Alec Empire Talks
The fact that Alec Empire has shifted from snotty teen rebel to dance music elder statesman has done little to diminish his passion for pushing sound forward, for calling out those who would shamelessly exploit music for commerce, and for having fun. He's currently preparing a live re-visiting of his mid 90s ambient classic, Low on Ice, an album deemed bizarre on release that has seen it's cult status grow and grow in the intervening years. This seemed a perfect reason to feature him on Ransom Note, and over the phone from his native Berlin, the man who once sang this banger was a surprisingly avuncular presence, like a good humoured uncle with a secret history of chucking molotovs at coppers…
I’m phoning to talk to you about Low On Ice in particular. What can people expect from the show?
The thing is, I was doing some interviews already and it’s quite interesting because people seem to not be used to this whole concept – usually when people perform something that was recorded such a long time ago, its bands who’ve reformed. In this case, it’s quite different because it’s more of a technique or method to create a certain type of sound. The story of this is that I was in Iceland, playing a festival in 1995 in the summer and I created this record in a tent at the time. I didn’t have to deal with the regular show at the festival, people were staying in tents, all the bands like The Prodigy went back to the hotel but I decided I didn’t want to do that, I wanted to check out this place. It was outside, in nature where sometimes these events take place and so I set my tent up a bit further away from the festival and I was able to capture that mood, if you want to call it like that. It was very cold and there was this weird atmosphere. I made it on pretty much the same equipment that I used to record Atari Teenage Riot stuff on so maybe it shows you the contrast. Over the years it became this kind of cult record where people like Thurston Moore and all these musicians kept saying to me ‘maybe this is your best record,’ and I just thought ‘Wow’. I think because it sounds so different and it has that very minimal, stripped down to the basics and in a way, even though it was recorded in Iceland, it sounds very German because it’s so cold sounding.
Was it written on headphones as well?
Yes, that’s true. Actually, it was recorded on analog tape back then because that was ’95, we didn’t have laptops to record at that time. It’s quite interesting how different this is from what people would do today and that’s why I think people became interested in the show because it’s an improvisation technique – it’s more like getting the technology set- up like I did in the tent, and taking that journey, it’s not about playing the single again. I think it’s important to explain this because when I was doing interviews before there was some misunderstanding, some people don’t quite understand the concept that music can happen like this too.
It’s more about re-creating the atmosphere of the record, rather than re-creating the record?
Yes and improvising in the same way. I did shows at the time Low on Ice came out but back then I was just going into this kind of section for 15 minutes or 20 minutes during a show because it was quite intense at a time, electronic music wasn’t at this stage. A lot of people were very alienated by this as it was slow, with a heavy bassline but if you look at trip-hop and all these heavy genres that are closest to Low On Ice they’re actually very different! It seems to me like there are different sounds on the LP to this day. It was colder to many people.
Why not make the venue freezing cold when you perform it?
Perhaps at the shows in January!
You’ve got to do it man, you’ve got to recreate the vibe! That’s a crucial part, make them freeze!
We could get in some artificial snow…
It’s interesting to me that you feel it’s more important to recreate the vibe of a record, that seems like a more honest thing to do rather than just a shameless retread-
I find it more challenging, to recreate something that happened in the past. A lot of people are fascinated by this idea, maybe that’s because they think it’s a timeless thing. Often I think of bands doing this because DJs and DJ mixes are often different anyway from night to night. Maybe there are a lot of American EDM DJs that have the same set for two years and just press start or something.
But we’re getting to a point now though where you, and a lot of the other 90s pioneers – people that I’ve grown up listening to – they're part of a dance canon. Underworld recently played Dubnobasswithmyheadman in full in London
Did they play exactly the songs?
Pretty much, his voice sounded different. The songs sounded very strong, but for a genre that was so futuristic when it came out, for me there was a strange sensation to it.
There is also something about electronic music in general, it doesn’t really work for Low On Ice because of the type of machine that I made it with, but with Atari Teenage Riot – we just used an Atari computer, and you put the discs in and the information is still there. I think there’s something fascinating about it, that information that was programmed back in the day, those sounds, are exactly the same. I think we’re used to these musicians who age and they play more traditional instruments like drums or guitar. But it is a weird model when you load up something you created in 1992 and the thing shows up on the computer as if it’s from a weird science fiction movie.
I think technology changed in the second half of the 90s, that was the time where more software came in and computers were getting way faster and the internet was something that a lot of people started using a lot more and a new chapter started. I think people are now getting more interested in the time that happened before that, the buzz around modular synthesisers because they’re not a digital thing that can be stored and copied. It is the expression of this person at the time in this place with this idea and it’s hard to repeat it.
Do you think that maybe we’re in danger of culture freezing at this point where digital came in? Because reproduction is so perfectly possible, do you think it’s going to change our perceptions of time in a way? There’s this point now that we can constantly go back to without it ever changing and that seems quite strange to me.
