Workspace and Environment: Alec Empire

What? Seriously? This is the epitome of the Workspace and Environment series. Enjoy!

I was born in Berlin, then moved to London , and then moved back to Berlin two years ago. I find that I can develop my ideas best at the moment in Berlin. You can be isolated, and this is exactly what I want, because I am not very excited about the current music scene. I think bands take any straw they can get, mp3 culture has stopped musicians to care about the sound of their music and the music itself, people in the music industry fear for their jobs every day…this is a nightmare…and only because people don’t want to buy music anymore. Problem is that the quality of music in getting poorer every year. Art has to take risks, art as to afford innovation….if this can’t happen because the investments simply don’t come back enough, it’s a dying industry. In Berlin you don’t feel that as much as in London. This is why I work here at the moment. But Berlin is also such a dark city. It’s great for what I do.
I have been playing my first show with my punk band when I was age of twelve. We were right in that squatting scene back in Berlin-West. It was important, because everybody was very political and had radical ideas. a few years later I moved on and got into electronic music. released my first record when I was 18 on Force Music Works in Frankfurt. Shortly after I started Atari Teenage Riot.
My motivation to make music was really the fact that I could express my thoughts and feelings directly and without limits. Many other musicians feel they have to entertain the audience. I always wanted to perform in a more honest and truthful way. Punk tought me not to give a damn…this took of all the pressure in any situation which followed. You have to deal with the consequences at the same time though. During certain times not being popular and stuff…but I like that….

What are your current favorite pieces of hardware?
I got deep into modular synths. Despite the trend of going more digital the last years, a new scene has grown which is inventing analogue synths again. Analogue Solutions, Metasonix, Doepfer…. these systems have almost no limits. And they sound fantastic. It’s expensive in comparision to digital software, but the sound is so powerful, it’s worth it. You have to be into Math as well…if you have a lower iq , you should probably stick to a guitar. I don’t mean that in a negative way because music can be great in so many different ways. The Metasonix S-1000 is an all tube synth which has sounds that have never been heard before. Most people don’t know how to use it and therefore be scared to use it….I love it.

What are some softwares or plugins you prefer?
Protools works for me as a recording device. On Ableton I synch certain digital files. But that’s about it. If you have the real stuff, any plug in doesn’t cut it. At the moment…this could still change in the future I hope.

How does your physical space and surroundings influence your workflow?
I could pretend that it doesn’t influence my work but it does. We have built a new studio in Berlin two years ago. It has 240 square meters. Two sound proof cabins. At the moment it is ideal. We used the colour white a lot. Actually you wouldn’t really find much colour in there. And what surprises visitors is that we have no paintings or posters or anything visual up on the walls. I really find this distracting. Somehow my mind would get off path. The great thing is that we can record whenever we want. To me this has proven to be one of the most important factors in delivering the best music. Especially in my music for films I have to stick to strict timelines, great ideas which can often determine a scene, save a performance of an actor even, have to happen. Therefore I don’t care recording at 7 o’clock in the morning or not sleep at all for two days. The result is most important! When I am that focussed even a very quiet noise which comes from a refridgerator or even a light bulb, influences you in some way. I am always aware of that.

Could you explain the history and motives behind Digital Hardcore Recordings?We started Digital Hardcore Recordings in early 1994. It felt so exciting to create this music because it was unheard of before…nobody did it. This was something that, for the first time probably, came out of Berlin and was never done anywhere else before. When I was DJing at the time no other records were achieving this excitement and rage in the crowd. It all started pretty simple when we sped up British breakbeat records and mixed them with speed metal and 70ties punkrock. It was something that everybody wanted. People wanted to see where their limits were…this was the most fun about it. to keep pushing and pushing it further. Many of the records we did in the early years featured digital sound effects that we came up with for the first time. Making these very short loops which can sound like your CD player starts trouble or a snare drum sound becomes a machine gun, just one example. Of course distortion and insane programming of beats and sounds was a priority for all musicians and DJs involved. This movement was met with hostility by all kinds of people. Punks reacted conservative, freaked out, ravers wanted to stop it, we even had people from a special police departement coming to our shows, because we used very radical slogans and militant images. It was very underground until UK radio legend John Peel started to play our records. Then it went pretty fast.The Beastie Boys distributed the records in the US, Japan went wild…it was unstoppable. Suddenly my band ATR reached gold status with the album “Burn Berlin Burn”.
To me this ended with 911, and of course a few days before our band member and friend Carl Crack died. He was found dead in his appartment in Berlin. A few months before Nic Endo and me started to put a band together with Charlie Clouser from Nine Inch Nails…real guitars on stage, 2 drummers…the full thing. In 2002 the Berlin scene was already almost over..that’s my opinion. UK acts like Aphex Twin, Prodigy and various others had delivered their more mainstream, softer versions of digital hardcore and reached a wider audience than the other acts on DHR…the media started to focus most on me and Atari Teenage Riot.

