2009 marks the 25th anniversary for industrial/electronic rock band KMFDM, but founding member Sascha Konietzko feels that it’s “really just another year in an ongoing love affair.” In a phone interview from Germany, the ever prolific Konietzko discussed the new KMFDM album (“Blitz”), covering the Human League, his creative process, and more.
Having done music for so long, do you ever listen to and perhaps get inspired by your older work?
I don’t really. For me, honestly, when I’ve made a record I’m usually so done with it that I don’t want anything to do with it for a long time! [laughs] Then it happens, after a couple of years–I’ll hear something and think ‘what is that?’ Then ‘oh, shit, it’s a KMFDM song!’ It’s interesting, but I don’t really look back at what I’ve done before in order to get new ideas. It’s exciting enough to really come up with new stuff.
Are there any older albums that new fans catching up on KMFDM seem to particularly get into?
Well the one thing that really comes to mind is something I hear a lot. ‘I got turned on to you guys by so and so, that was 2 months ago, and by now I own 5 of your albums. There doesn’t seem to be much of a middle ground. I don’t think a lot of people think of KMFDM as mediocre. You can only really hate it or love it. There is no middle ground – if you don’t like it then you absolutely dislike it.
Looking back, is there anything that you think KMDFM tried musically that didn’t quite work?
Well, I would say this. When I spend a couple of hours on something and I don’t think it’s going in the right direction, it usually means for me to abort it. Just like anyone else, I want to see results and I want to be rewarded. If I fiddle around with some idea and it doesn’t work to get, say, this triplet to work with a 4 on the floor kind of thing no matter how I try, it just doesn’t work, then usually it’s the trash bin. On the other hand there are sometimes tricky things that take some time, but I have a feeling they will work. I’m not sure how, but it’s not a dead end. Often times it happens in such a away that an ingredient gets made or found or whatever for one specific track or an idea, and it becomes the new focus of it. So I’m willing to throw the rest of the stuff overboard to accommodate the new idea. That happens actually quite a bit.
You’re calling from Germany – are you based there now?
Yeah, I left Seattle about a year and a half ago. I just wanted to have European soil under my feet.
How has that changed things with the band?
It’s not really all that different. When we all used to live in Seattle we’d get together mostly for BBQs or riding a speed boat on Lake Washington. We wouldn’t really get together to make music together. Because I always feel it’s a waste of time sitting with many people in one room watching one guy play a guitar or program a synth patch. So for that reason and also reasons of efficiency I always preferred to be in my own room by myself while the other guys are working in their own rooms by themselves. Or whichever way they want. The way it kind of happened this time was a little different in that it took a long time for the rest of the band, besides Lucia and myself, to come up with ideas and tracks. So by the time they did, a lot of the album was already written and recorded and in the finalizing stages. So without really thinking about how to approach this one differently from the others, the approach kind of happened without my own doing, which was very interesting. We had made a couple of albums that, not withstanding what I was saying about being in the same room, were very much band-type records. There were a lot of aspects that those guys brought to the table, they come from more of a British rock background where as I come from more of a German electronic kind of thing. So the scales have shifted, inadvertently, on this one again.
What made you cover the Human League’s “Being Boiled”?
When I start a record or a song, the first stage is also screwing around with lots of sonic bits and bobs. For example, I dig up all kinds of drum machines and run them through all sorts of chains and distortion units and what not. I came up with this one loop that instantly made me feel that it sounded somewhat reminiscent of ‘Being Boiled’ by the Human League. It kind of stuck around, and didn’t get thrown away, I listened to it again and thought ‘this really is the beginning of a Being Boiled cover,’ so that’s what it became. It made its way. I’m not a huge fan of Human League, but that one song is definitely one of my favorites of all time.
Have you seen the public perception of electronic music change since KMFDM first emerged?
Of course I remember the times when people were saying, ‘oh, electronic music, computers do it? You just make the computers do it? That’s not really music.’ But my answer was always ‘yeah, that’s what you say. You don’t stand for hours in front of a wall of modular synthesizers and come up with patches. Or minutely program a computer to do exactly what you want it to do.’ I’m just that way. I’m not interested anymore in playing the guitar or the bass guitar or anything. I drifted off more and more into electronic music. And when I say electronic, I really distinguish analog electronic music. I’m not a fan of digital keyboard machines that are loaded with presets and you just dial up a sound. I like to make my own stuff. That’s really the bones of my craft.’
How much time would go say goes into creating the sounds, as opposed to composing with them?
One leads into the other. I always like to compare what I’m doing with cooking. The part where I’m making the sounds is when you go to the market and buy those things that you see that you think are fresh and appealing to you that day. As you take them home and familiarize yourself with them a bit more, you kind of go ‘alright, I’m going to throw in this with that and I think it’s going to taste pretty good.’ And you taste it and taste it again and at some point say ‘alright, I think this dish is done.’ It takes over. The lead is not in my court so to speak; the parts get a life of their own. Obviously I’m the one that puts things to life, but once they exist they kind of dictate how the melange kind of goes and what are the more overpowering ingredients and which are accompanying. I’m waxing poetic! [laughs]
Are there any ways the process of creating this album differs from previous release?
Well there was a bit of delay between the starting point of the album and the time that my bandmates other than Lucia started contributing to it. Everybody in the current lineup of KMFDM, the five of us, is on this album, but in different ways than on previous albums. Like Andy was doing a bit of programming rather than drumming, Steve was purely playing guitar and not programming. So it was interesting. We also got Cheryl Wilson from Chicago to sing on one track. That just came about in a similar way. Lucia had written the lyrics and the melodies and at some point we just looked at each other and thought ‘this is something that really Cheryl Wilson should do. She would be the perfect collaborator on this track and we’ll do a duet between Lucia and Cheryl. But we kept it in the family. There are no outrageous collaborations with this one. As there haven’t been on the past 3 or 4 albums either. I’m pretty much done with the revolving door policy. For now.
