Atari Teenage Riot's Empire
Atari Teenage Riot is practically its own genre.
Honestly, not many bands combine danceable techno with impossible sheets of near-painful noise, and somehow blend them into a sweaty, ear-bleeding mess that actually bears repeated listens. Those who do manage such an improbable feat are almost assured to invoke comparisons to ATR, and damn near nobody else.
When ATR creator Alec Empire started out, his intention was not to start a mini-empire of caustic dance music, but simply to give a voice to his thoughts about his generation. Concerned about the growing Neo-Nazi movement sweeping through Berlin's youth culture in the early '90s, Empire began his now 18-year assault on the minds and ears of anyone willing to listen.
"When we saw what was happening in East Germany in '92, people were just standing around, the police weren't doing anything and we just had to express how we feel, because otherwise, people think that all Germans agree with this stuff," he says.
Of course, not everyone agreed with ATR, either, which Empire remembers clearly.
"Back then, it was a lot of confrontation. Nobody liked us, and we played raves, big raves, because we were coming from the techno scene," he reflects over the phone from Budapest. "People were like, 'Oh my God, what are you guys doing?! There's a mosh pit, and people are stage diving, and we can't have this stuff.'
"The DJs all wanted people to dance with pretty girls, or something," he continues. "Then, we went right into the punk-rock clubs, and people would look at these machines like you were bringing the devil or something."
History, of course, tells us that this didn't last. ATR's exciting sound, coupled with an equally exciting mantra of personal political empowerment, won it a devoted following and a spot in the annals of rock legend.
What history doesn't tell us is why, nearly a full decade after ATR split up seemingly for good after original member Carl Crack's 2001 death, the band is back on the tour circuit, thrilling audiences with new songs and retooled versions of its classic material.
"Well, you see, there's no real master plan for this," says Empire when asked what the band hopes to get out of its reunion. "People think that, but we did this show in London in May, because we felt we owed people a show. Last time we played, in '99, at the end of the year, we were so burnt out, and it was this huge wall of noise kind of show which the British critics loved, but even parts of our fan base, in the crowd they tore T-shirts apart, and it was kind of this big confrontation kind of thing."
Empire goes on: "Then we ran into CX KidtroniK, the new MC, and we were like, 'Okay, maybe that could be a good match.' So we did it, and from that show, so much feedback came [back]. What came as a big surprise was such a young crowd was at that show. There's no real master plan. Some people think we're like the Pixies or these bands that have this plan. We just go along as all these things come up, and as we're getting feedback. It's very spontaneous."
What may be spontaneous to Empire seems to fit pretty well within music's broadening landscape, though ATR's particular palette still stands in fairly stark contrast to the majority of the picture. Nonetheless, today's listener is much more likely to be versed in the concept of noise as music than an average techno-show attendee in 1992, in no small part due to the inroads Atari Teenage Riot made.
Empire believes his band was important in expanding the possibilities of what people were willing to perceive as music, though he's a bit unsure about the concept of a direct line of succession from his band's Delete Yourself to Crystal Castles.
"To me it's always hard to have an objective view on this stuff," says Empire. "There's never this sort of line where this starts, or that ended. Without Atari, maybe there wouldn't be such a big crowd now interested in listening to new sounds...For a lot of people, it was the first time people had heard stuff like that."
A lot of people still haven't heard stuff like that, but that's shifting. More significant than who's heard it is who is willing to, and that number is on the uptick as well. Just take Empire's bemused description of recent Atari Teenage Riot crowds as a measuring stick.
"You know, it wasn't just the old fans. I'd say 80 percent or more was new fans, not people who were like, 'Oh my God, the legend is back,'" he says. "Some people, of course, hate it. They're not used to this, and they're like, 'What's all this noise?' It's very strange seeing an 18-year-old freaking out because he thinks this music should be forbidden or something.
"I would expect that from my grandparents or something. We've seen some very funny reactions."
It would be an odd world indeed if Atari Teenage Riot were suddenly deemed as easily palatable as, say, Adam Lambert. This is, after all, somewhat difficult music. Take the band's first new single, "Activate," which bears all the hallmarks of classic Atari: Speed, aggression, fractured hints of melodic could-have-beens and political fomentation. The net result is something akin to an audio trigger for a grand mal seizure — not everybody's cup of tea.
For those who fancy a sip, though, this year's model promises to delight on a number of levels. Though Crack's loss has undoubtedly altered Atari, MC KidtroniK adds a new dimension that helps the band keep its contemporary credibility.
"[KidtroniK] wrote his own lyrics, because Carl Crack wrote a lot of lyrics about Germany, the racism there in the '90s," Empire explains. "CX is from Detroit and New York, and he couldn't really understand what the lyrics were about, but he had his own view on things. I told him, yeah, rewrite it, update everything."
Of course, 2010 audiences will probably respond better to diatribes against the current political climate more readily than those aimed at pseudo-fascist kids from the Berlin Wall era.
"I don't know what it is, but everybody clicks so well, and the energy onstage is twice what it ever was," muses Empire. "It's very strange, maybe because we're ten years older. Maybe it's because it's electronic, you know, and you get better at what you do.
"I'm not like a drummer who's taken heroin for 20 years, and can't play as powerfully anymore," he concludes. "This stuff is brutal, though. People go nuts."
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