Illustration by Gastón Mendieta
The musical landscape has always been full of quirky characters, controversial elements, and outright revolutionary icons. It has represented a collective hotbed of culture since its dawn, and it is unquestionably a keystone of human identity. But beyond the way music influences each of us, both individually and as a society, how does identity itself slip through the cracks between notes? Is it even possible to ink down a definition of “musical identity” that ventures past the common notions of genres? You would be right if you thought that the question did not have a black-or-white answer. Or at least you would agree with Blixa Bargeld, a famed German musician who both worked and toured alongside Nick Cave and then rose to prominence as the leader of experimental group Einstürzende Neubauten — a performer who has been known to play live using tools such as scrap metal, drills, hammers, and the like. His musical journey led him to collaborate with Teho Teardo, an Italian musician, composer, and sound designer. The two have worked together for years, publishing four records and exploring music as a unique means of expression far beyond sound alone.
How do you define musical identity?
BB: I don’t really know what that is or what it could possibly mean. I do know that the whole categorization of music has always bothered me a lot, from the early days of vinyl being classified in different boxes to the tags that define the genres of music on digital media. I have been put into the Industrial drawer, but I have never asked for it. And the guys who did this did it horribly wrong. So, apart from the genre-ification of music, I don’t really know what a musical identity is. But I grew up with folk rock and roll. That’s my musical background, the ‘70s. And then I ended up in West Berlin. Is West Berlin part of my identity? I remember they had a radio station called Rundfunk im amerikanischen Sektor (Radio in the American Sector), which was paid for by the CIA and the American Senate, and its main function was to provide news or all propaganda to East Germans; but they also had a weekly show where they played whole albums for people to record…
TT: …but if we are talking about identity, that was a German thing. I couldn’t say the same about Italy.
Where do your ideas come from, in terms of music, and how do you develop them? Is it an intellectual effort, or is it more related to instinct?
TT: I believe in both things. I mean, it’s work: you have an idea, you define a method, you put restrictions, limits, whatever; and you work inside this scheme. And then you forget about it and go somewhere else because that sort of restriction showed you one possible way, not another one which you may have found along the way that wasn’t expected. So I really believe in work.
BB: As always, you make up a law, you follow the law, and then you break the law. But all three steps are important. When you make up the law, it means you make up restrictions, the items you need to find, the moment, or whatever. And then you follow that until you come to a point that you know that you can break it. But you were asking about ideas. I don’t really feel responsible for ideas; I feel responsible for work. The best way to put it is “99% sweat and 1% inspiration”. But I’ve never had the problem of having no ideas.
When it comes to the relationship you have with your audience, your fans, do you identify with them? Do you even care?
BB: No, that would be a really bad idea. I mean, I do love playing and performing live, and I need an audience to witness what is happening and what I am doing. I absorb the energy that is projected on me. But I do not want to have anything to do with shows where the audience takes part; that’s really not my scene. I also don’t like the term “fans.” I don’t want to think of my audience as a bunch of “fanatics.” We call them supporters—they support our work.
TT: In Italian, we call them “pubblico,” the public. I actually prefer that word because it goes beyond both “audience,” which is too limited, and “listeners,” which is also restrictive.
Blixa, how do you keep a band together for forty years?
BB: Well, first of all, there have been several versions of the band. We are at, basically, version 3.0 now. But the core of me and N.U. (Unruh, multi-strumentalist) has played since 1979. And the one rule I live by is to create enough space, so that everybody can follow their own instincts and ideas, and we only come together when we actually work together. Alex(ander Hacke, bassist) once said we are like a subterranean, Oceanian creature. It goes away for a very long time, and then it comes back to the surface.
“You can’t sing something if you don’t have an identity. There’s nothing to sing about, nothing to write about.”
The two of you have also worked together but also done a lot of things independently. Do collaborations matter to stay alive, to stay relevant in music? And how does a good collaboration start, whether it’s between the two of you or you and other people?
BB: The easiest way to make music if you are not able to do all the work alone is the duo. It is a completely different animal compared to a band, which is made of three people upwards. That means a lot of different ideas, different directions, and a different kind of chemistry, because it’s a complex molecule. Duos, on the other hand, are only two atoms, and they bind in a particular way. Each one can reflect off the other, and the dialog that is established is a form of communication you just can’t have in a band. I have done several duos over the last decade, and obviously, the one with Teho is still going. And even though it’s been going on for a while, the working process continues to be smooth and pleasurable.
