Douglas McCarthy thought he was done with the music business in the mid ’90s. Downtrodden from the endless cycles of studio recording and worldwide tours, McCarthy decided to leave music and pursue his teenage dreams of becoming a graphic designer and filmmaker. It was, after all, the career choice he would have pursued had he not formed one of the most significant EBM bands of all time: Nitzer Ebb.
Electronic Body Music (EBM)—driven by an often erratic and staccato bassline, a tight, intrusive snare, and an irrefutable dance beat—was a genre that never quite seemed to depart from the stigma of the 1980s. Until recently. “EBM was a really dirty word for a long time,” says McCarthy. “It was synonymous with people stuck in the past and not being able to appreciate anything new.” And now, 30 years after Nitzer Ebb’s 1987 breakthrough LP, That Total Age, everyone seems to be catching on.
Contrary to its former unpopular perimeters, EBM has become a common descriptor in dance music vocabulary. “With the development of genres, they need to go through a few generational cycles for people to look back and appreciate or distill what they want from them,” says McCarthy. Alongside fellow EBM trailblazers Deutsch Amerikanische Freundschaft (DAF) and Front 242, Nitzer Ebb’s 1983 self-released cassette Basic Pain Procedure helped establish the genre’s conventions—McCarthy’s riotous roars, low growls, and call-to-arms chants have been oft imitated over the years.
It wasn’t until 2003, after meeting the French techno producer Terence Fixmer, that McCarthy left his newfound occupation of film and design to return to music. Fixmer’s distinct blend of dark, intrusive techno and EBM bassline patterns resurrected McCarthy’s interest in music once again. Their relationship began when Fixmer had agreed to remix Nitzer Ebb for NovaMute (a subsidiary of Mute Records) and, in return, asked that McCarthy do vocals for a few of Fixmer’s own tracks. Their meeting and studio session sparked an entire slew of demos that suited an album’s length of music and the collaborative project of Fixmer/McCarthy formed soon thereafter.
Fixmer/McCarthy’s new EP, Chemicals, on the Berlin-based label Sonic Groove, is a true continuation of the sound the duo has developed over the past fifteen years. The title track is forceful—its driving bassline conspires with a heavy techno-influenced beat underneath McCarthy’s nakedly raw and severe vocals. It, alongside “Wrong Planet,” is undoubtedly meant for the club floor, to be heard in the anticipatory section of an vigorous DJ set. The new EP revels in the familiarity of classic EBM and is inseparable from the lineage McCarthy cultivated long ago without being propped up by the ruse of a throwback album.
We talked to McCarthy about the drug-induced inspiration behind Chemicals, what makes a perfect EBM track, and the genre’s inarguable comeback.
Was the process of working on Chemicals the same as it was in 2003 when you and Terence Fixmer first started collaborating?
No—during the first record I was still living in London and it was easy to tour in Europe. The techno scene [in the mid-2000s] was pretty fluid and affluent in terms of what clubs could afford to pay artists. Initially we could do weekend gigs because you didn’t have to go on a traditional tour, which was what I was used to doing [with Nitzer Ebb]. So it was excellent from that point of view, when we started making the second album, Into the Night. [Fixmer] was sending tracks [over the Internet], and I would get ideas, and then I’d come over for a month and we’d flesh out things we were doing. We were also doing shows in between that, so it was much more like a normal band situation.
We had just finished Into the Night, but it hadn’t been released. Right around that time is when Nitzer Ebb decided to reform for a number of shows, but it was the traditional approach to touring where there’s people in the room and everyone’s rehearsing. It’s not like Terence and myself, which is much more free-flowing. At that point I had to relocate to Los Angeles to be with [bandmate] Bon Harris and as we began to rehearse the Nitzer Ebb tour we got more bookings. The tour, which was going to be originally six or seven European festivals, ended up being a seven-month tour—it escalated into something more time-consuming. So in between shows with Nitzer Ebb I would come and do shows with Terence.
By the end of touring with Nitzer Ebb, I was still doing shows with Terence but I decided for a couple of reasons to move back to L.A., where I previously lived in the ’90s. That got in the way of going into the studio with Terence, but also coincided with faster Internet and easier file sharing. I was working remotely with stuff, and sending the files back and forth became a normal practice, as is with most people. Instead of working entirely remotely and finishing songs like that, we would keep them raw—I would have ideas but wouldn’t necessarily send them back to Terence. So when we were doing shows, we made sure we would have a longer amount of time to do the soundcheck and we would work on those new songs [live].
Chemicals came about that way, but we didn’t record it for the longest time. There’s actually quite a few tracks we still haven’t been recorded properly, but it’s because we’ve been playing them live. Lyrically [the songs] change, musically they stay basically the same. But the structure of the track was developed in front of a live audience so we had that immediate reaction of ‘Wow, that doesn’t work,’ or ‘We should do that longer,’ or ‘We should just go back to that bit.’ Basically we’re lazy, so our laziness allowed our audience to dictate what is good. It’s much more organic and more interactive with our audience in a live setting.
It’s like all those stories of bands bringing their test pressings to the clubs and trying them out.
Absolutely, yeah. Back in the acid house days—well, it wasn’t even called acid house, it was called Balearic—I distinctly remember, with ‘Control,’ we had a test pressing delivered to the studio. So we had a listen, and then we went to The Trip—which was a prevalent club at the time—and gave them to [producer] Andrew Weatherall to play. It was brilliant to see the immediate reaction of the crowd.
