Laibach on the Danger of Comfort and the Power of Science Fiction

Slovenian industrial band Laibach return to the Gothic Theatre this Saturday, May 23rd for its first show in Denver in over a decade. The group, comprising  cultural provocateur and multi-media artists will share the bill with Ministry.

Whereas the latter came up in a relatively free cultural climate in Denver and Chicago, Laibach got going in Trbovlje, Slovenia, a city in communist Yugoslavia. The band courted a bit of controversy by naming itself after the German name for the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana, during the time it was part of the Habsburg Monarchy and later during German occupation.

Laibach was banned from using its name and from performing in public following an infamous 1983 incident during which the band projected a penis and an image of Yugoslavian leader Josip Broz Tito simultaneously on screens at a performance. The projections of a pornographic movie and a controversial political film during that same show didn't help either.

By mid-decade, Laibach found an audience in Western Europe and beyond as legendary BBC DJ Joh Peel recorded the band live in studio and otherwise championed the group's music with airplay. It's 1987 third album, Opus Dei broke it into the international music world with coverage on MTV. Laibach's interpretations of music written by other bands is as fascinating as its original material because it is a true recontextualization or appropriation and transformation to enhance the meaning and impact of the song.

The martial beat and epic tone of Laibach's music and its genius for crafting an art concept using music and visuals has proven influential. It's work can be humorous or taken seriously at the same time. Like comedian Andy Kaufman, Laibach doesn't break character, and it has consistently, masterfully blurred the line between distinct categories of thought and artistic expression. What seems simple is simple but is also imbued with multiple meanings, all correct.

Many will recognize the sound of Laibach through Rammstein, a popular industrial rock and performance art group it directly influenced. But any band with a strong image and a creative social commentary since owes a bit of a debt to what Laibach established at a time and a place when it was genuinely dangerous to do so.

We recently had a chance to send some questions on to the band about some of its work in and with film, its perspective on Whistleblowers and its relationship with famous Slovenian philosopher and cultural commentator, Slavoj Žižek.

Tom Murphy:
 Did you actually work as soldiers in the film Full Metal Jacket? How did that come about and did you ever get to discuss ideas about imagery and music with Kubrick? He clearly used his own chosen form of art to make a rich commentary on the human condition beyond merely the medium of film?

Laibach: Yes, we were soldiers of fortune in Full Metal Jacket. It was a pure coincidence - if you believe in coincidences; Kubrick was looking for extras, performing as soldiers and we were in London at that time and had nothing else to do. We already looked like soldiers, dressed in military uniforms and behaved like soldiers. We joined his ‘army’, along with friends from the group Last Few Days, with whom we did the Occupied Europe Tour '83. We saw Kubrick on the set, met him briefly, but, unfortunately, there was no chance to get into a proper talk with him back then. It was a pleasure to be part of that film.

How did you come to work on music for Iron Sky and why did working on the project appeal to you?

Iron Sky film director Timo Vuorensola wanted to work with us from the very start, because he and the other creators of the film were inspired by Laibach when they started to put the idea for Iron Sky together - apparently in the Finnish sauna, where all great ideas are born in Finland. They approached us first a few years ago when we were on tour in Scandinavia. Later Timo visited Slovenia and we had several meetings before we decided on the final collaboration. We liked the idea of the film a lot - Nazis on the moon, that’s interesting enough by itself, isn’t it? In fact this film has many layers; it strongly relates to Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, an extremely important film that basically works through persiflage and uses - for us - very relevant (and very Laibachian) method of ‘over-identification’. Even the structure and narration in both films are similar. Chaplin released The Great Dictator in 1940 and although it was banned in many parts of Europe, it represented the beginning of the end of Hitler’s era. (Hitler himself was a big fan of Chaplin and his moustaches, and definitely saw the Great Dictator, but his reaction to it was not recorded).

You have done a great deal of re-working songs written by other artists and even got a sanction from Paul McCartney for re-doing his own old band's music. What process do you go through to secure the right to do your own version of that music or do you even bother to do so? Why or why not?

Back in the '80s, we didn’t bother to deal with permissions – we just did our versions without asking and we were lucky – everybody liked these interpretations, including, apparently, Paul McCartney himself. For us Beatles, Rolling Stones and all other music was always a historic material that we could use or refer to and we built our own ‘pyramid’ with it. We practiced appropriation as a relevant and legitimate artistic method. Today, the whole of popular culture, economy and politics – not to mention the banking business - is based on the appropriative principles.

Your covers are performed in a fashion that could never really be imitated by another artist in neither the musical of performance sense. Is this something you have intentionally done and do you do cover songs much these days that you haven't done before?

