KMFDM Blows Your Top

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"Day after day, innocent people are being deported, interrogated, and tortured," Sascha Konietzko yells through a bullhorn in KMFDM's "Terror," a track on their most recent album, Nihil. "Fundamentalist forces are undermining the integrity of liberal and democratic political structures/Radical anarchists, fascists, and terrorists are responsible for the violence."
Not to undercut the song's powerful political message or anything, but Konietzko wants you to know that on some level he's trying to be funny. "It's got this comical, propagandist aspect that may not seem comical if you don't see the band," muses KMFDM's bandleader. "But it's like a book; you have to read between the lines to really get the gist of it. Sometimes there's a huge misunderstanding about what we actually mean and where we stand politically. But we're artists, after all, and we don't need to be politicized. This is all about entertainment. Nothing is so serious that you cannot crack a joke."

And then there are the practical concerns of song composition. "I like to use bullhorns," Konietzko continues, "and what are you gonna do, stand with a microphone and a bullhorn and shout about how much you love someone? It's better to say something like our societies are saturated with blood lust, sensationalism, and violence."

Despite this question of seriousness, it would seem that lately the members of the Chicago-based industrial outfit KMFDM does have much to laugh about. Emerging from the Hamburg underground in the mid-1980s to become one of the preeminent acts on the American independent Wax Trax! label, KMFDM (an acronym for Kein Mitleid fr die Mehrheit, which means "no pity for the majority" in German) was one of the first bands to legitimize the combined use of heavy guitars, synthesized samples, and disco rhythms. Setting a standard for creativity in the studio and high energy on-stage, KMFDM is considered a pioneer in the genre that later made U.S. industrial bands such as nine inch nails and Ministry famous. Now, eleven years and seven albums into their career, KMFDM is finally attaining wider recognition with their best-selling disc to date, Nihil (Latin for "nothing").

But Konietzko denies that his band is gaining popularity. He also denies that KMFDM creates industrial music. He even denies being in a band (he calls it a "project"). "I wouldn't call it a sudden popularity at all," he contends in a phone interview from Rochester. "We've always progressed and developed at our own pace. It's been a continuous growth based on a loyal fan base."

As for industrial music as a genre, Konietzko says he doesn't see a major leap in popularity there either. "It's not really that industrial has become more popular," he notes. "It's more like nine inch nails has become more popular and shed light on what's going on in the genre. The music that's selling by the millions is grunge rock -- these bands trying to copy that Seattle sound -- and, of course, the pop stuff like Michael Jackson and Madonna. I think nine inch nails just made a really good record at a time when it hit a nerve, and that created a little bit of attention for what's going on in the underground camp."

Nihil itself is a good record that hits a nerve. Its mechanically precise dance rhythms, distorted and swirling metal guitar loops, and searing vocals create an ultraheavy marriage of industrial and techno staples. The melange is nothing new, either for this band or for countless others, but KMFDM blends these elements in a way that is more accessible than many of their fellow industrialists. While endlessly compared to NIN and former Wax Trax! label mates Ministry, KMFDM's use of techno rhythms, gospel-diva choruses, and horns on Nihil is more reminiscent of My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult (a band KMFDM has toured with and with whom they've become good friends). Some songs on Nihil, such as the sexy "Juke Joint Jezebel" and strangely optimistic "Trust," are dance-oriented ditties; others, such as the potent "Search & Destroy" and the darkly twisted "Flesh" ("Inside this noise is a weak and godless soul/There's a rusty halo on my head/Fill this hole/Suck this soul/I'm the thing I can't control"), offer fast-paced industrial fodder. Lead vocals alternate between singer-guitarist Raymond Watts's deep, hoarse groan, singer-guitarist En Esch's commanding caterwaul, and producer-keyboardist Konietzko's bullhorn blast. The messages also alternate, depending on which vocalist-lyricist takes the mike.

"We all have our topics," Konietzko points out. "Raymond's are more dark, more about himself. En Esch is the more twisted and bleak. I don't want to write about myself, about emotional bullshit A I write about what I see on TV and read in the news. You know, yeah, the world is fucked up, but let's have a good time."

Keep in mind that, at least according to Konietzko, KMFDM isn't exactly a band. He and Esch are the cornerstone of a project that has had a constantly changing lineup over the past decade. "His role has changed over the years, as has mine, in terms of the songwriting and execution," explains Konietzko. "He's a very valuable part of it, but he chose not to participate so much this time in the actual writing. I guess the humorous side and political side is my influence -- it's the way I see things."

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 (… 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.

"The objective has never been and will never be to make it big, but to do what we like," Konietzko concludes. "And I wouldn't like to [make it big], I wouldn't want us to be on MTV. I'm very content doing what we're doing for us and for those around us."

KMFDM performs at the Industrial Halloween Ball with the Genitorturers and God Lives Underwater on Saturday, October 28, at the Cameo Theater, 1445 Washington Ave, Miami Beach. Tickets cost $18. Doors open at 8:00 p.m. Call 532-0922.

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