The fall of the Berlin Wall brought East Germany the dreams of consumer culture, along with the realities of unemployment, increased drug crimes and prostitution. And, in return, East Germany gave us … Rammstein. Rammstein! Renowned for stage shows in which singer Till Lindemann routinely sets himself on fire. Rammstein! Alternately revered and reviled for their thundering evocation of German heritage. Rammstein! The band that taught Family Values Tour audiences to chant “Du Hast Mich” and is now hoping to stir up even more passions with a new album, Mutter (Republic/Universal), which further refines its mix of industrial riffage, operatic excess and rock melodrama. Named after the German town where a U.S. airshow accident caused mass carnage, Rammstein got together in 1994 and, in the wake of 1997’s Sehnsucht going platinum here in the States, has established itself as East Germany’s premiere pop culture export.
“Reunification made it possible to form Rammstein,” says guitarist Richard Kruspe of the sudden access to international audiences and state-of-the-art technology. “After the wall came down, everything changed. Right now, we can buy everything, because it’s a free country. It’s better than America.”
That wasn’t always the case, adds Kruspe, recalling a time when local bands would feverishly attempt to learn Western pop hits off weekly radio countdowns: “In the ’70s in East Germany, there were bands around trying to play cover versions. And at this time it was really hard to get record players or tape machines, so what they did was, they would sit, four people around the radio. And the first person would listen to the verse, the second would listen to the chorus, the third person would listen to the solo, and the fourth person would listen to something else. And if they weren’t able to get it all, then they would have to wait until the next week when it would be played again.”
“Radio waves transcend borders,” adds Paul Landers, the other half of Rammstein’s guitar onslaught, “so we weren’t quite as sealed off from the West as it might seem. Of course we were limited to the extent that we never had any live bands performing. It was a special treat if we could see on Western television a band performing in West Berlin, then we would have a big party and people would all get together and watch.”
Home taping, the record industry’s notorious pre-Napster villain, was the primary means of circulating recordings among East German music fans. “You’d get a tape that was recorded from one tape to another tape to another, and in the end you had a piece of music that was also a piece of noise, like it was some kind of special music,” says Kruspe. “People could buy records on the black market, but they were lots of money. My first record was the Dead Kennedys. What we did was, we had the possibility to go on holidays to Hungary. Hungary was between capitalism and socialism, which meant you could buy records. But the thing is you could just take a certain amount of money, so you’d have to choose carefully.”
“At the time, East Germany had no cool bands,” says Landers, who, like the rest of his bandmates, relies on a translator when English fails him. “We only had the government-sponsored bands and, of course, we didn’t care for those. Even rock bands in the East, the ones that the government tolerated, if you wanted to become a member of one, you had to go to university and really study music. You couldn’t just pick up an instrument and play. But then, little by little, it became more popular to do amateur music, and then punk came and that’s when I started playing.”
Government sponsorship, as it turned out, didn’t appeal to any of the men who would be Rammstein. “To be honest, just in terms of me, maybe I was too bad,” admits Kruspe. “Because you had to really study music, and so for us, we were really into sports and stuff when we were young. We just got into music because we really wanted to have fun.”
Till Lindemann does not look like he’s having fun. A former Olympic-trials swimmer who took to setting himself on fire rather than stand around idle during instrumental passages, Lindemann faces interviews like a man who’s endured one too many interrogations. Gravity drags down all his features other than a pair of deep-set eyes that routinely focus on an empty space somewhere up near the ceiling.
Lindemann is explaining why his lyrics, which chronicle the escapades of necromancers and hermaphrodites, are not intended for shock value. “I listen to the music and I react to it,” says the most guttural singer in show biz. “And listening to it usually gives me an idea-desires, anxieties that come out. There is no intention to shock. I mean, if you play me something happy and gay and light, then maybe I would write something happy and gay and light.”
“Gay and light,” echoes drummer Christoph Schneider in a Beavis and Butt-head way.
