Interview: Nitzer Ebb

By , Jun 3 2009
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nitzerebmain

Richard Clouston’s Cosey Club hosts an exclusive live performance of the legendary Nitzer Ebb this Friday, June 5.

Not only have they released some of the greatest electronic records in history, the Ebb are one of the world’s finest live acts. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see these true originators in an intimate night-club setting with a unique support line up. The band will be playing classics and premiering material from their forthcoming, eagerly awaited album, working title ICP. Visit kult77.com for tickets and information.

Clouston interviewed Nitzer Ebb frontman and founding member Douglas McCarthy for FACT (pictured below). He talks about the group’s early post-punk years, touring with Depeche Mode, acid house anthems and the new album…

Tell me about the origins of Nitzer Ebb, what age were you when you started the group? And what were your influences?

“We started when I was 15 and Bon Harris and David Gooday were 16. We were school friends in Essex with a love of post-punk bands like Killing Joke, Theatre Of Hate, Bauhaus, The Banshees, Cabaret Voltaire, Virgin Prunes, The Birthday Party, Abwarts, and Malaria. After going to see them, it seemed totally possible to do it our selves. We actually had a much more ‘Goth’ (that term didn’t exist back then) appearance and were influenced initially by the look of ‘The Bat Cave’ crowd.

“We started off life as La Comédie De La Mort (from the book by Théophile Gautier) but soon had enough of that French Romanticism bollocks and made up the name Nitzer Ebb by cutting up words and letters and pulling them randomly from a hat, á la Bowie, to try to get something deliberately Germanic without actually using German words.”

What were the next steps, how did you go about making and releasing your first records?

“DAF had just released ‘Gold Und Liebe’ and Einstürzende Neubauten released ‘Kollaps’; we steadily veered towards their sort of approach, jettisoning the slower, more gothic mumbo jumbo.

“One of the biggest turning points in terms of my stage performance was seeing Malaria and Neubauten opening up for The Birthday Party in 1983 at the Lyceum. It was around this time that Phil Harding, of PWL (Pete Waterman’s “Hit Factory”) came to see us play with his business partner. As soon as we got on stage, antagonistic elements of the sizeable punk audience started causing trouble. Having initially asked them to calm down so the show wouldn’t be ruined, a metal tube-wielding Bon decided to ask a little more forcefully. Once they had managed to snap all the XLR cables in the DJ box at the front of the stage, rendering the PA system unusable, the whole place descended into a chaotic brawl. Phil loved it and we discussed how he could help us make a record. We decided on forming our own label to release a 4 track EP. We had previously approached a few labels, the usual suspects back then – Mute, Factory, 4AD etc. – but didn’t get a sniff out of them so it seemed like the only way we could get tracks out. Simon Granger joined the band as our resident graphic artist, mainly through a shared love of Constructivism, Dada and John Heartfield. He did all the artwork for our new label, Power Of Voice Communications. In September 1984 we recorded the Isn’t It Funny How Your Body Works EP.

Right from the beginning you had a very club-orientated sound, totally electronic and carnal dance music, you were influenced by disco and proto house records coming out of New York and Chicago…

“We grew up loving the electronic aspects of tracks like Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ and continued to find a lot of inspiration from the 80’s gay Hi-NRG scene – Divine’s ‘Native Love’, Man 2 Man Meets Man Parrish ‘Male Stripper’ etc – in fact try playing ‘Murderous’ next to ‘Native Love’!

“Initially we were interested in competing against conventional guitar bands but realised a complete disregard of that approach while embracing a harder, funkier club sound actually was most effective in achieving that goal. We loved the analogue sound of the Korg MS 20, the Roland SH101 and Moog Oberheim. But at that time the synth sound on most club tracks was the Yamaha DX7, which we detested; causing many arguments between us and Phil Harding, who couldn’t really see why. As it turned out we found that using the DX as a bass base and having the fizzier warmer sounds of the analogue gear over the top really worked, so we reluctantly conceded to Mr. Harding. He mastered the art of a fat four on the floor kick that still really punches after all these years.

How did you approach lyrics? They’ve always been very catchy and powerful.