We don’t produce covers, we produce interpretations. That’s a similar principle as working on theatrical (or film) interpretations of old classic texts. Of course, other artists have great difficulties imitating Laibach, because Laibach already imitates itself so successfully.

When you were banned in Yugoslavia did you find that you had allies or comrades in art in a communist country among musicians, artists and philosophers in the USSR, Romania, Hungary etc.? For instance with an underground musician like Yegor Letov whose own music and ideas sparked controversy as well?

Yes, there was the whole independent scene backing us up in Slovenia and ex-Yugoslavia, as well as further in the East and in the West, especially when we did our first extensive Occupied Europe tour in '83 as our reply to the ban. But support was actually not that great among musicians themselves, it came more from the uprising civil society, journalists and philosophers like Slavoj Žižek.

“The Whistleblowers" is partly a nod to Edward Snowden and Julian Assange. What do you feel is the importance of whistleblowers and what ways do you think that at this time might be a creative and effective way to challenge the type of consensus and oppression that both of those men did?

Whistleblowers are important because they are ‘blowing their whistles’ while others are still sleeping, so to say, and the catastrophe is already around the corner. With Internet surveillance programs such as PRISM, MUSCULAR, Xkeyscore and Tempora, privacy, as we know it, practically does not exist anymore. In fact, the whole logic of Internet communication (social networks, search engines, electronic commerce companies, etc…) is abolishing privacy, and even abolishing the illusion of it. Governments are helpless and they basically exist only to support and protect the corporative capital, and that is the real problem. We can easily compare the rise of information fascism today with racial fascism during the rise of Nazism in '30s Germany, when people didn't do anything against it (they even quietly supported it) until it suddenly knocked on their doors – but that was already too late. In fascism, you are either incorporated or excommunicated (and probably soon also cremated…)

Your music and art are a creative, wide-ranging commentary on culture, the nature of entertainment and politics. It is reminiscent of the work of Slovenian philosopher and media critic Slavoj Žižek. Have you had a chance to collaborate with him on a creative piece? Would you want to? Why or why not?

We actually lived in the same house with Slavoj Žižek in Ljubljana in the early '80s and collaborated quite a lot between 84 – 94’. He was also our guest on two Laibach shows at Berlin’s Volksbuehne Theatre in 1993. Later we just couldn’t find the right time to do a project together. Slavoj simply became too busy with his public performances and so did we, and maybe it is better like that. What Slavoj does with his lectures, we basically do with our concerts, and we are in a way still very much connected through the method that we both created back in the ‘80s.

What is the peril of the principle of satisfaction?

That you can actually get satisfied — the biggest threat for freedom is always satisfied slaves.

Death In June was partly constructed as an embodiment of a statement of how the radical left in England could be a monster against those that don't tow the strict party line. Douglas Pearce has developed that imagery and a persona to match that has also resulted in his not being able to perform in various countries. Have you had similar difficulties in being able to perform internationally? Why do you feel you are able to avoid a situation like that?

Yes, we had difficulties performing in different cities and states – as a matter of fact we are at the moment forbidden in Russia, and once in the '80s we were even refused entrance to the USA for claiming that we are members of the communist party. Militant Catholic organization Opus Dei was trying to reach a ban on our 1987 Opus Dei album in Germany and we were unwanted in Paris and France for almost ten years – but we overcame those difficulties and with our persistence we succeeded in performing in most places we wanted to. Laibach simply knows no defeat on the field…

"Resistance is Futile" references the Borg from Start Trek: The Next Generation? What about that concept fascinates you?

“Resistance is Futile” is a totally self-referential song. Over-identification principle, appropriation, assimilation – all these are parts of the Laibachian strategy and method of operation. We assimilate everybody and everything; we can even assimilate every difference of opinion. Just like the Borg.

There are elements of the less obvious science fiction works out there (i.e. Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker and Solaris, Orwell's 1984, Margaret Atwood, J.G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick and Vonnegut) in your music and art. Why do you think science fiction is a good vehicle of expression for your music, performances and public personae?

Science fiction is a really good source of inspiration for Laibach; science is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe and it has always been closely linked to philosophy. And fiction is a content that is derived from imagination. In this relation, fiction is questioning science and science is doing the same in return, so in dialectical terms they are a perfect couple. We use the same dialectics in Laibach, but the main objective for us to refer to science fiction is the fact that sci-fi has often been used to focus on political or social issues, and to explore philosophical issues like the human condition. And that’s what we, Laibach, specialize in.

If you'd like to contact me, Tom Murphy, on Twitter, my handle is @simianthinker.
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Tom Murphy is a writer, visual artist and musician from Aurora, Colorado. He was a prolific music writer for Westword and a documenter of the Denver music scene.