Neo-Nazi Fighting Digital Hardcore Musician Comes to Israel

Alec Empire explains how his music was influenced by the unification of Germany and the fall of the Berlin wall.

Nic Endo / The Hellish Vortex

Alec Empire’s childhood landscape can explain the inspiration of the man who stretched the bounds of electronic music into the realm of noise in the 1990s. Empire, who was born as Alexander Wilke-Steinhof, grew up in West Berlin in the 1970s as the son of a socialist father; his grandfather was killed in a Nazi concentration camp because of his involvement in the radical left. By the time Empire was 12, he had already started his first punk band, Die Kinder.

Empire became involved in the Berlin’s youthful rave scene in the early 1990s. But in contrast to the dominant spirit of this scene, he refused to make do with hedonistic party-going. Not only did he create one of the most scandalous electronic ensembles of the decade − Atari Teenage Riot − but he also created an entire new musical genre: digital hardcore, which combined electronic music, noise, breakbeat, techno and metal. The label he started, Digital Hardcore Recordings, became the main platform for this style. After his band broke up, Empire continued to produce solo albums in styles ranging from funk rock to electro, operating in his own musical niche.

Empire, 42, came to Israel for the Musrara Mix festival, which takes place in Jerusalem’s Musrara neighborhood every year under the auspices of Musrara’s Naggar School of Art. The festival, which opened on Tuesday and continued through Thursday, focussed this time on the theme of Analog-Epilog. On Thursday, Empire was to record a set that apparently included many selections and remixes from his band.

Today, Empire is involved in several projects, including one with Charlie Clouser, a former member of Nine Inch Nails, that combines music and film. But his main project is a new album by Atari Teenage Riot, which has reunited after a hiatus of years. He relates that in the 1990s, they began creating music on an Atari computer, inspired by a sentence written by William Burroughs to the effect that tumultuous music creates tumult.

Empire said his new album will deal, among other things, with governments’ tracking of citizens over the Internet. “We’re very aware of this, especially given the past of our country and our city, and we feel that we must cause our audience to think about this issue,” he explained.

He also said the main inspiration for his band’s establishment was Germany’s response to the rise of neo-Nazism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. “You could say we were the direct result of the fall of the wall,” he added.

Initially, Empire said, the band was happy about the prospect of discovering the city’s other half: “We felt we could connect to new people who grew up in a different culture. But after a few weeks, you already saw all the German flags all over the place again, and the politicians promoted an atmosphere of national pride. Even though there was something positive about this, it gave neo-Nazi organizations a great deal of confidence and they recruited many frustrated young people at that time. There were a lot of attacks on migrants.

“As people who were part of techno but came from punk, we felt we had to respond to the rise of neo-Nazi ideology. That’s the main reason we established the band. To this day, every time there’s a demonstration against neo-Nazism in Germany, our songs are sung by very young demonstrators, and it’s good that this music is connected with this message.”

Empire said the music was designed from the start “as slogans that people could chant at a demonstration − very clear texts like ‘hang the Nazis,’” to serve as a counterpoint to all the people who favored a moderate response to neo-Nazism. “But since then we’ve moved in another direction, and our texts are more complex today.”

Nic Endo / The Hellish Vortex