At what point to do you generally have an idea of what the overall sound or mood of an album will be?
I don’t. If you ask me now that it’s done, what do I think about it, is it cohesive? I couldn’t tell you. The last thing that I do is determine the sequence of the songs on the album. Which is a good first and last song? What’s in the middle? I fill the slots so to speak, and give it a good listen and I check out transitions and that short of thing. And at that point it goes off to mastering, I’ll give it a quick check to make sure everything sounds as it was intended to sound and that mastering hasn’t really changed anything. Then I put it away and don’t touch it until we rehearse some of the songs to be played live.
What are your touring plans?
We have two European tour legs lined up right now. One starts in the last days of May and goes three or four weeks in Europe. The second leg is about a month later–a couple of festivals and shows in England, a couple of shows in Germany, Holland I believe. And then in late September we’re going to be hitting the US.
I think I’m fairly happy with the way things are going. I would hate to have to play stadiums. It’s just not my thing. On the other end I don’t really like small clubs either, I’m too tall for the ceilings. So I think the type of venues that we play usually are perfect, and there are so many of them. You always have a nice choice.
Last time I interviewed you we talked a bit about the use the internet as a promotional and distribution tool. What are your current feelings on it?
I can say that KMFDM was one of the first bands who utilized the internet as a way to have direct interaction with fans. On the other hand, I have to say that I hate typing, and I have not gotten any better since the onset of online communications. So I’m typing with two big poking fingers! I really like Skype because I can just talk to people. I prefer the phone over typing email, for sure.
What about online music distribution?
It’s become a large part of the volume that the people who sell KMFDM’s music achieve that by. Metropolis tells me that nearly 60% of their sales are now digital sales as opposed to physical sales. I think it’s great, the way that it’s changing all the time. The advent of mp3 technology of course led to internet piracy, which was underrated by a lot of people. The fact is that that a lot of record labels did not realize the powers and dangers of this new technology, and now they are gone. The people who worked there are jobless and the music scene in general has shrunken because money that had been earned up until that point is not being earned anymore. And therefore there is not that much money anymore being pumped into a fresh gene pool keeping a large variety of music alive. We’re seeing the effects of that now 10, 12 years later. I’m not going to be sitting here bemoaning the good old days, I’m going with the flow. I’m making music for people who appreciate it, and I appreciate the people who come to out concerts. I’m not really interested in being a mega seller and having a hit and being gone. I like what I’m doing, and I like the way I’m doing it. As long as I can facilitate that, I’m fairly happy I think.
As a music fan, what do you personally think of it?
Well, there are a couple of things I have to say about that. Personally, I cannot enjoy listening to music that has been compressed in an mp3 format. Especially with music that I’ve made myself, I hear how it changes the sound and how it actually eliminates a lot of the frequency bandwidth. Therefore, I’m not one who runs around with an iPod and constantly scours music on the internet to add to my player. I think that even if I’d do that, I would still miss the tactile sensation of holding a booklet in my hands. Because if I’m listening to music and I like it, then I instantly take the booklet and I check out who produced it, who mastered it. That kind of stuff. Maybe I find some names that I know. This tactility is not there [with downloads]. I’m not a believer of reading books with a Kindle or something like that. A book to me is a sensual kind of thing. When I buy a new book, I enjoy feeling crispness of the paper, and I like the smell of the ink. Call me old fashioned, but for me, I like vinyl and large format and tactile. The same with my music. I don’t like to work with machines where I have to go through tons of backlit LCD screens and pages and read the find print. I like things that have big knobs, glowing lights, and toggle switches where my hands can feel the sensation. In fact, just before I called you, I was putting together a big modular synth and looking at tons of knobs and toggle switches and lights. And I realized that I must have done something wrong, because the lights look like they spell ‘alarm’ ! [laughs]
Do you think it is shifting the emphasis away form albums, since people can listen to and buy individual songs?
Oh, that was something I forgot in my tirade here. The other thing that totally goes against my grain is that when I’m putting together an album, there’s a method to it. An album is not this song and that song; an album is the entirety of it. So yeah, to me it’s counterproductive if I make albums and people just buy one or two songs. First of all, it’s not doing justice to the piece. And secondly, I usually find that with great albums there is not a track I want to skip. Obviously a lot of people would go ‘oh, KMFDM, I love this song but the rest of the album is crap.’ To me, as that might be, the intention I pursue is that it is an album. There’s a reason why this song follows that song, and why this gap is short and the next gap between songs is longer. So yeah, it’s kind of like going to a buffet and just eating the raisins out of the cereal. I’m not one to dictate how consumers should consume, they have their own way, and that’s fine. But it could potentially change the way I work, in that I’d make a song and then when I’m happy with it I just put it up and people can check it out and buy it. Then I’ll do another song, maybe not do albums anymore. That ultimately might become how I work. I haven’t really thought about it too much to this point. But now that I think about it, maybe that’s a different yet interesting way to work. Just focus on one thing, and then go like ‘here, check this out.’ To me, the anticipation as an avid fan of certain projects of many years, I anticipate a new album just as I anticipate some movies. I can’t wait, and I will go and check them out. My motto is always live life to the fullest, and certain things just can’t be substituted.