EQ Web Exclusive:
Extended interview with Atari Teenage Riot’s Alec Empire
By Justin Kleinfeld
The January 2011 issue of EQprofiles Atari Teenage Riot’s “Activate.” Here, read our extended interview with ATR's Alec Empire, who discusses touring, songwriting, and his favorite studio gear.
Why is the time now right to resurrect ATR?
?It started as an idea to just play one show in London last May. We got such amazing feedback from that show. The audience is not the same as back in the day; there are so many new and young people who are seeing this for the first time. Everybody was like, You’ve got to do this more! So I changed my schedule, pushed back a new Alec Empire album I had planned for this autumn into next year, and we just went for it. Perhaps this is what makes it so exciting. There is no master plan. We just do it.
How did the US tour go? Any standout shows?
It went well! Obviously, the bigger cities like Chicago, LA, etc. were totally insane. But for me personally, Baltimore, Dallas and Austin stood out. These shows reminded me of the very early ATR underground shows in the ’90s...there was a vibe there like something new is starting...the crowd was amazing...we had the chance to talk to many people after the shows and it always strikes me how much people care and know about what ATR is about, what we are saying with the lyrics. ?
Would you say the crowd was older fans, or did you notice a lot of younger/newer fans, too? ?
I would say about 80 percent or so who saw ATR fort he first time. So early to mid twenties. That’s why the vibe was so good I think. It must have had something to do with our song “Speed” being in Fast & The Furious: Tokyo Drift only a few years back. I think a lot of those people discovered the band then. And of course because so many new bands like Crystal Castles, M.I.A., Kap Bambino, Pendulum, some of the bands on Dim Mak are constantly compared by the press to Atari Teenage Riot. That must have drawn a lot of people into ATR. To see the first thing or something...Or it just feels right, the sound and the message fit this time.
Musically, how would you say the new ATR differs from the classic line-up of you, Carl, and Hanin??
To be honest, there was never the “classic” line-up. It never worked out, somehow. We ended up with this weird collective of people. The project was always too chaotic.?The first three long US tours in the US in 1996/1997 were done in Hanin’s absence. Same in Europe and in Japan. So to me, ATR feels exactly like it always did; it’s mayhem. Back in the day, Nic Endo took over Hanin’s vocal parts whenever she was not turning up for a show; now she does pretty much the same, but she added her own style to the show. We all share working on the machines and controlling the electronics, but we also all do vocals at the same time. It feels exciting and fresh; otherwise, I wouldn’t do it..
Are you the sole ATR producer, or do you take input from Nic and Kidtronik??
I always did all the songwriting and producing in ATR. Of course, there is in and out here and there, and Nic Endo is very great when it comes to being critical in the studio and pushing the project forward. We just started working with CX, so it’s hard to tell at this point. I guess when we finish the new album, I could answer this better.
It’s been a long time since ATR’s heyday and tracks like “Kids Are United,” Delete Yourself,” and more. In that time, production techniques have grown leaps and bounds. How has Alec Empire changed the way he approaches music creation, given the new possibilities? ?
Of course, we have a lot more gear right now, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to use it all. I still think very musically, writing down a lot of ideas in notes. The experiments I do in other projects, remixes, or film scores find their way into all of my songs.?There is a lot more freedom now, but you have to know what you want to do, or you end up being lost. If one does the trial-and-error approach, one might end up with something very boring these days...that’s the main difference in electronic music right now. You can do amazing stuff, but often the audiences can’t follow as fast.
What is your current studio setup??
