Blixa Bargeld turns up to be interviewed a little later than expected. "I'm sorry," he apologises, waving two packs of Gitanes, "but I've been all over trying to find these - I didn't realise they would be so difficult to get here." And for a throat attuned to Gallic fumes, there is no substitute for the real thing; if he's reduced to smoking the closest American equivalent, says Bargeld, he finds his consumption vastly increased in pursuit of the same hit.
Besides which, one suspects, making do with Yankee smokes would constitute a capitulation, albeit small, to the American cultural hegemony which Bargeld's band EinstÃ¼rzende Neubauten (the name means "Collapsing New Buildings", a wry comment on the poor quality of the materials with which post-war Germany tries to cover up its past) has fought against throughout its long career. From its origins in the Berlin post-punk scene of the late Seventies, Neubauten has striven to cast off the shackles of Anglo-American pop in various ways: by singing in German; by using a self-consciously European frame of cultural reference; by blurring the distinction between noise and music; and by usurping the status of commonplace instruments like guitars and drums with a fantastic array of found-sound objects, chainsaws, drills, large metal springs and girders.
To commemorate the 20th anniversary of the group's first impromptu performance on 1 April 1980, next week sees the release of Neubauten's 12th album, Silence Is Sexy. It's probably their least intimidating, most approachable work, reflecting changes in the band's personnel and working methods. Metal-banging wild-man percussionist FM Einheit and suave bassist Mark Chung have both departed (the latter, bizarrely, to a vice-presidential position with Sony), and as their replacements, guitarist Jochen Arbeit and percussionist Rudi Moser have settled into the band over the course of 70 or 80 performances, its music-making process has shifted accordingly.
Instead of working pieces out in the studio and reproducing them in a looser form in concerts, for Silence Is Sexy the band devised the tracks from repeated concert improvisations around a few stable elements. "You get better and better at doing these improvisations until you think, OK, we have a piece here that could be turned into a song for the next record," says Bargeld, adding that this is also the first time he's worked within normal song structures (despite his association with a certain Nick Cave as one of the Bad Seeds).
The results are breathtakingly beautiful in places, with Bargeld's lugubrious ruminations on art, science, love and the cosmos stroked gently into life by the band's subtle manipulations of their sound sources. The sound-palette includes the usual array of signal horns, jet turbines and industrial percussion devices, but they're applied here with a delicacy that allows them to sit comfortably alongside the sleeker tones of strings and vibraphones without rupturing a song's meniscus. The title-track makes its point through lengthy, near-silent passages of Bargeld smoking one of his beloved Gitanes, while the plastic percussion and pneumatic piston of "Zampano" lure Neubauten as close to funky as it'll probably ever get.
The stealthy, furtive manner of "Zampano" reflects its sinister subject-matter. "It has something to do with my nightmarish experiences with stalkers," explains Bargeld. "These people that terrorise me on my doorstep, that I have to call the police to get rid of - they hear my voice in their head, they think they were made for me, blah blah blah. I had that quite drastically last year. That's why it starts with 'I can barricade the door and lie in darkness for days, but they will always find a way to get in, this idiot'. But then this idiot somehow reminds me of me - they hear my voice in their head, they take a lot of what they are from my work, and in a way I'm responsible for what they are."
That a fringe artist like Blixa Bargeld can suffer the same kind of harassment as a huge star like Madonna speaks volumes about his iconic status in his native land, particularly his home town of Berlin, where in the Eighties his striking shock-headed appearance and questing spirit made him the most visible figurehead of the city's post-punk scene. "I was famous before I was famous," he acknowledges, explaining how the band was created to fulfil a one-off performance request he'd received from a club booker. "He asked me if I would like to play at his club, and if so, what it should be advertised as. I said 'EinstÃ¼rzende Neubauten', then I founded the band."
At that time, Berlin had its own peculiar social character, an "island mentality" deriving partly from its geographical isolation and partly from its demilitarised status, which made it a magnet for West German youths seeking to avoid military conscription. Since then, of course, the city's physical and mental landscape has been irrevocably altered, with the brute power of Western capital rushing in to colonise the vacuum created by the collapse of the GDR. But for Bargeld, the redevelopment of places such as Potsdamerplatz is simply another attempt to paper over the cracks of Germany's history. Once the location of the city's bustling Central Station, this area close to the Wall had, since the end of the war, been left a wasteland - an attempt to forget, rather than deny, the past, though one not without its own evocative charm.
"It was a highly charged area, full of scars, and that has completely disappeared now," he says. "That's what I'm criticising in 'The Lay of the Land' on the new album, where I sing about this historically charged area being caked up with make-up, a meaningless layer of cosmetics to make the past disappear. Germans are terrified of the past, always trying to come to terms with it, building another monument to the Holocaust victims and so on. And in the process of building this new Sony/Mercedes Benz city on Potsdamerplatz, they found the remains of the FÃ¼hrerbunker. They freaked! They didn't know what to do. They covered it all up again as fast as possible, because they were afraid it might become a place of pilgrimage for neo-Nazis, which of course is the problem they should be dealing with, rather than trying to make it disappear.
But try as they may to eradicate it, the planners of the new Germany cannot entirely stop the past rudely obtruding into their desired antiseptic present. Another construction project - appropriately, an attempt to burrow a tunnel between the new government district and Potsdamerplatz - was interrupted when the sappers stumbled across an immense, 20m-thick concrete pillar which had been built by Albert Speer as a test foundation for Hitler's planned city of Germania.
"I can hear Speer laughing now, because they have effectively built Germania for him," chuckles Bargeld. "It's not as big, maybe, but we're in a different century, fighting the information war, and you don't need to have that size of monument any more. But they've managed to cover up all of the traces of what was there before, and in 10 years it will be difficult to tell anyone where the Wall was."
It's not just Gitanes that are getting harder to find in the new Europe, it seems.Reuse content