[Q&A] KMFDM's Sascha Konietzko on art, Columbine and having balls


KMFDM are seen by most who know of them as industrail provocateurs, having turned the sloganeering of so many punk and post-punk bands into a curious critique of the form while also utilizing its tenets to its own advantage. The brainchild of Sascha Koneitzko and an ever-evolving cast of co-conspirators, this Hamburg collective seem at their most subversive simply by existing, year after year, and decade after decade, to piss off those on all sides of the line who don't get their particular brand of provocation.

The band's latest album, Kunst, their eighteenth, finds them at a high point, having re-established their reputation after a fallow period of self-examination following a 1999 breakup. That split, on the heels of then-final album Adios, was more painful than most band breakups: the album's release, on April 20, 1999, coincided with the date of the Columbine school massacre. Worse yet, investigations revealed the shooters to be KMFDM fans, with photos of them wearing KMFDM gear, websites where they quoted KMFDM lyrics, and evidence that the date of the shooting may have been timed to coincide with the release of the album. Also of note is that April 20 is Hitler's birthday-- for a quasi-German group, the fact that their music is decidedly anti-Fascist coupled with the band having lived in America for a while by that pointdid nothing to stop the media from drawing a line between the atrocities of that day and the group that was deemed an inspiration. Koneitzko eventually left the States, taking a few years to reconfigure his art and music in a darker climate.

Luckily for us, Koneitzko has been back and prolific ever since, cranking out seven full-lengths since the split, each packed to the gills with the power, humor and wit that one comes to expect from these po-mo prodigies.  They come to assault the Paradise on the 20th, and we ran this feature last week on the group-- but Koneitzko had so much to say when I reached him at his Hamburg studio the other week that didn't make the cut that I figured it was only fair to share the entire transcript; check it out:

Your new album is titled Kunst-- was that meant to be provocative to a non-German speaking audience?

Well, even though “art” means “kunst” in German, “kunst” is much more than art. You know how in different languages there are different words to translate but have slightly different meanings? Like how there are indigenous languages near the North Pole that have different words for snow-- falling snowing, blowing snow, snow on the ground, and so forth? So “kunst” has a larger meaning than just “art”. It could be, I dunno, it’s a kind of vague term-- for instance, there is degenerate art from the Third Reich where artists were put into concentration camps because their work didn’t please the ruling people. Anyway, I like those different interpretations of the word.

One aspect that I liked about naming the album Kunst is drawing the line between “Hey, here is another product to consume for brief entertainment,” and there’s a lot of work and a lot of layers and facets in this album. And for the listener that wants to delve deep and explore, they can. So it’s not just another techno bam bam boom boom thing.

Is it a struggle in music that people tend to view what you do as a product?

On the one hand, it becomes a product the longer you stick around making records. At the same time, I was to say that longer you stick around making records you get a taste of the finer varieties, the intricacies. It’s like food-- one effect can be to satiate you, but food can also be taken to very different directions, to tickle your palate for more, to make you think about things. Food and music are very similar in a sense, the process of making both is similar, and the effects of both food and music can be felt in similar parts of the brain.

Did you intend this record to be controversial?

No, I don’t think it’s meant to controversial, and definitely not for controversy’s sake. I think it’s due to the fact that we’re not doing our own artwork, but we’ve been using the same artist for all our covers for as long as we’ve been doing it, and he has his own style that brands KMFDM and really adds controversy by juxtaposing things that have little or nothing to do with the content of the album itself. And that’s something that I do enjoy, a dynamic that exists between a visual artist and musicians.

You morphed from the world of art, and performance art, into the world of music prior to the ascendancy of KMFDM. How do you feel, now, about that transition?

Back at the beginning, at the time I was interested in all types of stuff: painting, photography, performance art, all these sort of really artsy things. And then I slowly turned from making noise that accompanied art performances to being interested in studio equipment. I discovered a whole new world and I thought “This is fascinating” and I spent more and more time fiddling with sound, leaving the visual aspects more and more behind. And that’s how I transitioned. Right now, I have no visual thing, really, prevalent in my mind. Otherwise I would probably be doing films or stuff like that. I think without knowing it, music, or making sound, was maybe my vocation. I just had to go through a bit of a detour to find that out.