“A lot of my lyrics on the first album came from poems I wrote, there was a lot of teenage angst in there and we really liked the idea of appropriating slogans and incorporating them into lyrics. For the most part to piss people off who didn’t realise that nearly everything we were doing was about nonsense, and having fun. I’m not saying that we weren’t serious about the band or the music but, to a certain extent, it was and still is all part of the act.”

And that act, the strong visual identity and stage presence, tell me about that…

“We love being ‘performers’ in the true meaning of the word. I still find it terminally dull when a band doesn’t have stage wear. It should be a fucking spectacle not a jam band in someone’s garage. In terms of my own maniac approach to being on stage it started off as a mask to hide behind; I used to brick it, so going bonkers kept my mind off the audience. Even after I stopped being such a wimp about being on stage I realised that I had developed a personal approach to performing that really worked for us both live and in the studio. It’s about passion and belief; passion about making it the very best and belief that you really do not give a shit what people think about it. We viewed being in Nitzer Ebb as a full time job, everything was a performance. When the first EP was finished we went to the old NME offices on Carnaby Street in full stage garb – riding boots, jodhpurs et al – and stormed into the office and started throwing the record at journalists; surprisingly they gave it a pretty good review!”

In 1987 you signed to Mute, how did that come about and what happened next?

“Mute approached us after the release of ‘Let Your Body Learn’. Daniel Miller had help create various sub labels with Mute as the figurehead. One of these labels was Rhythm King, which was entirely dance orientated. There were mostly new artists being signed – S-Express, Bomb The Bass, Renegade Soundwave – so we accepted the offer. After a short while Daniel decided we would be better suited as a direct Mute artist. He also facilitated getting us signed to a label in the US. After a bidding war between EMI Manhattan, Elektra, Sire and Geffen, we decided on the latter. From then on things started to move quickly.”

So around this time you started your relationship with Depeche Mode and really started touring?

“Well, we had already done a few Euro shows and small tours – Daniel even did live sound for us in a German club that was clad inside entirely with metal sheets that turned out to give off an electric shock any time you went near the FOH desk, so he had to stand on rubber car mats! But it was not until we opened for Depeche on their Music For The Masses tour did we start to realise how to approach touring and, to a certain extent, how to be in a band. To be honest we weren’t sure if it was the right thing for us to do; our view was that we were in some way above that level, that we were a much purer type of music etc, etc… We reluctantly decided to follow the advice of everyone around us and went on the tour. It was a real eye-opener on every level. The fact that we were playing to a much more pop type of audience was actually fun as it made us want to come across even harder and less accessible than ever, but we could also see that we could pull off a performance in front of a largely disapproving audience and win them over. This served us very well when we eventually were allowed into the United States. We were denied our work visas when trying to continue with the ‘Mode tour in 1988: we were told that we ‘lacked musical merit’!

You then created a Flood-produced album. What was the genesis of Belief?

“Another thing we learnt on the road with Depeche was that we wanted to give our live set more space to breathe and include some tracks that were less straight ahead four on the floor.

“Mute had moved to Harrow Road and were in the process of re-building the old King’s Cross Mute studio ‘Worldwide’ on the top floor. Work had finished enough in the programming room for us to commence writing ‘Belief’. It was a strange and strained time for me and Bon; a heady mixture of excitement, betrayal, anger and alcohol. We had decided to cease working with Phil Harding and his business partner, which meant cutting them out of all future recording and publishing rights – so they were particularly unhappy and difficult. We had also mutually agreed with David Gooday that he would also no longer be a part of the band. So we rented this flat in West Hampstead together and would trundle into this building site environment every day and spend 16-18 hours writing and drinking until we had the beginnings of the album. Upon Daniel’s suggestion we had a meeting with Flood, which was joyous, he understood everything we wanted to do and joined us in the studio immediately. We mixed the album at Swanyard Studios in Islington and Depeche were in the next room doing the 101 live album. I’m not sure if we were the deciding factor for them to then work with him [Flood] on Violator but we definitely introduced the idea that they should use him.

“Despite, in fact because, of all the difficulties surrounding how that album came about it made us work so intensely and it’s apparent where the theme of self-belief came from. That album gave us a new kind of confidence.”

Many people regard Belief as your finest album. Wasn’t David Bowie a fan, he asked you to support him, right?

