t even deliver decent live show or survive 6 months in their careers. I am saying this because it is vital to have a press which is not corrupted. It must be diverse and independent.

“Michael Jackson’s death ended the pop music era in our society. Radiohead forced independent bands and other competitors out of business by giving their music away for free, and successfully disguising it as something “cool”. I am not judging it as other musicians do these days. It’s part of the game – it hurts but it’s true.

“Music Blogs have been so much fun, in the beginning I wasn’t convinced they could replace fanzine culture, but they are a great alternative. Pirate Bay disguising themselves as rebels while ripping off musicians or anybody creative while making millions on advertising – they got what they deserve. If they attacked the majors, fine with me, but they acted so full of hate against musicians and film makers and other creative artists. Either it’s all non-profit or you share your profits with those who provide content. Simple basic rule, anyone should understand that – even the file sharer fundamentalists.

“The Iraq War had a massive impact on the music scene, everyone was in fear, not many spoke out, the music scene failed to really connect with people. This has always been the biggest power of music, to reflect what’s going on in society. This decade really made me understand how it must have been like as a musician in the 3rd Reich back then. These things take on their own dynamics and suddenly you can’t criticise anything anymore…I think that the failure of the music industry has more to do with why people care less about music and don’t buy it anymore then mp3 piracy has. Music is always about reflecting the reality and escaping it, these two sides have to be balanced in a sensible way.

“One of the biggest changes in this decade and it’s not getting mentioned enough because it is a new phenomenon: New ideas and radical changes are not coming from young people anymore. There are many theories why this is. I believe that it’s because there are less young people around than for example in the 60s. So those in the music industry who thought that everything comes in cycles were proven wrong. If this was true than we as humans still would figure out how to make a wheel…”

Watch the video to ‘On Fire’ by Alec Empire

In the UK, the last decade has been characterised by the lack of any real defining musical movements – just short-lived fads and fashions. Why do you think that is? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
“We see pop music dying right now. There are many reasons for that. One is the globalization. Pop music always has been a national statement. A nation chooses a hit for the summer and defines a period of time by doing so. The media, the music scene itself and the music fans have become more fragmented in this decade.

“Advertising companies know what I am talking about. They have problems reaching their audience. With music it’s pretty much the same thing. People define their taste by clicking a button, and they change it constantly because it is easy to access all kinds of different music types online. We see a similar development in politics, the people’s parties, the big ones keep losing voters, it is hard to unite masses of people right now. Pop music has the same problems, only that I don’t see it as a problem; I see it as a solution.

“Our society is very diverse. And so should be the music scene. This decade was important so we can all move into the next one which telling from my instinct will be very exciting. Scientific studies have found, also in this decade, that only 2 percent of humans have the brain capacity to actually understand music, or better to translate musical information, which reaches the ear, into emotions. So those who feel safe when they go along with the masses might find themselves having a bad time in the future, because they will be forced to make up their own mind.”

Do you have any regrets about any aspect of your career?
“Not any regrets, just that I have been born on the wrong side of the channel haha… I don’t feel “home” in any music scene, but that was my decision. I always liked that challenge, the risk, the confrontation…these things drive me, they made me who I am. Other musicians have it easier, but I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes because I might get bored…hard to say…I never felt regrets, so I guess I don’t have any…”

What have you got planned for 2010?
“2010 is almost completely full for me. We are doing a US tour in Spring, more dates all over the world, then of course the promotion for the next album will take time. I also got offered a bunch of film soundtracks, which I might do in between or right after the summer. I find this time the most exciting in my career so far. There are no limits, the possibilities are endless…we can do so much creatively! So let’s do it!”


Alec Empire is returning to the UK for one last set of live dates before the year is out. We don’t know how much longer he’s going to include Atari Teenage Riot material in his live set, so if you want to see ‘No Remorse (I Wanna Die)’ one last time, we suggest you get yourself along to a show.

Alec Empire November UK tourdates
18 Newport TJs
19 London Islington Academy
20 Birmingham Eddie’s
21 Manchester Club Academy
22 Edinburgh GRV

If you fancy catching Alec on any of these dates, head over to his official website for details of the various outlets you can purchase tickets from.