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Jochen Arbeit on 40 years of Einstürzende Neubauten

As the cult Berlin band celebrates their latest anniversary, their guitarist chats history, staying creative and giving back to the local music scene.

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Jochen Arbeit has been an integral member of Einstürzende Neubauten, one of Germany’s most influential bands, for 40 years. Photo: Mote Sinabel

In terms of sheer musical influence, Einstürzende Neubauten are regularly compared with Kraftwerk or Can. Yet, truth be told, there is simply no band in the world like Neubauten. For the last two decades, Jochen Arbeit has been an integral member of the band, which this year celebrates its 40th anniversary and has released a new album, Alles in Allem, this May.

This year marks 40 years of Einstürzende Neubauten. How did you get started?

I joined in 1997, but I met the boys when I came to town in 1980. They were already a band, and I met them all in bars at night and hung out with them. I actually did my first tour with them as a supporting act in 1981 in Holland. You know, we were kind of friends. There were really not too many people in this scene back then – maybe 100 or so. I guess I became part of that group that made music, and two or three years later, I joined Die Haut. We hung out a lot, so when they asked me to play the guitar, it wasn’t such a surprise.

Everybody has an idea of what Neubauten was in the ’80s and ’90s, but what is the band now?

Older! (Laughs) You know, those wild times with no sleep, always in the studio, and everything always very intense – that cannot happen anymore. But you cannot stand still either. You have to kick yourself. You have to keep developing. We have been in this formation for 23 years now, but we’ve done something different on every record.

How do you keep things creative?

We have a card system called Dave. It’s about 600 cards, Blixa (Bargeld) invented it. He analysed every piece, every element of Neubauten, and he wrote these cryptic cards with strange instructions. It has something to do with Brian Eno and his obscure strategies. Everybody takes cards, and you don’t show them to anyone else. You have to interpret them, and so you always have to invent something new. You run around like headless chickens for 10 minutes, and then you start. It’s like an intellectual jam session. I didn’t play much guitar on this album because the cards said I have play the piano for example.

Your latest, Alles in Allem, contains a lot of references to Berlin. How have you seen this city change?

I’ve seen three Berlins. I really liked that period of 10 or 15 years after the Wall came down. People really tried things then. It was very experimental, and there was an amazing energy in the city, more so than when the Wall was up. Now, in the last 15 years, Berlin has become a kind of normal city. It is still Berlin, it is still the only place I could ever imagine living, but it is not so interesting anymore. It has become just like every other city in the world.

Is there no one left? I know Bob Rutman of Steel Cello Ensemble is still causing havoc.

Yeah, Bob came in the 1990s when I still had my bar in Schöneberg, the Ex’n’Pop. He lived around the corner, so he was always hanging out with us. He is still my neighbour now. He is still playing on the corners, making noise. They called the cops on him recently, and the guy is 88 – the same age as my mother!

Now you are mentoring a new generation of artists, what do you see happening in the music scene in Berlin?

It’s hard to put one angle on it. What I can say is that it is still really good for the city that young people from all over the world come here and try to make a living, to experiment, and to find themselves. This is what we did in the early ’80s: You would arrive when you were 18 or 19, and then it was always the question of what are you going to do now? That life is still possible in this city, it is still affordable enough, and there are still many places where people are improvising and concerts are happening.

Did you ever have a mentor?

Kind of. When I came to town, there was a guy who gave me a shitty apartment with an outside toilet for 90 marks or whatever. He told me that there was a guy living upstairs who was into music and that maybe I should meet him. After some days I heard some music, and I went upstairs to introduce myself, and we started a band immediately with two other guys. He was a little bit older, he is still my best buddy, and we still play together after 40 years. I would say that he was my mentor.

What is special about the mentor relationship?

Everybody can take something from it. I can still learn. For me, I cannot wait to get started. Playing and improvising with new people is the most important thing you can do in music. It is all about curiosity, and this kind of experience makes you very curious. What are they going to do, how do they play, what will I learn, what can I show them? It is really a very special and fulfilling opportunity.

Is that why you decided to join the Amplify project?

It was a really nice feeling to be contacted by the people at ACUD. I think that this project is very special, in times like this it’s great to be able to come together and create something new to put back into the world. I think a lot of people are missing that kind of creative expression right now. I saw the kind of artists that were applying and I knew straight away it would be an incredible experience. To be honest, I am looking at what I can learn as much as what they can teach me. It is never a one-way street as a mentor. I think that we will all open something new in this time, but what that might be? Until then I have no idea.