Interview with Blixa Bargeld
Blixa Bargeld (*West-Berlin, 1959) is primarily known for his musical work with Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, but also works as an actor, musician and artist. As a part of his job, he has travelled extensively, has lived across the globe and has worked in many international collaborations. Volonté Générale talked with Bargeld in Berlin about the influence of a cosmopolitan lifestyle on his identity and the future of the music industry.
Mister Bargeld, would you consider yourself to be a West-Berliner, a Berliner, a German, a European or a world-citizen?
Well, I was certainly born in West-Berlin. I think that I felt very much a West-Berliner as long as West-Berlin existed. Although the western part of the city belonged to Western Germany, the place felt very different from it. The German Democratic Republic (GDR) saw West-Berlin as a separate political unit and I share this view. I didn’t feel connected to the rest of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG); I felt more connected to New York than Hannover for that matter.
However, West-Berlin doesn’t exist anymore. I have lived in the United States and in China for a long time. When I came back to, or at least spent some more time in Berlin, I referred to it as Berlin. In the existence of ‘this is West-Berlin and this is East-Berlin’ it doesn’t exist anymore. The only time that I use the terms West- or East-Berlin is when I have to refer to Berlin as a topos, as a place, in the sense of ‘how to get there’. For example, if I question myself in the evening to go out and eat something somewhere, I make a very clear division between going to West-Berlin or not going to West-Berlin; one thing means driving for half an hour and other thing means it’s around the corner. Nowadays, it would be quite a world journey to go to the quarters of Schöneberg or Charlottenburg, which used to be quite near. I now live in Mitte, a part of Berlin that I didn’t know before. It used to be in the GDR and therefore it didn’t exist to me before, so it is as good as living in a different city.
Is there a difference between a former West- and East-Berliner?
Of course there are differences. People who grew up in East-Berlin, or Berlin, Haupstadt der DDR as it was called in the GDR, had a totally different socialisation than somebody growing up on the other side of the wall. Some of my friends and some of my collaborators are East-Germans and you do feel the different socialisation. Also, growing up in West-Berlin was definitely a different story than growing up in West-Germany. We all have different stories to tell about upbringing and about our youth.
The atmosphere in Berlin is of course different now than it was in the 1980’s when you started your band Einstürzende Neubauten. Do you attract another kind of audience?
To a certain extent they are still the same people, but of course I would not have been able to do something for more than 30 years if the audience had remained the same. That would mean that I have not achieved anything. However, I cannot speak for them. The audience to me is not an individual, but a large group of people – there were fifty back then and now 5.000 or so – and since I do not know them all I cannot say much about them.
Since West-Berlin does not exist anymore, do you perhaps feel German or did the fact that you have travelled and have lived across the globe create another or other kind of identity?
As I said, I never really felt close to the FRG. I rather would say, ‘No, I am from West-Berlin.’ But, certainly, I have spent my whole adult life from my early twenties to now travelling extensively. This means that I have seen more things, things that people who lead more static lives would probably not experience. If that doesn’t weaken any kind of national identity than I wouldn’t know what would. When I am in the US or when I am in China I don’t feel very German; I feel very, very European. Obviously, especially in China, I’m from the West, but I could never identify with the US. In the US I feel a hundred per cent European and I am identified as being European.
For example, in the US people think it is funny that I wear a suit. Imagine that! Does anybody in Europe find it funny that you wear a suit? I wear a suit everyday. But, if you are on the West coast in California and you go to the farmers market on a Saturday people think you are totally overdressed because you wear a suit. They say, ‘Why are you wearing a suit?’ ‘I don’t have anything else.’ The standard model of the Californian means that as soon as you are out of the office you have to wear sneakers, jeans and a t-shirt. If you do something else, you are somehow an odd born. I automatically feel European because although in Europe not everybody wears a suit anymore and it is not necessary to wear a suit, nobody finds it funny.
In China I am automatically identified as a European, that’s easy; I am obviously not Chinese. Even my daughter, who is half Chinese, is not considered Chinese because she is obviously not a hundred per cent Chinese. You don’t need to wear anything for that. You can try a hundred years; you’ll never become Chinese.
