Blixa Bargeld: “Being on a tour is very much like working on an oil rig platform in the North Sea”.
For once, and without serving as a precedent, we in Spain have beaten the UK to the publication of a book that has, in principle, music as its central theme. It is Europe. Una letania, the book written by Blixa Bargeld, the leader of Einstürzende Neubauten and Nick Cave’s former right-hand man in the Bad Seeds for more than twenty years, in 2008 and originally published in German – Europa kreuzweise: Eine Litanei – a year later, and which appeared in Spain, with translation by Rubén Ortega Díaz, in the small publishing house Hurtado & Ortega, in 2018. It has taken almost four years for the book to see the light of day in English – Europe Crosswise: A Litany – published by Contra Mundum Press.
It is worth the excuse of the English edition to rescue from the archive the telephone interview with Blixa Bargeld that I conducted in March 2019, to talk about Europa. Una letanía, a curious story in which, in an apparent road book format, he shows his love for haute cuisine while leaving loose brushstrokes on his vision of Europe, with the result of the Brexit referendum still astonishing the rest of the continent. The date of the interview should always be taken into account for all time references.
The first thing Blixa wants to make clear to me, based on what he seems to have been asked over and over again, is that the book was originally published by the Austrian publisher ResidenzVerlag in 2009, barely a year after the events narrated in it.
The second thing the Einstürzende Neubauten leader wants to emphasise is that Europe: A Litany “is not a travel diary. At least fifty percent of it is fictional”. The clarification, in reality, clarifies nothing, because, at first glance, the book does seem to be the tour diary that the band made during the European tour to present Alles wieder Offen (2007): it shows the weariness of the road despite travelling in an air-conditioned bus in great detail, where neither television nor wifi are missing, and interspersed with memories of those same places visited twenty-five years earlier, when comforts didn’t exist. To finish off the sense of routine and tedium, there is none of the typical rock’n’roll way of life: no sex, no drugs, no music. On the contrary, Bargeld offers us the list of songs performed at each stage of the journey: a list that is repeated over and over again, practically unalterable. The monotony it conveys comes precisely from the subtitle of the book: A Litany. Blixa explains: “A litany is a prayer that someone recites and that others repeat or answer. And it is also a long, monotonous list or enumeration. That’s why the book is ‘so flat’. If I had to define it in musical terms, it would be a loop with no beginning and no end. You can go in and out at any time. There is always a succession of recurring elements: the bus, the venue, the soundcheck, the concert, the hotel and the bus again. That goes on for months. It’s just movement: no reflection, no opinion, just a constant ‘now’. I didn’t want to make a typical tour diary: I wanted to play with the possibility of creating a potentially infinite text that would represent the movement of a concert tour”.
The third thing is that he is a little fed up with the book being interpreted as the personal evolution of a former anarchist turned elegant hedonistic dilettante (who buys his shoes in Italy – “but I have very few” – a country, too, which he admits is the only one where he drinks coffee…), because of the succession of experiences he has had in his life. ), for the succession of gastronomic experiences (in restaurants with and without Michelin stars) that he details, including the taxi journey (there and back) from Barcelona to Roses to visit ElBulli, still open at the time and ranked number one in the list of the prestigious British magazine The Restaurant?
“I have long been accused of being a traitor,” Bargeld admits. It’s also true that I stopped being a squatter a long time ago, but that doesn’t change my political beliefs. I don’t think at the moment that the Berlin squatters’ movement was a bad thing. And I don’t have to dress up to be accepted by today’s punks either. In fact, I was never a punk! The punks were the ones who threw beer bottles in my face at our gigs. I wasn’t a punk then and I’m not a bon vivant now. I feel closer to Baudelaire, who has always been called a dandy, although he hated dandies”.
Curiously, the squatter world does not come off very well in the book either. “That’s just the way it is,” he warns vehemently, “the squatter world is very conservative, at least most of the time. I lived as a squatter for a short period of time, with my bandmate Andrew Chudy [N. U. Unruh], and we felt boycotted: all the graffiti Andrew did was immediately erased with white paint. I think we were too cryptic or not politically defined enough for our ‘flatmates’.”
“But to be honest, the first thing I think about when I’m in a city is finding a good restaurant,” he admits. What I don’t like about good restaurants is their audience: most of them are businessmen. Good cooking is as much about culture as it is about education. I may have drifted towards it because I gave up a lot of my previous passions during my life as a rock musician, some of which were certainly illegal… I never liked hard drugs, and I was always against heroin. I did take a lot of amphetamines, which are much worse for your health. You can get old taking a daily dose of heroin, but it’s not the same with speed. I didn’t have to get off anything. I just got bored at a certain point. I didn’t have to go out of my way to get clean. What I do now I do in the same compulsive way I did before, only now it has a different name…”.
“This taste for good food is relatively recent,” he adds. I’m Prussian, there’s nothing particularly appealing in our cuisine and I’ve tasted very little in my life. Nothing grows in Berlin… and in my youth there was nothing. Besides, I was a vegetarian for thirty years. I think I learned to eat in China, because it is incredibly difficult to be a vegetarian in China”.
It’s a strange book about your life “on tour”.
Yeah. Let’s get one thing straight. First of all. Yeah. This is not a tour diary.
I have constructed the book. Some of the scenes are actually true. Some are not. Especially in certainly they have not happened in this particular sequence or in that some of these things have actually happened. Like my visit to a play in Catalonia. But it has not happened on this tour or in that year. It’s not meant to be a murder trial. And we are not very happy in the way that the Spanish publisher is presenting the whole thing like it is a factual thing or it is that happened to me on a particular note. Because that’s simply not true.
