Paul Landers, guitarist with Rammstein, is jumping around the floor, imitating a man trying to swerve out of the way of a fire. Landers is explaining the origins of his band’s stunning and outrageous live show – which, if you’ve yet to have the pleasure, features giant ejaculating dildos, band members in G-strings, band members in wedding dresses, fire, clothes on fire and enough pyrotechnics to challenge Bonfire Night in Finsbury Park as the best way to terrify a cat – in the clubs and dives of the group’s home city. Disgruntled and annoyed by the small and apathetic audience the band attracted to their early shows, Rammstein decided to spice up their appearances, prior to their arrival onstage, by running through the audience with a petrol can, pouring fuel on the floor. They’d then take to the stage and announce their presence by firing rockets onto the floor and lighting the petrol. Boom.
“It used to be so funny,” recalls Landers, “because people had never seen anything like this before. They were used to bands coming onstage and being too polite, or being too obvious, doing things that they thought an American rock star might do, which is really boring for a big city audience. Especially a city as cosmopolitan as Berlin. So we thought we’d challenge the situation, the feeling of apathy that existed at gigs, and try and do something about it.”
And here Landers is up from his seat, laughing, jolting his way through an exaggerated mime, like he’d decided to pass the morning by starting off a game of pyromaniac charades. There he goes with the petrol can, unscrewing the lid, shaking the juice all over the floor in a circle. And here comes the lighter, lighting the firework. And here is Paul Landers making a “boosh” noise, dancing on the balls of his feet, in a circle, like a cartoon Blackhawk, flapping his hands behind him. “But then we became too big and popular,” he says, retaking his seat, “so, unfortunately, we had to stop setting fires in the audience. But…” and here Paul Landers extends a forefinger in reassurance “…the more money we got the more fireworks and rockets we were able to buy.”
Rammstein: A band who spend all their money on fireworks and who are disappointed by the fact that they can no longer set fire to their audience. Tell me more.
It’s difficult not to be impressed by Rammstein. The 30-something sextet – which alongside Landers, comprises vocalist Till Lindemann, keyboardist Flake Lorenz, bassist Oliver Reidel, drummer Christoph Schneider and guitarist Richard Z Kruspe – formed in the east side of Berlin, the side that, until 1989, stood on the other side of the wall, the side in the vilified and undemocratic German Democratic Republic. Named after an East German town – the site for a renowned cold war airshow which ended in blood and fire after an horrific plane crash one year – the band, who have been friends for more than 15 years, came together after reunification, united by a love for Metallica, The Prodigy and Depeche Mode. Each member had been in bands before – crossover bands, punk bands, folk bands – but only in a time when Checkpoint Charlie was more than a lyric in an Elvis Costello song. Suddenly, and with little warning, the Fatherland was their oyster.
“It was very strange when the change occurred,” recalls Christoph Schneider, our other interviewee of the day. “It was easy when the Berlin Wall was there, because you knew who you hated – you hated the authorities. And then one day the wall is gone and you have no one to hate anymore. At first the people in the west of Germany were very interested in bands from the GDR, but this interest didn’t last very long. I think people in the west liked their own bands better, and in a way I can’t say I blame them for that. So the change had a big effect on the music scene we were involved in, certainly in thinning out the number of musicians and bands around. “But,” the drummer continues, “if these bands had been any good, or really had something to say, or were really dedicated to their art, then they would still be around.”
By the way, if you’re thinking that Paul Landers and Christoph Schneider have an excellent grasp of the English language then allow me to set the scene. The hour I spend with the representatives of Rammstein, bright and early on a Monday morning, at their record company’s English headquarters in West London, certainly ranks as one of the more surreal interview scenarios I’ve been involved in. Hesitant and unsure when speaking English – and here I’m not being superior: the pair’s English is certainly better than my German – Landers and Schneider conduct the conversation through an interpreter, a kindly woman named Monica. Sitting on a large sofa beneath the door of an East German Trabant car (from U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ promotional campaign), the interview goes like this: I ask the pair a question, the pair answer in German and Monica, holding my tape recorder to her mouth, translates the response into English, more or less simultaneously. This is a very odd set up, as when the three of them are in full flow I have no idea who to look at or nod to. Occasionally Landers and Schneider will answer a question in English, although most of the quotes you read are translated. Strangely, only occasionally does Monica switch my questions in German; the rest of the time the interview is done with exaggerated hand motions and a loud, ‘how-you-say?’ voice.
