By Jacob Katel
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A sought-after producer, Konietzko has mixed and produced tracks for bands such as White Zombie, Front 242, Megadeth, the Thrill Kill Kult, Die Warzau, and Living Colour. Additionally, he engaged in an early-Nineties side project called Excessive Force in collaboration with the Thrill Kill Kult's Buzz McCoy. Vocalist/guitarist/long-time collaborator Esch is also an orchestral drummer, and two years ago he released a solo album called Cheesy. English vocalist-guitarist Watts recently returned to KMFDM after a decade-long absence, during which he recorded with another industrial outfit, Pig (in 1994 the two bands made an EP entitled Sin, Sex, and Salvation, credited to KMFDM Versus Pig). Guitarist Gunter Schulz (who formerly recorded as Svet Am) rounds out the current lineup (guitarist Mark Durante and Revolting Cocks drummer William Rieflin also perform on Nihil).
Konietzko founded KMFDM in the early Eighties in Hamburg as an art project that combined visual arts with experimental music. Back then punk was on its way out and the first wave of industrial music was at its peak with bands such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, and Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft. The first few KMFDM performances included setting featherbeds and pillows on fire, blowing up televisions, and using vacuum cleaners as instruments. Konietzko teamed up early on with Watts, and soon after met Esch. Finding a common influence in guitar-oriented glam rock, they created a percussion-driven, synth-heavy sound that used guitars to provide texture, a controversial idea at a time when emerging industrial bands such as Skinny Puppy relied almost solely on synths.
After releasing a self-titled album in Germany, the band made its American debut in 1986 with What Do You Know, Deutschland? They followed up Deutschland with their 1988 dance-floor breakthrough single and album, Don't Blow Your Top, which was produced by British dub master Adrian Sherwood. Soon KMFDM became a key act for Wax Trax! and after a tour with Ministry and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Konietzko and company moved to the U.S. in 1989.
"We didn't have any distribution or following in Europe, so it seemed natural to relocate to Chicago," says Konietzko. "At the same time, the reunification in Germany caused a lot of [political and social situations] that I didn't like. I never liked Germany. My family suffered many losses during the Third Reich, and I always felt like I was born in the wrong place. Fortunately I was able to realize what I was working very hard to realize for a long time. If we hadn't run into Wax Trax! none of this would have happened A there would be no KMFDM now."
When the band released 1993's Angst, which sold more than 100,000 copies, KMFDM became one of the label's biggest-selling artists. That particular album departed from the band's previous releases in that there were contributions from every member; previously, Konietzko and Esch had composed most of the music and lyrics. Nihil has a notably different sound than its predecessors (a percussive din of guitar noise), one that Konietzko says he isn't entirely happy with. Last year he moved for a time to Seattle to write the bulk of the album, laying down some of the guitar and keyboard tracks on computer with various sequencers, then bringing in the rest of the band to flesh out the additional instrumentation (vocal, drum, horn, harmonica, and guitar tracks).
"[Recording] is sort of like putting on a play for the theater: you look at what you've got, what kinds of costumes, who's going to be in the cast," explains Konietzko. "This time we decided to work with Raymond, so I tried to prepare a playback that was inspiring for him to write the melody and lyrics. On other records we've started with guitars, because we have a trio of guitarists."
KMFDM is currently touring the U.S. through early November in support of Nihil, resuming a tour that began this past spring with a number of sold-out shows. The end of their 1995 tour will take them to Germany for the first time in more than five years. Despite the fact that a heavy synth sound runs through the band's music, don't expect to see a bunch of guys standing stolidly behind keyboards (Ö la Depeche Mode) when KMFDM plays the Cameo Theater on Saturday. On-stage they're known for their wild and energetic antics, with DATs blasting the synth parts and the band playing guitars and electronic drums.
Regarding future projects, Konietzko says he plans to start working on the next KMFDM release, something more minimalistic than Nihil, next spring, and that it could be in stores as soon as late spring or early summer. But maybe not. "There's a few tracks ready for the next release, but the instrumentation is always the dot on the i," he observes. "I'd like to think that I can approach it in a more minimal way. The density is slowly getting on my nerves, and I need a little change."
As a band, KMFDM has a well-defined approach to business, preferring to stay with the indie Wax Trax! rather than move to a major label. "I think the differentiation between major labels and indies is not what it used to be ten years ago -- there are some indies that are more corporate than any major, and a few majors that I'm sure would be delightful to work with," he explains. "But I feel that I take what I'm doing very seriously, and it's not that I'm a control freak, but I would like to have intelligent partners that understand where I come from rather than a marketing machine that sees us as another trend to exploit. Wax Trax! is a label that is small and fragile, and so are we, and together we can find a way to create. And that may come at the expense of our distribution potential, but sellability is not really the issue. It's more of a Taoist principle -- you don't really know where you're going, but you have a good time getting there.