So it wasn’t a conscious decision to put this kind of band together?

No no no-- the first thing that was there was the name, and everything else followed suit then.

What led you to follow the direction of KMFDM in your music?

Well, I used to love music when I was a kid and I was following all these developments through the 60s and 70s into the 80s; and then when I heard things like Front 242 and D.A.F. for the first time I was like “Alright, this is finally some music i’m excited about”. Then the driving factor became to make music that was exciting to me but wasn’t made by other people. I thought “Hey, I can do this too.”

Did KMFDM form without its specific aesthetic?

it was a series of coincidences and a bunch of sheer luck, really, because we had recorded a bunch of tracks and I played that stuff to some guy that was telling me that he also had a record label and a secret facility for putting this stuff on vinyl, and it was a new adventure-- a trip to a vinyl pressing plant at 4am and bagging 500 pieces of vinyl ourselves. It wasn’t really a band at the time, it was myself and a guy who had use of the studio and a weird drummer. So it wasn’t really a band! But a little jump forward, two or three years later, and we made a couple hundred copies of vinyl and one of them got in the hand of some guy in Chicago and then we got a letter from Chicago saying “Would KMFDM be wanting to open for Ministry?” And we were like “Who?”

A few months later Al Jourgensen delayed the tour a few times, he was sick, and we were like “Yeah, this isn’t gonna happen.” There wasn’t really much excitement. But in the meantime I put together a band so that we could perform this stuff live, and then we got a plane, and then the tour happened and we were on a tour performing in front thousands of people night after night who knew who KMFDM were. Our label was Wax Trax-- and they at the time were the tastemakers for everything that was wild and queer in America. We had the sheer luck to be asked by Al to come out there and had just the right spot on the right label at the right time. In hindsight, it’s almost impossible how it all happened.

It’s a strange phenomenon that you had to come to America to find success with such European music.

That was the specialty of Wax Trax, they picked stuff up from Europe. Really, bringing all that stuff with that sound, that’s how they rode the wave. Other bands too, like Rammstein, or Scorpions, or Kraftwerk to some extent, they would have never made it without success in America. That’s a trend with bands in their own country in Europe-- you have to prove yourself at least in the UK, if not America, or else you’re nothing!

Your music has always been tied to a message-- was that always important, was music always a vessel for you to convey a message?

Well, wordsmithing was always one of the pet peeves that we had in KMFDM-- sloganeering, Dadaism, expressing, with philosophy, complete nonsense. And most of all, being very serious about what we do but not taking ourselves seriously. And that definitely set us apart from other bands who stoically and glumly went about their thing. There was always a fun factor with us, it has always been somewhat tongue in cheek.

Rock and pop has an inherent sloganeering-- I mean, Bruce Springsteen is sloganeering to a degree. But KMFDM has kind of always been aware of that, and always made fun of it while also being a part of it.

It was super-inspiring to come to the States for the first time, because here was a place that we could make fun of where nobody would even know that we were making fun of it. Humor is hard to explain, and it’s not as if we’re laughing at people-- we’re laughing with them.

You have a song on your new album about Pussy Riot-- why do you feel like what they did, what they represent, is important?

I just admire their courage, really. I think it’s pretty damn ballsy to do that whole Punk Prayer thing. I mean, they did some actions before that that weren’t all that thought out and more like very punky-- like that one with the chick having sex with the frozen chicken in the supermarket. That sort of thing made the rounds through the media here and I was like “This is funny and very punky”. But this punk prayer in the church, I was like “Holy crap, they’re going to get a jail sentence from hell,” and they did. That took balls. I mean, I have never been a situation where I was like “If I do this, am I gonna go to jail,” and I’m kind of grateful for that. I don’t know if I’d be man enough to spend a few years in a hard labor camp! But that’s another story.