You seem to construct your European identity on differences between yourself and the American or the Chinese. Do you also feel European when you are in other European countries?
I feel European. Except for language I never related to Germany. It is rather disturbing when you start talking and you are identified as German. I never felt like a transponder of German history. There is rightfully so a rather dubious connection between Germany and history in a lot of areas. But, I do not feel connected to that past and I always thought, ‘If I had lived fifty years earlier, I would have been send to the camp too, so what?’
You relate to the German language, do you also relate to the German musical tradition?
I do not see music as connected to a national identity. I wouldn’t necessarily say that I make German music. It is very odd to describe music with national identities. Music critics would do that because they like to get order in the whole thing and so they always like to create terms as ‘Detroit techno’. They want a so-called tree, where things develop from one thing into another. There better be particular roots and it stands somewhere, otherwise the critics would get lost. I don’t think it is as easy as that.
My music is probably Western. I have been asked many, many times if something like Neubauten would have been possible somewhere else. I never thought that it was necessary that it had to be Germany. In the eighties I very much liked to say that it would have been possible anywhere. Nowadays I see things differently because I can see how much of the particular and peculiar situation of West-Berlin had an effect on what we ended up doing. I still think it very much possible to do it somewhere else in a sense that you can come up with ideas like Neubauten when you have a Western country with debris and industrial wastelands. But, for example, although Neubauten is very much liked by people in China, they couldn’t do that there. It would be impossible, because there is no industrial wasteland and you cannot go around trying to find some metal pieces. A metal piece that you would put out there would be gone in five minutes and recycled in fifty, so there is no trash like that lying around. You can’t really do it. So, I noticed that the necessary elements to do something like that were there in West-Berlin and in a large part of the Western world.
Does a global identity exist?
In a sense national identities are becoming less and less important and they are also becoming less and less obvious, probably because there are certain regionalities that are stronger than national identities. I think a Swabian feels much more connected to their Spätzle than they feel to their national identity of being German. I believe that it is no different for the Dutch for that matter. There is nothing necessarily wrong with regionalism and traditionalism, in that sense, but we’ve seen what the century of nationalism has done to the world.
Next to upcoming regionalism, there is also globalisation. You have lived in China; how big is the Western influence on their culture? Is it a good process or does it threaten local culture?
It is pretty difficult to talk about China, because it is so immense, you can’t imagine. All I know of China is a couple of cities, mainly Beijing, which is definitely different to living in rural areas in China. However, if you talk of living in Beijing, you can’t really say it is Westernised. It is already so international that the lines are bluring. I can do almost the same things in China as everywhere else in the Western world. I can do a couple of more things in China. A couple of things I miss in China; one thing, they have no good cheese. But the beers that they brew, and they have been brewing the beers since 1800-something, are excellent. The Běijīng píjiǔ are perfectly fine and it is not a new development. I mean, if you look at China’s history of several thousand years it is new, but they already have been brewing that beer since 1800.
I cannot judge the process of globalisation. Is it a good process for me to go to Beijing and live like that? Yes. But, I cannot judge for the country as a whole. Like Zhou Enlai, a former Chinese minister, supposed to have said when he was asked about the influence of the French Revolution, ‘It’s too early to tell.’ You have to wait basically until history comes to an end to tell if this is a good development or not. I’m sure it is bad for many people and it also good for many people. There is certainly also a revival of Manchester capitalism. For me that is bad; I don’t have to wait for the end of history, to know that it is bad.
Does this also affect the music business?
The music industry as we knew it, doesn’t exist anymore. Certain things are changing. Especially in Germany there is a new discussion about copyrights. Not the one that has been going on for a long time, but there is one suddenly happening like a flash fire in which I do not have a really clear position. The way copyright is organised cannot remain like that. It has to be reworked. It has to be refocused. I am not talking about Germany, but globally. I do not care for the music industry; if they want to go to hell, they can go to hell. But, the whole copyright situation affects me as well as many other people.