The reason for the pair’s visit to London is the release of ‘Mutter’, Rammstein’s artful and anticipated third album. An assaulting array of jackboot beats and the kind of riffs Metallica would kill to write these days, ‘Mutter’ is both larger than life and louder than bombs. Aside from the driving rhythms and air guitar anthems, Rammstein also bring a sense of creative depth and an artistic richness to the table, with much of the music and visuals steeped in courage, humor and subversion. Combine this with the alluring otherness of the band themselves – not least the fact that Till Lindemann’s lyrics are sung in his mother tongue – and it could just be that Rammstein are a band who are ready to explode all over Britain. Speaking of Britain, our noisy little island is actually one of the last places to ‘get’ Rammstein. Perhaps unsurprisingly the band are a significant splash in Germany, where concerts are held in arenas and sheds holding 10,000 people at a time. The band’s home fan-base is made all the keener by the fact that Rammstein sing in German, something almost unheard of with so many ears tuned in and turned on by the American dollar.
Landers and Schneider are keen to point out, though, that they’re not actually famous as such – “our music is famous but we’re not,” is Schneider’s astute summation – and, thus, can head off to the supermarket to buy milk without being hassled to sign scraps of paper with borrowed biros. More surprisingly Rammstein are also a big hit in the United States, not a country normally associated with a taste for foreign ‘otherness’. The band’s last album, 1997’s ‘Sehnsucht’ (debut LP ‘Herzeleid’, released in 1995, completes the set), following a stint on Korn’s successful ‘Family Values’ tour, clocked up a million sales Stateside and garnered praise from ‘Rolling Stone’, ‘Playboy’, ‘The Wall Street Journal’ and ‘The Los Angeles Times’. The band were also nominated for a Grammy (for ‘Best Metal Performance’ for the song ‘Du Hast’, the first German band ever to be acknowledged by the event) and featured in the David Lynch film ‘Lost Highway’.
“We tried singing in English when we first started out,” reveals Christoph Schneider. “But we realized that it didn’t suit us, and we realized that Till’s lyrics, which are very strong, don’t translate well. So we decided to continue singing in German. And people used to come up to us and say, ‘Oh, what a fantastic band you are, it’s such a shame that you sing in German’. They were basically saying that we had no future outside of Germany. That we had no chance of making it anywhere else.” “But the decision to sing in German wasn’t a political decision,” says Landers. “It was simply the fact that our English was so bad at the time when we started. If we’d spoken better English then maybe our songs would have been sung in English. Does your success outside of Germany surprise you at all? “Yes, very much so,” says Schneider. What do you put it down to? “I don’t know, what would you put it down to?” I think Rammstein are an intriguing band, and not only because of the foreign lyrics. In no way are you interchangeable with anyone else. Christoph Schneider thinks about this for a second. “That could be something to do with it, yes,” he says. “I also think it’s because we do the opposite of what other people do. If a metal band had long hair then we would have short hair, if they were wearing sports gear then we would wear boots and other types of clothes. We are extremely contrary and I think that has a large part to play in our success. I actually think that that may be the real secret of our success actually.”
Flip through the pages of any issue of Kerrang! and the odds are the interview you read will be conducted with the singer of the band in question. The reason for this is not that the frontman has the most interesting things to say – in fact, that’s certainly not always to case – it’s just that, so often, the singer is the public face of the band and is thus difficult to side-step or ignore. Sometimes it might be good to let a guitarist commit himself to tape, and sometimes there might even be occasion o let the whole band say a word or two, but, usually, if you don’t get ‘the face’ then chances are you feel you’re not getting the story. This would be especially true in the case of Rammstein’s Till Lindemann, who, as far as charismatic and enigmatic frontmen go, strides easily onto the A-list. Only thing is, Till Lindemann will not talk to the press – not to us, not to you, not to anyone. He doesn’t like to explain himself, apparently – doesn’t like having to justify himself to frowning, purse-lipped journalists, doesn’t like to answer questions regarding the subject matter of his ‘ambiguous’ lyrics (crap question number one in any writer’s notebook). So what we have left is like the lyrics to the Clash song ‘The Right Profile’ – Everybody says what’s he like? Everybody says is he alright?. After all, if all you have are pictures of a man onstage virtually naked aside from a giant, black, ejaculating, strap-on jack, or wearing a jacket that is actually on fire… well, you’re bound to want to ask a few questions, aren’t you?
So here’s what we do know: Rumours and whispers surround Till Lindemann, some of which are true, some of which probably aren’t, and some of which he would possibly sue us until we turned puce for even daring to print. Rammstein’s extraordinary live show came about because Lindemann was bored during the instrumental sections of the band’s songs, and so would stand behind the microphone holding candles in his hands. This progressed slowly but purposefully, to the outrage you can see at a Rammstein show today, all of which is visualized, planned and executed by the singer himself. Till Lindemann holds certificates in pyrotechnics and the staging of explosions. He is, his two bandmates reveal, only one grade away from being qualified to blow up houses. Unfortunately, Christoph Schneider and Paul Landers are reluctant to say anything more on the subject of Till Lindemann. Rammstein, it would seem, are a collective whole rather than any one individual component, and the pair are very keen to keep it that way. “This band is made up of six people,” says Paul Landers, not unkindly. “We don’t really like to talk about any one member at the expense of another. We are all equal and no one member of Rammstein is more important than anyone else.”