I bet they went crazy.
They did. It was a good night out.
What is Chemicals about exactly?
There was a club in Valencia, Spain called Spook Factory. Spook Factory was pre-Balearic beat or acid house: it would open up at 6am and get all the other clubs emptying out and everyone would go there. So that was the first time I heard so many things that had been sped up and slowed down—all the things they were doing and playing at the time would eventually go on to the Balearic Islands. [DJs] were playing a mixture of Nitzer Ebb, The Residents, and U2—it was a really weird mixture. They would just grab one part of a U2 song and keep playing that round, speeding it up so that it would fit in with a Nitzer Ebb song. It was a chemically-fueled environment: mescaline was really big and so was speed. There were these stickers that we actually basically ripped off [for the cover of the Chemicals EP] which was a capsule of a pill, because that’s how you took the mescaline. They’d have these stickers on the back of their cars so you knew who was going out to the clubs, especially Spook Factory.
I was listening to what Terence was sending to me and that hit me. It just reminded me of Spook Factory and so the line ‘chemicals’ came first. And then going on from that, my own experience with drugs and friends’ experience with drugs [was the inspiration]. It’s this sense of paranoia, sense of being under duress, and the tension that happens while you take the drugs. Then the tension that happens while you’re trying to recover from the drugs and it just all seemed to fit with the intensity and drive of the bassline. It’s about paranoia and feeling that the world is against you…and taking drugs.
So ‘Wrong Planet’ has the same concept?
A lot of the themes are about dystopian mythologies that are easy to plant into this kind of music. Or they’re about rejection—about how one feels all the time anyway. Terence’s music always has a feel of either anger or displacement, and I normally feel either angry or displaced, so it fits right in.
What are the elements of a perfect EBM track?
I think—having experience of abject failure in doing it and some success—the minimal approach is better. Certain musical elements turn me off: If it has chord structure—maybe a single note feeding back is fine—but as soon as there’s synth or string pads moving around, I find that difficult. The same with vocals or vocal melodies. I find it interesting to have a vocal melody so that it’s not just repetitive, though that is an element, to have one simple melody you can go back to—a refrain.
This is obviously my point of view, but an EBM track is a vocal track as well. But that’s not the case for all EBM. The ones that work the best and are the most enjoyable to play live have a central chorus or one thing that pulls it together—it doesn’t have to be melodic whatsoever, but it has to ramp up the energy. I think that’s the main thing.
Having said that, the main thing you want to do is keep a constant ability to go up and down with the energy—I think one of the things people make mistakes with is that they keep going up and up and then you’ve nowhere left to go. It’s tiring to listen to and it’s tiring to make as well. Those are the elements; simplicity is the key first and foremost. And good sounds! Actually working on good sounds that aren’t just presets or straight out of the box. Actually putting thought into the bassline and where they sit sonically [are important].
I’ve also made a load of crap, so…
I don’t think I go to any night—techno, industrial, or otherwise—where I don’t hear a Nitzer Ebb track. It fits in with every sort of genre you would find on a dance floor.
That was the idea with Nitzer Ebb—when we started doing music in the early ’80s it wasn’t so genre-specific. There was either Top 40 or not Top 40. In the U.S. it was called ‘alternative.’ In Europe and especially the U.K. you had subgenres, but essentially you went to a night where there was a lot of crossover—things that started to make sense sonically. You were able to think about it a little and draw your own conclusions, which is what we tried to do as a band to different degrees of success. It’s become more and more common over the last few years to hear a mixture of genres and not just banging techno. There’s EBM—and especially EBM at the moment. But even some kind of more goth-rock elements are creeping in as well and I find that refreshing.
What sort of cycle have you seen over the years? Do you think techno and EBM are merging together? Is it just a trend?
I was in film [in the early 2000s], and not that involved in going out, especially to techno clubs. I was living in East London and at that time there were lots of after-hours parties, everything was low to the ground. I guess that was the time electroclash was happening. It seemed to me to be an obvious thing to have, but when I started working with Terence and we were going to clubs in Madrid, Barcelona, or Berlin, it had gone much more one-approach as far as techno goes. But the interesting thing was people were into what Fixmer/McCarthy were doing, partly because of me singing but also very much having to do with the way Terence approaches doing techno with Fixmer/McCarthy. His approach is very much an EBM mixture.
It seems to be popular now. I remember the whole minimal thing happening that went on for a few years, you still hear a minimal track but it’s part of the tapestry of techno now. Even though EBM is a genre in its own right—I think the mixture of the two is how it should be. I’ve never understood why there was such a clear distinction between them because you can hear quite clear mixtures of approach. Everyone seems to enjoy it when it’s being played like that. I think both EBM and techno have moved forward a bit by being more inclusive.
Do you think EBM is more related to techno than it is industrial?
Yes, probably. If you stripped away all the guitars and rock posturing, industrial is essentially EBM when you listen to classic tracks. They’ve got the bassline under there, the heavy drums and fairly minimal vocals. But all the rock stuff overtop it masks [the EBM sound]—but having said that, EBM is closer to techno.
That’s interesting because in my experience you can’t play techno at an industrial club—but you can play EBM.
Well, I think partly is that the industrial club scene misunderstands what techno is. I think if you played a few tracks that are direct descendants of what Nitzer Ebb was doing, most people wouldn’t notice it was a techno track. It’s just that pre-programmed view of what’s admissible and what isn’t, which is kind of funny when you’re trying to point out that you’re different from everyone else—you’re not that different.