Are there any sonic consistency’s or limitations you try to maintain?
I love precision…I guess because I am German…there is a real method to the chaos (if I go for the wall of noise overload of information type sound I am known for.), otherwise it wouldn’t be fun. On the other side I like to go into new sonic territories all the time. I wrote many “songs” which have almost a pop structure to them. One of my signatures is the “punch” when a beat kicks in…building up to that. I hate flat music, wallpaper sound. I have also written a lot of music which is almost trance like, many people told me they meditate to that. There are people who can’t go back listening to other music after getting into mine…it seems to have a special atmosphere…once you get in there, other things become superficial.

What was the first piece of hardware you remember obtaining?
My first hardware was a Hohner HS-1 sampler with 2MB RAM…crazy but back then, you had to be creative and use it’s memory wisely because it would reach its limit fast. The last thing I bought was a Roland RS-202 which is an old string synth.

What is on your current wish list?
I think Lexicon builds great effect units. I am still using my 480L…would make sense to get the new one, even though a lot of people stick to the old models because they seem to have a better sound. It would be great to build a studio using the IOSONO System which is something like a new way of creating a surround sound. Read about it on our blog I heard it and it makes you feel like you are in another place. It will revolutionize sound.

What does your mobile studio setup consist of?
MAC laptop with Digidesign Hardware, Protools, Ableton and the most important thing is my mobile harddisk which has all my sounds on it. I would really try to create sound in the software – I am never happy with the results. And what I should mention as well is that I can be quite conservative as well. I use my iPhone and pen and paper when I record rough ideas. The phone works as a diary – I’ll export the audio, analyze the exact tempo and then recreate it. A lot of ideas only work in a certain tuning and tempo. You have to record this right away when you feel it. I am not so into the idea of recording an album on the beach…I have done these things over ten years ago…my album Low On Ice was done in a tent in Iceland. But nowadays when I go to the beach I’d rather play guitar or something…I like a concrete prison cell because then I am forced to imagine and be creative.

Do you have a particular setup for live performances?
This really varies from performance to performance. I use my MPC2000XL as a sequencer/sampler, add a selection of synths to that, but then most important, I use an old DAT machine for its digital analogue converters, they sound hard, they cut through on a big PA. I had long conversations with Nine Inch Nails years ago. The converters Tascam and Panasonic build in the 90ties had the most punch. We also use my Sherman Quad filterbank a lot. But we also run machines through guitar and bass amps.

Have your physical locations changed?
Many many times. I keep my studio set up flexible. It’s just a tool after all. When people become lazy and don’t change their set ups, very often they get stuck repeating themselves. And it’s sometimes not them, it’s just the laid out path that they fail to see. The studio has to adapt to me , not the other way round. I have gone from very small, more minimal set ups to crazy large warehouse spaces…there is no hierarchy…make it work for you…in the biggest, most expensive studios in the world flops are being recorded…this has nothing to do with it.

Have you ever heard your music being played at public places?
AE: Yes, often…on the radio, or in shops…a song from my band ATR “Kids are united” was even played in football stadiums in England. I have to admit, this is always a great feeling. to watch other people react to it, or not react at all, if they are shopping and of course the music is quiet, it becomes quite funny, you see they notice a change in atmosphere, but are not sure where it’s coming from….

Are you involved in any music/sound work outside of your own projects?
Yes, of course…I am classically trained… My music was often used in films and games. I have worked with Japanese actor/director Tadanobu Asano on a film a few months ago. Have completed a score for a film called “Days of Chaos”, and am working on another film called Phantomania right now. Often other artists ask me for permission to use my music in installations or fashion shows. My music makes people pay attention, it drags them into another emotional place. This is perfect for films and games.

Where can we find your work?
I release mostly under my own name Alec Empire, but have produced and written a lot for other artists. I have remixed Bjork, Einsturzende Neubauten, Korn, Rammstein, Mogwai, Guitar Wolf, Thurston Moore, Primal Scream and many others.
One of my bands is called Atari Teenage Riot. You can find my records in most stores which sell music and on all download portals. We also run our own store online with collectors editions. Certain music I do is only sold there via the internet. It’s called The Hellish Vortex Online Store. I have been involved in over 100 releases on various labels, major and indie. I have done soundtracks as well.

Alec Empire
Eat Your Heart Out Blog
Hellish Vortex
Alec Empire Myspace
Atari Teenage Riot Myspace
Standard gear porn: Joáo