Is it possible to record an album in a way like you did in the eighties or nineties?
It is not affordable to record in the studio anymore, buy an analogue 24-track tape, which costs a thousand euros for one reel, and spend like two weeks working on your stuff. Nobody can pay for that anymore because there is no industry that will be able to sell these records that way. So what we get is two people sitting at home working on their computer and doing something; some of them doing it better and some of them doing it not so well. I do not know anyone anymore that does it the classical way of recording as it was done in the vinyl times or in the time of the CD. I remember the last record we did when we used a record company for it; we had a budget for making the record that was the same as the budget for making the album cover for it. It has demised completely. If you look at anything modestly successful in pop music, they can’t work like that anymore.
Einstürzende Neubauten has been a pioneer in ‘crowd finance’ and has used it for some of their work. Is this the future of music?
We have done two records like that and a couple of others things. Obviously it must be a good idea, since so many people use it now. People even use that type of financing to make movies and that is a larger sum of money you have to raise. But, you have to keep in mind that we were already in a totally different position when we started doing the crowd-financing model than somebody who is about to start in music. I would not know how somebody that wants to start some work in music nowadays would start it. It could somehow involve the Internet, but I do not have a solution or a tip about how to do that.
Do you also respond to the public in your work?
If I had cared about what the audience thinks about what I am or what we are doing, then we would have done something different. Pop music always has to have a connection with the masses. That is already in the etymology, in the root of the word. You have to orientate somehow on that and if you do not do that as a pop musician you will fail. As a pop musician you have to be a couple of ideas further than just orientate on the masses, otherwise it will not even become pop in the sense of popular music. If I had studied what everyone wants, I would have done something different. What I or we have done, is certainly born out of ignorance in the sense that I did ignore them. I did not know what they wanted to hear. There were so many things from the beginning that the people around us told us that we should do different and we did not do it different. I am still here and I am well known, but I still do not care. Of course it hurts me when somebody writes an Amazon.com review and writes crap about me. My answer to that is that I do not read it. It is not that I do not care. I am of course happy when someone really likes it. But, in the sense of staying independent about it, I ignore it.
You have always gone against the tide, been an avant-garde.
Avant-garde is a military term; the group that precedes the rest of the army. When I am confronted with the term ‘avant-garde’ I always say I prefer to be described, if it has to be in military terms, as a deserter and not an avant-garde. I did not want to precede the army that comes, which would be pop music and after that the bad piece of pop music. What am I? A deserter on one side you could say, or a guerrilla tactic. Somebody in the woods who does something else and storms on the army at the moment they did not expect it; like a partisan.
Although you have deserted pop music, you have become quite popular. Did it change you as a musician?
If it had not changed me, I would have been doing a very bad thing for such a long time. If I had not learned anything in all those years, it would have been not very good. From everybody who I have worked with, I have learned something. Every concert that I play, any time that I spend in a recording studio or anything that I come up with as an idea should have any influence on me and on someone who listens to it.
Is it your goal to change people’s lives or to inspire them?
Looking at my own life and socialisation, I know that music became very important at a very early point in my life. I think if I had not heard particular things in particular times of my life, then I would have been weaker. This is probably the most positive thing that music can do. You support somebody in their thoughts in their life situation when necessary; not necessarily changing someone’s mind. I needed to hear particular things when I was fighting with my parents or you can take other examples, but there are things that supported me, musically speaking. If I have done that to other people then I am very happy about that, but I do not see it as a goal. I am not doing it for them. I am doing it for me.
How do you feel about the fact that other bands are influenced by you and use your style of music?
That brings us back to the subject of copyright. There is no copyright on ideas. It is very strange. In America, for example, you can copyright a business model. You can come up with the idea of eBay and you copyright it. Nobody else can do it. In Europe there is no copyright on ideas. You can come up with the idea and then others can do it. I am perfectly d’accord with that European view. I do not necessarily think that there should be copyright. Ideas should be free. They should, almost like in a biological fashion, be able to multiply and to mutate. Artistic ideas have to multiply and they have to have general mutations. The strangulating idea of copyright is holding that back.