We record and mix everything at The Hellish Vortex Studios in Berlin. We use an API 1608 desk, various compressors like the Universal Audio 1176s and the blue DBX 160 series. I still prefer my old Lexicon 480L to the digital plug-ins. The latest version of Pro Tools is great to have, because it is very easy to combine all the old gear with that. In ATR, we use the Roland TR-909 as the main drum machine; it’s part of the band’s sound, really. Then we still use the old Akais for ATR, like the S1100 or the S6000 or the MPC 2000XL. They are also part of the band’s identity in a way. Especially when you apply distortion. We also have a lot of modular synths, from the Metasonix Wretchmachine, the ARP 2600, Analogue Solutions Vostok, the Sherman Quad Filterbank and the Moog Voyager with all the external CV gate stuff. We find the Voyager better suited for ATR. My Minimoog just sounds too retro. I love the machine, as so many others (my Korg Trident, Roland Jupiter 8 etc...) but ATR has a certain sound that we stick to. I use all that other stuff more for the Alec Empire solo works. The Atari 1040ST is still the main sequencer for everything. Pro Tools is slaved to that.
What were your key production tools in the ’90s and now?
Like it said on the Burn Berlin Burn album...it was the Atari 1040ST, the TR-909 and the Akai S1100. Very basic early rave set up.
In your opinion, is there one ATR track that perfectly embodies what you’re about?
I think it’s the new track Activate. And perhaps Revolution Action. But Revolution Action doesn’t have that typical banging drum sound like Activate has. So Activate might be a better example, in terms of sound.
Tell me about taking the ATR studio recordings and transferring them over for the live show. Have you pretty much done it the same way since the beginning? What is the process? ?
In the very early days, you had to switch between the gear and a DAT player. So any time when you needed to reload the sampler, the DAT would be used to provide about 80 percent of the track. This was quite boring, and we always saw it as a compromise. I am talking about 1992 here. The biggest change for us really happened when we were able to afford more gear, so we could have a few samplers on stage to avoid that, and of course later, each individual sampler was capable to store quite a lot of data...we started with a Hohner HS-1 sampler, and at the end we had two Akai S6000s. I never liked laptops...or better, I never liked when electronic shows were run from a laptop. It never sounded right to me. We never had these moral issues with running a whole beat arrangement from a wav file or a DAT, because to us it was just an extension of the samplers anyway. The important part is to create the work and NOT to recreate it again on stage. I find most commercial rock bands to sterile, they repeat what they rehearsed in almost an autistic way. That those musicians accuse DJs or electronic artists of not playing live or whatever is absurd , especially when they pretty much mimic what bands did decades before them. I am always very pragmatic about it. It’s about building the bridge between the musicians and the audience. If something magic happens on stage, I don’t really care if that was prepared on a drum machine or by a real human drummer. We come from DJing. So it’s all about making the right choice in the moment and take the show and crowd into new directions. Be spontaneous. But don’t get me wrong, there are A LOT of electronic musicians who screw that up, too. So at some point, I decided to not even have the discussion anymore. I think it’s important to explain that a little bit, because I noticed a lot of younger people are totally lost when confronted with this argument. ?I always decide if it is important to access the various elements during a live show and how deep you need to access those...if the drums sound perfect together and drive the track, there is no need to split them up into snare, bass drum, cymbals and so on...if you end up with the same result at the end. But if you can make it come alive by doing extreme filter sweeps and create more euphoria in the crowd, then this is top priority.
Onstage, are you guys performing any of the music live, or is the show best suited with a backing track and you jumping around and providing vocals? ?
