Blixa Bargeld appears on my laptop screen sporting a striking head of lengthy lockdown hair. “This is the result of two years without a barber,” he exclaims, tugging at his vast locks. “I don’t know what it is like to play live any longer. I feel like I haven’t been to a restaurant in a hundred years. Let’s just say I’ve missed life terribly, but enough virus talk.”
The esteemed German musician finally gets around to performing a repeatedly rescheduled tour this summer, which is due to call to the National Concert Hall next month. Bargeld was Nick Cave’s German sidekick in The Bad Seeds, serving as guitarist and backing vocalist for the multinational band of brothers from 1983 to 2003.
Born in West Berlin in 1959 as Christian Emmerich, he chose his pseudonym after the German artist and poet Johannes Theodor Baargeld, who established the Cologne Dada group with Max Ernst.
Before his stint as a Bad Seed, Bargeld founded Einstürzende Neubauten (translated as Collapsing New Buildings) in Berlin, an avant-rock collective who turned modern music completely on its head with some of the most extreme performances in history. In their early years, Neubauten played pneumatic drills, heavy machinery, or whatever would emit some kind of noise or sound. Nick Cave once very accurately described Blixa’s screams as “a sound you would expect to hear from strangled cats or dying children.” The late writer and cultural critic Mark Fisher once singled them out for purveying “genuine experimentalism”.
The collective played their first show in Berlin’s Moon Club on April Fool’s Day, 1980. “The promoters were looking for a name to advertise it as, so I suggested Einstürzende Neubauten,” Bargeld says. “It certainly didn’t occur to me that we’d be still doing it over 40 years later.”
In 2003, Bargeld left The Bad Seeds, citing issues with the band’s management and sheer exhaustion from trying to maintain “a marriage with two bands.” In addition to inspiring a generation of musicians, Einstürzende Neubauten initiated a novel approach to operating outside the conventional business models and boundaries of the mainstream music industry.
“We invented crowdfunding in 2002 but we didn’t call it that back then,” Bargeld explains. “We called it a support system. My wife wrote the code and built the website. Once 200 supporters signed up, we realized it was working and we could raise the money necessary to make an album. Nowadays, we don’t even have to write the code anymore. We can use one of the existing platforms like Patreon.”
In recent years, Bargeld’s cooking demonstrations have become a viral hit on Instagram. “I’ve never actually seen my Instagram account,” he reveals. “The cooking was done for the supporters of my website, but my wife sometimes takes a clip and puts it up on Instagram. Every time she does so, a hundred new supporters sign up. I guess it works but I’m not really into social media. Most of the Facebook sites are fake. I haven’t got a Twitter account. I just don’t engage in it because I never really got into it.”
Despite a lack of personal engagement in social media, Bargeld has a formidable web presence. “There is a part of my own website open to everyone called Daily Blixa,” he explains. “It has usually very short aphoristic sentences that are open to everyone. I encourage everyone to have a look.”
Has Blixa become some kind of blogger? “My wife once tried to make me a blogger, but I couldn’t quite grasp the idea,” he answers. “I did a blog for a month. Every day I wrote a post about something I had forgotten. She told me that this wasn’t really the point of a blog.”
These activities organically developed into a way for Bargeld to catalog his memories. “I have a website where supporters ask question and I’m trying to use this to work on my autobiography,” he reveals. “I’ve put a €10 firewall on it to deter idiots. There are already hundreds of pages up there. Sometimes people ask very useful questions. In replying, I write another piece of my autobiography.”
In 2020, Neubauten released their fourth album via their supporter network, Alles in Allem (translated as All in All). One of the most accessible Neubauten records of their entire career, it furthers an expansive experimental approach they’ve been refining and redefining since the 90s. Alles in Germany closes with a track entitled Tempelhof, named after the Berlin borough and the site of one of Europe’s three iconic pre-second World War airports.
“I had a dream where the Pantheon in Rome played a particular role with Tempelhof airport,” Blixa explains. “I actually wrote the music in Dublin, when I played the Brecht evening at the National Concert Hall, because I had a piano in my dressing room. I assembled the two buildings into the song. You enter the entrance hall of Tempelhof, and once go through the other doorway, you are in the Pantheon.”
Speaking of the NCH, this Neubauten tour, which also calls to the spectacular Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg, is the culmination of an astounding career now into its fifth decade. Some Einstürzende Neubauten shows are the stuff of hallowed legend. In January 1984, they performed at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) in London, where they allegedly attempted to dig through the stage to reach a tunnel system underneath the venue that supposedly connects to Buckingham Palace.
In 1993, they were booked to support U2 on the European leg of the Zoo TV tour. They lasted a single night. “I would say we lasted half a night, at best,” Blixa says, laughing. “I don’t think we got any further than three songs. We’d been asked to support other bands numerous times during our career, but we never did. I was completely against it, but the pressure mounted on me from the rest of the band to do it.
“The very next day we found ourselves being driven in a van to open a U2 show in Rotterdam. As I looked out the window at the audience going to the show. I thought to myself that under normal circumstances I would never play to these kind of people. They were a soccer crowd of chauvinistic assholes. As soon as we came on and I uttered my first words in German, they immediately reacted. They threw all kinds of things onstage, including bottles of vomit. I’ve never experienced anything like it. Nobody in the band ever asked me again whether we should support another band.”
Of course, U2 recorded Achtung Baby in Berlin, an evocative city of ghosts with a severe soul. “To me, where I live now is terra incognita,” Bargeld says of moving to East Berlin, where he now resides with his family. “I have no memories connected to here. If we were in west Berlin, I’d be able to tell you where my girlfriend used to live, or where my dentist was based, and so on. This is a totally different city.”
Blixa flips his laptop around to share his view. “Can you see that?” he says. “It looks a bit like Central Park in New York, doesn’t it? The wall was located just over there. This entire park only came into existence after the wall fell. At the weekends, it’s all: ‘Oomf! Oomf! Oomf! Oomf! Oomf!’ Thousands of people come here and the whole place looks like Woodstock.”
Bargeld charmingly calls his creative process as an ongoing exercise in harvesting ideas. “I’ve been writing every day since 1993,” he says. “I have more than 20,000 documents in my computer. You can give me any word you like, such as ‘harp’, or ‘body’, and a search will come back with a few dozen pieces. I often consult what I’ve written already. Sometimes, I might look at something I’ve written before on the exact same date in a different year.”
The singer, narrator, actor, director and author, musician, poet and pioneer is greatly looking forward to returning to Ireland. “Dublin has a very nice Concert Hall,” he enthuses. “Your President attended the Brecht show. Someone introduced us and he came right up to me and hugged me. That was cool. I real liked that. Our President in Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, knows who I am. He made a speech at the opening of a David Bowie exhibition where he mentioned me. Steinmeier might know who I am, but he has never hugged me.”
Einstürzende Neubauten play the National Concert Hall, Dublin on July 3rd