Spend this year’s holidays with Einstürzende Neubauten leader Blixa Bargeld as his band performs Lament, a set of original compositions, covers and reworks marking 100 years since the beginning of World War I.
Born here in Berlin, Bargeld has been making thunderous sounds since Neubauten was founded in 1980. With wild performances and ear-shattering records like Halber Mensch, Haus der Lüge, Alles Wieder Offen and many more, the band redrew the boundaries of popular music. The world listens again on Dec 25-28 at Radialsystem V as they perform Lament for its final run, followed by a greatest hits concert on New Year’s Eve.
You released Lament in 2014 to mark 100 years since the outbreak of WWI.
When you say it was ‘released’, that’s misleading, because it wasn’t conceived as a record, it was conceived as a performance. We were commissioned by the region of Flanders, in Belgium – among other people, I have to say. It was not really anything that I ever wanted to do. It’s not that I had no interest, but to work for more than a year with a subject like that in your mind is not necessarily something very uplifting. If somebody had said, “Do a piece about butterflies,” it would certainly have been more interesting!
Did spending a year steeped in war affect your psyche?
I didn’t get depressed, but somewhere in the first third I just wanted to throw it all out. I couldn’t see any way to finish this. It goes to your psychic substance somewhere, especially with a subject like that. If you don’t get head to toe in the whole thing, then… for me, I can’t really differentiate between life and work that much. After a while, that’s annoying, especially for the rest of my family. But then somehow I coerced myself into actually getting completely into it and… I’m very proud.
Lament is neither a theatre piece nor a typical concert. Is it performance art?
It’s in there, yeah. It’s a bit of a revue – from one number to another, it’s like you have a snake charmer onstage and then the acrobats come out! When we start with “Kriegsmaschinerie”, it’s very much a performance piece. I have cue cards, which are for the musicians as well as the audience to direct their associations in a particular way. Which is at the same time a theatrical trick and a reference to Bob Dylan. [Laughs]
You could say Neubauten sounds like war – machine-like, mechanical, using metal as instruments.
We worked with barbed wire, gas and ammunition shells – we found a dubious weapon collector on Ebay.
Why do you think that? Metal is not mechanical. We’ve always been a very ‘materialistic’ band; the things we do are always triggered by materials. Of course, the first trap that we had to avoid in this subject matter was to write some bellicose music. No “boom boom ching ching” – this would have been very easy. We worked with barbed wire – which is not an invention of the First World War, but somehow a material that everyone associates with it. We worked with gas, and we worked with ammunition shells. We found a dubious weapon collector whom we bought the ammunition shells from on eBay.
The album continues on to “Hymnen”, a deconstruction of the British, Canadian and German national anthems in three languages.
The original text is in French and it has been reworked and reused by whatever different powers, and so I just mixed them up. An especially weird thing that happened at Tempodrom [in 2014] was when I sang through those anthems and somebody started to clap like hell at the front! Are you sure you want to clap to that? The Germans definitely took their anthem very seriously. They still do! You can make as many jokes about das Deutschlandlied as you like, but you’re not allowed to sing the first two verses, for example. That’s OK. National anthems are meant to be important; I doubt they are, but they’re meant to be important.
The song “Der erste Weltkrieg” is very trance-like – you almost forget where you are.
That’s, of course, a discrepancy – you almost want to dance when you hear it, but you know you’re dancing to a couple of million deaths. Every beat in that represents one day in the First World War, and I think there were very, very few days in the war that had no casualties. This is a piece of statistical music, so to speak.
You said that WWI never ended?
In a way there was just a hiatus between the First and the Second World War. Maybe in some period of time, in 200 years or so, we’ll look at all these wars that happened after as being elongations of the same conflict. Certainly, some of them are; especially the new order of colonial powers after the First World War has changed so much. More than 100 years since WWI started, it’s probably time to look at these two World Wars more as interconnected.
You can actually see that in your version of Joseph Plaut’s “Der Beginn des Weltkrieges 1914” – the end of the piece mentions Hitler.
It is Hitler! It’s hilarious! Plaut’s idea is fantastic, to describe the war by describing animals. It reminds me a bit of Emir Kusturica’s movie Underground. The Serbian War starts with him filming the zoo. The animals get crazy, and he films it as a riot in the zoo.
So you wanted to do “Sag mir wo die Blumen sind” (“Where have all the flowers gone?”) for a long time.
I’m a great admirer of Marlene, I admit that! [laughs] We actually started recording that in 2003 and then shelved it. Once we started working on Lament, Rudolf Moser said we should do this again, and then it went through many different versions before we ended up with what I call “supported a cappella”, me singing with a bass note and some bells, but that’s as reduced as it is. And the day we recorded it, Pete Seeger died. Pete Seeger, who originally wrote it! That was coincidental.
EINSTÜRZENDE NEUBAUTEN Dec 25-28 (Lament); 31 (Greatest Hits) | Radialsystem V, Friedrichshain, Holzmarktstr. 33, U-Bhf Jannowitzbrücke