Now you cannot even make a caricature of Mickey Mouse, for example, because that already violates copyright. That is hindering any kind of cultural evolvement; Mickey Mouse did not come out of a vacuum; Mickey Mouse came out of other things. The creation of Mickey Mouse should not be the end of the cultural evolvement. The same goes for any kind of idea. Also for the idea to go out, take some metal debris that we find and play some urban percussion with it. If I was
be able to copyright that idea and say, ‘You can not do that’, then I would tragically stop any kind of cultural evolvement. It would just end at that point.
What are your experiences with copyright in China?
When Western companies talk about copyright in China they just tend to be really hilarious, ‘All these people just make a thousand copies of our record and we would have made that and that much money if we would have sold these thousands of records.’ But, the whole point is that no Chinese would be able to buy these records, since they haven’t got the money for it. Nobody would be able to afford their records.
If you are a pop star in China they press an initial pressing of a hundred million copies. They are distributed and sold in one go. They never get repressed, because they multiply in it’s own way. After that, they are going to be all over China after you have already made a hundred million copies of it. These are sold for I don’t know what, but nowhere near to what the idea is of Western record companies. And after that, they are just multiplied magically by themselves.
It is just a different concept. Pop artists there also make money. They just get paid one time for it because everybody knows that the record will – whatever you do – just spread. It will be downloaded and it will be multiplied. The same goes for movies and for anything else. I saw my own records in the record shops in China and even DVD’s that I don’t have! I didn’t know that they existed. It is hilarious. There are music lovers with shops where you go in and they don’t sell records; you just say ‘this is great’ and then they burn you a copy.
I’m sure it is hard for the music industry that all these things get copied like hell and you cannot apply the same business or copyright model on China. For a Chinese pop star, however, it is pretty easy to make money. Just make a four-year tour in all the cities of China. Then you are able to buy yourself a house in Being and you’re fine. But, you basically have to give your record away, that’s it.
Have records lost value in comparison to live music?
The live-scene has a different value nowadays. The dematerialisation of the musical product, from vinyl to a non-existing file, gave a completely different validity to live-played music. Apart from the dematerialisation, the actual musical product became more and more valueless. It is a long process of devaluing the product. MP3 or another lossless digitalisation is of a lesser quality than what we had decades ago, in my opinion. The discrepancy between the actual live-played music and the thing that you can just listen to becomes bigger and bigger. The abyss between these two becomes more obvious and therefore at some point they cannot be compared anymore. Of course, you would always say that it is much better to see the Grateful Dead live than hear them on a record. But, it becomes really obvious if the quality of what you listen to in a product-form becomes too bad.
Friedrich Kittler, a theoretician of the typewriter and phonograms, was convinced up to his death that MP3’s would give everybody headaches. MP3’s work with a technique called ‘masking’; the louder frequency will cover up the lower frequency. Our brain has the capacity to filter the essential sounds out of 200.000 bits that we sense every microsecond. If you stay with hearing, you would hear just the essential things. If you listened, you would hear many things. Our brain functions as a mask, since we are actually able to talk to each other without noticing the kitchen sounds and the traffic out there too much. If you were not able to do that, you would live in a very chaotic world.
But, when you put on a headphone and you try to listen to an MP3 of 128 kbs, what is the brain doing? It is listening to the bits and then filters out what is essential. What do you do if not all the 200.000 bits are there? What do you hear? What is the brain doing? Does it go like, ‘where is the rest?’ Only limited impulses get through and your brain starts looking for what is missing. Kittler thought the brain would have some problems with that and we would all get headaches.
The problem is not only there with digital music; also vinyl or tape recordings will lose something. Vinyl or tape may sound better, because something physical is happening during the recording process. Tape warms. Particles get into a particular order, they have sympathy with other particles and things get structured. Not only according to electrical law, but also to physical laws. Resonance is one of the most essential physical laws and gives warmth to a tape recording set. However, every recording loses something in the process. The only thing that does not lose anything is live music.