Chatting with Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire

Empire (center) and Atari Teenage Riot play a free, all-ages show at Royal Resort Saturday night.
Photo: The Hellish Vortex

How long has it been since ATR played Las Vegas?

We’ve never played in Vegas. I’ve never even been there. So when the idea came through we were like, let’s totally do it. Last year there were a couple of places on the tour schedule, in Europe and Asia, where we’d never played before, and that was kind of exciting, because you don’t have anything to compare it with and it’s a crowd that’s never seen you before. And then it’s Las Vegas. We only have these movie-type images (laughs), so it will be very interesting to see how people react to us.

The details

Atari Teenage Riot
With Otto von Schirach
September 10, doors at 6 p.m., ATR at 8 p.m.
free, all-ages
Royal Resort, 735-6117

How does your show now compare to what you were doing live in the ’90s?

Certain journalists who have seen both shows have said that maybe at the end of the ’90s it was a little bit more nihilist and destructive, but now it’s more powerful in terms of sound. And we have made a lot of improvements. We’re still using the old machines, but in general the technology has improved. A lot of the sound systems in clubs now are able to reproduce lower bass frequencies and stuff. When we started touring the U.S. in the ’90s, every sound engineer working in a club was like, what is this? They were used to normal bands, punk rock bands. But now that’s not such a problem anymore.

And a lot of people have said they feel a more fresh, uplifting type of energy [at the show]. I think that has something to do with the excitement within the group. [The reunion] was something that was decided very spontaneously, and we were surprised about the kind of feedback we got from people. So it feels a little bit more like when Atari Teenage Riot started in Germany in like ’92, ’93, ’94, this forward energy. It’s definitely hard music, but I think for a lot of people, it’s maybe not the same shocking value now. Now, I think, people listen much more to the lyrics, and they know what it’s about and they see the connection to politics, which sometimes in the ’90s was hard for some people to figure out. The music was so strange and then some people were like, what are these guys talking about? Governments spying on people and stuff, all these issues that were really concerning us in Germany. But I think now, with the way politics have developed, a lot of people understand, okay, this can happen in my country, too.

Talk a bit more about how the reunion developed.

It was supposed to be one London show in 2010, and it kind of went from there. I actually wanted to put out an Alec Empire record in September 2010, but then we spontaneously decided, f*ck it, let’s just roll with this, it’s kind of exciting. And also it felt like, politically, the kind of things that we were talking about were becoming so important. Everywhere we went people told us, it’s so important that you guys are saying this, nobody else is doing that. So we did two or three weeks last year. We didn’t know at that point that we would do a record. We just added dates because more and more promoters wanted us to play. And then after the European tour in the fall we started recording the new album [June’s Is This Hyperreal?].

I wondered if anybody still cared about this kind of music. Because with the Alec Empire stuff, I was moving into a completely different direction, putting out these analog ’80s synth records. So I didn’t have it on my radar at all that people would still care about digital hardcore and that kind of sound. But then, of course, a lot of other bands adapted certain elements of what we did. So now it seems completely logical.

Do you hear elements of digital hardcore in some of the electronic music that’s been produced in the decade or so since ATR went on hiatus?

Digital hardcore was a really Berlin thing in the ’90s, and I think when [original ATR member] Carl Crack died in 2001, a few days before 9/11, I really felt that the whole scene was on its way down in Berlin. You could really feel the whole thing changing. But there are always kids doing stuff online. If you go to SoundCloud or platforms like that, you can easily find hundreds of people who are trying to create this kind of sound. The question is, is that still digital hardcore? A lot of journalists have compared M.I.A., Crystal Castles, Pendulum, all that stuff, to what we were starting in the ’90s, but I wouldn’t call all these other groups digital hardcore bands, because that’s really not what they’re doing. Some people have integrated distortion and female vocals and stuff like that in a certain way that reminds people of Atari Teenage Riot and some DHR [Digital Hardcore Recordings], but I wouldn’t say they’re a part of that movement. I think what has changed is that the electronic scene really took notice at some point, and a lot of things that we did that made us outsiders back in the day—because the rave scene totally hated us (laughs)—now is almost part of the repertoire. If, for example, a DJ plays a harder electro record with a distorted female vocal, people would think that’s absolutely normal. And back in the day it was like, no, you can’t do that.

A lot of people compare certain dubstep stuff to things that we did on DHR, but I wouldn’t say DHR started that. We did certain things. We listened to Underground Resistance and a lot of Detroit techno and all this kind of stuff ... I always say that music is like a language, it just moves freely across the globe, and people develop it further.

Before you go, tell me about the concepts behind the videos for “Blood in My Eyes” and “Black Flags.”

The whole [video] medium has changed so much. What’s the best way to do videos? I think it’s almost obscene to spend the amounts of money we all spent in the ’90s, because there’s no MTV in that way anymore, and I think people watch things in a different way. So we thought, why don’t we have a bunch of videos going out that are not made for TV? But I also wouldn’t call it a viral video. I don’t exactly know how to describe it. But, for example, for “Blood in My Eyes” … we saw that some people didn’t quite understand what the song was about. We were like, okay, why don’t we do something that’s kind of a mix between a music video and something that carries a lot of the information. Because people sometimes just listen to music and don’t pay any attention. And we really feel it’s such an important issue [human trafficking]. So I don’t exactly know if it’s a music video or what it is. We call it video message.

And with “Black Flags” it was a similar idea. It was a few days after the London riots, a few weeks ago, and in all the forums people were asking, how can you actually protest in a nonviolent way and still make a statement? We gave it the working title “corpsing,” but it’s not really corpsing. It’s like, take the black flag, lie down on the ground and put it over your head. And a lot of people sent in stuff like that, which is amazing footage. Like, somebody does it in a shopping mall and of course minutes later there’s security coming. You could stand there and hold up a sign or whatever and everybody walks past. But if you lie down with a black flag over your head, people get confused. They actually ask questions.

The politics in that song are so direct, and some people find it extremely radical. Certain journalists over here in Europe attacked us like crazy for the song, because we question the nation states, the way governments kind of [cozy] up with the multinational corporations and dictate the politics. I think it’s a very dangerous time. I think it’s so important that we have the right information, so we can actually elect people or make choices on how we want to live. Because at the moment it feels like there’s this whole machinery in place that is spreading a lot of lies. Some people just turn away from everything, because they feel like they can’t make a judgment for themselves, and others are getting more and more angry. So “Black Flags” was really like a statement. We are just editing the first version of it right now. We wanna put it up online. And then maybe a few weeks later the next version. So it’s sort of this never-ending video concept. I was surprised by how much people wanna be involved in this stuff. It’s really awesome.

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Spencer Patterson

Spencer Patterson is the Editor of Las Vegas Weekly, having previously served as Managing Editor, Arts & Entertainment Editor and ...

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