Kein Bestandteil Sein - An FT Tribute to Einstürzende Neubauten
Do you know who Einstürzende Neubauten are? If not, take a minute to look them up.
The Internet will tell you all about the EN legend. The icy, post-industrial wilderness of post-WWII Berlin; the home-made instruments; the radical performances; the fierce reputation of both the music and the bandmembers, especially their notoriously temperamental leader, Blixa Bargeld. Like most genuinely radical artists, EN’s reputation far exceeds their album sales, and this band’s mythos is jam-packed with gems even by 20th-century avant-garde standards. I won’t bother to repeat these semi-apocryphal stories. Partly because they’re easily accessible with a Google search, and partly because if you weren’t there to see these things happen, no amount of language will help you understand.
Instead I’d like to talk about my Einstürzende Neubauten.
EN are my favorite band. Ever. Of all time. They are my favorite artists for two reasons. First, they make the most beautiful, radical, original, innovative, powerful, moving music I’ve ever heard in my life. Sometimes when I listen to Neubauten I just can’t breathe. Second, and just as importantly, they are the most awesome, hilarious, insane, uncompromising, real, real, real people I’ve ever met. It’s not an aggressive, “look at me!” kind of radicality. There’s nothing performative about it. They dress pretty normal, look pretty normal, talk pretty normal. But the sheer originality of everything these people do and say is awe-inspiring. I sometimes get notes from readers telling me they appreciate my honesty/realness/uncompromising bluntness. Well, folks, everything I know about standing my ground, giving the world the finger, and being passionately intense without compromise I learned from this group of musicians. You have never in your life met a more absolutely real, absolutely uncompromising group of artists. They have the highest quality-to-volume ratio of any band I know. In 35 years or so they’ve released less than a dozen albums, each one a radically different, entirely original treasure.
I was not a happy teenager. Without too many maudlin details, suffice to say that the domestic situation I grew up in left scars quite a bit deeper than the average teenage angst. By the time I was 15, every fucking day was a wild oscillation between nuclear rage and terrible, self-loathing depression. I had all of these pent-up energies, and no idea what to do with them. And then, at the age of 14, I discovered two aesthetic investments that would change my life forever - Naked Lunch, by William S. Burroughs, and Einstürzende Neubauten.
I remember the first time I played an EN record. I was 14. Their legend was so intense, and I’d heard so many stories about how abrasive and uncompromising this music was. I actually turned the stereo way, way down and only slowly, incrementally turned it back up because I was afraid of damaging the speakers on my parents’ stereo in the living room. Nobody was home. And I listened to Tabula Rasa for the first time, and nothing was ever the same again.
A couple of years later, I started going to EN shows. Lots of EN shows. At first, I don’t think they quite knew what to make of me. Here was this weird kid showing up at random concerts all over Europe. I skipped school to go to Neubauten shows. I borrowed money to go to Neubauten shows. I hitchhiked to go to Neubauten shows. Two days before my high school graduation, I saw EN live in Zurich. My mother had to literally beg me on the phone to come home for graduation, because EN were playing a show in Freiburg the same night and I honestly considered that more important. Still do. I kinda wish I’d gone to the show. But I digress.
I don’t know if they were amused by me, if they pitied me, or if they just sensed the suicidal desperation of my teenage years. But, in an incredible twist of fate, my favorite band basically adopted me. Not in any kind of dramatic way. But they’d get me into shows when I couldn’t afford tickets. They’d give me the occasional piece of free merch to cheer me up. They let me come backstage and have sushi from their contract rider after the shows because I was clearly starving. I don’t really think I can express in words what that meant to me. To be a suicidal teenage fanboy and have your biggest heroes not only pay attention to you but treat you with more respect than most of the people in your daily life….Einstürzende Neubauten saved my life. They also taught me how to be creative in the most productive, problem-solving way imaginable. So if you’ve ever written me a message thanking me for helping you, you should really be thanking them. Because that was where I learned how incredibly powerful and affirming it is to get even the slightest bit of recognition from someone you respect and look up to.
Fast-forward several years to 2002. EN have just announced a radical new business model for making and selling music. They were sick, they said, of the traditional music industry model. The expensive studio time, the big record release, the bullshit that the suits kept throwing at them. So they were going rogue. Instead of a traditional record contract with a traditional record company, they were going to try out a radical new model: they would sell subscriptions to their website. The subscribers or “supporters” would basically fund the recording process. In exchange, they would not only get a copy of the finished album, but also be able to watch the recording process, through live webcasts of the recording process.
A decade later, this doesn’t seem that radical, maybe, what with all the Kickstarters and whatnot. But if you do some digging, you’ll see that this was a radical enough model that Blixa Bargeld and Erin Zhu, who came up with it, were featured in several business magazines as a result. Irony upon irony. But of course, this was just the latest of infinite table-turnings in the band’s incredibly varied history.
It goes without saying that neubauten.org is a crucial inspiration for The Nomad Foundation. But more than that - Neubauten, both as a group and as individuals, are the inspiration for my whole life. My entire ethos, my most basic mode of living, is drawn from one of their best known axioms - kein Bestandteil sein.
I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t really know where I’m going with this. This group of people, their music, their ethos, and their tolerance for my no-doubt overeager presence as a teenager, are so deeply intertwined in the fabric of my being that I can barely articulate their importance to my thinking, my acting, and my creating. Like Neubauten’s music, it’s just too visceral and powerful to put into words. As Nina Hagen once put it - “You can’t describe EN’s music. Only EN’s music can describe EN’s music.”
I owe Einstürzende Neubauten everything. It’s that simple. And it’s really just breaking my heart that they’re on tour without me. Because EN live is the most awe-inspiring, mind-altering, incredible musical experience I’ve ever undergone, and even after 60 or so shows it really hasn’t worn off in the slightest. My hearing isn’t what it used to be. But that’s a small price to pay.
If you’re excited about The Nomad Foundation, you need to know that this is where it started. My entire DIY ethic, my insistence on bullshit-free creativity and genuine passion, comes from 15 years of unmediated access to the most amazing artists I’ve ever known, who took me in and treated me with courtesy and respect at a time in my life where I was starved to the bone for basic human kindness. So here are a few clips to introduce you to their awesome genius:
Once you’ve watched these, if you want to see more, EN’s entire 20th Anniversary concert is on YouTube. I was at that show. It was 3.5 hours long and to this day is my favorite live show ever. In fact, I’m in quite a few of the clips from that show…and in many other clips that are on YouTube ; )