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In the late 1970s my great uncle Otto “The Whip” von Pfeiffer was involved in what is to this day considered to be the worst motorcycle crash in history. It occurred during the final lap of the Isle of Man Circuit Race. His 750cc Triumph Bonneville was reduced to carbon atoms; he not only lost his arms and legs, but as if the universe had been in a particularly whimsical mood that day, his pancreas. Consequently, Otto became the first human to successfully undergo bionic augmentation. It was during his recovery when he was haunted by fits of melancholy, nausea, agoraphobia and unreliable erections that he became close friends with Dr. Gunther Schmidt, the celebrated psychoanalyst who was director of the sexual research clinic at the University of Hamburg, where he maintains offices to this day.
Why is this relevant? When my stalwart midget manservant Adolfo secured an exclusive interview with Sascha Konietzko, the major domo and hellfire trail boss of the electra-industrial collective KMFDM in Hamburg where the group is headquartered, I entreated Schmidt to allow us the use of his “workspace” for the interview. The good doctor’s love of his peculiar area of study is eclipsed only by his burning passion for bow-hunting predatorial beasts. I knew the rooms, with their stacks of arcane, leather-bound tomes of pseudoscience alongside the multitudinous game trophies ranging from the Royal Bengal Tiger (Panthera tigris bengalensis) to the insatiable Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) would appeal to Konietzko’s sense of the ferociously absurd.
“Nothing new, it’s the same old shit. If it works this good, why fuck with it?” This dumbfounding slogan, a mix of randy self-assurance and steel-toed indifference taken from 2003’s WWIII remains the group’s maxim. The new LP, Blitz, employs their proprietary brute-force algorithm: dreadnaught guitar, half-human/half-machine drumlines, superlative samples and vocals preposterously imperative in both form and content. It has, over the last 25 years, built them a variegated, international following of crazed acolytes. I have had spirited conversations with a mathematics professor at Oxford, a Nobel Prize-winning author and a teenager named Toby who lives in a trailer down the road from me and worships Bigfoot. It seems any and all would gladly attempt a navigation of the Cape of Good Hope on a ship constructed out of butter pats if only to amuse “The Kaptain,” as Konietzko is known to friends and fans.
Composing myself in Schmidt’s “chair” which more closely resembles an arcane papal throne a la the Spanish Inquisition, Konietzko reclined on a splendid, late-1800s Jacobean-style sofa and Adolfo—always the master of the moment—set about preparing tea. As is natural in such an atmosphere, conversation turned toward beginnings…
Make the jump to read the interview…
Markus von Pfeiffer: Would you describe, in general terms, the genesis of KMFDM?
Sascha Konietzko: KMFDM began as an aural companion to an exhibition by German art-group ERSTE HILFE (First Aid) in the Grand Palais, in Paris, on February 29, 1984. It was just myself and some vacuum cleaners, bass guitars and amps. An industrial-noise project. The name I used for that specific performance was KEIN MEHRHEIT FÜR DIE MITLEID, a German pseudo-sentence/statement, in which the nouns MEHRHEIT and MITLEID were intentionally swapped causing German speakers to comment on it being “wrong,” how it should be “the other way round.” Translated into English, it means literally “no majority for the pity.” As you see, the “wrongness” translates quite well.
And so the “Kill Mother F****** Depeche Mode” myth is debunked.
SK: It was exactly this deliberate confusion and its Dada-istic roots that made me keep using the name for following art-performances. About one and a half years after the first KMFDM appearance, I met a fellow from New York who was doing some sort of artsy stuff in Hamburg, and he asked me to put together a band for a one-off concert performance. His last name was “Missing,” so the band I assembled for this purpose was aptly named MISSING FOUNDATIONS. It had never played before and would never play after that particular event. One of the two drummers I’d recruited for the line-up, later became known under the pseudonym I gave him: En Esch. The performance took place in October ’85, and halfway through, band and spectators alike were expelled from the venue by riot squads with tear gas and batons.
