Interview: Atari Teenage Riot

Atari Teenage Riot - Photo courtesy of Atari Teenage Riot

Atari Teenage Riot - Photo courtesy of Atari Teenage Riot

It’s no secret that political issues have been on the top of the list for Atari Teenage Riot since its inception. The groundbreaking group, which formed in Berlin nearly 20 years ago after the turn and the fall of the wall, first made itself known by its controversial leftist politics, which not only saturated the band’s lyrics, but were apparent in the actions of the band’s original lineup of Alec Empire, Hanin Elias and the now-deceased Carl Crack.

After three studio albums (1995’s “Delete Yourself!,” 1997’s “The Future of War” and 1999’s “60 Second Wipe Out”) the band split, only reuniting 10 years later in 2010 when Empire and Nic Endo (who had joined the band for the third album) collaborated with CX KiDTRONiK to produce the fourth studio full-length, “Is This Hyperreal?”

Where in the past, the emphasis has been upon spreading the anti-Nazi and anti-fascist message, for the new album, Atari Teenage Riot shifted its lyrical focus to that of the increasingly relevant issue of the Internet. With songs tackling questions of Internet privacy, hacker activism and the idea of keeping the Internet out of the government’s hands, Empire said it’s important for the public to stay informed about how the spread of information is being censored and controlled.

In particular, Empire said he’s regularly shocked by the response he has received from both ends of the spectrum since “Is This Hyperreal?” was released in June. While many people are on board with the message and the music, he noted that some journalists have criticized the group, accusing them of being paranoid or obsessed with conspiracy theories. In response, Empire said one only needs to look at the headlines to see exactly what is going on.

“Stuff like that still surprises me,” Empire said. “You always think people can get alternative information because [with] the way we interact internationally, there’s a better understanding of other cultures, other opinions.”

Yet he said that the transparency an international Internet community should be fostering is actually being deterred by instances ranging from the worldwide Wikileaks debacle to the domestic example of the German government creating spyware. And instead of acknowledging what’s happening, Empire has called out journalists for ignoring what’s going on around them.

In addition to the overarching theme of the Internet, Atari Teenage Riot’s new album also works as a placeholder in the timeline of the band, bridging the gap between the 90s and now.

The most obvious change in the band is the lineup itself. While CX KiDTRONiK is the newest member and emcee of the group, Empire also said that Endo’s roll is much more active than it has been in the past.

“It was really important to show that so people can see who she really is,” Empire said, referring to her transformation from someone who once shouted the background vocals to a primary contributing member of the trio.

While the new album contains tracks focused on the idea of the class war and government corruption as well, Endo also supports the feminist front when using the song, “Blood in My Eyes,” as a platform to speak out against the mistreatment of women.

“Now we’ve done this step, we can move much more forward into the future,” Empire said, explaining how a new lineup helped pave the way for a new sound.

Of course, this decision to regroup and refocus hasn’t been met by every fan with enthusiasm. Because the group shifted from the metal, breakcore and noise elements that made up the album before, and tried to incorporate more techno and electronic sounds into the new album, there has been some natural opposition with the ATR camp.

“It was more about…how do we make this record about the time now but also build that bridge to, you know, what’s the style and the identity of Atari Teenage Riot from the 90s…because there is definitely that signature sound to it. So we didn’t want to completely give that up to be like hip or trendy or something,” Empire said. “I think that’s what some people criticized, that we kind of stick to the formula that defines Atari Teenage Riot, but then widen that.”

He explained that working within that already-established structure of what encompasses the ATR sound is a challenge, both on the creative level of making something new, but also on the level where many fans don’t want them to step away from the sound they’ve come to associate with the band.

But that freedom to not have the respond to the demands or desires of anyone but the members themselves is what makes the group so unique. And the autonomous structure of ATR is largely in part to having its own label, Digital Hardcore Recordings, which relieves the group of the pressure to produce material for anyone other than itself.

“Every album was exactly what I wanted to say at the time. Otherwise I wouldn’t release it,” Empire said as testament. “I’m quite glad that I’m in this position to make those decisions like that.”

On a technical level, Empire said the making of “Is This Hyperreal?” was freeing, because he got to step away from the more complex production involved in his solo albums and film scores.

“Atari Teenage Riot is always the Atari computer, the 909 drum machine, and an old hardware sampler from the 90s, which doesn’t have a lot of samples,” he said, explaining exactly how minimal an amount of equipment is involved in the creation of the music.

On the opposite end, however, Empire said that working with such old equipment in a technologically-advanced age could also be difficult because of how limiting it was, but that it inspired him to be innovative with the tools he had at hand.

“Now it’s like, how can I get over to America in a day, with like a bicycle or something?” he joked, poking fun at himself for working with such old equipment out of desire and not necessity or force. “If I would have to send an email [that would save my life] with this computer, I would probably like, curse it to death.”

Earlier this month, after the completion of a North American tour, Atari Teenage Riot played its first club show in Berlin in the past decade at Astra Kulturhaus. Although Empire is a Berlin native, it was admittedly his first time at the venue.

“It’s strange. It has that…kind of buzz to it for us,” he said, speaking of the mixture of excitement and tension he felt prior to the appearance. “Since I was born here in Berlin it makes it special.”

But although many fans saw the show as a homecoming of sorts, Empire insisted that Berlin isn’t a place he considers home, just as he wouldn’t consider his base of operations in the United Kingdom home either.

“I wouldn’t consider London my home at all…but then, you know, Berlin, I think, has changed so much over the last 20 years. Most of the places that would remind me of maybe my childhood or something don’t really exist like that anymore,” he said. “[So] I don’t really care for much about feeling home. It’s more, you know, like which…city has some energy to it or what do I get from it, like, in terms of, like, inspiration for music and stuff.”

And as for Germany itself, Empire shared that he’s never really felt much of an affinity toward his homeland. In part, because Berlin was such a divided city during his youth and he grew up in the French sector, Empire said he always viewed himself as European, as opposed to German.

“I never really had that…strong relationship with, like, you know, my Fatherland Germany or whatever, and that flag and the football team and all those things,” he said. “It’s almost like a dead end.”

His strong distaste for the nationalistic movement also stems from the fact that Germans are too hesitant to chase after change without permission from the authorities.

“When I look at Germany over the past maybe 15, 20 years, I just see a lot of missed opportunities,” Empire said. “And the same goes a little bit for Berlin. You have like, so much potential here, but then…you look at how mainstream politics…are more about drowning that and killing that off instead of letting it flourish.”

He referenced the Occupy Wall Street movement – which was just beginning when ATR was in the United States last month – as an example of the healthy distrust Americans have that he feels Germans are lacking.

“I think it’s very important…I think it’s very exciting to see,” he said, speaking to the way the movement has spread from city to city and turned into an international political movement. “What I hope…is that a lot of people start thinking about, you know, why things are getting worse and worse. And I feel that’s a really important first step.”

Empire acknowledged that the group’s fan base has the tendency to be more pessimistic about the state of world affairs, but was clear that he doesn’t feel that way.

“In general, I believe, hopefully things will get better all the time,” he said. “That was always the drive of the group…even if we speak about a lot of negative stuff, you know, the idea is to change for the better. [And] that’s why Atari Teenage Riot is so different from other [industrial or hard electronic] groups…it’s a very different mindset, different philosophy behind it.”

Now, as he approaches 40, Empire reflected on how that mindset has prevailed throughout the years and kept him from giving up, even when things have felt like they aren’t improving.

“I think it’s kind of like what I’ve always done,” he said. “[The secret] is to keep changing and to keep facing…changes.”

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