“I mean, yeah, I am a little into the dark side of life. I am a little gothic in my thinking. I am somber. I am generally not a happy, gay and light person.”
Lindemann shrugs his shoulders. “Life is drama, isn’t it?”
True, but that doesn’t stop Rammstein from further upping the drama quotient at every opportunity. Consider “Spielhur,” in which a buried child is awakened by the toy clock that’s interred alongside him.
“It’s the basic fear people have, to be buried alive,” says Lindemann. “The toy clock that is given into the grave is what ultimately saves the child, so it’s ultimately a good story. Originally, it was supposed to stay in the grave, but then we decided within the band that we wanted the story to end well, that we wanted the child to be saved. So even though I make the basic concept of the lyrics, the ultimate product is really the work of all of us together.”
The band also takes a collaborative approach to its new video, “Sonne,” which finds them playing coal- mining dwarves in service to a sadistic Snow White. “We wanted to show the Grimm brothers version of the fairy tale, and sometimes that side is quite cruel and violent,” says Schneider. “We are the dwarves, so to speak, who on the one hand adore this woman and on the other hand hate her at the same time. Because the dwarves have to work for her and get her the drugs. And in return we get to look at her and enjoy her beauty.”
“We have this image of being somewhat arrogant,” notes Landers, “and so it was a good idea to maybe once depict ourselves as the victims rather than the perpetrators. Because, you know, you have to change your tune after three years.”
Mutter was recorded with longtime Rammstein producer Jacob Hellner in Southeastern France at Miraval Studios, which appropriately enough is where Pink Floyd recorded The Wall.
“The main thing about the new album is we didn’t want to make another Sehnsucht,” says Schneider. “We wanted to get away from the techno style, from the dance-oriented style. We wanted to sound more natural, more like a rock band. So we focused more on live drums, we experimented with acoustic guitars, and also tried to find innovative guitar sounds. And we used an orchestra for the first time.”
“When you work with orchestras,” adds Kruspe, “you have to make really sure that you choose an orchestra that’s used to playing to timing. If they’re not used to playing timing, then it doesn’t fit together. We used like a film orchestra because they’re used to playing to click timing. It’s really important. Otherwise, you end up like Metallica, for example, the orchestral record they did, you know, it’s like band on the left side, orchestra on the right side, it didn’t come together for me.”
Kruspe does profess a love for Metallica. “To me,” he says, “the ‘”On our first and second album, we were very dependent on samplers and computerized music machinery, even to write the songs,” explains Landers. “And with Mutter, the third album, we really based the songs on the guitar and are only using technology to enhance it, to give it flavor. So we didn’t want to be slaves of the machines anymore.”
So where does that leave Flake Lorenz, whose Depeche Mode-like keyboard parts provided a counterpoint to Sensucht’s more bombastic moments? “When we started to write the songs, we didn’t use so much machines or keyboard,” says Kruspe. “And also he had a rough time, because he had a child, and you know, when you have a child …”
“And he hates computers,” interjects Landers. “And he hates people. That’s what he said to me: ‘I’m not a racist. I hate everybody.'”
“And mostly, actually, himself maybe,” adds Kruspe. And while Lorenz isn’t present for the interview, his bandmates insist he isn’t going anywhere. “Oh no, he needs the band,” says Landers. “And of course, the band needs him.”
Rammstein’s stage show illustrates the extent of the beleaguered keyboardist’s codependency all too well. When frontman Lindemann isn’t busy igniting his “fire suit,” he enjoys an onstage ritual in which Lorenz, accessorized with ball-gag and leash, is sodomized during the song, “Buck Dich.” This routine does not always go down well with the local authorities.
“In Worcester, Massachusetts, we used the dildo onstage, and the cops came and literally arrested us off the stage,” says Lindemann. “They led us away in handcuffs. We spent a night in an American jail, had two trials in Worcester afterwards, got six months probation and a fine.”
So will they play there again? “Sure,” smiles Lindemann. “Yeah, probation’s up now.”