TT: I agree. Duos are a completely different concept compared to a band. I like it way more. I feel more comfortable working with just one person. It’s easier, but I always get the feeling I can go deeper into what I do.
What are you listening to right now? Do you like the music that is more popular and mainstream out there?
BB: I listen to whatever I come across. My main source for finding music is usually still the radio. I listen to WFMU and BBC Three. And if I’m lucky, and that usually happens once a month, I find something great. Most things are not new to me, but some, say, ten times a year, I do hear something fantastic.
So there is still good music around…
BB: I think the ratio is 99% shit and 1% great stuff. But that 99% of shit is what makes the remaining 1% possible. A few days ago, I actually heard one of the best songs I encountered; it was totally unexpected. It’s a group that has already released several albums. It’s from a small town in Michigan, I believe. They are called “The Felice Brothers.” Ever heard of them?
TT: Yes! And actually, one of the brothers gave me one of their records. They are great!
BB: Ha, I love it! And so, this song really struck me. And not just the music, but the lyrics. And that’s even rarer. They had this line that went like, “From Francis of Assisi to the fans of AC/DC, we all shall live again.” What a rhyme! They truly opened a door where there wasn’t one before.
Do you think it’s possible to be both in the top 1% in terms of quality and be a mainstream artist or band?
TT: I very much like what Billie Eilish is doing.
BB: Yes, I know her because my daughter listens to her. And I can hear what’s great about it; the production, for one, is immaculate. It’s not something I have spent much time with personally, but I know it, and I respect it.
TT: Me too; I am fascinated by the production specifically. It’s her brother doing most of the work, and they have been doing everything at home basically.
BB: However, I must admit that she is basically the only artist I can mention. You could tell me any other name, and I could truthfully tell you that I have never consciously listened to the music of any of today’s 100 top-grossing artists. I don’t know any of them.
You mentioned writing earlier, which is something that is arguably very influential in the way a band or an artist’s identity gets shaped into their work. What’s your relationship with lyrics, and are there any lyricists you particularly love?
TT: I’ll go first! I like Paolo Conte very much. I like his work and the very way he writes lyrics. There’s always a feeling you can almost smell his songs. He really meant a lot to me, and I know Blixa likes him too!
BB: Yeah, but obviously not as a lyricist; my Italian wouldn’t be good enough for that. But that doesn’t matter; he was still important in my musical background. I remember that, back when we started, people still believed the fairy tale that said that you couldn’t sing rock music in German. Up to the mid-80s it still had not been erased. Which, I suppose, is part of the whole identity thing…
TT: Absolutely. You can’t sing something if you don’t have an identity. There’s nothing to sing about, nothing to write about.
BB: Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. I think the two things influence each other. I create my identity while singing. But I also have an identity outside of singing. Anyway, the question was about lyrics, and my point was that German didn’t really play that much of a role for me. And my identity changed a lot over time. And you know, if you talk about identity, I think you need to talk about the opposite, too, which is alterity. What isn’t me. I can tell you a lot of things I am not. A lot of things that I don’t want to be or do, musically speaking. And somehow that, too, defines my identity.
Last question: What do you think is the best adjective to describe music? And is music immortal?
BB: Is the (corona)virus alive?
BB: No. I asked this. It’s not.
TT: I thought it changed…?
BB: It does. But it’s not alive. It’s not a living creature. So, let’s compare the two things.
Music and the virus…?
BB: Yes, exactly. I say this because you asked whether music is immortal, which would imply that music was alive in the first place. So no, it cannot die. But also, much like the virus, it mutates. So “mutating” would be a good adjective. And it spreads. It’s contagious. It’s infectious.
TT: Maybe. There’s certainly music everywhere. But I’m not sure everybody listens to music.
BB: Now that you put it this way, it’s making me think of dark matter. Music is out there, an enormous amount of it. And we have a mechanism that makes that dark matter audible, as it infects our bodies, adapts to the host, and then changes your organism to become something new. And indeed, I believe there’s something in music that is reflected in the laws of physics. Of existence in general. And, I think, I probably wouldn’t be alive if I had not listened to a lot of it.