Ear, nose and throat specialists everywhere would probably cut off a limb for the chance to examine Blixa Bargeld. Nowhere short of an old miner's club would they find a better study of the long-term effects of industrial noise pollution on the human body. His signature 'inward scream' alone has meant scarring of the larynx and multiple throat nodules are a constant companion. “I have many, many doctors calling me... all the time.” Further more, for the last 32 years, the original 'grinder-man' has been flanked by more eardrum-punishing power tools than most tradies would see in a lifetime as leader of the - quite literally - industrial Berlin group, Einstürzende Neubauten.
Bargeld and his band of racket-mongers are Australia bound for next year's All Tomorrow's Parties festival, and as a former long-term Bad Seed, Blixa, who's services to Mr Cave's ceased in 2003, is keen to get back. “I haven't been to Australia since we (the Bad Seeds) recorded Nocturama, but there was a time when I was there for a few months out of every year.” Bargeld begins via our Skpe conversation, “I can't talk on the phone... I am the same as Nick (Cave) in that regard. If this was a phone interview, it would be over in about 5 minutes, I can promise you that. I love Skype though, I can stay home and still see who I am talking to. In the past I would have to get on a plane and get flown to meet the journalist... that is how much I hate talking on the phone. This is better hmm ...Don't you think?” From his rather cold, clinical office/study room, Blixa Bargeld comes across as a man who has heard it all before, and many times. Bizarre rumours and legendary stories about his band's activities have elevated them to cult icons among fans of industrial, new wave and experimental music. But Bargeld himself is most contented by the fact that there really is no other band like his. “You have heard of this thing called 'google notification', yes?” He asks without waiting for my answer, “Well I find it very amusing to see what context Neubauten is mentioned on the internet.... and it is usually in reviews for albums by bands I have never heard of... 'these guys sound like a cross between Neubauten and some other thing'.... Many bands have been compared to us, but at least I am 'not like anything else' or Neubauten are not 'like' X, Y, Z bands out there.”
It's a fact that Neubauten didn't have any kind of pre-existing blueprint to work from. Their music was devised from a combination of the band member's imaginations and found objects in the form of power tools, shopping trolleys, suspension coils and building site waste. Although Blixa finds it is near impossible to explain how his band found a way to compose cohesive music with no instruments, musical training or influences, he offers, “All I can tell you is, when we make music we always have done so with the idea that you don't think about it, you react to it. You listen and you add to what each person in the band is creating on his own... It was never about artistic decisions. We never decided to get our instruments from building sites, they were the only things we could get our hands on. We had no money for new instruments or any of that sort of thing. You could say that for a band from West Berlin, this way of finding materials to use for music was easy. There was still so much urban decay in the early '80s which became a resource for us when we were starting out. I always thought that it was strange that more bands hadn't thought to do something like what we were doing with so many materials just left to rust.” Blixa speaks passionately about his memory of Berlin as a city divided. In his sector, wreck and ruin were a part of everyday life and whether consciously or not, it influenced his unique form of expression. Einstürzende Neubauten were simply born out of a very human need to create when destruction is seemingly all prevailing. As we talk about his youth spent scavenging in his neighbourhood's many gutted buildings, Blixa occasionally glances out of his window at Berlin: the 2012 Model.
“I don't recognise this place any more.” He says, deflecting attention from himself. “When the Wall came down it looked as though World War II had only just ended the week before. It's all gentrified now and it is taking its toll on this city. It used to be so much cheaper to live here than most other European cities, and Berlin suddenly became very appealing for the wealthy to move to. It's like being in a brand new city now.” His tone of voice suggests Blixa would be quite happy if the shiny new apartment blocks and multiplexes indeed did collapse, as his band's name - which translates as Collapsed New Buildings - would suggest. It doesn't even feel like a stretch of the imagination to think Neubauten are driven either by love of, or a desire to punish architecture as if its perfect dimensions and stubborn inflexibility is both admirable and an affront to them. Either way, from their debut album Kollaps to 2005 release Anarchitektur, the subject is hard to avoid when browsing their catalogue. Perhaps it is this particular fascination that has fueled the endless wild stories about Neubauten's alleged venue-destroying live shows. Some stories are even true, but reminding Blixa of the often-referenced jack-hammering of Manchester's Hacienda club's ceiling support beams at an early show, has him battle-worn.
“We never had a jack-hammer on stage.” He says sharply. “We had an electric hammer, it is a very different thing. Besides, I still have a video of that show, and I can tell you, that did not happen. Neither I, or anybody in the band tried to drill through the Hacienda ceiling support beams. That story came from (Factory Records honcho) Tony Wilson's autobiography? ...Well you should know autobiography's are always great works of fiction.” Still, the classic image of Neubauten as a group of leather-clad, heroin-eyed noise-terrorists, intent on burrowing through stages rather than actually playing on them, has been hard to shake off. So when Bargeld joined Nick Cave's own band of brutes - The Birthday Party - in 1983, any pre-existing opinions were unlikely to change. More practically though, Blixa's new double role meant for the first time he would analyse his approach to guitar playing, and to performing within the relative confines of a more traditional band set-up.