Yeah, there is something about it that I kept thinking about because I felt it really early on and when I expressed it a lot of people never understood what I was talking about. For example, you see it a lot with film scores and music for advertising, you have all these tools to say ‘let’s go back, we want this vintage sound’ and you have all these plug-ins. If it needs to sound like the 60s, you can make it sound like the 60s: you can fake that. I think there’s something about that, as you say, it’s almost like we’re stuck in the past. I think if you take a look at music magazines you so often hear all these references to the ‘golden age’ or new wave.
There’s a big question right now with distribution of music, does it actually stop innovation in music? The way that people intake their music, maybe on Soundcloud or stuff like that, people never get further into it, especially in the underground scene. In the 90s you could have some sort of budget, you could have your own studio and your own independent label and there was an economic basis there where you could build this serious thing, we have seen electronic music come out of that in the 90s almost everywhere in the world. Now I feel like I feel lost, these young producers and DJs are starting with a lot of enthusiasm and then almost a year later they just have to stop and I think it’s so sad because there could be so much more done but people never get to that point. You mentioned Underworld and those musicians from the 90s, imagine if they’d have had to stop in 1992! Maybe the most interesting records would have never happened…
Maybe though, the past century of recorded music is a tiny blip, and that’s been the only period where a huge body of people were able to make a living out of it- maybe it’s more of an anomaly and what we might be returning to is more the norm in the greater scheme of things.
Yeah but you could say that about medicine and everything in our lives – the idea that everybody can read books, the question that we should ask ourselves is ‘what do we want? Do we want great music or do we want to justify some stuff that doesn’t work out?’ It’s weird for me to say this stuff because I’m in a different position but I see people who are just struggling and they are saying ‘why is it not like it was in the 90s? Where is the excitement?’ but again, that has a lot to do with the environment in which music takes place now. I think, for example, the way certain trends are being absorbed and it’s just accelerating. When you talked about freezing in music, this is the weird thing. It’s almost like people can’t catch up. You can start something where the ideas might be really interesting but then it gets consumed right away and then they are left there standing there thinking ‘which category do I file my own stuff in?’ and becoming part of something else. I think it’s important to add that I’m in between those two opinions, I think there’s one side to which I disagree with a lot of points – those people want to go back to the old days – but then on the other side there are people who look at technology like it’s the saviour and that everything will turn out great.
Things are just way more complex than ‘this is good and this is bad’, but I do feel like the ease of access to previously underground scenes tends to favour major corporations- you’ll get producers making, say Trap or Jersey Club, and their style will just get copied, and end up on a Rihanna album that will have the massive clout of finance behind it – so that’s what will get heard, and previously the underground producer might have had more chance of building a fanbase and breaking through themself.
It’s hard to say exactly when this started but I had a lot of conversations, especially in America, with producers and they were like ‘back in the day you would have people doing this hot stuff in the underground’, you were getting these hot 12”s or whatever and then maybe pop artists would get those producers in and say ‘we want that kind of sound’ but now it’s like these people do sound-alikes. I think that sort of thing has always happened with people copying stuff, but now people don’t even want to deal with that underground stuff. I hear this often when trailers are done or songs are needed for films, people will say ‘I heard this in a club, just make it like that’. I think it’s sad because you need that exchange of ideas to rotate. England used to be a good example of that, Germany is such a huge country comparatively and so slow and the mainstream music is the most horrible music, but in England I always felt there was a healthy dialogue between what was happening in the independent scene and the mainstream. This is why underground dance music is accepted in the mainstream more – The Chemical Brothers and stuff like that. In Germany, you have really cool, innovative avant-garde but what is happening in the top ten, you don’t even want to hear!
I’m not sure things naturally always progress for the better… As you’ve been reconnecting with the stuff you were doing in the mid-90s, has it made you consider where you were there, mentally, and where you are now? Do you think there’s a large difference between the younger you and the Alec Empire that I’m speaking to now?
That’s strange because I can totally understand exactly what I did back then and why I did it, it’s not like this was such a different time. I just couldn’t get into that mindset right away. When we mastered this album that’s coming out, it’s not just the album that’s remastered, we went back to these analogue tapes and it was basically two more CDs full of stuff that was there that was considered ‘too strange’ back then and also the label were like ‘sorry Alec, we don't want to do a 3CD thing’ or something like that. It’s funny now, it seems normal, but back in the day we were glad to just be able to release stuff like that. It was considered very different to everything that was happening at the time.
What I find good about Low On Ice is that I had these machines in front of me, and it’s a different approach to the sound, you have to programme more things into the drum machine but you write them as you go along. I think you have to experience it to understand the difference of how people work these days with software, where a lot of stuff is automated which leads to a certain sound. I don’t want to speak badly of that because I often do it with other projects, but Low On Ice was almost the end point of using this type of machines. I think in the first half of the 90s most electronic producers were using almost the same stuff and it was kind of democratic in that way, there was a dialogue like ‘Damn! How did he make that beat? I have the same stuff, that's impossible!’ but then, as I said, by the second half of the 90s it was really changing. Low On Ice was this last moment- I don't know if I could have done it a year later.