We mainly run a simplified version of the individual tracks live. For example, a drum beat would be the whole beat as a wav in stereo, as opposed to in the studio, where it’s laid out over perhaps ten separate tracks. To have separate stem tracks is important to adapt the sound to each venue. We need to be able to lay hands on the basic elements that drive the track. A lot of stuff is added manually during the live show. For example, crash cymbals, extra noises, sound effects, bass lines, etc...CX Kidtronik adds even layers of bass drums or snare drums to the existing beats to add more dynamics when he feels like it needs that extra. This is something that human drummers would do—hit the snare harder if that pushes the crowd further. The TR-909 runs in sync. It some places, we actually back off the amount of distortion on it, if the hall is too reverb-y. Or we re-tune it during soundcheck, so the bass drum frequency would work better over a certain PA. I mean, compared to the Alec Empire show, ATR is pretty basic stuff; it’s not that complex. Most songs just contain the 909, another layer of drums, like a distorted breakbeat or so, and one or two samples. So it’s not like we have to pull of a Jean Michel Jarre show, or something. It’s simple, but every element has to work and trigger excitement in the crowd. And that is harder than we want it to be sometimes. Because if one of the five elements falls apart, the whole show sucks...So while all this is going on, we have to maintain the vibe like we’re just pressing a button and the riot starts. We run a stage mixdown through our Panasonic 3800, which is in Record mode, so we use the AD/DA converters. This machine has a crunchy and hard sound. And believe it or not, it makes a huge difference over a big sound system. We also still use SMPTE to sync various machines, and MIDI, of course. We prefer that old-school set-up over laptop playback shows...we have no morale issues here; laptops are just less stable and sound like shit. They don’t sound physical enough. Most people run shows digitally to make life more convenient on the road; we would never make compromises like that...It’s all about delivering that punch and excitement; that’s what an ATR show is about. If one can hear the bass line crystal clear in the back of the room, doesn’t actually matter that much.
A lot of European-based electronic acts fail to tour, citing high costs, lost luggage and customs hassle. However, you make it work. Do you have any advice for an electronic-based live act with reservations about touring? What have you learned that makes things easier??
We spend less money on bullshit like champagne or consumer crap, and make sure we have the right gear at the shows overseas. Of course, it’s more expensive. When you go through customs and get on the plane, be on high alert. Don’t let these people fuck you around. They are robots, after all. For a few seconds, they become your enemy because they don’t care about anything...mainly because they don’t get paid enough. Keep that in mind. They would throw your suitcase around, no matter how many “fragile” stickers you put on there.
You always run that fine line between hardcore and dance music, and Digital Hardcore is the perfect explanation for your sound. However, when writing music, do you ever keep a specific crowd in mind to make sure it doesn’t sway too much in any direction??
There is this moment when I write and mix, where I suddenly see the crowd going crazy or something. I don’t write for it, but there is this second when the brain seems to offer this vision or whatever it is. It’s exciting when that happens.
I know you’ve produced a lot of music that’s far from Hardcore, and I have some of your ambient material. Do you need to get in a specific frame of mind or mood to write for a certain sound? ?
I know how to put myself into those moods if I have to. For example, when I am involved in a film score: When I write music for myself, then of course I reflect how I feel at that moment. I do it before I go on stage, too. It is about remembering why you wrote those songs in the first place, and then all the party and bullshit stuff gets shut out. My music is based on real events and feelings. That makes it perhaps easier.
How much production work goes into processing the vocals? What are your favorite mics to work with for ATR, and why??
The vocal sound is very simple: an SM58. I believe that Rage Against The Machine and most punk rock and riot grrl groups have used it, as well. If you ride the input high on the FOH analog des, then you get that sound. But the big difference is the music, how it is being shaped around the vocal sound. The vocals are less distorted than they sometimes appear. It’s really a trick your brain does when it filters the audio information that hits the ear.
Tell me about your sampling. Do you listen to music and then sample guitar bits for the tracks, or are they created specifically for you? ?
I am a guitarist in the first place; that’s my main instrument. Everything I do comes from that thinking. Driving breakbeats through a Marshall amp to distort them, for example. Or I program synths like I would play a bass or a guitar. When we started ATR, there was no hard disk recording, or at least it was not affordable to us. So a lot of guitars were recorded to DAT and then sampled into the Akai S1100. The guitars in ATR are not supposed to sound like guitars. They become often more something like a chainsaw. That’s due to the sound of the Akai. But yeah, we also had amazing guitars recorded for us over all the years. When we did the song with Slayer, for example. I love Slayer. And very often, they are the main influence on me as a guitarist. I realized very early on that I am not good enough as a guitarist to have my own signature sound, really. That’s when I started to become more fascinated with electronics...a long time ago. Then the guitar parts in ATR were often done super-fast and without a lot of thinking. I would often program the music, and when I needed a riff, I would take the guitar, spend about five minutes to play a few riffs onto DAT, then sample the best parts. I wouldn’t even look at the guitar...Later on, I always wondered why I didn’t pay more attention to the guitars, put more effort into them. Because they really built the bridge from punk rock and metal to electronica and are super-important in ATR. But my mind was too much focused on the electronics, I guess. Dino Cazares and Tom Morello recorded amazing riffs for us also. Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age gave us great sounds when we recorded 60 Second Wipe Out, but the song never made it onto the album. Mostly because there was not enough time to finish it. It should have been a great song...