Subsequently, throughout 1986 I set down tracks with En Esch and Englishman Nainz Watts two stories below street level in a burnt-out bombshelter… which reeked of frozen urine. The recordings were released on vinyl in late ’86 under the abbreviated name KMFDM. The name of the album was What Do You Know, Deutschland ?.
Very few straight electric outfits make it a decade. The number thins to an infinitesimal anomaly when speaking of hybrids of the electric/electronic genus who hump it over a quarter century. Of similar qualitative stature only New Order has stood so long. To be sure there are a handful of others, but they would not win, place or show if running in the same field. All of KMFDM’s original contemporaries: Ministry, Meat Beat Manifesto, Frontline Assembly, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Skinny Puppy… have fallen flaccid, abashed and impotent under the pumping fist of time.
MvP: How have you been able to hold everything together over a quarter century? Each album seems sleeker, the overall aesthetic more refined. Do you think it is important that one member of a given band has ultimate control? Certainly, you are that end-of-the-line man in KMFDM. Was that a natural progression or a coup d’état?
SK: I see my forte as being a catalyst and visionary. I am not only the end-of-the-line man as you put it, I am also the guy who develops the ideas and has the drive and the vision to get things started in the first place. I organize everything KMFDM: the tours, the recordings, the artwork, the music—simply all of it. Without one person taking on the role of executive producer, nothing can ever work in any band. At least not over long time. I am not speaking as a control freak, at all. But when I step back, I see my bandmates looking at me and know that they trust in me that all will be taken care of, things will be ok. There’s a lot of trust and relying on each other within the band these days, something that didn’t exist before the new line-up.
MvP: There is one notable break in KMFDM’s continuum: the MDFMK project. What prompted MDFMK’s formation and consequent dismantling?
SK: KMFDM’s revolving-door concept which included a variety of guest-performers from the mid-to-late ’90s caused clamor in the ranks of the regulars and egos clashed. It became necessary to disband and continue in a different direction for a while. Tim Skold and I remained from the old rooster and added Lucia Cifarelli from the band Drill. Through this incarnation I could do the things KMFDM could not get away with, namely signing a sizeable deal with a major label and publishing company. For the MDFMK tour in 2000 we had a fourth member: a robotic guitarist named Zyclor, standing over 7-feet tall, 600 pounds of shiny metal, with dozens of actuators and miles of cable-circuits. In 2001, Skold got hired by Marilyn Manson and in 2002 I re-birthed KMFDM with a totally new line-up and dove right back into a schedule of frequent releases and massive touring.
MvP: Salvador Dali said, “It is not necessary for the public to know whether I am joking or whether I am serious, just as it is not necessary for me, myself to know.” KMFDM has always been a slippery fish to nail to the workbench. “Bitches” from Blitz is an excellent example of one of your main themes: contempt for the everyman, KMFDM as a trickster figure: “Rip the system, revolution, adding fuel to your confusion/ Gobble up the crap we feed you/ We don’t really love and need you/ We just want your cold hard cash, get our hands into your stash.” However, in other spaces of each record one can trace a system of morality, suggestions and sentiments which are perhaps offered as warnings to protect mankind from himself and the systems he has created.
SK: As serious as I am about what I do, KMFDM is never to be taken too seriously. There’s no contempt for the common man, only self-mockery and irony. KMFDM’s fans know this very well, they as well as I have a clear idea of my own common-ness, my mingling with the audiences and my groundedness, as opposed to pretent and rockstar affectedness.
MvP: Another German band, Rammstein, has a song called “Amerika.” It addresses our country’s attempt at homogenization of the world. You called the US home for quite a few years, what are your thoughts on the nearly unilateral animosity towards the states?