Can we expect more stuff from the archive to come?
If people want it! There is a lot of stuff from the 2000s, I have tonnes of stuff like that, and sometimes I’m in a mood where I say ‘fuck it, just upload it all’ but then at other times I think people don’t need to pick through 200 other pieces of music! It’s weird, it’s hard to package it in a way. People also enjoy it, a mistake that a lot of people make these days is just put things out there and hope something comes from that. I don’t know, maybe we can play more shows if people like it! J
Just to wrap up, I think when I look at the dance scene, although people look at it as apolitical, there was actually a lot of politics. If you look at acts like Orbital, The Prodigy – the encoded a number of statements in their music and obviously you did very overtly. I wonder, do you think that’s something that’s been taken up by a younger generation? Are there people out there that can talk about stuff beyond just ‘let’s dance, get fucked and have fun’ or do you think that’s fallen out of fashion and people just don’t seem to engage any more?
I think you have these two groups of people, it was the same in the 90s. On one side, people want to just go to the club and take drugs, that’s it!
Although, even going out raving in the 90s itself was a political act- in England it was criminalised so even if the music was ‘yeah, let’s have fun’ you knew that by having fun you were making a statement, where as now that seems divorced.
I agree. I think we see that with EDM in America – original ideas of techno, of the DJ/producer becoming one with the crowd and everybody creating that night together, but now at the typical EDM show you have this superstar DJ who thinks absurd things. People like David Guetta literally just press a button so the interaction with their crowd is so chopped down, the question is what’s even the purpose of doing something like that? What is the purpose of Guetta? Essentially it is so weird. Like, Paris Hilton getting voted best female DJ of the year and stuff like that. I think we’re missing out on the true potential of electronic music at this point and the structure that was created by those types of people, together with big corporate sponsors, I think is preventing the evolution of electronic music and it gets worse.
If it’s in a healthy balance and you have other stuff and the underground, they can survive and come up with stuff that keeps pushing those boundaries but I see a real danger as a lot of smaller clubs are being closed down. Even in Berlin, Berlin has this image of having many locations and being amazing for clubs but a lot of stuff had to shut down over the past few years and, if this trend continues and everything is just happening in the O2 Arena or wherever, you don’t have the places where this stuff was created.
On the other side you have all the political people like the activists and there’s a strong scene that loves electronic music that is political. You have these two things and what I like is that I feel Atari Teenage Riot and people like that in the 90s who started linking techno to politics were almost the blueprint for the younger generation. For example in Germany now if there’s an anti-fascist action protest it’s just standard that there would be electronic music, mixed with punk or whatever, and the political messages, it’s totally fine to connect those and I think that’s because for that generation they see it as the way it always was. If this didn’t happen in the 90s maybe people would still listen to punk rock or stuff like that so I think it’s important but, of course, the dumb stuff usually overshadows it.
Perhaps it’s just that there’s a new generation who have moved into a digital sphere, so there is still an underground but it’s online – it isn’t in a geographical location but it’s in an imagined space which potentially makes it stronger.
I totally believe in that, I’m not a pessimist. I keep meeting people who are maybe not DJs but who are working with new ideas in whatever they do and there is that spirit, it’s about the mindset and they could just export bullshit financially and make a quick buck but there’s this real idealism that I think is great. These people really mean it, they dedicate their whole time and are like ‘the economy is fucked, we’re not going to make any money anyway so we want to do something good’ and I think this is amazing! It reminds me of when raves in the very beginning were started by a few ideas and I have to say that everyone who pulled off these parties in 89, 90, 91, OK they had to make some money back, but they weren’t paying the promoters like they do now and you heard that in the music. Now it feels almost like you’re watching Pop Idol when you’re looking at these big EDM events. I had the chance to be there, we put out a record in 2011 on Dim Mik Records…
Steve Aoki is quite a divisive figure… How did you come to terms with doing that?
The thing is, to me he’s fine. I should have maybe mentioned him before when I was talking about EDM because he’s become this figure that some people hate, but back in the day he came from this kind of hardcore scene. It was this tiny scene, he wasn’t really a part of that but they put out some of his records just before Dim Mak went EDM…
Do you think he lost his mind?
I don’t know, maybe that’s just LA or something… Things blow up… I’ve seen it, producers have things go big and have to be super careful not to destroy it in that moment. It can become a sort of weird joke, 2 years later it’s over! I always tried to not do that and I think it’s a good example of how things can change really fast – Skrillex opened up for Atari Teenage Riot and doors would open, that was 2011 or something and there were like 10 people booing and a couple of years later just look what happened!
I guess we can’t expect any cake-throwing at the Low On Ice show?
No no no! We just need to take risks and we love to do that too so I hope the Low On Ice stuff we’re working on has that experimental element to it and it will work in the present. You can never really manipulate that, how people react. Maybe there will be some people shouting track titles from the original album, that would be mad!