Music & clubs

Burn, hard drives, burn

INTERVIEW: Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot. Adding BPMs to the RAF, Berlin’s agitprop icons of the 1990s are still bucking heads with the system. They celebrate 20 years with two shows at Bi Nuu on Thu, Oct 18 and Fri, Oct 19.

Image for Burn, hard drives, burn
Photo by Daniel Sims

Adding BPMs to the RAF, Berlin’s Alec Empire and Atari Teenage Riot were the Pussy Riot of their day, though they were more likely to make fans of the Beastie Boys than enemies with Putin.

Twenty years on, the man has recruited new members and rebooted his agitation brand into a new musical and political landscape. And while Sony has taken to bucking GEMA, ATR recently bucked Sony by accepting ad money from them and then donating it to hacker group FreeAnon. The preachers shall preach at Bi Nuu for two shows on Thursday, October 18 and Friday, October 19.

You were calling for revolution in the 1990s. Today, people are more likely to call Apple Computer revolutionary.

Well, we did an Iphone app in May 2010. It was kind of like, um, now we can tell this story [laughs]. It was one of those Trojan horse kind of things for us, because we had this record [1997’s Future of War] still on the German Index. You know what that means?

A list of films and music decreed dangerous for young people.

Not just young people – we’re basically a threat to society or whatever. It can’t be sold, it can’t be played on the radio. We aren’t even allowed to play the songs live – we do it anyway, but it has an effect. If a radio station broadcasts a festival, people will check that back and go “No.” Because there will be a fine, or whatever. So, it’s kind of tricky. We had an issue with German MySpace, where it was, like, we upload a song and then we get this formal, “No, actually, you’re categorised in the same way as neo-Nazi or left radical groups.” So what we did was, we launched an Iphone app with a ‘Riot Sounds’ audio player where we actually put the samples we used in 1999 at the May Day demonstration. So Apple kind of focused on that – people thought it could damage the speakers, so there was all this drama and at the last minute we said, “Okay, then we’ll leave the Riot Sounds player off the app.” But what we did was, we snuck in the record that was on the Index as a free streaming thing. It was actually available again in Germany, while it couldn’t be sold on the German Itunes [laughs].

How did Apple react? Did they react?

No, it’s a grey area – I think the law doesn’t reach that wide, so the songs can be streamed in the app. I guess until somebody extends that law, it’s okay for now. But, of course, people are like, “Ooh, Atari Teenage Riot does an Iphone app? That’s the most uncool thing ever.” So we kind of take that, like the Sony thing we just did.

You placed music in a Sony ad and then took the proceeds and donated it to FreeAnon.

Yeah. But there’s a longer story about that leak and that song, “Black Flags,” which was released

last fall. We had this viral video thing happening since August, basically: we wanted the fans to lip-synch the song. There’s a sort of reference, “Anonymous Teenage Riot.” The song is actually about Bradley Manning and WikiLeaks, which is not mentioned in the lyrics – it’s a more general description about whistleblowers getting punished. Some activists from Anonymous approached us and said, “Hey, we want to send in clips, but we can’t lip-synch because we’re wearing a mask.” So we were into the idea. And then when we were touring America, the Occupy protests started. People started sending in material from that. And we kept doing more edits, putting in all this stuff as an experiment. It’s different to a traditional music video and even a fan viral video; it becomes almost a documentation of that stuff.

It steamrolled.

And then we got footage from students in Chile, and then from Japan, the anti-nuclear protests. And then the third edit was in early December – we got material from WikiLeaks, exclusive material from when Julian Assange spoke at Occupy London. And some Germans heard the track and now it’s like the anthem for that Occupy, Anonymous, whatever you want to call it. And a lot of those activists used the track in their clips online, where they make these statements, so we provided the instrumental of the track so people could speak over it.

So far, all uncommercial.

And then I got this Sony bid. First of all, my history with Sony is not the best. There was a copyright case in 1999 where Sony in Asia actually took a track without our permission for a camcorder ad. It was an instrumental part of the song, electronic beats and stuff, so I think somebody thought nobody would notice. It went to court and it kind of got settled but I was never satisfied, because it’s a credibility thing.

So you donated their money to FreeAnon to get back at them.

Of course, it’s different people now, but for me it was like an inside joke. I didn’t think this thing would become so public. But once I transferred the money, three hours later there was the news about the FBI arrest. Originally I just wanted it to be like a hacker, like with the Iphone app. But it became a statement about a lot of the wrong things about copyright on the internet.

And then there’s GEMA.

Like many musicians, I’m a member – you kind of have to register when you put out records and stuff. I joined GEMA when I was I think 13. The basic idea is good, but this whole organisation is like a vampire. If you’re in Berlin and you go to the clubs, no DJ will register what they play. So GEMA takes the money and spreads it amongst the most famous musicians. They behave like this giant mafia thing. I hope in the future as copyright gets refined there will be other ways. I mean, I personally don’t care so much about it because now online we can spread stuff.

But GEMA’s also blocking Youtube – although even Sony Music’s president argues that they’re hindering artists.

I’m like super-anarchist libertarian on this [laughs]. If a bureaucrat wants to collect money in my name and then give it to me, I’ll never trust that. Same with GEMA. It treats the artists like children. There’s a lot more that I don’t like than just blocking Youtube.