By Tim Forster:
In the middle of May I was able interview Alec Empire of Atari Teenage Riot over the ‘phone from Berlin, here is the second half of what was a wide ranging and interesting conversation.
Q. On ‘The Keiser Report’ recently they were talking about how ATR had got money from Sony and then given that money to help Anonymous fund their legal costs. Could you tell us a little bit more about that?
A. That was a few things coming together, mid/end February I got this request, I think what happened was they (Sony) couldn’t get another song licence and they were under time pressure because they had the TV slots booked and they were like ’Hey maybe you guys have something?’ I was like ’Hmm, maybe…’ you have to understand the history with Sony. In 1999 in Asia there was a camcorder ad and Sony took the intro of a song of ours put it in the ad and thought nobody would ever find out, Nine Inch Nails were on tour over there and then we supported them in Europe and the team that was making a documentary about NIN’s world tour came to us and said ‘Hey did you see this, there is your music in this ad, did you know about this?’ I thought it must be a mistake and maybe it was The Prodigy or something! But a friend of theirs videoed it from TV and sent it over and we realised it was actually our song, we couldn’t believe this was happening! It was an absolute nightmare to try and fight this because it was Sony Asia, you have to take it to court, they have all these lawyers. We kind of settled it, they said it was in the ad by mistake, so they only had to pay for damages for 5 broadcasts or something instead of the whole campaign. It really pissed me off at that point! I did an interview with NME and those magazines in 1999 because I was so outraged! It was the mentality of bullying artists, just grabbing something that you have created. Some musician friends said ’Look Alec, whatever, it’s in the ad’ but to me it is a political song. Us appearing in an ad with Sony immediately corrupts the message. I would never have agreed to this no matter for whatever amount of money.
Q. So when they came back 13 years later…!
A. It was different people, inAmerica, I was like ‘Actually there is something in here!’ I talked to some Anonymous guys and said I can actually put this in here and fuck these guys! I put the instrumental in, it fitted perfectly and started airing and as soon as the money arrived in my account I transferred it over to the law firm that collects donations to defend Anonymous activists in court. Why this blew up so much was there was a big FBI arrest in March, they arrested a couple of Anonymous hackers, the FBI had an undercover person in there. That happened 3 hours after my money arrived there. In the beginning I wanted to do it as an inside thing, through the back door, but it blew up and ‘The Keiser Report’ spoke about it at the same time as the reporting of the FBI arrests.
Q. You have mentioned Anonymous a few times and we talked about Boots Riley guesting on ‘Black Flags’, do you enjoy collaborating, does it help you to be more creative working with other people? You had CX Kidtronic on board now you have Rowdy Superstar…
A. All these people bring something different to the table. The artist in isolation, this genius, I don’t really believe in that! It’s the interaction, I love that process, different people have different ideas, that’s the strength. I believe in the collective in that way…music has to move forward, what we don’t want is to go and see a classical concert and hear Mozart for the thousandth time although for some people in the upper class this is their ideal world, keeping going to the same events for those who can afford it, it is a top down thing and dead in my opinion.
Q. Against a backdrop of a mainstream culture that is a by product of market forces, cultural product as some thing new to sell, how have you managed to avoid being assimilated, as someone who identifies them self as an anarchist and who wants to express those views in your music do you get a lot of pressure to bland out?
A. The ‘rules’ exist so they always hope that you as a musician adapt to that. It starts with ‘You shouldn’t really have a political view come across in your song’ because it can’t be played on the radio show, so people like me say ‘OK, so you can’t play it on your radio show!’ but other musicians will go ‘Oh, no, if we want to get on the show we need to (make it more vague)’ There is a lot of, in Germany we call it self-censorship, where people go ‘Oh my god, I would get in trouble for saying that stuff’. But if I can’t express my real opinion then it is not worth doing, but people would argue that is why other artists got bigger than ATR or my own stuff because they were willing to make those compromises. But that is a handful of artists who profited from that, hundreds and hundreds of others shut up hoping they would be picked to be a star and it never happened, so to me I don’t even want to make that trade. Why give up what you believe in in the hope that everybody will support you? It’s very interesting how ATR has influenced so many bands and musicians from all kinds of genres, for me that’s much more important than can we sell twice as many tickets. Although you always want people to come to your shows and listen to your music, that’s great! It was amazing when we got over 400,000 views on youtube for the Wikileaks edit of ‘Black Flags’! Though some people said ‘Yeah but if you compare that to other music videos it should be 2 million views’ But I think for a viral video that just includes footage from protests its amazing that so many people would watch this stuff! From that angle it’s a success though if you come from a Britney Spears/Lady Gaga angle then it is a small amount of people! I think in a different way I guess!…in the long term compromising corrupts your own personality almost…
Q. When you were recording ‘Is this Hyperreal?’ you had 21 tracks but only 10 made it on to this album, have you got any plans for those other 11 tracks?
A. Yeah, and we have added some new stuff and we want to put a record out as soon as possible, hopefully after the summer. I feel there is a lot more to say now, and with Rowdy now (new member of ATR), the guy has just grown into it! It was amazing we played this festival in Coachella and he was right away in the crowd and ‘Yeah, Coachella are you fuckin’ ready’ and this red neck guy who didn’t seem to like us punched him in the face and he was getting into a fight in the second song and I was thinking ‘Where’s Rowdy’ and he gets up and he’s ‘Fuck you Coachella!’, totally punk rock! Its also great to have more ideas and I love it that he is from England, and that when we speak about the riots last summer I thank god that there is someone from England who is not part of that typical white established music scene who says ‘They are all dumb looters’; with him he is coming from the right angle!
Many thanks to Alec for his time and to Claire at DHR for organising things and for photos. All photos in Pt 1 & 2 by Daniel Sims.