“Indeed, Bowie asked us to join his infamous ‘Glass Spider Tour’, we weren’t sure as his album wasn’t exactly his finest work and then we heard a leg had fallen off the huge, well, glass spider, so we politely declined, hmmm, slight regret. Never the less we did our own headline tour and were even allowed in the United States!

By this point your tracks were becoming anthems in the burgeoning acid house and Balearic scene of the late 80s. What was your take on the club culture then?

“One of the first countries we played outside of the UK was Spain, particularly in the south-east, towns like Valencia and Murcia. There was an amazing club in Valencia called Spook Factory that didn’t even open till like 6am and went on well into the afternoon. The DJs there played anything, speeding up a U2 track into the Residents into Nitzer Ebb – fantastic sound system, tons of drugs and tons of fun. It was completely irreverent and we loved it there! This was probably ’85 or early ’86 when we started playing out there and we were saying that we’ve got to get these guys to London, which was much not fun at all at that time. Within a year or so, The Trip started at the Astoria and we knew we’d missed the boat in bringing it to the UK, but it didn’t matter, it was now so much fun.

When the acetate of ‘Control. I’m Here’ was delivered; we went straight down to The Trip to have it played, everyone went nuts! My mum called me up to ask if I was taking drugs after News At Ten did a story on Acid House with footage from [London acid house club] The Trip with fucked up people going mental to ‘Join In The Chant’… hahaha! “No Mum!”… Andrew Weatherall once said to me that the closest he got to god was hearing ‘Join In The Chant’ off his tits.

Tell me about the follow up albums, Showtime, Ebbhead and Big Hit.

“Within weeks of coming back from touring Belief we began working on the next one, Showtime. This time we asked Flood to come in earlier to produce us through the writing period too. I think it’s fair to say that although the work schedule was still nearly as heavy as it was with Belief the debauched behavior schedule had become a lot busier. Depeche were mixing Violator not far away at The Church in Crouch End with Francois Kervorkian, which definitely raised things up a notch or ten. It was pretty much a foregone conclusion that we would open for them in for the next tour, which kicked off in the States in the early summer of 1990 after we had toured Europe. Suffice to say that the volumes of incriminating stories from both our European tour and the Depeche tour could be told for days.

“Once back, we again jumped straight back into writing and recording. We asked Alan Wilder to co-produce the album with Flood, and Alan to join the grim task of coming in on the writing period as Flood had done with Belief. Having gauged the reaction of audiences, especially in America, to the more anthemic tracks on ‘Showtime’ we wanted to explore this and Alan was a great help to that end. However, before we went into the album we decided to build a musical and stylistic bridge from where we had been and where we felt we were heading and so once again with Flood on board we made a four track EP called As Is. We asked Jaz Coleman from Killing Joke, Barry Adamson from The Bad Seeds and Magazine, Flood, and Alan to each do a mix. Eventually only ‘Family Man’ made it to the Ebbhead album and only then at the insistence of Mute and Geffen. We toured Ebbhead in Europe and America from October ’91 to April ’92 and really wanted to have a good think about how we were going to make the next album. Instinctively we wanted to include some of the earlier feel of the band, but not to just recreate that sound, we also wanted to express what we felt was a more complex understanding of what electronic music can deliver. This entire process took just a bit longer than we had envisioned to begin with and two and a half years, six studios, five cities and one marriage later we finished Big Hit – it wasn’t. ”

At this juncture you split up?

“Tensions had already been building in the studio and once on the road as with any band that fission was laid bare. Exasperated with everything we took a bit of a break. About ten years as it turned out.

“We had done most of Big Hit in LA and after the split I moved back to England from Detroit and Bon moved back to LA from Chicago.

“I had no idea what exactly what I wanted do. I did some vocals for Alan Wilder’s Recoil album Unsound Methods and then eventually decided to go to art school. I ended up in the commercial film business in London as an assistant director and, at times, a director. Around 2003 I was contacted by Terence Fixmer to sing on a couple of tracks for him. I was intrigued how it would be to do music again and once we got in the studio I was really surprised how enjoyable it was. We went on to form the more techno-based band Fixmer / McCarthy and have released, thus far, two albums: Between The Devil… and Into The Night.

“Bon developed into an accomplished pianist and composer for television and film as well as starting his own band Maven.

