Q&A with Vaughn Harris of Nitzer Ebb
Nitzer Ebb, from Essex, England, helped to define the musical style called EBM with its heavy industrial rhythms and stark vocals. As with emo, another much-maligned genre, EBM started out as a vital and relevant music whose pioneers never chose to name with a blanket term to encompass a music that didn't fit within strict boundaries. Ebb's landmark debut full-length, That Total Age, displayed a feisty aggression and defiance couched in stark yet eminently danceable music that sounded equal parts industrial and punk rock. With each new release, Ebb explored another facet of its evolving sound until it split in 1999. For the next seven years, Ebb became something of a surprise hit with club DJs and their audiences, and Nitzer Ebb remixes, as well as the originals, gave the project a newfound popularity with fans who had not been previously exposed to the band's classic, electro-Teutonic chants. Ebb is now embarking on its first extensive tour in a decade, promoting its upcoming album, Industrial Complex. We were able to have a few words with co-frontman Vaughn "Bon" Harris about Ebb's development, his musical upbringing and the new record.
Westword (Tom Murphy): The early incarnation of the band seemed to have a more mystical orientation. But with That Total Age, there was a severe aesthetic in the songwriting and cover art that suggested the imagery of socialism. That may have been merely a shift in how you presented your ideas but what prompted and informed that shift?
Vaughn Harris: I think that it was that we were, like a lot of people, a product of the environment we were living in. At the time we were starting the band, we were well into Margaret Thatcher's reign -- a conservative government in England. Times were very tough. There was a real sort of pitched battle between...it was like a class war, really. Working class and unions against the landed gentry. World War II was still very fresh in everyone's mind. My parents and grandparents talked about it. So we were very aware of the social and political atmosphere and I think we liked the idea that we were put upon and besieged by authoritarian figures, rules and what have you.
The whole idea that we presented these austere, organized, almost militaristic images, even though we were just youths on the street, it sort of implied we were organized in our thinking, that we were disciplined about how we were going to go about getting our point across and standing up for what we stood up for. It was quite a time of upheaval and some violence and we did have to, in order to not be pushed to one side or overruled by someone, put on quite a strong image. So I think that's where a lot of that stuff came from. Plus we were very into the idea of creating imagery and very graphic minimalism. It was a combination of things that fell into place and felt right for that time and for that environment.
We were looking for a different way to express ourselves. Something that was a bit new but something that felt relevant to the time we were living in. The times seemed quite stark and bleak in some ways.
WW: One thing I've always loved about Nitzer Ebb is how you fused the confrontational aspects of punk rock and experimental electronic music not unlike The Screamers in the 70s and more recent bands like Birth! and Realicide. How did that sort of approach form and evolve as the band developed?
VH: We'd always been mongrels musically. My parents were quite young so they were into your Fats Domino and Little Richard and all that kind of stuff. My grand parents liked swing and big band music. My brother was into funk, James Brown and soul music and things like that. As a small kid, I was growing up with that stuff throughout the 70s. Gary Glitter and T. Rex and all the glam rock -- Bowie stuff. By the time I was old enough to make my own musical choices and not sort of soaking up parents' and siblings' stuff. Punk rock was just about breaking '76-'77.
As that went through and during that whole period is when I first heard "I Feel Love" by Donna Summer. I was just intrigued by that sound, that complete electronic sound. I loved it. Later on, when I got to making music in the band we were very into the immediacy and edginess of punk but we loved electronic music so it was sort of our mission to try and combine those two things. We really didn't see any boundaries. It still does sometimes get constrictive when people talk about us being an electronic band or this kind of band or that kind of band. We're a band, you know [laughs]. Again, we were a product of our environment. We were all working class kids, we just wanted to get on with it. We were bored and like a lot of teenagers we didn't have a massive attention span so it had to start working quickly otherwise we probably would have lost interest.
WW: How would you describe the sound on Industrial Complex as compared with your earlier work and when do you expect its release?