SK: Clearly the European view of the US has massively changed throughout the eight years of the Bush-Cheney junta abusing the country’s power. Europeans cannot understand how the people could let things go so bad for so long without at least making some efforts to change their government, i.e. impeachment. Where in the ’90s everybody was perplexed about the attempt to impeach Clinton, this time around there was nothing that showed that the citizens of the United States had any interest in what their “elected” president and his cronies were doing and how deeply it would affect their own futures. I suppose that the people are being held responsible to some degree for the governments that they empowered, or neglected to prevent from taking over the helm.
MvP: How much of the equipment you are using is shiny, new-edge 2009, and how much are pieces of equipment you’ve picked up along the way which have worked themselves into the KMFDM sound. Your guitars and vocals are particularly identifiable.
SK: There’s no shiny, new or trendy gear being used at all. The software I am using dates back to 2001, the hardware dates, in part, even back to the late ’70′s and ’80s. I’m an analog guy, I hate small screens with menu pages and presets. I love knobs and buttons, switches and plugs. I use my fingers and my ears when I create sound. My studio is full of analog synth gear, preamps, valves [tubes] and hardcore electronics.
After a long draw on my ornately carved ivory pipe, purchased with considerable expense from a Black Forrest Gypsy who claimed to be a blood relative of Rumpelstiltzkin, I reflected on the inherent paradox: old school instrumentation colliding with very modern themes and sensibilities: reactions against the centralization of government, war for war’s sake and technology complicating the human condition. Where did their production techniques fall? I decided to probe further.
MvP: Indeed. Indeed. Describe, if you would, the current recording process of a KMFDM album. The members live in all corners of the globe during down time. The coming together must be proceeded by a good deal of excitement. You’ve all known each other for some time. Must be something like family.
SK: Nowadays KMFDM albums are done without the members congregating in a physical location. Files are transferred electronically and the composing happens in a modular fashion. As a track develops we shoot it around and back and forth until it is “done.” It has the added benefit that by means of time zones we are able to cram two or more workdays into the space of only 24 hours.
‘Wormholes, the folding of space and time,’ I thought, but didn’t mention it for fear of unearthing dangerous secrets. There were vague rumors of collaboration between KMFDM and certain clandestine high-tech research and development companies. Things had gone swimmingly so far… and the last thing I needed was a tri-lingual, mohawked member of the underground aristocracy running amok, terrorizing the dingbats of academia with applied knowledge. I sank in my chair—assuming the classic brace position, arms wrapped around my knees and began to moan softly. ‘What if he made it to the Music Theory Building,’ I blanched.
MvP: The “Voice of Buddha” track on Blitz, a cover of the Human League’s “Being Boiled.” Can you give me a two-sentence explanation of that piece?
SK: Though I am not a huge fan of Human League in general, this song is one of my all-time favorites. I had this drum track developed that seemed to scream: “Use me and make a cover of Being Boiled with
And that was enough. Although drum sequences with the ability to vociferate did intrigue me, the eight-foot tall, presumably stuffed Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus) had begun to eyeball me. Or… Adolfo had put something special in my tea—I could somehow count and was receiving strange vibrations from each of its 42 teeth.
Mark this dear reader, and imagine if you dare: Time has not touched Konietzko, this being our third time in conference. Perhaps he has discovered Ambrosia, or the Fountain of Youth. A dark pact with bone-kissing voodoo priests? Oprah? I can only say that he is he as he was—both physically and mentally—when he bore the band in the mid-’80s.
Living on a rock which spins at 67,000 mph along its 600 million mile orbit of a sustained nuclear reaction, the angles of one’s fate is oft determined by chance or luck. Not so in the case of KMFDM. Their course is one of iron will, of grace and of brutality. In the end, as in the beginning, there is no doubt that Konietzko is an imperial exemplar of the Frontman caste.
As the curtain fell, joined by great uncle Otto we retired to Sunday brunch at Das Feuerschiff where Adolfo offered up a selection from his prized collection of Cuban cigars. We floated away on light jazz and champagne spritzers—our fair waitress a pink carnation cloud in bloom, attentive to each and every need.
Let us pray.