In order to erect the new, you have to raze the old.
That’s all you could hope to expect from a band started amid the rubble of Germany’s post-punk scene. A band whose name translates to “collapsing new buildings” and whose scabrous sound was born from the belly of true industrial noise: the crunch and crash of found objects, tortured synthesizers, charred guitars and downward-spiraling screams.
That Einstürzende Neubauten—guitarist/vocalist Blixa Bargeld’s junk-scientific testament to deconstruction—has managed to be more than the sum of its parts is what makes even the band’s harshest machine music tender, odd and gloriously messy. There’s a supple quality to Bargeld’s sharded whisper, hoarse holler and whimpering croon (mostly delivered in German), whether on the group’s literally smashing Kollaps debut or the quietly curvaceous new Alles Wieder Offen.
Growing up in West Berlin during the Cold War, Bargeld (born Christian Emmerich) and Alexander Hacke only know life behind the Berlin Wall. It’s an existence whose hardness keeps them removed—but also shielded—from pop culture.
“West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany,” says Bargeld. “And a paradise at the time, although I didn’t realize it until I left West Berlin and saw that other cities were different.”
Bargeld admits to the usual krautrock influences: Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk. “They were certainly a significant part of my musical upbringing in the ’70s,” he says. “But [Ton Steine Scherben] were the only true German rock band. They sang in German and not English, like most German bands of the time.”
“[Bargeld] was certainly a weirdo back in 1980 and was most fascinating to me as a teenage drop-out,” says bassist Hacke, who becomes a founding member of Einstürzende Neubauten at the tender age of 15. “The way Blixa lived and styled himself was taking punk two steps further from what I knew at the time. I was definitely naive and ignorant to certain facts of life when we started out. I always knew what I wanted to do and become, though: a musician.”
The short-lived early Neubauten lineup also includes American-born percussionist N.U. Unruh and two female members, Beate Bartel and Gudrun Gut. The women depart the band before Kollaps. F.M. Einheit comes into the fold to bang on metal pieces and play the hammer drill, coaxing and conquering the objects to make them ring out like a dying fawn or a crying child.
“We worked with the instruments we did because of our environment and life situation,” says Bargeld. “We still rely very significantly on home-built instruments and the sound they give.”
Bargeld also borrows aesthetic ideas from visual artists such as Joseph Beuys and Jackson Pollock, as well as the “junge wilde” art movement of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. These artists provide inspiration for Neubauten’s industrial sound as well as its existential dread. “There’s not much time until the collapse/Just three years,” sings Bargeld on the title track of Kollaps, referencing George Orwell’s 1984.
“It’s always the most difficult thing in the world for me to write lyrics,” says Bargeld. “The process is very close to psychoanalysis. It drives me to my internal limits, and I am always afraid that I will not emerge from it mentally intact. It is always the last and hardest thing that we do during the recording process.”
While Einstürzende Neubauten’s sound would prove seminal for industrial bands to come (Ministry, KMFDM, Nine Inch Nails, et al), the group also becomes famous for its iconography: a tribal symbol of a stickman within a circle. Though many fans—most famously, Henry Rollins—are tattooed with the symbol, initially, no members of Neubauten sport a single tattoo or piercing. “Now Alex has tattoos,” says Bargeld, “but not of the logo.”
True to its walled-off nature, Einstürzende Neubauten has little use for the sounds percolating around the band in the ’80s.
“I look at what dominated the charts at the time, and the music was no better than it is now,” says Bargeld. “In fact, it was harder to find good music because there were far fewer channels for discovering it.”
“If we had ever spent our precious time contemplating pop or the world it matters to,” says Hacke, “we wouldn’t have achieved anything and wouldn’t be around today.”
Starting from what the group had laid out with Kollaps (the more or less total abandonment of traditional instruments) leads to what Bargeld calls “an explosion of exploration of sound.” Zeichnungen Des Patienten O.T. is a record whose brutality remains unmatched by even the noisiest of present-day sludge or stoner-rock bands.
