“Sound is so boring”

“Sound is so boring”

Blixa Bargeld

Once or twice a year Armenian segment of Facebook bursts with a “sensational” discovery: some strange German industrial rock band with almost unspeakable name Einsturzende Neubauten, sings a melancholic ballad called “Nagorny Karabakh”. Very soon Armenian Facebook users find out that the band and its founder and frontman Blixa Bargeld are a legendary underground band with eleven studio albums and a huge fan base all over the world. Now, in Armenia too. Regional Post met Blixa in Berlin, a day before Neubauten played a sold-out gig in local Kolumbiahalle hall as part of The Greatest Hits tour. Topics of the conversation are the mystery of songwriting, future of the music and, of course, band’s “Armenian” songs.

 

Interview : Artavazd Yeghiazaryan, Zhirair Terzyan 

 

Neubauten has not one, but two, let’s say, Armenian songs…

— Actually, we even have three ones. And four, if you count “Nagorny Karabakh” too.

Of course we do!

— I certainly have a soft spot for Armenian music. It all started with my interest to the ethnic music (there was no term world music by then). One night, sometime around 1981, I recorded a program about Armenian music on the radio. I still have that cassette, by the way. So, this became a basis for what we did and what later became a track, called “Armenia”. In that composition I tried to translate what that music meant to me.

The second song was first called “Armenian massacre”, because it was part of the “Lament” stage project, which was all about the First World War. And then there was also “Armenia III”, which was based on the duduk melody.

What is “Nagorny Karabakh” about?

— I lived at that time in San Francisco. And the relation of that city to the rest of the USA, at that time ruled by George W. Bush, is a bit like Nagorny Karabakh: it’s like an enclave that has nothing to do with what is surrounding it. And I lived on the hill, with a very dark, almost black garden (Karabakh means Black Garden in Azerbaijani – editor). So I wrote about my life there, that was like Nagorny Karabakh. And I also remembered the fantastic non-fiction book by Richard Kapuchinski, “Empire”, where some of the plot takes place in Nagorny Karabakh.

Looks like it’s time to visit Karabakh! Have you ever been to Armenia?

— We would be absolutely delighted! A concert would be great! A couple of years ago I was in Georgia, with a little concert in Tbilisi. That was the closest I came to Armenia. And it was funny when people discovered that Neubauten had a song called “Grand Hotel Tbilisi”, although it was completely unrelated to the actual city.

But it seems you have deep connection to the region! By the way, how do you write the songs?

— There are 68 volumes of my notes on the shelves in my office. I bought my first computer in 1992 and started making daily notes, typing them, printing them out, and saving them all. It’s my duty to write something every day, maybe just one word. Sometimes, I write songs based on those words. There’s a record called “Berghain,” but it has nothing to do with the club, I just desperately wanted to use that word. And I love writing nonsense. It is extremely difficult, I have to say. Sense is always somehow creeping in.

What about “Youme, meyou”, one of your best songs?

— It was a marriage vow to my wife. She bought me a table so I could seat down and write it. So, I had no choice!

You are now finishing The Greatest Hits tour. I assume, it wasn’t easy selecting from songs you created during the decades. What was the criteria?

— Very simple: we chose the songs we liked to play live. By the way, some people say it is ironic to call the tour and the CD Greatest Hits, because we never really had great hits! (laughs)

How did you connect your life to music?

— I was born in 1959. My musical socializing started when the Beatles were still there. It made an impact on me as a human being. I am a school drop-out, so, there were only two things you could possibly do apart from wasting your life: become an artist or a musician. I tried both, but music seemed easier.

Do you have a specific place in Berlin, which is dear to your heart for some reason?

— I come from the poor corner of the Friedenau district, a long street called Grazer Damm. At the end of it you have a manmade hill, which is very important, because Berlin is so flat. And that street was built by the Nazis. It’s very dear to me not only because I was raised there, but also because you can see on that one street a part of German history concentrated in the architecture. And the name of the street came after connecting Austria to Germany.

For some time you lived abroad...

— I left Berlin in 2001. First moved to San Francisco, then to Beijing, and came back in 2010. But now I live in East Berlin, which is very new to me, because I never lived in this part of the city, there are no memories connected to here. In West Berlin I would be terrorized by the memories.

You once said that the specific sound of Neubauten was a result of the lack of instruments and skills. Now, would you have liked to have had different opportunities at that time?

— Too many choices is not good. And we were lucky not to have many of them. Had we had many instruments, recording equipment, it would have been different and maybe worse. We made the doors in the wall ourselves.

Neubauten’s sound changed a lot in 37 years…

— Maybe sound but not the approach. And the importance of the sound is very overrated. It is completely unimportant, so I wouldn’t judge from that perspective. I have wasted so many afternoons trying to find the best bass sound, but there is no good sound, there is only a context where it works. If you think the band’s sound changed, maybe it did, but the approach never did. Now we don’t have to do so much trying anymore, we have tried it all.

Einstürzende Neubauten

The band (its title means "Collapsing New Buildings"; Neubauten is a general term referring to buildings constructed in Germany after 1945) was formed in West Berlin in 1980. The group currently is composed of Blixa Bargeld (lead vocals; guitar; keyboard), Alexander Hacke (bass; vocals), N.U. Unruh (custom-made instruments; percussion; vocals), Jochen Arbeit (guitar; vocals), and Rudolf Moser (custom-built instruments; percussion; vocals). One of their trademarks is the use of custom-built instruments, predominantly made out of scrap metal and building tools, and noises, in addition to standard musical instruments, both on the record sessions and during live performances.

Neubauten has 11 studio albums. One of the most famous songs, “Nagorny Karabakh” was included “Alles wieder offen” (2007). “Armenia” from “Zeichnungen des Patienten O. T.” (1983) was also included in Michael Mann’s “Heat” soundtrack.

 

Twenty years with Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

— Yeah, I tried it too!

It must have been very difficult to be a member of that band and lead your own for so many years.

— It was all about planning. Of course, it wasn’t easy, a couple of times, I had to choose one of them. Like, once it was announced that the Bad Seeds are doing the Lollapalooza tour, but I already had arrangements with Neubauten. They had to go without me. And one day, we just went different ways. But Nick and I are still friends, it was a great experience.

What do you think music will be like in the future?

— The band is now dying as a format. Because of the production of the band – five or six different people working in the studio, it shrinks down to solos or duos in front of the monikers. The production format dictates how music is going to get produced. Today recording companies are not doing repertoire anymore. While back then, it was all done in the companies. If you project that into the future, then yes, it would be electronic, which will not be different from the acoustic. We are already consuming music from the speakers, it’s already digital. Live played music is still very important, but it’s becoming a niche, mainly for merchandising, because at the same time you can’t make a lot of money with selling records.

What music do you listen to? Has there been anything you’ve liked recently?

— Very rarely, once or twice a year probably, I hear something that I like. My favorite right now is a music program on radio BBC 3, where they air ethnic, classical, modern music, different strange things. That’s where I get information. I have no idea what’s happening in the popular music.

What about the future of the Neubauten?

— Just recently, another journalist quite aggressively asked me: “How many more records are you going to make?!” I said “One”. That’s how I plan: one more record. After that, I’ll think of another, and so on. Very often, simple-minded people say that art is created because an artist can. But, as composer Arnold Schoenberg once said, art is created when it has to be and not just when there is the ability.