Few bands have a sound so innovative and incendiary that it forges an entirely new genre. Atari Teenage Riot was this band. In the 1990's, ATR's hyperkinetic breakbeats, distorted guitar samples, and sonic blowtorch of feedback, defined a new phylum of electronic music: digital hardcore.
Louder than metal, but still infused with a groove, Atari Teenage Riot was where adrenaline and pheromones met, creating an aggressive, and strangely sexy sensory overload.
Composed of techpunk mastermind Alec Empire, screecher Hanin Elias, noise-artist Nic Endo and instigator MC Carl Crack, ATR could barely contain their explosive sound. In 1999, the band itself broke apart at the seams, unable to keep their own anarchy under control.
Tonight, they play at the Key Club for their first LA show in a decade. Nic Endo and Alec Empire return to the ATR fray with newcomer MC CX KiDTRONiK (Hanin's voice is unable to (sc)reach the same decibels, and Crack died in 2001).
West Coast Sound caught up with Alec Empire to discuss the resurrection of the ATR, raves in the 21st century, and the redefinition of their political manifesto.
Before Atari Teenage Riot went on hiatus at the turn of the millennium, the band was undergoing some serious challenges. Your MC, Carl Crack, had died of a drug overdose, and band seemed to be breaking apart at the seams. What made you want to put the band back together again? And why now, ten years later?
Alec Empire: When we played our last show in London in winter 1999 the band was so burnt out, we only did this huge wall of noise, no songs. The critics loved it because it was very special and especially in front of thousands of people. But many fans were not into it and ripped their ATR shirts. We always felt we owed them this one show. So last Autumn, we decided to just play one more show in London. We had run into MC CX Kidtronik who seemed to bring fresh air into the band. We surely didn't expect such amazing feedback from the press and all these younger and new fans. So we decided to keep it going. Of course we had to play Tokyo, then Berlin wanted it and so on. I am honest here: there is no masterplan. I was about to release a new solo album this September, but we moved it back. If we feel this is getting a boring routine, we'll stop.
Who is in ATR's lineup today, and what new things can fans expect?
Alec: Right now, it's new MC CX Kidtronik, who worked with Trent Reznor, Saul Williams and Kanye West, Nic Endo and me, Alec Empire. We all do vocals, we all control the machines. ATR has undergone many different line ups in the 90's, especially the US audiences have seen this. ATR is not a conventional rock band, it's more a collective like Wu Tang Clan. The UK, European and Asian fans and critics have expressed that it's the best and most powerful line up so far. Don't expect a reunion, where an older version of something that used to be good tries to recreate the past, expect a software update! More powerful, up to date and ready to blow you away.
You were at the forefront of the rave scene in the 1990's. Why do you think that audiences at electronic music events have grown so much now, despite negative coverage in the mainstream media?
Alec: We are the future, and I mean we as the electronic music community. People's minds have evolved, they expect more than the old formula. New sounds, new ways to arrange music, remixes. It's all moving forward very fast, while the mainstream tries to preserve the past–that goes for the music itself and the business models.
The music industry and the way people consume music has drastically changed since ATR's inception. How have you adapted to this change?
Alec: Yeah but we did most stuff that bands do now in the 90ties. We gave stuff away, we questioned copyright laws, because we think they hardly protect everyone equally, they were created in the interest of those with power. So for us this change didn't happen over night. We actually sold a lot of records over all the years, so we can afford to sell less records… I know it sounds arrogant, but I find this liberating to not compromise the music in order to sell more. But ATR is very different to all other bands out there. What works for us doesn't for work for everyone. We are heading into an era where the old pop formula will dissolve and not exist anymore.
Having grown up in Berlin, the city with the Wall, I know everything has an end to it, and change can always happen, especially in times when you just got used to things being the way they appear.
What have you done to keep digital hardcore on the cutting edge? Do you use the same electronics that you used in the 90's?
Alec: I was involved in more records over the past decade than in the 90ties. I think the way to go is to combine the new analogue world with the digital one… there a many small companies all over the world who build analogue modular synths which have a powerful sound! Metasonix and Malekko are two examples from the US. When combined with the advantages of the digital gear, endless storage spaces and the ability to recall settings, there are no limits anymore. Great times are ahead of us. It's almost like the human mind has to catch up with the possibilities. In ATR we use old machines like the Atari computer and the TR-909 on purpose, because those tools are a huge part of the band's sound. Part of the appeal is what we can do with a computer that has 2MB ram! It's like a riddle, like math…that's what programmers find fascinating. Like you wouldn't want Keith Richards play a Yamaha keyboard on stage.
What differences have you seen in the audiences since your last tours?
Alec: The majority of fans is around 20 years old, so they weren't there when we started. This is what's exciting and challenging about these shows, because you see how people are confronted with this type of sound and energy for the first time. People go nuts. We had 20.000 people tear down the barricades at Berlin's biggest festival Fusion a few weeks ago and storm the stage. Nobody got hurt but it was such a blast. The political lyrics matter more than ever before. I think this has a lot to do with it. We are the only band right now who is taking a stand. We don't care about record sales, we are not afraid to speak out about the corruption and lies of governments and international corporations.
We are not entertainers who put on their fake smile each night, people love that passion and honesty at our shows. It all means something. And that is powerful.
Your music has been infused with a political edge. How has your manifesto evolved over time?
Alec: Not much. We saw a lot coming. The negative side effects of globalization, goverments taking our freedoms away bit by bit, the new technologies which are made to control citizens, the fall of major record labels… What people don't understand is that we're anarchist libertarian, rather than just anarchist. The history of Germany, with Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, has made us very aware of the dangers of what can happen when you hand over all your responsibilities to politicians.