That whole thing to me is like “What’s the role of art?” and “What’s the role of one artist in society if they take an extreme action?”

Yeah, it’s just really fascinating to see someone take something on in a big way in a country like Russia, where freedom of speech is not a freedom admired by the government. The harder the circumstances, the more of a risk people take, and the more it blows out all over the world when something goes bad. I mean, in Germany, someone could do something like that and no one would give a shit. You could go in any church and do a concert and people would say “Oh, they’re just kids!” So yeah, to fight this kind of opression, I have to say it again, it takes balls. Now that I think of it, maybe I should have just called the album “Balls”!

In Germany, we’re always called an American band-- although we have one American and one German.

And you’ve lived in America for a long time.

Yes. But the sound of KMFDM is completely recognized as not German. There is a plethora of German bands who make music in the genre of dark techno/goth/whatever, btu KMFDM has never found its place. I’ve been back here [in Germany]f or a good five years,a nd-- well, we do play these festivals, but we don’t necessarily fit in. I don’t think it’s a process of assimilation-- We’re just different. Maybe maybe twenty years in America has changed me and made me not German. I may not be an American, but I’m not a German anymore!

Are bands supposed to assimilate to their surroundings?

Well, we definitely did assimilate into the American music scene. I think that America basically asks something of people who go there. Think about all the people from Ireland or Italy or whatever, they had nothing more to do than become Americans as quickly as possible to the extent that they didn’t teach their children their native languages anymore. To be an American means you want to assimilate because it is perceived as a wonderous place, perhaps even a wonderful place. And the whole dodge of dishwasher-to-millionaire comes to mind-- it happened to me in a way; I’m not a millionaire, but I’m not a dishwasher anymore.

But is that America?

Well, look, I was so skeptical when I first came to the States, I didn’t know if I even wanted to go there, I thought I’d seen it all on television. And I was completely blown away. I was entirely in love until Columbine happened-- and then a giant shitstorm came down on KMFDM and I thought “Oh, oh oh oh, I see it now.” And then with Bush and 9/11 and stuff, that’s when it got pretty nasty. But for a while, in the 90s, what a wonderful time we had.

Yeah-- the 90s were kind of like all the problems of the world, at least as far as America was concerned, were tabled for ten years.

Right, we all went and bought laptops and upgraded our computers every six months, and there was entertainment, culture, arts. And then-- blammo.

It’s interesting that you mention Columbine-- I was a high school teacher at the time, when that happened, and it really was a big instant change. At the school I taught at, the climate changed just like that-- people were instantly more fearful and suspicious.

And it’s been pretty bad ever since. Like the most recent school shooting with the twenty kids. It’s so horrible.

By then you had lived in America for a while-- did all of that expose you to a side of America you hadn’t seen before?

Well, I guess I was aware of that side of America, but to have it turn against me was terrible. I didn’t write a manifesto, it isn’t my fault if some deranged kids picked, like, once sentence out of one song and one sentence out of another song and built a manifesto, you know? But of course, it was the crappiest feeling I’ve ever had when I saw pictures of one of the kids wearing a KMFDM hat. It made my balls tingle bad. And the next thing I saw was my face on some America’s Most Wanted thing.

Do you feel like that experience changed your art significantly?

It may not have changed the output, but it definitely changed the process, because that sort of caution fills up sometimes and I have to rationalize to myself “I’m not doing anything horrible, and I cannot let fear or concern censor what I really want to put across.” Because what I want to put across is good. It is, literally, freedom of speech, things like ideals, in a perfect sense: respect thy neighbor, don’t ruin the environment, we’re all sitting in one boat, etc. But you know, everything can be misinterpreted.

Rock culture always has to walk this line, doesn’t it? One the one hand, giving a positive message, on the other hand, trying to light this fire. It’s hard sometimes to walk the line.

Well, there are two bands: one that preaches to the converted, and the other is the type part of things, going places. I don’t need to be an artist to take the stage, basically.

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