I didn’t think interviewing Rammstein would be like this at all. For a start, Schneider and Landers appear so normal in the flesh; all chinos, crisp shirts and expensive leather boots, looking like successful media types at a 10-year university reunion. Then there’s the fact that, not only are the pair pleasant and courteous, but also that they’re so witty – “Munich architecture is very impressive, especially the parts you English didn’t bomb,” is one choice cut – and so spontaneous. I didn’t think two members of Rammstein would be like this because I’d been warned to expect the worst. Three years ago, K! journalist Ian Fortnam traveled to Washington to talk to the band and received a very hard time and very few words for his efforts. One word answers, awkward pauses, little access and much waiting around… all the things that can make journalism so much fun. And then Rammstein played a gig that lasted just three songs, as Till Lindemann, sporting a giant black dildo and little else, was hauled offstage by the Virginia police and threatened with arrest.
Today, though, we’re all sugar and sunlight. Still, I thought, if there’s one thing guaranteed to sour the interview, it’ll be mention of the fact that much of the English music press believe Rammstein to be Nazis. This assumption stems from the band using footage from Berlin-born film director Leni Riefentsahl’s ‘Olympiad’ film – shot at the Berlin Olympics in 1936 – in the video to the Depeche Mode cover, ‘Stripped’. A graduate of the prestigious Berlin Academy, Leni Riefenstahl is most famous for her film ‘Triumph of Will’, shot at the 1934 Nuremberg rallies. Although never a card-carrying National Socialist, Riefenstahl was very much associated with the movement in general and, being greatly admired by Adolf Hitler, with the dictator in particular.
“Being called Nazis obviously makes us very happy,” says Christoph Schneider. Here Schneider is having a run at the award for the most sarcastic quote of the year. “This used to be a big problem for Rammstein,” reveals Paul Landers. And he’s right. In the past, Rammstein – who, politically, are of a left-wing leaning, for what it’s worth – have pouted with displeasure and flounced out of interviews if a journalist seized on this subject. And in a way, you can’t blame them. It must be galling to be called a Nazi, especially for a German, and especially for Germans who grew up on the communist side of the Berlin Wall, a wall the very existence of which was a direct result of the Second World War. “I think you can describe us as being young and naive as far as that situation goes,” believes Landers. “We were attacked by the press and we felt very helpless, and that was down to our naivety. But from my point of view we did the right thing. We have always taken things to the extreme – extreme texts, extreme shows – behaved in an extreme fashion, and we’ve always tried to be provocative. Our lyrics can be interpreted in different ways, but never leaning to the right. But if you present lyrics that can be interpreted in different ways than you can only expect that people will interpret them in different ways.” “But we are a deliberately provocative band,” says Schneider. “And the high point of our provocation, of course, was that Leni Riefenstahl video. And we did that because we wanted to shock the people who thought we were from the right; like, if you think that’s how we are then, here, have something that will really shock you. Looking at it from today’s point of view though, it’s not something we would do again.”
Rammstein sunk Leni Riefenstahl into their work for the purposes of art, for the purpose of causing a stink and making a scene. Regardless of whether you think it was a good or even a worthwhile idea – and, personally, I can’t quite make up my mind on the matter – it does show resolve, determination and a solid 36-inch brass neck by the band themselves. And if Rammstein have anything going for them it’s this, their ability to irritate, to polarize opinion and to make enemies. Here is a band who would rather make a bad impression than make no impression at all. In this, Rammstein are like Tool. Both bands are driven by the desire to be different from the rest and believe that creativity is not a means to an end but an end in itself. Both bands hold dear the ability to shock or to provoke, to challenge their audience and whatever preconceptions that audience may hold. These are particularly heartening traits. And with the release of Tool’s ‘Lateralus’ and Rammstein’s ‘Mutter’, it should be a good season for serious music.
“We’ve caused plenty of problems for ourselves,” says Paul Landers, in closing. “But it’s all been worth it. I even think that without these things we would not be the band that we are. We would not be as good a band, I mean. I like the fact that we polarize opinion and I like that fact that some people hate us We’re artists, and art should cause such feelings. That’s where art starts and that’s where discussion starts as well. And that’s what we’re here to do, to cause problems, to cause trouble. That’s our role.”
Date: April 21, 2001