Anyway you seem to convey the idea that touring is a boring way of life.
That was not. I was not trying to describe actual life. I was hired by the Austrian publishing house ResidenzVerlag because they were publishing a series of books based on the idea of litany. And I decided to use Einstürzende Neubauten’s next tour of Europe as material for the book. A litany is, first of all, an oral form of something that you actually utter with your voice. And it is one of the petition of the same formulas. That’s why I’ve chosen the description of a tour where you also do the same thing over and over and over again, which means bus, hotel, soundcheck, concert, hotel, bus, etc., etc. etc. and turned it into a litany like from it. The contents of it is not factual. The contents of that is fictional. I was not trying to make any comments really about political situation in Europe or the Brexit or anything. I was just playing with the format of a litany. It ends with the sentence, “I love Europe”. Yes, I stand for that. I don’t feel very German. I feel very European.
There are a lot of references in the book to how you spend your time on tour. You even draw on memories of the same place thirty years earlier, in the 1980s. You talk about things that happened in Prague or the feeling of danger in Russia, meeting real police and fake police. Do you think Europe has changed for the better or for the worse in these 35 years?
It has changed for the worse. And it has changed for the better. We have to differ between two intersections. There’s Europe, the continent, which hasn’t changed very much, is still on the same continent. The tectonic plate shift has not big impact on Europe over the last 25 years. But Europe in the sense of like the European Union, the European Community, the EEC, that has changed, of course, for the better. I think it’s the biggest peace project on the planet.
And how despite the fact that they are separatists and that they are the Brexit and that there are a lot of populist regimes are starting to throw spanners into the whole system. I still think that the European Community is a greater. I was not writing a book about the European Community. I was not trying to comment in any way about world. Except I expressing my little love for it.
When you work as a musician and have to travel abroad year after year, you probably consider yourself a citizen of the world. How does that affect the concept of nationality?
Unlike other German bands, Einstürzende Neubauten was always operating on a rather more international level. My record company was British and we had a German record company. We were touring the U.S. before anyone else was doing that. That is like decades before Rammstein. And yes, of course, I feel much more international, but I feel especially European.
One of the most surprising things in the book is your search for good Michelin-starred restaurants.
Who likes to eat crap? I think that I have the chances to go to places in, like, say, in Barcelona or in Spain in general. Or to Italy. Yeah. Thought that because, you know, I come from Berlin. Berlin has a Prussian background that’s Protestant that is against any form of hedonism, that is against against any kind of, let’s say, sensual pleasure. Once you cross over to South Germany, it gets better because it’s Catholic, but also Germany. In West Berlin it is kind of a sin to enjoy good food. And people younger than me has never eaten shrimp in his whole life.
In the book you also say that perhaps one of your guilty pleasures is shoe shopping.
I don’t have many shoes. I think I have four, but I think once I’m bearing right now I have gone for two years. I spent I’m going to Rome tomorrow and guess what? I’m going to buy myself a pair of shoes. But they are just going to be the shoes that I am going to wear for the next two years. So, yeah, and I know that I can’t get these shoes in Berlin. I know which shop I have to go to in Rome. I know there’s also one in Milano, but there is not one in Berlin. So. That’s all. That is a plus of being in a constant touring situation. It’s like they’re Catholic. They don’t see it as a sin to eat good food.
You always wear a very specific type of suit jacket. It’s almost like a uniform. What are the things that matter to you? I imagine in your career you’ve made some money and I don’t know what you spend it on. Maybe setting up a studio to record music?
I don’t spend any money on the recording equipment or instruments or anything. That’s not quite true. I have a piano just standing over there. It’s an old fashioned piano. And if I have a good idea, then I record it with my iPhone. That’s how I work. I actually also write it down. It’s like I’m feeling a minor frenzy sharp and a mind that’s full of it. That’s my equipment. It doesn’t need no updating. It just needs tuning.
I once bought a sampler and a keyboard and electronic organ and I just noticed that fiddling there’s electronics and all that it’s not my thing. If I want to record something, I book a recording studio. I work with my favorite engineer and he does something. I say what my ideas are. So I’m certainly not going to spend much money on that. What do we spend most money on every three months? Travelling and food, my wife says, I have a family. Every time there’s a school holiday, we go somewhere. So that’s where most of the money goes.
I just came back from London. And I wanted to go to London because I wanted to say goodbye. I spent all of my time in my life in London. I had an English record company. I had an Australian band, as you know, and we made many records in London. I have sometimes even had an apartment in London and I know that I won’t see London ever again in the same shape. But instead of putting up with the stuff that the whole UK is going to shot itself in the foot and then let’s see what’s left. But then I wanted to go to London and basically say goodbye.
Another thing that surprised me in the book is that you don’t talk much about your bandmates. What is your relationship with them like? You would think that because you spend a lot of time with them you would consider them family. Or are they just work mates?
But it’s as I said, a repetition of the same scene. Like everything evolved from the hotel to the soundcheck and then back to the hotel, and then by your show and on your back to the hotel. And the next thing you go back to the bus. So that could be with or without my bandmates. It’s not much rock and roll and partying. But being on a tour with the bus is very much like working on an oil rig platform in the North Sea. When you get something to eat and your sleep on, you can possibly sleep.
You also say that you go back and forth to the same cities. Berlin. San Francisco. Beijing, London…
Melbourne, 2008. That opens like 11 years old. Sounds like my daughter was born. She goes to school. She’s in fifth grade. I’m not traveling between San Francisco, Beijing and then Berlin. And she starts school. I’m here.
And what do you do in your spare time when you’re not on tour?
I collect dried flowers. And I present people if I have a hobby. No, I don’t have a hobby. Skyping with journalists is my hobby.