“The original title of the album was Hunters And Collectors,” says Bargeld. “The working process involved exactly that: hunting and experimenting with materials and sounds to do something in a new and revolutionary way.”
Though there are reports that drug use and abuse are notoriously rampant within the band, Bargeld refuses to speak about the subject now. “The chemistry of the band is much better now,” he says. “Please don’t make me elaborate on that. We certainly had periods when we were nocturnally active.”
In 1983, Bargeld begins playing guitar with the Birthday Party, Nick Cave’s Australian noise/punk outfit. When that group splits up a year later, Bargeld joins Cave’s backing band, the Bad Seeds, a gig he keeps for nearly 20 years.
“I joined the Bad Seeds because Nick asked me to play guitar on his solo record after the end of the Birthday Party,” says Bargeld matter-of-factly. “I agreed, and somehow it turned into a band from there. Did Cave change my aesthetic perspective? No. I do not have an aesthetic perspective, and if I should ever see an aesthetic perspective, I would hit it with a hammer over its head.”
The ’90s find Einstürzende Neubauten commencing its stylized phase. Bargeld and Co. start wearing suits and ties. Claims Bargeld, “It was because the Cold War ended and the Wall came down.”
Though there are more tonic tones and gentler skronks to be found even within the most tortured tracks of the band’s catalog, Tabula Rasa makes Neubauten out to be a purveyor of its own brand of easy listening.
“If you look at any album we’ve ever made, including the earliest ones, there have always been moments and songs of delicacy and beauty in each of them,” says Bargeld.
In 1995, Bargeld begins staging solo performances known as Rede/Speech, which feature loops, samples and the occasional flirtation with techno.
“Einstürzende Neubauten on tour is a huge undertaking,” says Bargeld. “Tons of difficult and heavy equipment, a large group of people, very unwieldy and hard to transport. Rede/Speech I can do with carry-on luggage and a microphone.”
Einheit leaves the band during the recording of the ballad-esque Ende Neu. His departure comes after a falling out with Bargeld, who, typically, declines to discuss the argument: “So what? There are many.”
Hacke admits that it’s not the group’s best period. “Most of the stuff we came up with for Ende Neu was atrocious in retrospect,” he says.
“West Berlin doesn’t exist anymore,” says Bargeld. “The work we do still has everything to do with our environment and life situation at any given time. The energy and spirit is the same. We still rely on home-built instruments. This latest album is the first one where we did not introduce a significant number of new instruments or materials.”
Alles Wieder Offen, like predecessors Silence Is Sexy and Perpetuum Mobile, features a lineup of Bargeld, Hacke, Unruh and additions Rudi Moser (on “metal”) and Jochen Arbeit (on guitar). Alles Wieder Offen (“All Open Again”) is an album of subtle drones and Bargeld whispers, with sweetly Teutonic tracks such as “Weil Weil Weil” occasionally rising to a cacophony of percussive clatter with rhythmic chanting. It’s nuanced and noisy without being as brutal as past albums.
Since 2002, the band’s recordings have been partially produced and funded by fans via neubauten.org, which is run by Bargeld’s wife, Erin Zhu. For Alles Wieder Offen, fans could interact with the group in the studio via webcam, creating a dialogue about the recording process. In return for input and financial assistance, the “supporters” received a special-edition album. Though Radiohead met with great success in releasing In Rainbows online, the idea of patronage without a record label is nothing new.
“Radiohead has the means to produce and finish an album themselves, which they made available on a voluntary payment system as downloads,” says Bargeld. “The download part for them is a marketing opportunity. For us, in 2002 when neubauten.org started, we simply could not make another album the normal way and had to turn to our listener base for help.”
Help doesn’t seem like something Bargeld needs. Hell, people or a listening base don’t seem like something he needs, either. In spite of his guarded demeanor, he’s just a nice guy banging pots with organized chaos.
“I am still basically the same person I was when I started,” says Bargeld. “The motivations and thoughts that drive what I do have not changed over the years. The means of expression may have shifted over time, but the principles remain the same.”
Just don’t mention aesthetic perspectives. He’ll break out a hammer.