Rammstein favors a don’t ask/don’t tell policy when it comes to its pyrotechnic-laced stage shows. “In Germany, and in Europe in general, certain effects weren’t allowed; but we just kind of did them anyway,” says Lindemann. “We’d have a few problems afterwards, but usually nothing major. The difference in the United States was we came here intending to do the same thing. You know, we knew certain things weren’t allowed; we did them anyway, but the difference was we had a lot of problems with the fire marshals. So we found over time touring the United States, that it’s a good idea to kiss their ass. In every state it’s the same guy, and it’s better to have him on your side, because if he likes you he will be much more lenient.”
As if onstage destruction and depravity weren’t enough, Rammstein has also been accused of fascist sympathies, an accusation it attempts to counter with a track on the new album called “Links-2-3-4.” “This song was supposed to be Rammstein’s answer to the criticism,” says Schneider, “but now we got into new criticism abroad because they don’t understand the lyrics. So in America, they hear only the militant style of the music without hearing the lyrics.”
Still, if the band is apolitical, and wishes to be perceived as such, what was the point of using footage from Leni Riefenstahl’s Third Reich-sponsored Olympia in its “Stripped” video?
“Provocation is our middle name,” says Schneider. “We knew this video would be provocative. And even before that, the media tried to box us into a right corner politically. So we used this video to give people an actual reason to start discussing us. And there was a discussion, definitely. We wouldn’t do it again probably. Certainly this wasn’t any kind of expression of our political views, anyway. It was provocation; we wanted to see how people reacted. Especially with Germans, who have, you know, identity problems. They don’t know where their culture is at any given point. Another thing, don’t forget, these are beautiful pictures. These images of sports went well with the music, and so we use them as an art, not as a political statement.
“Rammstein is creating its own music and it’s also trying to look for a piece of the German culture,” he continues. “And as soon as you try to do that in Germany, you’re confronted with the political past, the history. And then you are accused of identifying yourself with this rightist movement of the past, which is not the case. I mean, this is the reason for the provocation. We want to make people think of what their German culture could be and could evolve into, and not always just imitate the American culture. And as soon as you do that in Germany you’re in trouble.”
Lindemann joins in. “To a degree, we’ve succeeded to the extent that there are a number of smaller bands now, not necessarily imitating us, but trying to do more or less the same thing that we do. That is, to sing in German, and to have this kind of hard music. And they are confronted with the same thing, people saying that they are rightist, too. I mean, for us anyhow, this subject used to anger us, and we have kind of made our peace with this. And the new album, Mutter, has completely different topics anyway. There’s only so much you can talk about this stuff. And Mutter has different, more romantic subjects.”
“Mutter,” Lindemann mutters to his translator, a matronly woman who blushes when she’s called upon to translate obscenities.
“He thinks I’m too motherly,” she says with a laugh, “because I made him finish his soup.”
Hey, you gotta eat. “Oh, yeah,” sighs Lindemann, who will be boarding a plane back to Germany within the hour. “She told me that.”
So what’s the song “Mutter” all about, anyway? “It’s a fiction,” says Lindemann flatly.
About? Lindemann is silent. Schneider takes over: “We don’t want to explain our lyrics; that’s why we do music. ‘Mutter’s about a relationship, but to me the lyrics don’t matter. I only hear the word ‘mutter’ and I think of my own childhood and then my own relationship with my mother. Talk with other people, and it’s the same. We are all sons of our mothers.”
“It’s very difficult to explain,” says Lindemann, weary of interrogation. But it’s the last question.
The singer looks exasperated. “It’s about this thing, screaming for its mother,” he says. “It’s not a human being or child. It’s this thing-‘Give birth without sperm / Got no belly button and never had suck nipples’-it’s just this thing screaming for mother. And you can scream for your mother when you’re a kid and you can scream for mother when you are 50 years old and you are about to die. Mother is the whole universe. It’s everything.”
“Mother is God,” says Schneider.
“Yeah, Mother is God.” That wasn’t so hard, was it?
“That was hard,” says the singer, rising to put on his coat.
Date: May 2001