Atari Teenage Riot
by Holly Day
Atari Teenage Riot has been making a name for itself over the past seven years with its angry combination of punk rock lo-fi productions, manifestos, and ethics with electronic instrumentation and dancehall beats. ATR stages are meant to be rushed -- the band even prepares to be attacked by its audience, taping and nailing all of their equipment down prior to the show so nothing gets knocked over or broken. In the last four years, the band has played over 300 shows in 20 countries, including several anti-Fascist demonstrations in Germany that were all, ironically, broken up by the police. "We sing in English because we don't want to be associated with Germany," says frontman Alec Empire of his love/hate relationship with his home country. While he lives in Berlin, he is apparently not considered a citizen of Germany -- which actually works to his advantage, since he is apparently enough "above the law" that the police have difficulty censoring ATR.
photo by Michael Levine
What was your musical background prior to ATR?
Alec Empire : I played in punk bands in the '80s. There were, like, two punk scenes in Germany in the '80s--there was one, which was like hard-core '80s punk rock, and the other scene was like '70s American punk rock. The bands I played in were more the hard-core punk rock, with German lyrics. Elias played in some electronic punk rock bands that sounded a bit like Suicide -- or like they wanted to sound like Suicide. Carl was from more of a hip-hop background. He was playing in some bands, some drum & bass stuff -- he came from a really different background from the rest of us. Nick learned piano at an early age, but she didn't really play in any band before she came to ATR. From all of our backgrounds, we've all been involved in different aspects of the techno underground over here since it started, and that really influenced us. In the late 80's, I really got into electronic equipment and sampling and stuff like this. But we all left it because we feel it's moving in the wrong direction, we really wanted to make political statements with a band, and not just making some new kind of dance music. We have this genre over here in Europe, that started pretty early on, where there are all these rules that you have to follow in a dance scene and we didn't want to do that, so we isolated ourselves into something separate from the rest of the music scene. At the beginning, nobody understood what we were doing, because you can't really put it into a category. It's not really punk, it's not really techno, it has elements of hip hop in there, too--this is really the idea behind Atari Teenage Riot, to combine all these elements of music that have revolutionary energy to them, to combine them and to tear down the borders that exist in between the codes and accessions that separate people from each other. We wanted to make a band that goes against these codes and unites people, instead of dividing them by... fashion. It seems like this generation doesn't seem to achieve anything, and won't, if things go on like this. Everything seems to be based around consuming products and I think most of the major corporations and major record companies are just dividing things into categories to sell more products, and it's caused a sort of creative [standstill], where a lot of bands and musicians don't try to do anything that falls outside of the categories the record labels have created, because it won't get any radio play or exposure.
What got you interested in electronic music in the first place, coming from a punk background?
To me, it just seemed like the next step. When I was playing punk rock, it was the best medium for what I wanted to say. Then at the end of the '80s, I just felt like the whole punk scene was pretty dead. The whole scene was getting really conservative. It became this almost traditional form, complete with rules -- you had to have this certain setup in the band, like guitar, bass, and drums, and there wasn't a lot of space left for experimenting. I was really bored and really pissed off with the whole development of the genre. Nobody was writing political songs anymore, it was all about drinking and having fun. Everything that I liked about this music was gone. Also, I didn't like that you had to look this certain way to be a punk, because to me it was always about the energy and the attitude and view of the world, and not about having green hair. Ten years after the Sex Pistols, punk rock was just not provoking anybody anymore.
I was really into Detroit techno and the acid house coming from Chicago, because these people were using a very simple set-up with their equipment, yet the music had a lot of power. I thought it really made sense to use electronic equipment to get these really powerful sounds. That was the most interesting thing to me about the music. During the '80s, I really hated all the synthesizer music that was coming out, because it was always being made by people who owned really expensive equipment, and I just didn't really like the bands. I have to admit that at that time, I didn't even like Kraftwerk. To me, they were a reflection of that '80s yuppie mentality, of people dressed like businessmen and doing the same thing that David Bowie had already done, and I didn't like that at all. But when I look back at them now, I think I might now have judged them somewhat unfairly. I think it was more all the bands in the '80s that they influenced, however, that the real dislike came from. By the '80s, cold, sterile, electronic music had been so overdone it was over, and since I was born in '72, I had never caught the first wave that Kraftwerk came in on, I never got how original they were for their time. But then, when I was a teenager, I also didn't like the Dead Kennedys, just because all the fashion punks at school had "DK" written on their expensive leather jackets. I think I thought I was too cool to listen to something that the Cool People listened to -- but that's how you are when you're fifteen. I was actually more into hip hop bands like Grandmaster Flash when I was fifteen than the whole punk scene, because that was something I could identify with so much more.
Did you have any other career plans just in case you weren't able to make a living with music?
Well, for me, it wasn't really about having a career. It was just something I had to do. I had to speak out against the things that were bothering me, and music was my way to do it. You have to have money to live, but I'm not really into capitalist status symbols, so I never thought about what I was doing as having a career, or making money with my music so I could buy a car or nice things. I never approached my music like this, and neither did the other members of the band. It was always about getting our energy, our beliefs out there, to make people question their lifestyles and the world around them. We wanted to make music that would open people's eyes. For a long time, especially here, nobody seemed to "get" our music, people thought we were just noisy and crazy and just didn't make sense. But at the same time, there was this small underground scene that was growing around us and suddenly a lot of people were into our music. I think that nowadays, a band has to take more responsibility than just saying, let's get a record contract and then just make uninteresting music. With ATR, from the artwork on the albums to the way we set up the live shows, we had to have complete control of our product. I'm really sick of bands moaning about how they have to make all these compromises with their labels -- all I can say to them is: yeah, okay, then do something about it. You don't need to have a radio hit or be signed to a major label to be heard anymore.