“Well first of all, if Nick had've asked me to join his band on clarinet, I still would have said 'yes'. But the thing is, I have always looked at the outside techniques of what is considered 'normal' use of an instrument. What is the word in English... when the rabbit runs back and forth....? Zig-zag! This is how I play, using this zig-zag strategy to make music that nobody would expect whatsoever. In The Birthday Party and the Bad Seeds, although the music was very different, I could still play guitar without actually playing it in any conventional way. I approached singing in the exact same manner... If you don't do the 'normal thing', you are free to make discoveries, like finding I could scream while sucking in air to get a much more powerful sound to come out.” Bargeld was by no means a casual member of Nick Cave's band, but his role had diminished considerably following Murder Ballads album in 1995 when the Bad Seeds began to explore their softer side. He finally left in 2003 among rumours that he was annoyed about the direction they had taken.
“There was no quarrel between Nick and I. I left only because of my personal life, I mean I had gotten married and playing in two bands was no longer an option for me. But we are good.... There is no bad blood there.” The 'distraction' from Neubauten resulted in a much more focused Blixa, he admits. “Neubauten would not exist any more if everybody in the band wasn't busy with other things. It helps us to clarify what it is we do as Neubauten, because there are things we can only do within this band... If someone wants to go off and write music for a jeans commercial, then that's fine, but we could never do that as Neubauten.” For a band heavily reliant on improvisation, recording their albums was more a process of rehearsing as if for a live show than trying to get a perfect take. In Einstürzende Neubauten, a successful studio session is when nobody has be told to 'come in on the fourth scream'. “When we are playing together, of course it can sometimes be awful, but then you don't have to release those things. What you need to make a band like ours work is a metre level of communication which is without words. I know some bands who are able to do this well, like Can for instance, who famously improvised most of the time and the results were quite magical I think. They could sound like they were working with arrangements that had been written before, and I'm happy to say that Neubauten, when we are good, are playing like that too. We are improvising in a way that sounds like we have fully composed it beforehand and that is a very, very satisfying way of making music... using pure instinct.” Not surprisingly, in the band's beginning stages, Blixa's lack of any form of musical training was crucial to how he would ultimately function within the band.
“I had an idea that music could be anything you wanted it to be. We were very indignant about this because it meant we had no rules to follow. We knew no other way than that way, but then, you can't be involved in making music for as long as I have without learning a lot about how it is made. You can't keep approaching the guitar as if it is the first time you picked it up. I am 54 years old now, I know how to write, I know about music theory... I even have an invalid pass I can use here in Germany for the bus.” He laughs, “Also I had to learn how to produce when we made our first album. Our record company had no money to pay a engineer, and so the guy who owned the studio just showed us what buttons to push and then left. After that if a producer tried to tell me what I could and couldn't do in a studio, I would say well yes I can, I have done it before. Over time these limitations on how to make music in a studio have become silently accepted, but if you don't destroy all these rules you become enslaved by them.” Blixa says, suddenly becoming agitated. “Nobody can tell me how to record music because I have done it in ways a lot of producers wouldn't even dream of,” He adds, “and no doctors can tell me how to use or not use my voice because I have been singing like this for over 30 years, and my voice is still here.” He snorts.
In light of Bargeld's solid grasp of his own capabilities, I wonder if intentionally shocking or frightening of his audience was ever a motivation. It's hard to think not, judging by output like the 1986 collaborative conceptual film Halber Mensch, which saw Neubauten along with Japanese director, Sogo Ishii create a nightmarish, subterranean world where half-human beasties scurried about to the strains of nails-on-blackboard screeches and rattling chains. “No, I think in your more democratic, free speech Western societies, provocation is very outdated concept. I never employed that as an artistic strategy. How people react to our music, is a personal thing for them, it is not something I can control.” However, during their most intense industrial period, Blixa concedes, there was a genuine risk to one's safety coming to an Einstürzende Neubauten show. “There have only been a couple of injuries to people in the audience, but it was always accidental.” He reassures, “I have learned to know when to duck if Andrew (Chudy – percussion) is wielding some huge piece of metal around on stage, but our audience were usually in no danger at all... it was always bouncers that got pissed off with us. They thought we were just trying to destroy the place... they had no clue.” Despite their notoriety, Neubauten faced quite a lot of ignorance over their 'strategies' as Blixa puts it. At a show in America, they were booted off stage after just half hour, once the angle-grinders were wheeled out; and again when opening for U2, they were forced to pull out of their support slot on the massive Zooropa tour for 'causing an affray'.
Their intention however was never to destroy. From Berlin's shattered urban landscape, where work to mend the city was minimal at best, came the sudden, long-absent sound of men building. Neubauten could be seen as an expression of your average Berliner's feelings about their neglected environment and its constant reminder of war. The band grew fast though, and coincidentally or not, changed their approach to music almost overnight following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Blixa discusses. “There was a show we played in a haunted house in Copenhagen, where Andrew climbed up the wall at the back of the stage, and did some let's say, 'architectural improvements' by drilling into the ceiling and removing the decorations that were there, and some people saw that as an attack on their house. As a result of this, Andrew had his electric hammer stolen from our van, which we never were able to recover.” He recalls, “So from that moment on, we never had an electric drill, but we went on to find other ways of making music.” In advance of the band's first show in Australia in many years, Blixa ends our conversation by enforcing the point, Australia's popular live music venues are quite safe, and more than likely to survive his band's visit. “I hope nobody is going to be disappointed, but when they come to see us, there's won't be any fire, or anybody drilling holes in the stage or tearing down the walls... It's going to be some middle-aged men playing what I think is some pretty interesting music... not sawing their arms off or anything like that. If people want to see that, they should go and see Rammstein instead... We are NOT Rammstein!”