For this record, what kinds of weird recording experiments have you tried?
Most sound engineers find my whole approach totally weird! [laughs] To me, there is no line that separates the instruments, the mixing desk, the computer, and the artist. It all works together; one element can suddenly change all of the others. So with my music, it’s all about balancing all the various factors. One example could be...we took the Metasonix Wretchmachine, put it through Antares Autotune, then into a Mesa Boogie guitar amp. It was triggered by our Doepfer Sequencer. When it was in Pro Tool,s we fed it back into the API EQs, drove the input gain super high to give it even more crunch, then compressed it again, to finally put it through the filters of the TB-303. I had mine changed so the mix input routes through the internal filters. So it sounded awesome; first we wanted to have that sound determine the whole track, but then I changed my mind and it ended up being 8 bars. I believe that when you send your brain onto these journeys, you change the way you think; every step matters. Even if you don’t use it at the end of the day. ?
What was the most difficult part of creating the new album??
ATR is always about keeping it simple and direct. Okay, the noise parts are not as easy to get righ,t but the listener only needs to understand it emotionally...that is what matters at the end. Lyrically, there is so much to say. The politics are quite complex in our time, so we face the same challenges as journalists, for example, who have to sum up something complex into a short article. It’s a bit like Twitter, when you have to squeeze your thoughts down to the basic idea...and the exact opposite of commercial hip hop, where a lot of words are being used to say pretty much nothing.
How much do you get involved with the mixdown? What’s your method of getting a mix to gel? How do you get everything, particularly vocals, to sit right in the mix??
I have mixed all of my records. Only on ATR’s 60 Second Wipe Out, I worked together with Andy Wallace. He was great to work with, but didn’t have so much input on the sound as on all his other work. I can spent quite some time on fine-tuning the EQs, when I need to solve problems in a take. Then I get a distance from it, and walk into the studio completely fresh, turn the volume up very high, and nail it. I always run various mixes with slightly different levels or with and without compression on the master insert. I mostly end up using the first mix with the compression on it. It’s part of the energy, in most cases. There is no logic to it; the music has to work when turned up. Many DJs have told me that they realized the real power when they played the music over big PAs. That’s where I came from; those early raves. We didn’t make records for the radio or for people to listen to at home, we made them for DJs to play super-loud. The vocals in ATR are part of the whole sound. So they get treated like another instrument. It’s all about the energy.
Is there an album on the horizon that you can tell me about??
Nic Endo and I have both solo records ready to go, basically...but we pushed them back because of ATR. Both albums are completely different to ATR and to everything we both have done before. Nic Endos record has clean but super heavy beats, spookey ghost like vocals, melodic, and very abstract sound design and a lot of piano. The Alec one is very different to what I did over the past decade. It is very digital, precise programming, but also very insane at the same time... It’s hard to describe in words...one has to hear it. A friend of mine, a film director, said it sounds like Wagner had Jimi Hendrix in his orchestra, had Alec Empire remix the whole thing in Tokyo in 2040...I always think it’s funny when other peole try to use images to describe my music...to me it’s just what I do right now, in the moment.
Anything you want people to know about your production style?
Use your ears, and learn how to trust them. Everything else becomes secondary. It sounds so easy, but it all comes back to that basic principle. Remember to connect with the listener. Music is like a language. So don’t let technology get in the way of that.