VH: I'd say soundwise, we were very conscious going into make the record that we'd had a hiatus of ten years. There were five albums that have become entrenched in the fans' minds. They're all very different from That Total Age right to The Big Hit. We always tried, every time we went in to do an album, "How can we do this differently, how can we push the envelope a bit more." And just keep pushing the boundaries of what's possible what to do. So we were aware that we had to encapsulate those twelve years in five albums in a comeback album.
You almost feel like you're damned if you do, you're damned if you don't. If you go back to your basics, you could be plagiarizing yourself or making music that's no longer relevant to you at the age you're at or what have you. So we decided to approach it creatively in a similar way that we did when we first started. We had very minimal instruments. We didn't allow ourselves tons of stuff to choose from because we didn't want it to get overproduced and overcomplicated in the beginning.
In a lot of ways we did go back to our roots. It was very simple. It was very direct. And I think that worked. The earlier tracks reminded me of stuff we would have done on That Total Age and Belief just because it was created in such a minimal way. And all we really had was very minimal musical forces and the emotions of the moment -- that's what those two albums were all about. So it started that way and we laid a foundation we felt captured Nitzer Ebb's pure essence, if you like, and once we'd written quite a few songs that way, we allowed ourselves to experiment a bit more and maybe do some tracks that were more sophisticated and melodic and we progressed from there. I think it's got a really good mix of, for want of a better word, "old school" or "hardcore" basic Ebb sound with enough there to glimpse into the future and a more wide-ranging sound.
WW: What were you able to do on the new album that you weren't able to on previous releases?
VH: I think it's not so much a case of what we were able to do but how we were able to do it. Albums used to be quite torturous affairs for us to do. It was good in a lot of ways. We really knew nothing about music and on top of that we weren't really interested in making music that was particularly conventional - with conventional instruments or with conventional sounds. So we really couldn't have made it harder for ourselves in the early days. But I think it was very pleasurable this time around. In the intervening years I'd done a lot of production work for people like Billy Corgan and Marilyn Manson.
I went back to school to learn to score for a full symphony orchestra. I was able to bring that experience back into making an Ebb record. It was more like how I used to read about how bands used to have challenges in the studio that they relished solving and we used to have nervous breakdowns at the time. But this time it was much more like if you found a musical problem that stymied us, it was good fun to figure out the alternatives and figure out how it was going to work. There were a few tracks that were real head scratchers but for the most part it was one of the most enjoyable albums I've ever made. The creative environment was laid back and fun but edgy enough to not feel complacent. We focused on making good art every day.
We're bringing a limited edition CD on the road with us that will only be available at the shows -- a kind of preview. Because of the way the industry is, it's a bit of jigsaw puzzle trying to figure out how we're going to release it -- different licensees, different territories. There wasn't really anything for the US until someone stepped in and said they really wanted to do a version of the CD while we were on tour. For the rest of the world there will be a combined release in January concurrent for when we go out on the road with Depeche Mode.
WW: What was the catalyst for the recent reunion, this tour and the new album?
VH: Douglas got in touch with me, sent me an email, and said that he'd been doing some shows with FixmerMcCarthy. Because Douglas had been doing some live shows in Europe, people were asking about the Ebb and if there was any chance of the Ebb every doing shows again. Douglas said he doubted it because he and I hadn't spoken for seven years at that point. But he called me and it just so happened that I had been doing a lot of studio projects and was looking for a change of pace.
So he caught me at the right time and I said, "Let's meet up and talk about it." Mute had been working on doing a Best Of release as well and we spoke to them and the idea was that that would give Mute the push to finish the Best Of and we would do a handful of shows to promote it and that was going to be it. When we got back together and did the shows, we were having such a good time with it and the response was so good and the demand was there and we decided to see what happens and here we are three years later with a new album. It's been interesting because there have been long-standing fans who have been at the shows but there has also been a whole crop of people, younger kids in their early twenties who have only heard the hand-me-down tales and have got the records and stuff but have never seen us. For a lot of people it's kind of a strange thing and with Depeche Mode a lot of people in Europe are going nuts because that's kind of their dream team show.
You asked about the impetus, there was always the feeling of unfinished business, a premature ending to everything so I think in a lot of ways this is coming full circle for a lot of people whether or not we decide to continue years from now.
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