When you and Bon reformed The Ebb in 2005 after a 10-year hiatus what were your ambitions?

“After touring extensively with Fixmer / McCarthy our agent started getting offers for Nitzer Ebb to headline a few festivals. To be frank, the fees were eye-catching and so I emailed Bon for his thoughts. We decided to meet on neutral territory in Chicago and found that we still had very similar aspirations and that playing a few shows together would be a good thing. Those few dates turned into a tour that lasted 7 months through out Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, North and South America and then back to Europe. We had once again based our selves out of LA to rehearse and prepare for the shows and in between breaks from the touring schedule we began to write new songs. It was an incredibly fulfilling experience for us both and it took little time for us to decide to make a new album.

“Like most albums, and most bands making an album, this new album has been a mashed up swirling pool of creativity and excitement. Our ambition has been and continues to be finding a way to make the music that we want and deliver it how we want to.

The music business is very different now. How’s this affecting your approach to the new album?

“The entire music industry is in a state of complete flux; things that were essential parts of the business are now unrecognizable, irrelevant or just don’t exist anymore.

“Although the quality of the content of the album is first and foremost, the way we deliver it and how our audience can interact with that delivery has become extremely important too. To that end we have decided to reject any thought of a conventional release. We have asked a variety of artists to remix a variety of the new songs that, along with other content, will be free to download as mp3s over the next six months or so leading up to the introduction of the album tracks. Jagz Kooner is mixing that second portion of the project, with a diverse selection of people doing the first including people such as yourself, Richard Fearless, The Hacker, Tom Furse (from The Horrors}, Flood, S.C.U.M, Terence Fixmer, Christopher Kah.”

The new material could be described as ‘classic’ Nitzer Ebb; it has a purity and visceral power…

“We pursued a very electronic sound with these new tracks and it has allowed us to delve into the very earliest styles associated with the band to create music that is great fun for us to record and play live.”

You’re excited about the forthcoming dates, is the approach going to differ from what we’ve seen in the past?

“The great thing about doing a Nitzer Ebb album is that the writing, recording and mixing make up 50% of the final product. The other 50% is when we play live. In the case of this next album tour (starting in South America in August) we want to counter the whole excessive ‘band on stage’ thing (we ourselves have been guilty of this in the past) by playing a lot of electronic instrumentation live but keeping those interfaces as minimal looking as possible in order to give the stage a really stark minimal look – no fucking drum risers, or mountains of synths and drum pads. We want people to be aghast at how little equipment we pull out of one Rimowa case. The whole myth of the band has always been a target of ours I suppose. The thing with how technology has undoubtedly changed the music is that it has truly given the artist pure control if they wish. It’s gone full circle back to when we first started to buy music from all these indies labels in the early 80s. In fact it’s beyond full circle, if that’s possible?!

In the past you’ve worn pretty heavy stage gear, from quasi-Nazi gear, to Lycra cycling shorts with braces and combat boots, what can we expect next?

“I know, what most people have overlooked is that we join a long list of the ridiculous and knowingly absurd when it comes to presentation. At that Birthday Party gig at the Lyceum, we were laughing at this bloke wearing wellies at the bar, as it turned out Blixa wiped the fucking floor with the entire venue once he got on stage with Neubauten. As for this time, I am wearing a Raf Simons suit, shirt and tie with Paul Smith brogues and I think I got my socks in downtown LA. When I first met Toni Halliday from Curve she explained that Alan Moulder, her other half, would wear the black and white ‘hom’ cycling shorts in the bedroom and do ‘Douglas McCarthy impressions’, so sadly my hope now is that the remaining Goldman Sachs executives may don their Raf suits in some final act of sexual rebellion!”

Brilliant! It’s very inspiring that despite the current climate you are very upbeat about the new direction The Ebb are taking…

“Essentially there is a level of potency as an artist that has never been seen before. It’s a really exciting time for us, we don’t feel like some kind of retro band trying to grasp some former glory, we feel just as defiant and confrontational we did when first started.

“I think there is an abundance of talent out there that we feel an affinity with, and what is gratifying is that it is reciprocated. It’s a real pleasure to be in the position we are with the industry the way it is – the possibilities are limitless.

There’s fun to be had.

Richard Clouston

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